1 Corinthians 2:1-13
Paul notes (2:1-5) that he did not seek to make Christ known through clever words or conventional wisdom. He might have attempted to proclaim the mystery of God through lofty and highfalutin language, but instead he proclaimed only Jesus Christ and him crucified. Not only that, Paul remembers that he came to the Corinthians in physical weakness and may not have been the most effective public speaker. He notes that his proclamation of the gospel was not made with “plausible words of wisdom” that would appeal to the intellectuals of the Corinthian community, but was instead based on a demonstration of the Spirit of God. Paul argues that the reason he did this was that he didn’t want the Corinthians’ faith to rest on human wisdom (which, as he has already explained, has been made foolish through the Cross), but rather on the power of God.
In the next section (2:6-13), Paul backpedals a bit, saying that those who proclaim the gospel do indeed speak wisdom, but it is not the wisdom of human beings. No, it is God’s wisdom, which was decreed long ago and has only been revealed through the arrival of Jesus Christ. Paul notes that the rulers of this age, who are quite wise by human standards, could not have understood God’s wisdom, because otherwise they would not have crucified Jesus Christ, whom Paul calls “the Lord of glory.” Rather, it is those who have received the Spirit, those who are spiritual, who understand the wisdom of God. The Spirit of God searches “even the depths of God,” and helps those who are spiritual to understand the gifts that God has bestowed upon them. At this point in Paul’s argument, the Corinthians may have breathed a sigh of relief. Paul had been telling them that the wisdom of this world had been made foolish, and they were probably worried that Paul believed that their wisdom was worthless. But the Corinthians felt that they were the most spiritually mature people who had ever lived. Not only had they received the gospel, they had turned the gospel into sophisticated spiritual knowledge. So when Paul writes that God’s wisdom is taught by the Spirit to those who are spiritual, the Corinthians must have patted themselves on the back, knowing that Paul was finally speaking their language.
“It was not for our understanding, but for our will, that Christ came.” –George MacDonald
Paul has an uncanny ability to make preachers uncomfortable. When we preach, most of us prepare by wrestling with the text appointed for the day, combing through commentaries for interesting contextual tidbits, and laboriously crafting effective ways to illustrate the text. In other words, I think that most preachers would argue that a sermon can only be effective when it is well-crafted, perhaps when it contains “lofty words or wisdom.” The Curate’s Study at the Church of the Heavenly Rest is currently in the midst of a series about Christian apologists, who essentially use “plausible words of wisdom” to make a case for Christianity. Somewhat surprisingly, however, Paul claims that his initial proclamation of the gospel contained neither lofty words nor plausible arguments. I say this is surprising because he says this as he is in the process of laying out an argument for his gospel to the Corinthians. In any case, Paul argues that in his initial proclamation of the gospel, he only made known Christ and him crucified.
What are we to make of this? Is Paul disparaging knowledge entirely? Is he suggesting that any effort to preach a reasonable gospel is inherently flawed? I don’t think so. If we look at the body of Paul’s work in the New Testament, much of it is concerned with arguing that the gospel is reasonable. In Romans 1:16, Paul asserts, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” and then proceeds to unfold an argument for why he is not ashamed of it. I think that Paul’s insistence that he did not preach the gospel with lofty words is a response to the Corinthian attitude towards knowledge. The Corinthians overvalued knowledge to the point that they seemed to regard it as a part of their salvation, as if what they knew contributed to the redemption they had received through God in Christ. Paul’s objection, in other words, is that the Cross is sufficient; the Cross is the means by which the world is being reconciled to God. While knowledge has its place, it cannot be put on the same level as what God has done through Jesus Christ.
George MacDonald’s quotation illustrates Paul’s point well. While knowledge does have a place in the Christian faith, we cannot reason our way to salvation. Part of our call as Christians is to conform our will to that of Christ, to keep the Cross at the very center of our lives. We begin that process when we are baptized into Christ’s death and we continue that process every time we participate in Holy Communion. As we continue this Lenten pilgrimage, I invite you take an opportunity to consider how you are conforming your will to God’s. Think about how you might continue to keep the Cross of Christ central in your life.