I recently read a commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18. I found it to be an especially poignant statement that we would do well to heed today. Below is a quote:
18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
The death of Jesus is one of the foundational symbols that determined Paul’s vision of the Christian community (Pickett 1997: 29). But Greco-Roman symbols and mythology (see Zanker 1990) competed with the cross to provide a framework for interpreting life. The Corinthians’ quarreling reveals that they have absorbed, uncritically, the ideals and values of the pagan world around them, and Paul wants to replace pagan paradigms with the ideals and values exhibited in the cross. When he proclaimed the crucified Christ, however, every hearer from Jerusalem to Illyricum (Rom. 15:19) knew that this so-called Christ had suffered “a particularly cruel and shameful death, which as a rule was reserved for hardened criminals, incorrigible slaves, and rebels against the Roman state” (Hengel 1977: 83). The story behind Jesus’ death discloses that he was rejected by the very people he came to save, was deserted by his own disciples, was strung up by the proper authorities, and apparently was powerless to save his own skin. Paul did not sweep the crucifixion under the carpet as an unfortunate episode remedied by the glories of the resurrection. He does not say that he preached the resurrected Christ, but the crucified Christ.
Crucifixion and resurrection belong together as part of the gospel story (15:3–5), but the cross was repugnant to ancient sensibilities and assailed the world’s self-centeredness and self-destructive ways. It was not yet the “old rugged cross” sentimentalized in hymns, embalmed in stained-glass windows, perched on marble altars, or fashioned into gold charms.
Cicero (Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo 5.16) decries the crucifixion of a Roman citizen, exclaiming, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears.” To proclaim a crucified Jew from some backwater of the empire as “a divine being sent on earth, God’s son, Lord of all and the coming judge of the world, must have been thought by any educated man to be utter ‘madness’ and presumptiousness” (Hengel 1977: 83). Christianity was cradled in what looks like disastrous defeat, and the unspeakable stigma of the cross exposed the preacher of this message to woeful contempt. Paul, however, did not refer to Jesus’ death with embarrassment or skip over the awkward facts. Quite the opposite, it was central to his preaching, because the resurrection disclosed Christ’s suffering and death to be God’s modus operandi in the world. Since he also argues that the followers of Jesus must share the sufferings of the crucified (Rom. 8:17; Phil. 3:10), the message of the cross is an antidote to human self-glorification. It is “hardly a message for the ambitious” (Stansbury 1990: 476). The gospel transforms the cross as a symbol of Roman terror and political domination into a symbol of God’s love and power. It shows that the power of God’s love is greater than human love of power.
How could Paul expect anyone to respond to such a message? Litfin (1994: 261) outlines the five steps of persuasion in Greco-Roman rhetoric: (1) attention, (2) comprehension, (3) yielding, (4) retention, and (5) action. Greco-Roman rhetoric stressed step three, getting the audience to yield. Paul, Litfin argues, stressed step two, comprehension. Litfin contends that, in contrast to “sophisticated speech” (1:17), this “word of the cross” was “straightforward and open” and aimed at getting listeners to comprehend the content rather than nod assent after the speaker has proven the case (see also Winter 1997d: 186–94). Paul left the third step, yielding, to the persuasion of the Spirit. Rhetorical strategies designed to manipulate an audience to withdraw its objections empty the cross of its power by putting in its place the orator’s artistry and cleverness. I (Garland 1999: 472) write elsewhere, “Paul did not get people to believe by arguing that Christ crucified accords with the common principles of logic or that belief is in the long-term best interests of the hearers. As a herald, he simply announced what God has done in Christ. From his perspective, his job as proclaimer is to make sure that each hears and understands.” Paul trusts the power of the cross to convict the audience rather than the power of his eloquence. The Spirit reveals the message’s truth to the believer (2:4, 13). The audience is dethroned as the ultimate arbiter of what is true or persuasive (see Litfin 1994: 86), and the message becomes sovereign with the power to save or condemn, depending on the listener’s response. Brown (1995: 75–77) makes the case that the word of the cross is a performative word that has the power to change one way of knowing for another: “Through the logos, the cross continues to break powerfully into the old world’s ‘dominant system of convictions’ wherever it is proclaimed.”
The Corinthians had absorbed, “uncritically the ideals and values of the pagan world around them, and Paul wants to replace pagan paradigms with the ideals and values exhibited in the cross.” Garland goes on to describe the repugnance of the cross, and how Christianity was “cradled” in what looked like “disastrous defeat.” I cannot imagine how the church has moved so far from the cross! While nodding respect to the cross, it is now gold-plated, and almost everyone in the West thinks not of an instrument of torturous death, but a decoration for churches, altars, and necklines.
That we have abandoned the message of the cross is now so evident in our rush to entertainment as outreach, and the setting aside of preaching. Corresponding to our entertainment thirst is the ancient practise of rhetoric. Garland quotes Litfin (St. Paul’s Theology of Proclamation: 1 Corinthians 1–4 and Greco-Roman Rhetoric. Society of New Testament Studies Monograph Series 83. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.) who describes contemporary rhetoric in Corinth. Note that Paul places himself as a hearld, not as a rhetorician!
“Paul did not get people to believe by arguing that Christ crucified accords with the common principles of logic or that belief is in the long-term best interests of the hearers. As a herald, he simply announced what God has done in Christ. From his perspective, his job as proclaimer is to make sure that each hears and understands.”
In Paul’s preaching, “The audience is dethroned as the ultimate arbiter of what is true . . .” Could we even begin to imagine speaking this way in our era? What does modern wisdom have to say about this?
David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 801.