While I have often looked to First Thessalonians for a micro-cosmic snapshot of the early church, Vincent Branick’s book, First Corinthians: Building up the Church, has caused me to reconsider. His subtitle, Building up the Church, aptly captures the over-riding direction of the letter as well as the reality that the early church was a work in progress, a project of the first believers and their leaders. Branick intuitively prods out the particular challenges that were faced by the community in Corinth. As he does so, he makes essential scripture terminology concise and clear. His introduction is very instructional to support a reader with limited training in the Scriptures. Since Branick presents a well-developed understanding of the social and political context in which this letter is written it could easily serve as a textbook for an introductory New Testament course seeking to thoroughly explore an individual book. For the most part, he also breaks the letter into appropriate segments to meet fairly natural break-off points and to keep the sections manageable for the reader.
The book was further identified as a Spiritual Commentary. It would have been helpful, when first approaching this work, to know what Branick had in mind by this concept. One area where a spiritually-inspired methodology is evident is in his efforts with difficult or apparently contradictory passages. These are the kind of passages that many of us, for a variety of reasons, want to glance past quickly, wishing they were not in the text. Branick is regularly able to probe these passages for a deeper or alternative meaning that could be both reasonable and spiritually edifying. He is further able to reveal another expression of spirituality with his explorations of the linguistic origins of certain terms to break these out of their commonplace usage in under-challenged vocabularies. While he follows a very typical schema for a scriptural commentary, Branick moves this commentary toward a profoundly spiritual perception of the interactions across and among members of the early church, rather than pushing for more traditional historical or linguistic insights. Following after Luke Timothy Johnson’s notion of biblical imagination, Branick makes the point that, “Scripture allows us all to be first generation Christians.”
Branick is attentive to an aspect in Paul’s letters which he entitles “excess meaning.” Such an element opens new venues for understanding; it provides new material from which to answer our questions. This becomes apparent during the author’s own meditations which take place after he has analyzed a passage but prior to offering a point or two for the reader’s meditation. The latter feature makes this book a useful adult Bible study tool. Amongst some of the other highlights in the book is Branick’s ability to show Paul’s tendency to be liberating without becoming blindly permissive. Along these lines he develops a slightly nuanced but well-supported proposal that, in First Corinthians, Jesus is seen as a prophet not a legal code writer. He adds to this idea during a meditation on universal salvation which he suggests is a difficult concept to accept because of our limited ability to conceive of “the incomprehensible love of God.” Branick also raises various views of the “body” which he uses at one point as metaphors for the Church in its various levels. While he indicates other influences behind his work with the body theme, I think if he dedicated another book to this subject it would be a valuable addition to scholarship on the topic. On a final note, Branick seems to take great delight in identifying the beauty and meaningfulness of biblical poetry. Perhaps this is why he chose to explore First Corinthians as a spiritual commentary, because of his ability to find a depth of potential in the written word.