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Note of the Day – August 9

[This series of notes is on 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16; the previous day’s note looked at 1:18, the first statement in the section]

1 Corinthians 1:21

“For thereupon, (since) in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through the wisdom, God considered (it) good, through the ‘stupidity’ of the proclamation, to save the (one)s trusting.”

The basic contrast set in verse 18 (cf. the previous note), and strengthened by the citation of Isa 29:14 in verse 19, culminates in the rhetorical challenge in verse 20:

“…has not God made dull/stupid [e)mw/ranen] the wisdom of the world?”

The verb mwrai/nw is related to the noun mwri/a, and continues the contrast between “wisdom” (swfi/a) and “dullness, stupidity” (mwri/a).

The use of the compound particle e)peidh/ which opens verse 21 is meant to give emphasis to a particular statement or conclusion; in English, we would say something like “now then, since…”. The first half of the verse uses a delightful bit of (elliptical) wordplay which is easily lost in translation:

  • “in the wisdom of God [e)n th=| sofi/a| tou= qeou=]”
    —”the world did not know”
  • “through the wisdom, God [dia\ th=$ sofi/a$ to\n qeo/n]”

The central phrase is important—”the world did not know”, emphasizing ignorance and lack of (true) knowledge. An interesting question involves whether, or to what extent, this refers to the world’s unwillingness to know, as opposed to a natural blindness/ignorance placed on it (by God). I would suggest that both aspects are indicated by the parallel phrases which bracket the statement:

“in the wisdom of God” (e)n th=| sofi/a| tou= qeou=)
“God through the wisdom” (dia\ th=$ sofi/a$ to\n qeo/n)

However, much depends on the exact force of the second use of “the wisdom”; in context, it can be read two ways:

  • “they did not know God through th(is) wisdom [i.e. through the wisdom of God]”, or
  • “they did not know God through the(ir) wisdom [i.e. through their own human wisdom]”

Both make sense, but I feel that the first option better fits the contrast with the second half of the verse (though perhaps only slightly so). Let us examine the basic outline of the sentence:

  • in the wisdom of God
    • the world did not know God
      • through th(is) wisdom
  • God considered it good
    • to save the ones trusting
      • through the stupidity (of the proclamation)

This does not represent the syntax of the Greek so much as the logic of the statement. According to the first interpretation (above), the world was unable (and/or unwilling) to know God by way of God’s own wisdom. It is possible that this assumes or alludes to the Jewish tradition of Wisdom (that is, God’s wisdom personified) looking to find a dwelling place among human beings on earth, and finding no welcome (1 Enoch 42:2; cf. also Prov 8:31; Sirach 24:8-12, and the likely influence on John 1:10-12). Jewish (and early Christian) Wisdom traditions would have affirmed a basic sense of what we call “natural revelation”—i.e., the manifestation of God’s nature and character through the works of creation, etc. Paul, in his own way, draws upon such thinking in Romans 1:18-23 (cf. also the speech in Acts 17:22-31 [esp. verses 26-28]). The second interpretation (above) yields a somewhat different emphasis:

  • in the wisdom of God
    • the world did not know God
      • through the wisdom (of the world), i.e. their own wisdom

This is more amenable to modern ways of thinking, and, certainly Paul makes reference to the world’s unwillingness/refusal to recognize God (esp. in Rom 1:18-23ff); however, the emphasis on human responsibility, if you will, is perhaps a bit out of place here. When Paul speaks of human ignorance (being “without knowledge”) prior to the introduction of the Gospel, it tends to be in the context of what God Himself specifically has established or has allowed—cf. Acts 14:16f; 17:30; Rom 14:16. In 1 Cor 2:8, the death of Christ is attributed to human ignorance, due to the fact that God has hidden his wisdom away from them; this will but touched on in a subsequent note (cf. also Acts 3:17). The emphasis of God’s action and purpose is perhaps expressed most forcefully in Galatians 3:22, which has a structure similar to 1 Cor 1:21:

  • he (God, through the Scripture, i.e. the Law)
    • closed all things together under sin
  • so he might give the promise (“it might be given”)
    • to the ones trusting
      • through [lit. out of] trust in Jesus Christ

The phrase “he closed all things together under sin” is parallel to “the world did not know”; similarly, “trust in Jesus Christ” is parallel with “the proclamation”. However one interprets 1 Cor 1:21, priority must be given to the will and purpose of God governing these things (“in the wisdom of God” / “God considered [it] good”). Let me summarize the two main interpretations presented above:

  1. The world did not know God through the wisdom of God, so:
    He chose to save the ones trusting (in Him) through something “stupid/foolish”
    —This expresses a kind of (divine) irony
  2. The world did/could not know God through its own wisdom, so:
    He decided to save the ones trusting through something the world itself considers “stupid/foolish”
    —An example of the popular “reversal of fortune” theme, and likewise ironic in its own way

In some ways, the most striking part of this verse is Paul’s expression “the stupidity of the proclamation”—that is, the proclamation of the Gospel. In what way is this proclamation “stupid”?—in that it has at its core the message of man put to death through the disgraceful punishment of crucifixion. This is made clear by Paul in vv. 23ff, which I will be discussing in the next daily note.

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