Father Bernardin de Piconio’s Commentary on 1 Corinthians, Chapter 3

In this chapter the Apostle insists on the unity of the Church of Christ, as the field which God cultivates, the temple he is building, and compared with this unity, the rivalry of particular teachers is insignificant and contemptible.

3:1  And I, Brethren, could not speak to you as spiritual, but as carnal.  As infants in Christ,

The first three verses belong properly to the last chapter, and explain why St Paul has insisted so much on the distinction between the spiritual and animal man.  To you, Corinthians, I would not speak as spiritual.  You were animal, and a degree worse: for this implies limitation of intellectual power; you were carnal, which implies also some fault of the will and affection.  You were like children in Christ, unable to digest the solid food of higher spiritual instruction.

3:2 I give you milk to drink, not food: for you were not yet able, neither now are you able: for you are still carnal.
3:3 For when there is among you zeal and contention; are you not carnal, and walk according to man?

Milk to drink.  Suitable to those who could taken nothing more solid and substantial; and yet containing in itself the principle of nourishment, on which the body gradually grows in strength and advances towards its full development.  I gave you as much as you could receive.  I could not give you more, not that I was not capable of giving it, but because you were not capable of receiving it.

Neither now are you able.  A sudden and effective blow.  You are no better than infants even now.  There is among you zeal and contention-the Greek text and the Syriac version add, and dissension.

As long as you are divided into parties, full of party spirit, zeal for party, which divides you, not zeal for God, which would unite you, and childish rivalries between the followers of different teachers, are you not guided and influenced less by the love of God than by human and carnal affections?  Zeal of party, or envy, produces contention, and contention leads to division or dissension.

3:4 For when one says: I indeed am of Paul; and another: I Apollo; are you not men?  What then is Apollo? and what is Paul?
3:5 Ministers of him in whom you have believed; and as God has given to each.

Are you not men? Guided by mere human reason, influenced by merely human affection and preference, carnal, animal, imperfect, infants?

What is Apollo? Compared with God, the great Teacher, the human instrument is nothing.  They are ministers of Him in whom you have believed (vs. 5).  The Greek text and the Syriac read: the ministers through whom you believed, whose external ministry God made use of to preach to you the word, through which faith was given you.  As God gave to each the ministry he exercised, the power to fulfill it, the success that attended it, and from Him all three proceed.  The teacher is the minister, not the Lord, the channel, not the fountain.  The fount of wisdom is the Word on high.

3:6  I planted, Apollo watered: but God gave the increase.

I planted, Apollo watered.  I first, as God’s minister, an Apostle, by the will of God, planted the faith of Christ in your city.  Apollo, coming after me, watered the seed sown with richer and fuller supply of Christian doctrine.  But God gave the increase, for it was he that supplied to you the grace of faith.

3:7 Therefore neither who plants is anything, nor who waters: but he who gives the increase, God.

The planter and the waterer are alike nothing.  God is the author of the grace of life, and of the increase of that grace.  They are nothing in or of themselves; they have nothing to teach but what God has given them; they are not the authors of the grace of conversion, or of sanctification and the further increase of that grace by faith, hope, charity.

God is the real cultivator of his field, though He uses the agency of mortal men,  et nos colimus Deum, et Deus colit nos, says St Augustine.

3:8 And he who plants, and he who waters, are one,  And each shall receive his own reward according to his labor.

He who plants, and he who waters, are one. In themselves they are nothing, and in so far as they are anything they are alike, merely ministers of him who gives the increase.  And if one excels another in labor or in merit, that does not concern you, for God will give to each his reward.  According to his labor.  Not according to his success, which is not in his power,  His labor, solicitude, prayer, are in his power, and these God will reward.

3:9 For we are God’s helpers: you are God’s agriculture, God’s building.
3:10 According to the grace of God, which is given to me, as a wise architect I laid the foundation: and another builds upon it.  But let each look how he builds upon it.

We are God’s helpers.  we are one, or alike, because we all co-operate with God, who directs our labors.  In MarK 16:20 we are told that the Lord worked with the Apostles.  Here we are told that the Apostles worked with God.  Although compared with God, the Apostles and Apostolic men are nothing, yet compared with us, and in what should be our estimate of them, they are worthy of the highest honor and reverence.  For their office is nothing less that to do-operate with the Creator of the world in the task of bringing the rational soul back to its principle and origin, the conversion of the souls of men to God.  Saint Dionysius, quoted by Estius, and Cornelius a Lapide.

You are God’s building.  St Paul here introduces another metaphor.  You, the Church of the Corinthians, are a temple reared by God.  I laid the foundation of this temple (vs. 10) as a skilled architect; but he adds, I did so, according to the grace of God, the great architect-in-chief, of whom I am only the instrument.  Apollo, and others, have built upon this foundation.  Let each look how.  There was at Corinth a redundancy of eloquent talkers, rather given to display of their own powers, to whom, and to their hearers, the Apostle here administers a necessary caution.  There is no reason to think these last words are intended to apply to Apollo.

3:11 For other foundation can no one lay, beside that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus.

Other foundation can no one lay.  He has just said he laid the foundation, and his metaphor might be misunderstood, as if he meant himself.  Christ is the foundation of foundations, like a rock, St Thomas says.  The Apostles are a foundation in a secondary sense (Eph 2:20).

3:12  Now, if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble:

The Apostle is still speaking of Christian teachers, as in 1 Cor 3:10.  He doesn’t not refer to heretical teachers, who destroy God’s temple, and will be condemned in 1 Cor 3:17; but who teach true doctrine, and build upon the true foundation.  Gold, silver, precious stones, things rare, incorruptible, and valuable, signify doctrine solid, pure, lucid, derived from Holy Scripture, or the principles of the faith, or the mysteries of the Church.  Wood, hay, stubble, things worthless and easily consumed, signify doctrine in itself good, or else it would be destroy instead of edifying, but valueless, curious, pompous, or fantastic, drawn from secular philosophy and learning, which may win applause, but cannot help to save souls.

