The Last Enemy “being destroyed”: A Response to Dr. Kelly Birks
This paper will be brief in that I will utilize three standard works on I Co 15.26. First, a string of translations:
ESV: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
MRD: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”
DRA: “And the enemy, death, shall be destroyed last.”
These translations reflect the overall decisions of the VSS (versions). Note that “to be” is infinitive, and “shall” or “will” is future. The Greek, however, is “ἔσχατος ἐχθρὸς καταργεῖται ὁ θάνατος. Here, “last enemy is being destroyed the death” (literally). The word καταργεῖται (katargeitai) is declined as present, passive, indicative.
We turn first to The Corinthian Correspondence (Ed., R. Bieringer, Leuven University Press, 1996). There, M.C. De Boer (“Resurrection Tradition in I Cor 15,20-28”) remarks that Paul “modified” Psalm 110 in order “to portray the risen Christ’s session at God’s right hand as a dynamic, apocalyptic process (over against the static, spatial conception of the Corinthians), whereby the inimical principalities and powers are being destroyed (καταργέω), culminating in the destruction of Death, the last enemy” (p. 648). Further, “As the last enemy, death is being destroyed” (ibid.). De Boer notes the tension (and controversy) over the fact that Paul used an aorist “he has subjected all things” in verse 27. This would include Death. Christ, already having been raised (perfect tense) has Death underneath Him, yet, at the same time, Death is to be destroyed at the parousia or “the end” when the dead are raised. The resurrection of the dead signifies the ultimate defeat of Death.
De Boer notes Gordon Fee, and to his commentary we come to now (Gordon Fee, TNICNT, The First Epistle to the Corinthians – Eerdmans). There we find, “The grammar of this sentence is somewhat puzzling….the sentence literally reads, “the last enemy is being destroyed, namely death.” The difficulty lies with the present tense and the passive voice of the verb….in a sense death, the final enemy to be subdued, is already being destroyed through the resurrection of Christ….” (pp.756-757). Both De Boer and Fee take “death” here as not only the principality or power, but also the manifestation of its power: physical demise on the individual who is also in Christ. They picture the ultimate demise of Death with the arrival of the parousia and the complete end of physical death (in fulfillment to Rev 21.3, “There shall be no more the death”).
Fee is to be noted in that he says this is a “puzzling” verse. Why puzzling? If the argument were as straightforward as Birks makes it sound, there is no puzzle here at all. But there is a puzzle. On one hand, Christ has been risen from the dead, from the realm in which the “power of the death” has dominion over them. It’s power, therefore, has “already” been broken. Those in Christ are already “being made alive” as Paul stated elsewhere. The dominion of Death can be pictured, thus, as “being destroyed.” For these commentators, they rightly see that Death is not merely physical demise, but also a power. As Preterists, we drop off the physical demise as part of the power. We see “the Death and the Hades” on the same horse, the fourth horse of the apocalypse. Sheol and Death are represented as powers.
Finally, Anthony C. Thiselton has written the TNIGTC, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Eerdmans/Paternoster). In location, he states, “It is difficult to do justice to the present passive καταργεῖται in translation. As it stands, the Greek states, The last enemy is being annihilated, (namely) death. It is arguable that Paul uses the present to denote the process of annihilation already set in motion by Christ’s (past) death and resurrection. Thus the “stingless” death experienced by Christians already represents a partial annihilation of death in its fullest, most terrifying sense” (p.1234 – italics his). He, of course, mentions other possible ways to understand the present as a “future” present expressing certainty of an event. However, he sees at the parousia the overcoming of death in the “fullest sense”. This full sense is, for him, the annihilation of physical death. For all three commentators, physical death is the fullest expression of the power of Death. For all three, Christ’s resurrection has already begun the process of annihilating Death, and, in a sense, for those in Christ as well. This will culminate at the “end” (end=parousia) when physical death is obliterated.
Birks, on the other hand, wants us to believe that the Greek present here absolutely cannot contain the idea of “process.” He thinks that the reason it is translated as future in most VSS. is because, not that death is understood as physical demise, but that, “Paul teaches that V.’s 21-23 occur first in the order of events in order for V.’s 24-26 to take place” (preteristdebate.ning.com).
