Paul's Use of Chiasms
In his paper, The Presence of Chiasmus in the New Testament, Nils W. Lund states Paul made extensive use of chiasms:
My own investigation in this field, begun in 1908, had by 1918 carried me into Ephesians, Colossians, and First Corinthians. In all three writings and in many passages I had found extensive structures of a chiastic order. (p. 78)
Given this element of Paul's writing, especially in First Corinthians, the passage in question should be examined to see if a chiastic order was used:
Gifts - 1 Corinthians 12:28
A Apostle <----> A' Different languages
B Prophet <----> B' Guidances
C Teacher <----> C' Helpings/assistances
D Miracles <----> D' Healings
While seeming to lack a unique central point, the characteristic parallelism of chiastic order is present which Lund states can be a valuable aid to interpretation:
It should not be necessary to argue for the value of chiasmus as an aid to the interpretation of the epistles of Paul... (p. 90)
Lund does not specifically examine this verse but he does give two examples which are relevant. The first involves the words ἰαμάτων (healings) and δυνάμεις (powers) found in 12:9-10 and 12:28-29, which Lund notes (p. 86) have been arranged inversely within the chapter for the purpose of knitting them together:
This inversion of ideas serves as a device to knit together related sections. It is found in several more extensive structures in which the counter parts are found widely apart in the text. 5
5. 1 Cor. 12:9, 10 with v.28, 29: "healings" and "powers."
The passages cited are:
9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. [ESV]
28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?
The chiastic pairing of miracles and healings in the church is first stated as present in individuals. Besides healings and powers, these sections share γλωσσῶν (tongues) and antithetically προφητεία (prophecy) which is absent from prophets in 12:28. Since Paul connected these sections, the understanding of 12:28 should be in harmony with 12:9-10 and 12:29.
Another example comes in how Paul used the chiastic structure to begin the discussion of gifts which expresses "...the general idea of unity and diversity with the Christian church." 1
For as the body is one
and hath many members,
A and all members of the body,
are one body.
so also Christ.
For even in one Spirit we all into one body were baptized
B whether bond
and were all of one Spirit made to drink.
A key point of the chapter is the necessity to have all gifts in the church in order for the body to be complete. The church is a place of diverse individual gifts which aggregate to a body with all gifts.
First, second, third... The temporal sequence of building the Church
Many commentators believe the first three are listed in order of importance, or hierarchy. However, this is at odds with the purpose of the chapter which is to show the diversity of gifts is needed to make a whole body: in that context, no one gift has greater value than another.
In his commentary, Richard B. Hays recognizes a temporal order may be intended:
The numbering of the first three items (apostles, prophets, and teachers) may indicate a certain hierarchy of authority (cf. Eph. 4:11), but it may also indicate something about the temporal order in which these gifts come into play in the construction of the Christian community: the itinerant apostle comes first and founds the church, while prophets and teachers follow to continue the work of construction and instructing the community. Just this sort of sequence has been described already in 3:5-14...Certainly the other items in the rest of the list (miracles, gifts of healing, assistance, direction, tongues) are not arranged in any hierarchical order.2
The first three items describe the sequence of establishing the church at Corinth and is consistent with how Paul describes his work at Corinth and God's actions in the church (12:28):
And God has appointed (ἔθετο) in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. (NASB)
By the grace God has given me, I laid (ἔθηκα) a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. (3:10 NIV)
Interpreting the verse as itemizing the order the church at Corinth was established (which would be the same sequence elsewhere) fits the overall message and eliminates the confusion inherent in the hierarchical order, since apostles were also prophets and teachers.3 Finally, this explains Paul's varied use of the verb τίθημι. When speaking of his work (3:10), Paul states he ἔθηκα using the active voice; when speaking of God's work (12:28) Paul uses ἔθετο, the middle voice, meaning God is acting upon Himself or for His own benefit.
Services, Workings, Gifts
The chapter begins by identifying services, workings and gifts:
Now there are varieties of gifts (χαρισμάτων), but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service (διακονιῶν), but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities (ἐνεργημάτων), but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. (12:4-6 ESV)
These categories are found in 12:28:
Services: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers...
Workings (activities): ...then (ἔπειτα) miracles (or powers/forces)...
