18. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20. Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? hHas not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21. For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards,3 not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 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.”
Let us start at verse 28: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” This is hard saying, if only because Paul’s claim about the cross of Christ and its juxtaposition with the world reaches the level of being and not being. I had mentioned my interest in the connections between 1 Corinthians and Romans. Nowhere are they more evocative than in these 13 verses, and particularly this verse. Romans 4:17 uses a similar locution to describe the fundamental basis of Abraham’s faith in God (the only other place in Paul’s corpus where it arises, I believe). Abraham believes in God who ‘calls being out of non-being,’ in God who created the world. In Romans, the distinction between ‘being and not-being’ is not a conflict: not-being is simply the context out of which God calls existence. But here, in 1 Corinthians 1:28, God uses the things that are not—the cross and its scandal—to nullify the things that are. Is the cross an undoing of creation?
Paul’s concern in mentioning this is, of course, that no one might boast before God. The ‘things that are’—existence itself—is here associated with the cultural trappings of worldly wisdom, power, nobility of birth, and the like. That is, Paul’s concern is not metaphysical, as in Romans 4:17, but social. It is about the form of life which the Corinthians have, a form which the cross intersects with and exposes as vanity, emptiness, nullity—as that which is not, rather than that which is. The undoing of the visible forms of life by the cross is a kind of radical destabilizing of all that we think we know—but it is one which, as I think 1 Corinthians 15 will indicate—culminates in that foolishness and that order being given back. The cross is not the final word.
Still, this antithesis and the hostility of the cross to the world in which it is situated runs through the whole passage. God chose what was foolish not merely to show the wise wrong, but to shame them—to publicly expose their pretenses and to make their vanities known before the world (v.27). As verse 17 had put it, the words of wisdom empty the cross of its power: they do not leave it intact, but actively oppose it. In the same way, God “destroys” the wisdom of the wise. There is no real antithesis, but only the decisive victory of God in the cross over foolishness.
But which wisdom is destroyed—the Jews or Greeks? In the first place, Paul does not distinguish them: it is a wisdom of the world (v.21) that is rendered folly by the cross. Here also Paul’s reasoning has deep similarities with Romans, particularly Romans 1:22: In “claiming to be wise, they became fools,” exchanging the glory of the invisible God for images. But who has done this? In 1 Corinthians, Paul starts with the world—and then discriminates between Jew and Gentile, associating Gentiles with a desire for wisdom and Jews with a desire for a sign. But he has not made that division yet: instead, the contrast is between those who are perishing and those being saved. For those “who are called, both Jew and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God” (v.24). Paul is under obligation to the “wise and foolish” (Romans 1:14). The Gospel is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16).
One is inclined to think, then, that both Greek and Jew are differently implicated in the “world” which has been disclosed as folly by the slain God. Paul must distinguish them, precisely because Jew and Greek are together in their discontent with the cross, but together in different ways. The Jew asks for a sign, but the Greek seeks wisdom. These are the coordinates that Paul lays down: those (Jews) who seek a sign are scandalized by the form of God’s power, which is a form that appears to be weakness but is stronger than humanity. This is one side, the side of those who are interested in the liberation of humanity from His unrighteousness, who claim to have the strength of the Law on their side, who have been given the sign of circumcision and with it the promise of the power of God for their liberation—but who cannot achieve that which they know they ought. They ask for a sign, an indicator of the order’s effectiveness, because they know the One whose power may be asked: they understand the ordering of the cosmos, and know where it ends, but they do not understand how it shall arrive there. For them, the cross is a scandal. But those (Greeks) who seek wisdom—they seek it, and do not ask for it—find only foolishness in the cross, a foolishness that is wisdom because God’s foolishness is wiser than us. In both cases, God has triumphed—and the ‘things that are’ have been exposed as impotent, incapable of bringing about what they claim.