I Corinthians 3:18-19

“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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

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.

12 Comments

  1. Andrew,

    As you say, the Corithian church had a lot of similarities with the churches today.

    When I was an avid follower of Strobel, Lewis, and Moreland I was always trying to argue around a lot of the passages in 1 Corinthians. Then one day I said to myself: “I am opposing God’s word!”

    What in your opinion was Paul referring to when he said, “If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know” (8:2)? Are you indicating that ‘supposing that you know something’ is neither here nor there?

    What in your opinion was Jesus refering to when he said: “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight.” ? Are you suggesting the failure of the wise to learn God’s hidden things has nothing to do with them being “wise and intelligent”?

    If God would have revealed his hidden things to the wise and learned, would that not be well pleasing in His sight? And if so, are people seeking lots of education in the church doing something not “well pleasing” to God?

    As for your comments on chapter 15, they reminded me of the way a certain Talbot professor addressed the issue, saying, “The apostle Paul hangs the gospel by a thread.”

    Dr. Hazen was basically saying, ‘We all have these personal views about who Jesus is. Whether or not we have these views has no effect on whether Jesus was raised from the dead.’ And so the single thread he alluded to is the pure objectivity of the ressurrection: it’s historical facticity without regard for who believes it.

    This is a complete failure to understand Paul and an attempt to undermine the role of faith in Christianity. You’ll notice the apologists are always saying, “Faith and reason go together! Faith and reason are basically the same thing!” (C.S. Lewis suggests in Mere Christianity that faith is merely our commitment to reason). But these men never mention faith except to undermine it (Lewis consistently and intentionally marginalizes the role of faith in his works … I can recall a number of examples off the top of my head). The thing about faith is that the apologists really don’t like it.

    In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is addressing the people who say there is no resurrection of the dead. Paul’s rebuke is to say, “Why are you believing in Jesus if you don’t believe in the resurection of the dead?”

    Paul’s response is not a historical claim about the resurrection, but simply a claim that their views are not worth having if they are so morbid.

    Of course Paul believes there was a historical resurrection, but the way God values Paul’s obedience is not in terms of how informed Paul was, but in how fully committed he was to believing it personally.

    As always, I eagerly await your response.

    Reply

  2. Looking over your post again, I see you answered my question about 1 Cor 8:2 by explaining 1:25. My bad.

    >> The idea is to adopt the precepts of God, which naturally seem foolish to the world which denies the basic premises of the Gospel.

    Reply

  3. makelovehappen, for the sake of clarity, can you provide your understanding of the definition of “faith”? Also, if you don’t believe that “Faith and reason go together” can you explain how you understand the relationship of reason to faith?

    Reply

  4. Here is how I understand the relationship between faith and reason. I do not wish to discuss the issue in abstract terms but in the spirit of God’s word, so I ask you to consider the narrative of Sarah hearing she would conceive a child.

    Some travelers appeared to Abraham and said, ‘The next time we return, your wife will be pregnant.’ At the time Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was well beyond “child-bearing years”.

    While Abraham hoped against hope that he would become the father of many nations, Sarah laughed. It isn’t hard to see why Sarah laughed, everyone can understand that.

    1) Women who are beyond child-bearing years do not have children.
    2) Sarah was beyond child-bearing years.
    Therefore:
    3) Sarah will soon bear a child.

    Thinking about the concept of “child-bearing” or Sarah’s age was not going to assist anyone in accepting the prophecy.

    Everyone can laugh … everyone can be a philosopher. The only ones who can understand the mystery of how God works are the ones who have faith. Abraham believed God and his faith was credited to him as righteousness.

    The relationship between Abraham’s (happy) view of the prophecy and Sarah’s (cynical) view of the prophecy is the relationship between faith and reason. (To be fair to Abraham and Sarah, they both laughed and believed at different times concerning the prophecy).

    The best reason can do is say: “I can accept this or I can reject it. I cannot do both.” I think Pascal would say something similar if you are a friend of his work.

    If God favors the intelligent he would not have presented Abraham and Sarah with a syllogism as difficult as the one listed above.

    I wish to hear someone explain how faith and reason go together, because to me they are totally different.

    Reply

  5. makelovehappen, thanks for your response.

    I actually think that the point of the prophecy of Isaac’s birth is to reveal God’s character in a new way to Abraham and Sarah, so that they could have a better belief (not just ‘head-belief’ but ‘heart-belief’) about God. As a result, their faith in Him would be strengthened.

    The reason that Sarah laughed, if you will, is that she didn’t understand a key truth about God:

    1) Women who are beyond child-bearing years do not have children.
    2) Sarah was beyond child-bearing years.
    *3) God can do all things.*
    4) Also, God wants to work supernaturally in the lives of Abraham and Sarah

    Therefore:
    3) Sarah will soon bear a child.

    I think that Abraham and Sarah’s faith was tested to the degree they trusted in points 3 and 4. But once they saw God fulfill his promise, they gained a new understanding or belief about God’s character. And as result, their faith to trust him in the future was strengthened.

    That said, makelovehappen, I’m still interested in what you think the definition of faith is. Can you let us know?

    Reply

  6. Faith is certainty of the unverifiable.

    The opposite of posivitism.

    Reply

  7. MakeLoveHappen,
    As usual, thank you for your thought provoking comment.

    I’m right with Elliot on this one. The object of faith is God. He hides from us, indeed, but it is not irrational to believe in Him or believe He can do all things.

    I think you go too far when you say “faith is certainty…” Faith is certainly not certain! But it is a kind of belief that we may have evidence for and build a case for.

