The Apostle Paul expertly deconstructs the wisdom of Corinth to present a new vision in Christianity.
Charred Root of Meaning
By Philipp W. Rosemann
The Foolishness of the Cross
Corinth was a city that thrived through trade. Located by the isthmus that links the Peloponnesian peninsula to the rest of Greece, it profited from the fact that shippers of goods from the eastern Mediterranean to Rome could avoid the hazards of the open sea by having their goods portaged across the isthmus, which is only a couple of miles wide. This geographic advantage brought Corinth a steady influx of traders, travelers and sailors, which created what we would call a “multicultural” society. Archaeologists have found evidence of shrines and temples that were associated with Greek and Egyptian religion, as well as the Roman imperial cult. A Jewish community existed at Corinth too, and even a temple dedicated to “all the gods,” lest any god be denied recognition.
The atmosphere created by the confluence of these elements made Corinth, in the words of J. Paul Sampley, into the ancient equivalent of “Sin City.” There were trade and travel, a vibrant social fabric and considerable wealth, but there was no deeply rooted culture. The division between the rich and the poor was large.
This is the picture that is reflected in Saint Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, composed in the early 50s. If at Antioch the Apostle had to deal with religious divisions over the Jewish heritage of the emerging Christian community, at Corinth the unrest in the “Jesus sect” was socially motivated. There were moral problems as well: “It is absolutely heard,” writes Paul, “that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as the like is not among the heathens” (1 Cor. 5:1). This is why chapter 5 of the epistle begins a long series of exhortations regarding moral shortcomings. Many of these sins are sexual in nature, but others concern economics and degraded social relations among believers in general. In chapter 6, for example, Paul admonishes the community to abstain from lawsuits against each other: “I speak to your shame. … Brother goeth to law with brother, and that before unbelievers” (6:5–6). The community not only fails to live up to the Sermon on the Mount—“Why do you not rather take wrong?” Paul asks (6:7)—it also takes its disputes out into the world, where judgments will be made upon the basis of secular principles and laws. Furthermore, such use of the courts to resolve disputes reflected, as well as exacerbated, economic rifts, because the law served the interests of the wealthy. Sampley has noted that, in the Greco-Roman world, “only the wealthy, only the very powerful few who sat atop the steep social pyramid,” were in a position to initiate civil court cases.
Having sketched out the situation to which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians, we turn back to his word regarding the foolishness of the cross. The passage is very strong, repeating the word “foolishness” and its cognates over and over:
“For the word of the cross, to them indeed that perish, is foolishness; but to them that are saved, that is, to us, it is the power of God. For it is written: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the prudence of the prudent I will reject (cf. Isa. 21:14). Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world (cf. Isa. 33:18)? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world, by wisdom, knew not God, it pleased God, by the foolishness of our preaching, to save them that believe. For both the Jews require signs, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling-block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: But unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For see your vocation, brethren, that there are not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble: But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the wise; and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong. And the base things of the world, and the things that are contemptible, hath God chosen, and things that are not, that he might bring to naught things that are: That no flesh should glory in his sight.” —1 Cor. 1:18–29
No one-dimensional interpretation of this pericope will do justice to its layers of meaning. The foolishness of the cross and the wisdom of the world are juxtaposed at several levels.
1. First, there is the socioeconomic level already discussed, which reflects the conditions and tensions within the Corinthian community to whom Paul’s letter is addressed: “For see your vocation, brethren, that there are not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble.” Drawing attention to the fact that the Corinthian community is largely composed of believers of low social status, Paul reminds its few wealthy members that God has shaken up the values of this world. These values do not count in the church; they have been suspended or even annulled. Did Jesus himself not die the death of a slave? There is a first “transvaluation of values” in this dimension of the passage.
2. The second transvaluation comes in the juxtaposition of worldly wisdom with the foolishness of the faith, and of Paul’s preaching the faith. Those who put their trust in the knowledge that they have acquired regarding the workings of the world will be disappointed, while those whom God has called will be saved. The emphasis on God’s call (v. 26; cf. 24) is crucial here: wisdom and prudence come from an effort of the subject to shape himself or herself—to acquire the right habits, as Aristotle would put it, in a community of (secular) virtue—whereas God’s call is gratuitous. It has the power to save even the lowliest fool who answers the call.
