28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Let us return to 1:28-31. Paul has chastized the Corinthians for claiming in their speech that they are of Paul, of Apollos, and so on. He has contrasted the wisdom of a world which claims it can discover God on its own with the power of the cross, and suggested that the cross nullifies the ‘things that are.’ The summation of this undoing, though, takes place in the flesh: all flesh has no grounds of boasting before God. There is no display, no publicity, no external to which we might retreat or from which we might assert ourselves: no flesh can boast before God.
If the Corinthians, though, are not of Paul or Apollos, where are they from? Paul is emphatic: ‘from Him you are in Christ Jesus.’ (Again, the KJV for the win: “But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.”) The God who has brought the things that exist to nothing is the ground and basis of the Christian’s existence. And it is not an empty existence, either: it has a form, and the form is Christ. We have our origins in God, and are in Christ Jesus, who becomes to us not only the wisdom we’d thought we’d lose by embracing the folly of the cross, but righteousness and sanctification and redemption. The assertion of the self, the preservation of our public reputation, the protection of our flesh is banned: but let all those who boast, boast in the Lord.
Paul then returns to his own relationship with the Corinthians, laying out the nature of his authority to admonish them. The passage is full of ironies: having just announced that God has used the weak things of the world to shame the strong, Paul announces that he was present with the Corinthians in ‘weakness’ and fear and trembling (2:3). It is not lofty speeches or wisdom which marked Paul’s witness, but the witness—the marturion, the testimony—of God. But even this is deliberate: Paul suggests that he had deliberately disclaimed knowledge of anything among them except Christ Jesus and Him crucified. He judged or decided that he should not know anything among them besides Christ crucified. Might he have known something else? One thinks of Paul’s later suggestion that he becomes ‘all things to all people,’ and wonders whether in a different context Paul would identify his ministry with Christ Jesus the Risen and Ascended Savior, rather than the Crucified. (The categories are, of course, all overlapping—we are talking about accents and emphases, not divisions.)
Still, Paul here founds his proclamation upon his identification with Christ’s sufferings on the cross: that is what he knows, and within that knowing, what he lives. As Paul had previously engaged in an appeal to unity that included a similarity in moral judgment, here his proclamation is explicitly tied to the participation of his own life in Christ’s and to the resulting demonstration of the spirit and of power (2:4). There’s no such thing as pure doctrine here: it’s ethics and practice, all the way down. Paul declines to avail himself of the persuasive words of power that he might appeal to in his preaching to the Corinthians—as he rather persuasively and rhetorically reminds them in this letter. Still, the letter is not the proclamation, and he is adamant that the basis of his hearer’s faith is not in his wisdom, but in the power of God. The logic only works, though, if Paul really has wisdom, really has those persuasive words, really has what he opts to not use. His ministry participates in Christ Jesus and Him crucified, joining with him in using weakness to shame the strong.
If something like this reading is right, then it offers a serious qualification to the kind of ‘anti-wisdom’ rhetoric that Paul deploys in 1:18ff. All the wisdom of the world is revealed as foolishness, yes. And it is safe to say that Paul’s weakness and fear and trembling is not an act. But there is a hint that Paul might have spoken differently, might have demonstrated the wisdom and power of speech which he has been given in Christ. He will get there eventually. He will speak as a fool, and lay bare the sufferings he has endured as marks of his own apostolic authority. But he will also carry on boasting, and speak of a man—himself, though not himself, who is taken up into the third heaven and shown things that speech cannot contain(2 Corinthians 11-12). But not yet.