The “thesis statement” of 1 Corinthians, the propositio, is found in vs. 1:10: to be united – to have the same telos, goal, purpose, direction, trajectory. How many times would you look at a church and say that ‘rivalry’ is the primary problem? Paul does.1
And, it seems that two different factions came to the Corinthian church and addressed Paul about various problems. In response, Paul addresses the various issues of the church, supplemented by his hammering away at Isaiah. The first three quotations he uses to supplement his letter are from Isaiah. (Eventually he circles back to this text as well – remember the quotations from 12-14 are from Isaiah as well, particularly Isaiah 28-29).
Often, what Paul is doing here throughout the letter is throwing out ‘catch phrases’ that the Corinthians themselves have been using, and so he is replying to their concerns. When he speaks of wisdom, he is responding to the way they define ‘wisdom’ (note, that though Paul is aware of Proverbs [Romans 12:20], Ecclesiastes [Romans 8], he does not respond to them from the Jewish wisdom tradition, probably because that is a category too close to what they are priding themselves upon having).2
The letter is fairly ad hoc, and we have to do our fair share of mirror-reading, interpreting the situation based upon what we think the Corinthian comments were. And, to do this he keeps re-defining Corinthian language. The same people who were claiming to be wise, are probably calling them the mature. Paul is re-defining their language in more accurate ways. You really want to be mature, spiritual? Let me tell you what that means.
So, we could carve up the main points of the letter into four or five topics, followed by a conclusion: (1) factions, 1-4, (2) morality, 5-7, (3) living in non-Christian world: 8-10, (4) questions of worship: 11-14, (5) and the importance of resurrection 15, (6) followed by Paul’s collection for the church in the city of Jerusalem: 16.
What each society tends to desire is wisdom (sofia), and signs (semeia). These two things define status. And, whatever those societies seek as the sign of status, God deliberately subverts. Whatever we seek as signs of status in our own society, God is subverting.
Both kinds societies judge the message of the cross as foolishness. Think of first-year students very passionate about socialogy, feeling sophisticated on account of their yearning for knowledge. The wisdom that is typical in the world in rebellion against God — not all wisdom people claim to hold in this age.
Paul is fighting not wisdom itself, but a particular attitude focused upon the word ‘wisdom’.Wisdom that represents the brokeness of this age is simply foolish in comparison with the wisdom of Christ.
And, Paul avoided preaching with eloquent wisdom in Corinth, for his own mode of teaching was meant to subvert this kind of wisdom. Paul did not say he gave up reason, or use skillful tools and speech. He did not use ornate and eloquent wisdom. He did not polish his message so that it would look impressive (different that having a message that’s rational or significant).3
Neither the Greek sophos (philosopher), or the Jewish grammateus (scribe), could have knowledge of God when they search for status. No matter what culture you are talking about, the sophisticated members tend to regard the cross as low status not worthy of attention. Paul’s point is that both parties are using their kinds of power and learning and status.
Paul does not avoid reason completely, nor eloquence is a humble sense, but wisdom that claims superiority over some else. Our wisdom ought to be humble wisdom – wisdom that brings about unity, not division.
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- The odd absence of ‘wisdom literature’ in 1 Cor. 1, can be described Paul in that he is opposing the kind of wisdom the Corinthians are addicted toward. To use even Jewish wisdom would correlate too closely to the category the Corinthians have in mind. (Paul in Colossians 1 seems to make the correlations to Proverbs 8 that he refrains from here in Corinthians)
- Some of the least-polished Youtube videos contain good truth, whereas the polished videos often possess the least truth content. We have to be careful in evaluating wisdom corresponding to how it looks or sounds