Wisdom and philosophy. If you were to ask someone on the street what the difference between wisdom and philosophy was, you would probably get a response that would treat wisdom as something practical and philosophy as something closer to theory or an imaginary cognitive run-off about impractical subjects. While this would be something of a stereotyping mischarachterization of what people we consider wise do and what people who are called philosophers do, there are some good reasons for this subtly misleading stereotype: the semantics sense of wisdom and philosophy represent our way of making sense of reflective thinking directed towards (a) one’s behaviors in a way that have good implications now and into the future (wisdom) or (b) the analysis of ideas and concepts insulated from any significant, immediate concerns of normal life so as to think on specific ideas and develop them out in the abstract (philosophy).
This is not entirely unlike philosophy in the Hellenistic world that the Apostle Paul inhabited. When he wrote 1 Corinthians, wisdom and philosophy were distinguishable from each other in one way: philosophy sought to understand wisdom. However, one of the results of this intellectual state of affairs is that philosophies often butted heads as to what wisdom was and even sometimes who could be considered to be wise.
It does need to be stated that wisdom and philosophy were not seen to be so different in the ancient day. Whereas today philosophy has abstract concepts such as truth, knowledge, meaning, etc. as its focus, Hellenistic philosophy took wisdom itself as its object of focus. Modern philosophy often pushes towards meta-cognition about our meta-cognition about life, thinking, existence, etc.; Hellenistic philosophy was meta-cognition about the more concrete, experiential life of successful, virtuous people. Simply put, modern philosophy can regularly trend towards to taking itself as its purpose for existing as an almost entirely self-created intellectual enterprise; Hellenistic philosophy shared a closer affinity to the more practical intellectual thinkers of our day such as Karl Marx who wanted change the world for the better: their intellectual resources were dedicated to the betterment of human life and activity.
In many ways the emergence of Marxism and its intellectual child, critical theory, both of which has a specific praxis of human life as its driving goal, in the West is the act of bring wisdom and philosophy closer to each other as it was originally in Hellenistic philosophy. There are still some dramatic differences to be sure. Hellenistic philosophy took human virtue and good action as its object of focus, whereas Marxism and post-Marxists take economics, politics, and identity as its primary object of focus. But in one critical way they are similar: their intellectual focus is on the rightly lived life through bringing intellectual activity to bear more directly onto the present state of affairs of life.
In Paul’s day, the equivalent of modern critical theorists, who have the ears of many political leaders, were the Stoic philosophers. By no means unanimously accepted by everyone with political power, their influence was deeply embedded into the early history of Imperial Rome, with many Stoics having obtained roles as advisers to the Roman Caesar. Much as critical theory today supplies the set of default moral and intellectual categories that dominate our conflicts on politics and ethics in our present day, so the Roman Stoics would have had a similar type of influence in their day.
A close comparison of 1 Corinthians with the philosophical language and concepts of the Stoics, and a little bit of the Epicureans, would confirm the way that Stoic philosophy was in the air and in the water. These affinities in 1 Corinthians and in the rest of the Pauline epistles has lead some scholars, such as Troels Engberg-Pedersen, to emphasize the similarities between early Christianity and Stoicism as if the former had an intellectual influence on the latter. However, such arguments have not, to my knowledge, sufficiently accounted for an alternative explanation: that some of the more basic language and concepts of Stoic philosophy had become the default intellectual register and worldview of the day that to even talk about intellectual manners in a comprehensible way to people in that culture would entail using that language to some degree. For instance, to talk to the Corinthians about wisdom, Paul functionally has to adopt language that resembles Stoicism and other Hellenistic philosophies because that is the way the Corinthians thought about wisdom.
This hypothesis explains the similarities of language and concepts between Paul and the Stoics, while at the same time making greater space for the discontinuity between the two without taking the stronger stance of C. Kavin Rowe in One True Life, who regards Stoicism and early Christianity as largely rival traditions. In other words, there is a certain influence upon Pauline (and maybe even Johannine) discourse in terms of influencing the collection of salient intellectual language and concepts through various societal and cultural means of dissemination, but that there is a distinct language and thought community among early Jewish Christians (alongside other Jews who resisted greater cultural accommodation), whose thought had become more dominated by the Rabbi Jesus who they worshipped and by how they can connect what happened to Jesus with the Scriptures. To this extent, Paul inhabits a cultural ‘Stoicism,’ even as the foundation of his way of thinking and life emerges from his understanding of Jesus as the Messiah.
What would be one implication of this hypothesis? That Paul could use ideas and concepts familiar with Hellenistic philosophy, but present them with a radically different understanding that emerged from his faith in Jesus as Lord and Messiah. This is precisely what I want to suggest is happening in 1 Corinthians 1.30.
