Only the Message of the Cross Is Intellectually Satisfying (1 Corinthians 1:18-21)


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The Anglican Church uses the Athanasian Creed in its liturgy. A line in that creed describes the Trinity this way: “the Father incomprehensible, the Son imcomprehensible, and the Spirit incomprehensible.” After reciting that line, an old codger is reported to have said, “The whole darn thing is incomprehensible.” 

In theology, incomprehensible means “impossible to understand completely,” not “impossible to understand at all.” A squirrel looks at the stars, but its little brain will never understand the Big Bang Theory. The squirrel’s mental capacity is too small for the universe’s material complexity. When it comes to God, we’ve got squirrel brains. We see, and we understand a little of what we see, but much more eludes our intellectual grasp. 

God is incomprehensible to us by nature. He is also intellectually frustrating to us by choice. Consider what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18-21

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written [in Isa. 29:14]: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 

God’s intellectual frustratingness must be properly interpreted. It does not mean that God acts illogically or irrationally. If your beliefs about God result in contradiction or fallacy, the problem lies with your line of reasoning, not God’s way of being. 

So, in what sense does God choose to frustrate us intellectually? By exposing the poverty of our presuppositions. Let’s reframe Paul’s words as a syllogism: 

  1. The end of life is salvation.
  2. The means of salvation is belief in the message of the cross.
  3. Therefore, if you believe in the message of the cross, you will be saved.
  4. Further, therefore, if you do not believe in the message of the cross, you will not be saved.

Paul mentions two broad categories of thinkers: “the wise man”/”the philosopher of this age” and “the scholar” (or rabbinic scribe). Both agreed with Premise 1 about salvation. Both disagreed with Premise 2 about the message of the cross. Neither the philosophers nor the rabbis presupposed the message of the cross. 

But if Premise 2 is true, then no matter what presupposition the philosophers and rabbis substituted for faith in the message of the cross, they would never achieve the end of life, which is salvation. Until they embraced the cross, they would be intellectually frustrated and spiritually lost. Their “wisdom” would be foolishness, a mismatch of end and means. 

So will ours. If we want to experience God’s salvation, we must embrace God’s means. Only the message of the cross is intellectually satisfying.


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One thought on “Only the Message of the Cross Is Intellectually Satisfying (1 Corinthians 1:18-21)

  1. Sometimes a healthy dose of God’s transcendence and the kind of negative theology we see in the Chalcedonian Creed are helpful.

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