Wisdom of This World and the Wisdom of God

1. Problems in the Corinthian church:
– Groupism (1.11-12): These groups are formed around influential figures such as Peter, Apollos, Paul. The members are boasting about their leaders (3.21). They are“puffed up in favour of one against another” (I Cor. 4.6). They are involved in comparing their leader with other leaders.
– There was also quarrelling and jealousy in the church (I Cor. 3.3).

2. Root cause for this situation

I Cor 1.17 “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.”

In this verse Paul mentions “wisdom” for the first time. The words “wisdom” and “wise” occur over twenty five times in the first three chapters. Paul calls the wisdom mentioned in 1.17 as “wisdom of word (eloquent wisdom)” (1.17), “wisdom of the world” (1.20), “human wisdom” (1.25, 2.13), “wisdom of this age” (2.6), and “wisdom of the rulers of this age” (2.6).

This is the wisdom which Corinthians claim to be possessing: in 3.18 Paul says “If you think that you are wise in this age…For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”

What is this “wisdom”?

“Wisdom” refers to rhetorical wisdom, which is characterised by eloquence and logic – logical and clever arguments, rhetorical skills or oratorical skills. Wealthy people and people of high status learned rhetorical wisdom. In the Greco-Roman society rhetorical wisdom indicates high socio-economic status. This is a highly valued feature for recognition and reputation.

That means human wisdom had connotations of importance or worth or valuable in the Greco-Roman society. In other words, there is a social value and power associated with this kind of wisdom (I Cor. 2.5 cf. 1.17). Thus, it constituted a social definition of power rooted in the values cultivated by those in the society, who had wealth, status and honour.

The Corinthian church has made “human wisdom” its value. That means, wealth, status and nobility acquired significance in the church. Thus, the church allowed the value system of the outside society to control its life. The influence of the Greek rhetorical wisdom made them to value wealth, power and status. That means, the root cause for factionalism in the Corinthian church is the influence of the value system of the outside society. The result is “quarrelling and jealousy” within the church (3.3) and “boasting about human leaders” (3.21) or “puffing up in favour of one against the other” (4.6).
What do their present behaviour and value system signify?

I Cor. 3.1-4

Paul charges that “jealousy and quarrelling” among them express that they are “of flesh” and “behaving according to human inclinations” (3.3). The literal translation is “walking according to man”. Their sloganeering conveys that they are “merely human” (3.4). In Paul’s letters “walking” usually refers to one’s way of living or lifestyle (cf. 7.17). Their behaviour confirms that they are “people of the flesh” (3.1).

“Flesh” refers to “this worldly existence” or living with the perspective and value system of this world. That is why human wisdom has become valuable in the church.

“Wisdom” is in contrast with God’s wisdom

Paul says that human wisdom is in contrast with God’s wisdom. In I Cor. 1.17 Paul contrasts the “wisdom of word” with the cross of Christ. Paul explains this contrast from 1.18 onwards. That is why v. 18 starts with “For”. In 1.18-2.16 Paul elaborates on this contrast by making a series of arguments.

Paul wants to make them realise that their present perspective and value system associated with the human wisdom are in contradiction to God’s perspective and value system: I Cor. 1.18-2.5

1. Paul first turns their attention to the content of the gospel, which is the cross of Christ. The cross of Christ is “foolishness” and “weakness” for the human wisdom, whereas it is “wisdom of God” and “power of God” (1.18, 23-25).

2. Then he turns their attention to Corinthians themselves whom God has called (1.26-28). Paul is asking them, “Consider your own call”. Although this refers to their call to salvation, Paul is concerned more about their status at the time of their call. I Cor. 1.26 “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” “Human standards” qualifies all three – wise, powerful and noble birth.

God chose what was considered “foolish” “weak”, and “low” by human standards (1.27-28). That means, when God called them he did not show any regard to their present value system – human wisdom, wealth, status and nobility. That means, God’s perspective and value system are different from their present perspective and value system.

3. Paul turns their attention to the basis of their faith when they first heard the gospel (2.1-5).

Paul gives the existence of Corinthians as Christians as an evidence for the power of the gospel of the crucified Christ. He says, it was not his rhetorical skills that persuaded them (2.4). He further says, “I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (2.3). However, his proclamation was “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (2.5). Here “Spirit” and “power” are not two separate words. Paul uses these two words interchangeably. To speak of spirit means to speak of power. So here, it is not “spirit and power” but “spirit, that is, power”. The evidence for the power of the Spirit in the gospel of the crucified Christ lies in the very conversion of the Corinthians.

Paul tries to make Corinthians to see that their own existence as Christians stands in total contradiction to their present perspective, value system and conduct.

So, what is evident in the Corinthian church?

In I Cor 2.1-2 Paul says, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

In I Cor 2.2 Paul uses the word “Know” (oida). The same word is used in II Cor. 5.16: “From now on, therefore, we know no one from a human point view, even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.”

What Paul is talking about, here, is two mutually exclusive bases of knowledge. Our perspective and value system come from the basis of knowledge. One of the bases is “flesh”. Before conversion Paul had “flesh” as the basis of his knowledge. Paul viewed Jesus Christ from this perspective. He saw crucified Christ as one cursed by God. That was why he rejected Jesus Christ as God’s messiah and so persecuted the church. However, his conversion changed the basis of his knowledge. Now the basis of his knowledge is “the cross of Jesus Christ”. His perspective and value system are based on the cross of Christ. That is why for Paul, the crucified Christ is the wisdom and power of God.

So what is the problem of Corinthians? I call this epistemological crisis. Even though the message of the crucified Christ has led them to faith, their basis of knowledge is not the cross of Christ, but flesh.

That means, there is an existential tension in the Corinthian church as a result of trying to live in two diametrically opposite worlds (I Cor. 3.1).

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