August 21 (1): 1 Corinthians 1:27-28

[This series of notes is on 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16; the previous day’s note dealt with 1:23-24]

1 Corinthians 1:27-28

“But God gathered out the dull/stupid (thing)s of the world (so) that he might bring down shame (upon) the wise, and God (also) gathered out the (thing)s without strength/power (so) that he might bring down shame (upon) the strong…”

The two-fold comparison from vv. 22-24 (cf. the previous note), involving “wisdom” and “power” continues here in vv. 27-28, but using the substantive adjective “strong” (i)sxuro/$) in place of “power” (du/nami$). It also continues the play between “wisdom” (sofi/a) and “dullness/stupidity” (mwri/a) from the earlier verses, especially as expressed in verse 25, which serves as the climax to the principal argument of vv. 18-25:

“…(in) that [i.e. because] the ‘stupid’ (thing) of God is wiser than men, and the (thing) of God without power/strength is stronger than men.”

Two parallel adjectives are used substantively (as nouns) in this paradoxical statement:

    • “dull, stupid, foolish” (mwro/$), related to the noun mwri/a elsewhere in the passage
    • “without strength, i.e. weak, powerless” (a)sqenh/$); the alpha prefix (a)-) is privative, indicating lack or being without something, attached to a base related to the noun sqe/no$ (“strength, might”), which is generally synonymous with the noun du/nami$ (“power”) and adjective i)sxuro/$ (“strong”) in context

These two adjectives relate back to the idea of the “stupidity” of the proclamation (v. 21), which has to be understood specifically as the Gospel message in terms of the death (crucifixion) of Jesus. The shameful (and agonizing) punishment of crucifixion is characterized as “stupid/foolish” and “weak” in the eyes of the world—that is, according to conventional (and natural) societal values; it is not to be admired nor an ideal to follow. Paul takes this association and generalizes it in terms of God’s own nature and attributes, in comparison with that of human beings. God (YHWH, the Creator and Father) so far transcends mortal human beings, that this can only be expressed by way of paradox: the ‘stupid’ and ‘weak’ things of God are wiser and stronger than anything related to humans. This statement also reflects a reversal of values, of a sort most familiar to readers of the New Testament from the Beatitudes and parables, etc, in Jesus’ teaching (e.g., Luke 6:20-26; 7:28 par; Mark 10:31 par, etc). In other words, the sorts of things which human beings value and prize are, in a fundamental sense, different (even opposite) from the things which God values.

Paul illustrates the point of this statement in verse 25 by applying it to the circumstances of the Corinthian believers (vv. 26-29). Verse 26 indicates that the congregations in Corinth (like many/most early Christian groups) were largely, though not entirely, made up of people from the lower classes and less prestigious segments of society (including slaves). And yet God “called” (that is, chose) such persons to come to faith and become members of the body of Christ, united to Jesus (and God the Father) through the Spirit. This is reflected by the use of two terms in vv. 26ff:

    • The noun klh=si$ (“call, calling”) related to the verb kale/w (“[to] call”), and to the adjective klhto/$ (“called”) which Paul used earlier in verse 24. “Called” is parallel (and generally synonymous) with “being saved” in v. 18, and reflects a strong belief in what we would term “predestination” (or preordination)—that believers were chosen by God prior to their coming to trust in Christ. The noun e)kklhsi/a, which fundamentally refers to people being called out (of their homes, etc) to gather/assemble together, and which came to be used for the Christian congregation/assembly, also carries this connotation of the verb kale/w (at least in part).
    • The verb e)kle/gomai in vv. 26-27, which means literally “gather out”—i.e. God collected or gathered (ahead of time) out of the mass of humanity those who would believe in Christ. This is an example where a literal rendering “gathered out” is far superior to the more conventional English translation “chose”.

Paul uses four characteristics to represent those whom God has “gathered out” from the world to be his people (in Christ); they are generally defined in relation to the world (“the…[thing]s of the world”):

    1. mwro/$ (“dull”, i.e. “stupid, foolish”)—that is, “dull” not merely in the sense of “dim-witted, lacking intelligence”, but more properly in contrast with what human society considers most impressive, gifted and successful (i.e. the “brightest lights” of our society); compared with such persons, many Christians will seem quite “dull” or “dim” by comparison.
    2. a)sqenh/$ (“without strength”, i.e. “weak, powerless”)—again, this does not relate simply to physical strength or health, but also to one’s position of power and influence in society.
    3. a)genh/$—this adjective is somewhat difficult to translate literally in English; essentially it means something like “without (good/proper) birth”, i.e. persons who are not born into the higher and more prestigious families or portions of society.
    4. e)couqenhme/na —a verbal noun (participle) from e)couqene/w [cf. e)coudeno/w] (“set out as nothing”), i.e. persons whom society at large regards as nothing important, of no real significance.

