[This series of notes is on 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16; the previous note dealt with 1:29-31, esp. verse 30]
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
“…(so) that your trust should not be in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (v. 5)
This verse concludes the first (autobiographical) statement that opens chapter 2; it has important points of contact with the prior narration (narratio) in vv. 11-17 (see esp. verse 17). I have already discussed 2:1ff as part of a series on the use of the word musth/rion (“secret”) in the New Testament. Here we might supplement that discussion by summarizing the components of vv. 1-5:
Verse 1—Paul continues the (dualistic) contrast of 1:18ff by applying it to his own ministry of preaching the Gospel (to the Corinthians). When he came to them (“I came”, h@lqon), Paul gave/brought down as a message (i.e. “declaring, announcing”, katagge/llwn) what he calls “the secret of God” (to\ musth/rion tou= qeou=) [Note: many manuscripts have a different reading: “the witness [martu/rion] of God”]. As I have previously explained, the “secret” here is essentially synonymous with the Gospel message, centered on the death (crucifixion) and resurrection of Jesus. Earlier in 1 Cor 1:21, 23, the announcement of this message was summarized by use of the special terms kh/rugma and khru/ssw (“proclamation”, “proclaim”). Paul is careful to qualify and characterize his proclamation with a particular phrase:
“not according to (any) excellence of (my) account or wisdom”
The Greek word translated (somewhat conventionally) as “excellence” above is actually quite difficult to render literally into English in the context here. The noun u(peroxh/ (from the verb u(pere/xw) means something like “holding (oneself) over”; the only other occurrence in the New Testament is in 1 Tim 2:2, where it can be understood in the literal sense of holding a position of authority or prominence over others. The word lo/go$ (“account”) in the New Testament often has the technical meaning of the “account of God (or the Lord)”, i.e. the Gospel message; but it can also carry the more general meaning of the speech (or words) which make up an account and how it is delivered. Here we may paraphrase: “I did not come demonstrating to you any great speech or wisdom on my part”. In 1:21 he described this ironically as “the stupidity [mwri/a] of the proclamation”.
Verse 2—Paul builds upon the statement in verse 1 with, one might say, a bit of rhetorical exaggeration:
“For I judged [i.e. decided] not to see [i.e. know] any(thing) among you, if not [i.e. except for] Yeshua (the) Anointed and this (one) put to the stake [i.e. crucified]!”
Essentially he is saying that he chose not to display any (special) knowledge on his part except for the Gospel message of the death (and resurrection) of Jesus. It is interesting to consider how far such statements by Paul are factual (strictly speaking) rather than rhetorical. If we read his letters (and even some of the speeches in Acts), it is clear that Paul was not afraid of demonstrating and utilizing many and varied aspects of “human wisdom” in order to persuade his audience of the truth. Should this be contrasted somehow with his initial work of proclaiming the Gospel, in which he perhaps stuck more simply to the traditional message (cf. the short kerygmatic statements in the sermon-speeches of Acts 2–13)? This seems rather unlikely, but it is worth considering, especially when we come to examine 1 Cor 2:6 (in the next note).
Verse 3—”And I, in much…came to be toward [i.e. with] you”. The ellipsis is filled out with a three-fold prepositional phrase, using three nouns:
- “in (much) weakness”—a)sqe/neia, lit. “without strength” (cf. 1:27); here a lack of physical strength (illness?) is probably meant, though it may also indicate a lowliness of appearance or stature
- “in (much) fear” —fo/bo$; does this reflect a natural fear in relation to public speaking, or to the work of ministry as a whole? It is unlikely that this is a traditional (religious/pious) reference to the “fear of God” (i.e. godly fear). Elsewhere Paul suggests that he may not have been a particularly impressive (public) speaker (cf. 2 Cor 10:10; 11:6, etc), and could have struggled with his own insecurities at times.
- “in much trembling” —tro/mo$; “fear and trembling” are a traditional pair and reflect very real (and natural) human fear and insecurity.
Unlike the statements in vv. 1-2, this verse would seem to express (human) limitations and weaknesses which were largely out of Paul’s control. For a more developed excursus on this theme, cf. the moving treatment by Paul in 2 Cor 12:1-10, which has a good deal in common with his discussion in 1 Cor 1:18-2:16—note especially the statement in 2 Cor 11:30: “If it is necessary to boast, I will boast (in) the (thing)s of my weakness!”.
Verse 4—The declaration regarding Paul’s weakness in verse 3 gives added weight to the statement in verse 4 when he returns to the theme from v. 1 (and 1:17):
“And (so) my account [lo/go$] and my proclamation [kh/rugma] (was) not in persuasive account[s] of wisdom, but (rather) in (the) showing forth of (the) Spirit and Power (of God)…”
Previously, he stated the negative—that his proclamation was not based on (human) skill and wisdom; now, he adds the positive, by way of contrast:
- Negative: not in persuasive account[s] [i.e. words] of wisdom
- Positive: rather, in the showing forth [i.e. demonstration] of the Spirit and power (of God)
It is hard to say whether the “power (of God)” here refers to (a) the working of miracles, (b) the transformative effect of the Gospel preaching, or some combination of the two. The narratives in the book of Acts, as well as Paul’s own letters, attest both meanings and suggest that we should give them equal weight here. Certainly, the power of God is closely connected with the Spirit of God (i.e. the Holy Spirit), even as it is with Christ in 1:24.
Verse 5—This brings us to the conclusion of the statement (cf. above): “…(so) that your trust should not be in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God”. Previously, in 1:24 (cf. also v. 30), “power” and “wisdom” were joined together in the person of Jesus, with the wisdom/power of God being contrasted with that of the world. Now, Paul separates the two terms, and contrasts human/worldly wisdom (“the wisdom of men”) with “the power of God”. An important grammatical point in the first half of the verse is the use of the aorist subjunctive with a negative particle, which typically implies prohibitive force (“should/must not…”)— “so that your trust should/must not be…” Paul took this idea very seriously in 1:17, using a similar phrasing: “so that the cross of Christ should not be emptied”. All preachers (and would-be preachers) today ought take the matter with equal seriousness, when the temptation comes to supplement and add to the Gospel with clever and appealing anecdotes, etc.