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Note of the Day – August 16

[This series of notes is on 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16; the previous day’s note dealt with 2:1-5]

1 Corinthians 2:6

“And (yet) we (do) speak wisdom among the (one)s (who are) complete, and (it is) wisdom not of this Age, and not of the chief (ruler)s of this Age th(at are) being made inactive…”

This statement introduces a new section, building upon vv. 1-5 (cf. the prior note). In verse 5, Paul contrasts human/worldly wisdom (“the wisdom of men”) with the power of God; now, here in verse 6, he returns to the earlier contrast between two different kinds of wisdom. The conjunction de/, translated “and” above (first two instances), has adversative force, and could just as well be rendered “but”. In contrast with worldly wisdom:

  • Believers (and esp. Christian ministers) do speak/use wisdom, but
    • It is altogether different from the wisdom of the world and its rulers

The use of the term ai)w/n (“age”)—properly “life(time)”, but typically used in reference to a long period or span of time—reflects the eschatological emphasis and background of much Jewish (and early Christian) thought. Practically speaking, time was fundamentally divided between This Age (the present time) and the Age to Come; and, according to the widespread manner of eschatological (and apocalyptic) thinking, the current Age was seen as coming to a close, with the inauguration of the future Age being imminent, about to take place at any time. Moreover, the current Age has been steadily growing worse and more corrupt, marked by evil (and the evil powers). Paul expresses this general belief at various points in his letters (cf. Rom 8:18ff; 1 Cor 7:26, 31; Gal 1:4; and also Eph 6:12), but he adds to it a distinctive view of the current Age (that is, up to the coming of Jesus) as being in bondage under the power of sin (Rom 5:12-6:14ff; 7:7-25; 8:20-21ff; Gal 3:22ff, etc). Thus, it is not just a question of the natural limitations of human/worldly wisdom, but also (and more significantly) that this wisdom is the product of a corrupt and sinful Age (cf. Rom 1:18-32 and the brief statement in 1 Cor 1:21 [discussed in a prior note]).

It is sometimes thought that the “chief (ruler)s” (a&rxonte$) here refer to the divine/angelic powers governing the created world, largely on the basis of Eph 2:2. According to the worldview expressed by Paul (and other Jews and Christians of the time), in light of the fallen/sinful state of creation, these would be understood as demonic powers or evil spirits. However, the context of 1 Cor 2:6 makes it all but certain that Paul is referring here to human rulers and persons of prominence. The entire theme of the passage is the contrast between human and divine wisdom, and the use of the noun again in verse 8 definitely refers to human rulers—i.e. the Jewish and Roman authorities who put Jesus to death (cf. also Acts 3:13, 17; 4:26-27 [citing Ps 2:1-2], etc). The context of Romans 13:3, the only other use of a&rxwn in the (undisputed) Pauline letters, only confirms this meaning. However, in Paul’s mind, there would have been a close connection between the (human) rulers or ‘powers’ in the world and the evil (demonic) powers—they all are part of the current order of things that is bound under sin and is “passing away” (1 Cor 7:31), especially insofar as they are ignorant of the truth and opposed to the will and work of God (in Christ). This helps to explain the use of the verb katarge/w, which occurs frequently in Paul’s letters (23 of the 27 NT occurrences are in the undisputed letters)—on this verb, see my earlier note on 1:28. With the coming of Christ—his death, resurrection, and exaltation (to God’s right hand)—the current Age, the old order of things, is now coming to a close, and the “new Age” is already being realized for believers in Christ. The present participle form (katargoume/nwn) suggests that this is an ongoing process—that the rulers and prominent persons of this Age are being made inactive, of no effect (lit. made to cease working).

