Using Eloquent Wisdom

From Commentary on 1 Corinthians (ca. 1272)

After condemning their strife with a reason based on baptism, Paul disapproves of it again with a reason based on doctrine. For some of the Corinthians gloried in the doctrine of false apostles, people who corrupt the truth of the faith with elegant words and reasons born of human wisdom. First, therefore, Paul says that the method of the false apostles is not suited for teaching the faith. Second, Paul shows that he did not employ their method of teaching when he was among them…

Paul says, therefore, that Christ sent him to preach the Gospel, but not to preach it with eloquent wisdom, i.e., the worldly wisdom which makes men verbose… By eloquent wisdom, Paul means rhetoric which teaches elegant speech that sometimes draw people to assent to error and lies… However, the fact that many teachers in the church have used human reason and human wisdom as well as elegant words would seem to be contrary to Paul’s argument. For Jerome says in a letter to Magnus, a Roman orator, that all the teachers of the faith have crammed their books with an elegant portion of philosophical doctrines and sciences so that one is at a loss whether to admire their worldly learning more or their knowledge of the scriptures. And Augustine in the book On Christian Doctrine says that there are churchmen who have treated of divine matters not only with wisdom but with elegance. The answer is that it is one thing to teach in eloquent wisdom, however you take it, and another to use it to teach eloquent wisdom in teaching. A person teaches in eloquent wisdom, when he takes the eloquent wisdom as the main source of his doctrine so that he admits only those things which contain eloquent wisdom and rejects the others which do not have eloquent wisdom. That method is destructive to the faith. But one uses eloquent wisdom, when he builds on the foundations of the true faith, so that if he finds any truths in the teachings of the philosophers, he employs them in the service of the faith. Hence Augustine says in the book On Christian Doctrine that if philosophers have uttered things suited to our faith, they should not be feared but taken up… Again, in the same book Augustine says: “Since the faculty of eloquent speech which has great power to win a person over to what is base or to what is right, why not use it to fight for the truth, if evil men misuse it for sin and error?”

… Paul writes, “we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Gentiles foolishness. We preach Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God to them that are called, whether Jews or Gentiles”… They recognize the power of God in Christ’s cross, by which devils are overcome, sins forgiven, and people saved: “Be exalted, O Lord, in they strength!” (Ps. 21:13). Then, when Paul writes about “the foolishness of God,” he explains how something weak and foolish could be the power and wisdom of God.  It is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. As if to say, something divine seems to be foolish, not because it lacks wisdom but because it transcends human wisdom. For people often judge anything beyond their understanding as foolish.

St. Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274) is sometimes described as the greatest thinker of the medieval Church. His various theological treatises, above all his Summa Theologica, seek to reconcile inherited Christian teaching with the newly rediscovered metaphysical writings of Aristotle. His Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew is a text reconstructed from lectures he gave at the University of Paris between 1270 and 1272. His modern feast day is January 28. This text has been slightly adapted for contemporary readers.


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