We need fools in the pulpit: The danger of sophisticated ministry
Following Jesus’ example and teaching, the apostles interpreted the meaning, significance, and application of the entire Bible in light of Jesus’ person and work. Their preaching was the preeminent display of this hermeneutical commitment. When the apostle Paul declared, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” he was not suggesting that the cross of Christ was the only thought that ever entered his mind, nor was he saying that he simply tacked on some commentary about Jesus’ death to every dialogue (1 Cor 2:2). Paul was contending that the power and wisdom of God on display in the cross and resurrection of Christ served as the only proper frame of reference for every single thought.
D.A. Carson explains, “[Paul] cannot long talk about Christian joy, or Christian ethics, or Christian fellowship, or the Christian doctrine of God, or anything else, without finally tying it to the cross. Paul is gospel-centered; he is cross-centered” (The Cross and Christian Ministry, 38). It was Paul’s commitment to preaching Christ crucified that was considered foolish by the sophists and those in the church at Corinth who were influenced by them to prize intellectual sophistication and rhetorical eloquence above all.
Paul is not commending a nuanced suggestion about one possible style of Christian preaching. Rather, he is commending a Christ-centered mindset and lifestyle that should drive every aspect of a pastor’s life and pulpit ministry. Paul notes that he did not preach “with lofty speech or wisdom” or “in plausible words of wisdom”; instead, he came to them “in weakness and in fear and much trembling” (1 Cor 2:1-4). He sought to distance his preaching ministry, not from oratorical skill, but from the sophist rhetorical pomp, which considered a bloody crucified Messiah to be scandalous and moronic (“but we preach Christ crucified, a skandalonto Jews and morian to Gentiles” 1 Cor 1:23). Teachers influenced by the sophists thought they were too enlightened and sophisticated for such a crude and grotesque message. They sought to accommodate the spirit of the age as they provided positive and inspiring messages about virtuous and successful living. Paul, they contended, was a foolish backwoods preacher.
David E. Garland observes, “Paul’s reminiscence that he resolved to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ, and him crucified, does not promote anti-intellectualism but explains his modus operandi” (1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary, 84). Paul was a gifted rhetorician and logician whom listening crowds identified as Hermes, the Greek god of communication, “because he was the chief speaker” (Acts 14:12). Though, a man named Eutychus is recorded as having fallen asleep during Paul’s preaching, but the point of the account is Eutychus’ resurrection and not that Paul was a boring preacher. The fact listeners were still there “until midnight” provides an argument for Paul’s eloquence and not a case against it (Acts 20:7-9).
Paul avoided that form of rhetorical eloquence that would minimize the content and centrality of the gospel because Christ crucified was considered a message of folly in the world (1 Cor 1:18). When Paul’s opponents said, “his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account,” (2 Cor 10:10) they were responding to his appearance and content of his direct, cross-centered message rather than to the skill of his preaching. The cruciform wisdom of power through weakness proclaimed by Paul was a repudiation of the wisdom and spirit of the age and was utterly despised. In crucifixion, a person was lifted up as a parody, a mocking kingship and exaltation (Mark 15:17-32). The resurrection of the crucified Christ mocks their mockery of Jesus. The one parodied as Messiah is Messiah. Paul was perfectly content to be called an unsophisticated fool for Christ’s sake (1 Cor 4:10) because the only way to avoid the charge would be to downplay the centrality of Christ crucified.
Paul was a student of the Scriptures long before he encountered Jesus on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3). He grew up in Jerusalem and was trained in the Scriptures by Gamaliel, a leading rabbi, achieving a reputation as an excellent student (Acts 22:3, Gal 1:14). Paul would have had vast amounts of the Old Testament committed to memory. His study of the Scripture had led him to follow in the footsteps of his father as a Pharisee, one who oversaw the incarceration and execution of Christians (Acts 23:6, 26:9-11; Phil 3:5). What changed in Paul’s understanding of Scripture to cause him to move from being a persecutor of Christians to one who declared, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21)?
He adopted a new hermeneutic—a Christocentric hermeneutic. The respectability Paul had known as an educated and sophisticated religious man from a good family went away the moment he began to interpret Scripture and life through the bloody lens of Christ crucified. This new hermeneutic came as a result of the saving grace of God in his encounter with Christ on the way to Damascus. His faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the resurrected Messiah meant that if he had continued to interpret Old Testament without reference to Jesus, he would have been in rebellion (See Rom 4, Gal 3, 1 Cor 10:1-13, and 2 Cor 3:7-18).
As Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen write, “The newborn Christian and former Pharisee must rethink all he thought he knew. And this is Paul’s starting point: the kingdom of God, ‘the age to come,’ has arrived [in Christ]” (The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, 188). David Dockery reminds readers,
He was, however, well schooled in the rabbinic tradition of the Old Testament interpretation; yet he had been confronted by the exalted Lord himself, and that encounter brought about a change in his view of the Old Testament. Now he viewed the Scriptures from a pattern of redemptive history grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, 41).
A sophisticated church is a contradiction in terms. We are the non-nobles of a crucified Messiah (1Cor 1:18-2:5). The same choice Paul faced is before every preacher today. Are you willing to be a fool for Christ’s sake? Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s simple gospel sermons were called “Redolent of bad taste, vulgar, and theatrical” by the sophisticated religious elites of his day. He responded, “I am perhaps vulgar, but it is not intentional, save that I must and will make the people listen. My firm conviction is that we have had quite enough polite preachers, and many require a change. God has owned me among the most degraded and off-casts. Let others serve their class; these are mine, and to them I must keep.” (Christianity Today “The Secrets of Spurgeon’s Preaching, June 2005).
We can be recognized as sophisticated and culturally enlightened, or we can determine to know nothing among anyone but Christ and him crucified—we cannot do both.
David Prince serves as assistant professor of Christian preaching at Southern Seminary. Is is also the pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington Ky. You can read more by David Prince at his blog: Prince on Preaching. Also follow him on Twitter at: @davideprince. This article originally appeared on his blog.