(This is Neil.) This post is my belated contribution to Todd’s series on the texts usually chosen for wedding readings. It will offer some brief exegesis on the famous discourse on love in 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8, a very common second reading at weddings. The following will be drawn from an interesting book I recently read on the epistle, Michelle V. Lee’s Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ.
A few verses before St Paul speaks of the “more excellent way” of love, he tells the Corinthians that they are the “body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27). We can begin to explore Paul’s discourse on love by looking more closely at that phrase, “body of Christ.” It will be familiar to us, but that familiarity might hide a depressing lack of comprehension. Is it literal or a metaphor? Is its meaning clarified by saying that we are a “supernatural” or a “mystical” body of Christ? Professor Lee helpfully tells us that we should look to Stoicism to understand Paul’s idea of bodily unity. Parallels between the New Testament and Stoicism have been noticed since the time of the Church Fathers. Of course, we will also see that Paul departs from Stoicism in a significant way.
But, first, the parallels. The Stoics would speak of a city as a body to illustrate the importance of cooperation and the ideal of a unified entity. But they would also see the universe itself as a living being with a body. This universal body was held together by pneuma (or spiritus), which was itself corporeal. As the first century Stoic Manilius claimed, this divine spirit arranged “mutual bonds between all parts, so that each may furnish and receive another’s strength and that the whole may stand fast in kinship despite its variety of forms.” Pneuma engendered sympathetic agreement between the different parts of the one body. And, as Lee tells us, if God as pneuma held the universe together as one body, God as nous governed it in order. For the Stoics, God, pneuma, and nous are roughly interchangeable words.
Moral behavior for the Stoics meant living according to the order of the universe, which could simultaneously mean the order of the city, preserving harmony. The recognition that bonds always already existed between human beings led the Stoic philosopher to act for the common good of the universal brotherhood of mankind (communem humani generis societatem). Put bluntly, they would say that one must consider one’s actions from the perspective of the whole, not the isolated individual.
As Epictetus claimed, bringing us back to the idea of a body:
What, then, is the profession of a citizen [of the world]? To treat nothing as a matter of private profit, not to plan about anything as though he were a detached unity, but to act like the foot or the hand, which, if they had the faculty of reason and understood the constitution of nature, would never exercise choice or desire in any other way but by reference to the whole.
Some of the parallels with St Paul are obvious. Paul speaks of a body, pneuma, and the need for morality to make “reference to the whole.” But there is a difference. And that is Christology. For Paul, true knowledge comes by the Spirit (pneuma), but the sign of this is the confession that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:2). As the exegete Anthony Thiselton tells us, this confession is “no mere ‘floating’ fragment of descriptive statement or abstract proposition, but is a spoken act of personal devotion and commitment which is part and parcel of a Christ-centered worship and lifestyle.” The Spirit inaugurates its recipients into a new transcendent unity, as they are the distinctive body of Christ, called into fellowship (koinonia) with Christ (1 Cor 1:9) and one another. They are all baptized in the Spirit into Christ (1 Cor 12:13), just like Israel was baptized in the cloud and sea into Moses (1 Cor 10:2). The members of the Body of Christ drink of the one pneuma and are the Temple of God because that pneuma dwells in them.
In this new, corporate humanity, one must act for the good of the whole body, as the Stoics would say. But the Christological center of Paul’s thought radicalizes it. The Stoic body preserved traditional hierarchies – as Lee tells us, “The ‘haves’ were urged to rule benevolently, and the ‘have-nots’ to submit to their rule.” There is a reversal of status in the body of Christ. This is because it is the body of the crucified Christ. It is Christ who is the “power and wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). This might seem to be foolishness and a stumbling block, but the Corinthians are to be converted through the Spirit (pneuma) to the “mind” (nous) of this Christ (1 Cor 2:16). What is low deserves honor, and he who is the “world’s rubbish” (1 Cor 4:13) might truly be an apostle.
Obviously, this could be shocking. And it could be political – there are clear similarities between Paul’s language and the language of political homonoia speeches. The nous of Christ could be a threat to the nous of Caesar.
Paul’s focus on Christ also radicalizes the meaning of love, Paul’s “more excellent way.” Of course, the Stoics spoke highly of love, which could obviously contribute to the very deepest unity. As Seneca wrote, “Nature engendered in us mutual affection (amorem), and made us prone to friendships (sociabiles fecit)” that would bind us together. Cicero wrote that this friendship really was “more excellent” and that it sprung “from an inclination of the soul joined with a feeling of love (sensu amandi) rather than from calculation of how much profit (utilitatis) the friendship is likely to afford.” The Stoics would likely agree with Paul that love should be patient and kind, not boastful or arrogant, given willingly, and involve taking loss for another.
Where is the radicalism of Christian love? While the Stoics valued friendship, it was meant to be a friendship between equals. This friendship was a relationship in which one would both give and receive gifts over time, preserving if not enhancing one’s social status. But Christ died for us when we were hardly of equal virtue with him. In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul writes, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). When Paul says that love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7), he is forgoing the usual limits on love and friendship. This is based on the selfless example of Christ, who, as we read in Philippians, was downwardly mobile, taking the form of a slave despite his equality with God. For the sake of love, we should likewise be willing to accept shame.
What does this mean for marriage? A family, the late John Paul II told us, is a “domestic church” because of its realization of ecclesial communion (see Familiaris Consortio), so a couple planning to marry should consider whether their relationship bears the marks of the body of Christ.
We can ask a few questions:
1. Has the Spirit bound the couple together into a transcendent unity that affects how they think and act, or do they still behave like isolated individuals who are getting married for individual benefit?
2. Are they willing to submit to one another, or do they believe that only one of them is deserving of honor?
3. Are they willing for their marriage to be countercultural?
4. Is the love between them reminiscent of Christ’s selfless love, or merely an exchange between equals? Would they stay together even if one of the spouses were to become much less attractive, intelligent, wealthy, or powerful?