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Introduction to I Cor. 1:10-4:21 - The Values of Worldly Wisdom Operating in the Assembly and Applied to the Gospel

 

 

 

 

Corinth Excavation

Excavated ruins at the lower city of Corinth

A House Divided

 

Paul, in his letter, deals firstly with the divisions of the Corinthian assembly and the fact that he does so shows how critical and important this problem was on Paul's 'list.' It is probably the case that the people from Chloe's household reached Paul with their report after he had received the Corinthian letter, but such was the seriousness of the problem it needed to be immediately and extensively addressed because it struck at the very foundation of the gospel. Dealing with this issue will occupy chapters 1-4.

 

What then was the problem plaguing the assembly and causing strife among the believers?

 

Clearly they were following men and had divided into factions around those to whom they gave their allegiance (I Cor. 1:12). Moreover, it seems that the major split in the assembly was between the 'Paul party' and the 'Apollos party' and because of this situation Paul specifically and carefully explains the place and purpose of Apollos and himself as servants in the work of God in order that the Corinthians would have a proper perspective of them and learn not to glory in men (I Cor. 3:4-9, 21; 4:1-7). Also, it is evident from what Paul writes that division arose because the Corinthians were applying the values of worldly wisdom to the gospel, and in particular, to the those who preached it. They assessed and judged the servants of God according to the current standards of rhetoric and thus were occupied with men and how they preached rather than properly understanding the truth of what they preached and its application to them. Some writers, however, suggest that the Corinthian problem that led to division went deeper than just the superficial appeal of sophisticated speaking there being those in the assembly at Corinth who had developed a particular 'sophia (wisdom) - Christology' that deliberately minimized the cross by focusing on Christ rather than Christ crucified. J. Goetzmann  writes in NIDNTT under σοφία  concerning the nature of the wisdom advocated in Corinth and contested by Paul: 'That Paul wished only to reject Gk. philosophy and rhetoric, i.e., that his fight is directed simply against percipient reason, is difficult to accept ... Perhaps one may suppose that the polemic of the apostle is directed against an over-subtle extension of the sophia-christology and the resultant disregard of the cross of Christ, along with the ensuing growth of factions. The Corinthians believed that they shared in the wisdom which came into the world in Christ. As the people who had reached perfection, they had been exempted from the degradation of the cross. They therefore strove for personal perfection in the gifts of the Spirit, in knowledge and wisdom, neglecting their responsibility to build up the whole congregation (I Cor. 14). It was only Christ, who disregarded worldly concerns and drew others away from the world, who was of interest to them - not the Crucified One. Jesus thus served as an example of the earthly Pneumatic [Spiritual life] ... This foolishness leads to pride and party division in a community. The preaching of the cross ... is therefore the call to freedom from self-glorification and adherence to party division. It is thus the foundation and guarantee of the unity of the Christian community (I Cor. 3:18-23).'[i]

 

Deducing some particular form of a wisdom-Christology among the Corinthians from all that Paul says in the first four chapters and indeed elsewhere can only be by inference and not from anything stated directly by the apostle for he really only addresses the issue of wisdom in broad terms and is principally concerned with the contrast and distinction between human and divine wisdom. He does not 'unpack' either the content of human wisdom or the possible wisdom adapted by the Corinthians, rather it his purpose to demonstrate that all forms of human wisdom amount to the same thing before God - worthless. However,  Paul does emphasis particularly the revelation of divine wisdom which is Christ and Him crucified (I Cor 1:22-24), but again he does not 'unpack' all that the cross means in terms of propitiation, reconciliation, forgiveness etc, rather his focus is upon the fact, revelation and communication of God's wisdom through the gospel and by the Spirit (I Cor. 2:6-13)

 

Evidently though, there were those at Corinth who did think themselves wise (I Cor. 3:18), but this was probably more to do with the fact that they gloried in men (I Cor. 3:21) and status, having espoused the values of worldly wisdom within the Christian community which mirrored the culture of Corinth. Paul corrects their thinking by reminding them that the wisdom of this world is contrary to the message of the cross (I Cor. 1:18-25) and that it was the cause of their man centered divisions (I Cor. 1:12; 3:1-4) in which they were boasting and of which they were proud (I Cor. 1:31; 3:18; 4:18-21). Also, their wisdom had led them to an unfair assessment of Paul (I Cor. 4:3).

