Dr. Maloney: “Mr. Nietzsche says that Christianity is a slave religion with a slave morality. It is not for the superman. What do you think of Mr. Nietzsche’s analysis Mr. Ball?” (Dr. Maloney knew that I was a pastor and we enjoyed a friendly adversarial relationship.)
Me: “I agree with Mr. Nietzsche. I believe he had a correct understanding of Christianity.”
Dr. Maloney: “You’ll have to explain?” (It wasn’t often that I or anyone else could stump him).
Me: “Christianity is not for the superman as Nietzsche said. Christianity is for the losers! Mr. Nietzsche’s problem was not that he misunderstood Christianity, it’s that he rejected it.”
I suppose that I could or should have at this point, directed him to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where he expounds on this theme in chapter 1:
26. “For look at your call, brothers, that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many powerful, not many well born.
27. But God chose the foolish things of the world, in order to shame the wise and God chose the weak things of the world to shame the mighty,
28. And God chose the lowborn of the world, and the despised, the nonexistent, to nullify the things that exist.
29. So that no flesh could boast in the presence of God.”
Paul was writing to a church that, like many 21st century churches, thought they had it all together, even though they were riddled with problems, many of which were contradictory to their faith and position in Christ. Paul had to deal methodically with each, one at a time.
The first problem was their divisions over the various preachers and teachers that had ministered to their congregation. “I am of Paul”; “I am of Apollos”; “I am of Kephas (Peter)”; and “I am of Christ” (1:12). Paul saw through their problem: it was not simply a party spirit. It went much deeper than that. It was an arrogance concerning intellect. The Corinthians were apparently a highly intelligent, educated group. They were Greeks and had been exposed to the philosophical systems of the day. They were following preachers as they had followed philosophical schools.
And one of the dangers, then as now, for the believer in Christ, was that of tying one’s faith to his intellect, of believing that our faith in Christ owes something to our superior reasoning or intelligence. But Paul takes them back to their conversion, back to his first visit to them, and to his own call to ministry.
17. “…Christ sent me…to preach the gospel, not in wisdom of speech, that the Cross of Christ may not be made empty.”
We cannot suppose that our conversion to Christ is due to our own intelligence, or to use Paul’s word, our wisdom (sophia). The message we have believed is, to those outside of Christ, pure nonsense.
Paul was no anti-intellectual. He was himself from a family that identified themselves as Pharisees, the strict ultra-orthodox party of the Jews. He was educated in the rigid rabbinical schools of Jerusalem. And yet he was also a Roman citizen by birth, a not too common situation for a Jew. We can gather that he was learned in the Greek philosophers and poets, as he could quote them at times. He was capable of clear cut, rational arguments. He was one of the most intelligent and learned persons of his day. And yet he recognized that it was not his learned arguments that won him or anyone else to Christ. Actually, the message that he proclaimed make no sense to its hearers, no matter how intelligent they were.
18. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved – to us – it is the power of God.
19. For it is written:
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise
And I will nullify the intelligence of the intelligent.'
20. Where is the wise? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
21. For since in the wisdom of God, the world did not come to know God through its wisdom, God was well pleased through the foolishness of the proclaimed message to save those who believe.”
It would almost seem that Paul is saying that “the wisdom of the world” can be a hindrance to faith. I don’t believe he means that “the wisdom of the world” is useless; I’m sure he would agree that it is of tremendous value, and if he could have seen the amazing technological developments of our modern day, he would still have no problem saying what he said. When it comes to understanding God’s message, God’s plan, all our intellectual, rational, scientific and technological expertise is absolutely useless.
Paul sees two diverse schools of thought which are in opposition to his message:
22. “ Since indeed Jews are asking for signs and Greeks are seeking wisdom
23. but we are proclaiming a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
The Jews had been seeking and awaiting their Messiah for centuries. And many still are. They were waiting for one who would give them political deliverance and set them up in His eternal kingdom. Jesus claimed to be that person. [The title “Christ” is from the Greek Christos, anointed One, and corresponds to the Hebrew Meshiach, which in English is usually rendered Messiah.] But Jesus was crucified; He was not only put to death by those from whom He was supposed to deliver, but His death was that which was reserved for the vilest of criminals. He was exposed to public shame. This was a stumbler for the Jews.
But to the Greeks the whole idea was itself “foolishness.” It doesn’t fit with their intellectual scheme. I have heard and read of the whole concept of the cross as being abhorrent to many today. Why would God demand the death of His Son? Why the need for such a penalty? It makes no sense – to the world’s way of thinking.
And amazingly Paul does not attempt to justify the crucifixion to either Jew or Greek. He simply tells the Corinthians (and us):
24. “but to the called, both Jews and Greeks – Christ, God’s power and God’s wisdom,
25. because God’s foolish thing is wiser than men and God’s weak thing is mightier than men!”
God’s wisdom is way beyond the world’s and is, in a very real sense, incomprehensible.
So how are we to relate the gospel to present day “Greeks” and “Jews”? Are we to attempt to argue our case using “the wisdom of the world”? Or are we to simply proclaim the message ignoring the arguments of those who do not believe?
I believe that Paul gives us an example by his own practice. He realized that he had the truth and was not ashamed to say so. But we’re told that he “reasoned.” We see him being, as he says elsewhere, “all things to all, that I might by all means save some.” We are to demonstrate that the “wisdom of this world” does not necessarily contradict the Word of God. All truth is God’s truth
And we need to recognize that God chose us, not because we were intelligent enough to choose Him, not because we had something to offer Him, but because we had nothing to offer. Our salvation is ultimately all of His doing.
30. “But you are from Him in Christ Jesus, who became wisdom to us from God, even righteousness and sanctification and redemption,
31 So that just as it’s written
‘The one who boasts
let him boast in the Lord!'”