Mark Jones, Tom Chantry, and the Witness of the Church on 1 Corinthians 7:14

Mark Jones has a post up, Daddy, am I really forgiven?, where he makes many points about children, baptism, and parenting based on the promises of God. What piqued my interest was some historical analysis on how the Westminster Divines handled 1 Cor. 7:14. You’ll have to read the post, but I’m with Thomas Goodwin on the exegesis on that text.

Reformed Baptist Tom Chantry checked in with a response here. Chantry provides several helpful responses to Jones’ piece that are worth chewing on, however, his rather simple assertion that 1 Cor. 7:14 is dealing with the legitimacy of the marriage and the child requires a bit more articulation. Simply sharing an example of how a Presbyterian student was ill-equipped to provide an answer about whether baptizing the unbelieving was also appropriate, and the professor’s response that he didn’t think the text was about baptism (which we all admit isn’t, I think), doesn’t mean you can easily slide into a negation of the text saying anything about the child as being “holy.” Now, I’m a credobaptist, but also an exegete, and I’ve found this common Baptist interpretation of the text to be lacking. While Baptists might accuse their paedobaptist friends of reading too much out of the text, I’d readily admit that most baptists read too little out of the text. The concern Paul is responding to is not one of legitimacy, but whether the family is “holy.”

Jones’ post, however, highlights real wrangling over the text and the need for nuance in not wanting to overstate the significance of what this “holy” status entails (as if it meant permanently saved with no need for faith), while at the same time not wanting to understate what it means (as if to relativize “holy” to meaning nothing more than the status of the fully pagan family next door, as long as they were legitimately married), so as to reduce the status of the child to meaning nothing more than the legitimately born pagan child. I appreciate the wrestling over the text more so than the seemingly smug assertions made by Baptists that it’s obviously talking about whether the marriage and children are legitimate.

Anyhow, here’s a wonderful, broader historical analysis of the disputed text (I’ll leave it up to you to wrestle — or not):


