Higher Education and the Foolishness of the Cross: Lenten Reflections of I Corinthians 1

This guest editorial is by Dr. Harry Fernhout, current chair of the board of Global Scholars Canada. He is also former president of two notable Canadian academies of Christian higher learning: the Institute for Christian Studies and King’s University, Edmonton. A version of this reflection appeared in Contact, the newsletter of INCHE, the International Network for Christian Higher Education, in 2016.

[Christ sent me] to preach the gospel – not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross be emptied of its power.  For the message of 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; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”  Where is the wise person?  Where is the scholar?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  …[We] preach Christ crucified:… Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (I Corinthians 1: 17-20; 23-25)

This passage might not make a ‘Top Ten’ list of favourite texts for people engaged in higher education. In fact, it might make us a bit nervous and defensive. At first glance the apostle Paul seems to reveal a decidedly anti-intellectual streak. “Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher?” Wisdom and philosophy come to nothing and, worse, rob the cross of its power.  We might want to keep Paul out of the library, lest he start burning books! You can almost hear him shout, “Away with this nonsense!”

Thank God, it’s not that simple.  In verse 24 Paul says that Christ is “the wisdom of God.” Elsewhere he says that in Christ are hidden (and found!) all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). This is our clue that Paul thinks there are two kinds (or two ways) of wisdom, one rooted in “Christ crucified,” and one not.  These two ways of wisdom start from different principles.

Paul’s attack is directed at the scholar and philosopher of this age (vs. 20).  The gospel of the cross announces that this age is over.  A major new chapter in world history has begun.  Those who still pursue the wisdom of the old chapter are part of something that is one the way out, “perishing.”  And those who are “being saved” are part of God’s new start.

The wisdom of this age (“human wisdom”) has no room for what God has done in Christ.  It is caught in the web of human conceit which has plagued our race since Genesis 3.  From time immemorial humans asserted self-sufficiency from God and set conditions for what counts as wisdom and knowledge.  This is worldly wisdom’s conceit.

Paul knows that his message of a crucified Messiah is folly by the criteria of “this age.”  Who, in the name of wisdom, would have dreamed up such a story?  Commentator Gordon Fee wrote: “Had God consulted us for wisdom we could have given him a more workable plan, something that would attract… the lover of wisdom.  As it is, in his own wisdom he left us out of the consultation.  We are thus left with the awful risk: trust God and be saved by his wise folly, or keep up our pretensions and perish.”  (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 77)

“Paul thinks there are two kinds (or two ways) of wisdom, one rooted in “Christ crucified,” and one not.”

  • sculpture by Jacquie Binns, cast for life-size sculpture at St Peter’s Plymouth

The good news is that the risk is worth it because, in Paul’s wordplay, the foolishness of God is wiser than our wisdom.  For those who receive the gospel, Christ becomes the “wisdom of God.”  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” says the writer of Proverbs.  Paul updates this for the new covenant:  accepting the foolishness of what God has done in Christ is the key to wisdom. But with those who consider the gospel foolish, God does what he always does in the biblical story; God turns the tables.  “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.” (Lk. 1:51).  God reveals the pretense of the wisdom of this age for what it is: foolishness.  In so doing he shames the worldly wise – a most appropriate judgment for those puffed up with conceit.

God wants to end the pretense of human self-sufficiency and bring his creatures back into fellowship with him. But God knows that a gospel measured against the criteria of “this age” is a gospel robbed of its power to heal the human condition.  So God chooses a different way – the way of the crucified Christ.

While Paul roundly critiques wisdom and knowledge that leaves the cross out of account, he extends an invitation to all who pursue wisdom and understanding to let the foolishness of God be their guide. In this season of Lent and Easter we do well to remind ourselves of this starting point as we seek to reveal all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge rooted in Christ, to the glory of God. 

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