The Cross and the end of Wisdom

It is my observation or at least I have a strong impression that contemporary Christians love wisdom or at least they love the idea of wisdom and being wise. Hardly a weekend goes by without a conference being held somewhere in Sydney (preferably at some suitably national park-esque conference centre) at which Christians can gather to taste the wisdom of the great and the good on a smorgasbord of subjects. The selections include everything from how to be a leader-entrepreneur-evangelist-preacher or a contemporavent (both contemporary and relevant) parent ;/or spouse, right through to the finer aspects of tasting a beer, dissecting a side of beef or cooking your way to the kingdom of God!

At a basic level there is certainly nothing wrong with such pursuits after all, the Bible exhorts us to “get wisdom” (Prov.16:16). However, there is also nothing especially Christian about this desire for wisdom considering we live in a culture ruled by the maxims of Nietzsche who said, roughly, Don t tell me what is good, just tell what is good to know. Sydney culture in general is extremely pragmatic as we all, as individuals, get about the business of constructing the good life for ourselves and/or our families. It is the doers in our society that are the winners: the biggest home renovating, fat busting, bargain hunting, Rafter packing, Masterchef celebrities. It is in this context of a “how-to culture” that the gospel has some rather pointed questions for us to consider on the topic of wisdom. One that springs to mind comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, “Hasn t God made the world’s wisdom foolish?” (1 Cor.1:20)

Let’s put the question in context. The verse flows on hard from the mention of factionalism in the church at Corinth (vv.10-17) and marks a transition to a foundational principle that distinguish Paul’s message and teaching from the mindset of the Corinthians. In this early part of the letter Paul is keen to point out that his message is delivered in a manner that is distinct in the Corinthian setting. Perhaps more generally, there is something fundamentally counter-intuitive about wisdom from God in any setting. Why might Paul be writing to the Corinthians like this?

From an historical point of view, as far as we can tell, Corinth was an important Greek city in which the philosophy of the Sophists was extremely influential. The Sophists were a loose group of intellectuals who had been questioning anyone’s claims to know the truth as far back as 500 BC. They were the original self-help gurus who sold their version of philosophy to rich families in Athens, especially their sons. For example, Protagoras (490-429 BC) famous saying was that human beliefs are their own invention relative to their own time and space. People do things out of self-preservation or expediency even in a democracy. Gorgias (483-375 BC) went even further stating not only that law and morality are merely human conventions, but also that the clever man should put himself above the law, be strong and dominate others in his search for self-gratification. Thrasymachus (459-400 BC) follows much the same line as Protagoras and Gorgias – that morality and knowledge are relative – but develops Gorgias by saying that it is the powerful who place themselves above their own laws and conventions in order to enforce them upon the weak. He is the original Mr “might-is-right.” If the Sophists of Corinth in Paul’s day (the Greeks who seek wisdom 1 Cor.1:22) were anything like these characters it was because they were pragmatists. That is, they were experts in advising aspiring people how to make the most of their position for their own gain – how to achieve the good in the church like in the city.

Now of course, we can’t forget that the Corinthian church had a sizeable Jewish population as well. What we glean from the Acts account is that there was both a significant mix of Jews and Greeks in the church and that the Jews in the city were among the chief antagonists of Paul’s ministry (Acts 18:1-17). Still, according to Luke there were a substantial number of influential Jews who came from the Corinthian synagogue – the ruler of the synagogue to name one. So Paul has to preach in a context with a rich history or culture of wisdom from both Greek and Jewish sources

Coming back to chapter 1 of first Corinthians, Paul writes that the message of the cross divides the world into two groups – those being saved and those being destroyed: “To those who are perishing the message of the cross is foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is God’s power” (v.18) As mentioned, the Corinthians had fallen into some kind of partisan politics or tribal rivalries advocating various heroes – Paul, Apollos or Peter. Paul reminds them, however that the message of the cross creates only one division and that between life and death. The message of the cross doesn t create personal preferences or life-style choices. It’s not a matter of cats or dogs, ristretto v latte or even really serious things like Mac v PC. As Paul wrote in his second letter to that church: “To some we are a scent of death leading to death, but to others, a scent of life leading to life” (2 Cor.2:16).

