1 Cor. 1.10-4.21 and Non-Violent Atonement

1 Corinthians 1.10-4.21

In the first extant letter to the believers at Corinth, Paul opens with a prolonged contrast between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world in order to rebuke and correct the haughty attitude that had arisen in the community.  In 1.11-12 Paul sets forth the problem that he will be addressing in 1.13-4.21—“there are quarrels among you…each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’”  Their over-inflated self worth had led to factionalism based upon the apostolic figure with which persons (or groups) affiliated.  In responding, Paul speaks of “the message of the cross” which revealed the wisdom of God (1.18).  This message is perceived as folly by worldly standards, but it is the source of true wisdom from God’s perspective.  It is remembering and living out the message of the cross that will enable the believers to “be in agreement,” to have “no divisions among [them]” and to “be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1.10).

What is significant for our purposes is how Paul speaks of the cross in refuting the inflated egos of the Corinthian converts.  They are claiming spiritual maturity and authority over and against one another, clamoring for the highest position within the community—based on the apostolic figure of their choosing (1.12), their supposed “knowledge” (8.2), and/or their particular spiritual gifts (chs. 12-14).  When they do so, Paul reveals that they are acting in accordance with worldly wisdom, not in accordance with the wisdom of God.  The wisdom of God is revealed in the proclamation of Jesus Christ crucified (1.23), and this wisdom leads to unity of mind and purpose (1.10b).

The interpretations often set forth regarding Paul’s references to the crucifixion seem to derive from a presumed atonement model.  Reading the text from an atonement model of ransom, satisfaction, or penal substitution obviously colors Paul’s statements about Jesus’ crucifixion.  It reads into any references to the cross much more than seems present in the text itself.  And while I recognize that I am reading the text from a non-violent atonement model, I believe it to be more true to what Paul actually says.  Let me explain.

The first implicit reference to the cross is found in 1.13, where Paul sarcastically asks is he was crucified υπερ (for or because of?) the Corinthians.[1] The first explicit references comes in 1.17, where Paul declares that he was not sent to baptize, “but to proclaim the good news, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.”  J. Paul Sampley comments that “Paul’s focus is constantly on the good news, which always means Christ’s death and resurrection, symbolized here by the single term cross.”[2] Though Paul simply reveals that he proclaimed good news so that the cross may not be emptied of power by worldly wisdom, Sampley extrapolates much more, asserting that Jesus’ death is “good news,” which clearly indicates an atonement model in which death is necessary for liberation (salvation).  This may be Paul’s meaning, but it cannot be derived from such a terse statement.  Similarly, Marion Soards suggests that “above all, the shocking claim that God saves humanity in the cross of Jesus Christ demonstrates that God works in defiance of this world’s norms.”[3] The verse says nothing about how “God saves humanity.”  It is a statement about the manner of Paul’s proclamation (“not with eloquent wisdom”) and the purpose thereof (“so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power”).  In light of the contrast between worldly wisdom and divine wisdom that follows (1.18-25), it seems that to proclaim the good news with “eloquent wisdom” would be to remove the foolishness of divine wisdom, and therefore empty it of its power.  For Paul, the transforming power of the good news is found in its subversion of worldly wisdom, which is the powerful message of the cross.  The focus is on the contrast between wordly and divine wisdom, not on the efficacy of Jesus’ death.   Finally, regarding Paul’s statements in vv 10-17 Craig Blomberg writes, “Neither Paul nor any other human leader was crucified for the world’s sins, so how can these Christians so exalt merely moral authorities?” and “When we recognize the cross and all it stands for—the atoning, substitutionary sacrifice of the God-man for sinners in need of salvation, vindicated by his bodily resurrection and exaltation—we have identified the cluster of complementary and fundamental truths that must forever form the core of Christian faith.”[4] While the verse says Paul was sent to proclaim the good news “so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.”  Implicitly Blomberg reveals his presumed atonement model by adding “for the world’s sins” as the meaning of Paul’s reference to the cross of Christ, and explicitly in noting “the atoning, substitutionary sacrifice of the God-man for sinners in need of salvation.”  Again, this may be Paul’s thought, but it cannot be inferred from this statement alone.  My point is that all of these expositions of these verses are inferring a lot of information not provided by Paul.  Clearly Paul had shared the good news with these converts during his initial visit, so they would have understood what Paul was assuming in his question “was Paul crucified υπερ you,” and by his reference to “the cross of Christ.”  Nevertheless, we cannot claim that Paul’s oblique reference to crucifixion in this verse necessarily implies everything that these commentators claim.  They are extrapolating a lot from a text that offers no explanation of the phrase “the cross of Christ” and which assumes a substitutionary translation of υπερ (in the place of). Furthermore, what follows in 1.18-25 seems to challenge an assertion that connects God’s saving work solely to Jesus’ death on a cross.  In other words, it isn’t perfectly clear that a ransom, satisfaction, or penal substitution atonement model is what Paul is setting forth here.

