Cassiodorus’ Monks on 1 Cor 2:8 and God’s Suffering

In 1 Corinthians 2:8, the apostle Paul states that the “Lord of glory” was crucified. This led to certain difficulties on the part of interpreters, wondering how God – who is invincible and immortal – could be said to be crucified, and die. Here are the comments of monks from the monastery of Squillace in southern Italy, founded by Cassiodorus (d.c.580), writing toward the end of the sixth century. They profit from the clarity achieved on such matters by the councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451).

“For if they had known, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory. . . .’” The Lord of glory – and both by merit and nature the Lord of every creature – was made the man Jesus, in whom God could in some way be crucified. “For this reason God also raised him up, and gave him the name that is above every name,” because of the unity of the person (Phil 2:9). God is said to be crucified and the Son of Man to be in the heavens, while when this one was called Lord he was bodily upon the earth. Seeing that Christ, therefore, is a true human being and true God, one person out of a twofold substance, and God a human being, and the same one is king of glory, the Lord of power was not crucified, due to his invincible divinity, yet he was crucified as a man, due to the unity of the person. And so, in a wondrous and unfathomable way God suffered, yet divinity did not suffer. (PL 68:511)

The Word the Spirit Gives

Just as we read the Scripture figurally, the Spirit reads us figurally. That is to say, just as we read Scripture in light of the full revelation of divine truth in Jesus Christ, the Spirit reads us in light of our full and true reality ‘in Christ’ as well. This, however, is the important difference: the Spirit reads our lives and identities infallibly, in light of the divine Truth whose Spirit he is. The Spirit’s reading of our lives peels back layers of self-deception, conscious or otherwise; his word pierces through to the heart of what matters. This piercing truth, the Spirit’s reading of our lives, our identities and our purpose, is given to us in Spirit-given words, or better, in the Word the Spirit gives.

In 1 Cor. 12:8, Paul speaks of “a word of wisdom (λόγος σοφίας)” and “a word of knowledge (λόγος γνώσεως)” given by the Spirit. The “word of wisdom” generally reveals something of God’s purpose for a particular human life or church community, whereas the “word of knowledge” reveals something particular about a person or community, a significant fact the Spirit uses to convict or encourage. When the Spirit gives these “to one” or “to another,” in order for them to speak this word to a third, he is revealing — drawing back the veil on something hidden. It is a word whose significance is sometimes known only to God and the third person or community; the person delivering the word is a mere messenger.

The Spirit casts this light on our lives or the life of the Church (by means of this charismatic gift) by receiving a word from Christ and delivering it to us. As Jesus himself tells us, the Spirit “will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14). The word the Spirit gives is from the Word himself. This is seen on a grand scale in the biblical “words” delivered to the seven churches of Revelation from Christ when John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (1:10; 2:1-3:22). But it is also seen in each of our lives as the Spirit gives, “to one” or “to another,” words that reveal how we really stand ‘in Christ’ — words that lay us breathtakingly bare to ourselves, and reduce us to tears of joy, or of sorrow, before him.

Bugenhagen’s Preface to His 1 Corinthians Commentary

Johann Bugenhagen (1485-1558), an early Lutheran pastor and theologian, published a commentary on 1 Corinthians in 1530. Interestingly, it deals only with the first four chapters–and these extensively. His treatment spans some 400 pages, and it reads like a series of classroom lectures, passionately given and full of biblical quotation and contemporary polemic. In fact, this is what Bugenhagen tells us in the preface: his commentary is part of the academic effort at reform, a striving for the souls of his students. This is my translation of the opening paragraph:

It is now two years since the plague advanced on our city.1 At that time our school migrated elsewhere, but Doctor Martin Luther and I remained here, in accordance with the office of sacred preaching committed to us. Almost sixty students (scholastici auditores) also remained, as meanwhile they heard Luther preaching and lecturing on sacred things, to whom I also was able to be a comfort against all scandal rising against the saving teaching of Christ. I began, in the course of my ordinary lecturing, to treat the first letter written by Saint Paul to the Corinthians, but more fully the first four chapters regarding the wisdom and justice of God against the wisdom and justice of the world, and the authority of Holy Scripture and apostolic teaching in the apostolic Church of Christ. (Commentarius in quatuor capita prioris epistolae ad Corinthios [Wittenberg, 1530], fol. 2r)

It might be that, in light of the spreading plague, Bugenhagen delivered his lectures, so to speak, in this written form rather than orally. (This is how Jänckens understood it in 1757.) Whatever the case, they certainly read like oral deliverances, full of address to the reader or listener, full of biblical quotations that appear and reappear, as if from memory, and full of passionate pastoral concern for the consciences of his students against what he perceived as the perversions of Roman Catholicism.

