Thursday, September 11, 2008

Into the World--Chapter Four: A Perpetual Warring Intellectual Context

If the Apostle Paul is to be understood, it is the Supreme Irony of God incarnate being tried and crucified—“the message about the cross,” Paul calls it—that conveys “the power” of the gospel message. (I Corinthians 1:18)

"…Christ…[sent me] to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. For it is written,
'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.'" (I Corinthians 1:17-19)

Let’s take Paul’s words to heart and see where it leads us. Jesus’ silence before Pilate following the famous question, then, was the Word of God incarnate—literally. For by his silence Jesus accepted the fate of the Supreme Irony that depicts the truth about God, as we observed earlier, and according to Paul’s words here, that fate—the cross—carries the power of God. But the I Corinthians text goes further. It tells us that the gospel thwarts discernment and destroys the wisdom of the wise. In fact, Paul wrote that wrapping the gospel in “eloquent wisdom” would empty it of its power. To be sure, in one sense that does explain Jesus’ silence before Pilate—for him to have unleashed divine eloquence before Pilate would have emptied the act that depicts the truth about God of its power. Moreover, it would likely have prevented it from happening at all.

Yet in another sense, we are left with an empty explanation. In fact it begs for the incredulous response Richard Dawkins gave to Ken Miller’s account of how Genesis conveys spiritual truth: “But what does that mean?!” To be sure, if eloquent wisdom renders the Gospel powerless, it would seem that Christopher Hitchens’ view that “faith is the negation of the intellect” is all that is left. Is embarrassment in the face of intellectual challenge the truth about Christianity, then?

Clearly no sense can be made, from the present standpoint, in response to those questions. But then the very point at hand is that one ought not try to make sense of the Gospel by way of what Paul goes on to call “the wisdom of the world.” (I Corinthians 1:20) In fact, Paul makes the point even more trenchantly: “…God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.” (I Corinthians 1:21) One purpose of the Gospel, then, is to confront the wisdom of the world—but with what, intellectual suicide?

Fortunately Paul provides the answer. The point of the Gospel is to confront the wisdom of the world with “…Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God…” (I Corinthians 1:30) We are left to understand this; the irony of God incarnate standing before a judge about to sentence him to death on a cross is not to be resolved from the standpoint of the wisdom of the world. Rather, the point of the Supreme Irony—God incarnate crucified—is to force a choice between worldly wisdom on the one hand and godly wisdom on the other. And very revealingly, that is precisely what we must expect to be true, if we are to make sense of the Supreme Irony as the Supreme Being. For as noted above, if we are to do so, we must reform our view of God. In other words, the message of the cross—foolishness from “the world’s” perspective—forces a capitulation in the way a person sees God, for the person who believes. One can have worldly wisdom and view the message of the cross as foolishness. Or one can have godly wisdom and view the wisdom of the world as foolishness. That is Paul’s claim, and it is tailor-made to make sense of “the Supreme Irony” of God incarnate crucified.

We must see whether, in fact, it is possible to make sense of the message of the cross as representing “wisdom from God”—“the truth,” presumably, that Jesus referred to in the exchange with Pilate. To discover that “sense,” we return to an earlier point, that the cause of the Supreme Irony of the gospel must be our false view of God.

A primer in basic biblical theology will form the next contextual layer. If a false view of God creates the Supreme Irony, where did the false view come from? It would be ideal if the false view were to have a clear and decisive origin in Scripture. For then we could form a definitive scriptural overview. It would be compelling if that clear and decisive origin were to produce a conceptual conversion contrary to the Supreme Irony. For then we could place the origin directly in position as the foil to the message of the cross. And it would be conclusive from the standpoint of interpreting Christian Scripture if the origin of the false view colored the whole of Scripture by influencing all human interaction with God depicted in the Bible. For if such a conceptual antecedent to the Gospel story is present in Scripture, then we will not be left wondering why Paul insists that the cross, in effect, contradict the wisdom of the world: The cross would be the corrective to a prior conceptual conversion to a false view of God that Scripture portrays as influencing all human interaction with God. It is precisely these desiderata that we will find in the story of “the fall” in the next chapter, where the miniature lesson in biblical theology is found.

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