The Arrogance of Man’s Wisdom

As we heard about Jesus gathering some of his first disciples in the Gospel reading today, we also heard Paul gathering his initial salvo of arguments for his audience in Corinth.  The 1st letter to the Corinthians is an interesting book in that it is a snapshot of ordinary Christian life facing the challenges of the world.  The church in Corinth is made up of new believers – most of them probably 3 years old in Christ or less – and their relationships among themselves and with their founding Apostle, Paul, have become strained.  The whole book that we know as 1 Corinthians is Saint Paul’s major effort to correct their abuses, their mistakes, and their false beliefs.  The very opening to this letter, which we heard last week, is a standard polite greeting with a prayer of thanksgiving, common to nearly all of Paul’s letters, but the paragraph we heard today is where he begins to deal with the situation at hand.

Welcome to Corinth

Before we get into those specifics, I want to introduce you to the Corinthian city and church a bit first.  Corinth was an ancient Greek city located in a strategic plateau.  A couple miles to the East was the sea separating Greece and Turkey, and a couple miles to the West was the sea separating Greece and Italy.  This made Corinth a strategic city both in terms of protecting the rest of Greece to the South from invasion by land, and especially in terms of trade – rather than ships having to navigate the treacherous coastline around Greece they could unload their goods in Corinth and have them carried the few miles to the other coast.  In fact, small enough ships could be taken out of the water and dragged to the neighboring sea!  So Corinth was a very rich town in terms of money and culture as a result of this strategic location.  Of course, where there is lots of money and lots of culture, there tends to be lots of trouble.  One Bible commentator suggested we could think of Corinth as being a combination of today’s New York City, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas – a lot of cool things and a lot of shady things were going on.

If you know anything about Corinth from ancient Greek history, you can forget about it.  The old Corinth was destroyed, and after a century rebuilt by the Romans.  So the Corinth in the time of the New Testament was more of Roman colony than a bastion of Greek heritage, though the city did take on many characteristics of its previous incarnation.  As a new city, there were many people who had moved there for the express purpose of “making it big.”  Where there is opportunity, greed is quick to follow.  And so all the moral vices you might expect were being imported there pretty quickly.  It wasn’t quite the most “wretched hive of scum and villainy,” but it was a noteworthy problem city a far as morals are concerned.


Wikipedia’s nice picture of the fortifications of Acrocorinth

As for the culture and mentality of the people of Corinth, its Greco-Roman identity was a cosmopolitan outlook.  Religions and philosophies from all over the Roman Empire were brought in, as people traveled there in the hopes of finding patronage from the nouveau riche.  As such, itinerant teachers and philosophers were commonplace in Corinth, and that accounts in part for how Paul got such a quick audience when he first arrived there to preach the Gospel.  He was so successful there, according to Acts 18, that he remained there for a year and a half!  Clearly Paul was a popular traveling teacher, but how well did the Corinthians understand that the Gospel is a call to faith exclusive of all other faiths?  We’ll find out in a minute.

First let’s get this timeline sorted out.  Paul was in Corinth around the year 52AD.  After he left, another traveling teacher named Apollos spent time there, continuing the work Paul had begun.  It’s also likely that Peter visited Corinth with his wife shortly thereafter, in the early 50’s.  For a couple years the church in Corinth flourished under the guidance of these three great teachers, and the local leaders they raised up.  The exact sequence of events that followed is difficult to reconstruct, but at some point Paul sent a letter to the Corinthians to correct some issues, probably sexual misconduct that he’d heard about (1 Cor. 5:9).  The Corinthians, then, sent him a reply letter which indicated that they were not particularly penitent about the matter, and furthermore, they seemed to be questioning Paul’s authority to judge them.  Between this and a third-party report Paul received about the situation in Corinth, Paul was prompted to write a second, longer and more detailed, letter to them around the year 55AD.  That is what we have in the Bible called 1 Corinthians.  Although the precise sequence of events is not clear to us today, we do see that Paul clearly cites his sources, particularly that his third-party information came through “Chloe’s people” (1:11).  Even though we don’t know exactly who Chloe’s people are (if they’re family members, business associates, or something else), the Corinthians probably did, so Paul is establishing that he is not reacting to hearsay and gossip, but to a direct report of their situation.

What’s Wrong

So, what actually was the problem that prompted Paul to write 1 Corinthians?  Well, there were several problems in Corinth.  I find it best to group them into three categories.

First, the Corinthians had reverted to a Greco-Roman obsession with “wisdom” as “true spirituality.”  They were used to traveling teachers, and it was commonplace to receive the best of each philosophy these teachers taught and piece them together to form a robust and sophisticated spirituality.  Paul, Apollos, and others, had given them the Christian Gospel which they esteemed to be the highest divine wisdom, but they continued to treat it as human wisdom.  They focused on Paul’s superior insight into the divine and Apollos’ superior eloquence in preaching, and perhaps Peter’s force of personality, and began to lose track of the actual content and substance of what they taught.  They pursued wisdom and insight as merely intellectual matters, with little respect for the true focus of the Gospel, let alone its ramifications for Christian living.

