Saturday, December 17, 2011

"Reason" and the Word of the Cross

Ho Logos tou staurou is an interesting phrase. The word of the cross is both foolishness from one perspective and powerful from another. The word of the cross is synonymous with preaching the gospel. Paul says in I Cor. 1:18, “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Notice the epexegetical “for.” This word serves as an explanation for the statement Paul just made. So, move your finger up the page to v. 17. There, Paul says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.” First, notice that Paul came to preach the gospel. It is this preaching of the gospel that Paul also calls, “the word of the cross.” There can be little doubt that Paul thinks of the gospel of Christ as the word of the cross. Read these two verses again and note how Paul draws a distinction between human reason and the gospel. There can be little doubt that Paul intentionally set up his argument to proceed along these lines.

Human beings are supposedly rational creatures. We have a “way of thinking” about things in order to make sense of them. God created human beings with the propensity to think in an orderly way. Reason imposes on all human cogitation norms that govern the orderliness of human thought. Rationalist are so enamored with human reason that they contend that all knowledge comes through it. Over the centuries, philosophers and theologians have undertaken the task of understanding how human reason and biblical faith relate to one another. Since reason is the human behavior of thinking in a certain sense, it follows that one must ask the question, how then does faith and regeneration impact how we reason as Christians? Is “reasoning” a neutral activity, unaffected by the sin nature? Reformed theologians and philosophers would answer in the negative as would I. Unbelievers and believers reason differently. The presuppositions that support the foundations of thought in the believer are antithetical to those that support the foundations of thought in the unbeliever. It is along these lines that we will proceed to discuss I Cor. 1:17-20.

The context in which Paul writes has to do with worldly group associations within the Christian community. The Corinthian believers were proud to be associated with Peter, Paul, or Apollos. Somehow, they thought such identification improved their social status. Paul is pleased to say that he had baptized almost none of them. Now, the Corinthian church was located near Athens and as one might expect, she came with all sorts of philosophies and speculations. Wisdom was elevated to a very prominent place in this society. This is not unlike our own culture. Humans have desired to elevate human reason from the time of the fall to present day. There are apologetic methods that place reason at the center of their argument. They wrongly believe that eloquent arguments based on sound human reason should be used to compliment the preaching of the gospel and that these methods increase the effectiveness of the gospel. I am going to argue that Paul does not leave us with the impression that he would have agreed with such methods.

Paul actually infers that human reason, apart from Christ has little to commend it when it comes to the Christian message. He argues that he deliberately did not engage in Sophia logou, wise words or words of wisdom, or cleverness of speech. Why not? He tells us clearly why not! So that he would not render void the cross of Christ! What does he mean, “render void.” The word void kenoo and it means to make powerless, to divest of privilege. Paul appears to say that the methods of human reason if employed to spread the gospel actually make the gospel powerless. This runs contrary to many apologetic methods, but this is not the only place Paul speaks in this manner. Moreover, this position makes complete sense in the light of other truths asserted in various portions of the sacred text. Paul preached a simple message so that the cross would be not be made powerless.

Why is this so? Paul tells us in v. 18. He explains the reason for why this stunning revelation. It is because the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. The Greek word is moria. It means nonsense, foolishness, senseless. In other words, the preaching of the gospel makes absolutely no sense to those who are perishing. We see this is the Athenian response to Paul’s assertions about a resurrection! “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer.” (Acts 17:31) We spend a great deal of time attempting to make the gospel more reasonable to people that the gospel itself says will find it foolish. This raises the question around the need to make the Christian message more reasonable. Do we need “the word of the cross” to sound more reasonable or is it a legitimate goal to make it more reasonable to those that the gospel itself admits would find it foolish. I think more needs to be said about this subject, but space requires that I save that thorny issue for another post.

There are three types of people that are put to shame by the “word of the cross:” the wise man, the scribe, and the debater. These three groups likely refer to very specific groups in Greco-Roman culture. The wise man, likely refers to the Greek philosophers of the day. Their impetuous search for wisdom and even new views is described by Luke in Acts 17:21 where he says they spent their time in telling or hearing something new. Paul says the Christian message leaves the great Greek philosopher without anything to contemplate. God has demonstrated that for all his philosophizing, he knows nothing. His complex and exhaustive or exhausting inquiries have been brought to nothing.

The second, group, the grammateus likely refers to Jewish lawyers, who were the experts in all matters pertaining to the Law, or Moses. It word refers to a person who has attained a high level of education or expertise in a certain field or discipline. It occurs 63 times in the NT and once it refers to the town clerk. The remainder of the time it appears to refer to the Jewish experts of the Mosaic Law. These were the religious experts par excellence in Paul’s day. They were the top scholars in the land. According to Paul, the word of the cross demonstrated precisely what they did not know about God and His divine revelation.

The final group Paul calls, sudzetetes. The word appears only once in the NT. It also appears once in Ignatius to the Ephesians as he quotes this verse. The word means a disputant, or debater. The verb means to contend with persistence for a point of view. Whether or not Paul intends this to be a separate group from the previous is debatable. Rhetorical skill was highly valued in this culture and it is possible that Paul had such in mind when he mentioned this last group. The point is that these men are closely associated with ten sophian tou kosmou, the wisdom of the world. The very foundation upon which the existence of these groups thrive, God has made foolish. Literally, God has caused the wisdom of this word, its method of reasoning, its intellectual prowess to become nonsense, devoid of meaning.

I will continue in Paul’s polemic against worldly reasoning in my next post. Suffice it to say, that if we are going to interact with the world in apologetic fashion, we must come to grips with what Paul is asserting to the believers at Corinth regarding the world’s capacity to reason in a way that can make sense of the gospel without reforming their reason. It would be proper to say that there is nothing wrong with the world concluding that your Christian message is absurd. Paul contends that part of the Christian message is that the world will find the Christian message nonsensical. This is not necessarily proof you got it right of course. However, if the world considers your message very sensible and agrees with it, this is a serious indication that you have got something wrong. Perhaps making the “word of the cross” more sensible to the world has more to do with our own insecurities and uneasiness about the gospel and its relationship to our ego that it does about honoring God by effectively presenting His truth. Think about that.

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