Text: I Corinthians 2: 6-9. We discuss “wisdom” with those that are mature, only it is not the wisdom of the world or of the dethroned Powers who rule this world. It is the mysterious Wisdom of God that we discuss, that hidden wisdom which God decreed from all eternity, for our glory. None of the Powers of this world understands it (if they had, they would never have crucified the Lord of Glory). No, as it is written,
“What no eye has ever seen,
What no ear has ever heard,”
What never originated in the mind of man,
“God has prepared for those that love him”.
Father in Heaven! We know indeed that thou dwellest in light, and that thy Nature is clarity; but for that very reason Thou art mysterious to us, even in thy revelation, and art as a secret which we cannot utter. Lo! It is, therefore, our comfort that Thou seest in secret and understandest from afar. Try then our very hearts, and according as is the secret which the heart of each conceals, and according as thou dost understand it, vouchsafe to him revelation, in proportion as he keeps his secret and loves thee.
In manifold and divers ways, the Apostle Paul knew how to vary his discourse about the same truth, so as to commend it to people, and if possible win some of them. He did not do this in the least for the sake of gain, for he had learnt to forgo and do without earthly thins, not even missing them. Nor did he do it for the sake of the honour and renown of having disciples, or that anyone should call himself after the name “Paul”. On the contrary he finds solace in the fact that he had (p. 159) only baptized one single person, thereby avoiding all occasion of misunderstanding. Nor did he do it with deceit in his heart, for before God he was undisguised. Humbly he confesses before God and man that he was the least of the Apostles, one born out of due time, not worthy to be called and Apostle. But when need arose, when people would not hear, would not respect the word of the man who knew how to abase himself, then he proves himself really powerful in word and authoritative in speech; showing that even though he humbles himself under God’s mighty hand, and gladly endures that in Apostle is as the scum of the earth, yet dares to stand forth and assert his dignity and the doctrine he preaches, against every worldly heresy which arrogantly asserts itself (II Cor. 10:5). If the Jewish Christians believed they were superior, having the rights of a first-born, which made them the more beloved of God, so that they were justified in imposing the fetters of ceremonies upon Christian freedom, then St. Paul condemns their love of contention and vainglory-he who vindicates himself according to the flesh more than any other; born of the stock of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, as touching the law a Pharisee, even having done what they had not done, persecuted the Christian Church—though now he regarded all this boasted superiority as vanity, and bitterly repented his persecutings. If certain in the Church hasten to assert that they have already attained perfection, then that old warrior, conscious of who he is, gets alongside them on the racecourse, in order that they may measure the distance between themselves and one who did not claim to have attained perfection but only to be striving for it. And if the Church were puffed up with the confidence that it could quite comfortably attain what the Apostles, as wholly surrendered men, had had to strive for day and night without seeing any other reward than that of being as it were the dregs of society and reaping the ingratitude of the Church, then he is furious for a moment, reminding them that he, who has been caught up into the third heaven, works out his salvation with fear and trembling. But it was only in love that he acted thus, his only desire being to win men not to himself but to the truth. He inflamed nobody; and in all the vicissitudes of a long life, he found no occasion to arouse unhealthy passions among the faithful. Even when (p. 160) he stood in chains before a despicable prince, he would not that his speech should awaken bitterness. He does not incite; he does not point to his chains in condemnation. He has forgotten his chains and the world’s injustice towards him; forgotten all this in defence to the truth, whose witness he is. He wishes that even that despicable prince should be as he is; and he wishes it so propiatingly that he adds “yet without these chains”.
