In the Introduction to his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul sets out to remind the Corinthian Christians that there is huge difference between the kingdom of the world and the Kingdom of God. The first difference that he points out is a difference of the heart. The citizens of the Kingdom of God are known by their humility toward God and their selfless love toward each other. Pride and sectarianism are ways of the world. But there is also another difference just as important; it is a difference of the mind: The kingdom you choose to live in determines the way you reason.
As Paul talks about the way the Corinthians were falling into sectarianism, he makes a point to remind them that he did not go to them to make disciples for himself. This is why he personally didn’t baptize many of them. (Jesus adopted the same strategy, as we see in John 4:2). Paul understood how susceptible people are to cults of personality. So, Paul tells them:
1 Corinthians 1:17 (NIV) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…
And then he pivots to his next subject in the Introduction: the difference between the way the world thinks, and the way God thinks:
1 Corinthians 1:17 (NIV) …to preach the gospel – not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
The literal translation of wisdom and eloquence is “wisdom of word,” signalling already that he is going to end up talking about different kinds of wisdom. But before getting there, it is clear that he is saying he wants to avoid using powerful rhetoric and persuasive language in preaching the Gospel. Which leads to the question, Why?
Is it that the Gospel cannot be intelligently discussed in those terms? Is it that only the feeble minded would listen to him and therefore he has to “dumb down” the message? It almost sounds like he is saying he wants to set aside reason. But if that is so, on what basis are we to believe the good news?
Is Christianity truly blind faith, irrational at heart (as many modern atheists claim)?
You couldn’t reach that conclusion from reading Paul’s letters. His arguments are always meticulously organized and logical; as would be expected from a man of his education. In the society in which Paul lived, oratory, rhetoric, and the ability to debate were prized, both among the Jews and the Gentiles. And we know Paul excelled in that respect. For, immediately after his conversion in Damascus:
Acts 9:20-22 (NKJV) … he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He (Jesus) is the Son of God. Then all who heard were amazed, and said, “Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.
And he also knew how to speak to the Greeks.
Acts 17:16-17 (NKJV) Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there.
His subsequent discourse at the Areopagus in Acts 17:22-31 is a beautiful example of logical exposition.
Yet here, in the letter to the Corinthian believers, about 4 years after that discourse at the Areopagus, he is on purpose minimizing that skill. Why?
Is Reason, somehow, not enough?
Paul has clearly set up an antithesis. He says that using the “wisdom of word” (that is, the rhetorical skills valued in the world) to preach the good news would invalidate the cross of Christ. And he immediately explains why he says this:
1 Corinthians 1:18 For the word of the cross is to them that perish foolishness, but to us that are saved it is God’s power.
Paul gives us the bottom-line up front: At the end of the argument, there are going to be two conclusions, not just one. Given the same premises and using the same tools of human reasoning to analyze those premises, different people in the audience are going to reach different conclusions… in fact, two opposite conclusions: Some will say the Gospel is nonsense (foolishness, worthless) but some will say the Gospel has saved their lives.
Is the difference in conclusion due to one (or the other) having abandoned reason? No. Is the difference in the conclusion due to a difference in the skill with which the argument was made? No. If the above verse is indeed the bottom-line of Paul’s argument, it already tells us his conclusion: that the difference lies in where each person was standing when they set out to apply reason to the message of the cross.
The person that starts from the Kingdom of God (the “saved”) reaches a completely different conclusion from the one that starts from the kingdom of the world (the “perishing”).
Does this sound backwards to you? Have we just time travelled? I mean, if accepting the message of the Gospel is what saves us – is what ushers us into the Kingdom of God – how can we be listening to it from that Kingdom already? Admittedly, this could sound a bit like arguing from predestination (that some people are destined by God to be saved and some to perish) but that is not at all what Paul means. I have talked about this before, in my series on the letter to the Romans. As I say there, Paul is not saying anything different from what Jesus taught.
You see, when you hear the message of the cross, you are not hearing it “cold”. That is not the first time you have ever heard the voice of God. On the contrary, all of us have been hearing the voice of God since our childhood. God the Father may have rested from His work of Creation on the 7th day, but He has never rested from His work of Salvation:
John 5:17 (NIV) In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.”
The Father revealed this through the prophets: When Moses prophesied that the children of God would turn their backs on God and reap exile instead of blessings, he also told them that they would return to the Promised Land…
Deuteronomy 30:4-6 (NIV) Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
Notice that the reason they will be able to love God, and live, is because God Himself would change their hearts. The same idea is found in Isaiah and Jeremiah:
Isaiah 54:13-14 (NIV) All your children will be taught by the Lord, and great will be their peace. In righteousness you will be established…
Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NIV) “…This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
God’s promise is that He will change our hearts, and that is why we will be able to know and obey Him. This is why, when Jesus was challenged by the religious leaders of His day, who accused Him of misleading the people, He said:
John 6:45 It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every one that has heard from the Father [himself], and has learned [of him], comes to me;
In other words, His defense is that if his accusers believed their own Scriptures, then they would know that God is able, willing, and already actively working to save His children. Even if Jesus were trying to trick the people, He wouldn’t be able to, because anyone who wants to know the Truth will hear it from God the Father Himself.
It isn’t just a matter of taking Jesus at His word. After all, He was in all appearances a man just like any of us. Why should we believe Him? Was He any more convincing than any other man? There had been others before His time that claimed to be the Messiah and tried to lead revolts.
So, what makes Jesus different? How can we tell that He is speaking the Truth?
The answer is: The Father is bearing witness to Him. And every human being in the world can hear the Father’s voice.
John 5:24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that he that hears my word, and believes Him that has sent me, has life eternal, and does not come into judgment, but is passed out of death into life.
John 5:33-37 Ye have sent unto John, and he has borne witness to the truth. But I do not receive witness from man, but I say this that *ye* might be saved. *He* was the burning and shining lamp, and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light. But I have the witness [that is] greater than [that] of John; for the works which the Father has given me that I should complete them, the works themselves which I do, bear witness concerning me that the Father has sent me. And the Father who has sent me himself has borne witness concerning me.
If I hear the Gospel and accept it, if I choose to believe in Jesus, the reality is that I had already responded to the voice of the Father.
This why no one has any advantage. We are all exactly in the same boat.
The country I was born in makes no difference, the culture I was born into makes no difference, the socio-economic environment I grew up in makes no difference because every one of us is exactly the same distance from our Heavenly Father. And nothing in this world or beyond this world can prevent His voice from reaching us.
This is also why the reaction to hearing the Gospel can be completely different in two different people. That the same premises can lead to two different conclusions is not a failure of Reason because Reason is merely a tool. It is like a lever used to move a large weight. The facts, the premises, constitute the fulcrum on which Reason pivots in order to do its work. But whether or not the weight is moved depends on the person pushing on the lever. It depends on that person’s pre-suppositions. Where are you pushing from? Where are you standing?
Can you move that weight? Well, there are two answers even with a lever. It depends on the “lever arm”, the distance from the fulcrum to the point where you apply the force. If the distance from your hand to the fulcrum is five times the distance that the weight is from the fulcrum, your force is multiplied by a factor of five. If you can lift 20 pounds easily with one hand, you can lift a hundred pounds with that lever.
But if the distance to the fulcrum from your hand is one fifth the distance the weight is from the fulcrum, then a 100 pound weight will feel like 500 pounds.
Which conclusion you reach, depends on where you are standing: In which kingdom…
Reason can only help you reach a conclusion within the bounds you have given it; within the bounds of your worldview.
The main role of Reason
Above all, Reason and Logic enable us to determine the self-consistency of our conclusions. Reason allows us to verify that what we believe is reasonable. It has nothing to say about the pre-suppositions we start from because it cannot judge them.