 

It is probably not the case that the Corinthians had knowingly developed a form of wisdom-Christology in opposition to Paul and his preaching, as much as they had failed to understand the full meaning and implications of the cross. The problem was serious, but likely more superficial than calculated. They had, because of their mindset, misjudged the manner of Paul's preaching and criticized him for a lack of sophistication in his presentation of the gospel, and they had also misunderstood the gospel itself for instead of appreciating that the gospel of the cross stands in complete opposition to the worldly values of wisdom, they were allowing themselves to be conditioned and guided by those very same values .

 

The existence of an assembly in Corinth was a testimony to the power of the gospel, but unfortunately the condition of the assembly was evidence of the penetration of Corinthian culture among the saints. There is no indication, however, in the first four chapters of Paul's letter of any doctrinal error on the part of the believers, rather it was their misunderstanding of the gospel and their carnality that had led to the divisions among them. When Paul first preached the gospel in Corinth it is recorded that 'many Corinthians hearing believed' (Acts 18:8), so they evidently knew the power of God and the work of the Spirit and had accepted Paul, the preacher of the gospel, and the message he preached, yet they had failed to develop spiritually from the time Paul was with them in person until the point of writing his letter (I Cor. 3:1-4) and sadly their spiritual immaturity had become only too evident by their carnal behaviour.

 

So what then was the cultural influence that caused the Corinthian believers to appraise men and minimize the message of the cross?

 

Gordon Fee in his commentary on I Corinthians clearly summaries the problem at Corinth: 'It is possible that the key lies within the phenomenon in the Hellenistic world of the itinerant philosopher, many of whom were sophists - more concerned with polished oration than with significant content. The coming and going in turn of Paul, Apollos, and Peter (if indeed he had visited the church), and especially some marked contrasts in style and content among them , had perhaps led the Corinthians themselves to begin to think of their new found faith as an expression of sophia - the divine sophia, to be sure, but sophia nonetheless. Within this kind of context they were quarreling over their leaders and teachers of wisdom, boasting in one or the other, and judging them from this merely human perspective. From this perspective neither Paul nor his gospel comes off very well. The message of the crucified Messiah, preached by the apostle who lived in considerable weakness, is hardly designed to impress the "wise," as they now considered themselves. In any case - and this is the crucial item for these chapters - the greater issue for Paul is not the division itself; that is merely a symptom. The greater issue is the threat posed to the gospel, and along with that to the nature of the church and its apostolic ministry.'[ii]

 

Paul tells the Corinthians that he did not preach the gospel with the 'wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect (I Cor. 1:17). The 'wisdom (sophia) of words (logos)' stands in stark contrast to the 'word (logos) of the cross' which is not wisdom, but foolishness to the perishing (I Cor. 1:18). He then goes on to identify three categories of persons who represent the 'wisdom of this world.' Paul writes: ' Where is the wise man? Where is the expert in the Mosaic law? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish?' (I Cor 1:20 NET[iii]) . Paul is probably thinking of the philosopher, the Jewish scribe and the debater. The latter refers to the rhetoricians, the professional orators of  that day called sophists who frequented large cities like Corinth, where they demonstrated their ability in eloquence and argument to the approval and applause of assembled audiences.

 

The Sophists 

 

According to George Briscoe Kerferd[iv] the name sophists refers to 'any of certain Greek lecturers, writers, and teachers in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, most of whom travelled about the Greek-speaking world giving instruction in a wide range of subjects in return for fees.'  Kerferd then explains how the name sophist has been applied and used throughout Greek history: 'The term sophist (Greek sophistes) had earlier applications. It is sometimes said to have meant originally simply “clever” or “skilled man,” but the list of those to whom Greek authors applied the term in its earlier sense makes it probable that it was rather more restricted in meaning. Seers, diviners, and poets predominate, and the earliest Sophists probably were the “sages” in early Greek societies. This would explain the subsequent application of the term to the Seven Wise Men (7th–6th century BC), who typified the highest early practical wisdom, and to Pre-Socratic philosophers generally. When Protagoras, in one of Plato's dialogues (Protagoras, 317 a–b) is made to say that, unlike others, he is willing to call himself a Sophist, he is using the term in its new sense of “professional teacher,” but he wishes also to claim continuity with earlier sages as a teacher of wisdom. Plato and Aristotle altered the meaning again, however, when they claimed that professional teachers such as Protagoras were not seeking the truth but only victory in debate and were prepared to use dishonest means to achieve it. This produced the sense “captious or fallacious reasoner or quibbler,” which has remained dominant to the present day. Finally, under the Roman Empire the term was applied to professors of rhetoric, to orators, and to prose writers generally, all of whom are sometimes regarded as constituting what is now called the Second Sophistic movement.'

