If you were to look at the scholarship of 1 Corinthians that engages rhetorical critics, you would see a trend in thinking that 1 Cor. 1.10 serves as the propositio for the epistle.1 Margaret Mitchell and Ben Witherington have both argued for that arrangement. This reflects the conviction that Paul’s primary task in 1 Corinthians is to address the causes of division in Corinth. However, it seems apparent to that issue of division is an auxiliary, rather than a primary issue for 1 Corinthians. Instead, the problems of division reflect a deeper problem, a roadblock for the Christian community to rightly learn about God through the Spirit that inspires the various members of the community. A community is in internal conflict is a community is not learn the way God makes Himself known. Rather, for me, I would suggest the concern about unity is connected to an overarching epistemic concern: how is it that one comes to experience and know God’s kingdom?
In my own arrangement of 1 Corinthians, I consider 1.10-4.19 to an extended narratio2 that seeks to clarify the nature of God’s wisdom in relationship to various teachers, such as Paul and Apollos. The probable reason why Paul takes this route is that he has received a request from the Corinthians for some instructions regarding specific matters (1 Cor. 7.1), but as he has gotten word that they are divided, a narratio that address matters of how God teaches the Corinthians is perhaps deemed necessary in order for the Corinthians to receive Paul’s response to their letter in the appropriate mindset, rather than risk them treating what Paul set as over and against what Apollos said. While various members of the Corinthian Chrisitan community were associating themselves with various teachers due to the type of wisdom they demonstrated in their teaching, Paul demonstrates in 1 Corinthians 2 that the Corinthians come to understand God from faith to the more mature wisdom because of God’s power and inspiration that was evident in Christ’s crucifixion and understanding and is in action among the Corinthians through the Spirit. God’s work is evident in various person such that no real distinct can be made between Paul and Apollos except in the specific task they are undertaking as given to them by God. Likewise, making divisions between each other is also counter to the way God is at work among the Corinthians.
It is in this context that 1 Corinthians 4.20 can be understand as Paul’s propositio: “God’s Kingdom is (known)3 not in speech but in power.” Whereas the Corinthians were accustomed to evaluating the wisdom of people based upon their evaluations of the speech in accordance to the conventions of the wisdom of the day, as if human wisdom had some reliable way to inform persons about God and His will, Paul provides a different account of how one comes into God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God is not mediated through speech, but rather it comes into experience and understanding through power. Whereas the conventions of wisdom would assign speech, specifically speech that follows the conventions of reason, as a way to come into an understanding of God, the Body of Christ comes to know God by understanding what God does. Put differently, ancient conventions of wisdom often made reason and those deemed experts in wisdom because of their rationality as the epistemic source of knowledge about divinity, whereas Paul has an epistemology that takes as its source various acts and speech among the Christian community that are deemed to have been empowered and inspired by God.
However, there are good reasons to suggest that this epistemic starting point did not originate from Paul himself. Rather, I would hypothesize that 1 Corinthians 4.20 originates as an understanding of Jesus’ own discourse about the kingdom of God/heaven. Read Matthew 12.28:
if it is by the Spirit4 of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.
Here, we see a similar connection to God’s Kingdom and power as in 1 Corinthians 4.20, as it is the Spirit who is the agent of God’s power among the Corinthian community.
However, I don’t think 1 Cor. 4.20 is pulling from the saying in Matthew 12.28/Luke 11.20. Rather, I think it is more so descriptive of how the early Church understood the significance of Jesus over and against the religious background, particularly of the Pharisees. Consider this teaching attributed to the Pharisee Gamaliel in Mishnah Berakhot 2.5:
A bridegroom is exempt from reciting the Shema on the first night until the end of the Shabbat, if he has not performed the act. It happened with Rabban Gamaliel who recited the Shema on the first night after he had married. His students said to him: Our master, have you not taught us that a bridegroom is exempt from reciting the Shema. He replied to them: I will not listen to you to remove from myself the Kingship of Heaven even for a moment.
The nature of the question isn’t immediately clear to most of us today, but it boils down to a question of priorities for Gamaliel. On the night in which one should be consummating one’s marriage, it was given as an exception that a man would not have to remember and spend time recited the Shema. They would presumably be too distracted by their marital ‘duties’ that it wouldn’t think to recite the Shema prayer, so an exception was made. However, Gamaliel’s response to the inquiry highlights that the exception was a concession and not a rule. His rationale is that to fail to recite the Shema would be to absent from God’s rule.
