The Sermon as Biblical Commentary: The Case of Newman's Parochial and Plain Sermons and Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians

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The late Raymond E. Brown, S.S., is said to have advised that if you had only one Pauline letter to read, it should be 1 Corinthians rather than the more famous and theologically influential letter to the Romans. The point is that 1 Corinthians helps the modern reader to experience more sharply the problems that early Christians faced and the mistakes that they made, and to see at first hand Paul's genius in responding theologically to complex pastoral situations.1

So wrote Daniel J. Harrington in a review of First Corinthians, a commentary by Raymond F. Collins in the Sacra Pagina series. As the introduction to 1 Corinthians in The Catholic Study Bible so accurately puts it, "Paul's first letter to the church of Corinth provides us with a fuller insight into the life of an early Christian community of the first generation than any other book of the New Testament."2 The men and women of Pauls Corinthian church addressed in his first letter to them, like Newman's parishioners at St. Mary the Virgin Church addressed in the Parochial and Plain Sermons, were Christians struggling to live out their baptismal calling in the circumstances of their time. Both of our authors wrote in their respective genres to deal with issues of the Christian life that they perceived to be in need of their insight. Paul had, of course, personally founded the church of Corinth in A.D. 51 during his second missionary journey, and continued to maintain contact with it through ambassadors and his letters. Newman, on the other hand, had become vicar of the Oxford University parish in 1825, and so he tended to the needs of his flock through the medium of sermons as well as his personal pastoral duties.

Since this essay proposes that a sermon can be used as a commentary on the Bible, the procedure used here is to take 1 Corinthians one chapter at a time, seeing how Newman understood the verses and pericopes from this letter that he chose to include in his Parochial and Plain Sermons. Since this essay is a first foray into the hermeneutics of Scripture in Newman, the only texts from 1 Corinthians that will be considered here are those that Newman used two or more times over the course of his sermons. The essay will conclude with an assessment of Newman s approach to biblical interpretation by considering two modern exegetes of First Corinthians, Raymond F. Collins and Jerome Murphy-O'Connor.

In two sermons, "The Intermediate State" and "Waiting," Newman used the text "waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1:7b).3 In the first of these sermons, he is concerned to explicate another text from the book of Revelation: "And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow-servants also, and their brethren that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled" (6:11).4 The excerpt from 1 Corinthians is among several quotes from the Pauline corpus and the letter to the Hebrews that Newman uses to illustrate his contention that the stress in these letters is on the coming of Christ as "the object to which our hope must be directed" (PPS, p. 715), in contrast to what was apparently stressed among his parishioners as the great object of hope: death, not only as the end of our trials and tribulations spiritually as well as in other dimensions of life, but also as the conclusion of our preparation for the heavenly life: "it will be found, on the whole, that death is not the object put forward in Scripture for hope to rest upon, but the coming of Christ, as if the interval between death and His coming was by no means omitted in the process of our preparation for heaven" (PPS, p. 716). For Newman, it is "a mere human assumption" that Christ's second coming happens at the moment of death, for he believes that "the time of judgment, and not till then, is the time when Christ calls His servants and takes account" (PPS, p. 718). Consequently the intermediate state is also a time of preparation for that coming. …