Having developed the theme of the foolishness of the cross, Paul recapitulates his critique of the strife and rivalry that had apparently seized the Corinthian community. The Corinthians are not only babes in Christ, but are fleshly, walking ‘according to man.’ Beneath such zeal is an account of the person’s origins in the faith that fails to look beyond the ambassador to God Himself: for when we say “I am of Paul,” and another says “I am of Apollos,” then we are being human—which, here, is cast in a negative light. The emissaries of God are only servants, and servants who are—nothing. The one who plant and the one who water are one; they fulfill the same task and responsibility. But they fulfill it only externally, visibly: the only ‘something’ is the God who gives the growth.
This sounds harsh, of course. It seems as though Paul has a rather self-abnegating stance, that he is eviscerating his own agency and leaving only God in place. Surely, we might think, Paul and Apollos are something. Surely we are at this point tempted to see within their ministry of servanthood a logic or an agency that has some independence from God: Paul and Apollos, we are tempted to believe, must stand on their own two feet. But Paul lives extrinsically: the grounds and source of existence lies not within himself, but in Christ. Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters are anything, but only God who gives the growth remains.
Yet this self-abnegating stance is (paradoxically) very near to being self-aggrandizing in Paul’s hands. He is critiquing the Corinthians for being babes and fleshly, after all—a judgment only the mature and spiritual can make. God had used the ‘things that are not’ to nullify the things that are (1:28), which ironically puts Paul (as no ‘thing’) to be, in Christ, something. No wonder Paul is able to speak so freely of the rewards which are apportioned to laborers immediately after saying that they are nothing in light of God’s generative power. Such rewards (3:8) are given in a differentiated fashion, according to a person’s labor. Having emphasized divine agency, Paul turns to speak of our fellow action: we are sunergoi, fellow-workers, with Him. The unity of God’s action in and through his servants (who are “one”) takes a diverse form—as Paul will develop later in full in chapter 12’s great discussion of the many members of the body of Christ.
Even within this differentiated order, though, in which Christ is all in all, Paul still asserts his own pre-eminence. It is “according to the grace of God” which is given to him that he is a “wise master-builder,” an architect, who laid a foundation. The church in Corinth is Pauline in this sense. This assertion, though, comes in a secondary and highly qualified position. What Paul gives with one hand, he takes away with another. Those who build ought look with care, for “no one can lay any other foundation than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Again, this is a sharp assertion of Paul’s authority: he has laid a foundation which only Christ can lay, as the foundation is Christ Himself.
We are to take care, though, how we build—to watch carefully, to remain observant. There is an intrinsic openness to our work, and to Paul’s: though he has laid a foundation, whether it bears fruit (to mix metaphors with the Apostle) will be in some ways contingent upon subsequent events. Paul had already suggested that they are not lacking “any spiritual gift” as they are “waiting for the coming of Jesus Christ” (1:7). But the presence of spiritual gifts is insufficient: they are tasked with being fellow-workers for the kingdom. It is fire that determines the quality of the work: those who endure it will have their reward, and those who do not still—well, they’re saved as through fire.
There’s much more we could say about this. But perhaps we should end with this, from Eliot, which draws on the imagery contained herein:
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.