The case is just the same with regard to Christian converts from heathendom. Paul had vigour enough to prevent Christian doctrine from being tossed about with every wind, but yet in the presentation and adaptation of this message, he knows how to use every breeze so that the unchangeable word of truth might reach many a heart. He did not hasten forth to overturn the altars of the heathen. He did not scorn their wisdom, for he did not think that by doing so they would retain his zeal in their memories. He quoted from their poets words which were on people’s lips, in order that his teaching might reach their hearts by this path. He halted by their altar in order to read into its enigmatic inscription (which was the highest truth to which heathendom could attain), the truth of his own doctrine. But if anybody misconstrued this his loving self-effacement, this concerned long-suffering, which loved people and wished for their weal; if any worldly wisdom wanted to help him by meeting his interpretation half-way; if the voluptuous, thoughtless life of the cities would take Christianity in vain, take it like anything else, just as it always took one thing with another, then he was faithful to himself again, to his teaching, his authority, his responsibility for the modern age. He did not haggle; he made no terms with distortion by protracted association with heathen subtlety; he cut short all study of long genealogies rejecting all the means that might help him to bring truth into the world other than that way by which it did in fact come in, the way he himself had received it. He did not waver. He admitted that the doctrine he preached was to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the heathen foolishness. Even if half the world had indulged in mockery against him, and the other half had taken offence, (p. 161) he would have changed nothing, not a tittle, even though he should take his doctrine with him to the grave and not win a single convert. He upsets nobody. He seeks no proof for the truth of his teaching, because it is to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness. But he knows that his teaching is the truth. This is all that matters to him; he knows that the other party must encounter the alleged weakness of this preaching, since the Jews require a sign and the Greeks seek after wisdom (I Cor. I:22). He does not self-tormentedly crave for that malicious certainty of the truth of his teaching that it always offends somebody, or arouses somebody’s scorn; as though this were his mission in life, and only by offending people had he fulfilled it. Alas, lying and foolishness can also arouse offence and scorn. He knows his teaching is true; and though all the world should accept it, this does not convince him the more, though indeed it is his heart’s desire and the request of his prayer, that the world should accept it. But if the opposite be the case and the world rejects his teaching, this does not weaken his conviction, or dull his enthusiasm or quench his spirit.
In the Church which was founded at Corinth, St. Paul had special difficulties of the kind I have mentioned. In that flourishing commercial city, which through its shipping and situation, maintained a vital connexion between East and West, numerous crowds of people flocked together from all quarters, different in speech and in culture. As they mingled with the inhabitants, they produced, by contacts and contrasts, new and ever new differences. Even in the Church this differentiation endeavoured to make itself felt in sects and parties; and a kind of pagan wisdom made a special attempt to force itself forward as a teacher of truth. In his first letter to this church, from which the text I read is taken, St. Paul strongly combats this tendency. He will have no amicable agreement with this wisdom. He neither had nor wished to have any fellowship with it. We have heard his words read to us. Zealous for what was committed to him, he refuses to let the doctrine of truth worship strange gods or beg the help of fine words. He confesses that even if he speaks wisdom among the perfect, yet it is not this world’s wisdom he speaks, which must come to nought; but he speaks the wisdom of God in a mystery which was hidden from the foundation of the world, concealed from the eyes of the princes of this world, since they crucified the Lord of Glory. (p. 162)
What if St. Paul had lived in our times? His concern for people may well have caused him to discover many a method which is hidden from us. But would he, I wonder, when this became necessary, have changed the fixed and incorruptible word which offers peace? Would anyone, I wonder, who was contemporary with him and had known what happened earlier, have found that he had lost not only the teaching but also St. Paul? Certainly not. But how does this affect a person who has to speak in Church? Shall he perhaps lead you, my hearers, out of this sacred building, out to the streets and lanes or even remain in the courtyard, in order to haggle and bargain with this worldly wisdom?–not for your sakes, for what can it profit you to do this, if worldly wisdom is not true; not for the sake of truth, for truth is only eager to be preached pure and unalloyed; but for the sake of vanity, that the speaker may appear glorious in the eyes of the world. Or on the other hand, shall he here, in this holy place, where you certainly know that this wisdom is a mystery, and therefore continues to be revealed in mystery—shall he here try to copy the Apostle’s strong words, and in poor imitation shout and roar, putting the Apostle and himself to shame? Praised be St. Paul, a man who knows how to fight for the truth, a man who does not wash his hands and let truth be crucified. Praised be the man who in that actual danger he was in for forty years by day and night, in hunger and nakedness, with no fixed abode here upon earth, forsaking everything, reviled, persecuted, mocked, defamed. But anyone is a fool who fights in the same way as St. Paul did, seeing his danger is quite different; for there is now no danger of betraying an Apostle’s calling, but only the danger of not sparing oneself. Let the Apostle keep his strong militant words, which are powerful to guard the distinction. But if I were to try to imitate the Apostle, it would be as if a child should put on the armour of a giant in order to play the warrior. Would not the child’s opponent soon discover who it was that was concealed in the armour? So, too, my opponent would soon discover that it is but a weak soul and an impotent reasoning which dwelt in my valiant words! Would not that do harm, even as St. Paul did good? For he began what he was (p. 163) honourably to fulfil; began a strife in which no terror could make him feel that he had not sufficiently “conferred with flesh and blood”, or that he had not really settled accounts with himself. For after all he had been willing to renounce everything in order to begin a struggle against the whole world.
