April 30, 2009

The Foolishness of God

Does God Go Against Logic?
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. -I Corinthians 1:20-25 ESV
This verse has often to employed to argue for a kind of anti-intellectualism. Often any view which attempts to express itself intelligently and looks beyond cultural assumption is immediately referred to as "human reasoning" or "worldly wisdom" and promptly discarded. This interpretation of this text closes the mind and causes mental and spiritual stagnation. But I propose that Paul is not stating that we need to resist wisdom or critical thinking. There are many references of Scripture (like the entire book of Proverbs for instance) that make it clear that God respects wisdom and critical thinking.

If we assume that all of which God gives us is good, though corruptible, then we should resist any theology that renders a natural aspect of humanity untrustworthy and wicked. This would go with sex, emotions, particularity, genders, races, and, of course, cognitive faculties. If God gave us these things, then they are innately good, and must be honored. This does not mean we treat them as infallible authorities, for the human condition has completely fallen, and all aspects of our humanity are corrupted. But we also should not shun our humanity either.

Personally, I do not believe the anti-intellectual stance of modern evangelicalism has anything to do with inherit Christianity. Instead, I think it is caused by an attempt counter the overdeveloped intellectualism of modernism. But is this appropriate? Does God defy sense? Does God expect us to do foolish things simply because He's foolish? Shall we excuse irrational theological positions for simply being "mystery"? I believe not, and to do so misses the greater meaning of this text.


The subject of the discussion here is the crucifixion. This is rather important to remember because the ultimate question that Paul is answering here is, "Was Christ dying on the cross the wise thing to do?"


Wisdom in the knowledge of the right thing to do at the right time. Well, in English that is true. In Greek, wisdom more refers to learning and understanding. It refers to the philosophy, which itself simply means the love of wisdom. So when Paul refers to the wisdom of the world, he is referring to the world's understanding of the way things work. This doesn't necessarily refer to all categories of theological and philosophical thought, but merely referring to the perspective that the world has.

In this sense, the anti-intellectuals have a point. Christianity is, by its roots, a popular religion. The gospel itself is simple, and should be kept that way. When we move beyond the birth/death/resurrection/return of Christ, we have moved beyond the basics. It's not wrong to move beyond the basics, but it is wrong to treat those things which are not the basics as if they were, which is Paul's point.

To the Greek's, this was utter foolishness, because that's just not how God should behave. God is perfect and transcendent. He is in control of all things. He wouldn't risk the cosmos to die for mere human beings. God is beyond such things. This was the basic (and rather oversimplified) reaction of the Greeks to the gospel of Christ. This is what Paul was rejecting.


However, Paul claims that this merely seems foolish, yet it is truly wise. But what is wise about it? What was so wise about Christ dying on the cross? Was it the logical thing to do?

I believe, and this is merely my opinion here, that Paul didn't mean that God was more logical than the Greeks, but that God's view was higher than the Greeks, for there is something higher than logic: love.

Christ did not die on the cross because it was the logical thing to do. Christ died on the cross because it was the compassionate thing to do. Christ loved us; He loved us to death. In the end, this is wisdom in the traditional sense, because Christ dies for us before we accept Him, and regardless of whether we accept Him or not. That's not the point. The point is that He loves us, and He seeks our redemption.

We often do foolish things for love. Sometimes we do things that are just silly, like watching Fried Green Tomatoes. Other times, we do things which are sacrificial, like leaping into fires on the off chance we can reach our loved ones in time. Other times, we do things that are simply hopeless, like a mother visiting her son in jail. Love compels us to act for the other, regardless of whether or not it is wise.

Yet it is wiser to hold on to the things that you love, and to take care of them than simply to always do what should be done. God is wiser than the wisdom of the world, because He takes care of the things that really matters: His children. Ultimately, this is the aspect of God that the Greeks just couldn't get. And ultimately, this act which is foolishness to the world, out shines their wisdom because of what God can accomplish through His reckless love.