Gifts: ...then (εἶτα) gifts healings, helpings/assistances, guidances, different languages
"Then miracles" (ἔπειτα δυνάμεις) which follows first, second, third, is not fourth (as expected). The final step in the sequence is "εἶτα gifts" after which four specific gifts have been appended asyndetically.4 Now εἶτα can mean furthermore (Hebrews 12:9) which would interrupt the temporal flow to give the passage a unique separate thought:
First apostles, second prophets, third teachers (services)
then powers (workings)
helpings, guidances, different languages
Services and workings are separated by the absence of individuals indicating a shift to the collective. Thus services are done by those with gifts specific to build the church after which the church itself continues to be built with powers. The description is both linear, first, second, third (services by individuals) and dynamic, the church with workings.
The interpretation of the verse is along this line:
God has built the church for His benefit with gifts:
first [the service of] apostles and different languages
second [the service of] prophets and guidances
third [the service of] teachers and helpings/assistances
then [the church has workings of] miracles/powers and healings.
Apostles, prophets, and teachers with the right gift are gifts, specifically for establishing the church, which, when established as a complete body, is itself a gift working healings. This reflects the dynamic nature of the body of Christ which is built by God with and for individuals:
26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (12:26-27 ESV)
Any interpretation should account for pairing prophets with the gift of guidances and, since by definition a prophet must have the gift of prophecy, the deliberate omission of that gift from the list.
The absence of prophecy reinforces the importance of the sequential nature of specific gifts used to build the church while diminishing the significance of the gift of prophecy. That is, God built the church second with prophets and guidances who also had the gift of prophecy which was not named in building the church. Guidances is κυβέρνησις so the emphasis is away from the primacy of foretelling or prophesizing events. Instead, this gift is the giving of specific guidance to the church in preparation for, or as a result of an event.
The only NT use of κυβέρνησις is in this passage but it is found 4 times in the LXX, all in Proverbs (1:5, 11:14, 20:18, 24:6). Since Paul has used a word found in only Proverbs, the implication is the Corinthians knew the scroll of Proverbs.5 The prophet's gift then functions during both normal and extraordinary times. In other words, the prophet provides guidance(s) in both normal conditions (follow Proverbs) and the unusual (take exceptional action). Or, conversely, act normally despite the extraordinary or take unusual action despite the normal circumstances. That is, the church is built by the service of a prophet who guides the right response under all conditions.
The fourth item listed, δύναμις (miracles) is a working and is paired with ἰαμάτων (healings), which Lund observes have been arranged chiastically in the chapter:
A to another the workings of miracles (12:10) A to another gifts of healings (12:9)
X then miracles (12:28) X then gifts healings (12:28)
A' Do all work miracles? (12:29) A' Do all possess gifts of healings? (12:30)
With both words the first (A) and last (A') relate specifically to individuals, but the center (X) does not. The shift to a corporate or collective sense at 12:28 is more apparent when it is considered as following (individuals in services as) first apostles, second prophets, third teachers... In other words, ..."then miracles...", is workings of the church. Thus the understanding at 12:28 is powers of the church build the church. That is, the established church continues to be built by a working of power which is sometimes manifested by individuals who work miracles. Paul's nuance is, yes individuals work miracles but these are just a part of the workings of the church, which continues to build the church.
As Lund notes, the chiastic arrangement aids in interpreting the passage as Paul acknowledges some individuals (in the church) work miracles, but the church itself is a miracle working entity. At the time Paul wrote the church was an insignificant organization, yet the church would go on to impact the world and shape history.
1. Nils W. Lund, The Presence of Chiasmus in the New Testament, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 10, No.1 (Jan 1930), p. 80-81
2. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, John Knox Press, 1997, p. 217
3. Paul was both apostle and teacher, another reason the sequence cannot be hierarchical. If an apostle is first and teacher third, then anyone like Paul who is both apostle and teacher must be better than one who is only an apostle and the passage makes little sense. On the other hand, first Paul preached Christ crucified to the Corinthians; then he taught those who believed.
4. Meyer's New Testament Commentary
5. The gift paired with teachers, ἀντίλημψις like guidances is only used here in the NT but is used in the LXX, 6 times all in Psalms, notably Psalm 22.