Epiphany 7: God is not a philosopher

Lesson 2: 2 Corinthians 1:18-22.

The message is not ‘Yes and No’, but ‘Yes’. (The context, for which you have to go back a couple of verses, is Paul changing his mind about his travel plans, but by the end of this passage it’s clear that this is meant to be generalisable.)

We have a family joke that when someone asks a difficult question, the proper philosophical response should be ‘Well, yes and no…’. This is then followed, until someone interrupts, by detailed explanations of why the answer should be yes, and why it should be no, and why it should be maybe. This method can be applied to travel plans especially in the early stages (‘Are you going out tonight?’), but also to epistemology (‘Do you know that chairs exist?’), theology (‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?’), and other serious philosophical matters (‘Did Descartes like soup?’).

Paul, although obviously more than capable of playing this game himself, affirms that Jesus does not. “In him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’.” Saying both yes and no is a worldly practice, something people do, but not a godly one – other versions of this are found in Matthew 5:37 and James 5:2, the latter especially being quoted by Quakers when refusing to take oaths. In fact, as we can see from that, the Quakers could be said to be trying to extend God’s patterns of behaviour into their own, rejecting the worldly ways of speaking.

The passage ends with a restatement of the firmness of God’s promises in what seems to me a rather strange financial metaphor. Translations differ, but the gist seems to be that God has chosen us, owns us and has put a seal upon us, and made a down payment – a first instalment or deposit – as a guarantee that the promises will be fulfilled. The deposit is of the Holy Spirit into our hearts, not a currency usually accepted by banks. This could also be interpreted as an encouragement to behave – and speak – differently. To a Quaker perspective, the Spirit can be said to enable ministry, a kind of speaking in God’s voice in which, as in the first part of this passage, we say not ‘yes and no’ but ‘yes’.

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