It is his choice of 1 Corinthians 1-4 that I find especially interesting (not least because I just completed a PhD thesis on the history of these chapters’ interpretation). Traditionally, these four chapters were regarded as dealing with teaching in the Church, and this is just what Bugenhagen picks up: a lecture series on this section is ideal for the reform effort because they treat the wisdom of God, the ‘authority of Holy Scripture’ and ‘apostolic teaching.’ A church that needs to rediscover and re-establish how it is to teach Christian truth should turn to 1 Corinthians 1-4 to find how to do so.

The black death came to Wittenberg on August 2, 1527 (see Luther’s Works 43: 115-16).

Robert of Melun on 1 Corinthians 1:21

Alright, one final set of comments: those of Robert of Melun (c.1100-1167), who wrote an influential set of Quaestiones de epistolis Pauli (Questions on Paul’s letters) around 1145-55. This is his remarkable explanation of the verse:

“The world did not know God through wisdom,” even though there was something in the creatures themselves through which they could have known him. Thus, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not comprehended it” (John 1:5). There are, in creatures, three theophanies, which means, divine appearances: as in the world, whose magnitude demonstrates the great power of God, in which the Father is shown. The beauty, also, of the same world intimates the great wisdom, who is the Son. Its usefulness, finally, shows the goodness of God, who is the Holy Spirit.

Mundus Deum non cognovit per sapientiam suam, licet in ipsis creaturis esset unde eum cognoscerent. Unde: Lux in tenebris lucet, et tenebre eam non comprehenderunt. Sunt autem in creaturis tres theophanie, id est, divine apparitiones: ut in mundo, cuius magnitudo potentiam Dei summam demonstrat, in quo et Pater ostenditur. Eiusdem vero pulchritudo summam sapientiam que Filius est insinuat.  Utilitas autem ipsius benignitatem Dei ostendit, que Spiritus Sanctus est. (Oeuvres de Robert de Melun, vol. 2, p.177)

No other commentator does what Robert does here, connecting particular aspects of the created world to attributes of God: his power, his wisdom and his goodness. Other commentators will say that God could be known from the creation, but without going into too much detail. They certainly would not argue that the nature of God’s life as Trinity could be perceived from the magnitude, beauty and usefulness of the world. And all this is fascinating, since other comments from Robert’s Quaestiones influenced later exegetes such as, for example, Thomas Aquinas; indicating that Aquinas knew this exegesis, and either chose to go another way or neglected to pick it up.

(You might also be interested in comparing these reflections with those of John ChrysostomSedulius ScotusTheophylact of OhridThomas AquinasNicholas of Lyra, or Heinrich Bullinger.)

John Chrysostom on 1 Corinthians 1:21

To round off my set of posts on the history of exegesis of this verse, let’s look at John Chrysostom (c.347-407), an important Greek theologian at the height of the patristic era. His comments are, well, beautiful:

In what appears in his works: it is through these that God wanted to be known. For this reason God made these impressive creatures, in order that by drawing connections from what is visible, him who made them would be admired. The heavens are great, and the earth–how boundless! So admire the one who has made them. For even this great reality not only came into existence by him, but even with ease, and this boundless earth also was led into being as if nothing. For this reason, it says concerning this, “The heavens are the works of your fingers” (Ps. 8:3), and about the earth, “He made the earth as nothing” (Isaiah 40:23).  Since, therefore, the world did not want to come to know God through this wisdom, through what they considered to be the foolishness of the message, God was pleased to save the world, not through reasoning, but through faith. So it is that where there is the wisdom of God, there is no more need of human wisdom. (PG61: 32)

John Chrysostom begins in the same way as most commentators, by talking of the wisdom God wrote into the visible creation, the things he made. Through these, he says, we could come to know God “by drawing connections” (ἀναλόγως) from creatures to the Creator. However, we did not in fact make the proper connections–we did not, John argues, “want” to get to know God this way. Instead, we fell into ignorance and idolatry, worshipping creatures as if they were the Creator. So God decided to bring the saving knowledge of himself to the world another way, not by arguments from the nature of creation, but through the faith that comes by the preaching of the Word. Thus, human wisdom is rendered null and void, needless.

