Paul's Passing Thoughts

Clay Pots Can Know Truth

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Young, PPT contributing editor on February 21, 2017

Originally published 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 read the transcripts from John Immel’s 2013 TANC Conference sessions 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!


13 Responses

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  1. John said, on February 21, 2017 at 2:19 PM

    This foul-mouthed heretic disagrees with you, Andy. “But since the devil’s bride, Reason, that pretty whore, comes in and thinks she’s wise, and what she says, what she thinks, is from the Holy Spirit, who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or emperor, because [reason] is the Devil’s greatest whore.” (Martin Luther, Last Sermon in Wittenberg, 1546)

    Thank goodness it was this dirty mouthed heretic’s last sermon in Wittenberg. He surely was the potty mouth Driscoll of the day. Ugh.


    • john smith said, on February 21, 2017 at 4:56 PM

      Luther got one thing right: Wisdom/reason IS personified as a woman (in Proverbs)…just she is opposed to folly who is the whore (minor oversight right?).


  2. Lydia said, on February 21, 2017 at 2:54 PM

    Wow. When one interprets against the backdrop of the prevalent Gnosticism of that time, it changes everything so truth can shine through and we can KNOW truth.

    I have been dabbling into the pagan backdrop a bit and was surprised to learn that each city had its own special gods in addition to more universal ones. It is not something we can afford to ignore in interpretation.


  3. john smith said, on February 21, 2017 at 5:12 PM

    I’m still not sure I see how verse 7 even fits in the context of 2 Cor 4. It doesn’t seem to go with the first paragraph (verses 1-6) nor the second paragraph (verse 8-12). Both the RSV and NRSV, and NIV, give the paragraphs as 1-6 and 7-12, but I’m not sure 7 really fits either paragraph.

    “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (RSV) ok, but in what comes next “we/us” is contrasted with “you”, leading up to verse 12 “So death is at work in us, but life in you.” So “we” is evangelists/apostles and “you” is regular Christians, w/ evangelists being persecuted and regulars “reigning as kings” (something Paul says somewhere in some epistle). Ok, then the we of verse 7 is it “we Christians” or “we evangelists/apostles”??? Is it “We (apostles) have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power (our ability to face persecution and death) belongs to God and not to us”??? Or “We (Christians in general) have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power (the power of salvation?) belongs to God and not to us”?

    Either way, I don’t really see it fitting the context. Seems almost scribal glosslike to me, at least the “to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” bit. If it were a direct transition from 7a to 8, i.e. “But [or rather, although] we have this treasure in earthen vessels, 8 we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;…..” that would make more sense to me. I sometimes wonder if there are not Augustinian tack-ons in some of these convoluted verses.


    • john smith said, on February 21, 2017 at 5:45 PM

      In other words: although we have this treasure in a breakable vessel it is not broken. The reason the treasure is placed in earthen vessels, our bodies, is, well, where rlse would it be placed? It simply cannot concievably be that the reason it is in our bodies is “to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us”…if God’s purpose were to show us thag the power is all his and none of ours he’d just not give us the “treasure” at all. If he gives it to us, puts it in earthen vessels, the reason for putting it in earthen vessels is that’s the only place we could access it, not to make a point about who owns the power. Verse 7 is a non-sequitor thanks to 7b.


      • Andy Young, PPT contributing editor said, on February 21, 2017 at 5:52 PM

        It is Paul’s way of refuting gnostic doctrine. The dominant philosophical view of the time was a dual reality and a fundamental failure of man or metaphysical inadequacy because he was of the physical realm, or a mere “clay pot”. While the current trend in philosophy sought to devalue man, Paul was elevating him.

        Liked by 1 person

      • john smith said, on February 21, 2017 at 6:02 PM

        Interestingly looking over the translations on biblegatway, only the MEV translators caught the non-sequiter, and fixed it by simply NOT translating the ina (so that) that is there in Greek:

        “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, the excellency of the power being from God and not from ourselves.”

        No “so that” or “to show” etc. They fixed the logic by removing the causal relationship. But then, is that justifiable or hiding the text? Do they think the ina is interpolated?


      • john smith said, on February 21, 2017 at 6:19 PM

        Oh, they took ina = where, in this case, and since uneeded in English left it off. So only MEV gets this verse right. A causal relationship here is impossible. This is why a LITTLE Greek is a dangerous thing, and apparently most translators know very LITTLE.


        I. an adverb of place, from Homer down, especially in the poets;

        a. where; in what place.”

        Yes, before looking it up I was thinking it always means so that or in order to. Nope.

        So its: we have this treasure in earthen vessels WHERE the excellence of the power is of God not of us. Aha.

        Or: “2. In later Greek, and especially in Hellenistic writers, the final force of the particle ἵνα is more or less weakened, so that it is frequently used where the earlier Greeks employed the infinitive, yet so that the leading and the dependent sentence have each its own subject.”

        Ah, so like “heads up, an infinitive follows.” Exactly as thr MEV translates it:

        “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, the excellency of the power beING from God and not from ourselves.”

        Translators arr biasing everything towards Cslvinism MORE than even I realized.


  4. Paul M. Dohse Sr. said, on February 22, 2017 at 9:24 AM

    1st century Jewish thought was dominated by the teachings of Hellenistic philosophers such as Philo. This is why Nicodemus was totally taken aback by Christ’s presentation of the new birth to him. The idea that a material person could be reborn from above turns Platonism completely on its head. How dominate has this issue been in history? I believe this is why Christ becoming a man is central to the gospel. God bringing heaven to earth in the end to dwell with man is also antithetical to historical Platonist thought. Also central to this is the kingdom of darkness proclaiming that what God has created is evil. The deception resulted in creation becoming weak, not totally depraved and divided from objective good. You must grasp this historical context in order to understand the Bible.


    • Argo said, on February 22, 2017 at 6:39 PM

      I’m guessing that “context” is also the Devil’s whore.

      So…if reason and context are the Devil’s whore, I guess that makes madness the Godly epistemology? And sadism the ethic?


  5. Argo said, on February 22, 2017 at 6:45 PM

    It’s more than a little disturbing that the idea that God actually likes people offends so many Christians. I really struggle to get my head around this. I mean, I know the doctrine and all, and what centuries of mass emotional blackmail can do, but still it troubles me to no end. To be called an evil person who needs to be spiritually “turned over” to be taught a lesson for merely telling people that God doesn’t hate my existence? Surreal.


    • Andy Young, PPT contributing editor said, on February 22, 2017 at 10:23 PM

      “It’s more than a little disturbing that the idea that God actually likes people.”

      Not just “people” in general but Christians in particular. Think about how insane that is! You have people in church who are told that they are God’s children but they are in constant fear that God is angry at them all the time!

      What father do you know who’s disposition towards his children is one of a constant waiting around for them to screw up so he can bash them? That certainly wasn’t my father. Yet we are supposed to accept that this is the disposition of our heavenly Father.

      As a father, I take great joy when my children succeed. I take pride vicariously through their accomplishments, for what THEY did, not because I did it for them. It is the same with our heavenly Father!

      Liked by 1 person

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