Let’s review this. Vv. 21-23 state, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” For Birks, this “occurs first” therefore, Death cannot be seen as being in process before the parousia (the word “coming” in Greek is parousia). Birks, unlike the three commentators above, does not see any defeat or beginning process of Death’s annihilation in the firstfruit resurrection of Christ. This, for me, is a strike against his view, for there is nothing in the grammatical structure that would make his claim absolute.
Vv. 24-26 read, “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” However, we must note the word “after” in the translation (ESV). Christ’s reign begins, we believe, at His ascension. The “must reign” denotes the current reign of Christ in the time of Paul’s writing (present infinitive which emphasizes linear action – see Fee). Christ’s enemies, therefore, were already placed under His feet and the manifestation of that fact would be displayed at the “end” or “parousia”. Birks makes the “end” and “parousia” two separate events, one happening after the other, which Fee and Thiselton would argue against. They see it as two sides to one event: at the parousia, death is defeated, then Christ hands over the kingdom. We cannot begin to do the necessary exegesis here, in that these are notoriously difficult passages.
It should be noted that, 1. Birks case that the present tense here cannot, absolutely cannot, have any meaning of present action is false. It is “arguable” that it can have this force. 2. Birks argued that none of the commentators (that he has read) has in mind physical death as the “fullest” manifestation of Death’s power, but that they are constrained by the context (“this comes after that, therefore, future”). I have shown this to be false as well. Every commentary I own on I Co sees Death as the complete annihilation of physical death. This is what constrains them. This, in a way, actually refutes Birks in that if the physicality of death is removed from the definition of “the Death”, then nothing in the context restrains us from seeing the present annihilation of death as process. 3. It appears to me that none of the commentaries I have presented here make a sharp distinction between parousia and “end.” There is a great issue (and controversy) over the use of the words “then” and “when” in the text. Premillennialists have used a great deal of ink to show that the parousia occurs, then Christ rules over all things (Millennium), then comes the end. Gordon Clark, who defended Premillennialism, argued in his commentary on I Co that this cannot be done; that way too much emphasis is given to “then.” Paul was arguing for two events: Christ’s resurrection (firstfruits), then the harvest (the end, the parousia, the resurrection of the dead). That scholars have sharply divided over these issues proves to me that such issue is not absolutely concrete as Birks makes it sound.
The fact of the matter is that present tense, even in non-preterist scholars, can be retained and used. Their only issue with us is the definition of Death. If physicality is involved in the “fullest” sense of Death’s annihilation, then clearly, the Preterist cause is lost. If, however, “the Death” is not referring in any way to physical demise, then we have a strong, strong case here for the present annihilation of the Death that was already beginning to take place at the Firstfruit resurrection of Messiah, the application of the outpoured “last days” Spirit who was “making alive” the saints through the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, to the final parousia when the powers of that age were finally defeated by the full entrance of the New Covenant – a heavenly fact demonstrated by the historical sign-destruction of what came to represent the powers that be: Jerusalem. We can make that case, and we do have the support of the Greek in I Co 15 (though I would not offer this as absolute proof – it certainly makes a strong argument in our favor).
Also posted at www.thereignofchrist.com
I wanted to add to Sam’s good article here (TLM Moderator note)
“As a last enemy, death is being abolished, for all things He put in subjection under His feet.” (1 Cor. 15:26 WUESTNT).
“The present, “is being annulled,” is the præsens futurascens, or the present of which the accomplishment is regarded as already begun and continuing by an inevitable law.” (The Pulpit Commentary: 1 Corinthians. 2004 (H. D. M. Spence-Jones, Ed.) (487). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.)
“Moreover, we shall also be discovered to be false witnesses of God because we testified with respect to God that He raised up His Christ, whom He did not raise up, assuming then that dead people are not being raised up.”
“For assuming that dead people are not being raised up, neither has Christ been raised up.”
Unfortunately, this translation is inconsistent with the present tense throughout the chapter. Consistency would demand these passages be translated in the same way: “If the dead are not being raised at all…” (v. 29), “If the dead are not rising” (v. 32), “it is being sown in dishonor, it is being raised in glory…” “…it is being sown a natural body, it is being raised a spiritual body.” (vss. 43-44).
