The Foolishness of God

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In my last essay here, I attempted to illustrate the danger inherent in apologetics, using Friedreich Schleiermacher as an example. Most conservative Christians don’t view Schleiermacher as an apologist at all but rather as an enemy of the faith: Schleiermacher is considered to be the father of liberal theology.

But from his own point of view, Schleiermacher is not trying to destroy the faith—he’s trying to save it. He considers the implications of the Enlightenment on the cultured elites of his day and is convinced that the only way that Christian belief will be viable is if it is repackaged in such a way as to satisfy the new rationalists. If we fail to understand that Schleiermacher is attempting to make an apologetic, we remain blind to the danger of apologetics.

We believe that Christianity is rational. The apologist wants to demonstrate that rationality to the unbeliever. But he must remember that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18). The apologist always risks modifying the faith so that it makes more sense on the unbeliever’s terms.

The apologist always risks modifying the faith so that it makes more sense on the unbeliever’s terms.

There is a subtlety to this accommodation. Sometimes, we warp the message not by saying things that are false (like Schleiermacher), but by saying a true thing at the wrong time or to the wrong person.

In his discussion of the folly of the Christian message. Paul considers two audiences for his preaching. The Jews seeks signs, he says. Likely, we should understand this in the same way as the Pharisees’ persistent request that Jesus show them a sign. They are looking for evidence that Jesus of Nazareth is the mighty conquering Messiah for which they hoped.

The Greeks, Paul tells us, are looking for wisdom. This is unsurprising: the god of the philosophers needs to be the epitome of wisdom.

Pause here and consider: is Jesus the mighty conquering Messiah that the Jews desire? Is Jesus true wisdom? The answer to both questions is ultimately yes. For this reason, it seems like Paul’s ministry strategy should be obvious: preach Jesus as the conquering Messiah to the Jews and preach Jesus as wisdom to the Greeks.

But Paul purposefully subverts their expectations (and perhaps ours as well):

22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

The key to this passage is remembering that unbelievers are idolators. All to often, we are very good at figuring out what the unbeliever’s idol is. But then we make the critical error: instead of insisting that the unbeliever repent of his idolatry to turn to Christ, we show the unbeliever how Christ also loves his idol and will help him obtain his idol.

This is why Paul refused to preach Christ as power and wisdom. To do so, although it would surely gain a bigger audience and likely even a greater positive response to Jesus, and even though (in an ultimate sense) it is true, Paul would be confirming his audience in their idolatries.

And so Paul preaches that which would most offend the idols of his audience: Christ crucified. The Jews, looking for a powerful Messiah, are scandalized by such overt weakness. The Greeks, seeking a wise sage, are appalled by the folly of his death.

But Christ’s sheep will hear his voice, “so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5). We must ask, then: what do those to whom we minister seek? Do we offer Christ as a servant to the unbeliever’s idols: financial security, family peace, health, and entertainment? The word we preach is folly to those who are perishing; this remains as true now as it was in Paul’s day.

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