First Corinthians and the Twenty-First Century Church: Anti-Intellectualism

So far, in our discussion of 1 Corinthians 1:10-3:21, we have talked about how worldliness contributed to disunity among the Corinthian house-churches. We also have talked about how worldliness and disunity continue to be a problem for Christians today. There is, however, another issue that arises out of the early portions of this letter. Paul is often cited in support of a thoroughgoing anti-intellectualism.

I have argued in the past that anti-intellectualism is a scourge on American Christianity, and I have suggested ways we might overcome it. So, this is an issue I need to address in light of our discussion of 1 Corinthians and the 21st-century church.

Historical Perspective

If we are to interpret Paul fairly, we need to understand he did not live in the world we live in. For Paul, there was no such thing as Christian philosophy, Christian psychology, or the like. Christianity barely existed; it had not had the time necessary to develop an intellectual tradition.

We, by contrast, can draw upon centuries of reflection, all of it undertaken by committed Christian scholars. We have seen how Chrisitan convictions undergird the work of the sciences, and we have seen how Christian philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, etc., have enriched our lives and strengthened our institutions.

The Real Issue: Status Differentiation

We also need to observe the real issue in 1 Corinthians is not so much the relative value of the life of the mind. Indeed, we can see Paul values intellectual pursuits like rhetoric because he uses them in this very discussion. Admittedly, Paul uses rhetoric to relativize the value of rhetoric, so that sword cuts both ways. But still, Paul’s actions speak just as loudly as his words, and his actions illustrate the use of the mind is not the real issue.

So, what is the real issue? It is the use of intellectual attainment to differentiate status among the Corinthian believers. In other words, we are back to the same problems we have already discussed. 

The Corinthians were buying into the latest intellectual trends because they believed doing so would give them a leg up in their seemingly constant fight to win status. Paul’s opponents, in particular, may have thought him an intellectual lightweight, and that may have emboldened them to challenge his authority by proclaiming their own intellectual prowess. 

Alternatively, some of the Corinthians may have despaired over the lack of acceptance Paul’s gospel was receiving among their esteemed and wealthy neighbors. Attracting such people would have had practical benefits for the Corinthian churches, but it would have also made the Christian community seem more respectable in Corinthian society.

An Important Warning

Nevertheless, the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians contain a vital warning for us as we seek to follow Jesus faithfully in the 21st century. We cannot put our faith in human intellectual endeavors. Our faith must be in Christ. And when our faith is in Christ, we will find ourselves at odds with a culture that does not accept Christ’s teachings. Indeed, we will sometimes find ourselves at odds with our own desires for pleasure, acceptance, and material gain.

Paul is quite clear that worldly wisdom leads nowhere. However, this does not mean wisdom is useless. Rather, Paul called the Corinthians to seek the wisdom which comes from God and is revealed in Christ, and we should do the same thing. It is wisdom we will need to navigate the treacherous intellectual, social, and personal waters in which we find ourselves.

Published: May 7, 2020


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