My wife knows when I want to eat. When she says, “I bet you want something to eat,” I don’t wonder if she has some weird link to my hypothalamus. She has reasoned. She bases this on many things that she knows about me. Among those things: 1) When I don’t eat for a while, I get hungry; 2) I hate bananas.
Premise 1: He wants to eat something when he doesn’t eat for several hours.
Premise 2: He hasn’t eaten for several hours.
Conclusion: He wants to eat something.
Premise 1: He does not like to eat things that have bananas.
Premise 2: This item has bananas.
Conclusion: He will not want to eat this item.
What, then, would my wife say if I have not eaten for 10 hours and there is only banana cake? If I am hungry enough, perhaps I will eat even the dreaded banana. Would that mean that the second principle and syllogism are false? No, they are still true, but in a relative sense. I don’t like bananas—generally. In fact, both conditions (“time since eating” and “amount of banana”) may be true to a greater or lesser extent.These conditions vary independently. They each may vary alone, together, or in opposite ways. I might have eaten minutes ago or days ago, regardless of whether the item I am offered is banana-free or 5 percent or 50 percent banana.
Neither of these principles is presented with the other as an exception. For instance, the second argument did not read:
Premise 1: He does not like to eat things that have bananas unless he is hungry.
Premise 2: This item has bananas.
Conclusion: He will not want to eat this item unless he is hungry.
If we pretend that it did read that way, then we force the second argument to be secondary to the first argument. The second argument has power only when the first argument has no basis at all. With the addition of the phrase “unless he is hungry,” the presence of bananas becomes irrelevant. Hunger alone becomes the watershed—unless absolutely no hunger is present. Making such an assumption changes the meaning of the principles from the way they were presented.
There cannot be an assumed threshold of universal certainty. In other words, given the principles above, it would be wrong to assume that after 10 hours, I will eat anything. Similarly, there is no amount of banana that will always overcome my hunger and make me refuse to eat.
Attributes of Conflicting Principles:
- Each principle is presented without the other as an exception.
- Each describes a condition that varies in extent.
- Each describes a condition that varies independently of the other.
- Each bears upon the conclusion in regard to the same question.
If all of these are true about a set of principles, then those principles must be viewed as relative.
1 Corinthians 7:32-35, 38 (ESV)
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord … .
So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.
Paul is making an argument for celibacy:
Premise 1: We should be free from anxieties.
Premise 2: Anxieties necessarily result from marriage.
Conclusion: Do not marry.
(This is one of two arguments for celibacy. The other (vv. 28-31) is specific to the early church. I won’t deal with it here.)
In verse 32 we find, “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord.” Paul is saying that we should be free from all anxieties except that we should be anxious to please the Lord. Are anxieties a bad thing for us or not? How can we say that it is okay to take on worldly anxieties when the Apostle Paul says it isn’t?
In verse 33, we find, “But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” This is a plain statement. Paul is saying, again under inspiration, that marriage brings the outlawed “anxiety.” Can we assert that this isn’t true when Paul asserted that it is?
If we have accepted both of these premises, then we must accept the conclusion: we should not marry.
Let’s turn back 30 or so verses to see another argument:
1 Corinthians 7:1-2, 8-9 (ESV)
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
Here we have an argument that fits a modern syllogism almost as well as the one in verses 32-38.
Premise 1: Temptation to sexual immorality is easier to resist if we get married.
Premise 2: It is good to do things that assist us in resisting temptation.
Conclusion: It is good for each man and woman to get married.
(Premise 1 and the conclusion are explicit in the text. I have written out premise 2 in order to complete Paul’s enthymeme.)
This is an interesting situation.
- The principle of avoiding temptation to sexual immorality makes us conclude that we should marry.
- The principle of avoiding worldly anxieties makes us conclude that we should not marry.
These satisfy the four characteristics of relative principles that I set out earlier:
- Each principle is presented without the other as an exception.
- Each describes a condition that varies in extent. (Both sexual temptation and worldly anxiety attendant to marriage are variable.)
- Each describes a condition that varies in extent independently of the other. (The level of sexual temptation that each person experiences will vary independently from the level of worldly anxiety that each person will experience with marriage.)
- Each bears upon the conclusion with regard to the same question. (One argues positively for marriage and the other negatively.)
Therefore both these principles and their ensuing arguments must be taken as relative.
Anxieties are indeed not good. But ridding ourselves of worldly obligations is not everything there is to Christianity. Instead, we should take “be free from anxieties” as a relative principle. Premise 2 can also be seen as a relative principle. That is, marriage does produce anxieties—and thus limits our ability to serve the Lord. But this is not always true to the same extent. It will vary depending on the choice of spouse, one’s view of marriage, and practical choices that one makes within marriage.
Paul’s argument for marriage is also based on relative principles. Each of us experiences a different level of temptation in the area of sexual immorality. Also, while we should take steps to reduce temptation, we must admit that it is not really possible to accomplish absolutely.
Could one principle be taken as secondary to the other? Could it be that Paul meant to say that the argument for celibacy stood unless one had temptation to sexual sin? Or maybe the marriage argument stood unless one felt called to full-time service?
Perhaps the argument in support of marriage is primary. Paul does open the section with, (1 Cor. 7:1-2), “’It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” Here the argument for marriage seems like it may be an exception that overrides the celibacy argument.
Perhaps the celibacy argument is primary. Paul does say verse 7, “I wish that all were as I myself am.” And he says in verse 38, “He who refrains from marriage will do even better.” Additionally, there is the life example of Paul, for whom the celibacy argument seems to have held sway.
There is, however, nothing in the text that instructs us to play favorites with one or the other of these arguments. Nor are there guidelines on how to do so with either argument.
Even though the principles are relative, the conclusion is not—you can’t get 30 percent married. The conclusion for Paul was celibacy. How did Paul get to that conclusion? And on what basis did Paul lead his reader to it? It was by reasoning that he could best serve the Lord in that way. He demonstrated that for us by taking care to give two logical arguments for his conclusion. Paul also demonstrated that those who married also followed a logical course founded on Biblical principles. Both sides were to come to their position by logic, even though their conclusions were antithetical.
The decision of marriage vs. celibacy is analogous to my wife making a judgment about whether I will want to eat banana cake when I have not eaten for 10 hours. The logic based on one principle says, “Yes.” The other says, “No.” So how will she decide?
This gets even more interesting.
1 Corinthians 7:7 says, “I wish that all were as I myself am [celibate]. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.”
What a fascinating verse!
Even though it was his logical conclusion, Paul calls his celibacy charisma of God. And he also agrees that, for others, marriage is their gift (charisma) from God. On page 271 of his book, David Garland calls this the “grace-gift” of God. Although each man—celibate and marrying—came to his position by logic, he was also to understand that his conclusion was a grace-gift from God.
Note that Paul never suggests that directly discerning this grace-gift is the way to come to the celibacy position. Instead, Paul specifically says in verse 35 that his tool for the promotion of celibacy is the “anxiety” argument (“I say [anxiety argument] … to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord”). Some people seem to make an almost magical discerning of the gift of celibacy the sole determinant of celibacy. Some base the conclusion of celibacy entirely on the lack of sexual desire. If we do either of these, we disrespect the “anxiety” argument in 1 Corinthians. Thus, we render impotent the argument that Paul used to promote celibacy. Paul says that it is logic that gets a man to this conclusion, and once there, he should consider his position to be the grace-gift of God
Here we have relevance to the question of the authority of sound, logical conclusions from the Word. Paul explicitly says that the “giver” of these positions was God. As these positions (marriage and celibacy) are grace-gifts from God, they must be viewed as authoritative.
So two brothers may differ on the issue of marriage and celibacy. They should both consider their conclusion to be from God. And they must both consider their conclusion to be binding upon (authoritative over) their own lives. They should both consider their conclusion to be logical. In fact, the logical method of arriving at celibacy (v. 32, c.f.) or marriage (v. 1, c.f.) is the setting in which they are legitimate gifts of God. It is not enough to say that a person may either get married or not get married. He must do all things with confidence that his actions are the expressions of the logical application of Bible principles. This exercise in logical grace gifts continues through the end of chapter 10. There, Paul states (v. 30) that by grace (charis) he is a partaker. And in verse 31, Paul tells us that we therefore should do all to the glory of God. Ideally, every one of our actions should be based on our logical conclusions from the Word.
Even in application of relative principles, sound logical conclusions are authoritative. We need to learn and teach Biblical logic. We need to learn to follow our logical conclusions from the Word regardless of what others think of them. We need to learn that the wonderful examples of Bible application that we see around us may be insufficient for our lives. Unless we—all of us—start thinking about how Bible principles apply in our lives, we will be missing God’s grace-gifts. And yet, as authoritative as these conclusions are, that authority is not communicable. The authority of our conclusions does not necessarily communicate to other believers. We need to learn not to expect others to make the same conclusions that we do. They may have another grace-gift.
- Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Garland, David. 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2003.
Dan Miller is an ophthalmologist living in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He received a B.S. in Premed from Bob Jones University in 1991 and an M.D. from The University of South Carolina School of Medicine in 1995. He serves as youth leader and board member at Cedar Heights Baptist Church, also in Cedar Falls. He has been happily married to Jenny since 1992. His opinions are not necessarily those of his church or board.