Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
This is one of those New Testament passages many of us know.
If we’re honest, we have this nagging itch that perhaps it hasn’t sunk in completely. I am inclined to think of the disciples in Mark 8-10. After Jesus had been going over the significance of suffering, reversal, and bearing one’s cross, they chime up — more than once — asking about their 15 seconds of fame. Jesus’ message of kingdom reversal stands right in front of them, yet they can’t quite climb out of their present-world-shaped-reality to plant both feet into it.
The NRSV reads: “for the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … we proclaim Christ crucified … the power of God and the wisdom of God; for God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
To this perhaps we are inclined to give a resounding, “Yes!” When the world around does not prize the church and its message as much as it does the newest Super Bowl commercial, we can hold our heads high: we’re on the side of God’s foolishness! We will win! It’s easy to find hope and promise in this passage. It’s much more difficult to let its startling message shape our lives.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul faces commonplace attitudes and praxis — the stuff that flies under the radar most of the time. This is exactly what makes this passage so difficult to employ, because its message will threaten our very modes of thinking about things.
Paul writes these words in a section of 1 Corinthians that interpreters have had difficulty situating. Is this part of Paul’s first main argumentative movement? Or perhaps Paul is establishing the overall thesis and theme of the letter. How we understand where these words fit makes some difference. For if Paul is setting out something significant thematically for the rest of the letter, this section bears a different significance than it would if it only pertained to the one issue of factionalism (1:10-17).
I am inclined to see this section in 1 Corinthians in a more complex way. Paul clearly addresses the issue of factionalism in 1:10-17, and it carries through to chapter 4. But Paul constructs the entire letter so that this first section builds a foundation for the rest of the letter. Presumably Paul could respond in any number of ways to the problem of factionalism. But what’s he to do? He draws attention to baptism, the entrance into life in Christ. When we jump to the end of the letter, we see that Paul takes up the issue of belief in the resurrection of the body. Paul bookends 1 Corinthians by discussing the entrance into the life of faith at the beginning, and the completion of the faith life at the end. In the between chapters he deals with all sorts of issues relating to the life lived “in between.”
Paul addresses factionalism through the lens of baptism to say something about the very nature of the life into which the Corinthian believers have been baptized. Our passage here stands as a central part of what Paul says about the nature of the life of faith. Paul is clear: “Foolishness! That’s the nature of the life into which you’ve entered! It’s foolishness, I tell you! Hahahaha!” (cue maniacal laugh.)
The overall ‘thesis’ of 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 is found in verse 18. Notice the contrast: the message of the cross is either seen as “foolishness” or as the “power of God.” Not much room for the favored postmodern grey. The contrast posits two completely different ways of reading the world and living in it. The life of faith into which those in Corinth have been baptized participates in an entirely new thing brought about by God, and it overturns long established categories and evaluations of “wisdom” and “power.” I think of Peter Venkman (played by Bill Murray) in the 1984 movie Ghostbusters. When talking about the impending invasion of the evil supernatural world and its consequences, Venkman exclaims, “Dogs and cats living together … mass hysteria!” Of course Paul is not talking about the entrance of evil into the world, but they share the point that things taken for granted as “normal” are overturned. The cross of Christ does this. As Roy Harrisville writes (in a very clearly and effectively argued book), “the death of Jesus … was the ‘anomaly’ that threatened allegiance to whatever language- and thought-forms (the New Testament writers and their audiences) may have inherited, and that required a new model, or ‘paradigm,’ by which to see themselves, to see others, and to see God.”1
Importantly, Paul does not abandon common ideas of the day, even when overturning them. Paul uses the word “wisdom” and its cognates nine times in these eight verses. It was commonly associated with the divine ordering things and a fundamental grasp of reality — “knowledge of things human and divine.”2 This “knowledge” does not belong merely in the cerebral realm. “Wisdom” and its pursuit fundamentally had to do with daily life; knowledge of things human and divine only mattered because it set the course for how to exist. Second Temple Jewish writers inserted the Torah into this equation.
Paul takes the language of “wisdom” and subjects it to the cross, which now has become the criterion, the benchmark, for understanding and for grasping reality. The “foolishness of the cross” redefines nothing less than the ordering of the world. One can imagine the response: “You mean to say that the way we’ve been doing things, the lens through which we’ve been interpreting the world around us is … NOT wisdom?” Yes. Paul means just that. Through the human-devised world’s “wisdom” God revealed in Christ is unknowable.
How does this play out? Well, in 1 Corinthians Paul wrestles against the very fabric of first century worldview and praxis — the ways they had always known to operate in this world. Such wisdom might have looked like this: Those with the most flair and persona of authority will come out on top. Look out for yourself and the honor of your own group. Whatever you do, just be sure to make your social class known. Make sure those below you remain there, but at the same time make yourself look good and benevolent. If you have “knowledge,” it means you can really act as you please, especially if your social class helps you. You who are of greater status in this community — you should have greater influence and the first seat in the community’s gatherings. Pursue the things that are viewed as more “spiritual” and make sure it is known to all — this means you are closer to God.
How does it play out for us? Where do we naturally find “wisdom” today, where do we recognize power and prestige? Spirituality? Closeness to God? What is the “wisdom” that drives our church ship? Do we follow the cultural “wisdom” that better and more attractive use of technology will help with numbers at church? Do those who have been “members” longer have more say? Do those who contribute more financially have more influence? Is it important to make your status as clergy known where you go? How do we live out “church leader” status in our communities? Do we value the business-savvy people who have “made it” more than others? Do we seek to build relationships with those in the community who will only benefit our congregation? Are we living displays of God’s foolishness, in ways that really play out as “foolishness” in our world?
1 Roy A. Harrisville, Fracture: The Cross as Irreconcilable in the Language and Thought of the Biblical Writers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) 271.
2 Cicero, De Officiis, 2.2.5.