When we come to 1.18, we find Paul explaining that preaching any other way would have emptied the cross of its power because “the message of the cross is foolishness” by the standards of eloquent (worldly) wisdom.  However, “for those who are being saved” this same message “is the power of God” (1.18b).  You’ll notice that Paul’s statement is about the message of the cross, not Jesus’ death on the cross per se.  This doesn’t rule out the possibility that the message Paul’s speaks of is Jesus’ death as a sacrifice to ransom us, or satisfy God’s honor, or impute his righteousness to us.  It only means that this statement is about a message that seems foolish to those who are perishing, but wisdom to those being liberated.  When we read this statement in light of 1.20-25, we find that God’s wisdom is manifested in the proclamation of the cross, which is the power and wisdom of God (1.24b) that liberates (saves) those who believe (1.21b).  Though it seems ridiculous and weak by human standards, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1.25).  Thus, it seems possible to understand the cross as the culmination of the revelation of God’s foolish wisdom that subverts the wise folly of the world.  In other words, it is possible to understand Paul’s references to the cross from a model of non-violent atonement because the focus is not on the efficacy of Jesus’ death, but on the wisdom of God revealed through the proclamation of the cross.  This need not understand the cross as an atoning sacrifice, but could easily be understood as the culmination of a revolution that exposes the foolishness of the worldly wisdom through the divine folly of non-violent resistance.

Building on this contrast between wisdom and folly, Paul calls the Corinthians to consider their own calling (1.26-30).  Here is where we see Paul revealing (from our perspective) and recalling (from the Corinthian’s perspective) what he means by “the message of the cross.”  “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1.26b).  Yet they were chosen by God, because “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are nothing, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1.27-29).  This, Paul declares, is the message of the cross—that God’s method is to use the world’s folly to manifest divine wisdom, to shame and reduce to nothing the wisdom of the world in order that no one may boast.  Paul closes the section by declaring that “God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” so that all boasting would be “in the Lord” (1.30-31).  What we discover about Paul’s proclamation of the cross is that it focuses on subverting the wisdom of the world by using apparent foolishness to reveal true, divine wisdom.  It seems that there is no message about Jesus’ death apart from his life.  That is, Jesus’ death, for Paul, is inexplicable apart from his life, because it is simply the final and fullest demonstration of the wisdom of God that subverts the foolish wisdom of the world and reveals the wise folly of God.  Therefore, I believe we could faithfully interpret 1.30-31 as follows: Jesus became for us, in his life and death, the wisdom from God, making him our righteousness and sanctification and redemption in so far as he liberates us from the folly of human wisdom and enables us to live by divine wisdom.  The message of the cross is a pattern of behavior that the Corinthians are to follow just as Paul has.