3. God’s call transgresses and annuls not only the division of the rich and the poor but—and here we are reminded of the central problem of the Epistle to the Galatians—also the division between Jews and gentiles. Equally shocked by the cross, albeit for different reasons, Jews and non-Jews are united in God’s call. Or, to phrase this more accurately, the Jew/non-Jew distinction is annulled and replaced by a new one: believer versus nonbeliever.
4. “The Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified”: in this fourth antithesis, we can discern a repudiation not only of the kind of worldly wisdom that would have characterized the wealthy members of the Corinthian church, but also of the more theoretical kind typically associated with the Greek philosophical tradition. Saint John Chrysostom interpreted the passage along these lines in his homilies on 1 Corinthians: “For Plato is cast out, not by some other wiser philosopher, but through an unlearned fisherman.” In this perspective, it would appear that God’s foolishness is a direct negation of philosophical wisdom.
5. But this is not the case. While Paul speaks of God’s foolishness, he also emphasizes that this divine “mania” is not simply opposed to wisdom. Rather, it constitutes a form of hyperwisdom, just as God’s weakness on the cross must properly be understood as a hyperpower: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” Theologians in the Eastern tradition like Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite have therefore interpreted the foolishness of 1 Corinthians in accordance with an apophatic theology, which negates positive attributes of the Godhead insofar as they reflect the limitations of creaturely language and thought; at another, higher, and properly ineffable level these attributes return, being reaffirmed. The foolishness of the cross, then, is taken to annul wisdom as ordinarily understood while pointing to the unspeakable transcendent wisdom that is properly God’s. This is how Pseudo-Dionysius elucidates the ascription of “foolishness” to God in The Divine Names (note, incidentally, the reference to Saint Paul as Dionysius’s teacher):
“This is something which was marvelously grasped by that truly divine man, my teacher and yours and the light of our common instructor. For this is what he said: “The foolishness of God is wiser than men.” Those words are true not only because all human thinking is a sort of error when compared with the solid permanence of the perfect divine thoughts but also because it is customary for theologians to apply negative terms to God, but contrary to the usual sense of deprivation. … Therefore let us supremely praise this foolish “Wisdom,” which has neither reason nor intelligence, and let us describe it as the Cause of all intelligence and reason, of all wisdom and understanding.”
The point of view from which Paul is able to declare the annulment and transcendence of worldly wisdom (in both its practical and more theoretical forms), together with the annulment and transcendence of worldly divisions (rich/poor, Jew/gentile), is eschatological: “This therefore I say, brethren; the time is short; it remaineth, that they also who have wives, be as if they had none; And they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as if they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; And they that use this world, as if they used it not: for the fashion of this world passeth away” (1 Cor. 7:29–31). In the next verse, the passage continues with the verse we quoted in the introduction: “He that is without a wife, is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord. …”
“The time is short,” says Paul, expecting the Lord to return soon. In the meantime, the reality of the world is not so much negated as suspended. The Corinthians are advised to live in the mode of the “as if not.” Yes, it is preferable not to have a wife rather than having one—but it doesn’t matter, in the end, as long as one lives as though one were not married. Similarly, it is surely preferable for a rich person to sell everything he or she has and give it to the poor, as the Lord himself commanded (Matt. 19:16–24); failing this determination and commitment, however, one should at least live as if one owned nothing. As Paul explains in Romans (4:17), it is God’s call that brings this parallel world into existence; for God “quickeneth the dead; and calleth those things that are not, as those that are.” At the same time, God annihilates that which is; to recall our Corinthians passage: “And the base things of the world, and the things that are contemptible, hath God chosen, and things that are not, that he might bring to naught things that are” (1 Cor. 1:28).
Paul’s theology of the “as if ” indicates a certain softening of how the emerging Christian community read God’s call, at least by comparison with many Gospel passages (which, of course, from a literary point of view, postdate the Pauline epistles). A passage like Matthew 10:34–37 (“I came not to send peace, but the sword”), considered in the previous chapter, suggests that following Jesus requires a radical departure from the values of the world: a genuine transgression. For Paul, writing after Jesus’s death and resurrection, in a state of readiness for the second coming, God’s call puts the world into suspense. We should live as though the kingdom had already arrived; but it has not.
Excerpted from Charred Root of Meaning: Continuity, Transgression, and the Other in Christian Tradition by Philipp W. Rosemann (Eerdmans, 2018). Used with permission. All rights reserved.