Saturday, March 9, 2013

Essay 1—Cross and Unity—(2) Wisdom of the Cross–Part 1

Outline: E1.2-Wisdom of the Cross (1)
Passage: 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:2
Discussion Audio (1h30m)

Is Paul in favor of anti-intellectualism?  

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.[1]

This section of 1 Corinthians is sometimes used by Christians to discourage (in particular) exposure to secular knowledge, including but not limited to: literature, arts, philosophies, and sciences. It is sometimes used as a proof-text to promote the idea that any apparent conflict between biblical knowledge (whatever that really means) and “secular” knowledge must always be resolved in favor of the apparent biblical view (again, whatever that means). It is a bedrock and foundation for Christians who hold to anti-intellectualism of whatever degree.

We must ask ourselves, not, “What did Paul write?” but rather, “What does Paul mean?” (And I will concede here that this is already a Catch-22 for those who reject any kind of interpretive flexibility in regards to scripture.)

As we analyze this portion of 1 Corinthians this session and in the next, we will observe that Paul uses very polished and powerful rhetoric that includes forms and reasoning that come from both Jewish and Greek traditions. He weaves the patterns artfully and skillfully into his material so as to appeal to as broad an audience as he can.

For rhetoricians of his time, polished rhetoric may have been the end – for entertainment, for acclaim, and for making some money. For Paul, rhetoric is just the means, not the end, of the gospel. But Paul does not want poor or bad rhetoric to get in the way of the gospel, either. Paul does his best, in writing and in speech, to put the cross of Christ in the best light possible. But the cross is inherently foolish, weak, and a stumbling block. That’s what he means when he writes, “I didn’t come to you proclaiming the gospel with lofty speech or wisdom.”

Paul is not writing against good and excellent practice of reason, knowledge, and intellect. Paul is writing against minimizing or eliminating the cross of Christ, because of embarrassment or shame or appearing weak, in the proclamation of the gospel. The true gospel will always appear “weak” and “foolish” when compared to the world’s standards and expectations of power.

The Roman could boast of the power of empire. The Greek could boast of the greatness of Greek civilization. The Jew could boast in the covenant, the patriarchs, the law and much more… But for Paul the power and the wisdom of the cross made all such boasting meaningless…

[Paul affirms] that earthly power is not a mirror image of the power of God. Granted, righteously executed earthly power was not for Paul inherently evil… The problem emerges when individuals, communities and nations begin subtly to see their power as an extension of the power of God. Then “boasting” emerges, and as that happens, disaster ensues.[2]

[1] 1 Cor. 2:1-2, ESV
[2] Bailey, loc. 824

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