Friday, August 26, 2011

Foolish Wisdom - 1 Corinthians and a Defence of Higher Education

In 1 Corinthians 3:18-20, Paul has some seemingly searing words for academics:

‘Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”’

Again, in 1 Corinthians 1:20, Paul writes, ‘Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?’

These verses were quoted to me this week by a Christian who was apparently somewhat upset about my non-literalist reading of the first twelve chapters of Genesis and my defense of evolution.  The intention of the quote, it seemed to me, was to cast doubt on the rulings of science (the ‘standards of this age’) and, perhaps more deviously, to raise the quoter up as the epitome of real wisdom.  ‘Throw your scorn at me,’ he seems to be saying to the academics.  ‘Mock my beliefs, stare in open-jawed wonder at the stunning idiocy that you perceive in my truth claims.  By doing so, you declare me a fool before the world, but the wisdom of God is foolishness to the world.’  And beneath this is the bold declaration, ‘Behold my foolishness!  My faith is manifested in my lack of education, and my unwillingness to learn about your hollow and deceptive philosophies.  My faith cannot be shaken by mere facts and figures – I AM A CHRISTIAN!  I have no need for your opinions, when I have God's Truth at hand.’ (Alright, perhaps that was a little strong, but my goodness that’s how Christians come off sometimes).

It seems to me that some Christians view their faith against the facts as a badge of honour.  The more completely wrong science says they are, the prouder they are in their belief.  They are fools – and that makes them wise.  The ‘fool for God’ becomes a clarion-call for Christians to turn their backs on higher education and to receive their education from, and only from, the Word of God as manifested in the Bible.  ‘The Bible says that Jesus is the Word,’ an elderly man told me at a church in the States a few weeks back, ‘And the Bible is the Word of God.  Therefore, Jesus is the Bible.’

‘The Bible says it, I believe it, and that’s good enough for me,’ go the words of a popular Sunday School song.  If the Bible says that the world was made in six days, and science says it took place over billions of years, then I will have to trust the Bible – the simple fact that secular science paints a different story only makes a literal reading of Genesis 1 all the more true, because ‘God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise’ (1 Cor 1:27) and  ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;  the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate’ (1 Cor 1:18).  Never mind that Genesis one is not at all written in the genre of historical narrative - teachings like that come from learned theologians, and we all know how liberal their schooling has caused them to be.

The academic can implicitly not be trusted, by virtue of their reliance on ‘wisdom’ and ‘human knowledge’ over and above the straight, plain, descriptive truth of scripture.


Fear and trembling

The First Letter to the Corinthians, after some initial greetings, begins with Paul chastising the church.  Apparently divisions had cropped up among the Christians at Corinth, as divisions are bound to do.  The people were struggling with this new way of life, and they were starting to form schools based on the figure that most represented this new way to them – some claimed Apollos, a helper of Paul and a Jewish convert to Christianity, as the leader of this new school of thought, some claimed Paul, some Peter, and some Jesus.  According to Jerome, Apollos was so disgusted by this quarrelling that he moved to Crete, and only returned after Paul wrote this letter.

It would seem that these quarrels were both intellectual disputes and matters of pride (with people boasting that they ‘had been baptized by Paul’ while others lacked that honour).  Paul wrote to Corinth in part to rebuke:

‘Was Paul crucified for you?  Were you baptized into the name of Paul?’ Paul asked.  No!  Christianity is not about following some random guy – it is about the gospel message, ‘Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’  Christianity was not about taking sides, but about unity – ‘Is Christ divided?’  It was not about legalistic arguments or beautiful rhetorical flourishes, it was about ‘Christ crucified.’  Paul wanted them to see that Christ was greater than division and strife, because Christ was not some philosophical system but a Person. 

Had Paul been responsible for converting the Corinthians, had he reasoned them into the gospel, then they would have had a right to look to him as their leader, because he would have developed yet another of the many human-led philosophical systems permeating the Greek world.  Instead, Paul came to them simply with a message; they came to believe because God demonstrated his power through his Spirit:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.   For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.   I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.   My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

The gospel message could only be presented with ‘fear and trembling’.  It was not something for arrogance, it was not something to be taken as an intellectual challenge, it was not something to be forced down anyone’s throats – for it belonged to a Person, and that Person alone claimed authority and power.


This message, says Paul, is foolishness to the rest of the world.  A world that is so caught up in the sound of its own voice, in debating and discussing concepts rather than getting to know a Person, could only view a system built on relationship as inherently absurd.  There was a school for Plato, a school for Aristotle, a school for Epicurus – how could there by a school for Christ, when Christ was not something to be studied, but someone to be loved?  In Christ there was a subversion of philosophy.

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Is foolishness for God a clinging to literal readings of poetic texts?  Is it boldly declaring moral absolutes in a world seemingly backsliding into hell?  No.

The foolishness of God is nothing more than the person of Christ himself.


The truly wise, then, are fools in the eyes of the world, for they have united with a Person when the world only sees absurdity.  And the truly foolish, then, are the wise, for they have been blinded by the ways of the world and missed out on the power of Christ.  Who are the truly foolish?  The better educated?  No – simply those who trust in philosophy (or religion) alone.  This is the danger of philosophical systems:  they consist of talk, but God saves through relationship.

Why would God operate in such a way?  Paul writes,

God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.  It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.  Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

God chose to operate through person instead of philosophy, in part, so that all Christians could remain united under that Person, so that no Christian could point to ‘so-and-so’ as their intellectual leader, so that no one could brag that their salvation was due to anyone but God.  It was definitely not so that Christians could take pride in their foolishness.

Since the message of the crucified/resurrected Christ points, not to a school of thought, but to God-in-relationship, this message must be confirmed, not through human words, but through the relationship itself. 

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.


Prior to his death, Jesus prayed, ‘I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.’ (John 17:20-21).  Paul’s message in the first few chapters of 1 Corinthians is simply a plea for unity: first, that they would stop their squabbles and remember that they are united under Christ; and second, that they would realize that through Christ they are united with God.  All human philosophies, all systems of talk, no matter their truth content, must simply pale in value to such a source of wisdom.

This, I think, is what Paul was referring to by the oft-quoted passage of foolishness and wisdom.  The crucified Christ has supremacy over any and all systems of thought.


Science is a system of human thought, and therefore it too is subservient to Christ.  Does this mean that academia is something to belittle?  Should Christians take pride in a lack of education?  You cannot get that from 1 Corinthians.  Paul was up against a divided church, and was reminding them that they were not subjects of some human-created philosophy implemented by Paul or Peter or Apollos – rather, they were all in relationship with the same Person, that Person being Christ.  Christ’s supremacy should unite them all together under a common brotherhood of love.

If you want to rip the passage completely out of context, then sure, academics are all idiots.  But if you want to faithfully remain true to the text, then higher education is not a bad thing at all – one can participate in higher education, or not, while also being in relationship with Christ. 

Colossians chapter two may be quoted in objection to what I have so far written.  Here Paul writes, ‘See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.’  Once again this is in the context of the supremacy of Christ, but the context here is to avoid certain systems of thought that would take you away from the person of Christ.  Once again this says nothing of higher education per se, only of making sure you remember who you are united to while you receive your education.

It bothers me that certain Christians forget that Paul was an academic.  Yes, Peter was an ‘uneducated’ fisherman (who in fact received intensive hands-on training by literally hanging out with Jesus), but Paul was an active scholar of the Old Testament.  Without his education, he would not have had the tools to understand or battle Gnosticism (the ‘hollow and deceptive philosophy’ of Colossians 2).  He was not afraid to wield his intellect (try reading Romans), but he knew that his wisdom was still subservient to the person of Christ.