Let us, therefore, turn the word upon ourselves, and let everyone individually take to himself what he hears, not asking what message St. Paul’s teaching has for the world, but what is our own personal relationship to this heavenly wisdom. For it were indeed the most pitiable of all things if what was to the Jews a stumbling-block, to the Greeks foolishness, to St. Paul a power of God unto salvation—if this had become to anyone but an empty sound on the Apostle’s lips, and a noisy speech in his mouth, to the effect that this heavenly wisdom is to the Jews a stumbling-block and to the Greeks foolishness! It would be as pitiable, would it not, as if a man knew about that “mystery of godliness” of which St. Paul speaks in another place, saying that “God was manifest in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen of angels, preached among the nations, believed on throughout the world”—knew that this “mystery of godliness” was believed on throughout the world, but did not know whether he himself had believed it. So the discourse then is to you, my hearer, and its theme is
Your Personal Relationship to This Heavenly Wisdom
Have you then seen the marvel, my hearer, or do you only say “Blessed are the eyes which have seen it”? And even this, how do you say it? The glory of which we are speaking was certainly not very acceptable to the earthly eye, since it was a stumbling-block to the Jews, and foolishness to the Greeks. The eye which saw it, therefore, was not the earthly eye, but the eye of faith which confidently peered through the Terror in order to see what no earthly eye can discover if he who gazes is ignorant of what there is to see (as, for example, the two disciples did not see the marvelous when they were walking to Emmaus, nor Mary Magdalene when standing by the grave; in order also to see what can pain the earthly eye when he who gazes knows what he ought to see.
Now, of course, it is always true that the eye of faith is blessed when it sees the object of faith; but if you consider this blessed, then you are not speaking about seeing what indeed may be glorious to have seen, what fortune or circumstances grant opportunity to one person to see (p.165) and withhold it from another. If you count that person fortunate who saw what earthly eyes desire to see, and you did this without envy, gladly rejoicing in his good fortune, then you are to be congratulated. For you were not upset by coveting his good fortune, not envious because you lacked it. Your joy, therefore, over the fortunate one brought its own reward to you. But if on the contrary you count the eye of faith fortunate because it saw the object of faith, then you are either slyly misinterpreting yourself and your words, as though it were a question of something outward, or you may, even as you speak, feel a secret reproach because you are speaking as though you were denied the proper opportunity to see what the believer saw in those far-off days; a secret reproach because you are misusing a phrase, which “desired to see” what the believer saw and shall never cease to see if he will. You may, if you are honest, feel a certain misgiving in your heart for using that phrase as a cloak for unbelief, as though at any other time in the world you would have seen what only faith sees; as though you, whose lukewarmness is only strong in sham eulogy, would have avoided offence and scoffing, if only that glory of which we are speaking had intruded itself upon you so that you might see.
