Whilst the Word of God is immutable and not open to private interpretation the reality is that the exegesis of a given passage can depend almost as much upon the methodology used for interpretation as the text of the underlying passage itself. The book 'How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth' (HRB) offers one such methodology and uses the opening 1 Corinthians as a worked example. The aim of this paper is to compare the results of that Analysis with the treatment given to the passage in question by certain popular expositors. The two expositors chosen are Albert Barnes' (AB) and Matthew Henry (MH). They are chosen as they are well known relatively conservative commentators whose works are available in the public domain.
The first lesson to learn from this exercise is that secular history changes and the interpretation of it is extremely dependant upon the way you view it. HRB states that one of the most distinctive features of Corinth is that it was a very young city; 94 years old when Paul visited it. HRB equates Corinth to a mixture of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York. Albert Barnes states that the city was founded long before the siege of Troy; which would make it more than 1300 years old when Paul arrived there. Because of its' decadence he equates it to Paris. MH perhaps wisely chooses to avoid placing any significance upon the history of Corinth.
In fact a deeper look at the history of Corinth shows that both views though entirely opposing were actually correct. Corinth was a flourishing city with a great history being a key player during the classical Greek period. It was largely destroyed in a siege in 146BC and then minimally inhabited until 44BC when Julius Caesar refounded the city. If one is looking for a direct equivalent; at least in terms of historic positioning the Jerusalem in the time of Malachi has to be the best choice. Corinth had a rich a famous history but it had also had a century time out.
Where all three agree however is in the degree of moral degeneracy that was prevalent with Corinth. HRB is relatively timid in describing this as sensuality. AB takes great delight in detailing the city statutes that mandated that 1000 prostitutes served at the temple of Venus. MH too cuts 'straight to the chase' by announcing that the expression 'Corinthian woman' was an idiom for strumpet and that to 'play the Corinthian' meant to play the whore. All three also agree that Corinth was wealthy and that was largely due to its idyllic position as a center of trade between Europe and Asia.
HRB and AB agree on one other matter although they reach their conclusions in entirely different manners. HRB observes that the word 'wisdom' or 'wise' occurs twenty six times in the first three chapters of 1Co and yet only eighteen more times in the rest of Paul's writing. From this it avers that 'wisdom' was one of the issues besetting the Corinthian church. Albert Barnes instead notes from secular history that Corinth was indeed famous as a center of refinement and learning having been dubbed by Cicero the light of all Greece.
The occasion that caused the letter to be dispatched differs subtly between HRB and the other two commentators. In fact it is somewhat ironic that in the HRB treatment they point out their opinion as to the occasion: namely the divisions reported by Chloe and the letter from Corinth. They then proceed to tell the reader that he shouldn't worry if he didn't get it all as the authors had been over the passage many times and were familiar with it. Yet as AB and Robertson's Word Pictures points out the news of the divisions within the church had arrived considerably before the letter was sent. In fact Timothy had been dispatched following the news of the divisions. This letter was dispatched in response to the Corinthian one and was sent with Titus in order to facilitate a financial collection. This example shows that the HRB approach of avoiding passages outside of the one being studied and avoiding commentaries can cause one to lose sight of the bigger picture.
The other area where they HRB method appears to fall significantly short of the traditional commentators is in the treatment of the opening parts of the letter. The HRB at least in the worked example appears to treat the standard letter sections such as the greeting and thanksgiving as a header which can be stripped off of the letter leaving the meaning intact. The interpretation of 1 Corinthians starts for them around the tenth verse. The older commentators in general but Matthew Henry in particular treat the opening of a letter as the key that introduces and sets the stage for that which is to follow.
Just working from the opening two verses Matthew Henry is able to extract two great truths, one of which agrees with HRB one of which doesn't. The agreement comes from the first verse and relates to the position of Paul. As HRB points out Corinth clearly has those that dislike Paul. MH points out that the opening statement of the whole letter starts by asserting the divine calling that Paul and received and establishes his office. The disagreement comes in the Corinthian's understanding of the gospel. HRB claims they had misunderstood the Gospel. MH, and for that matter the Bible, are quite clear from 1Co 1:2 that the Corinthians most certainly did understand the Gospel and they had accepted it. They may have got their churchmanship and personal walk in a mess but the Gospel they had correct.
As the previous two issues I've considered show the HRB to suffer compared to the traditional commentators the final one shows where the HRB method gains significant improvement. Both MH and AB lay the blame for the divisions within the Corinthian assembly squarely at the feet of false teachers. This is almost certainly as a result of those two worthies taking their pastoral mindset into New Testament church governance. The idea of the flock having done something themselves doesn't seem to register with MH or AB. Yet as HRB points out the people being followed were all acknowledged by Paul as being faithful workers in the Gospel. If Corinth did have false teachers they were not being followed!
In conclusion I would suggest that this analysis has shown both the strength and weaknesses of the HRB system. On the side of strength it encourages the reader to scan and rescan the passage and to extract all of the information from it. It also discourages the reader from building up preconceptions of what the passage ought to say instead of openly evaluating what it does say. On the side of weakness it prevents the reader from gaining the insight that has been gleaned from thousands of years of research throughout the ages. My personal viewpoint from this exercise is that the HRB mechanism is good but provided ones mind is disciplined enough it is probably worth scanning a commentary or two a little earlier in the process just to catch any 'gotchas' that might otherwise cause hours of wasted effort.