‘Not in vain’: Paul on the Resurrection


Recently, I took a course on the backgrounds and exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s faPaulmous chapter on the resurrection. Part of this course was the task to produce a short paper on the exegesis or hermeneutics of 1 Corinthians 15. Though I usually don’t write on this blog on exegetical matters, I take the opportunity to let you share in my findings on one particular strand of thought in this chapter. At the same time, it will be a preparation of my Easter sermon. While studying the structure of 1 Corinthians 15, I was struck by the repeated expression ‘not in vain’. In this paper I will take a closer look on Paul’s use of this expression.

‘In vain’: the Greek terminology

To start with, let’s ask at which places Paul uses the expression ‘in vain’ in 1 Corinthians 15 and which Greek words he applies in these cases. Unfortunately, it seems not possible to produce Greek characters in my text, so instead I will transcribe them. In quotations form 1 Corinthians 15 I will use the Revised Standard Version, 2nd edition (1971).

  • ‘…unless you believed in vain‘ (‘eikei’ – 15,2)
  • ‘…his grace toward me was not in vain‘ (‘kenè’ – 15,10)
  • ‘if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is in vain…’ (‘kenon’ – 15,14)
  • ‘… and your faith is in vain‘ (‘kenè’ – 15,14)
  • ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.‘ (‘mataia’ – 15,17)
  • ‘…knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ (‘kenos’ – 15,58)

It seems then, that Paul uses these three different Greek words as equivalents. But that assumption, of course, needs to be tested. So, we will take a closer look on the Greek words: ‘eikei’, ‘kenos’, and ‘mataios’.

  • eikei – this word appears six times in the New Testament (Mat.5,22 v.l.; Rom.13:4; 1 Cor.15,2; Gal.3,4; 4,11; Col.2,18). Its meaning, according to the Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (WNT – Bauer-Aland) ranges from ‘groundless’ to ‘futile’, to ‘pointless’ (‘without purpose’). The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (EDNT – Balz-Schneider) doesn’t offer an entry on ‘eikei’. However, the older Theologische Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (TWNT – Kittel) does, although it’s very short. Friedrich Büchsel explains that ‘eikei’, always being used adverbial, fundamentally means ‘arbitrary’, ‘random’. In the New Testament, Büchsel says, it usually means ‘futile’ of ‘in vain’.
  • kenos – the use of ‘kenos’ in the NT is more frequent (Mk.12,3; Lk.1,53; 20,10; Acts 4,25; 1Cor.3,18 v.l.; 15,10;14(2x);58; 2Cor.6,1; Gal.2,2; Eph.5,6; Phil.2,16(2x); Col.2,8; 1 Th.2,1; 3,15; Jas4,5). As this listing shows, the word is used most frequently in Paul’s letters. There is another interesting feature to be noticed. M.Lattke (EDNT) writes: “LXX language in more or less word-for-word citations dictates the use of ‘kenos’ in a majority of the NT occurrences”. In the Magnificat (Lk.1,53) we find an example. ‘Kenos’ here means ’empty’ or ‘without content’. In Paul’s use of the word, we find a particular concern of his, that his missionary work would not be ‘in vain’ (‘eis kenon’; 1 Thess.3,5). ‘Kenos’ bears in passages like this the connotation of ‘without fruit’. Yet another trait of Paul’s (or Pauline) usage of ‘kenos’ appears in Col.2,8 & Eph.5,6, where he warns against the misleading deception of ’empty words’.  In this case, ‘kenos’ means ‘unconnected with the truth (= Christ)’.
  • mataios – this word is quite rare in the NT (Acts 14,15; 1 Cor.3,20; 15,17; Tit.3,9; Jas.1,26; 1 Pet.1,18), just as the related substantive and verb. H.Balz remarks in EDNT: “While in the related adj. ‘kenos’ the meaning ’empty/meaningless’ stands in the foreground, ‘mataios’ also has (as already in the Greek linguistic realm), esp. from its biblical tradition, the meaning vain/futile/deceitful and refers to a senseless understanding of reality in contrast to the only valid reality of God or to skeptical resignation in the face of God’s distance from this world (…).” It’s worth mentioning that ‘mataios’ is the word the LXX uses in Ecclesiastes to translate the Hebrew ‘chabel’ (Ecc.1,2; etc.).

We may conclude that the meaning of these words converge to a large extent, while showing differences in nuance, ‘eikei’ being the most ‘flat’ in its meaning, ‘mataia’ the most pronounced, stemming from its traditional use in the OT (LXX).