Indeed, when it comes to science a positive argument can be made for pursuing it through higher education.  Paul says that, through the Spirit, we have access to the ‘mind of Christ.’  Who is Christ, anyways?  John identifies him as the Logos – a Greek word meaning, literally, word, but carrying with it all sorts of interesting implications.  For the Jews, Logos was the Greek form of the Aramaic word Memra, which also meant ‘word’.  In the Targums, Aramaic translations of the Old Testament, the name of God was replaced with Memra out of reverence for the Divine.  Thus, to the Jews reading John, John was claiming that Christ was Word, or Memra, or God.  For the Greeks reading John, Logos had very different connotations.  Logos was a concept found in, among other places, pre-Socratic philosophies like those of Heraclitus.  For these philosophers, Logos was the word for the vast organizing principle that permeated the cosmos and held it together.  Thus, whether Jew or Gentile, John was making a bold declaration about the identity of Christ (and try getting that without some education!).

But Logos also pointed to a third tradition (or, at least, a related tradition).  In Proverbs 8, Wisdom (Sophia) is personified as being actively present during God’s creation:

The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works,
   before his deeds of old; 
23 I was formed long ages ago, 
   at the very beginning, when the world came to be. 
24 When there were no watery depths, I was given birth, 
   when there were no springs overflowing with water; 
25 before the mountains were settled in place, 
   before the hills, I was given birth, 
26 before he made the world or its fields 
   or any of the dust of the earth. 
27 I was there when he set the heavens in place,  

Paul, in Colossians 1, links Christ with both Logos and Sophia (and indeed the two are joined in other Jewish writings):

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Like the Greek Logos, Christ holds together all things; like the Hebrew Sophia, Christ is the firstborn over all creation and is united with the Creator.

Science, then, the pursuit of order in the world, the uncovering of natural truths, must, from a Christian perspective, also be an active participation in Wisdom.  The more we learn, the greater is the glory we bring to the Sophia-Logos who spoke the world into being.


Christians are understandably concerned about any science-based philosophy that points one away from the Person of Christ.  But Paul was definitely not calling Christians who stubbornly hold on to naïve views of the created world ‘fools who are really wise’.  And Paul was not belittling those who actively try to discover God’s creation (whether they recognize it as such or not) as ‘the wise who are really fools’.  Rather, he was appealing to the church to remember who they were – people united under a Person, not a philosophy.  I can think of no better way to celebrate this Person than to uncover more truths about the world which he has created.  It is ironic that such a pursuit would lead to a split in the church.  Hopefully this split can be overcome, but it is going to require two things: for Christians in academia to recognize the subservience of their knowledge to Christ, and for the rest to recognize that academic pursuits can bring glory to God.  For me, if those pursuits point to evolution, so be it – that does not make me an idiot.  It makes me faithful.


Chris Lantz said...

Great job, Matthew. Masterful handling of the 1 Corinthians passage, and a very well-organized argument. If I hadn't already been convinced that this was true, I would have become convinced after reading this. Keep up the great, important, and holy work!

Pete Bowyer said...

Hey Matt .... Jim M. pointed me to your blog: well worth the read. makes me miss our discussions on these issues.

Good argument and logic and completely in tune with your faith in and love of God. I agree with Chris L. to keep up the great, important and holy work!

Since others may read this comment then let me add my shared frustration. As a scientist who is also a Christian, I'm shamed by the lack of respect that both sides have for the other. We've so much to learn from each other: Christians can learn so much about the creation from scientists, while science types can learn so much about the Creator from Christians.

I always love pointing out to anti-evolutionists Gen.1:24, which in the NIV reads:
" And God said, "Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind."


Right there in front of us all the time but we read into it what we want.

And as for the 6 days vs. billions of years, for my money, Gerald Schoeder (a Jew by the way) has got the best explanation for that (like him, I too am a physicist, so his argument is compelling to me). For those interested, check out his book, "The Science of God." (written in the late 90s I believe).

Great to see you keeping this torch alive Matt - fight the good fight!