This is the first in what will be a regular column for Biola Magazine, featuring selected posts from the Talbot School of Theology faculty blog, The Good Book Blog (thegoodbookblog.com). This post, originally titled “Christianity and Polytheism,” was first published on May 3, 2011.
Is it possible to be a Christian and a polytheist? The correct answer, of course, is no, but a close reading of 1 Corinthians 8 reveals that the matter is perhaps not so simple. Paul’s topic is somewhat controversial among the Corinthians, eating food sacrificed to idols (8:1). Paul begins by reminding them that correct knowledge without love is pointless (8:2-3), and then goes on to specify the correct belief in question, monotheism: “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one” (8:4). Surprisingly, however, some believers in Corinth do not yet know this (8:7). Paul describes a group of “brothers” (8:11–13) whose faith is dealt a serious blow by the callous insensitivity of the strong who continue to dine in pagan temples (8:9-12), yet these brothers do not quite understand that there is only one God (v.7). How can this be?
Welcome to first-century Corinth. These new converts grew up surrounded by gods. They attached themselves to particular deities for particular needs, or during particular stages of their lives, or depending on their vocation: Poseidon was popular with sailors, Mars with soldiers, and so on. And there was certainly no need to be exclusive. In the archaeology from Philippi, for example, we find the same names listed as donors and supporters of a variety of cults, and this makes perfect sense — why not cover all your bases?
What we see in Corinth is the gospel taking root in a pagan environment, and some of these new believers have put their faith in Christ, but have not been completely divested of all their pagan notions and have not fully comprehended this novel idea of monotheism. And this, I submit, is entirely understandable.
But I want to be careful not to exaggerate the situation. The picture that Paul outlines is not of a group of people who have simply added Jesus to their pantheon of deities and flit happily back and forth between the pagan temples and the Christian assembly. No. There are too many passages in Paul’s letters like 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 to allow us to believe that the apostle would ever tolerate that. Nor are these people who have consciously repudiated monotheism. Rather, what we see in 1 Corinthians 8 is a group of people whose knowledge is incomplete and whose embryonic faith is “weak,” as Paul calls it (8:8-12), for whom polytheism is so deeply rooted in their cultural-religious psyche that eating food sacrificed in the temple of Apollo constitutes for them eating food sacrificed to Apollo. It becomes for them a betrayal of their new allegiance, the faith they know deep in their hearts to be true.
Now, to most of us in North America, this is a very difficult scenario to get our minds around. Polytheism, in its overtly religious form, is not a cultural force we have to reckon with. In other parts of the world, however, this is an extremely believable scenario. In other parts of the world, where the gospel is taking root in a pagan environment, identical stories are still told. I’ve had students tell me that in their country, ancestor worship is the residual paganism new believers struggle with. A woman comes to faith in Christ, and yet out of custom and respect, offers incense daily at the household shrine to her ancestors. I’ve had missionaries to tribal groups describe how difficult it is to root out indigenous animism, and how a generation may pass before that process of re-enculturation will be fully embraced by a fledgling Christian community.
In Southern California, where I’m located, we would probably be shocked by a Christian who struggled deeply with polytheism, but we are often completely blind to Christian materialism. I remember attending a church where the chairman of the church drove an exotic luxury sports car that cost in excess of $100,000. If that doesn’t bother you, it should. It’s residual paganism.
So how does Paul deal with this in Corinth? With incredible pastoral sensitivity. First of all, he is very clear that this lingering, hesitant polytheism is not OK and these people are not where they should be. Their knowledge is incomplete (8:7) and their faith is weak (8:9-12). Yet he also recognizes that when people come to faith in Christ, the Westminster Catechism is not simply downloaded into their cranium. If their embryonic faith is going to develop and if their knowledge is going to grow, they will need patience, nurturing, and a lot of support from the strong. In fact, it is the insensitivity of the “strong” that receives Paul’s censure in this passage.
Moyer Hubbard is an associate professor of New Testament language and literature at Talbot School of Theology. He holds a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford.