For it hath been declared unto me of you . . . that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? . . . For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:11-13 and 17-18 KJV).
What I mean is this: each of you is saying, ‘I am Paul’s man’, or ‘I am for Apollos’; ‘I follow Cephas, or ‘I am Christ’s.’ . . . Christ did not send me to baptize, but to proclaim the Gospel; and to do it without relying on the language of worldly wisdom, so that the fact of Christ on his cross might have its full weight. This doctrine of the cross is sheer folly to those on their way to ruin, but to us who are on the way to salvation it is the power of God (12 and 17-18 NEB).
For Christ did not send me forth to baptize, but to preach the gospel; not in accomplished oratory, but so that the cross of the Christ might not be made meaningless. For the word of the cross is folly to those who go the way of perdition, but to us who go the way of salvation it is the power of God (17-18 RL).1
In this passage from the first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul dismisses as trivial the quarrel that has divided the church: members have allied themselves with – and perhaps sought baptism from – one of several visiting apostles, and thereby have put themselves at odds with one another. Whichever visiting speaker has most impressed with “wisdom of words” has gained a particular following within the group. Paul will have none of it; chastises their divisiveness; and redirects their attention to the one essential, unifying power: the cross of Christ.
Having sensed the root of the problem to be a misbegotten debate of ideas, Paul then devotes the remainder of this first chapter, as well as the entirety of second, to illustrating the difference between thought and revelation, contrasting their respective origins, natures, and effects.
Ideas and opinions come about through the use of the intellect, and as intelligence has been the primary means by which these Corinthians – as well as the rest of humanity – have survived and thrived, Paul must express and convince them of the reality of the superior power that is hidden from but nonetheless calls to them. His first move is to debunk their “faith” in their intelligence to discern and know the things of God, and so he draws from the authority of Scripture (Isa. 29:14) to show the dictum on the matter: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will make void the intelligence of the intelligent” (19, RL). To drive home the point that intellect is not to be revered above its place (which is to say, intellect is not to be idolized), Paul assumes a tone of mockery and fires a smattering of rhetorical questions in the Greeks’ direction: “Where is the sage? Where is the scholar? Where is the student of the age? Did not God turn the wisdom of the world to folly?” (20) The world’s wisdom is chided as futile: incapable of coming into the knowledge of God.
Reversals of worldly expectation abound throughout the remainder of this first chapter, for example: “the folly of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (25). All serve to deflate the intellect’s suppositions and over-estimation of its reach and compass, necessary if one is to learn that “there is no place for human pride in the presence of God” (29, NEB). Yet having upended the doings of the Corinthians, Paul takes care to redirect their hope and confidence toward their proper destination: “You are in Christ Jesus by God’s act, for God has made him our wisdom; he is our righteousness; in him we are consecrated and set free” (30).
In chapter 2, Paul describes in more detail the differences between the power of God and the wisdom of men: he asserts the former can supply words whose import is hidden from even the most privileged, astute natural man, and available only to those initiated into the knowledge of God. Again, turning to Isaiah for authority (64:4), Paul puts the wisdom of God out of reach of men’s way of knowing – through eyes, ears, or heart – until God reveals by his Spirit “the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (2:9, KJV). Repeatedly throughout this chapter, Paul emphasizes the fact that discernment and judgment are available to the person who knows God, but remain inaccessible to even the most intellectually diligent and capable (6-8, 9-10, 11-13, and 14-15).
It is at the start of this chapter, however, that Paul identifies the fulcrum on which the great transition or movement from natural to spiritual rests. He writes:
And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified (2:1-2 KJV).
What does Paul mean by his bald statement that his intention was to know only Jesus Christ crucified? How does this phrase express the distinction made between intellect – our natural power of discernment – and the transcendent wisdom that must be bestowed from above? What was it Christ knew and expressed on the cross that Paul asserts is the one essential thing to be known? It comes to this: By God’s Will alone are we sustained in the glory of Life; this is a verity that must be birthed in the heart, not adopted by the mind.
Having accepted God’s Will for himself, Jesus, the Christ on the cross, had ousted every impulse toward (and was deprived of) the comforts and powers that worldly life can supply. Nevertheless, in faith he was sustained and lifted up into Life by the power of God. We likewise may be lifted up into the glory of the Light of Christ, while concomitantly discovering that even our most virtuous thoughts and intents (though seeming to affirm, comfort, and enable us) do but intrude upon and dim the pure joy in the Light of his Presence. It is in that Light of Christ that the distinction between Spirit and intellect is clearly felt and known, as surely as the difference between life and death.
In the beginning pages of his Journal, George Fox compares the superior beneficence of the Lord to the best the world has to offer:
I found two thirsts in me; the one after the creatures, to have got help and strength there; and the other after the Lord the creator, and his son Jesus Christ; and I saw all the world could do me no good. If I had had a king’s diet, palace, and attendance, all would have been as nothing; for nothing gave me comfort but the Lord by his power (Works, 1:75).
We, too, can be pre-occupied with the pains or pleasures of worldly life, including intellectual activity, but can learn to set them all aside in order to wait open and empty to receive Christ. He appears and presents himself as pure Light, perfectly and fully overriding whatever our particular worldly condition had been in the moment previous. Any imposition of thought, however virtuous – such as questioning how to be of help to others in spiritual matters – pollutes (a strong but accurate word) the purity of the Presence. Use and service to others must be found in refraining from impinging upon the purity of the Light within. In its purity is its power, and any imposition made upon it interferes with that purity and thus its power. When present and turned to, the Light does overcome any dark thoughts which detract from being, whether virtuous or vicious. To be conscious of the purity of the Light is to sense its saving, sanctifying power. From this personal reflection, one may infer that it is through the power of the Light of Christ that the world comes to be redeemed, which is, of course, a message confirmed by our tradition.
So the Lord God almighty preserve you in that which is pure, up to himself, who is pure, to receive his wisdom, and that with it and in it, ye all may come to be ordered to his glory, who is God over all; to whom be all honour and glory, God blessed for ever; that with it ye may come to see the lamb of God, the saviour of your souls, who was, before the letter was (Works, 7:48-49).
Paul ends this second chapter by stating one last capacity that distinguishes the natural (sensual) man from the one who is gifted with the Spirit: the power to judge justly. He then concludes his lesson with the simple, triumphant claim of the Spirit of Christ incarnate.
But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ (15-16, KJV).
1 I’ve used three Bible versions in this essay: the King James Version (KJV), The New English Bible (NEB), and The New Testament translated by Richmond Lattimore (RL). My choice of which version to use at any given point in the essay depended upon which of the three best provided clarity and meaning through the wording of the verse in question. Following each quotation, I identify which of the three versions I’ve used, unless the previous quotation was taken from the same source.