Paul’s use of ‘in vain’ in 1 Corinthians 15

The question then is whether these differences in nuance show up in Paul’s discourse. It might be so, if we consider the following line of thought. Paul links the verb ‘pisteuoo’ or the substantive ‘pistis’ in this chapter with the three different words ‘eikei’ (15,2), ‘kenè’ (15,14), and ‘mataia’ (15,17). It is clear that he wants to stress the same point: without resurrection, your faith is ‘futile’, ‘in vain’.

However, it seems that he doesn’t choose his words deliberately. ‘Eikei’, being the most general expression, is used in the introduction (15,2) of his argument. Without resurrection, their faith is pointless. It makes no sense. In 15,14 Paul uses ‘kenos’ two times. The first time it refers to his preaching, the second time to the faith of the Corinthians. We find here Paul’s concern for the fruit of his missionary work and preaching. In the following verse, he remarks: “We are even found to be misrepresenting God…”, while continuing with a line of argument structured by ‘if … then …’. No wonder in this light, he uses ‘mataia’ in 15,17, while ‘mataia’, as we saw, “refers to a senseless understanding of reality in contrast to the only valid reality of God or to skeptical resignation in the face of God’s distance from this world” (EDNT). It is telling in this regard that Paul in 1 Cor.3,20 ‘mataia’ connected, quoting Ps.94,11, with the thoughts of the wise and the wisdom of the world.

Codex Sinaïticus 1 Cor.15,58; see: http://www.codexsinaiticus.org

Codex Sinaïticus 1 Cor.15,58; see: http://www.codexsinaiticus.org

In short, I’m inclined to believe that Paul chose his words carefully. That intuition is confirmed, when we take a brief look at the remaining occurences of ‘in vain’ in 1 Corinthians 15. In 15,10 Paul says that Christ’s grace to him was not in vain (kenè), immediately continued by the remark that ‘worked (ekopiasa) harder than any of them (i.e. the other apostles). His final remark in 15,58 says that ‘in the Lord your labor (kopos) is not in vain’. Though it is disputed what Paul exactly means with the ‘work of the Lord’ in this passage, it is quite probable that he does not restrict it to the daily working routine, but that he has (also) in mind more specifically the ministry of the gospel. He assures the Corinthians that their efforts in the service of Christ’s gospel will bear fruit.

The structure of 1 Corinthians 15

Paul’s terminology in 1 Corinthians 15 appears to be quite coherent indeed. But if that is the case, it makes sense to ask how our findings with regard to the use of ‘in vain’ fit into the whole structure of chapter 15. A standard division of 1 Corinthians 15, looks like this:

  • 1-11 – The tradition of Christ’s resurrection
  • 12-19 – The argument: if Christ is not raised
  • 20-28 – The answer: but Christ is raised!
  • 29-34 – Ad hominem: don’t be deceived!
  • 35-44 – Analogies to the resurrected body
  • 45-49 – Analogy of Adam and Christ
  • 50-57 – The mystery of the final resurrection
  • 58 – The conclusion: not ‘in vain’

As a first glance on this division makes clear, Paul speaks of ‘in vain’ in the first two parts of the chapter and in the last, concluding verse. More precisely, in the light of the structure of 1 Corinthians 15, we can see that for Paul ‘in vain’ is connected with two fundamental themes. First, it is connected with Christ’s resurrection as a fundamental fact. Without Christ’s resurrection our faith would be ‘in vain’, in the sense of being groundless. Second, it is connected with the fruit of the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection. That would have been futile as well. Without resurrection the gospel wouldn’t have borne fruit, neither in Paul’s own life, nor in that of the Corinthians. In that case, both his own labor, as well as theirs, would have been wasted.

The hermeneutical harvest

By way of conclusion I want to explore the hermeneutical relevance of our exploration of Paul’s use of ‘in vain’ in 1 Corinthians 15.
1. In the first place, we have seen that for Paul it is essential that the resurrection of Christ has occurred. Otherwise, our faith would have been ‘groundless’. Faith, for Paul, is grounded faith. The structure of 1 Corinthians 15 is underlining this assumption. Before Paul mentions the reason for his writing on the subject (15,12), he starts with displaying the witnesses of the resurrection (15,1-7), including himself (15,8-11). In short, the resurrection is well-attested. That means that, in the light of Paul’s argument, we can’t evaporate the resurrection event to a mere visionary experience. It even qualifies Paul’s own encounter with the risen Lord.  On the basis of his use of the expression ‘in vain’, we may conclude that for Paul this encounter can’t be accounted for in terms of a mere subjective experience.

2. Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 15 gives us reason to view the contemporary situation of the church in a different light. Without resurrection, says Paul, our proclamation would have been futile. Put in more general terms, without Christ’s resurrection is the emergence of a church hardly conceivable. Few people would be prepared to take this line of thought as a proof of Christ’s resurrection. However, it is undeniable, that Christianity worldwide is still growing. In Europe, things look different. Many churches in the Netherlands are shrinking. Some are closed or getting a different destination. But Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15 can open our eyes for another dynamics: the dynamics of evangelism. The resurrection of Christ is an invitation to the ministry of mission, knowing that in the Lord our labor will not be in vain.

3. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (Ecc.1:2). In Ecclesiastes we encounter a sense of life, that is deeply sceptical. The whole of our life is futile. All things occur as they must occur. Life is deterministic. Lots of people in our days believe, consciously or unconsciously, according to these assumptions. Paul’s proclamation in 1 Corinthians 15 is a different story. Life is not in vain, because of the very fact of Christ’s resurrection. It has purpose, God’s purpose about which Paul is writing in the second half of this chapter. Therefore, 1 Corinthians 15 is the proclamation of life that can be renewed and recreated. In that life, the life of Christ, we may participate. “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation.” (2 Cor.5,17a).


Calvin: accomodated or unaccomodated?

Anyone who seriously projects to study Calvin’s theology needs to read Richard Muller’s book, The Unaccomodated Calvin. In this book Muller discusses several approaches to Calvin’s theology, which have been en vogue over the years. He is crystal-clear in his verdict about liberal, neo-orthodox and/or barthian approaches to Calvin. How well-written these studies may be and how informative to a certain level they may prove, in the end they fall short because they aren’t genuine historical.

Much of the scholarship in this century has tended to view Calvin’s theology as (miraculously!) providing its own context, and either a rather generalized view of the thought and culture of the sixteenth century or the dogmatic assumptions of a particular twentieth-century school of thought (like neo-orthodoxy) as providing a suitable backdrop or foil for the interpretation of Calvin. And, although this scholarship has produced many notable works and has, in many ways, advanced our understanding of Calvin’s thought, it has also frequently obscured the detail, direction, and immediate context of Calvin’s work for the sake of offering a normative dogmatic portrait of the Reformer. (p.78)

Unmistakably, Muller has a genuine point here. But I’m not sure he doesn’t conflate two distinct points here into one. Let me explain.

Muller is certainly right in his analysis of past approaches to Calvin in so far as they quite often appear to be a-historical. Of course, studies like these deal with the past, with Calvin’s texts, and so forth. But the way they do this is not historical. That is, there is no real search for the meaning of these texts, events, etc. in the context then and there. Calvin is treated as a contemporary. Thomas Torrance has been criticized for his a-historical approach of the church-fathers and the Reformation. As far as I can see, these criticisms are justified. This certainly was a weak spot in Torrance’s approach. So, according to me, Muller is right in this regard.

However, Muller’s target seems to be not only the lack of historicity in several twentieth century approaches to Calvin’s theology. He also seems to appeal against ‘normative’ or ‘dogmatic’ accounts of Calvin’s theology in general. Don’t get me wrong: Muller doesn’t play down the systematic impulses in Calvin’s works.In fact, his treatment of the structure of Calvin’s Institutes as ‘ordo recte docendi’ is very instructive. My point is that Muller seems to dismiss all approaches with a normative or dogmatic concern. They are doomed to fail as a viable entry into Calvin’s theology. But is that true?

Take, as an example, once again the figure of Thomas Torrance. Last holiday I read his Kingdom and Church. A Study in the Theology of the Reformation (1956). Does it meet the methodological test of a historical study? No, it doesn’t. Is he correct in all the details. No, he isn’t. Doesn’t he try sometimes to write to his conclusions? Yes, he does. But does all this mean it is a poor study? No, not at all. In fact, I found the reading of Kingdom and Church really instructive and inspiring.

It might, after all, be a case of what Muller calls a ‘notable’ work, that ‘advances our understanding of Calvin’s thought’, while at the same time ‘obscuring the detail, direction, and immediate context of his work’. But here’s my question: could it be that the many historically respectable studies of our time, throw light on the detail, direction and context of Calvin’s works, but fail to offer deeper theological perceptions and systematic connections? If I had to choose, between a mere historic, unaccomodated Calvin and a systematic, accomodated Calvin on the other hand, I’m not sure I would opt for the unaccomodated Calvin. But, fortunately, I think there is no need for choosing. We may have it both…

Jeremy Begbie on the potential of the Reformed tradition

Jeremy Begbie is one of the leading theologians discussing the connection between christian faith and the arts. Very recently, I discovered a (pre-publication) article of his, titled: ‘The Future of Theology amid the Arts: Some Reformed Reflections’. (Because of the pre-publication shape of the article, Begbie asks the reader not to cite this version. I will respect that and summarize his thoughts).