Have you then seen the marvel, my hearer, and by what means? Was it with the help of that beautiful power in the soul which consoles and rejoices the childlike element in us, that beautiful power which calls forth the figure our longing craves for, beloved figure of memory, something more than a deceiving presence from bygone days—but also alarms us by the images of horror produced by fear and suspicion? Certainly this power can do a great deal. But what it produces is after all your own creation, even though when produced it becomes effective through the power you gave it. And what this power produces must in one way and another be visible to the earthly eye. But the object of faith cannot be seen by the earthly eye, and, therefore, cannot show itself in the pictures produced by imagination. Is it desirable, anyway, that the object of faith should be such a figure, which, as you yourself (p. 166) know from experience, as absent when you most need it; for when the peace of mind and the quietness, and the silence disappear, in which the pictur4e came into being, when the struggle and the fighting begins, then nothing appears except what fear and terror conjure up. And even if such a figure were to appear, it cannot calm the strife because everything that the imagination creates is unit without context. Suppose, for example, you wanted, even though you had never seen a king, to visualizes a king, not clad in purple but clad as a lowly man because then the image might help you; or suppose even though you had never seen a palace, you wanted to visualize him not indeed in a palace but among the lowly and despised of the people, because then the image might help you (and there was no cottage so lowly but that the king so to say could walk erect therein, and there dwelt in the cottage no one so wretched but that even to such a one the king showed that he was a king)—would you be able do you think to visualize all this? Or would not the imagination quail thereat? Even if you had painstakingly read what was related and preserved in written accounts would you not try in vain to visualize the glory which to the Jews was a stumbling-block? For if the king had consented to visit the lowly one (which could upset nobody) he would have changed the lowly one’s cottage into a palace. Or could you depict this glory which to the Greeks was foolishness? For if the noble king’s incognito had been due merely to his lowly clothing, and his human form had not already been a screen though he were clothed in purple; or if that poor clothing had been a sign of distinction which in its own way distinguished the king more than all earthly splendor—then I think the Greeks would certainly not have been offended.
But of you really did see the glory of which we are speaking, then I am sure that, however, you saw it, you saw it by faith, believing. Faith itself, like the object of faith, is to the Jews a stumbling-block, because they want it to be proved by a sign, whereas the marvellous itself wills to be the object of faith; and to the Greeks it is foolishness, (p.167)because they seek wisdom, whereas faith itself is a mystery, and only, when revealed, foolishness.
Did you hear it then, my hearer? Or were you—not as one who was offended, but yet heard it; not like one who scoffed, but yet heard it? On the contrary, were you one who hearing did not hear, heard a wind which passeth away, which as little inciteth to offence as to scoffing? Then he was a better hearer who was offenced; and he who scoffed, at least did not quickly forget. For the former’s attitude to what he heard was unwilling deference he could not break away from; and the latter by his scoffing has ever to defend himself against what he can only so keep at bay. So if you felt no need to be offended, though it was only at the moment when, tempted to complete deference, you discovered how near offence was; felt no urge to scoffing, though it was only at the moment when, tempted to complete deference, you discovered how near offence was; felt no urge to scoffing, though it was only when, in holy surrender you assented in secret—then it was indeed doubtful, not only whether your attitude to that word was right, but whether you had any attitude at all.
Did you hear it then, my hearer? Or is it only as if you heard it, and nothing more. Do you listen to the word and say, “Blessed are the ears that heard it”? Yes, happy are the ears that are to hear what the earthly ears wish; but we are not speaking about all that. What you desire to hear, that have you certainly heard; it is said again and again, it is heard every moment in many places, and you need not ask “Who shall mount up into heaven and bring it down to us?” But then it was not the hearing itself you valued, but perhaps the person you counted blessed because he had ears to hear and they heard. For hearing always, of course, requires an ear, but he who hath ears to hear heavenly wisdom, (p.168) he must have an inward ear. Yes, happy is he whose ear is open to catch the innermost harmony of the sound, and if you count him happy to whom this is vouchsafed, then we will in turn praise you because you are not so small-minded as to want everybody to share your own deficiences. But all this is beside the point. Were the word not a noble word, how could it become a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks? It was not just a burning speech, glowing with fire; for the Greeks appreciated beauty more than anybody, and the fervor of zeal consumed the Jews. It was not therefore, the earthly ear that heard, but the ear of faith, which passing through temptations to be offended and to scoff, listened to hear the word of faith. Yes, blessed the ear which heard that. But how can you count the ear blessed because it heard what neither time not space ever prevents anyone from hearing who has laid hold of the preaching.
