On 1 Corinthians 1 and the Limits of Rational Thinking

On 1 Corinthians 1 and the Limits of Rational Thinking

Posted on:Jun 26 2008
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The authenticity of the epistle of 1 Corinthians is attested to by:

  • Clement of Rome in his work First Epistle to the Corinthians, 47,
  • Polycarp in his Epistle to the Philippians, 11, and
  • Irenaeus in his Against Heresies, 4.27.3.

Paul essentially says that the message of the Gospel is foolishness. In particular he emphasizes in chapter 3:18, that we must be fools before we can become wise.

What are we to understand from the apparent absurdity of these statements? Essentially, these first few chapters of 1 Corinthians are addressing one issue: On what will you stake your life?

To understand their significance, we need to understand the context in which they were written. That context was confusion and division. The city of Corinth was famed for its wealth in commerce. This was due in part to its location between the Ionian and the Aegean Seas on the isthmus connecting the Peloponnesus with Greece. It was the capital of the province of Achaia and the seat of the Roman Consul. Corinth was also infamous for its debauchery. Indeed, the word “Corinthianize” was a cliché for living in a vulgar, wanton way.

The letter to the Corinthians was composed in Ephesus shortly after Paul’s departure from Greece, probably in the spring of AD 57.

So the church was experiencing division and the problem was foundational. It was essentially a problem of premise. So this is the context; but we also need to uncover the central issue.

Paul or about Apollos or a doctrine; it is about What you will stake your life upon? In verse 12 we note that some base their life on a personality. In verse 22 we note that some base their life on their experience (power). In verse 22 we note that some base their life upon wisdom, rational thinking.

We need to understand the context. We need to uncover the central issue but we need to yield to ultimate authority; that is the message of the cross. And the message of the Cross runs counter to our expectations. It defies us, it offends us.

Paul declares that it is a stumbling block: the word skandalon in Greek, which essentially means a trap or a snare. It is the etymological source of the word scandal. For others it was pure foolishness. It was a stumbling block to the Jews because they were seeking a sign. It was foolishness to the Gentiles (particularly the Greeks), because they were seeking a rational explanation. This is not to say that a sign is wrong or that rational thinking is wrong. But a sign points to reality and those who are seeking signs only will never find enough. As Epicurus said, “Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.”

In John Chapter 6, people were seeking a sign from Jesus. He gave them none. Still, he had just fed 5,000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. He had just walked across the lake of Galilee. When they asked him for yet another sign, they were indicating that they were more enamored with the sign than to what the sign was pointing to.

The same may be said of the rational thinking process. Rational thinking can point you in the direction of ultimate truth, but it cannot get you there. In the end, rational thinking will lead to recognition of its limitation. This can cause great despair. So the idea that the message of the Cross is foolishness is not so much that the message of the Cross supplants rational thinking as it is that it recognizes the limits of rational thinking and transcends it. The authority of the cross transcends all other. Ultimate authority cannot be judged. One cannot truly evaluate a revelation claim. A revelation claim is always approached from the basis of a prior commitment to another revelation claim. A revelation claim can only be accepted or rejected. It is self-attesting.

My argument for these propositions is found in other writings. Essentially, you cannot think your way to the truth. You can only think yourself into desperation. You have to be rescued, which is the entire point of the cross.

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