I’ve recently been studying various passages of 1 and 2 Corinthians to better help me understand Paul’s theology of preaching. One passage that has particularly struck me is 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5 for in it Paul argues that the message of Christ crucified (that is, the content) and preaching (that is, the form) go hand in hand – that they cannot be divided. Indeed, in this passage Paul actually argues for preaching.
In 1 Cor. 1:17 Paul is continuing to address the issue of divisions in the Corinthian church, by minimising his role of baptising, and stating that Christ’s commission to him was to “preach the gospel.” However, for Paul it matters how the gospel is proclaimed. Therefore, he refuses to preach with “eloquent wisdom” (ESV). Literally the Greek of this phrase is “the wisdom of a word,” and refers to the use of Greco-Roman rhetoric. (This was a particular form of oration popularised by Cicero and Quintillian, in which the aim of a speech was to “persuade an audience, the end is to persuade by speech” (Cicero, On Invention 1.6), that is, to create belief. To do this an orator would so adapt and craft his message (content, style and delivery), that it would bring about the desired end with a given audience. Therefore, Greco-Roman rhetoric is a form of speech or proclamation. It is a form that Paul rejects because it would render the cross of Christ void (1:17), since a person’s faith would rest on human skill in oration rather than on the Spirit’s power (2:4-5).
Paul goes on further to explain why he rejects Greco-Roman rhetoric (note the “for” at the start of the verse 18): thus he deliberately contrasts “the wisdom of a word” (1:17) with “the word of the cross” (1:18). Therefore, since he rejects the form of Greco-Roman rhetoric (“the wisdom of a word”), “the word of the cross” must also refer, to some extent, to form. However, this phrase also introduces the content of the message – the cross of Christ. Thus, Paul’s reason for rejecting Greco-Roman rhetoric is based on both the form of the message and its content – both are incompatible with rhetoric. It also shows that Paul holds form and content together – something we’ll continue to see.
It is God’s design that both the content of the message and the form by which it is proclaimed are folly to those who are perishing, but are the power of God to those being saved (v. 18). Indeed, it was God’s purpose that the world would not know him through human wisdom, but rather through foolishness (the Greek makes the antithesis between human wisdom and foolishness very clear). However, foolishness is rather abstract so Paul defines it by specifying preaching (kerygma, technically this is a genitive of apposition, and therefore defines the foolishness). Over the years, much has been written on kerygma and whether it refers to the content of what is preached or the act of preaching. Older commentators have generally thought it only refers to content (Douglas Fee in his 1 Corinthians NICOT commentary (1987) is typical). However, more recent commentators generally recognise that since Paul has been referring to both form and content in his argument, then kerygma must also refer to both form and content (Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner in their 1 Corinthians Pillar commentary (2010) is an example).
But just what is the form that Paul uses? So far we’ve seen what form he won’t use: Greco-Roman rhetoric. But now he makes the biblical form explicit. In the context of what human wisdom desires (v. 22), Paul “preaches Christ crucified” (v. 23). As Paul has been doing all through this passage, he continues to carefully hold together both form and content. The form that Paul uses is preaching (cf. v. 17), and the content is Christ crucified (cf. v. 18).
We’re now in a position to see why the “word of the cross” (v. 18) is folly. First, because of the foolish content of his message: a crucified Messiah; and second because of the foolish form by which he proclaims his message: preaching. (In the context of Corinth where Greco-Roman rhetoric was deeply enjoyed, someone simply preaching, heralding the gospel, would have seemed exceedingly foolish.)
Before concluding, I’d like to draw out a few implications. First, form and content belong together. Therefore, the manner or method by which the gospel is proclaimed is important – we’re not free to choose any method we might like, or one that pragmatically “works.” Second, Paul actually argues for preaching. This is all the more striking when it is considered that Corinth is a mixed Jewish and Gentile context, and so it suggests that preaching transcends culture.
In conclusion, content and form belong together – and both of them “proclaim” the foolishness of the gospel. Therefore, to move away from either the content, Christ crucified, or the form, preaching (or at the very least a type of teaching whereby the gospel is authoritatively heralded – which is the idea behind kerusso, one of the preaching words), is actually to deny the foolishness of the gospel – something that Paul is very eager not to do.
James Steer is a missionary appointee with OMF International hoping to serve in Thailand. He graduated from Oak Hill Theological College in London with an M. Th. and completed his dissertation on Paul’s Theology of Preaching in 1 and 2 Corinthians.