The Corinthians needed to know that it was always God’s intention to create this division between life and death via the message of the cross. Paul writes that centuries before Good Friday the prophet Isaiah foresaw the devastating effects that the message of the cross would have on any attempts at wisdom that were contrary to God’s: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the understanding of the experts” (v.19 Cf. Is.29:10) God thwarts the attempts of the wise to counter the message of the cross in the same way that he confused the false prophets and leaders of Israel in Isaiah’s time. God had always intended to undermine, deconstruct, to nullify – in fact, to curse the wisdom of the world via the preaching of the cross.

Where is the philosopher? Where is the expert in the law? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached. (1 Cor.1:20;21)

Like a hunter setting s trap for his prey, God shrewdly planted the cross in the earth as a snare for the wordly wise (Cf. Acts 2:23)

The great irony of the cross’ message is that the divisions created by God’s wisdom dissolve previous worldly divisions, “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom” (1 Cor.1:23) When it came to the cross, both Jewish and Greek wisdom (thought they would have seen themselves as different as chalk and cheese) are in their own way, rendered foolish by the wisdom of God in the event of the cross. The cross was a stumbling block to the Jewish mindset that continuously sought some kind of spectacular divine intervention to substantiate the promises of God. Consider the events recorded in John 6. Just after Jesus has fed the 5000 men in the wilderness, he tells the crowd that in order to do the works of God the people must believe in the One whom God sent. Someone from the crowd responds with these extraordinary words: What sign then are You going to do so we may see and believe You? they asked. What are You going to perform?” (Jn.6:30) Thankfully John does not record the facial expression of the Lord at this point which I tend to think must have been something like head-shaking exasperation at the very least. The crucified Messiah was not the sign that the Jews were seeking. It was instead a cause of much stumbling, the Lukan account of which is recorded as violent opposition (e.g. Acts 17:1-15). The Jews simply refused to believe that Jesus was the Messiah of God

As for the Greeks, especially if they were influenced by Sophism, the notion that someone might gain any kind of social capital or social advancement by dying a slaves death is either utter absurdity or totally offensive. Beyond this from a Greek perspective (as we see in Acts 17 when Paul was in Athens) it is fundamentally paradoxical that the divine could somehow have taken form in the created world – let alone suffer death at the hands of corruptible creatures. I picture that look of utter distain that we see from time to time on the faces of the more prominent New Atheists.

In the light of both these kinds of wisdom, the cross of the Lord Jesus – the executioners gibbet upon which he was enthroned and lifted up into the heavens – from the perspective of both these earthly forms of wisdom the cross is a cause for scandal, outrage and indignation. Yet says Paul, in the amazing grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and out of the steadfast Love of the Father, the cross is the power to bring the dead – both Jews and Greeks -to life: to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor.1:24;25) The answer to Paul’s question, Hasn t God made he world’s wisdom foolish? is a resounding Yes! The cross of the Lord Jesus and the apostolic testimony to this event proves beyond reasonable doubt not just that God’s ways are different, but more that God’s ways of doing things turn worldly wisdom on it’s head.

For us, the wisdom of the cross implies that we should think twice about how the message of the Lord Jesus works for us in our Christian communities and in relation to the unsaved world. In Corinth it would seem that all their wisdom was bound up with notions of worldly power and success but God’s ways are so far above this because His saving actions for us reach so far below it (1 Cor.1:28). Whether it is the drive to claim that our [church?] kitchen rules or just wanting God to do something miraculous so that we feel like we re on the winning side, Sydney Christians also need to re-learn what it means to be wise. The heterogenous unity principle that distinguishes the body of Christ is life as opposed to death. We don t trust the promises of God in the gospel because they work, we trust them because they are true. That is, Jesus is who he claims to be and he has done for us what only he can do – restore us to a relationship of blessing with God as Father. This does not make the gospel an ideology to which we devote ourselves regardless of the circumstances. Instead we hold as a gift from God the fact that Christianity touches the ground when the Son of God leaves a blood trail in the dirt of Palestinian hill and His Spirit reveals these things to us. (1 Cor.2:10ff.)

Church Life and Practice

‘Eight way humility can become our greatest friend’ in Let the word do the work: Essays in honour of Phillip D. Jensen (Matthias Media) 2015 ed. P.G. Bolt

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