 

The Sophists of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. were not considered philosophers, rather they were more like educators, namely 'professional teachers' with Athens as the centre of their operations where there was a demand for what they offered  particularly from young men seeking a career in the politics or law. They taught the art of 'how to speak and what arguments to use in public debate' (Kerferd) specializing in the skills of philosophy and rhetoric. They eventually began to develop a negative reputation particularly in the estimation of the great philosophers. Protagoras (485–410 BC), who is generally regarded as the first sophist, 'was one of the most well-known and successful teachers. He taught his students the necessary skills and knowledge for a successful life, particularly in politics, rather than philosophy. He trained his pupils to argue from both points of view because he believed that truth could not be limited to just one side of the argument. Protagoras wrote about a variety of subjects and some fragments of his work survived. He is the author of the famous saying, “Man is the measure of all things,” which is the opening sentence of a work called Truth.'[v]

 

By the time of the first century things had changed and there was what was called the Second Sophistic movement. Kerferd writes: 'It is a historical accident that the name “Sophist” came to be applied to the Second Sophistic movement. Greek literature underwent a period of eclipse during the 1st century BC and under the early Roman Empire. But Roman dominance did not prevent a growing interest in sophistic oratory in the Greek-speaking world during the 1st century AD. This oratory aimed merely at instructing or interesting an audience and had of necessity no political function. But it was based on elaborate rules and required a thorough knowledge of the poets and prose writers of antiquity. Training was provided by professional teachers of rhetoric who claimed the title of Sophists, just as the 5th-century Sophists had adopted a name already used by others.'

 

Evidently then, the sophistic orators of Paul's day, who frequented Corinth and other cities, were really a kind of performer in the art of using knowledge and clever speech in front of impressionable audiences to entertain more than educate. These able orators 'sought topics from their audience on which to declaim ['speak formally or theatrically'] in order to demonstrate their prowess in oratory' using 'three accepted proofs to persuade their audience: ethos, acting out a character; pathos, manipulating the audience's feelings; and demonstration, arguments.'[vi]

 

In Corinth these men of sophistic tradition, it seems, were well received and treated with something like a celebrity status. Ciampa and Rosner mention in their commentary on I Corinthians that the Greek orator and philosopher, Dio Chrysostom (40-120 A.D.) 'reported that when he visited a place like Corinth, he was "escorted with much enthusiasm and respect, the recipients of my visits being grateful for my presence and begging me to address them and advise them and flocking around my door from early dawn." Such speakers put more stock in winning arguments and impressing an audience than in actually saying something of consequence. Paul distanced himself from this model of public speaking, the adoption of it in relation to Christian leaders was in part to blame for the factions in the Corinthian church.'[vii]

 

Paul in his preaching rejected the methods of these orators. Instead he came with God's message which he simply declared in the power of the Spirit, without the use of persuasive arguments or clever words, but with the objective that the audience would be convicted by the Spirit's power and respond by coming to faith in Christ, rather than applauding Paul as a speaker (I Cor. 1:17; 2:1-5).  The problem was, however, that the Corinthians were treating the servants of God as if they were sophistic orators. The Corinthian culture and the values of human wisdom had infiltrated the assembly at Corinth to the detriment of the saints, the servants of God and the gospel itself. This leads to another necessary and important question:

 

What was the catalyst that led the Corinthian believers to appraise the servants of God in the same way that Corinthian society appraised the Greek orator?

 

As already mentioned the Corinthians had initially responded in faith to Paul's preaching and were saved, yet it is apparent that someone and/or something had greatly affected their thinking and acted as a catalyst among them to make them act the way they did.

 

Apollos and Corinth

 

Enter Apollos! In the book of Acts, Luke introduces Apollos  in a very telling way, leaving the reader in no doubt as to the caliber and ability of this converted Jew:

 

'Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he desired to cross to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him; and when he arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace; for he vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ.  And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus' (Acts 18:24 -19:1).

 

According to what Luke writes, Apollos initially had a great impact for good at Corinth as he went there after the extended visit of Paul, fulfilling a different servant role than the apostle as Paul points out in I Cor. 3:6: 'I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.' Luke says that Apollos was from Alexandria. This 'is significant since the sophistic movement thrived in Alexandria during this period.'[viii]  Also he describes Apollos as 'an eloquent man and mighty in the scriptures.' As such it is probable that Apollos had rhetorical training and a sophist background and thus was a 'brilliant speaker.' Thayer  gives two options for the meaning of eloquent: 'learned, a man of letters ...' and 'skilled in speech, eloquent.'[ix] The second would naturally follow the first and thus Apollos' ability was demonstrated by his powerful handling of the OT and his vigorous refuting of the Jews.