For the average person walking the street, when they thought of wisdom, they would have thought it referred to how to live the good, virtuous life. This pulled back from the progenitor of Classical and Hellenistic philosophy, Socrates, who thought that a virtuous person was someone who had knowledge. As a consequence of this basic ethical premise that propagated through Hellenistic philosophy, philosophers and teachers of wisdom would be much closer to what we consider preachers to be today, with Socrates as the ideal example of a wise teacher and sage. Often, it was Socrates who was lifted up as the exemplar of wisdom and virtue, including most notably by many of the Stoics. Meanwhile, even as Stoic philosophy had three branches in terms of physics, logic, and ethics, it was the prevailing assumption that the first two were in service to the latter.
By contrast, Paul portrayal of God’s wisdom 1 Corinthians 1.30 pushes against this Stoic portrayal of wisdom in two ways. Firstly, using language that echoes Proverbs 8, he casts Jesus as the source of wisdom, subtly contrasting Jesus with the Socratic exemplar. Portraying Jesus as the source of God’s wisdom in contrast to Socrates is further inferred from 1 Corinthians 2.16, where Paul speaks of the mature having the mind of Christ, whereas the Stoics would have lifted up the reasoning of Socrates as a model.
However, even more subtly, Paul gives a broader account of what wisdom is. He predicates certain qualities of the nominative noun σοφία through apposition via three further more nominative nouns in the phrase δικαιοσύνη τε καὶ ἁγιασμὸς καὶ ἀπολύτρωσις. The first predicate, δικαιοσύνη, is used extensively in the Septuagint would have been a close approximation to the Greek concept of virtue, αρετή. There would be some subtle differences as δικαιοσύνη pertains more to God and people’s obligations to each other, whereas αρετή was closer to our idea of character, but the differences are subtle as δικαιοσύνη could be considered an enduring trait of a person similar to αρετή.
However, it is the next two predicates, ἁγιασμὸς and ἀπολύτρωσις that provide a broader vision of wisdom than the traditional Greek might have been accustomed to with an emphasis of ethics. Paul designates these two predicates as being significant and out of the norm by the phrase τε καὶ, which may be equivalent to the phrase “and also” that expresses a further continuation that somehow goes beyond expectations.
By including ἁγιασμὸς as part of wisdom, Paul is intimating to the Corinthian believers that wisdom incorporates the cultic sphere of life, not just the ethical sphere. This no doubt finds it origins in Levitical prescriptions to be holy as God is holy, the significance of which was primarily in regards to Israel’s relationship to God’s presence among them. In other words, God’s wisdom pertains not just to how you live ethically, but one’s worship and dedication of life to God through cultic behaviors. We see this theme come up in 1 Corinthians 6.12-20 and 8.7-13 where Paul addresses temple prostitution and eating meat at the pagan temples. Both of these behaviors have negative effects on believers. Engaging in sexual relationships with temple prostitutes causes one to sin against one’s own body, whereas eating meat at the temple risk damaging the faith of one’s fellow believers.
Holiness and sacrality was not usually consider to belong to the domain of philosophy. Much as we might segment faith from politics or faith from science today, there was a a separation of sorts between philosophy and cultic ritual in the ancient world. While philosophy could occasionally foray into matters of the temple cult, it was not a common theme. When philosophy did engage in temple rituals, it was usually to interpret the significance of these rituals and their corresponding myths rather than to give any cultic instruction like a temple priest might. However, for Paul, God’s wisdom includes very specific instructions about what type of cultic rituals to participate in and not and how to participate in those one should, such as the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11.17-34).
As a brief aside, it bears mentioning here that the English equivalent of ἁγιασμὸς in sanctification can convey some theological ideas, particularly in my own Wesleyan circles. While I as an aspiring theologian recognize that God is actively at work in our lives to transform us and it is important to recognize this, I don’t think Paul’s usage of ἁγιασμὸς is intended to refer to God’s ongoing action to make us holy, but rather to the way people themselves engage in specific type of behaviors, particularly of those of significance in God’s eyes. We see this in 1 Thessalonians 4.3, where Paul describes ἁγιασμὸς/sanctification as pertaining to the way one engages in sexual behavior. Certainly, Paul would attribute God’s action to guiding people in holiness, but Paul thinks of holiness primarily in terms of human behaviors that have profound, wide-reaching, and subtle significance for our relationship to God and with each other.1
The third and final predicate of wisdom that Paul gives is ἀπολύτρωσις. This one is a bit more complicated to explain, as it doesn’t relate to a specific domain of life such as moral virtue or cultic ritual, but rather pertains to the relationship of people to the present order of things. The Stoics believed that there was an order in the universe that “God” created and that through the use of reason, people could understand that order and become wise. For instance, the Stoic theory of oikeiosis started from a basic life principle that we have from birth, that is our relationship to our families and extending this familial love outward to increasingly more and more people until one includes the the whole world. In other words, there exists within us as humans a certain moral principle that once we find, we just need to extend further and further. In other words, ethical development in Stoicism is a linear, continuous narrative of progress in one’s own life. The net effect of this is that Stoics were often propagators of the present political order, even if they could recognize the excesses and abuse of the emperor, because they found the present order of things to be wise based upon God’s providence.
