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Paul expresses a number of ideas in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 which, at least on the surface, create some inner tension or dissonance. Though he clearly states that "there is but one God," a phrase that reaffirms what he has already said in the previous verse ("we know . . . that there is no God but one"), that conviction seems to be qualified by the phrase "for us." Is Paul admitting the existence of divine beings "for others"? A second, corresponding problem is created by Paul's concessive statement "even if there are so-called gods" and the apparent qualification which follows: "as indeed there are many `gods' and `lords.' "
These difficulties can be solved once we understand the problem which Paul addresses, the situation in Corinth and Paul's general Jewish-Christian worldview.
In 1 Corinthians 8--10 Paul is apparently addressing a second problem the church had laid before him in their letter (the first one was addressed in chapter 7; see discussions on that chapter). The question was: Is it permissible for Christians to eat food that has been offered to idols (1 Cor 8:1, 4, 7, 10; 10:14-30)? In light of practices in the pagan world, that question arose in at least three settings. Animals which were sacrificed to pagan divinities at the various temples and shrines were not wholly consumed in the sacrificial flames; often only certain organs were actually offered. The meat not consumed was sold by the priests to merchants, who resold it to the populace in the meat markets (1 Cor 10:25). The heathen called such meat "sacrificed for sacred purposes" (see 1 Cor 10:28), while Jews and Christians, recognizing idols as the work of human hands (Is 40:18-20), called it "idol-meat" (see 1 Cor 8:1, 4; 10:19).
In addition to public sacrifices in the temples, there were also sacrificial rituals performed in private homes. Food remaining from such events was then consumed at regular meals. Would Christians invited by their pagan friends or neighbors be contaminated by such food (1 Cor 10:27-28)? Sometimes banquets were held by individuals or associations in temple courts, and Christians could be invited (1 Cor 8:10). Since such meals were associated with the god or gods worshiped in these temples, the question of pagan defilement was very acute, not only for Jewish Christians, but for Gentile Christians who were "still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol" (1 Cor 8:7).
Within this context the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 are to be understood. He affirms, in concert with those believers in Corinth who had arrived at true knowledge, a deeply held and central belief of his Jewish heritage: "There is no God but one"; and because this is the ultimate truth (see Deut 6:4; Is 44:8; 45:5), "an idol is nothing at all in the world" (1 Cor 8:4). From the perspective of both Jewish and Christian convictions (Deut 4:15-19; Is 40:18-19; Acts 17:29; Rom 1:18-19), idols represent no god; they represent nothing at all. That means therefore (at least on the level of true knowledge) that food offered to idols is in essence neutral.
Paul also recognizes, however, that human actions and thoughts and habits are often shaped and determined more by "perceived reality" than by "true reality," more by humanly created superstitions than by divine revelations. It is this recognition which stands behind the words about "so-called gods" and "gods and lords."
The words "so-called gods" appear one other time in the New Testament (in 2 Thess 2:4, though "god" is in the singular here), where Paul speaks of "the man of lawlessness" who "will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped," prior to the coming of the Lord. In both cases, Paul simply recognizes that the pagan world is involved in the belief in, and worship of, gods. Temples to the various Roman and Greek gods in Corinth were ample testimony to this reality. In neighboring Athens, according to Acts 17, Paul addressed the Athenians as "very religious," for he found there many "objects of worship," including an altar "to an unknown god."
Yet, while recognizing this pervasive reality in the pagan world, Paul emphatically qualifies it by claiming that these are only "called" gods. In other words, whatever the degree of reality or unreality assigned to these "objects of worship," what Christians mean by "God" when they speak of the God of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ cannot be claimed for these pagan idols.
Having acknowledged the pagan perception concerning the terrestrial and heavenly worlds as peopled by a host of divinities, and having qualified these as "so-called gods," Paul goes on to acknowledge that even though what pagans worship cannot be called "God," there is a reality that claims pagan allegiance and dominates their lives. The statement "there are [indeed] many `gods' and many `lords,' " (1 Cor 8:5) could be interpreted as a further acknowledgment of the spurious character of all those supposed beings whom the pagans defined as both "gods" and "lords." That interpretation would certainly seem to be confirmed by the next sentence, where the claim "yet for us there is but one God . . . and but one Lord" represents the direct Christian counterclaim.
Without setting this view aside, it is also possible that we see in the phrase "as indeed there are many `gods' and many `lords,' " a reflection of the Jewish and early Christian view of the world as populated by superterrestrial (not divine!) powers, angels, demons, largely opposed to God's purposes, enslaving humans and leading them into idolatry. In 2 Corinthians 4:4 Paul speaks of the head of this host of spiritual powers as "the god of this world [who] has blinded the minds of unbelievers." In Colossians 1:16 and Ephesians 1:21 Christ is pictured as above all "authority," and in Ephesians 6:10-11 Christians are seen as those who are engaged in spiritual struggle with powers that are clearly superterrestrial. It is also clear that Paul acknowledged the existence of angelic beings (1 Cor 4:9; 6:3), but just as clearly denounced the worship of such beings (Col 2:18).
In light of this larger view of reality, we can understand why Paul, in the continuation of the discussion about "meat offered to idols" in 1 Corinthians 10, maintains that though idols are not real (1 Cor 10:19), what pagans sacrifice to them they are actually, unwittingly, offering to demons. The point seems to be that the evil spirit-powers called demons use the pagans' idolatrous practices to separate the creature from the Creator.
For Paul, there is but one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ (1 Cor 8:6). The designations "gods" and "lords" for the objects of pagan worship are false and inappropriate. What Christians are to be concerned about, however, are forces and powers of evil against which they must stand "strong in the Lord and in his mighty power" (Eph 6:10).