Paul's Passing Thoughts

Clay Pots Can Know Truth

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Young, PPT contributing editor on April 11, 2016

Even though my wife and I left the institutional church for good almost 2 years ago, there are still times where I must make the obligatory visit. Going in to visit family is one of those times. I am thankful that the church in which my wife grew up is not steeped in the vileness of Calvinism. Nevertheless, Protestant orthodoxy runs far and wide. Needless to say, as a graduate of the Christian school she attended for 13 years she has nurtured many close relationships with those who were her teachers and peers. So for us the visit is merely a social call and not for purposes of “worship”. Not being a particularly “social” person myself (I am an introvert by nature, and social events suck the life force out of me) I suffer the preaching while reminding myself that it will all be over soon.

Such was the case last weekend as I found myself once again sitting in an adult Sunday School class led by a layman of the church who is without a doubt kind-hearted and well-meaning, but who knows no other way to interpret the Scriptures than what he has been taught all his life. This particular class is right now making its way through the book of 2 Corinthians. The week we were there they were up to chapter 4. Take a look particularly at verses 6 and 7.

“For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” ~ 2 Corinthians 4:6-7

If we are good Protestants, we will look at these verses and see that clearly, this passage is drawing a contrast between our weakness as fragile clay pots and the power of God, right? I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. And if you have been a reader of PPT for any time, what should be obvious to you are the Protestant talking points and root assumptions: man has no ability, even the saints; there is nothing good in us; we are just worthless clay pots; any good we do is simply Christ doing it through us.

Now don’t get me wrong here, aside from the assumptions of total inability and the idea of the subjectivity of objective good works being performed outside of us, we can acknowledge that God does help us through His spirit. That in and of itself would not necessarily be a wrong application to make, but in the context of this passage it is a novice approach at best. The importance of understanding scripture in the correct historical context cannot be over emphasized. And these were my exact thoughts as I sat there squirming in my pew. There is so much richness to this passage that is being lost simply because people are conditioned to faulty interpretive assumptions.

With what premise then should we begin? First, let us understand that the dominant philosophy of the 1st century was a Platonic gnosticism which was nothing more than yet one more manifestation of the dualism that had dominated all philosophy in man’s attempt to explain the world since perhaps the beginning of time (I suggest you watch all 5 of John Immel’s sessions from last year’s 2015 TANC conference if you think that’s an over-generalization).

For the most part, Gnosticism can be summed up like this. Spirit is good and flesh (the physical) is evil. Objective truth can only be found in the spiritual realm. Since man is part of the physical realm, he has no access to objective truth (the “gnosis”). The only way that man can know truth is for a select few to bring it to them. These select few are the Philosopher Kings. They are the pre-ordained ones who have been given the “gnosis” by the “divines”. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that these “mediators” then are the only ones who have the right to rule the masses by virtue of the fact that they are the only ones who can know truth. This is the root system of thought behind ALL tyrannical systems, both political AND religious, for centuries!

Having this as a basis for our study, let us now consider chapter 4 of 2 Corinthians. Verses 1 through 7 present an exercise in rhetoric though a series of contrasting hypothetical assumptions for the purpose of presenting an argument. Let’s look at verses 1 and 2.

“Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not; But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” ~ 2 Corinthians 4:1-2

This is our first clue that the apostle Paul is offering a refutation of Gnosticism. Key words include “hidden things” and “manifestation of truth”. Understand who the audience is. Paul’s letters to the assemblies were most often written in response to address some issues that had come to his attention. Remember, one tenet of Gnostic philosophy is that truth is hidden and cannot be known. It would appear as if there were false teachers who had brought this Gnostic teaching into the assemblies there in Corinth and were trying to blend it with Christianity. Notice Paul refers to the “hidden things of dishonesty”, “walking in craftiness”, and “handling the word of God dishonestly”. These are all trademarks of Gnosticism. These false teachers were twisting the word of God to fit their Gnostic orthodoxy, all the while stating that the reason it was true was because these things were “hidden” from the masses and only they were qualified to bring it to them, and they used scripture to support their views.

What is Paul’s contrasting argument?

