Paul's Uncomfortable Jaunt into Christian Mysticism
Ever since I can remember, I’ve seen Christianity taught by one of two secular methods.
Because I teach philosophy, I’m going to use two philosophical terms to describe those two methods. The first term is rationalism. The second is empiricism. It’s important for you to understand both of these if you are going to understand the first paragraphs of I Corinthians.
Rationalism goes back to the Greeks, and essentially, it means you use formal logic to prove something. According to Plato, logic exists in the invisible realm—and this invisibility was important to the Greeks because they didn’t trust their senses completely. Our eyes and ears can deceive us, but we can tell deep in our minds that 2+2=4*
Empiricism started in earnest around the time of David Hume (1700’s), and it means you use physical evidence to prove something. This works more like our modern scientific method, in which you run an experiment and trust the results of that experiment to teach you some truth about the universe. **
Modern academics tend to use a muddy blend of rationalism and empiricism, and most of us think very little about doing this. When we see Sherlock Holmes using induction and deduction, trusting both his senses and his logical ability, we think he’s smart. When we see hot heads on social media yelling things like, “Do your research!” or “Think about it!” we realize they are asking for some sort of source that can be validated. But unless we’ve done some formal study into how proofs work, we might not realize that it’s almost impossible to prove anything, really. Both rationalism and empiricism are helpful, but they’re also flawed. They remind me of those times Siri has tried to get me to a rural location, and she just gives up five miles out and says, “Please walk to your destination.”
At the time that Paul was writing this book, Greek rationalism was still in full force. Even though the Romans were dominant at this time, they had adopted most of the academic ideas of the Greeks. So when a Greek person wanted to know if something was true, he would use a rational system of logical proofs to make his argument.
Apparently, the Jews worked a little more like David Hume’s crowd would 1700 years later. They wanted physical evidence. Paul says the Greeks wanted wisdom and the Jews wanted signs, but that he wasn’t going to speak in terms of either value system. Instead, he was going to choose an epistemological value system that would make him look foolish to both groups.
Before I write any more about this, I’d like for you to read this section of I Corinthians.
- - -
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 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, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 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, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but indemonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Yet among themature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
- - -
For many years, I was a systematic theology junkie. I was raised in the Lee Strobel/Wayne Grudem/R.C. Sproul/John Piper era, and because I tend to be a bit of a nerd, I was thrilled by the promise that a rational/empirical approach to problem-solving could be applied to the Scripture. Not only did this give me a sense that I could figure things out for myself, but also, it gave me a sense that I could fight culture wars and win souls by watertight proofs.
But that’s not what Paul says here at all. My theological assumptions were based in my secular values, not in the values of the Bible.
Paul was a super-educated guy, and he knew exactly what he was saying when he was defiant here. (When he chooses to use logic and proofs other places in the Scripture, he's a master of these disciplines.) But there’s a powerful bit of irony in his statements, boasting about intentionally losing his case on every academic front that meant anything to the people of his era.
When he talked about being unimpressive in speech and presentation (trembling and bumbly), he was saying, “I’m bad at rhetoric.” Rhetoric was the formal discipline of presenting your case in such a way that you could persuade others to agree with you, and it was mega important in Greco Roman times. This was how anybody who was anybody got things done. In terms of cred, he’s shooting himself in the foot repeatedly here, taking every angle to try to stand like a fool instead of scrambling to use data or arguments to prove his faith to anybody.
Why? Why would an educated man like Paul do this?
Look at what he elevates instead.
Paul emphasizes something that I almost never hear a modern Christian academic admit these days. He says that God’s wisdom is intentionally secret. It’s intentionally hidden.
He says you can’t get to the truth of God by the common roads, and that this is purposeful on God’s part. There’s a Spirit involved here that knows our hearts way down deep, not just our minds, but our inclinations. And that Spirit is able to determine our motives.
In other words, our judgment won’t just be based on what we could figure out with our thoughts. The most central and true qualities of our souls are seen in total clarity by God. When it comes to the essence of who we are, we are totally bare and defenseless before a God who looks straight into our hearts. We can hide nothing from him. And when he judges us, he's fair, because he sees with flawless vision.
Paul says that people who attempt to use only rationalism and empiricism will never be able to understand certain eternal truths because while those two roads are commonly traveled, they don’t lead everywhere. There are some destinations that you can only reach if you are willing to operate in the realm of the spirit.
That doesn’t make the faith irrational. It doesn’t make it violate empirical truth. But it does mean that people who attempt to find God only by the mind or by the senses won’t ever find Him. There has to be a willingness to engage at the spirit level with a Being who has intentionally made it impossible to find him through the world’s most trusted methods. This is a matter of posture, not just knowledge.
Sound cruel? Sound unfair? I can see why it might feel that way at first glance--especially when we are accustomed to addressing the entire universe by the lower roads. Our value system is the value system of the secular world.
Even though these epistemological roads are lower than the realm of the spirit, they are treated with profound respect by people who are respected here on planet earth. This makes the realm of the spirit seem foolish, when it’s actually the most pure knowledge of all.
A whole book could be written about this, but I’m afraid you’ll stop reading if I keep writing. For now, go back and reread that I Corinthians passage a few more times. In light of what I’ve just told you, I think a few new things will pop out to you as you study it.
Am I going to make a case for total Christian mysticism? No. Church history shows us how strange and greedy people can misunderstand the realm of the spirit, making systematics a healthy guide for staying out of heresy. (Like bumper bowling. Ha.) Besides, I’m still too much of a rationalist to go there entirely.
But I do keep my systematic theology and my empirical proofs in a more humble position after realizing what Paul was actually advocating here. There are things we can know, but the things we know are always secondary to knowing the Maker of all things.
For so many reasons, both personal an interactive, that's vital to remember.
- - - - -
*This is a huge oversimplification because the realm of math was actually below the realm of pure logic in Greek rationalism. If you want to study this more, study Plato’s Divided Line Theory.
** Also a significant oversimplification because David Hume showed how we couldn’t prove causality, and we also can’t resolve the gap between our perception of the physical world and the physical world.