 

It is important to notice that Paul does not cast Apollos in a negative light, rather he presents him as a fellow servant in the work of God (I Cor. 3:9) and he greatly desired him to visit Corinth again, though, it was not Apollos' mind to do so at that time (I Cor. 16:12). Also it would be grossly unfair to assume that Apollos used his eloquence and ability to deliberately appeal to the Corinthian mindset and unduly influence them toward himself over against Paul. The fact is that a man like Apollos who could eloquently, skillfully, and effectively handle the scriptures to the benefit of the believers and the refuting of the Jews appealed very particularly to the Corinthian way of thinking and it is probable that they saw in Apollos the Christian answer to the sophistic orator and they responded accordingly.

 

But, as previously noticed concerning Dio Chrysostom, there was something else that very much accompanied sophists - they were men who had a status of prestige and acclaim in society and this, unfortunately, appears to have been important to the immature believers in the assembly at Corinth.  'According to Philo, the sophists declared themselves to be

 

men of mark and wealth, holding leading positions, praised on all hands, recipients of honors, portly, healthy, robust, reveling in luxurious and riotous living, knowing nothing of labor, conversant with pleasures which carry the sweets of life to the all-welcoming soul by every channel of sense. (Philo Det. Pot. Ins. 34B).'[x]

 

It must be stressed that none of the three servants, Paul, Apollos, or Cephas (I Cor. 1:12) were responsible for the quarreling, the blame was on the side of the Corinthians nor did Paul side with those who were for him for they were equally in the wrong since each faction contributed to and was part of the problem. Yes, even those who said 'I [am] of Christ' for they too were being divisive. They were either using His name to head their 'party' in opposition to the other factions or, as is more likely, they were trying to rise above the others by claiming that they belonged only to Christ. Either way, they were in effect reducing Christ to the level of men by making Him one among others and claiming an elitism, the absurdity of which is demonstrated by Paul's first rhetorical question in v 13. Christ could not be divided or apportioned out as to have the allegiance of only some of His people anymore than Paul was crucified for the Corinthians! Paul ultimately reminds the assembly that 'all things' belong to them, including 'Paul or Apollos or Cephas' because they all belong to Christ as opposed to any group claiming that they alone belonged to Him (I Cor 3:21-23).

 

The servants were not looking for an 'honour status' at Corinth and indeed, Paul was at pains to avoid any such thing or the possibility of being 'owned by' or 'belonging to' any persons to the extent he would not even take fellowship from the Corinthian assembly though he asserted his right to do so (I Cor. 9:1-18). Paul's life and ministry were the opposite of all that the sophists stood for; Paul summed up his theology in Gal. 6:14: 'But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.' It was the Corinthians themselves who sought for status and honour by being identified with one servant against another and the perceived prestige they derived from their declared allegiance appealed to their inflated egos and desire for social sophistication within the Christian community. This was the wisdom of the world which gloried in knowledge, wealth and power and that led the Corinthians into prideful boasting which was antithetical to the preaching of the cross and their calling from God. Through the gospel of the cross God had ordained 'that no flesh should glory in His presence' and 'He who glories, let him glory in the Lord' (I Cor 1:29, 31).

 

AJC

 

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[i] Taken from The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Editor Colin Brown. Copyright © 1976, 1986 by Paternoster Press and the Zondervan Corporation. Use by permission of Zondervan www.zondervan.com

 

[ii] The New International Commentary of the New Testament - The First Epistle to the Corinthians by Gordon D. Fee (pp 49-50) © 1987 Wm. B Eerdmans Co.

 

[iii] Biblical Studies Press. (2006). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (1 Co 1:20). Biblical Studies Press.

 

[iv] "Sophist." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Deluxe Edition.  Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011

 

[v] Sophists From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

[vi] Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (RHETORIC) ©1993 by Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship of the U.S.A.

 

[vii] The Pillar New Testament Commentary - The First Letter to the Corinthians (p 86) © 2010 Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner All Rights Reserved. Published 2010 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

 

[viii] Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (APOLLOS) ©1993 by Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship of the U.S.A.

 

[ix] Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

 

[x] Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (APOLLOS) ©1993 by Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship of the U.S.A.