There is a special interpretive difficulty for the first half of this verse, involving the precise identification of the “wisdom [sofi/a]” mentioned, and, more importantly, “the ones (who are) complete [oi( telei/oi]”. Earlier, throughout 1:18-31, Paul has identified the “wisdom”—i.e. of God, in contrast to human/worldly wisdom—with the essential proclamation of the Gospel message, of the death (and resurrection) of Jesus. Here, however, the wording he uses, as well as the specific contrast with vv. 1-5, suggests that he may have something slightly different in mind. It is not possible to offer a definitive solution to the question in this note; however, I offer below a number of interpretations which have been suggested by commentators over the years. First, it is important to note the use of the adjective te/leio$, which fundamentally means “complete, finished”. Typically, translators have alternated between two renderings: (a) “perfect”, (b) “mature”—usually reserving the first for references to God, and the second for references to human beings (believers). Neither of these is satisfactory—the first being rather too abstract and (potentially) misleading, the second altogether too soft. I prefer the more fundamental translation “complete”, recognizing that the English “mature” may be the best (conventional) approximation in our idiom. For Paul’s use of the adjective in relation to believers, cf. Rom 12:2 (also applied to God); 1 Cor 14:20; Phil 3:15; Col 1:28; 4:12. The references in Colossians are somewhat close in meaning, since they deal with the idea of believers coming to be made “complete” in Christ; also of note is 1 Cor 13:10, where the “complete” comes, it would seem, along with the coming of the new Age. In conclusion, here are some of the suggested interpretations; I number them for convenience, without indicating any preference:

  1. The basic Gospel message (wisdom) is given to all believers, but a more advanced (esoteric?) Christian wisdom (teaching, etc) is offered for those who are “complete”—mature and committed in the faith sufficiently to receive it.
    —This view is suggested by a straightforward reading of the passage, as well as by the language Paul uses in 3:1-3; but it is difficult to square with his thought and teaching as a whole.
  2. Paul is simply making a rhetorical contrast. There is only one wisdom—that of the person of Christ and his death/resurrection. The “complete” believers are able to recognize this and do not need to seek after any other “wisdom”.
    —The entire thrust of Paul’s argument here, as well as his teaching elsewhere in his letters, makes it hard to think that he imagines some other kind of “wisdom” separate from (or beyond) the basic Gospel message. However, if this wisdom is accessible to all believers, as certainly would be true of the basic Gospel, then why does he make the distinction of “the ones (who are) complete” here?
  3. He is distinguishing between the Gospel proclamation and the teaching/instruction, etc., which builds upon the basic message, interpreting and applying it for believers as they grow in faith. For the “complete” this includes a wide range of “wisdom”—ways of thinking/reasoning, use of argument, illustration, allegory/parable, (creative) interpretations of Scripture, etc.
    —Perhaps the best evidence for this view is Paul’s letters themselves, which clearly include much which goes well beyond a simple statement or proclamation of the Gospel message. However, an examination of 3:1-3 would suggest that there is yet something more kept in reserve, not yet expressed in the letters, at least not entirely.
  4. Paul himself evinces certain gnostic/mystic tendencies whereby there are envisioned levels or layers in the Gospel—i.e. the basic proclamation and belief regarding the person and work of Christ—as in the Scriptures, the deepest of which involve the most profound expressions of God’s wisdom. Only the “complete” are able to realize this, and to be able to communicate something of it to the wider community.
    —It is possible that this view is suggested by what follows in verses 9-16; but see #5 below.
  5. Paul is responding to gnostic/mystic tendencies among believers in Corinth. Here, as a kind of rhetorical approach, he is drawing upon their own thinking and sensibilities, trying to bring their focus back to the centrality of the Gospel and a proper understanding of the work of the Spirit. As such, the apparent distinctions he makes are somewhat artificial, perhaps running parallel to the (actual) divisions among the Corinthians themselves.
    —Such a view is intriguing, if tenuous; much depends on whether the formulae of vv. 9-16 stem from Corinthian “gnostics” or Paul himself.
  6. The wisdom for the “complete” reflects a deep understanding of, and participation in, the work of the Spirit. Believers who are completely guided by the Spirit need no other instruction. Paul is essentially expounding this thought in vv. 9-16, only to make (painfully) clear to the Corinthians how far they still are from the ideal.
    —The context of chapter 2 strongly favors this view (or something like it); however, it would essentially require that the “complete” in v. 6 represents a paradoxical formulation: who are the “complete” believers? are there any?

I leave my own interpretation of verse 6a until the remainder of vv. 7-16 have been discussed (over the next few daily notes). By that point, a careful study of the passage as whole should give greater clarity to which view, or views, are more likely.

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