Reviews of

Paul’s Teaching on the Pneumatika in 1 Corinthians 12–14

In 1 Corinthians, Emanuel Conțac, Mohr Siebeck, Paul, Soeng Yu Li, Spiritual Gifts on February 9, 2019 at 3:33 pm
3161554604_lp copy


2019.02.08 | Soeng Yu Li. Paul’s Teaching on the Pneumatika in 1 Corinthians 12–14. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament II 455. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017. pp. xx + 543. ISBN 978-3-16-155146-8.

Review by Emanuel Conțac, Pentecostal Theological Institute of Bucharest.[1]

The 84 verses that comprise the largest thematic subsection of 1 Corinthians have generated countless monographs and other studies. The latest substantial contribution to this corpus is a book by Soeng Yu Li, written in the form of a doctoral dissertation. It was defended in 2016 at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, under the supervision of professor Reimund Bieringer.

In order to make the complex structure of his weighty volume clear, Soeng Yu Li has divided it into four parts. The first focuses on the verbal noun χάρισμα, and the second at length on the term πνευματικῶν; the third, which is also the longest, consists of successive readings of Chapters 12–14 from a “meronymic point of view” (explained below). In the fourth and final part, the author focuses on prophecy—which he describes as “the paradigm of τὰ χαρίσματα τὰ μείζονα”—in the whole of 1 Cor. 12–14.

One must begin by saying that a careful reader of 1 Corinthians is likely to find nothing unexpected in the conclusions reached by this substantial study. Even an unscholarly perusal of 1 Cor. 12–14 will not fail to note that Paul’s general intention in those verses is to bring order to the meetings of the Corinthian Christians and to divert their passion for ecstatic speaking in tongues towards things beneficial for the whole community. Soeng Yu Li, however, approaches this understanding by a long and indirect route. He takes a fresh look at many of the fine points on which scholars have disagreed and admirably attempts to categorize more precisely than has previously been done the relation between χαρίσματα and πνευματικά, the two hinges on which those three chapters turn.

Having demonstrated that χάρισμα is not a specifically religious term in non-Christian Greek literature, Soeng Yu Li looks at its 17 occurrences in the New Testament and concludes that, according to Paul’s understanding, it can be either a personal or a communal gift. When received as a personal gift, a χάρισμα can be used, he says, “for the personal benefit of the believer.” By contrast, as a communal gift, it becomes an “Aufgabeand therefore has to be used for the benefit of the whole community (p. 101).

We are told that certain occurrences of χάρισμα (e.g., in 1 Cor. 1:7) have undergone specialization (p. 74), but it is not clear what the referent is in cases like 1 Cor. 7:7 (“each has his own χάρισμα from God”). Being of opinion that at the beginning of chapter 7 Paul merely intends to lay out a general principle, our author finds it difficult to “understand χάρισμα as the gift of celibacy or, more precisely, the gift of sexual abstinence” (p. 89). Much of what Paul has to say about celibacy and marriage is thus repeatedly dismissed as the distorted perceptions of a ingenuous person: “In light of the imminent parousia Paul naively holds that being unmarried is automatically characterized by a wholeheartedly [sic] commitment and dedication to the affairs of the Lord” (p. 88); “Paul naively thinks that the commitment of married persons is of lesser degree than that of the unmarried person (cf. 7:32;35)” (p. 89). It may, however, be objected that it is hermeneutically misguided to assume that when Paul makes a statement in the indicative mood his intention is necessarily to describe a downright fact. Sometimes, pragmatically speaking, the indicative can express a requirement or even a command. For example, one might complain in a shivering voice that the window is (in fact) open as a way of urging that it be shut. If much of 1 Corinthians 7 is dominated by the opposition “married” – “non-married,” it can be argued that in 1 Cor. 7:7 χάρισμα is almost synonymous with a “calling” (cf. the close association between “gift” and “calling” in Rom. 11:29). If so, the traditional meaning of χάρισμα as celibacy or marriage (ὁ μὲν οὕτως, ὁ δὲ οὕτως) can be maintained.

In chapter 3—which is the briefest—our author understands the term πνευματικῶν as neuter, rather than masculine, but disputes the notion that it means “spiritual gifts.” A substantial chapter (the 4th) is allotted to investigating the possible semantic relationship—synonymy, hyponymy or meronymy—between πνευματικά and χαρίσματα. Since synonymy does not need much comment, I will focus on the other two. Hyponymy is defined as the hierarchical relationship between a hypernym (e.g., musical instrument) and several hyponyms (e.g., strings, brass, percussion). By contrast, meronymy describes a part-whole relationship (e.g., room is part of house). After evaluating and classifying a wide range of exegetical contributions, Soeng Yu Li suggests that the relationship between πνευματικά and χαρίσματα is best explained as meronymy (p. 189). The fourth part of the book (almost 200 pages)—which could be a doctoral dissertation on its own—is a “meronymic reading of 1 Corinthians 12–14.” This means that πνευματικά (“things that characterize the life of the πνευματικοί) should be taken as a “holonym,” a whole, a thing which by definition comprises multiple parts. Among the meronyms of πνευματικά are the three categories Paul discusses in 1 Cor. 12:4–6: χαρίσματα, διακονίαι and ἐνεργήματα.

