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Is it preaching or the thing preached that is foolish and pleasing to God as a means to save those who believe in 1 Cor 1:21?

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❏ Definition

The word κήρυγμα can refer either to the act of preaching or to the thing preached. For example, we can take a look at the entry of the word in the Greek Dictionary (BillMounce.com):

Gloss:
preaching, proclamation, message, with a focus on the content of what is preached
Definition:
proclamation, proclaiming, public annunciation, Mt. 12:41; public inculcation, preaching, 1 Cor. 2:4; 15:14; meton. what is publicly inculcated, doctrine, Rom. 16:25; Tit. 1:3*

Joachim Küpper defines it as "Kerygma (κήρυγμα) is the Greek term used in theological and hermeneutic discourses to describe the proclamation or message of the New Testament." in his Approaches to World Literature (2013), p. 75.

Brevard S. Childs defines it as "The noun kerygma could mean either the content of what was preached or the act of proclamation." in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (2011), p. 220.

James I. H. McDonald defines it as "The term kerygma, like the English word 'preaching', possesses inherent ambivalence. It may refer to preaching as an activity or as the content of proclamation, and sometimes it is not easy to decide which meaning predominates." in his Kerygma and Didache The Articulation and Structure of the Earliest Christian Message (2004), p. 1.

❏ 1 Cor. 1:21

Since Paul places particular emphasis to the message of the preaching in 1 Cor. 1:18 ("preaching of the cross") and 1 Cor. 1:23 ("we preach Christ crucified"), it can be safely assumed that he is referring to the thing preached in 1 Cor. 1:21, i.e. the content of preaching.

About the foolishness of the thing preached, A.T. Robertson wrote in his Word Pictures of the New Testament (1933):

The proclamation of the Cross seemed foolishness to the wiseacres then (and now), but it is consummate wisdom, God‘s wisdom and good-pleasure (ευδοκησαν — eudokēsan). The foolishness of preaching is not the preaching of foolishness.

❏ 1 Cor. 2:4

Note, however, that Paul is referring to act of preaching in 1 Cor. 2:4. He is making a clear distinction ὁ λόγος μου and τὸ κήρυγμά μου. James I. H. McDonald says in his Kerygma and Didache The Articulation and Structure of the Earliest Christian Message (2004), p. 2:

But in 1 Cor. 2: 4, where Paul again dissociates his logos (speech) and kerygma (preaching) from the plausibility of worldly wisdom, he is clearly referring to the act of preaching which has an eschatological dynamic, so that the faith of those who responded to his preaching was born not of human wisdom but of the power of God. This nuance can hardly be absent in 1:21.

Something similar we can read in Paul's Theology of Preaching: The Apostle's Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth (2015) by Duane Litfin:

Even Gerhard Friedrich, after acknowledging the dual possibilities inherent in the term κήρυγμα, along with the difficulty of deciding in any particular case which predominates, concludes that in 1 Corinthians 2:4 κήρυγμα refers to the act of preaching, while just thirteen verses back, in 1:21, the focus is on the content of preaching."

It's not like an one is "private" and the other "public", as we read in some commentaries, but is, as Henry Alford wrote in his Greek Testament Critical Exegetical Commentary (1863):

λόγος of the course of argument and inculcation of doctrine, κήρυγμα of the announcement of facts. This (De W.) is better than with Olsh. to understand λ. as his private, κ. his public discourse: see Luke 4:32, and ὁ λόγος τ. σταυροῦ, ch. 1 Corinthians 1:18)

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The EGNT (Englishman's Greek New Testament) translates :

διὰ τῆς μωρίας τοῦ κηρύγματος [TR]

as :

by the foolishness of the proclamation.

κηρύγματος [Strong 2782] is expressed in Thayer's Lexicon as :

that which is promulgated by a herald or public crier, a proclamation by herald

If it is 'that which is' promulgated, then it is the content of what is preached, not the manner of the activity of preaching, that is in focus.

It pleases God to 'save them that believe' by the foolishness of preaching. They are saved by what they believe, and what they believe is the content of the message.

Paul makes this even clearer to the Corinthians in his second epistle, II Corinthians 4:7, when he refers to himself, and others, as 'earthen vessels' and refers to the content which they speak as 'treasure', that the excellency may be of God, not of them that speak.

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διὰ τῆς μωρίας τοῦ κηρύγματος σῶσαι τοὺς πιστεύοντας. (RP2005)

through {1223 PREP} of~the [one] {3588 T-GSF} of~a~stupidity {3472 N-GSF} of~the [thing] {3588 T-GSN} of~a~heralding {2782 N-GSN} to save {4982 V-AAN} to~the [ones] {3588 T-APM} to~trusting {4100 V-PAP-APM}

"Throught the stupidity of~the heralding, to~the [ones] trusting, the God had well-supposed to save." (Robin)

Or, as Nigel most helpfully re-phrased it, "It pleases God to 'save them that believe' by the foolishness of preaching."

What they believe is the content of the message; God graces them with the trust to accept what they hear in the content of that message, but ultimately it is God Who saves them, through the stupidiy of Christ dying on the cross, and rising again.

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The Greek word in the KJV here is kerugma (κήρυγμα) meaning "a public proclamation by a herald", which in my view describes an activity with more specificity and detail than similar New Testament words like kerusso (proclaim) or kataggell (teach or show) which are also translated as 'preach'. Kerugma also gives us more information about the actual manner of delivery of the message than words like euaggelizo (bring glad tidings) and logos (speech or saying) which are also taken to mean "preaching".

So I think the answer to your question is that the activity of preaching is mainly what Paul refers to as "foolishness" in this passage. Notice the context in which kerugma is used again later, in Paul's letter to Titus:

Titus 1:3 KJV - But hath in due times manifested his word through preaching [kerugma], which is committed unto me according to the commandment of God our Saviour;

Here, as in 1 Corinthians 1:21, Paul seems to be putting more stress on this phenomenon of "public proclamation by a herald" than on the content of the message. Back in verse 18 is where Paul points directly at the content of the preaching in question, and says "the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness". But when he gets to verse 21 that point is still fresh in the reader's mind, so there would be no need to restate it, further indicating Paul has shifted focus on method rather than content.

"The foolishness of preaching"—Almighty God's manner of rebuking men for sin, warning them of his wrath, or offering them salvation—is admittedly kind of unimaginative and prosaic. We might reasonably expect the Creator of the universe to have a more demonstrably supernatural way of communicating his messages than simply "public proclamation by a herald", especially when his heralds often looked unremarkable and mundane (bald heads, leather girdles) instead of brilliantly shining like Moses (a notable exception), whose face was luminescent after leaving God's presence.

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