Did you hear it then, my hearer? And how did you retain its message? For he who only hears the sound, only hears sensuously; and even if it were a human discourse he was listening to, he would not really hear it if he heard nothing more than the mere sound; and even if he did hear more, but yet heard nothing when once the other stopped speaking, then he did not really hear. Did you retain the word by that honest faculty in the soul which adds nothing and subtracts nothing, but accurately and unerringly repeats to you what you have entrusted to it? Would you wish to entrust the word of wisdom to this faculty: For truly it is honest. Yet when the struggle begins, and your soul becomes unquiet, then I imagine that you suspect that you relied in vain upon memory, because memory itself also partakes of the confusion. For memory does not wholly belong to you. It is an alien servant, independent of your authority. For time veils it and cheats it little by little of what you had entrusted to it; until that last hour comes in which you most needed the word of wisdom of which we are speaking. Did memory retain then what you wished it to retain? The word of wisdom, we admit, is a word gone by, spoken many hundreds of years ago, and the faculty of memory has the power to retain the past as it was, to reproduce it again clearly and vividly as a recollection, without omitting anything, but also without forgetting that it is something past that is being remembered. Once forget that, and what you entrust to memory gets changed; as though one clearly remembered an event, but forgot that it was many years since it happened. But the word of (p.169) wisdom, of which we are speaking, is just as much present, it is important to note, as it is past. Otherwise there would be nothing false in counting those ears more blessed that heard it may years ago, than the believing ears that heard it yesterday.
But if you did not hear the word as if it were merely something to be listened to, then we know of a truth how you heard it. You heard it with the ear of faith. For faith itself, like the word of wisdom, is to the Jews a stumbling-block, since they require a sign which should herald the future, though the future is precisely the present; and to the Greeks it is foolishness, because they seek wisdom, though the present is precisely the past which yet is present without being a mere repetition.
This mysterious wisdom proclaims, What has not originated in, or “come up into” the heart of man. Was it then in your heart, my hearer, as something which had not arisen up therein? Or was it there as something which has not tempted you to offence or scoffing, and never had done so?
Yet who can comprehend the heart of man? Even he who feels it clearest in his own bosom, even he who understands how to keep secret and attentive watch, and who observes every movement and every prompting therein, even he has to end as he began: “nothing is so incomprehensible as the heart of man”. And if anyone should ask him what this might be that cannot enter into the heart of man, he might well be startled at the question, and be unable to answer except to ask for time to think; and when that time was over, he still perhaps would not have found an answer. But no man can set forth – indeed it would never occur to anybody to want to set forth – what can enter into the heart of man. Who knows then whether the wisdom we are speaking of may not have arisen up in someone’s heart, whether there is or has been, some lonely man in a secluded corner of the world, whether there is or has been a man in the din of the city, in whose heart this wisdom may have arisen? My hearer, I am not speaking thus in order to satisfy the world. I am speaking, I assure you, only about your own relationship to this mysterious wisdom. Whatever anyone else may think, you surely do not imagine that we ought to postpone (170) deciding this question till we have explored and heard every thought which has arisen up in any man’s heart.
Have you then this mysterious wisdom in your heart, or do you merely say, “Blessed the heart that was preserved it”? I am sure you do not. For you know quite well that the means by which this wisdom is retained is the same as that by which it is received, and the means are the same for every man and can be used by every man who will.
If then this mysterious wisdom is in your heart; if it is in your heart without having originated there, but is there in such wise that you do not feel either passive opposition of the human heart through offense, or its active opposition through scoffing, then it is doubtful whether this really is that wisdom of which we are speaking. Perhaps you magnanimously, as it were, honour this wisdom by saying, “Truly nothing of this sort has ever arisen up in my heart”, meaning thereby to state vigorously and emphatically that you received it from somebody else; though there was nothing to prevent it arising in your own heart, however certain you be that it had not, and however praiseworthy it was that you would not willingly deceive us in any way. Even if such wisdom had not exactly “arisen up” in your heart, it had at least entered in to this extent, that it could not possibly meet or have met there, the ignorance which characterizes offense or scoffing. But this very impossibility shows that your wisdom is not the wisdom of which we are speaking. For the possibility of offense or scoffing, while indeed it does not guarantee the wisdom, does not make it impossible that in any deep sense it has “arisen” in your heart, even granting it entered there through somebody else. It may indeed by “magnanimous” to talk as you do about some other wisdom, but in respect to the wisdom of which we are speaking, how can there be such profuse magnanimity, or by what authority do you speak such large words? For if you were freely resting in the mysterious wisdom which is our theme, the possibility of offence and scoffing would so have got rid of human
Croxall’s Note p. 171 In the section entitled, “Offence at the Paradox (an acoustical illusion)” from the Fragments, p. 39 (IV, p. 242), the passive nature of the offence is noted. We do not impart offence to the Paradox, we receive or “suffer” it (passively) from the Paradox. (The grammatical word “passive” comes, of course, from the Latin patior, passus sum, meaning “suffer”.) A note on the said page in the Fragments is so apposite, that I translate it here: “In Danish we rightly call Affekt (strong emotion) a ‘suffering’ of the mind; and when we use the Affekt, we nearly always think of some breathtaking feat of daring (due, e.g., to pride or defiance) which astonishes us. We forget that it is a suffering.”
