October 2020 Credo
This article is a slightly revised version of a sermon I delivered at the Trinity Theological College Chapel Service on 5 February 2020.
Let me begin with a quotation:
A man who imagines that because he has a head full of knowledge that he is sufficient for these things had better start learning again. ‘Who is sufficient for these things?’ What are you doing? You are not simply imparting information, you are dealing with souls, you are dealing with pilgrims on the way to eternity, you are dealing with matters not only of life and death in this world, but with eternal destiny.
These words are gleaned from a once influential book on preaching by the renowned minister of Westminster Chapel, the late Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones. They were written to help new and seasoned preachers alike to understand what it is that they are doing when they stand at the pulpit every Sunday to preach.
In many ways, these words echo the concerns expressed by the Apostle Paul in today’s passage from 1 Corinthians. Paul wrote this passage to the Christians in Corinth to address their childish fascinations with the eloquence of some preachers in their midst.
He uses his own example to counter the pompous showmanship of the so-called ‘super-apostles’ in the Corinthian Church. In the process, the Apostle discloses some of his most intimate thoughts about what it means to be a minister of the word of God.
What insights can we glean from this passage? And how are they still relevant to the Church today, especially to Christians who are called to teach or preach God’s Word to God’s people?
Let me to share some thoughts with you as we reflect on this passage together.
NOT IN LOFTY WORDS
Paul begins by emphasising that the central concern of preaching is not the display of the preacher’s eloquence or learning. ‘I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom’, the Apostle writes.
Paul ministered in a culture that placed a very high premium on knowledge and eloquence. The Greeks often prided themselves in their oratory prowess, their rhetorical skills and their grandiloquence in speechmaking.
The Corinthian Christians, it appears, were also similarly enamoured by such qualities. They seem to have an almost jealous fascination with those who possess them.
So, they accorded these preachers and teachers with the highest esteem, elevating them to superstar status. Some of them even went so far as to organise celebrity cults around these personalities – the cult surrounding Apollos being a case in point (1:12).
The false teachers in Corinth no doubt took full advantage of this. They scratched the ‘itching ears’ (2 Timothy 4:3) of the Corinthians Christians by their persuasive locution – never mind the orthodoxy of their teaching.
And the Corinthian Christians, among whom we are told not may were ‘wise by human standards’ (1:26), took the bait. They were mesmerised by the sophistry of these suave and cunning ‘super apostles’ and very quickly came under their spell.
Paul wants to rescue the Corinthians from this dangerous deception. He uses his own example to counter the theatrics of the false teachers in the Corinthian Church.
‘I did not proclaim the testimony of God to you with excellency of speech or wisdom’, he says. ‘I was with you in much weakness and trembling’. ‘My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom’.
The apostle downplays everything that the false teachers tried to exude and the Corinthians admired – eloquence, learning, self-confidence, charisma. Compared to the magnetism and appeal of the ‘super apostles’, Paul’s ministry must have appeared insipid and even boring to the Corinthians.
But this is precisely the point that Paul wants to make. This is the lesson he wants to teach the Christians in Corinth, a lesson that the Church today will do well to pay attention to.
Preaching is not about the preacher! Preaching is not about projecting one’s self! It is not about showing off the technical knowledge or the strange vocabulary that we have acquired in seminary, or our mastery of the biblical languages.
Neither is preaching a display of our charm, our talents, and our competencies. Preaching should never turn exegesis to ‘narcigesis’ – a self-indulgent weekly parade of our ever-inflating egos.
‘I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom’, Paul says. In these words, we find what may be described as the spirituality of preaching.
You see preaching can either be carnal or spiritual.
Preaching can be done in such a way that the preacher takes centre-stage, basking in the limelight, soaking the admiration and praise of his congregation. This is the forte of Paul’s opponents.
Or preaching can be done in such a way that the preacher disappears behind the cross. And what is presented to the hearers, what shines forth, is the beauty of the Gospel, the unfathomable love of God, the glory and splendour of the divine majesty.
Preaching must never be allowed to become an exercise in vanity. True preaching is always be kenotic – it requires that the preacher empties himself.
NOT IN HUMAN WISDOM
A cursory reading of this passage would give us the impression that Paul seems to be rejecting human wisdom in toto. He seems to have some very disparaging and scathing things to say about ‘the wisdom of this age’. In fact, in this passage the Apostle seems to place human wisdom and the wisdom of God in the sharpest possible antithesis.
Divine wisdom, Paul asserts, is a ‘secret and hidden’ wisdom. It has been ‘decreed before the ages for our glorification’ (2:7). In other words, divine wisdom is eternal, immutable, infallible and salvific.
Human wisdom, on the other hand, does not possess any of these attributes. It is temporal, fragile and fleeting. The sources and architects of human wisdom are mere mortals, wrapped up in all the attendant frailties and imperfections of finitude. They are ‘doomed to pass away’ (2:6).
But the most devastating and scathing judgement on human wisdom is found in verse 8. Human wisdom is so dense, so thick, that it is unable to discern what God is doing. It is unable to penetrate the divine mind. It is absolutely clueless when it comes to spiritual things.