In 2.2 Paul recalls his actions in his initial visit: “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  About this statement Soards says that it reveals “the crucial reality of the cross as God’s work for salvation….because Paul understood Christ’s death on the cross to be the revealed reality of God’s extraordinary saving power.  Paul points to the power of God effecting salvation in the cross and in the cross alone.”[5] You’ll notice that the verse says nothing about the cross as “God’s work for salvation” or “God effecting salvation in the cross.”  The verse speaks of Paul’s message, which was “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  This is significant, because, as we have seen, Paul’s references to the cross in the first four chapters are always linked to the message that he proclaimed, not a developed statement about the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross (i.e. not an atonement model). To me, Soards seems to force an interpretation upon the text based on an atonement model rather than looking at what the text actually states.  The verse says nothing about the salvific effects of Jesus’ death on the cross.  It only reveals that Paul proclaimed Jesus’ death to the Corinthians while present with them.  Paul’s statement is about the content of his preaching, not about the atonement wrought by Jesus’ death.  This is true throughout 1.10-4.21.  Moreover, Philipp Bachmann has argued that “v 2 cannot define the compass of the preaching, but only its quality.”[6] If this is true, as seems likely based on the immediate context (2.1-5), the reference to the cross is about the humble, foolish wisdom of God that refuses to conform the message to the standards of worldly wisdom, but proclaims the message of God’s liberation in such a manner that “faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (2.5b).

At this point, since I’ve acknowledged that the commentators may be correct in extrapolating Paul’s intended meaning from these oblique statements about the cross, you’re probably wondering what is my basis for questioning the common interpretation of “the message of the cross” as Jesus’ atoning death for our sins that either ransoms us from Satan, satisfies God’s just wrath and reconciles God and humanity, and/or imputes our sins to Jesus and imputes God’s righteousness to humanity.  The impetus for my belief that “the message of the cross” needs be reexamined and possibly reinterpreted arises from Paul’s comments in 2.6-16, particularly 2.8.  In 1.10-2.5 Paul has set forth the message of the cross that is perceived as folly according to the standards of the world.  This message reveals the wisdom of God that “liberates (saves) those who believe” (2.21b), by exposing as folly and rendering void the world’s wisdom (1.28) and providing a model for behavior (2.1-5).  Then, in 2.6-16 Paul heightens the contrast between divine and human wisdom, revealing that those operating by worldly standards crucified Jesus because they failed to comprehend the wisdom of God he manifested.  “None of the rulers of this age [that is, those acting according to worldly wisdom] understood [the wisdom of God], for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (2.8).  Here Paul reveals that the death of Jesus was not a necessity to appease God’s wrath (satisfaction atonement), pay off the devil’s claims upon humanity (ransom atonement), or to impute righteousness to humanity (penal substitution atonement).  Rather, Jesus’ death resulted from “the rulers of this age” failing to see the wisdom of God in the person of Jesus and killing him for proclaiming a subversive wisdom.

In light of 2.8, the question becomes, how could Paul hold to one of the aforementioned atonement models, all of which declare the necessity of Jesus’ death on the cross for human salvation, and yet declare that “if [the rulers of this age] had [understood the wisdom of God in the way of Jesus], they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (2.8)?  The “if” in verse 8 seems to imply contingency and, by implication, the non-necessity of Jesus’ death.  Thus, it is not Jesus’ death on the cross per se that is Paul’s focus.  Much less does he claim that Jesus’ death brings salvation (at least not in the terms of the traditional atonement models).  Rather, it is through proclaiming the foolish wisdom of God in the cross of Jesus—a message proclaimed through the folly of humble words (1.17; 2.1-5) and actions (4.6-13)—that brings liberation from the folly of worldly wisdom and redemption through the wisdom of God’s folly (1.18-25).