What this somewhat humorous episode (at least humorous to me) shows is that the relationship between speech with the idea of God’s Kingdom among the Pharisees. To be clear, Gamaliel is not referring to some mindless recitation of the Shema as if it is a mere ritual. Rather, he is referring to a meaningful act of devotion that was not just a matter of words but also ordered the mind in devotion to God, just as outlined in Deuteronomy 6.4-9, a significant portion of the Shema prayer.
The specific relationship between this act of prayer and devotion and God’s Kingdom is not apparent in this episode, nor should we try to speculate about Gamaliel in this episode. However, we can outline at least three types of relationships that could account for the relationship. A conditional relationship would suggest that God’s rule comes in some form to the person in response to the recitation of the Shema. A constructive relationship would suggest that recitation of the Shema is an act in bringing about God’s rule in the life of the person, perhaps as a way of appropriate what God made known for one’s own life. A receptive relationship would consider the recitation of the Shema would prepare the person to enter into God’s Rule.
Most any good Pharisee and the later Rabbis would reject the conditional relationship between the Shema and the Kingdom of God as they knew that it was God who showed mercy and made a covenant with them before God did anything. Rather in virtue of the covenantal nomism that E.P. Sanders outlined in Paul and Palestinian Judaism, such a view that condition God’s action as a necessary response to human action would fly in the face of the understanding of God’s mercy in the Torah.
A constructive relationship would be more amenable to religious life structured according to covenantal nomism, where obedience was a response to God’s mercy and covenant. In this view, God can be seen as giving the ‘resources’ for bringing about God’s rule and one’s appropriation and usage of those resources takes what God has given access to and constructed one’s own life in accordance to it. It is this constructive view that seems to be most consistent with Rabbi Joshua ben Korbah (from a generation after Gamaliel) explanations as to the order of the Shema in Mishnah Berakhot 2.2:
Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah said: Why was the section of “Shema” placed before that of “And it shall come to pass if you listen”? So that one should first accept upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and then take upon himself the yoke of the commandments.
Here we see the outworks of the covenantal nomism, with one first receiving God’s rule (i.e. convenant) and then one obeys the commandments. However, what is significant for the question at hand is the metaphor of a yoke. The metaphor of a yoke works by treating what God provides as the very things that Jews are to experience. The Shema, along with the commandments, were seen as something whose significance is in what they brought to the person. Thus, a constructive relationship between speech and the Kingdom of God offers a possible explanation for an understanding of Pharisaical and Rabbinic Judaism. By recitation of the Shema and by obedience to the commandments, one was bringing the Kingdom and God’s will into one’s life.
This view is not that different from the Stoic view of reason, where God/Zeus has given humans the ability to reason and by learning how to use that power, one can raise oneself up to becoming one with God. While there is clearly a different understanding of God for the Stoics from the Pharisees, a constructive relationship that considers God giving some resource that human’s use in response to form themselves can certainly be shared between the two.
However, it is this constructive relationship that Jesus/the early Church seems to opposed to. In John 5.39, Jesus says: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.” (NRSV) There seem to be things going on here. Firstly, Jesus is addressing their way of thinking. While we today often say “I think” or “you think” as an automatic way of hedging what people are saying, the force of Jesus’ usage of δοκέω is more akin to the way an ancient philosopher would point out and correct the way a person was reasoning. There is an identification here of a specific pattern. Secondly, Jesus speaks of the ‘Judeans’ usage of the Scriptures as having a specific purpose in mind when they read: they are seeking eternal life. Thirdly, Jesus also describes the way they relate to the Scriptures as them possessing this life ἐν αὐταῖς. Here, Jesus is addressing the way they approach the Scripture in their thinking: the writings themselves possess life-giving properties.5 This rules out either the conditional or receptive relationship between the words of Scripture and God’s Kingdom and life, whereas the constructive relationship is the best explanation of three relationships I provided.
However, Jesus provides a different view of the SCripture that is closer to the receptive relationship, in that the Scriptures were said to testify to Himself. However, this is not an isolated testimony, but as mentioned previously in John 5.36, Jesus’ works also testify to Himself. Thus, for the Gospel of John, we see the testimony of Scripture connected also to the testimony of Jesus’s powerful works, like the healing of the man at the Sheep Gate that preceded this discussion. Without digressing into a rabbit trail, I would suggest that Jesus’ view of the Scripture as a testimony of Himself intersects with the works of power that he was performing.
Thus, I would suggest this is suggestive of a contrast of two different views of God’s Kingdom. In the Pharisaical view, the Torah, both in the Shema and in the commandments, gave resources for the faithful Jews to construct God’s rule in their lives through the recitation of the Shema and obedience to the commandments. For Jesus and later Paul, the Kingdom of God comes through Jesus’s/God’s power that is at work, rather than through language.
