Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Present Distress or Present Crisis of 1 Cor 7

"I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are."
1 Cor 7:26 (NRSV)

The Apostle Paul gives this advice to the unmarried at the early church in Corinth. He admits he has no hard and fast rule from God on whether single people should get married. So he basically says that, in his opinion, it is better for single people to remain single. Reason being is that there is an "impending crisis."
What is/was this impending crisis? Interpretation of this verse has long been guided by the KJV rendering, which uses the phrase "present distress". Specifically, it has traditionally been interpreted one of two ways. The first claims that because of the persecution in the early church, life would be easier for those who were unmarried. The second claims that, because the Christian life promises trials and tribulations, it is easier to remain unmarried.
While the persecution of the early church is well understood, with the exception of Nero, systematic persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire did not begin until 250 AD. The book of 1 Corinthians was written in the 50s AD, even before the actions of Nero. So then it is very unlikely that it is referring to persecution.
The second traditional interpretation is guided by the concept of "present" distress. While there are no major textual variations here, the Greek itself has been translated quite a few different ways into English. The Greek word translated "present" is not quite so specific, and actually carries the broader idea of immanency, as if to say that the "distress" is right at the door. In other words, "present distress" is better understood as "the distress we are presently faced with". Other versions translate this as "present crisis" (NIV, NLT), "impending crisis" (NET, NRSV), or a similar variation.
The concept of "immanency" is familiar to modern followers of theology as an eschatological buzzword. It is understood in that context as the concept that Christ could return at any time. The point here is, that the early church expected the return of Christ in their lifetimes. Understood in this way, "present distress" refers to "imminent trouble," the great shaking and cleansing of the earth that will occur near or upon Christ's return. If true, apparently the Apostle Paul expected it soon enough to warn off single people from getting married!
Another interpretation is the identification of the crisis as a famine. There is plenty of historical evidence to suggest that there was a famine in the eastern Mediterranean area roughly around 60AD, which would have led to the collection for the Jerusalem saints in 2 Cor, as well as the Jewish uprising in 66 AD. In the mid-to-late 50s such a famine would at least be in its early stages. This understanding also helps to counter the poor interpretations of the Jerusalem collection as a failure of communalism, the decision by the Jerusalem Christians to pool and share their wealth.
However, this "impending crisis" is one of three "timestamps" in 1 Cor 7 (NRSV):
v.26: "in view of the impending crisis..."
v.29: "I mean ... the appointed time has grown short"
v.31: "...the present form of this world is passing away."
We have three doctrines represented here. The "impending crisis" is the trouble expected in the Christian's life. The "appointed time has grown short" is the promise of Christ's second coming. "The present form of this world is passing away" is the eschaton, the end times.
Paul is saying because of the trials of the Christian life, the Christian should keep life simple (vv.26-28). Because Christ is coming again the Christian should live in moderation for the end is near(vv.29-31).
What is unmistakable is that Paul was looking for the second coming in his generation.
I guess the question remains, did Paul expect the second coming in his generation as a matter of a generic principle of immanency, or did Paul expect the second coming as a matter of (what was to him) fact? It is difficult to say for certain.
I am tempted to say that Paul accepted as a matter of fact that Christ would come in his generation because of his position on marriage. Paul essentially starts 1 Cor 7 by telling the church that the best option is to be celibate! Such a philosophy doesn't bode well for sustaining the church for 2,000 years. His discussion of remaining where you were called (vv.17-24) also seems to indicate that there wasn't much earthly future to look forward to.
I am also urged to this position by examining the fruit of the modern American church. By and large the American church (at least in it's evangelical and fundamentalist forms) holds to immanency as a generic principle, having eschewed date setting. What you do not hear are calls from church leaders and teachers to remain single if at all possible. Nor do you hear church leaders and teachers telling people to stay at their station in life. A principle of generic immanency just simply does not justify such measures.

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