For the first two characteristics, Paul sets the contrast as follows:

“God gathered out the {dull/weak} things of the world (so) that he might bring down shame [kataisxu/nh|] (upon) the {wise/strong} ones/things (of the world)”

In other words, God’s choice of the less impressive (by worldly standards) persons in society to be his people effectively brings shame to the ones who are impressive (by worldly standards) and who trust in their own position and abilities, etc. The last two characteristics (3 and 4 above) serve to summarize the entire illustration, which Paul does with a concluding phrase:

“—the (thing)s (which are) not being [mh\ o&nta] (so) that he might cause the (thing)s (which are) being [o&nta] to cease working”

This is extremely difficult to translate into English. The (aorist) participle (o&nta) of the verb of being (ei)mi) is used twice, with the contrast established by simply negating the first (mh\ o&nta, “not being”). I take Paul’s expression here as a rhetorical exaggeration—the persons so characterized by the four terms (above) effectively have no real existence (“no being”) for the world, they don’t really exist. In this instance God’s action goes beyond bringing down shame upon the powerful, etc. in society—essentially he takes away their existence! This reversal-of-fortune motif was a popular element of Jewish (wisdom) traditions, which one can find frequently in the New Testament, especially in the teachings of Jesus, and those authors (Paul, James) who carry on that tradition.

The verb katarge/w allows for no simple translation: “make (someone/something) to be without work”, “make inactive/ineffective”, “cause (something) to cease (working)”. It is a popular term for Paul—25 of the 27 occurrences in the New Testament are in the Pauline letters (including 23 in the undisputed letters); he often uses it in a specific theological context (cf. Rom 3:3, 31; 4:14; 6:6; 7:2, 6; 2 Cor 3:7-14; Gal 3:17; 5:4, 11, etc). In 1 Corinthians it also appears in 2:6; 6:13; 13:8, 10-11; 15:24, 26. The basic idea here is that what the world values ceases to have any active meaning or significance for believers in Christ, and those persons whom the world values (and who value their position in the world), have no place or existence among the people of God. There is a strong eschatological sense to v. 28b, again assuming the “reversal of fortune” motif associated with the final Judgment. This is made especially clear in vv. 29-31 which follow, and which I will be discussing (with attention given to verse 30) in the next note.

August 18: 1 Corinthians 1:18

[This series of notes is on 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16; the previous day’s note examined 1:17, the concluding statement of the narratio, which leads into the first main section of the letter]

1 Corinthians 1:18

“For the account of the stake [i.e. cross] is (mere) stupidity to the (one)s being lost/destroyed; but to us the (one)s being saved, it is the power of God.”

This declaration by Paul begins the section 1:18-2:16, the first section of the probatio—the main body of the letter, which presents arguments and illustrations in support of the central proposition (in 1:10ff). It builds immediately off of the closing words in verse 17 (cf. the previous note):

“…the Anointed (One) set me forth…to give the good message, (and) not in (the) wisdom of (the) account, (so) that the stake [i.e. cross] of (the) Anointed (One) should not be emptied.”

The Gospel (“the good message”) is identifying as “the account of the stake” (o( lo/go$ [o(] tou= staurou=)—that is, a declaration or proclamation of the death of Jesus on the cross. We typically translate stauro/$ as “cross”, but it really means a stake or post set in the ground, such as that upon which a prisoner or executed man might be hung or impaled. It graphically signifies the punishment of crucifixion. In verse 17, Paul is stating that the significance is in the message itself, not in the way it is delivered or presented. The preacher ought to declare the fact of Jesus’ death (and subsequent resurrection), and what it means for humankind, without relying upon the style and technique of the oration, or clever/persuasive reasoning, etc. This Paul refers to by the expression “(the) wisdom of the account”—i.e. the intelligence and cleverness, etc, with which the message is proclaimed. The word lo/go$ (“account”) often means specifically the Gospel message (“the account/word of God”), but can also mean more generally the use of speech itself (“word[s]”)—Paul is playing on both of these meanings in vv. 17-18. According to the statement in v. 17, to rely on “wisdom” (that is, human wisdom) in proclaiming the Gospel risks emptying it of its true significance. One must admit that there is a bit of (rhetorical) exaggeration at work here, since, as any reading of the letters (and the speeches, etc., in the book of Acts) makes clear, Paul was himself a gifted speaker in many respects, and was more than willing to make use of “wisdom” to persuade men and women of the truth of the Gospel. However, the stark contrast has a definite purpose—to focus our attention on the content of the message, to the death (and resurrection) of Christ.