There are two possible basic pre-suppositions: Either the kingdom of this world is all there is OR there is also another reality, a supernatural reality. Those two choices are incompatible because a fundamental tenet of living in the kingdom of the world is the denial of a personal, living, loving God.
But it is important to understand that those are pre-suppositions, axioms if you will; unprovable by definition. Reason cannot prove that the kingdom of the world is the only reality. Nor can Reason prove that the Kingdom of God exists. Trying to prove either is a misuse of Reason because Reason is a tool, a procedure.
What you can do, once you assume one or the other, is put it to the test. You can always apply Reason to check the self-consistency of the claims derived from each pre-supposition. For instance, when you assume a purely mechanistic reality as the basis of the Universe in which we live (that is, when you assume all there is is the kingdom of the world), several contradictions arise – on the basis of Reason. An example is the appearance and development of Life in our planet. It is impossible to explain it on the basis of the Mathematical Laws of our Universe.
I think this is an example of what Paul is talking about here:
1 Corinthians 1:19-20 For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and set aside the understanding of the understanding ones. Where [is the] wise? where scribe? where disputer of this world? has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
When the kingdoms make claims about each other, then Reason shows its true strength because it forces us to decide which is right and which is wrong. And this conflict is unavoidable, not only because the world rejects God but because God is actively working to save His children from the world.
The burden is always on us, to decide.
And we are not in an enviable position. Even though we know, deep inside, that Truth exists, and with the same conviction (the spirit) we know that God speaks, we still live day and night in the physical world, the domain that the kingdom of the world calls its own. And this kingdom is full of loud voices clamoring for our attention and our allegiance. It has its own rules, its own values, its own “truths”, and it is not shy about sharing those.
What is the most fundamental truth of the kingdom of the world? There is no God, therefore I am my own god. Or as sorcerer and occultist Alistair Crowley used to say: “Do what you will.” No one has a right to judge the moral value of any of my choices. A life well lived is then a life lived to satisfy my needs and desires. That’s it.
From that standpoint, can you imagine how the story of the cross sounds? That this one man, Jesus, gathered around him a group of disciples and then succeeded in attracting thousands of followers only to end up committing suicide? Yes, suicide, because any logical person could have told him what was going to happen when he defied the religious leaders; what was going to happen when his simple followers realized that to side with him meant being thrown out of their synagogue, expelled from their society; what was going to happen when those people finally got the message that rather than a position in his kingly court, he was offering them the opportunity to pick up a cross and follow him… to his death.
A man who could supposedly miraculously feed thousands, walk on water, raise the dead, lets himself be captured, beaten, and crucified. What kind of hero is that? And what about his poor disciples, who believed in him to the end. He lets them follow him to his trial and witness his ignominious defeat, shattering their hopes in the most fantastic epic fail of all time. What kind of friend does that?
Sure, they came up with the story that he was resurrected… but we know that is impossible in our universe…
That’s the story of the cross as seen from the kingdom of the world. And God allows it…
1 Corinthians 1:21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom has not known God, God has been pleased by the foolishness of the preaching to save those that believe.
Notice that: God in His wisdom allows the world to reject Him. Why? Because God decided long ago to give us free will, so that we could love freely. Yes, that free will means that we can invent any story we want, even invent a worldview where God does not exist, where His plan of salvation is foolishness.
BUT the fact that such a worldview is invented by us, finite created beings, means that it is not impregnable, it is not undeniable, it is not all powerful. It cannot block the voice of God. And no matter how hard it tries, it cannot enslave our spirits. Thus, through our spirits, we can always hear God’s voice.
And that message of the cross, though sounding foolish when measured by the rules of this world, will somehow resonate within us and we will be able to analyze it by the rules of that other Kingdom from which the voice comes. Our reason will then recognize it as Truth.
Again it doesn’t matter where in the world we are when we hear that voice…
1 Corinthians 1:21-25 Since Jews indeed ask for signs, and Greeks seek wisdom; but *we* preach Christ crucified, to Jews an offence, and to nations foolishness; but to those that [are] called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ God’s power and God’s wisdom. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.