An essential component of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is to clarify the work of the Spirit in the life of the church. One is, perhaps, predisposed to notice Paul’s emphasis on God’s Spirit in his extended discussion on spiritual gifts and their usefulness in the Body of Christ. (1 Cor 12:1—14:40) But to relegate the apostle’s insistence on rightly understanding the Holy Spirit to an array of isolated paragraphs is to substantially miss the objective of Paul’s words to the Corinthians in the first place. Indeed, the ministry of the Spirit is not only prevalent throughout his epistle but also represents the predominant thrust of his discourse. In so doing, Paul aspires to distinguish between the fashionable caricatures of faith and that faith which is a byproduct of the Spirit’s ministry in the soul.
The metropolis of Corinth was cosmopolitan in every sense of the term. S. J. Hafemann describes the city as a “pluralistic melting pot of cultures, philosophies, lifestyles and religions.”1 Its reception of commuters from the furthest borders of the known world allowed Corinth to become renowned for a smorgasbord of luxuries, industries, and ideologies. “By this time,” James Moffatt comments, “it had the largest and most heterogeneous population to be found in any Greek province.”2 Corinth’s urban sprawl afforded no shortage of amenities with which one could find identity, pleasure, and purpose. Such an assortment of fancies, therefore, were conducive to divided faiths, as well.
The apostle eagerly aims to dispel such divided faiths. He does so primarily by recalling to the Corinthians’ minds not only the message he came announcing, but also the manner in which he announced that message — namely, not “with brilliance of speech or wisdom,” but “in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling.” (1 Cor 2:1, 3) The methodology of Paul’s announcement was such that fixed sole power and authority on the Holy Spirit of God. “My speech and my preaching,” Paul clarifies, “were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power.” (1 Cor 2:4–5) Rather than wax rhapsodic in all the scholastic syllogisms of the day, Paul averred that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor 1:25) In this, the apostle identifies, according to Hafemann, that “the problem in Corinth is not their spiritual gifts per se, but their attitude toward and use of them.”3
The Corinthian Christians were bewitched by the incumbent intellegentsia and scholasticism of their day, and were convinced that similar ascendant inclinations existed within the church, too. Consequently, they resorted to favoring the stylistic orations that could be recognized as wise and enlightened. To that end, Paul maintains that God is desirous that the Corinthians (and all believers, for that matter) “rest unmistakably upon revelation, not on any adroit human pleading or course of sermons but on his own power.”4 No man-made argument or supposition is worthy of conviction or creed. (1 Cor 2:6–9) Only that which “comes from God” (1 Cor 2:10–16); or, to put it another way, only that which is informed and revealed by the Spirit.
Therefore, the Corinthians’ existing proclivity for rank, superiority, and privilege are not only unbecoming, but are, indeed, antithetical to the gospel of Christ crucified. Paul affirms that one’s righteousness, sanctification, and redemption is intricately tied to the work of Christ Jesus, God’s Son. (1 Cor 1:30–31) Faith that is tied to God’s Son, then, has for its nourishment God’s Spirit, whose sole ministerial assignment is to reveal the prevalence and preeminence of the work of God’s Son in one’s own life. The ministry of the Spirit of God is the magnification of the Son of God. All other appetites for “spiritual experiences” are fanciful, at best. What’s more, to presume upon them as a means of spiritual ascendancy was not only spurious, but also dangerous. As Moffatt describes, the faith that saves is no “emotional experience or mystical rapture which is outside the sphere of thought and wide reflection.”5 The embryonic gnosticism endemic to the Corinthians’ religious experience was fundamentally thwarting their religious endeavors. Moffatt elaborates:
Paul’s immediate interest, however, is not to show how faith implies what may be termed a theology or a religious philosophy; it is to insist that any sub-Christian movement, like a theosophy which failed to make the Cross central, or even the party-spirit at Corinth, was a fatal handicap upon further insight into the real and wide mysteries of the faith.6
The sagacious trends that so enamored the Corinthians could only result in a shipwrecked faith (to steal another Pauline turn of phrase, 1 Tm 1:18–20). As they boasted “in the very calling and gifts, for which God alone is to be thanked,”7 they betrayed themselves and showed that it was man’s wisdom on which they relied and not the Spirit’s work. Their supposed spirituality was rendered unspiritual. “Only those whose hearts have been transformed by the work of the Spirit,” Hafemann writes, “will be able to accept the true wisdom and power of God as revealed in the gospel.”8 So long as the cross was reckoned foolish, the ministry of the Spirit would not prevail, for such is the work and word he everywhere aims to reveal.
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.
James Moffatt, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Bros., 1890), xvii.