I often hear 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 applied to the issue of whether one needs to know Greek in order to comment on certain translation issues. It’s difficult to see how anyone could imagine that this passage applies to such a situation. Certainly there are spiritual things which a Christian will understand differently than others, but you either read Greek or you don’t.
First, let’s look at the broader context of the passage. (I will quote portions, but I assume that everyone can look this up in their Bible.)
The first epistle to the Corinthians is, as the word “epistle” denotes, a letter, written by the apostle Paul in response to problems in that church. It is often treated as a kind of random collection of advice to that church, but that is not really the case. There is a very important unifying theme. That’s why I won’t limit my discussion to the verses you specified. In particular, verses 10-17 set the scene for the entire book.
Paul first says that the problem in Corinth is a division into factions (1:10-12) then he asks pointedly whether Christ has been divided (13). He continues by asking whether they were baptized into his (Paul’s) name. He then takes one of his famous detours to explain who he did, or did not baptize, on which his memory is not terribly clear (14-16) but verse 17 sets the state for his discussion of 18-31. He was not called to baptize but to preach. It is the proclamation of Jesus Christ that is the focus of Paul’s work.
This is a thematic statement for the epistle. As we read through the entire letter, we see that Paul sees a central problem in the factions of the church. People are dividing themselves up over different evidences of how spiritual they are. Not only that, they are questioning Paul’s leadership, because he doesn’t fulfill their particular tests of spirituality. Some see the truly spiritual person as one who bears wisdom. Others see those who ignore deeds of the flesh as truly spiritual. Others test their spiritual state by their wealth, and even bring such wealth into the communion service. Yet others see the mark of their spirituality in the various gifts of the Spirit, and especially in the gift of tongues. Thus for them, the one who speaks most in tongues is, in fact, the most spiritual person.
Paul challenges this view in chapters 12-14, and then in chapter 15, he returns to this initial point—the preaching of Jesus Christ, crucified, dead and also resurrected. He makes clear then that the only true completely spiritual state comes with the resurrection or transformation when this corruptible puts on incorruption and this mortal puts on immortality (15:54-55). Until that time, our spirituality, whether manifested in knowledge, prophecy or tongues is still partial and limited. I note here that any idea that the canon of scripture constitutes perfect knowledge is in direct contradiction to Paul’s message to the Corinthian church. We absolutely do not have perfect knowledge. That is reserved to the kingdom of God.
Now having set this context, I return to 1:18-25 (with further reference to 26-31). It’s interesting to me that this passage is brought up frequently when someone is losing an argument. “My argument may look foolish,” is the cry, “but it’s really divine wisdom!” I have seen this used again and again in opposition to serious study, whether that is through study of the original languages, or simply a careful look at a passage in context. “If it isn’t simple, it must be false,” is the war cry of some.
I will suggest that this attitude is actually one of the things Paul would oppose, based on the principles in this passage.
18 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. 19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
1 Corinthians 1:18-19 (NRSV)
We immediately see that Paul has a specific type of “foolishness” in mind—the foolishness of the cross. Paul’s argument here is that the world finds the idea of a savior who died on a cross to be foolishness, and the notion that such a savior rose from the dead impossible (see chapter 15), but that this is God’s wisdom and the core of Paul’s preaching.
Paul’s intent here is to place the cross—and specifically the foolishness of the cross—at the center of the proclamation. When someone takes this point and then tries to apply it to just any form of human foolishness, that seems to me to border on blasphemy. It is not that God has taken all foolishness and made it wisdom; rather, through Jesus Christ, God has taken a specific thing—the incarnation—and cancelled the human wisdom of the world with that. Notice verse 19. It is the foolishness of the cross that destroys the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning. Was it all wisdom and all discernment? Hardly. Paul speaks of a spiritual gift of discernment. Paul speaks with respect of the Hebrew scriptures which place a great premium on wisdom.
Verse 21 puts further emphasis on this. It is through the foolishness of the proclamation, which Paul has already alluded to in verse 17 as the focus of his ministry, that God has chosen in order to save people. For Paul, opening the good news of a relationship with God, one which he believed would culminate in a resurrection-transformation, to everyone was a very critical proclamation. And it was made possible, in his view, not through words of wisdom, but through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
Now verse 25 is also critical. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1:25 NRSV). It is not that human foolishness is greater than human wisdom, it is that God’s foolishness (relatively speaking) is greater than the greatest of human wisdom.
Now does this say that any foolish thing someone can say about scripture is alright and that nobody should challenge it? No. Even Paul wished to use words of wisdom in speaking to the Corinthians. He wished they were mature enough to hear them (2:6-10). Did he say that someone who doesn’t know a language actually does? No, he simply elevated the foolishness of the cross above the wisdom of the world. I repeat that trying to carry all forms of human foolishness past logical objections by trying to ride them in on the “foolishness of the cross” at a minimum borders on blasphemy to Christian ears.
Now let’s look at 26-31. Here Paul points out that many of the members of the Corinthian church were not terribly important, rich, or wise by the world’s standards when they were called. This is one of a number of places in this letter in which Paul makes the effort to put everyone on an even footing before God. Later, in chapter 12, Paul will point out that all gifts come from one and same Spirit who gives them out as he wills. Again, all stand on a level field before God. After discussing those gifts Paul switches again to the calling (12:12-13). Again, he speaks of equal footing.
Chapter 13 makes this more explicit, and also gives us a key principle. What if I have various gifts, even all knowledge? If I don’t have love, I am nothing. That’s because the principles of love as expressed in 13:4-8a all tend to keep me from making a faction out of my particular talents or gifts. They take the pride out of those gifts.
In chapter 8:1-2 (and following), we see a misapplication of knowledge. Someone who knows that an idol is nothing can use that knowledge to hurt another brother or sister. Knowledge puffs up. But does Paul suggest we need no knowledge? Not at all! He refers to knowledge as a gift. I love verse two and use it frequently. Anyone who thinks he already knows doesn’t know the way he should.
I recall a youth pastor who had listened as I spoke about the scriptures and answered questions from his youth group. At the end he said he had a question. “I’ve been studying the Bible now for four or five years and I feel that I’ve pretty much got it. What do I do now?” he asked. I admit to being pretty close to speechless. When we quit looking for more knowledge, when we allow the idea that we have attained to stop us, we are truly in a pitiable state.
So what does my knowledge of Greek do for me? It allows me to read Greek and to comment on Greek words. Does it give me special status before God? Absolutely not. Does it give me the inside track on salvation? On sanctification? Absolutely not. All it does is allow me to read and understand Greek. Can my understanding improve? Absolutely. I pray continually that it will improve.
On the other hand, does Paul’s statement here suggest in any way that someone who doesn’t know Greek can read it anyways? Again, not at all. The one who reads and the one who doesn’t are not to judge one another spiritually because of that.
There is the reverse error that I also see in the church. Because of this passage many Christians celebrate ignorance. They figure that God has chosen the simple things to confound the wise, so let’s be as simple as we can. That is precisely the same error—believing that the state of my knowledge gives me a special place with God. There is only *one* foolishness which is elevated here: the foolishness of the cross.
I leave you with a text from Hebrew scriptures, in which wisdom personified is crying out in the street:
22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Proverbs 1:22 (NRSV)