Isn't it grand that we serves such a God?


The point of this text isn't that we should abandon all forms of higher learning. It also doesn't mean that we should accept contradictory things to keep our theology simple. We can be thoughtful and extensive in our theological musings.

The point is that in our theological pursuits we should never lose sight of the heart. Compassion is greater than wisdom, and we shouldn't allow our philosophies to come between us and the heart of God. Indeed, we should judge our philosophies and theologies by whether or not it upholds the heart of God.


Mason said...

"in our theological pursuits we should never lose sight of the heart."

Which, unfortunately, is very easy to do.
The anti-intellectualism of some in the faith is very frustrating for me.
Yes, I acknowledge that there is a lot more than the intellectual side of things, but that doesn’t make it unimportant.
The same people who say things like “seminary is a cemetery” tend to also have a faith that is grounded less in the Bible and more in unexamined pop-theology.
There is a place for academic study, it just can’t be the goal in and of itself.

Jc_Freak: said...

I remember what one of my professors said once. A women at church once came up to him and said, "I don't need theology, I just need to know that Jesus died for me and was raised again". Then he would get a smile and his face, turn to us with a clenched hand and say, "That is theology!"

Dan Martin said...

I agree completely, Martin. Reason and wisdom aren't wrong and to be avoided, they simply must be kept subordinated to the Spirit of Christ. Seen in their proper priority, they are vital tools.

I would frame it that we ought not go out of our way to appear foolish or unschooled, but on the other hand we should not fear to appear foolish if that's the outcome of faithful discipleship. Nor do I have a problem with the fact that "the world" seems some of what Jesus said as quite wise, even as the resurrection seems totally foolish.

Jc_Freak: said...

My fundamental point was that God's motivation in sending His Son was love rather than logic or antilogic, which I something I think a lot of people who propose the other interpretation are thinking, mostly because they haven't escaped the meta-narrative of modernity.

However Dan, you've nailed Paul's point right on the head. That is precisely Paul's point here. We shouldn't treasure sophistry as the primary means of understanding reality. God is more practical than that.

David Rudel said...

I think I might have some useful observations regarding this "foolishness" here. (Which I do agree is often misused any time someone uses logic to draw a conclusion that Orthodoxy does not like).

The "foolishness" here needs to be understood within the context of Second Temple Judaism. The Jews [ALL JEWS, not just the Pharisees] foresaw a savior who would be King and save them from the Romans [or whoever was oppressing them at the time.]

What they did not expect was that their king would die. That notion is unfathomable. The reason it is "foolishness" is not "it is odd that God would die for me." The focus is not on the sacrifice, but the death itself. The idea that the King of Israel would die makes no sense because it did not fit any of the paradigms of the resurrection believed at the time.

The Greeks [and more or less everyone else other than Jews] did not believe in a bodily resurrection at all. The Jews debated it amongst each other, but the understanding was that (if there were a resurrection) it would occur all at one time. Everyone (or, depending on which group you were in, perhaps only the righteous of Israel'spast) would be resurrected at one time, either to create the Messianic Kingdom or to partake in it.

No one foresaw the individual resurrection of Christ, and hence when Christ was killed, everyone including His disciples thought the gig was up. The idea that the King of Israel would die and only then enter into His Monarchy was utter silliness.

And that is why "Christ Crucified" [literally "The anointed Crucified" which is really "The King Crucified" (The word "Christ" or "The anointed" was used to refer to the Jewish Kings (and sometimes the priests) throughout Jewish history.]
made no sense. How could the King die? How could Jesus save Israel if He was dead?

That is why the whole thing is foolishness. Not the notion that God would create a plan wherein the Almighty would sacrifice God's only begotten son....but rather the bizarre idea that the King of Israel would die.

[this is not to suggest Jesus was not a sacrifice...it is just meant to refocus the context here on 2nd Temple Judaism and how they saw Christ and the purpose of the Messiah, etc.]