Second, the Corinthian church was experiencing what we might call some class divides.  It seems there were a couple wealthy families vying for influence and power, accompanied with competing philosophical arguments about the Christian message.  This resulted particularly in some gross misconduct in their celebration of Holy Communion, to the point where Paul actually went so far as to say that their sacrament was invalid!  “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat” (11:20).  Money and the desire for control had sabotaged their worship, and Paul had to tell them to go eat at home, completely separating the Sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood from the fellowship meal that might have accompanied it.

The third problem the Corinthian Christians had was the classic Greek belief we call dualism.  Dualism is the belief that physical matter and existence is bad, and spiritual existence is good.  Salvation, or enlightenment, involves escaping from the shell of this body and ascending to the spiritual realms of true unfettered intelligence, knowledge, and being.  According to this view, there are two approaches to treating the body during this life: one is to violently subdue the body and constantly punish it because it is so evil – fasting, abstaining from wine and sex and other pleasures; the other is to go crazy and indulge all the desires of the flesh.  In either extreme, the underlying attitude is that the body doesn’t matter.  It’s temporary, it’s not the real you, and in due time you’ll be free of it forever.  Some parts of the Christian message sometimes sound a little like this dualist philosophy, and so every now and then it pops up in Christian thought – both in the Early Church as well as in our own day and age.  For the Corinthians, this manifested in two big ways: rampant sexual immorality (which Paul addresses in chapter 5), and a denial of the bodily resurrection of Christ and all people (which Paul addresses in chapter 15).

What we read from 1 Corinthians today is where Paul begins to deal with the first of these issues: the Greco-Roman obsession with “wisdom.”  As you know, and as Paul also knew full well, there is a lot in the Old Testament about wisdom.  Wisdom is so important in a couple books, in fact, that it’s personified as a woman, Sophia in Greek, and occasionally treated as an equal to God Almighty!  Christians have since come to understand this Lady Wisdom, or Sophia, to be an Old Testament picture of Jesus Christ.  But the Corinthians were not on board with any of this yet.  When they heard wisdom, they thought of worldly wisdom.  And so when Paul is condemning wisdom here in verse 17, it is specifically their worldly wisdom that he is condemning.  Paul will continue his attack on earthly wisdom in the next paragraph that we’ll hear next Sunday, so try to keep this in mind next week too!

More specifically, the problem with their version of earthly wisdom is that it runs away from the Gospel.  Paul’s specific words here, that it empties the Cross of its power, is the key indicator of what’s wrong here.  If the focus of your spirituality is to gain wisdom, then wisdom is the center of the Gospel, instead of the Cross.  And Paul is adamant, here and in all of his writings, that the Cross – the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus – is the heart of the Gospel, and without it, there is no Gospel at all.  So when Paul says he preached the Gospel “not with eloquent wisdom,” he is emphasizing that the power of the Gospel of Christ is not found in the effectiveness of the preacher, but in what the message points to – the power of the Cross!

And so, one obvious consequence of the Corinthians’ pursuit of worldly wisdom at the expense of the true Gospel is schism.  Paul repeats their petty slogans “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Peter, I am of Christ.”  Contrary to what you might imagine, these are not four distinct ‘parties’ in the church just yet.  Notice that they say I am of so-and-so, not we.  But these claims of allegiance, or these uses of others’ names, are indications that the congregation is beginning to pull apart.  If Paul doesn’t nip this in bud now, disaster will be inevitable.

Addressing Worldly Wisdom

You can tell that these goings-on in Corinth upset Paul, because he resorts to a little bit of sarcasm in verse 13.  “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”  Obviously the answer to each of these questions is no; Paul knows that, the Corinthians know that; he’s asking these questions to highlight just how absurd the Corinthians sound.  Of course Christ can’t be divided, or apportioned out as if he’s one teacher among many.  Of course Paul wasn’t crucified for the sins of the world, nor was any other Apostle.  Of course they weren’t baptized to be in union with Paul as their saving mediator.  In fact, just to hit this point home even harder, Paul expresses his thankfulness that he baptized so very few of the members of their church.  If he had been the one to do so, then perhaps they’d have some sort of weird excuse to form a “pro-Paul party,” but he didn’t baptize many of them, so they can’t.

Now, Paul isn’t putting down Baptism here.  In other places, he has a phenomenally high opinion of Holy Baptism.  His point in this moment is that it’s the preaching of the Gospel that is the key to true wisdom and spirituality.  He originally went to Corinth to preach the Gospel and make disciples.  Anyone can administer Holy Baptism; he had assistants with him from the start who probably handled much of that.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with having fond memories of the Pastor who baptized you or your children or your close friend; that measure of sentimentality is perfectly innocent.  What cannot stand is to imagine that the one who performed the Baptism somehow has a spiritual power over the baptized.  I’ve never heard of this being a problem in today’s world, but Paul seemed to want to make sure that the Corinthians didn’t wander in that false direction themselves.