Other good comments on Sam’s article were given by Jack Scott and Bryan Lewis:
Great summary of the weaknesses of Birk’s main points. I’ll include comments I made yesterday on a private email group when I became aware of Birk’s recent comments about me and my lecture in 08. Especially powerful is the point that you made at the end of your article above, the very “main point” of my lecture, regarding the relationship of the defeat of death to the completion of the New Covenant foretold by Jeremiah. I said the following:
BEGINNING OF QUOTE
“Somebody enlighten me as to what kelly has said. I’ve been out of pocket for several days as regards this stuff. I see he’s questioned my scholarship (a smart thing to do, since I have been wrong about so many things in the past), and implicated deficiency in my honesty (this he shouldn’t have done). What I’m wondering is, in all the posts floating around and comments he has made, all I see him dealing with is the present tense…has he said anything about the requirements of the “passive voice?” This carries significant weight in this discussion, both in my emphasis and toward the validity of his protests. It seems apparent to me that he is looking for variations of the rules applicable to the normal demands of the Present tense. The present tense alone was not the basis of my argument, just one factor. Birks essentially says he distrusts anybody’s ability with Greek who doesn’t acknowledge all the possible variations to the present tense, e.g. the historic, future, conative, gnomic, aoristic, etc. (Note: the reason these variations exist, is because of obvious demands of the contextual flow that vary from the normative). My assignment, and purpose, was not to talk about remotely possible variations of a standard rule regarding the present tense, rather it was to look at the context of 1 Cor. 15. Nothing in the text demands a futuristic present, or anything other than the normative present passive, which is an ongoing process wherein the subject is being acted upon. Only Kelly’s bad theology does that. My argument was that death was being defeated (present tense, passive voice), the passive showing the subject being acted upon in present time. He then suggested that the contextual flow of vss. 21-23 demand the parousia first before the defeat of death. I agree! But does this help kelly with his yet “futurist” view of personal body resurrection/glorification at his physical death. I don’t think so! The parousia is clearly the consummation, but how does that negate an ongoing process of participation in the death, burial & resurrection of Jesus (c.f. Rom 6:1-10), wherein and whereby God is progressively destroying death in the last days?
Birks, because of his reformed, creedal bias (my opinion) wants to remove 1 Cor. 15 from the progressive, “already but not yet,” context of the whole redemptive paradigm of the NT, because he can’t make physical bodies fit. Talk about a variation…Sorry, kelly, can’t let you do that. And I obviously question the scholarship of anyone who does so (not capability, just scholarship on this issue). Was not the return of Heb. 9:28 contingent upon making “all His enemies His footstool” (10:13)? And that such would be accomplished when the new covenant foretold by Jeremiah was fulfilled (10:14-17)? Yea! Verily!! And most importantly, was not “death” identified as the last of those enemies in the very context we are discussing, (1 Cor. 15:26)? Oh Yea! Do not these two contexts (Heb. 9-10 and 1 Cor 15) in fact describe an ongoing process (present tense) in which the enemies of God, that last of which is death, are being “progressively” defeated by God? Yea! Way Verily!!! So can someone point out to me the reason why we should look for a variation to the NORMATIVE RULES FOR THE PRESENT PASSIVE in 1 Cor. 15:26? The enemies, and the last enemy death, are progressively being subjugated by God who is progressively subjugating/defeating every enemy standing between the death of Christ and the parousia. An interesting question for kelly would be, “Do you acknowledge that God is in the process of subjugating/defeating any of the enemies spoken of during the last days?” If he does acknowledge this point, the fallacy of the basis of his whole argument (denial of a progressive defeat of death) is demonstrated . It is inconceivable to me that he can’t see the reality of this, and that he ridiculed Larry for not wanting to begin in vs 21. Good grief! I believe that kelly would never say anything this hermeneutically weak regarding any of his other preterit convictions. In fact, I believe that he would rightly castigate any efforts by anyone to remove the parousia from an overall textual analysis of all of scripture, as well as all other eschatological issues, suggesting the only way to deal with Heb. 9:28 is to go back just a few verses.”
