The ancient city of Corinth represents perhaps the most prescient specimen of modern life. Its strategic geographic location allowed for the proliferation of a myriad of activities, amusements, and aspirations. The influx of ideas that penetrated the Corinthian culture established the ancient metropolis as one of the premier hot-beds for fulfilling a wide variety of dreams and desires. “By Paul’s day,” S. J. Hafemann asserts, “Corinth had thus become a pluralistic melting pot of cultures, philosophies, lifestyles and religions, and had the feel of an economic ‘boom-town.’”1 Indeed, biblical scholars regard the city as ubiquitous with both the sophisticated and the salacious.
The prevalence of ideas represented in Corinthian society inflamed the Corinthians’ hubris, which conducted itself in a pitiless competition of persuasions. This has led many scriptural students to identify the “incipient gnosticism,” as Hafemann terms it, as the fodder which allowed their divisions to run rampant. “The Corinthians were prone to intellectual pride,” Hafemann writes, “placing a high value on their ‘knowledge’ and spiritual experiences.”2 Such is why the apostle rebukes the Corinthian Christians so soundly for their aggrandizing of their religious loyalties. (1 Cor 1:11–13; 3:21–23) The elitism that was so fashionable in the Corinthians’ secular lives had spread its infectious tendrils into their predilections concerning the faith. “The result,” Hafemann continues, “was an attitude of boasting and competition within the church, which was further fed by their cultural arrogance and admiration of the public power, style and polish of the Sophistic rhetorical tradition.”3
This elevation of personal polish and rhetorical eloquence is that which Paul aims to properly expunge. Immediately following the apostle’s curt inquiry of their religious rivalries (1 Cor 1:11–13), he pinpoints the fundamental irony of turning the message of the gospel into one of sophisticated erudition and exclusivism — namely, because the cross has not a single thing to do with augmenting one’s sagacity. In fact, to even suggest so would be to empty the cross of its effectiveness. (1 Cor 1:17) Instead, the message of the gospel, which centralizes on the cross, is that which offers the divine scandal of God’s own righteousness to sinners at the expense of God’s own Son.
Rather than acquiesce to the ecclesiastical competition ravaging the church, Paul decisively withdraws from their fraternal hobnobbing to remind the Corinthians of the salient errand of his apostolic mission. “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, announcing the mystery of God to you,” he writes, “I did not come with brilliance of speech or wisdom. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:1–2) Paul’s message, which scandalizes the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:22–25), was scandalous precisely because it presented a defeated and dead leader as the center around which everything else revolved.
Jesus turned the conventional Messianic presumptions of his day on their head by making “his own dying the touchstone of his messiahship,”4 as Robert Capon puts it; and such, too, is Paul’s aim. The Corinthians could not do with a faith that settled on a God who died, let alone a God who suffered a criminal’s death on a cross. Accordingly, they sought to supplement that message with their own wit and wisdom. But in their supplemental efforts, they effectively supplanted the gospel of Christ crucified with a gospel of their own ascendancy. The Corinthian Christians had lost their centrality on the cross, and in so doing they had forfeited what it meant to be a Christian.
“The cross is not an isolated individual aspect of theology,” writes A. E. McGrath, “but is itself the foundation of that theology.”5 For Paul, to disregard the cross (and all that it signifies) was to fundamentally jettison the gospel altogether. Likewise, it is the emphasis of both Corinthian epistles that Christ’s cross is at once the humbling agent and the unifying stimulant of the church. The cross, then, is the structure around which the scaffolding of one’s ideology, theology, and ecclesiology hangs. “The crucified Christ,” McGrath continues, “is the interpretative framework for making sense of God.”6 Through no other means is the “I Am” more chiefly know than in his substitutionary death, in which is clearly seen the condescension of God to the sinful realm of man. And in that descent, one is intimately acquainted with the method of divine wisdom as that which is integrally related to humility rather than superiority.
It is, therefore, precisely a crucified Christ which nixes all of the Corinthians’ pious hula-hooping. Just as Paul’s apostolic authority was derived solely on the basis of the cross (2 Cor 10:1–18), so, too, was the Corinthians’ religious rivalries terminated. (1 Cor 1:26–31) The competition is, in effect, canceled. The game is over because it has already been won by a Master who appeared to lose everything. But in that losing, he was actually trouncing sin, death, and the grave, and triumphantly winning the gift of righteousness for all who believe. This is the ineffaceable message of Scripture. (1 Cor 1:31; 2 Cor 10:17; Jer 9:24) And it is distinctly this method that is inherent to the gospel “so that no one may boast.” (1 Cor 1:29) Their religious swagger was founded on that which they themselves did not (and could never) achieve. All their boasting was baseless unless it was that which vaunted the work of Christ Jesus on their behalf.
It is from him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became wisdom from God for us — our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, in order that, as it is written: Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. (1 Cor 1:30–31)
S. J. Hafemann, “Letters to the Corinthians,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 173.
Robert Farrar Capon, The Youngest Day: Shelter Island’s Seasons in the Light of Grace (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2019), 40.
A. E. McGrath, “Theology of the Cross,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 192.