In verse 18, a different kind of contrast is established, with regard to the purpose and effect of the Gospel message (“the account of the cross/stake”), involving two distinct groups or classes of persons:

    • “the ones being lost/destroyed” (oi( a)pollume/noi)
    • “the ones being saved” (oi( swzome/noi)

Each group is identified by a verbal participle:

(1) The verb a)po/llumi (compound of o&llumi + the preposition a)po/ [“from”]) fundamentally means suffering loss from (someone/something). In the intransitive (middle) form, it often has the sense of “perish, be ruined, destroyed”. A strict rendering of the middle voice would indicate “lose/ruin oneself, lose one’s (own life)”, etc, implying that the loss is the fault or responsibility of the one who suffers it.

(2) The form here is a passive participle of sw/zw (“[to] save”)—i.e. “being saved”. Clearly the passive form here is an example of the passivum divinum (“divine passive”), used frequently in the Scriptures, in which God is assumed to be the one who acts. Both participles are present forms, indicating something which occurs generally or is going on at the present.

The message of the death of Christ has a different effect on each group:

    • the ones being lost/destroyed—”it is stupidity [mwri/a]”
    • the ones being saved—”it is (the) power of God [du/nami$ qeou=]”

Conventional Christian thinking associates being saved or lost with the person’s response to the Gospel; however, here Paul sets a different priority—the one (already) being saved/lost responds differently to the Gospel message. Salvation or destruction is realized and confirmed by how a person is affected by the message; the two responses may be compared:

(1) mwri/a—the word fundamentally means “dull(ness)”, which is typically applied to a human being in the sense of being “dim(-witted)”, often in the pejorative sense of “stupid, silly, foolish”, etc. The five occurrences in the the New Testament all come from 1 Cor 1:18-4:21, and are used in tandem (by way of contrast) with sofi/a (“wisdom”).

(2) du/nami$ qeou=—the word du/nami$ (“power”) also appears frequently (7 times) in 1:18-4:21, providing a different kind of contrast with “wisdom [sofi/a]” (that is, human wisdom). It is also a word that may be implied already in verse 17, in Paul’s statement that relying on “(human) wisdom” risks emptying the Gospel message (“the cross/stake of Christ”)—i.e. emptying it of its power. I prefer to understand the verb keno/w in the more ‘literal’ sense of emptying the message of its content; however, in Paul’s mind, the two aspects are probably connected rather closely. Certainly, he writes elsewhere (Rom 1:16) of the Gospel as being “the power of God”, which normally connotes the ability of God to effect a miraculous transformation of (human) nature. In 1 Cor 1:24 (to be discussed), the power of God is identified with the person of Christ himself.

The dualism established in 1:18 provides the basic framework for the line of argument running through this section. It is hard to say how far this was influenced by Isaiah 29:14, which Paul cites in v. 19:

“For it has been written:
‘I will destroy/ruin the wisdom of the wise (one)s,
and the understanding of the understanding (one)s I will unset [i.e. set aside]'”

The quotation follows the LXX—particularly in its substitution of the 1st person for the 3rd (“the wisdom of the wise will perish…”)—but with, it would seem, a free gloss or adaptation in the second half using the verb a)qete/w (“unset, set aside”) in place of kru/ptw (“hide” = Hebrew rt^s*). At any rate, the use of Isa 29:14 is fitting and confirms two basic points in Paul’s argument:

    1. The salvation and destruction are ultimately the result of God’s own will and action, and
    2. It is particularly human wisdom and knowledge which are destroyed or “set aside” in the proclamation of the Gospel

These are important to keep in mind as one reads the verses which follow, especially as Paul begins to play with the various aspects of the word “wisdom” (sofi/a)—alternating between divine and human wisdom—in verse 21, which is the subject of the next daily note.