The history of interpretation has thrown up some idiosyncratic explanations of holy. Of the examples listed below, some tend to reflect too closely the agenda of their own concerns. The last two bring us closer to Paul.
1. Irenaeus. Irenaeus compares the dynamic of 7:14 with that of God’s command to the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute (Hos 1:2–3). The context of argument is that God may be known in many ways, not simply through the predictable and ecclesially reputable. Rahab, e.g., received and protected the Israelite spies, with the result that her house was protected as if she were one of God’s own people: “Rahab the prostitute was preserved … through faith of the scarlet sign.”258 Significantly in the case of Hosea, his son’s initial name, “Not-a-People,” was reversed: “They shall be called the children of the living God” (Hos 1:6–9; cf. Rom 9:25–26). This principle, Irenaeus observes, explains the dynamic of 1 Cor 7:14: “For this reason Paul declares that ‘the unbelieving wife is made holy by the believing husband,’ ” and on this basis the significance of the children finds a parallel between the promises of God in Hosea and in 1 Cor 7:14. The further parallel of the grafting of the wild olive into the true, cultivated olive (Rom 11:17–19) similarly expounds the parallel of “if the loaf is holy, so is the whole batch; if the root is holy, so are the branches” (Rom 11:16). Irenaeus notes that Paul’s treatise on the mystery and generosity of God’s unstoppable electing grace focuses on the derivative holiness of Gentiles from Israel’s elected, privileged status as the people of God. Similarly, the “union” with the holy makes an inclusive extension of the holy. Irenaeus thereby treats 1 Cor 7:14 in the context of (i) the OT (Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Hosea, the call of “a people who are not”); (ii) the electing, generous grace of God; (iii) cross references with Paul’s thought in Romans 9–11; and (iv) the efficacy of “union” instantiated most fundamentally in union with Christ.
2. Clement of Alexandria. Clement advocates and encourages marriage and permits second marriage. In this context he compares Paul’s citation of Christ’s ordinance concerning marriage with his modifying clause, adding further, “Now are they holy” (1 Cor 7:14). Clement points out that holiness may spread either through the agency of a Christian husband or through that of a Christian wife, since the two are “one flesh.”262 However, reference to the children seems to remain implicit rather than explicit. Clement leaves it to the reader to understand a solidarity of holiness through the union, proximity, and intimacy implicit in the relationships, in which the emphasis falls upon the positive and potentially salvific effects of marriage.
3. Tertullian devotes a full chapter to 7:12–14, where his main burden is that v. 14 gives no license for Christians to marry unbelievers. If a Christian is already married to an unbeliever, the situation is different. Here the encouragement is offered that the unbeliever cannot diminish the sanctity of the spouse or of their children, positively through association or solidarity and “through the discipline of the institution” (ex institutionis disciplina) of Christian upbringing and education. Baptism and eschatological destiny play a role: the children are on their way to a holiness to which God has called them. “They are in some sense destined for holiness and salvation.”265 This gives no encouragement, Tertullian insists, to initiate a mixed marriage. “The grace of God sanctifies what it finds [i.e., already].” Otherwise it remains “impure” and is “not able to be sanctified.”267 Tertullian makes similar points in passing in his firm rejections of second marriages.
4. Origen. Surprisingly, Origen seems to miss the very point underlined by his Alexandrian predecessor, Clement, that God’s grace of sanctification operates in both directions, from husband to wife and from wife to husband (see above). Origen compares the union of a mixed marriage to the mixing of wine with water: one sanctifies or gives flavor, while the other corrupts or dilutes. This appears to run contrary to what Paul is saying, but he is staying with Paul’s point that no Christian should initiate marriage with an unbeliever (cf. Tertullian on 7:39). This is not strictly an exegesis of 7:14.
5. Later Fathers (except Theodoret, see below). With the exception of Augustine and Chrysostom, in many cases this period offers less exegetical or pastoral insight than earlier or later works. Jerome simply repeats and quotes the “weaker” strand in Tertullian (On Monogamy, 11:8 and To His Wife, 2:2) that children of believers are, “as it were, candidates for the faith.” This may allude to Tertullian’s constructive emphasis on Christian education, but misses the Pauline context of mixed marriages, which Tertullian addressed. Severian of Gabala (c. 400) has a fragment on 1 Cor 7:14 which Staab has preserved. He writes, “When the children are clean and holy, uncorrupted by unbelief, the faith of the parent has won.” At the turn of the third and fourth centuries, holy seems to have been understood of children primarily in a proleptic or anticipatory sense in this verse. Chrysostom explains “holy” in 7:14 in two ways. Primarily it serves in a pragmatic way “to deliver the woman from fear as completely as possible.” The proof is that her child is “not unclean.” Second, the effect of bodily union has already been stated in 6:15–17. Augustine refers to 7:14 in a number of treatises. In On the Good of Marriage he refers back to Paul’s teaching on the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). He infers: “Therefore the bodies of the married are also holy.… Even an unbelieving partner does not stand in the way of this sanctity”; the sanctity of the one “profits” the other. Elsewhere Augustine seems to suggest that Paul refers to actual events of families coming to faith, led by one parent.
6. Cajetan (d. 1534) and Melanchthon (d. 1560) press ἅγια into meaning legitimate in the eyes of state law (de sanctitate civili). Several medieval commentators (e.g., Walafrid Strabo, c. AD 808–849 explore this notion on the assumption that if the Christian spouse separates, this will probably result in their children having adulterous parental figures in a new marriage (adulteri estis, et filii vestri spurii … nunc, sancti quia de licitis conjugis nati).
7. Bullinger (1566) and Matthew Poole (1685) understand holy in 7:14 as sanctitas federalis, i.e., status within the covenant (not unlike Collins, above), but part of the agenda here is that children within the covenant have the right to the covenant sign, namely, baptism.
8. Beza holds the minority view that holy, of the children, denotes or presupposes regeneration on the basis of election: (4) Bengel combines the earlier interpretation legitimate with a “somewhat closer” relation to the church: non sint spurii … sit legitima, non adulterina … sed propinquirem aliquam cum ecclesia.
9. Theodoret (c. 458) interprets holy in relation to the unbelieving wife in terms of hope of salvation, and for the children what seems to be a promised futurity: the wife ἔχει σωτηρίας ἐλπίδα (Latin text, habet spem salutis); children suggest the notion of σπέρμα … τῆς σωτηρίας (semen illius erit salutis particeps). However, Theodoret also considers this ὑπερβολικώτερον (haec autem cum hyperbole) in order to be persuasive about staying together and maintaining the family. Holy is almost used emotively to mean “there is nothing to worry about.” Luther grounds this theologically under the rubric “to the pure all things are pure.” The faith of the believing partner, Luther urges, can promote a positive stance toward all things, even to adult children who do not share the faith.
10. Calvin. Commonsense exegesis comes from Calvin: “The godliness of the one does more to ‘sanctify’ the marriage than the ungodliness of the other to make it unclean. Accordingly a believer can live with an unbeliever [‘not in the contracting of marriages but in maintaining those already entered into’] with a clear conscience.” But for Calvin the question about the children invites more speculative considerations about covenant, for which he refers his readers to Rom 11:16.

Thiselton, A. C. (2000). The First Epistle to the Corinthians: a commentary on the Greek text (pp. 530–533). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

Not that the Baptist interpretation is necessarily wrong because no one in the history of the church, of significance, has ever argued for the text simply meaning the legitimacy of marriage and the children, but it should cause pause for the Baptist who thinks he can simply make a simple assertion to dispel what might be some valid points about the text that requires greater harmonization and nuance. The spouse is called unbelieving, whereas the child is not called an unbeliever. Paul himself is making a distinction, one that Baptists need to do a better job at as well.

© 2014 – 2016, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.


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