This presents a sharp difference in implicit epistemology when it comes to knowing and experience God’s Kingdom. If the words of the Torah are like raw resources that one uses to know about God’s Kingdom, then how one interprets and applies these words are of paramount importance. Hence, any read through of the Mishnah can show the great care and concern that is given to the interpretation of the Scriptures. However, if God’s Kingdom is known through God’s powerful actions, then the reading of Scripture doesn’t provide a direct, knowing acquaintance with God’s Kingdom. Rather, one knows God’s Kingdom through experiencing and identifying God’s actions. And, to bring this back to 1 Corinthians, if this is true of Israel’s Scriptures, how much more true is this for Greco-Roman wisdom? It too can not provide insight into God’s Kingdom, only God can through His power and inspiration of human speech and thinking in the Spirit as demonstrated in Christ.
This relationship of overlaps with Barth’s view of Scripture as a witness to divine revelation, with some modifications as Barth’s concept of “revelation” has a problem with it. Barth’s view of revelation is an epistemic concept that distinguishes itself from all human ways of knowing; one knows God’s self-disclosure in that God reveals Himself in the person of Christ. However, without going into my full argument as to why, I would suggest the New Testament concept of revelation as contained in the word ἀποκαλύπτω refers to some phenomenon of human thought and speech, such as Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2 or Paul’s vision of a flash of light and hearing Jesus call to him in Acts 9, that is deemed to have been originated/inspired by God. It can also apply to Jesus Christ in virtue of Christ being in the flesh and visible, but ἀποκαλύπτω was a concept that referred to those phenomena that were seen and heard that originated from God. Rather than bearing any overarching epistemic implication about all knowledge about God, a revealing/ἀποκαλύπτω was something deemed to be from God and thus contained understanding from God that would need to be interpreted and expounded upon. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 2.10-13, Paul describes revelation and speech trained by the Spirit as being combined together.6
It is also important to clarify ἀποκαλύπτω doesn’t get used to refer to some self-disclosure of God’s own ontological nature in the New Testament. Rather, it is used to refer to future events of God’s power, with its usage in 1 Cor. 2.6-13 most notably connected to the resurrected Jesus as the Lord of Glory as determining the shape of the general resurrection as described in 1 Cor. 15. It is more accurate to suggest that ἀποκαλύπτω refers to the revelation of God’s will for new creation as demonstrated in Christ. Thus, ἀποκαλύπτω is connected to the future manifestation of God’s power, especially in the redemption of creation. In other words, I would say what God self-discloses is God’s will for humanity and creation. Thus, contra Barth, I would not say that God reveals Himself as Triune, but God reveals His will in His Triunity.7
With this modification in mind, the language of Scripture can be found to have a special relationship to what is deemed a revelation: it can point to and expound upon God’s revelation when revelation is understood as pertaining to manifestation of God’s power in creation and in humanity. This is how Scripture seems to be used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.3-5 in describing the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus: the Scriptures help to understand that the shape of God’s power in Jesus is loving in that Jesus died on behalf of human sins and was raised for the behalf of humans. The words of Scripture providing an understanding of God’s powerful actions as indeed, loving actions express God’s commitment to humanity.
This pulls back to Jesus criticism of the Judeans in John 5. They bristled at Jesus’ healing the man on the Sabbath. But the Scriptures testified to Jesus and the power at work in Him, including, notably, God’s love. This also comes into Paul’s repudiation of the expectations of wisdom among the Corinthians; whereas ancient philosophy was often a competitive enterprise, the body of Christ was to be ordered in love so that people could learn from God’s inspiration throughout the body.
So, this plays into Paul’s view of God’s Kingdom in 1 Cor. 4.20. Paul wasn’t rejecting the capacity of human speech to talk about God, but familiarity with God’s Kingdom didn’t come through speech but through God’s power. But insofar as God’s inspired speech was a part of communities learning, it can only perform its function when it was done in love to build each other up. Hence, Paul’s question in 1 Cor. 4.21, far from some sort of veiled intimidation, rather implies that what the Corinthians would really want to know God’s Kingdom is for Paul to be a loving, gentle teacher, rather than some competitive fighter to address the arrogant persons in the congregation. Only in learning to see the Christian fellowship as a community of love rather than a competition in wisdom would the Corinthians be able to truly come to comprehend and know deeply God’s wisdom describing God’s beneficient intentions for them.