Theology, of course, is more than just ideas. It can be seen in practices, rituals, assumptions, defences, and arguments. It seems to me that it is proper to label the ideological burdens betrayed by these things as ‘theology.’ Paul himself thinks there is theological weight in Corinthian behaviours, and it fits with the trajectory of his writings to seek to analyse and do theology on the basis of what we find there.
So, while there is always a lot of attention given to what the Corinthians got wrong, here are some theological things that I think they got tremendously right. I’m particularly drawing on 1 Corinthians…
A strong sense of the oneness of God
At least an influential ‘some’ of the Corinthian church was committed to the idea that there is no God but one (ch.8). Idols were mute and empty (ch.12), and the true God of the Hebrew Scriptures was the father of Jesus Christ and his people. The corresponding weakness of this strength was that it led some to sit too comfortably with idolatry, given that idols were thought to be empty anyway (ch.10).
A strong sense of the threeness of God
Paul appeals to what the Corinthians ‘know’ when he spells out the triadic persons of the Godhead (to use later language) in chapter 8. At numerous other points he draws upon the threeness of God without being self-conscious (e.g. Beginning of ch.12). The Corinthians celebrated the traditions about Christ (ch.11; ch.15), and celebrated the manifestations of the Spirit (Chs.12-14). A corresponding weakness of this strength was spiritual pride associated with the manifestations of the Spirit.
A robust belief in the goodness of God
I think that this firm belief undergirds a great many of the behaviours in Corinth. On the whole (although there were perhaps disputes), the Corinthians seem to have celebrated the things that had been created by God for human enjoyment: food (ch.8, ch.11, ch.15), sex (ch.5, ch. 6, ch.7 – even those who were saying ‘it is good for a man not to touch his wife’ may have been open to touching prostitutes), worldly goods (ch.6). The corresponding weakness of this robust belief was the celebration of sexual immorality, impurity, and greed (chs.5-7), as well as disdain for the weak, impoverished, and dead (ch.8, ch.15).
A firm conviction of the triumph of God in Jesus Christ
Just as they/’some’ were convinced that idols were nothing, so they seem to have been convinced that the accomplishment of God in Jesus was so great, that such things as ongoing sin, judgment, sickness, and death seemed difficult to fit into their mindset (ch.11, ch.15). Paul needed to insist that the full application of divine resurrected triumph had not in fact been attained (ch.15), and that the cross of Christ still needed to impact their behaviour (chs. 1-4). The corresponding weakness of this firm conviction was therefore a prematurely exhaustive triumphalism.
A certain grasp of the age of the Spirit
The Corinthians, more than any other early Christian community (so I think), wanted to regularly exhibit their participation in the inaugurated age of the Spirit, by communally exercising manifestations of tongues and prophecy. This expresses (whether articulated doctrinally or not) an awareness that ‘the ends of the ages have fallen.’ The corresponding weakness of this strong grasp was a failure to appreciate that now ‘we see as in a mirror, dimly.’
As much as we often scoff at the craziness of the Corinthian church, it’s worth recognising that their weaknesses are often the downsides of corresponding strengths. And it is these same strengths that many of our own churches take pride in today. ‘So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!’ (1 Cor 10:12)