Paul’s gospel undercuts the ecstatic individualism of the Corinthian Christians in two ways.
First, he assigns religious ecstasy a much lower status than they do. Paul is eager to credit glossolalia, for example, with its own inherent credibility. One can speak to God in strange tongues, indeed Paul is eager to have Christians do so. Yet that private ‘prayer language’ is of indifferent worth when placed alongside the pressing need to build up the church with clear teaching:
Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? It is the same way with lifeless instruments that produce sound, such as the flute or the harp. If they do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves; if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air.
It is important to grasp that Paul is not tilting here at the natural-supernatural axis and opting for the natural. He is not choosing the value of ordinary instruction over against divine communication. Prophesy, after all, is his preferred mode for ‘building up’ the church. That is hardly the practice of arid systematic theology over against the echo of God’s own voice among the assembled faithful. Interpretive attempts to reduce ‘prophecy’ to the mere ‘forthtelling’ of Christian instruction are tendentious and forced although—as with all reductionism—they fuel themselves with one portion of the facts.
Yet Paul does here underscore the life of the mind. As a medium for capturing the truth about God and his world and then aligning lives with that reality, the intellect is exceeded by no other human capacity. Paul is happy to honor it with this degree of priority, for his understanding of what it means to be human does not counterpose a pulsing spirituality to the dry and useless employment of the mind.
That would be to make Paul a late-twentieth-century airhead, a pose he refuses to strike. So speak to the mind, he urges his ever-fervent Corinthian colleagues. That is the point where authentic Christian alignment with God’s purposes begins and—one might also argue—ends.
Paul also privileges the community over the bona fide pleasure of pious ecstasy. Once again, the apostle does not disdain the latter. He merely reduces its stature in the overall scheme of God’s work in human community and human response to that intrusion:
Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church.
Paul would have those who follow his path into Christian practice to embrace all the ecstasy and private piety they can, so long as their lives are given over to building up the community into which grace has thrust them with all their egocentricities still intact.