END OF QUOTE
Your quotes from Fee, etal, show the presuppositional bias preventing these very capable men from accepting what the text actually says. Unfortunately, Birks does the same thing. Good article Sam. You are certainly the guy to deal with this. It seems clear to me from other statements he has made that in fact he is not a full preterist and is in fact a futurist with preterist leanings. I’m hoping that he will accept Don’s challenge to him and Talbot to debate the larger issue of the Resurrection and its relationship to fulfilled redemption.
Theology Debate Members,
As a 2nd semester Greek Student, I am certainly looking forward to this debate and feel I have sufficient knowledge to comment on this debate.
I have been taught by looking at the verb ending of ἐγείρεται and σπείρεται they are certainly 3rd Person Present Passive Indicative Singular.
I have also been taught that the kind of action (aktionsart) of a Greek verb will fall into 1 of 3 categories:
1) Continuous / Progressive in action.
2) Completed / Accomplished in action, with possible continuing results.
3) Summary occurrence without any reference to the question of progress.
I have also been taught that the only place which “time” comes to bear directly upon the tense of a verb is when the verb is in the indicative mood. Which this is the case in 1 Co 15:43. Other moods and uses the aktionsart of the verb tense should be seen as primary.
I have been taught from week three first year of Greek that when the Present Tense is used in the indicative mood, the present tense shows action taking place or going on in the present time.
Conclusion: Taking all of this into account I see (It is being raised & It is being sown / ἐγείρεται and σπείρεται).
Have I missed something here? Am I not understanding The heart of the debate. Was I taught wrong? Sam or Dr. Talbot?
Great article Larry! One which you know hits home for me as formerly reformed and creedal driven.
One more thing to add to my previous 2 post. I should address the initial subject. The word καταργεῖται (1 Co 15:26) is also as you guys already know 3rd Person Present Passive Indicative Singular . So the same point is to be made as in my first post.
Thanks for the posts (thanks Jack), especially the Pulpit Commentary response and Wuest’s NT translation. The “present future” defined by the PComm. is enlightening because it, too, acknowledges that when a speaker uses the present for something still future to a degree, he is doing so by the fact that what is still future has ALREADY been unalterably set into motion. It’s as good as done because it is ALREADY (process) being seen as effective. The only emphasis Paul deals with as far as resurrection is Christ’s (perfect tense, emphasizing past action with PRESENT results), thus the present tense brings out the continuing present abolition of death and the future (not yet) consummation, which, apparently, needed to be emphasized against the “some” who were denying that “dead ones are being raised.” This has lead many to regard the “some” as advocating a fulfilled or realized eschatology, which would be anathema to Paul’s soteriological outworking in light of Israel’s promised redemption. We believe that it was this sort of “replacement theology” going on in Corinth, separating Israel from the Church, the Body of Christ, when, in fact, Paul emphasized that the Church, the Body of Christ, is the one new man made in the heavenly image as a result of God saving Israel. The Gentiles were being brought into ISRAEL’s promises. It was not that Israel were being brought into the Church’s promises. The promises applied to the Church were Israel’s – therefore, to exclude Israel was to exclude Christ.
Yeah, I was curious about what some of the translators and commentaries had to say about this and came across those quotes which stregthen your/our case here.
I am glad I invested in the Logos Bible Software. I was able to find a translation, look at the grammar, and find but yet another commentator that give support to this interpretation.
It was interesting to read what the PC had to say of 1 Corinthians 15:51. Translators were trying to come up with a way to help correct Paul’s “mistake”:
Ver. 51.—I show you a mystery. I make known to you a truth now made known to me by revelation. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. There is a great diversity of readings in this verse, noticed even by St. Jerome and St. Augustine. St. Jerome says that all the Latin manuscripts had “we shall all rise,” and that the Greek manuscripts wavered between “we shall all sleep” and “we shall not all sleep.” Some Greek manuscripts had “we shall all rise, but we shall not all be changed.” This reading cannot be right, for it contradicts the next verse. There is little doubt that the reading of the Authorized version is right. It accounts for all the variations. They arose from a desire to shelter St. Paul from an apparent mistake, since he and his readers did all sleep. But (1) St. Paul may have written under that conception of the imminence of Christ’s personal return which he expresses in 1 Thess. 4:15–17, where he evidently imagines that the majority of those to whom he was writing would be of those who would be “alive, and remain unto the coming of the Lord;…”