A strange claim repeatedly made by our author is that the term πνευματικά refers not only to “things or tools,” but also to people, more specifically, to “persons who belong to the Spirit, who confess Κύριος Ἰησοῦς, and who are called by God” (p. 398). This immediately raises the question “Why should we introduce technical metaphors (‘tools’) rather than keep the old ones (i.e., ‘gifts’) for describing the manifestations of the Holy Spirit?” And what are we to make of the command to ζηλοῦτε τὰ πνευματικά (1 Cor. 14:1) if we also include persons in the definition of this term?

The final part of the book (chapters 9 and 10) identifies prophecy as the gift best exemplifying the manner in which gifts ought to be manifested within the Church for the edification of the community. Overall, the conclusion of this section says nothing remarkably new. The thrust of Paul’s argument in 1 Cor. 13–14 should be obvious to any attentive reader. However, there are a few ideas in these last chapters which will probably spark dissent, and these deserve mention: For instance, we are told that “the prophet can communicate inauthentic elements during the proclamation of the revelation.” Or again, “For Paul prophecy is a communal activity that exists in two parts, namely the actual prophesying by the prophet and the evaluation of the prophetic words by the community” (p. 483). However, it is possible to keep the traditional understanding and see prophecy as an individual activity that, like all other gifts of the Spirit, is community-oriented. Given the spiritually effervescent church in Corinth, Paul introduces a healthy counterbalance in the shape of a subsequent “discernment” process. The request that “the others” evaluate the prophetic words (οἱ ἄλλοι διακρινέτωσαν, 1 Cor. 14:29) is in effect part of the “checks and balances” that Paul deploys throughout chapter 14, both for speaking in tongues and prophecy (cf. the caustic εἴ τις δοκεῖ προφήτης εἶναιin 14:37). That such a counterbalance is not always required for prophecy is evident from the ideal scenario that Paul envisages in 14:24–25: if an unbeliever or an ἰδιώτηςenters one of the meetings and “all prophecy,” the newcomer is challenged and convicted by the prophetic messages and comes to the realization that God is present in the assembly. In this case, prophecy is not a two-step process; it does not need to be evaluated by the community because its effectiveness is evidentfrom the reaction of the outsider.

The great length of Soeng Yu Li’s book illustrates a regrettable tendency in biblical studies today. We are constantly confronted with a stream of well-researched monographs on serious subjects and an ever-rushing, ever-swelling flow of publications on familiar biblical passages. Yet none of this seems to have substantially changed anyone’s view of the texts in question. Indeed, why should they have? Apropos Yu Li’s massive monograph, one is tempted to repeat Samuel Johnson’s remark about Milton’s Paradise Lost: “None ever wished it longer than it is.” The book here under review could easily have been shortened by half without omitting any of the information it contains or weakening any of the arguments it puts forth.

Although it includes some fine exegetical observations and accords full attention to issues of textual criticism, the sheer bulk of secondary literature this book contains makes reading it a chore. There is too great a proportion of roughage to nourishment.

Needless to say, it must have been a daunting job to edit such a book. Many trivial but annoying mistakes were bound to slip in, for example, the chronological turnabout in: “Paul mentions first the noun χεῖλος and afterwards the adjective ἑτερόγλωσσος” (p. 458). In fact, in 1 Cor. 14:21 the two occur in the opposite order. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld’s surname is repeatedly written as “Sakenfield” (pp. 33–36, 39). The Hebrew verb yeḏabbēr appears on p. 459 (line 14) without its final resh. And the book would surely be better without trendy abstractions like “competiveness” (p. 398). While peccadillos of this sort need not detract from the value of a work of scholarship, they are blemishes which ought to have been removed from this dissertation. It should also have been made shorter.

Emanuel Conțac
Pentecostal Theological Institute of Bucharest
emanuelcontac [ at ]

[1] Special thanks are due to Paul Leopold for editing the final form of this review.


Enemies and Friends of the State

In Ancient Near East, Christopher Rollston, Eisenbrauns, HB/OT, Hebrew Bible, Kurtis Peters on January 25, 2019 at 8:38 pm


2019.1.2 | Rollston, Christopher, A. Enemies and Friends of the State: Ancient Prophecy in Context. University Park: Eisenbrauns, 2018. pp. X + 613. ISBN: 9781575067643.

Reviewed by Kurtis Peters

The biblical prophets and their historical personae have long fascinated readers of the Bible, scholars and non-scholars alike. They are dramatic; their words both condemn and offer hope; they are culture’s visionaries. However, some of the biblical prophets appear to align themselves closely to the power of the state and some are decidedly out of the state’s favour. In fact, how a prophet relates to the state is very often at the heart of the motivation for the prophet’s message. Enemies and Friends of the State: Ancient Prophecy in Context, edited by Christopher Rollston, is a collection of essays that seeks to tease out and explain this bipolar relationship of prophet and state.

From Adapa to Enoch

In HB/OT, Hebrew Bible, Mohr Siebeck, Ryan D. Schroeder, Scribal culture, Seth L. Sanders on January 7, 2019 at 9:41 pm


2019.1.1 | Seth L. Sanders. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 167. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017. pp xiv + 280. ISBN 978-3-16-154456-9.

Reviewed by Ryan D. Schroeder, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

The notion of “scribal culture” has facilitated a novel phase in the study of biblical and ancient Near Eastern literature, signposted by works like David M. Carr’s Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (2005), Karel van der Toorn’s Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (2007), Eugene Ulrich’s The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible (2015), and Sara J. Milstein’s Tracking the Master Scribe: Revision Through Introduction in Biblical and Mesopotamian Literature (2016).1