    Your language is intensely Kirkegaardian, and you allude to SK not infrequently. I want to point you to this article on Fear and Trembling by a dear mentor of mine, Dr. Fred Sanders. I think he correctly identifies what is deeply profound and deeply dangerous in SK’s great work. Here is the link (I’m afraid I don’t know how to do HTML hyperlink tags): http://www.scriptoriumdaily.com/middlebrow/archives/s%c3%b8ren-tender-from-fearen-trembling/.

    I think this article will give us a jumping off point for further discussion, since, as far as I can tell from my reading of SK, Sanders is spot on.

    There’s a tendency to react to rationalism by denying rationality. Instead, I think we need to “save” rationality from a hy-jacking by rationalism and put it back in its proper place in the kingdom of God – which is a prominent place indeed. As Chesterton pointed out, denying rationality is a “suicide of thought,” which is tantamount to a suicide of a part of our souls. This is a matter upon which we cannot take too much care.

    Reply

  8. >> There’s a tendency to react to rationalism by denying rationality. Instead, I think we need to “save” rationality from a hy-jacking by rationalism and put it back in its proper place in the kingdom of God – which is a prominent place indeed.

    Your original post is distinctive in that it does not “throw the book” at reason, and you don’t seem to put it on a pedestal either. There is an anxiousness which lends itself to studying philosophy (we’re so close to explaining everything! Why are you talking about love at a time like this?), but I can’t find it in your post.

    You did seem to claim, however, that knowledge, philosophy, the System, was neither an advantage nor an obstacle to obedience. My response (though emphatic) was not intended to say, “Stop thinking!” as much as to challenge your view that knowledge itself could be obedience.

    That is to say, Paul’s great learning is not how he found favor with God.

    Reply

  9. >> I think you go too far when you say “faith is certainty…” Faith is certainly not certain! But it is a kind of belief that we may have evidence for and build a case for.

    Like that flute-player who swayed away the children of a village, I fear you may have been swayed by Lewis, Plato, and Aquinas.

    “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.”
    Hebrews 11:1-2

    If faith is certain of what we do not see, how is it certainly not certain?

    Reply

  10. Ah, we must distinguish. “Certainty” has two meanings, at least, that I’ve come across.

    One is what I will call “philosophical certainty” (or Cartesian certainty), which is the condition of indubitability. “I think”, is an indubitable, and thus certain proposition.

    The other is “psychological certainty”, which applies to most usages of the term. This works in propositions like, “I’m certain Mr. Bingley will marry Jane,” “She is certainly hungry,” or “President Bush was certain Saddam had IMB’s.” I think it was this sense in which the author of Hebrews used the word “certainty” to describe faith.

    When you used “certainty” in “faith is the certainty of the unverifiable”, I took you to mean the first way because of your philosophical background. Now I am sure (certain, even!) that you meant to use it in the second way. That makes more sense given your Kierkaagardian (or should I say Silentian) commitments.

    Lewis, Plato, and Aquinas argue for faith that isn’t certain in the techincal definition, i.e. faith in God is not indubitable. What they say about faith in the sense of psychological certainty is another matter. From what I know about the lives of each, they all had faith with certainty in certain ideas: Plato that the Good exists and Lewis and Aquinas that God exists.

    I’ve heard compelling arguments that Fear and Trembling is not written by a believer. SK used the pseudonym to show he didn’t actually believe everything he said in any particular work; he was a playing a part. Moreover, he was playing that part of a nonbeliever who knew Hegel was wrong about faith, i.e. that it wasn’t common sense, but something else. This is a limited project, and one must take care how much one incorporates into one’s Christianity.

    Anyway, I’m interested to hear more of your thoughts on the matter…

    Reply

  11. Andrew,

    I apologize for my late reply.

    A significant part of your last response is breaking up certainty into “technical” and “psychological”. This is important to observe because often times the people with technical, indubitable certainty are on closer inspection themselves a bit unsure. Pascal noted this when he said those who are led to Christianity by proofs seem excited at first but then seem very unsure about it. (This makes sense to me, but I’m still wondering where he found someone who was led to Christianity by proofs -perhaps it is a mythological sort of place or he is speaking in some kind of figurative way).

    Whereas the people who are psychologically certain often times think their views are (intellectually speaking) madness. One thinks of Tertullian: “It is absurd, therefore it is certain” And Neo: -“How do you know it will work?” -“Because it has never been done before.”

    You’ve mentioned Fear and Trembling a couple times in this thread and for the sake of berevity I have not commented. I especially liked Dr. Sander’s response to the work, but I neglected to find what he called ‘deeply dangerous’ except to say he doesn’t care for pious, subjective epistemologies (yet somehow manages to admire the knight of faith’s primitive obedience). I am not sure how distant his respect for the knight of faith is.

    You mention compelling arguments that the work was not done by a believer. What is fascinating to me about your description is you seem to portray SK as someone who admired Christianity but did not seek to imitate it, when this is the very criticism he used to attack the Danish Lutheran Church.

    At any rate, I request that you do a post on your reading of Fear and Trembling. I’d like to hear some of these arguments you mention and (at least) some of the many opinions you seem to have stirring up inside you. I started reading the book myself to persuade people out of existentialism and into Christianity but instead found the man I believe to be the real Jesus.

    Reply

  12. At any rate, I request that you do a post on your reading of Fear and Trembling. I’d like to hear some of these arguments you mention and (at least) some of the many opinions you seem to have stirring up inside you. I started reading the book myself to persuade people out of existentialism and into Christianity but instead found the man I believe to be the real Jesus.

    I’d love to write a post on Fear and Trembling and I will soon. I am a teacher and am swamped by grading, so it might take me a week or two to get it up there. I wanted to let you know why my reply might be a bit tardy and to beg your patience!

    Reply

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *