Paul's use of "ennomos"

Paul’s Use of “Ennomos” in 1 Corinthians 9

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul makes this intriguing statement:

 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.” (vs 21)

Elsewhere, he repeatedly and pointedly states that believers are not ‘under law’. It might seem, therefore, that he contradicts himself. But if we have a consistent view of God’s word, we know that this cannot be so. It is the Holy Spirit who is the author behind the author of every written part of our Bible, and it is inconceivable that He argues against himself. So, we who take this view must seek to understand what is going on here.

Some have taken this verse and, standing it alongside Galatians 6 vs 2, which speaks of believers ‘fulfilling the law of Christ’, have constructed a kind of ‘believers’ law’ which stands in the new covenant where the Law of Moses stood in the old. But what of Paul’s emphatic insistence that those who are in Christ are NOT under law?

Countering this argument, others have noted that the actual words used in 1 Corinthians 9 are not ‘hupo nomos’ – ‘under law’, but ‘ennomos’, which,  strictly translated, means ‘in-lawed’ to Christ. Their opponents argue back that this is splitting Greek hairs, and that the two terms are virtually synonymous. I have considered this discussion for some time, and have recently come across something which may well throw all the light on it that we will ever need! But before I reveal this enlightenment, let me explain why I am not happy that this verse speaks of believers being ‘under law’.

The Perspicuity of Paul

Historically, Protestants have argued for a doctrine known as ‘the perspicuity(clarity) of Scripture’. This states that:

…those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (1646 Westminster Confession of Faith)

So, within this, we can also expect Paul to be plain in what he says. It would be no exaggeration to describe this learned, skilled Apostle as ‘God’s mastermind’. It is not for nothing that God used him to write 13 of the 29 documents which comprise our New Testament. Their contribution to our understanding of our faith is inestimable. And we can trust utterly his grasp, and his expression, of what God commissioned him to communicate – to the first church and to us. His extensive Jewish scholarly background, his understanding of the cultures of the churches he was writing to, and, not least of all, the enlightenment and Godly training of the risen Christ in his life had sharpened this finest of ‘God’s tools in the toolbox’ to the nth degree and fit him for God’s purpose. And yet he knows he writes to untrained men and women, non-scholars, in the various places in which God has used him to plant and nurture churches. So he, and the Spirit through him, ensures that his language is, as far as possible, plain and succinct. He writes to be understood!

When it comes to him using a different word from the usual and expected one in the context of 1 Corinthians 9, then, my suspicions are aroused. Why does he not just say,

To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.”

… using ‘huper nomos’ as would be perfectly reasonable? Surely, if he wanted to make that point abundantly clear, beyond the realms of conjecture, he could so easily have done so. But what he does is to state,

To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but in-lawed to Christ.”

Notice that what has happened is that the object of the sentence is different to the way most of our translations present it – Paul’s object is Christ, not law. I don’t think that is accidental. ‘In-lawed’ at least, here, becomes descriptive of the way he, as a believer, is related ‘to Christ’ – he is not ‘under …’, he is ‘in-lawed’. Whatever else is going on, that at least, is significant, and I don’t think we can reasonably just shrug shoulders and say “but he meant ‘under the law …'”

And then again, if the maxim of believers yet being ‘under law’ is so important, why is it not everywhere and all through his letters, employing this word freely and liberally? Why only once, and only to Corinth?

All Greek To Me

So here is the shaft of bright sunlight! I am indebted to a very thorough study by Fred Naiden in his book titled “Ancient Supplication”. It gets a bit technical, but I will try to keep my explanation simple.

First, note that Paul is writing to the church at Corinth – a Greek church. For many years, that great city functioned almost as the capital. Their society had inherited the full complement of the Greek pantheon of gods, and now, added to all of them, were the extra Roman ones. Temples abounded, and the practice of the worship of their gods was ‘sewn in’ to their society – extremely deeply embedded.

When we examine the way that their religious system operated, we will immediately notice that for both Greeks and Romans, there was no distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘religion’. In other words, the two were intertwined, and the ruling authorities legislated in matters of worship. As a member of that society, the plan was first to choose the right god for the right cause, the right occasion. You then had to gain their attention somehow, and present your particular request for their benevolence, in whatever way you needed it. This was a complex business. If you got it wrong – by presenting the wrong oblation, on the wrong altar, at the wrong time – you could incur wrath and blight instead of the favour you sought. And … not only for you, but for anyone else who happened to be in the vicinity at the time your displeased deity was visiting his/her wrath on you (think Jonah in his storm-beleaguered ship). So it was expedient for the government to do whatever they could to make sure that only those who ‘qualified’ could actually even get to the altar. They had to ‘apply’, and they were called ‘suppliants’.

Here is what Naiden has to say:

Supplication incorporates divine sanctions against perjury and against the expulsion of the innocent from altars and divine injunctions to allow a suppliant to approach and have his request heard.

… it also incorporates numerous regulations passed by the assembly of any given community, notably Athens. For their part, the gods endorse sanctions, injunctions and regulations. For its part, the assembly addresses every part of the practice. Besides regulating how citizens deal with one another and with the community, it regulates how the community deals with the gods.”

Their application was duly considered by a Council, or an Assembly. And if they were found to be ok – guess what

– their ‘supplication’ was said to be ‘ennoma’, and they were said to be ‘ennomos’! Naiden again (he is taking specific examples from Greek literature to illustrate his point):

No matter what the suppliant’s station and request, the supplication that he or she makes must be ennoma, or the suppliant must be ennomos – the Samian formulation. The moral side of these terms appears in the assertion that Dioscurides is worthy. But the legal side is larger and more complex. In regard to the first two steps, ennoma or ennomos means that the suppliant is eligible to supplicate and has done so at the right time. Ennomos in the Samian inscription supplies the first meaning, “eligible to supplicate”, and ennoma in the Attic inscriptions supplies the second meaning, which is presenting oneself at the right time. In regard to the last two steps, ennoma complements hiketeuin as a verb of speaking and means that the suppliant has made a lawful request. Finally, since the lawful request has led to the passage of a decree granting honours, annoma also means that the supplication has proved “valid”, a sense of ennoma in other legislative contexts.”

Thus, we see that the word ‘ennomos’ has specific meaning for Paul’s hearers, within the Graeco-Roman religious culture of the day. It is in common usage, and it is transparently understood.

1 Corinthians 9 vs 21 in New Light

Paul loves playing on words. And he is not averse to ‘borrowing’ a word or two from the current climate and making it work for him. He does it in Galatians with the Roman practice of ‘paedagogue’. And it is my persuasion that he does it here too. This also explains why

a) It is done specifically with the Greek-backgrounded church of Corinth

b) He never uses this rather loaded term again elsewhere. Perhaps he can get away with it once, because these people knew what he was referring to (and now, we do!). But doesn’t want to make it major.

So what is Paul doing with this word in this verse?

First we see, that this use is as an illustration of his main point, which is all about Christians foregoing their ‘rights’ out of love for one another. He says to the Corinthians, “and this is what I have done in my preaching of the gospel – I have ‘become all things to all men'”. Then follows the Jew/Gentile/weak elaboration. And he wants to emphasise that becoming like a Jew does NOT mean coming again under law. And then, that becoming like a Gentile does not mean being ‘outside  (the meaning of the old English word ‘without’) God’s law’. Rather in respect of God’s law, he is ‘ennomos’ – he has been granted ‘licence’, or ‘legitimate status’ to supplicate to Christ – to present worship and prayer to Christ. Here, then, is as much of ‘law’ as Paul is wanting to make claim to, and what it gives him is the right of approach; of full access. And not just to a god who is no god, but to the risen Christ.

Thus we can see that even though it makes reference to both ‘law’ and to ‘Christ’, this verse, in all probability, has nothing to do with what Paul speaks of in Galatians 6, and that to ‘patch’ those two verses together actually makes something of nothing.

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About David White

Until recently David White served as a leader and preacher at a small village church in Lavendon, Buckinghamshire, England. At the present time he resides in Barton On Sea in the UK. He has been a Bible-soaked Christian for half a century, trained at London Bible College (now London School of Theology), but more importantly in God’s school of life.