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1Corinthians 1:20 :- Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?

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Let's look at the context.

1 Corinthians 1:20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For 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. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles

Paul debated with some of these people in Athens.

Acts 17:16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

There are quite a few commonalities in these two passages. Both concern the Jews and Gentiles. Both speak of wise persons and their wisdom/philosophies. Both deal with debates and arguments. Both contrast human and divine wisdom. Both conclude with the winning side of Christ crucified and the resurrection.

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There are at least two kinds of wisdom in Scripture. Our Lord's stepbrother, James, describes them this way:

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness(James 3 NIV, my emphasis).

Having been in more graduate-school classes at the university than I can count, I have been exposed to worldly, earthly wisdom. There, quite often, knowledge parades as wisdom. The two virtues are not the same, however.

That is not to say knowledge is unimportant. In the biblical Book of Proverbs, the word wisdom appears 55 times, but knowledge is not far behind at 38 instances (in the NIV). God is surely pleased when academics, scientists, and theorists of every stripe and perspective build upon (or choose not to build upon!) the knowledge of previous generations and in so doing discover cures to diseases, invent things that make life safer, more fulfilling, and even easier.

Do all those theorists, scientists, and academics share a bedrock biblical and spiritual foundation? No. But even those who have no allegiance to God whatsover, realize in their better moments there is a force much greater than knowledge at work in what they do professionally, and that force is a "higher power" that is insurpassable.

Even the seemingly simple metaphors and paradigms at work in every specialized field you might care to name are built upon knowledge but are dependent on wisdom to apply that knowledge in God honoring and human benefitting ways for "the greater good". Barney Clark, for example, in 1972 became the first recipient of a permanent, artificial heart. The foundational and heuristic metaphor behind the artificial heart? The heart is a pump! Simple, yet profound.

Take nuclear energy, for example. Not until the 1930s when physicist Enrico Fermi first showed that neutrons could split atoms was the untapped potential of nuclear energy discovered and demonstrated to be a chain reaction having harnessible power for both good and evil. The unleashing of an atomic bomb could--and did--wipe out hundreds of thousands of Japanese in mere moments.

By the same token, however, to this day in America, nuclear energy provides about 20 percent of the electricity which heats and cools our homes, lights our streets, and powers our super computers and their "cloud computing."

All this to say: Worldly, earthly wisdom--the kind that comes from the so-called wise intellectuals and debaters among us has its roots in pride, envy, selfish ambition, and, at best, half-truths devoid of wisdom. Need we be reminded that knowledge tends to puff up, but love seeks to build up (1 Corinthians 8:1)?

In short, in the apostle Paul's day as well as in our own, Christians are able to recognize and distinguish between false wisdom and true, biblical wisdom. The former, ultimately, has the ability to steal, kill, and destroy (see John 10:7-14). The latter endues knowledge with a commitment to the greater good, which writ large is "pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere" (James 3:17-18, excerpts).

Finally, the scribes, the wise, and the debaters in the apostle Paul's day were called Sophists. These teachers of public speaking and perveyors of half-truths and rules of thumb were informed by the foundational presupposition of Protogoras, the 5th century BC philosopher and first Sophist, that "Man is the measure of all things." Their "wisdom" was characterized by impressive eloquence but was fueled by the profit motive and the desire for fame and acclaim. Not so, the apostle Paul"

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you [Corinthians], I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God [a, or proclaimed to you God's mystery] 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2 NIV).

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  • Very good answer. +1 – Dottard Nov 25 '20 at 20:10
  • @Dottard: Thanks for your encouraging words! Don – rhetorician Nov 26 '20 at 2:14
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This passage is about preaching the gospel, or to be more precise, who preaches that gospel. And he compared the ‘valued’ intellectual philosophers to those that do. (Greek culture esteemed intellectual prowess.). Paul’s claim was that these could not ‘preach’ the gospel, because they didn’t understand it. Intellectual understanding is not required for spiritual discernment - anyone can understand the gospel.

The context begins in verse 17, and to understand the meaning of the verse you quoted (20) you need to start back at 17. Let’s look at the previous verse ...

1 COR 1:19 For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent

Paul was referring to Isaiah 29:14. This passage from Isaiah is very applicable by itself, but it is even better if you take it in its context. In fact, Isaiah 29:14 begins with the word “therefore,” directly linking it to what had been said in verse 13.

Isaiah 29:13 makes it clear why God is going to bypass the wisdom of mankind. It is because they were only going through the motions of serving God; their hearts were far from Him.

So back to 1 Corinthians 1 verse 20. What was Paul speaking of when he asked ‘where?’, Was he asking the location of these intellectuals? Certainly not! He was saying, “How do these intellectuals relate to ministering the Gospel?”

This can be seen by the context. In 1 Corinthians 1:21, Paul said that God uses the foolishness of preaching to save those that are lost. He doesn’t do it through ‘mental persuasion’.

Then later on, starting with 1 Corinthians 1:26, he drew their attention to the fact that not very many of the world’s elite are called to minister the Gospel. He continued this same thought in 1 Corinthians 2 as he used himself as an example of preaching the Gospel in simplicity instead of wisdom of words.

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