“…commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God…”

He left truth up to their conscience. In other words, he expected his listeners to think. Paul said, I don’t want you people just to believe me because I say so. I don’t want you to believe me because I present myself as an authority. I expect you to use the faculties of reason and come to the conclusion on your own if what I preach is true or not.

 Verse 3 is a critical statement.

“But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost:” ~ 2 Corinthians 4:3

This is a profound statement regarding the gospel. God did not reveal himself through His word for the purpose of keeping it hidden, revealing it only to a select few. This is a direct assault on Gnosticism. Gnosticism taught that truth is hidden from the physical realm. But God said, no, I want you to know truth because you are lost and I want to you be reconciled to Me! That is the gospel- Be reconciled to God! That means that man CAN know truth and DOES have access to it. Paul said what we preach is not some hidden truth because that would be counter-productive. It would be antithetical to God’s purpose for the doctrine. That is what distinguishes what we preach from those Gnostic false teachers.

Verse 5 brings us to yet one more distinguishing characteristic of Gnosticism, and that is a narcissistic self-promotion.

For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.” ~ 2 Corinthians 4:5

Remember, only a select few were ordained to have access to the “gnosis”. As a result, these individuals felt that they were superior to the ignorant masses, perceiving themselves as having the right to rule over them. If you want to get to heaven, if you want to have salvation, then you do what I say, or else. Notice how the truth then becomes subordinated to authority. Persuasion is not necessary where power is used. The focus shifts from the message to the one delivering it. But Paul said, I don’t come to you with any desire to promote myself. You don’t get to heaven by doing what I tell you to do. You were saved because you were born again when you believed in Jesus Christ!

And that brings us back to the passage we looked at first.

“For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” ~ 2 Corinthians 4:6-7

This is perhaps the most scathing rebuke of Gnosticism. The fact that believers are referred to as “earthen vessels” is a testament to the metaphysical reality of the New Birth. Now granted, the word “earthen” in the Greek does mean a piece of pottery. But that just makes the argument all that more powerful. A clay pot is made from the “earth”. It is a part of the physical realm. To say that something that is part of the physical realm can know truth is a slap in the face to Gnosticism!

And what is the result of that? Paul uses the word translated “excellency”. In the Greek it is the word υπερβολη (hoo-per-bol-lay) from which we get our English word “hyperbole”. Hyperbole is using extremely outrageous statements to make a point. Paul says that the truth of the gospel sounds outrageous, but it can be known because it is reasonable because physical, frail clay pots have the ability to know it. This serves to demonstrate that its power comes directly from God and not from those who would place themselves as mediators between God and man.

Think about that for a moment. The power of the gospel is in its ability to persuade. It isn’t some self-appointed authority who demands compliance through the use of force. It is God who persuades through the preaching of His word. That means man has the ability to reason and understand it. This can lead a man to be persuaded that God is who He says he is. He can be persuaded to choose to forego his present life and put his faith in God and become a born again new creature who is the righteous offspring of God.   For the apostle Paul to declare that our REAL, righteous new-creaturehood is contained in earthly, physical containers is the antithesis of Gnosticism!

Andy

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One Response

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  1. Paul M. Dohse Sr. said, on April 13, 2016 at 6:10 AM

    This post should be shouted from the housetops. Gnosticism is the historical backdrop of the New Testament. When pointed out, the Gnostic elements are so clear in context of what Paul is saying. I preread the text in 2Cor when Andy told me he was going to write this post, and my initial response was, “Er?” But, the historical context makes the passage sooooo clear. A little clarification: the gnosis is usually the deep knowledge of not knowing. The Philosopher Kings are the experts in aknowledge or agnosis. This is Socrates. Knowing that you can’t know embodies the “humbleness” that qualifies you to rule the world. Those who think they can know are arrogant and of the earth. Do we not hear this all the time in church? Luther put a cute twist on all of this by actually giving the arrogant masses some objective criteria to go by: The Knowledge of Evil. Sound familiar? This is the knowledge of how evil we are. There is no real knowledge except knowledge that makes man puffed up; ie., the cure of diseases ect., etc. This was Luther’s Law/Gospel construct: the Bible defines what we cannot do, but only what God can do. Hence, the commands in the Bible are to show us what we can’t do, viz, “not what we do, but what Jesus has done.” Sound familiar?

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