(You might also be interested in comparing these reflections with those of Sedulius ScotusTheophylact of Ohrid, Thomas AquinasNicholas of Lyra, or Heinrich Bullinger.)

Theophylact of Ohrid on 1 Corinthians 1:21


I have been fascinated to see, through my study of the history of exegesis of 1 Corinthians, the similarity of interpretations of verse 1:21, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe.” Almost all exegetes use this verse to talk about God’s revelation through creatures; Nicholas of Lyra calls it the speculum creaturarum, the “mirror of creatures.” But they also talk about God as a wise teacher, who sees that his students failed to understand this mirror of creatures, and so tried another angle: the Incarnation. These are the comments from Theophylact of Ohrid (1055-1107), a Greek commentator:

Paul now gives the cause through which external wisdom [i.e., worldly wisdom] was made foolish. For since, in the wisdom available through visible creatures (for the heavens and the earth, and every creature proclaims the Creator) the world, that is, those whose mind is on the things of the world (who are clearly impeded through a wisdom that has its focus on fine speech), did not know God, it pleased God through the illiteracy of those preaching (which people think is foolishness, but really is not) to save those who believe. Therefore, though having the wisdom of God as a teacher, the Greeks, obviously gazing at creatures, did not know God through their wisdom of words, which is not, in fact, wisdom. (PG124: 580C)

As other commentators, Theophylact argues that there is a wisdom available through the creatures God has made, and that this can even be called the “wisdom of God.” The “Greeks,” however, those who only pay attention to what is visible and what makes for beautiful and persuasive speech (i.e., rhetoric), did not know God through this wisdom of creatures. Instead, they fell into idolatry and ignorance, failing to learn the lesson their ”teacher,” the wisdom of creation, had to teach them. A new lesson had to be prepared for them, then, in the preaching of the gospel, which God chose to operate through people without education (ιδιωτεια, what I’ve translated here as “illiteracy”) in order to get the Greeks to focus their attention somewhere else: not on “external wisdom,” but on spiritual, invisible wisdom.

Sedulius Scotus on 1 Corinthians 1:21

Following up on my continuing fascination with exegesis of this verse, here are the comments of Sedulius Scotus (fl. 848-58) on 1 Corinthians 1:21, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe”:

The creation of the world was shaped in the wisdom of God, in which through natural wisdom, which was given and created for this purpose, one ought to have known the one who made it. But since humanity did not know God, other medicines were provided to help them. Therefore, ‘through his wisdom’ is to be understood as ‘through natural wisdom,’ which was given so that God might be known; this ‘natural wisdom’ can also be called the ‘wisdom of God,’ because it was created by God, or because the wisdom of God is certainly the spring and the natural creator of wisdom in humanity.

Factura mundi Dei sapientia est fabricata, in qua per sapientiam naturalem, quae ad hoc data et creata fuerat, debuit cognosci ipse qui fecerat: sed quoniam non cognoverunt homines, alia illis succurritur medicina. Ergo per sapientiam suam intelligendum, per naturalem sapientiam, quae ad hoc data est ut cognoscatur Deus; quae naturalis sapientia, et Dei sapientia dici potest, quod a Deo sit creata, aut certe Dei sapientia fons est et creatrix naturalis in hominibus sapientiae.

Sedulius Scotus, In epistolam I ad Corinthios 1:21 (PL103: 130).

Sedulius’ commentary is unique in speaking here of a “natural wisdom.” Most commentators here speak of God implanting his wisdom into created things or making the world “in wisdom,” but not of there being a “natural wisdom” which can even be identified with the “wisdom of God”! Of course, even though this wisdom was available in the creation, humanity only rarely made use of it; thus, God provided “other medicines”–another unique feature of Sedulius’ exegesis here. Many commentators (including Aquinas and Calvin) speak of God as a teacher who sees that his students have not understood the lesson, and so begins to teach them another way (i.e., the incarnation); Sedulius, on the other hand, views God as a doctor who provides remedies for his patients’ diseases.