“If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God.”
Perhaps no book of the Bible speaks as relevantly and directly into our culture as does Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. The church he addresses was submitting to cultural pressures, and thus to take on the “wisdom” of this world. The church had become obsessed with peripherals such as the gift of tongues and had lost focus on the central point of the gospel, the Resurrection, and the result it ought to produce in Christians with the new life, Love. Ah yes, Paul also addresses the abuse of sex: does that sound familiar? Our church culture suffers from many of the same vices as the Corinthian church of the first century A.D. and we would do well to heed Paul’s advice to that body of believers.
But let us take a closer look at the passage at hand. Is Paul advising Christians here to avoid wisdom? “Let us be foolish,” he proclaims in 3:18. This verse could justify the anti-intellectual sentiment so widely embraced in American evangelicalism. Maybe all that book-learnin’ is for the pagans and we should duck-and-cover in the Bible – and we shouldn’t try too hard to understand that either.
Of course, this is not what Paul is trying to get across here. Paul, here, is writing to a Corinthian church much plagued with Gnosticism. When you hear “Gnosticism,” think Da Vinci Code. The idea is that there is a secret knowledge that only the initiated, wise man can possess, and those who have the secret knowledge must carefully guard the secret because of the subversive nature of the so-called truths therein. (I’m sure there are other reasons as well.)
The Corinthian church, judging from numerous references to the state of that church in Paul’s letter, was beset with those trying to persuade the faithful that their “knowledge” was inferior. The very fact that such a problem occasioned a letter from the busy Paul leads us to believe the heresy had become serious indeed.
Paul’s strategy is to grant the Gnostic thesis that special knowledge is an important thing. It is not obtained, though, through mysteries, but by wholeheartedly accepting the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and submitting one’s mind completely to its truth.
This is the rational thing to do because “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor. 1:25) This provides the basis for Paul’s advice to “become a fool” in order to be wise. The idea is to adopt the precepts of God, which naturally seem foolish to the world which denies the basic premises of the Gospel.
Paul hits on this point again late in the book in his section on the Resurrection: “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:19) If Jesus’ resurrection is false, Christianity is a silly way to live life. Paul hangs everything his life had come to mean on this premise. Surely this is the source of his “great learning” and apparent madness. (Acts 26)
So how does a life of hard study correspond to “becoming a fool” in the way Paul advocates? This point is actually neither here nor there. Whether one embraces study or not, the Christian must hang all his hope on the Resurrection from the dead, Christ’s victory over the grave.
However, many of the great saints of the past also accumulated great learning – Paul is not the least example of such. What tends to happen when one learns a great deal, is that one begins to see how little one truly understands, unless one deludes oneself by means of comparison with others. When we consider the vast body of knowledge unattainable to man, we recognize the limitations of human strength and knowledge. The only logical thing to do at this point is come to the One who presides over the greatness and vastness of the universe and begin the eternal pursuit of Him in His goodness, truth and beauty.
C.S. Lewis once said that to understand grace one must try as hard as possible to be good. One will quickly find the impossibility of the task and thus recognize the blessedness of the gift of grace. Likewise, the student ought to pursue knowledge as far as he or she can, to find weakness and thus grow in the ability to embrace God’s strength.
Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.