“magnanimity”, that it would have nothing, absolutely nothing to plead of its own, bout would only humbly receive what should become the power of God unto salvation.
But perhaps, my hearer, this mysterious wisdom is in your heart, not as something which had “arisen up” there, but which had perhaps gradually become so natural to you, that it seemed as if it had originated in your own heart? Oh that a man may preserve in his soul a word which once had saved him in life’s need! That word may perhaps have been single and perspicuous; perhaps it only became clear to him by pondering upon it; perhaps he could clearly and perspicuously explain it to everybody, using all the powers of oratory. But one thing he would not be able to do. He could not explain how it had arisen up within him just in the hour of need. He could explain all its later effect upon his life, but he could not explain how, just when his need was greatest, help had most decidedly been given him in this word. Would he, I wonder, even if he grew old and grey, would he ever reach or wish to reach the state when the word should have lost that mysterious power for him? Or suppose a man had a secret friend, and it was exceedingly beautiful to hear him bear witness how this friend had helped him many times and in divers ways during a long life; yet still he could not explain how that friend had discovered him, since he himself had searched the whole world in vain. Would he, I wonder ever reach, or wish to reach the state when his mysterious relationship had lost its marvellousness? Or suppose there was a merciful person, to whom you were in debt for everything, and no one hear you without being deeply moved when you related how his remittance of the debt had not only been your salvation, but the source and basis of your weal; yet still you could not explain how this was, and every time you thought of it, and of your debt to him, you always repeated as you did at the first, “It is impossible”, even though in fact it were quite certainly so. Would you, I wonder, ever reach or wish to reach that state when that wonderful crisis and turning-point in your life should become less wonderful? Would you, I wonder, understand or wish to understand anyone who would help you to see that you had never really been very guilty, that your debt was an illusion, since its (173) very concept was nullified by the fact that everybody was similarly guilty, so that your gratitude was but deceit? And so with the mysterious wisdom we are thinking of. Even if it explained everything to a person, opened his eyes to see, opened his mouth to relate, enlarged his heart to comprehend its depths, would it, I wonder, be revealed in any other way than in secret? On the contrary, he would distort and spoil everything to forget, or lyingly to betray the wonder of its origin. And every time he worked back to that origin in his soul, then he would again see offence and scoffing standing at that narrow entrance which is faith’s.
But if that mysterious wisdom was in your heart as something which had not originated there, we know of a surety how it got there, namely through faith in your heart. For faith is as it were an offence to the Jews, because it will not sow dissension in your heart but reconcile you to yourself; and it is to the Greeks foolishness because it will reconcile you to yourself but not by yourself.
My hearers, this discourse has not wandered out into the world to look for conflict, it has not tried to get the better of anybody, it has not even tried to uphold anybody, as though there was a battle without. It has spoken to you; not by way of explaining anything to you, but trying to speak secretly with you about your relationship to that secret wisdom mentioned in our text. Oh that nothing may upset you in respect to this, “neither life not death nor things present nor things to come nor any other creature” – (Romans 8:38) – not this discourse, which, though it may have profited you nothing, yet has striven for what after all is the first and the last, to help you to have what the Scripture calls “faith in yourself before God” (Romans 14:22).