So, when Paul talks about ἀπολύτρωσις, he provides a stark antithesis to the linear ethical progress and accommodation to the present order. While the term and its cognate ἀπολύω were not used much in the LXX or OG OT, ἀπολύω did get used more frequently in Second Temple literature, particularly in the Maccabean literature where it gets used in a variety of ways, primarily relating to personal and societal changes of status and position in regards to political realities and punishment. However, there was no real single, fixed sense of ἀπολύω, but rather had a rather flexible sense of change or freedom that could be extended to various types of events, such as acquittal from charges and freedom from penalty, the taking of a person’s life, breaking people out of captivity, the dead being freed from their sins, etc. The two most significant points to take not is that 1) most uses had connotations of human power and control with their usage and 2) in 2 Maccabees 12.45 it is used with regards to the sins of the dead in the context of discussion of the resurrection. If one could take one basic overarching idea that undergirds the usage of ἀπολύω without regarding this as the semantic sense of the word itself, it relates to new statuses and realities that are discontinuous with the old statuses and realities.
On this point them, Paul’s account of God’s wisdom has a stark point of antithesis with human wisdom. Whereas the human wisdom of the Stoics was ultimately situated in the present order of the world, God’s wisdom was a world-transforming wisdom that was making the present order of the world pass away (1 Cor. 7.31b). This transformation was to ultimately culminate in the universal resurrection where Christ overcame and put under his feet all the enemies that held people and society in chains, including most notably sin and death (1 Cor. 15).
Having identified δικαιοσύνη and ἁγιασμὸς and ἀπολύτρωσις, we can begin to point out that each of these three predicates of God’s wisdom simultaneously correspond to and distinguish themselves from the Stoic branches of philosophy in ethics, logic, and physics, respectively. That δικαιοσύνη corresponds to ethics is obvious. Their primary difference is that δικαιοσύνη starts from relationship and obligations and then proceeds to the character of the person, whereas the αρετή of Hellenistic and Stoic philosophy started from the person as an individual moral and reasoning agent and then proceeded to analyze one’s relationships through the lens of this individually cultivated reasoning.
However, ἁγιασμὸς standing in contrast to logic might not seem obvious at first glance until one recognizes that Paul’s portrayal of people’s engagement in cultic ritual in 6.12-20 and 8.7-13 has epistemic consequences in terms of knowledge. Stoic logic included what we consider to be the philosophical field of epistemology today. Furthermore, one’s actions in taking the Lord’s Supper was to be done by making the appropriate distinctions (διακρίνω) as expressed in 1 Cor. 11.31. Logic was concerned with such types of judgments and discernment. In a sense, ἁγιασμὸς provides the basics of a “Christian logic” that, when rightly understood and developed, helps people to understand God’s wisdom. To that end, the cultic life of appropriate worship is a necessary component to Christian reasoning about God’s wisdom and purposes.
Then, ἀπολύτρωσις may be said to refer to the physics of discontinuity, whereas Stoic account of physics assumed a fundamentally static, persistent order of the world. Those who have faith in and love for God through Christ and the Spirit are being given the eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to comprehend that things that God is doing that is not yet visibly manifest, whereas Stoic accounts of physics relied upon amassing multiple observations of the world. In short, God’s wisdom gives insight into things that are not yet, where the human wisdom of Stoicism understood the temporal, perishing things of the present state of affairs.
In other words, Paul presents God’s wisdom in Christ as a rival philosophy to the prevailing categories of Greco-Roman philosophy in terms of ethics, logic, and physics. While not as strong as Rowe’s suggestion that early Christianity and Stoicism inhabited two very different language communities, there is a fundamental difference\ in terms of the overall, intellectual framework and accounts of wisdom between the two. The person and life of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Scriptures presents the exemplar of exemplars for what type of a person God calls people to be. In so doing, Paul cuts against the most revered figure of philosophy of that day, Socrates. Paul himself may be even said to engage in a little bit of Socratic irony from 1 Corinthians 2.1-5 to 2.6-16, but with a twist where Paul hides his knowledge when first coming to the Corinthians to allow people to have faith in God rather than him as a wise person, whereas Socrates hid his knowledge to frustrate and gain an intellectual and pedagogical advantage over his opponents. In so doing, Paul’s discourse attempts to do something quite profound: re-prototype the ideal figure of wisdom and its fundamental make up to the person of Christ understood in light of Israel’s story, especially as told in the Scriptures.