3:13  Every man’s work shall be manifest. For the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire. And the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is.

The day of the Lord shall declare it. This life is our day, says St Anselm and St Thomas, in which we do our own will, even when it is against the will of God.  The last day will be the day of the Lord, when he will do his will, and men, by justice, will either be rewarded or condemned.

It shall be revealed in fire. “Fire will go before Him” (Ps 94:3).  the fire that will consume the world, the minister of divine justice, will go before the Judge, and the works of each will not only be made manifest, but tried and proved.  St Paul was under the belief that the day of judgment would come in the lifetime of many then living, and this may help to explain the present allusion to it.  That fire will prove the just, but leave them harmless and free from pain.  See Dan 3:92.  Those who are good and faithful, but imperfect by venial sin, it will purge by suffering.  The evil it will torment in hell for ever.  It is this fire to which the Apostle here alludes, in the opinion of Cornelius a Lapide, who examines the question at some length.  The Latin Fathers, in the Florentine Council, understood the purgatorial fire, which tries the souls of the just after death.  but they are, in the opinion of Cornelius, one and the same; and on the cessation of purgatory, at the end of the world, the same fire will try the just of the generation still existing.  there is a moral application of these two verses, distinct from their literal meaning, for which, see the Corollary of Piety below.

3:14  If the work of any shall remain, which he has built, he shall receive a reward.
3:15  If the work of any shall be burnt, he shall suffer loss; but himself shall be saved; yet as by fire.

The workman whose work, built of solid materials, on the Foundation, shall stand the fire, shall be reputed a good worker, and receive his reward from the Supreme Architect; if his work of worthless hay or stubble, is consumed in the flames, he must bear its loss, but he shall save his soul, like one escaping from a burning house.  He has not yet spoken of heretical teachers, who destroy the work of God, and ruin his edifice.

3:16  Know you not that you are the temple of god, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?
3:17  And if any shall have violated the temple of god, God shall destroy him.  for the temple of God is holy, which is you.

You, Corinthians, are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in you by faith, hope, charity: as the Ark of the Covenant dwelt in the tabernacle in the desert, and in the temple of Solomon.  god ruins and destroys the violators of his temple, as Athalia, who profaned the temple (2 Kings 24:6-7), Baltasar, who applied the sacred vessels to common use (Dan 5:3).  But if God thus overthrew the profaners of his material temple, much more will he destroy those who violate his spiritual Temple, which is you, by false doctrine which leads you away from the Apostolic communion.

3:18  Let no one deceive himself; if anyone among you seems to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.

3:19  For the wisdom of this world is folly with God.  For it is written: I will take the wise in their craft.
3:20  And again: the Lord know the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.

It is evident that the instructors of the Corinthian Christians, against whom this rather severe admonition is levelled, must have assumed a great deal on the score of their rhetorical skill and familiarity with the intricacies of Grecian philosophy: so much so that there was ground of apprehension of their relapsing into actual heresy, or of suspicion that they were inclined to it.  The wisdom of the world is in God’s sight no better than folly: its wild conjectures and groundless theories must seem to him infinitely contemptible and absurd, since he knows all things.  It is written: see Job 5:13, Psalm 93:11.

3:21  Let no one therefore glory in men.
3:22  For all things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollo, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or to come: for all are yours:
1 Cor 3:23  And you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s.

Let none of you, therefore, boast or glory in the teacher you follow.  All are yours, at your disposal, for your salvation; Paul, Peter, Apollo, all Christian teachers are sent for your instruction and edification.  The world, and all contained in it, is for your use, temporal and eternal.  Life is yours, to prepare for eternity; death is the penance of your sins, and the entrance to immortality; in the present, you have God’s grace, in the future the hope of glory.  All good things, of nature, of grace, of glory, are yours: the world exists for the sake of God’s chosen ones.  You belong to Christ, who has purchased you at the price of his blood.  Christ is God’s son in his Divine nature, God’s servant in his humanity.  Glory, therefore, not in man, but in Christ, the source of all grace,  in God, the giver of all good.

Corallary of Piety

Every human soul in whom Christ dwells by faith, is God’s building.   God is its Architect: His fellow-workers are Apostles, Bishops, Priests.  The foundation is the faith of Jesus Christ: but man’s will is the workman who builds upon the foundation.  What will he build?  Gold, silver, precious stones; works of charity, penance, prayer, for himself and others, for the Church of God and for the holy souls in suffering; chastity: the ascetic perfection of the spiritual life.  There are things which shall stand the fire of the last day; fitting adornment and decoration for the temple whose inhabitant is the Spirit of God.  Wood, hay, stubble: earthly riches, influence, power, popularity, fame, fine houses, costly dresses, spectacles and amusements, races, balls, the trailing on the fringe of regal splendor: classic literature, pagan philosophy, reading and knowledge applied and applicable to no good and holy purpose, nor tending to the glory of God and the advancement of his faith; mere amusement to kill time and occupy the mind; sordid luxury, rough and vulgar play, thoughtless ribaldry and idle talk.  How shall these things help the soul in her hour of trouble; how shall such a building stand the fire of God’s justice?  How can such things as these enter God’s eternal kingdom?  What can such a builder expect but at the best to save his soul by fire, the purgatorial fire of God’s justice?

At worst, let him not ruin the temple of God, the dwelling-place of God’s Spirit.  Whoever lays waste God’s temple, him shall God lay waste.  For his temple is you, and in your heart the glorious presence given you in Baptism still dwells, for your worship and adoration, not for your forgetfulness, neglect, or contempt.

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