So, the Apostle writes in verse 8: ‘None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’.
Thus, Paul is resolved ‘to know nothing … except Jesus Christ and him crucified’. And he seems to be urging the Corinthian Christians to do the same.
Now, it is quite easy to misunderstand Paul, as some Christians indeed have done. Some Christians, in all sincerity, think that the Apostle is here saying that all human learning is unimportant, even irrelevant to Christian ministry.
Paul’s words can be used to lend support to the anti-intellectualism that we find in some sectors of the evangelical church today. This phenomenon has led the evangelical historian Mark Noll to assert, rather uncharitably, that ‘The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind’.
Be that as it may, Paul’s words have led some Christians to think that Christians should have no book but the Bible. And this has led to a dismissive attitude towards theological education, which I’m sure we have encountered in some of the people we know.
Why bother with Bultmann, Moltmann, Kasemann, Brueggemann, and Cullmann when all that really matters is the Bible?
But this surely is not what Paul is saying here at all.
Those who interpret his words in this way have simply failed to consider their context seriously. They have simply failed to understand the polemical nature of these statements.
As we have seen, the Corinthian Christians were not only fascinated with eloquent orators; they were similarly enamoured by speakers who display great erudition and learning.
Yet, they lacked the spiritual maturity to discern the difference between the ‘wisdom of this age’ and the wisdom of God. Consequently, they regarded human wisdom in higher esteem than the truth of the Gospel.
They were on the verge of falling over the precipice, of following the Greeks who disparage the wisdom of God as foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:23).
In placing human and divine wisdom in the sharpest possible antithesis in this passage, Paul is not rubbishing human learning. He is not promoting anti-intellectualism.
Rather he is addressing the distorted perspective of the Corinthian Christians, their folly. He is correcting their theological astigmatism, which confuses the penultimate with the ultimate.
In the final analysis, Paul’s concern is soteriological. He wants the Corinthians to put their faith not in the wisdom of men, which has no power to save, but in the power of God, which has (2:1).
IN THE POWER OF GOD
Preaching is not about using lofty words, as if people can be saved by the preacher’s eloquence. Preaching is not about displaying human wisdom, as if Aristotle or Hegel or Wittgenstein has the power to turn wretched sinners into saints.
Preaching has to do with making plain, with the Spirit’s help, ‘a secret and hidden wisdom of God’ (2:7). That wisdom does not come in the form of complex metaphysical concepts. Neither is it enshrined in thick philosophical tomes or hidden in convoluted and impenetrable arguments.
No, the ‘secret and hidden wisdom of God’ is found in a person. It is found in the figure whom a prophet of old describes as one who was ‘despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ (Isaiah 53:3).
It is found in that lone figure whose mangled body was nailed to the tree of the cross on a hill called Calvary. It is found in the crucified Christ, now risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, and who will return to judge the world.
This Jesus of Nazareth, who is very God and very man, is the revelation and exegesis of the triune God – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And preaching may be broadly described as the exegesis of this incarnate God, the exposition of the meaning and significance of this man who is the eternal Word of God.
That is why Paul said: ‘I decided to know nothing … except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (2:2).
Christian preaching must always resist the lure and seductions of the world. It must never conform to the tempers of our age.
‘Jews demand signs and Greeks demand wisdom’, the apostle writes, ‘but we preach Christ crucified’ (1:22). Despite all temptations to pander to the moods and fancies of the prevailing culture, the Church must stay the course. She must preach Christ crucified.
She must not sway and bend to the winds of change. She must not alter her message to suit her ‘cultured despisers’ (to borrow an expression from Schleiermacher). She must not adulterate the Gospel so that she can be relevant in the eyes of the world.
She must preach Christ crucified. For what can be more relevant, what can be more urgent and needful to this fallen world than the cross?
Every preacher must, like Paul, approach this task ‘in weakness and in much fear and trembling’ (2:3). For in preaching the Word of God, we preachers are making a very bold claim. We claim to speak on God’s behalf!
Furthermore, we claim that the God who brought this world into being speaks through us. We claim that the very Word of God is sounded in the words of Roland, of Theng Huat, of Loe Joo, of Edmund.
What an astonishing claim! If God has not called us to this task, who among us would have the audacity to make such a claim? To recall the haunting words of Martyn Lloyd Jones (which he takes from Paul), ‘Who is sufficient for these things?’ Who indeed!
But God has called us to this impossible task. He has called us to impart this great mystery, this uncommon wisdom, ‘in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit’ (2:13). His grace has made the impossible possible.
Let us, then, in joyful obedience avail ourselves unreservedly to God in this ministry – ‘in weakness, in much fear and trembling’, and in humility. Let us be resolved to ‘know nothing … except Jesus Christ and him crucified’.
And let us have the faith and the confidence to believe that God can use us, even us, broken, frail and unworthy vessels, as his instruments of grace. Let have the faith and confidence to believe that God can use our stammering and faltering speech to communicate his truth and to demonstrate his power.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.