This has profound implications for understanding what Paul means by “the message about the cross.”  Given the contingency of 2.8, we can safely assert that in 1.10-4.21 Paul never claims that Jesus’ death on the cross is the means of salvation.  That is, he never offers up a satisfaction atonement theory about the death of Jesus per se.  Rather, Paul reveals that the proclamation of the cross reveals the wisdom of God which brings and is salvation or liberation (1.18-25).  Paul reveals the message of the cross as a way of life, lived according to God’s wisdom, the folly of which is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of which is stronger than human strength (1.25).    Paul sets forth the message of the cross as a message of our liberation from the wisdom of the world.  Those who do not see the wisdom of God in the folly of the cross are still “of the flesh…behaving according to human inclinations” (3.3) by striving for superiority through apostolic association (3.4). Those who see the wisdom of God in the folly of the cross have the mind of Christ (2.16b), and those who have the mind of Christ do not strive for positions of power and influence and authority over others.  Rather, they live in and live out of the way of the cross by becoming “fools for the sake of Christ” (4.10a).  They recognize the folly of a “power over others” model (the wisdom of the world) and accept the folly of a “power under others” model (the wisdom of God seen in the cross of Christ).  When reviled they bless, when persecuted they patiently endure, when slandered they respond with kindness (4.12).  They manifest the wisdom of God through the proclamation of the cross, which, for Paul, seems to summarize the way of life embodied by Jesus—a self-sacrificial, other-centered, humble, non-violent revolution of love that gives of oneself even to the point of death.  Such is the wisdom of God. It is by having the mind of Christ, which operates according to the wisdom of God, that the Corinthians can be united once more (cf. 1.10; 2.16b).

In sum, we have seen that when Paul mentions the cross, it is in the context of his proclamation (1.17; 1.18; 1.21; 1.23; 2.1-2; 2.7-8).  The wisdom of God is manifested in the proclamation of the cross, which exposes the world’s wisdom as folly.  It is precisely this worldly wisdom, which Paul says is informing the quarrels and factions among the Corinthians.  If they lived by God’s wisdom, the wisdom of the cross, they would give up their rights and privileges for the sake of others, they would put others above themselves, they would manifest love rather than boasting, they would be humble rather than haughty, they would seek to be servants of all rather than obtaining power over all.  In short, in responding to the Corinthians’ claims of spiritual maturity and authority, Paul offers up the message of the cross, which is absolute folly by worldly standards, because it gives up rights and authority and power over others, triumphing through seeming defeat and humiliation.  Therefore, I believe that in 1 Cor 1.10-4.21 Jesus’ death on the cross is set forth as the paradigm of discipleship, not as an atonement for sins.  The death was not essential (2.8), though it was likely unavoidable since Jesus came proclaiming a foolish wisdom from God that challenged, exposed, and subverted the world’s wisdom by refusing to operate by its standard of power over others.  In short, while Paul may have set forth a satisfaction atonement model elsewhere, this was not his intention here.  And the contingency of 2.8 should inform how we understand references to the cross not only this letter, but in Paul’s other writings as well.  At the very least it is possible to claim that in certain instances Paul offers up the cross as forth a paradigm of discipleship rather than as a ransom, satisfaction, or penal substitution atonement model.

