In 1 Corinthians 1-2, Paul sets the cross in opposition to “cleverness of speech” (1:17). He also opposes his ministry mode of embodying the crucified Christ with a mode of ministry characterized by “persuasive words of wisdom” (2:2-4).
What is Paul opposing and what is he endorsing?
Is Paul calling for a kind of anti-intellectualism or a refusal to use rhetorical skill?
I don’t think so.
It seems that Paul is opposing the kind of rhetoric that is self-serving and self-promoting—the employment of impressive speech and high-flying rhetoric that draws attention with the aim of self-advancement.
A modern parallel might be the manipulation of public relations with the aim of controlling the discussion, “spinning” a story to manipulate or manage one’s image.
So, on one hand, there is the use of rhetoric to obfuscate, to confuse, to control, to divert, to misdirect, to manipulate. This use of rhetoric—“cleverness of speech”—flows from and fosters inauthenticity. Paul knows that those who present themselves this way aren’t ministering from genuineness, and are making the cross “void” (1:17).
That is, they are producing results or building a community by putting a nice attractive sheen on the cross of Christ. They are ashamed of the cross and its social radioactivity.
But Paul knows that any supposed ministry “results” that come from such a ministry mode won’t survive the coming judgment, which will reveal each minister’s work (3:13).
Interpreters have long noted how highly stylized Paul’s rhetoric is in both Corinthian letters. So, how can Paul downgrade “cleverness of speech,” but employ rhetorical skill?
Rhetoric isn’t the problem. Its manipulative employment is the problem—its use to overshadow the cross.
Paul very skillfully draws on a range of rhetorical techniques to speak truthfully, to present himself authentically, to situate himself as the Corinthians’ servant.
There is a way of speaking that opens up and reveals motives, that invites examination, that welcomes and provides hospitality, that rejects manipulation, “spin,” and dissembling. That’s the sort of rhetoric Paul uses throughout his correspondence.
He writes of how his mode of ministry among them embodied the cross. His speaking and acting were a performance of “Jesus Christ, even him crucified.”
That approach would have taken great preparation and consideration. So Paul isn’t against thoughtful strategizing when it comes to cultivating relational postures—so long as those radiate authenticity, genuineness, and truth.
That is, so long as those direct attention to the cross, draw on the power of the cross, and gain their orientation by the cross of Christ.
Paul’s ministry mode was driven not by the manipulations of public relations but by a skillful embrace of the cross and a considered embodiment of the weakness and shame of the cross. He was fully aware that this made him a “fool” to those whose interpretive lenses were shaped by the world and its wisdom (1:20-31).
Paul’s critique of rhetoric and wisdom, then, isn’t a critique of skillful and considered speech or an endorsement of anti-intellectualism. He is contrasting two divergent ministry modes, one that promotes self at the expense of the cross, and one that identifies with the cross as that which unleashes the power of God.