Paul’s preaching in Corinth

My speech and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Some charismatics take these words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 2.4-5 to reinforce their emphasis on charismatic acts such as healing, prophecy, and the other “manifestation” gifts, particularly in the proclamation of the gospel. The implication is that mere Christian teaching is lacking in power and in fact amounts to a potential distraction unless backed up by miracles.

When we look at Acts, however, the picture we get of the Corinthian situation is somewhat different. In Corinth we see Paul laboring long and hard at teaching, with words, making arguments day after day to those in the synagogue: “Every sabbath he would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks” (18.4); “…Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ” (18.5). He is admonished by the Lord in a dream to do something very specific: ” ‘Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent…’ ” (18.9). In obedience and faith, Paul “…stayed there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them” (18.10). He was persecuted, as Gallio described, because of a mere “matter of questions about words and names and [Jewish] law” (18.15) — in short, matters of teaching.

If Paul wrought miracles in Corinth, it is a wonder itself that they are not mentioned, since this very aspect of ministry is claimed as characteristic of his ministry in Ephesus in the very next chapter. If his message were boosted by a few prophecies, words of knowledge, etc., this would be surprising given his adamant statements in 2.1-2 and 3.1-3 that he was forced to simplify his message dramatically, stripping away special revelation (the “mystery”) because they were “unspiritual”.

I am not really trying to prove that there were absolutely no supernatural demonstrations worked in Corinth. Rather, I wish to problematize the idea that Paul’s description of his preaching at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 2.4-5 was a reference to signs and wonders. The answer is in looking at the context of these verses, specifically the several preceding verses immediately prior.

For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe . . . For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one​ might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in​ the Lord.”

When I came to you, brothers and sisters,​​ I did not come proclaiming the mystery​​ of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom,​ but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

1 Cor 1.19-2.5

We’re hearing Paul’s response to the criticism of his Corinthian opponents who claim to be wise and who claim that Paul’s teaching was weak and ineffective. Paul is telling the church that God has turned the tables to the effect that weakness has been vindicated and words of wisdom are now indicative of foolishness. He uses this to suggest that the weakness of his preaching was itself the proof of the “spirit and power” behind what he taught them. He’s acknowledging that whoever’s come behind him seeking to undermine his work in Corinth might well have a silver tongue, but turning it upon them by suggesting that this is a sign of their foolishness instead. Notice 1.27: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.” In what possible sense are miracles/prophecies “the foolishness of the world”? Paul is not saying in 2.4, “I used proof of spirit and power instead of teaching and proclamation,” but “The teaching and proclamation I offered” – recall Acts 18 – “did not come by way of persuasive wisdom (strength), but by way of the proof of spirit and power (weakness).” It’s Paul at his rhetorical best, dripping with irony because of the sophistication of his argumentation (despite its so-called weakness).

Finally, look at a few verses I omitted from the above block quote, 1.22-24: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” His argument is this: the foolish message of Christ crucified is God’s way of fulfilling the Jews’ demand for miracles (since Christ is “the power of God”) and the Greeks’ desire for persuasive oratory (since Christ is “the wisdom of God”). Reading it the way these charismatics do, you’d have Paul in 2.5 contradicting his whole carefully laid argument, saying in effect, “…so that your faith might rest not on what the Greeks desire (wisdom), but what the Jews demand (a sign of power).” Rather, “We didn’t want your faith to be in signs and wisdom, but the message of the gospel which alone is truly powerful and wise.”

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