So it’s the preaching of the Gospel that is of utmost importance.  It doesn’t matter who does the baptizing, it doesn’t matter how eloquent the preacher is; these are merely earthly factors that have no bearing on our eternal souls.  It’s all about the message of the Cross of Christ – do you believe it and do you trust that it has the power to change lives?

This is just the beginning of Paul’s treatment of the subject, though.  Next week we’ll read the rest of chapter 1, where Paul writes about the “foolishness of the Cross” in the eyes of worldly wisdom.  The week after we’ll read chapter 2, where Paul exalts the true wisdom of the Gospel.  And the week after that we’ll finish his primary argument in the beginning of chapter 3, where he corrects the Corinthians’ understanding of what it means to be a preacher of the Gospel.

Correcting Them and Us

Suffice it to say today that the power of the preaching of the Cross is superior to any alternative we might dream up.  The Corinthians, as we have seen, were particularly obsessed with wisdom and philosophy – they wanted to sound smart and wise and show off with eloquent and poetic sermons that impressed their hearers, regardless of actual Gospel content.  This interest in eloquence and form is certainly something that we see today.  Preachers of heretical things like the “Prosperity Gospel” make millions of dollars fleecing people telling them they can have their best life now and that God just wants them to be healthy, wealthy, and wise.  If they have a nice white smile, and the right clothes, and the right personality, people flock to them even though they’re feeding them poison sweetened with sugar.  On a less dramatic scale, but still a serious matter, is the popular obsession with Christian devotional books today.  There’s certainly a mixed bag of them out there ranging from excellent to useless, but the way the Christian book market seems to turn on them reveals that too many Christians are going to every length possible to read everything “Christian” they can besides the Bible itself.  The best Christian devotionals point us not just to Bible quotes, but point us to read the Bible itself.  Eloquence is attractive, but it’s the substance that we actually need.

Another exhortation Paul makes in this fight against chasing after popular wisdom is that the Corinthians be unified.  Some people today might read verse 10 and feel a little uncomfortable: if we’re all supposed to have the “same mind and same judgment,” what happens to our individuality?  It gets worse if you take a more literal translation of this verse, and you find that “all of you agree” actually says in Greek “say the same thing”!  This may sound like we’re to be parrots or robots, speaking the liturgy in perfect unison, brainwashed to be just part of the herd.  Of course, this is not quite accurate.  To “say the same thing” and to “agree” and to have the “same mind and same judgment” is to be united in the truth of Christ.  It’s not a picture of identical robots; it’s a picture of a community at peace.  After all, the Christian goal is to be like Christ.  That includes more than just your moral lifestyle, but also your understanding and knowledge of God.  The better people know God, the more they agree about God.  When we unite in worship to read the same hymns and psalms and creeds and prayers together, it’s kind of like a practice run or a training ground for being united in Christ.  If we instead continue to emphasize our own private revelations and insights – the Corinthians’ worldly wisdom – then we will never unite, but rather ultimately divide from one another.

And finally, we learn from Paul here that Jesus and his Apostles (and indeed all Christian leaders) are not commodities to be handled as our own possession.  We are called to possess Christ as our own Lord and Savior, but that’s an indication of a relationship in which we accept his loving Lordship.  The problem is when we take that type of ownership into the realm of control.  Some of the Corinthians had begun to identify themselves as followers of Paul, or Apollos, or Peter, or Christ.  In case it wasn’t clear from the start, none of those claimants were genuinely following any of those four men.  Paul made it expressly clear that following him in that sense was absurd, and we can be confident that the others would feel exactly the same as he.

What’s tricky about that situation is that some people started to one-up their neighbors, saying “You follow Paul, well I follow Christ!”  At the surface level this sounds like the right thing to do.  We are to follow Christ, not play favorites with one of his Apostles.  But we are not to seize the name of Christ as a commodity.  Those Corinthians were using the Name of Christ to justify their own party spirit and puff up their own boastfulness.  You can see this happening today: “Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Catholics, Baptists… whatever, I just follow Jesus.”  It’s all well and good to say you follow Jesus, but if that actually means that you reject the church you grew up in and are founding your own, then it begs the question if there’s more schismatic party spirit involved than actual faithful obedience to Christ himself.  Just look at the names of denominations formed in the past century: Assemblies of God, United Church of Christ, the Church of God, the Church of God in Christ… see the trend?  The good intention to return to the basics and unite in the name of Christ is easily used as a cloak to hide schismatic and divisive intentions and desires.

Instead we have to learn that neither Jesus nor anyone else is a commodity we can buy and control.  To do so is to succumb to the Corinthian error of vaunting our own wisdom and superior spirituality over others, including those who taught us the Gospel in the first place.  The call of the Christian is marked by obedience, faithfulness, and humility. We aren’t mindless robots awaiting reprograming from our conniving clergy, but we are sheep who are constantly threatened by well-disguised wolves.  If we are to be spiritually safe, to graze happily in green pastures, and to grow and thrive as the people of God, then we must stick together, we must not separate, and most of all we must trust the power of the Gospel of the Cross of Jesus Christ that called us together in the first place.  The Cross is where we were first drawn to Christ, and the Cross will lead us home.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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