In the initial pages, he outlines his perspective on the discussion between theology and aesthetics in different strands of Christianity. He argues that the lack of dialogue between these strands in the early 1980s, has completely disappeared by now. Reformed evangelicals do not hesitate to be inspired by Roman Catholic of Eastern Orthodox writers and thinkers. But it seems as if the Reformed tradition is in this respect always to some degree suspicious. Isn’t the Reformed tradition iconoclastic, extreme suspicious to the (figurative) arts, and so forth. Those are the questions of Begbie, and they seem to hit the mark, according to me.

Begbie knows of some careful corrections in the past decade of this picture of the Reformed tradition. A number of studies argue for a different and more nuanced perspective. But the shadow of doubt still remains… But then Begbie makes a very interesting observation. From whence comes this shadow of doubt, he asks. And doesn’t the Reformed tradition possess enough riches to be explored? What striked me in this suggestion is the similarity in this respect between the situation in theological aesthetics and in sacramentology. Concerning sacramentology, the same observations could be made. The Reformed tradition is still regarded with suspicion, not only concerning the arts, but also concerning the sacraments. And for the same set of reasons, just mentioned.

That’s a pity, Begbie argues. We need the Reformed tradition in the debate about theology and the arts. And I add: we need the Reformed tradition in the ecumencial debate about theology and the sacraments.

Triple John

The early years of John Calvin have attracted a lot of attention. One reason for that fact is the lack of hard evidence. We know, for example, hardly anything of value about Calvin’s education. Yes, we know that he studied at Collège Montaigu in Paris. But what was his curriculum? And who were his teachers? We don’t know.

But we’d like to know it for sure. So, there are quite a lot of hypotheses. One persistent hypothesis is the one that describes a considerable influence to John Maior (or Maïr). This hypothesis has been en vogue during a couple of decades. It has been supported by François Wendel, Willem Dankbaar, but above all by Karl Reuter. Reuter made a case for it in his book Das Grundverständnis der Theology Calvins (1963). He claimed that Major’s influence upon Calvin could be proved by several key doctrinal positions of the latter, such as his doctrine of divine providence, his doctrine of sin and justification, but above all his ‘anti-pelagian’ doctrine of God. Behind the back of John Major he discerned several theologians and philosophers: Thomas Bradwardine and Gregory of Rimini. Major’s influence on Calvin is said to be ‘ockhamistic’, but also ‘scotistic’. Indeed, that’s the third John: John Duns Scotus. The supposed influence of John Duns Scotus, via John Major, on John Calvin has been widespread. Even the famous scholar Heiko A. Oberman was convinced of a fundamental connection between Duns and Calvin.

Is there evidence for this connection? Bruce Gordon is very obvious in his biography of John Calvin (2009):

“It has been suggested that he studied Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Gregory of Rimini and other key luminaries of medieval theology, but again nothing can be established with certainty. It is not even known whether he studied theology in Paris” (p.8).

And T.H.L. Parker says in his biography of Calvin (1975):

“It is further conjectured that the Scottish theologian, John Major, who was a regent (i.e. professor) at Montaigu between 1525 and 1531, taught the young Calvin. One or two writers even go so far as to assert that Major taught Calvin theology. The only foundation for the notion is that Major and Calvin were contemporary at Montaigu (…)”. (p.13).

The definitive verdict had been spoken nearly a decade before Parker wrote his book. In his book Le Jeune Calvin (1966; transl. The Young Calvin) Alexandre Ganoczy investigated all of Calvin’s early writings. But he didn’t find any traces of John Major, not to mention John Duns Scotus or other medieval theologians, except two of them: Gratianus and Petrus Lombardus. Both of them wrote a textbook on canon law resp. theology. Calvin knew these books and quoted them extensively in his 1536 Institutio. In short, John Major’s influence on John Calvin seems to be very limited. And as far as the influence of Duns is concerned, it seems quite certain that Calvin didn’t read him up to 1536. Maybe, he read him later. But that’s another question.


Welcome to Qualitative Theology!

This is a new blog! A weblog about theology. ‘Qualitive’ igrondplan-buurkerkntends now to be an allusion to the great quality of the theological tradition of the Church, reaching from Augustine to Karl Barth and further. This tradition is like the groundplan of an impressive cathedral. In this blog I will pay tribute to this tradition and its qualities.

See you back soon!