[1] The usage of the Greek preposition υπερ is one of the more debated matters regarding one’s atonement model.  As Daniel B. Wallace notes, “The normal preposition used in texts that purportedly deal with Christ’s substitutionary atonement is υπερ” (Greek Grammar Beyond the Bascis, 383).  Moreover, “the case for a substitutionary sense for υπερ is faced with the difficulty that the preposition can bear several other nuances that, on a lexical level, at least, are equally plausible in the theologically significant passages” (383).  Nevertheless, Wallace concludes that “υπερ is naturally suited to the meaning of substitution,” but his admission of “several other nuances that…are equally plausible” seems to make possible a non-violent reading of Paul’s question in 1.13, as well as other places where υπερ is used with reference to Jesus’ death (383).  Wallace reveals many instances in biblical and extra biblical texts where he believes that υπερ is used in a substitutionary sense, concluding that “although it is possible that substitution is not the sense of υπερ in some of the soteriologically significant texts [he lists Deut 24.16; Isa 43.3-4; Judith 8.12; Rom 9.3; Phlm 13; 2 Cor 5.14; Gal 3.13; Jn 11.50; 1 Tim 2.6]…the burden of proof falls on those who would deny such a sense in the others” (388).  Though Wallace’s treatment gives the impression that the case is, for all intents and purposes, closed, his acknowledgement that υπερ is used in other ways elsewhere coupled with his neglect to provide any such examples in his argument leaves me to question his approach, which fails to deal with any instances that challenge his conclusion.  While he acknowledges other uses, it appears that Wallace would rather build a wall of evidence supporting his claim and challenge anyone to try and tear it down, rather than addressing texts that use υπερ in a non-substiutionary manner.  As I will demonstrate later, Paul’s statement in 2.8 offers a direct challenge to a substitutionary interpretation of υπερ in Paul’s question in 1.13.  One example of a non-subsitutionary use of υπερ can be found in Philippians 2.13, where Paul says that “God is at work in [the Philippian converts] both to will and to work υπερ God’s (good) pleasure.”  A substitutionary understanding of υπερ would make this a rather confusing statement—God is at work instead of, in the place of, as a substitution for God’s good pleasure?  How can God work in substitution for God’s good pleasure?  It makes better sense to understand υπερ as causal.  God is working because (as a result) of God’s good pleasure.  It is God’s good pleasure (της ευδοκιας) that causes (υπερ) God’s working and willing in the lives of the Philippians converts.  A second example is possibly Gal 1.4, where Paul says του δοντος εαυτον υπερ των αμαρτιων ημων οπως εξεληται ημας εκ του ενεστωτος αιωνος του ενεστωτος πονηρου.  Most translate the verse, “Who gave himself for our sins” (NRSV, TNIV, NASB, Phillips, etc) “to set us free from the present evil age.”  Problematic with the interpretation “for,” in the sense of Jesus as substitution for our sins, is that throughout the letter Paul does not say that redemption happens because of faith in Jesus’ death on the cross.  Rather, it is simply “faith in Jesus”—perhaps better translated “the faithfulness of Jesus”—that brings redemption (cf. 2.16, 20; 3.22).  Moreover, one must assume that when Paul says “gave himself” he means Jesus’ death rather than Jesus offering his life as the means of liberation “from the present evil age” by calling people to turn from a path that leads to destruction and into a path that leads to redemption—this seems to be the thrust of Jesus’ statement “the Kingdom of God has come near to you, repent and believe the good news” (Mk 1.15) and his call for people to follow him (Mk 1.17).   Therefore, it seems difficult, if not impossible, to affirm the more popular atonement models based on the fact that Paul does not mention Jesus’ death (at least explicitly), nor does he say that we are liberated from Satan (ransom) or God’s wrath because of God’s offended honor (satisfaction) or by having our sinfulness imputed to Jesus and his righteousness imputed to us (penal substitution).  Rather, we are “set free (liberated) from the present evil age,” which seems to affirm a view closer to Christus Victor, and thus, not as distant from a non-violent atonement model as one may infer from an initial reading.  Finally, it seems plausible to translate the statement in a way that aligns with a non-violent perspective: “Because of our sins he gave himself to set us free.”  By this reading the death is not necessary to set us free, it is the self-giving of Jesus that liberates us “from the present evil age.”  In this reading, “he gave himself” is not in substitution for our sins, but as a result of our sins Jesus came to bring liberation.  The former focuses solely on Jesus’ death, the latter focuses on Jesus’ life.    These examples certainly aren’t definitive evidence that Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 1.13 should be read as causally (“was Paul crucified because of you?”) with the implication that Jesus’ death was because of the Corinthians who represent, prior to their conversion, the wisdom of the world in opposition to the wisdom of God.  However, it does demonstrate that Paul uses υπερ causally at a period roughly contemporaneous to writing 1 Corinthians.  Moreover, the context of Phil 2.13 is that of Christ’s self-giving, even to the point of death, which is used as the basis to exhort the converts to emulate this self-less giving (2.1-18), not to call them to accept Jesus’ death as a substitutionary atonement for their sins.


In other words, the cross for Paul is set forth, at least in several instances, as a paradigm for discipleship (cf. Mk 8.34) rather than a substitutionary sacrifice.  It seems, then, that it is at least plausible, to understand the question “was Paul crucified υπερ you?” as “was Paul crucified because of you?” (a death caused by the Corinthians who represent worldly wisdom) rather than “for you?” (a substitutionary death on behalf of the Corinthians).

[2] NIB, 1.17, 2040.

[3] NIBC, 35.

[4] NIV App, 44, 47 (emphasis added).

[5] Soards, NIBC, 53.

[6] Quoted in Conzellman, Heremenia, 54, footnote 14.


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