There is a place in Paul’s writing that confused me for the longest time. What is the confusing statement?
“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words,” – 1 Corinthians 2:4
When I hear “wise and persuasive” I think of Paul. I think of him first because of his pedigree,
“If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” – Phil 3:4-6
“3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.” – Acts 22:3
Furthermore, how does a Paul who lacks persuasive abilities fit with the content of the letters we have from Paul where his rhetoric (the art of persuasion) is remarkable? Paul was thoroughly trained in rhetoric. Rhetoric is a word that has a specific meaning that we aren’t used to. In Greek philosophy, rhetoric was a method of persuasion through speech and writing. There were specific conventions used in order to be persuasive that date back to Aristotle that are prevalent in Paul’s writings. Ben Witherington has done extensive work in this area in his socio-rhetorical commentaries. Paul’s letters are classic Greek rhetoric to the “t”. Paul is one of the most persuasive people in all of scripture. Read Romans looking for how he makes his points masterfully and persuasively, making an argument, anticipate their questions and/or rebuttals, asking their question for them and then answer them in his next argument. That is how you write a letter to people a month’s journey away who won’t have you in person to dialog with. Read Philemon and tell me Paul is not persuasive.
Paul saying he didn’t come with persuasive words is persuasion at its finest. Paul most certainly did come with persuasive words. Paul’s point is that he doesn’t want the Corinthians (who are Greek and value philosophy and good rhetoric almost to the point of idolatry) to do what good Greeks in that day do – get caught up on the way the argument is made rather than on the truthfulness of the content. In other words, Paul is painting himself as an unpersuasive person so that they don’t become followers of Paul but instead get pointed to Christ. This is why 1 Corinthians 2:4-5 ends the way it does,
“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.“
It is important that the Gospel not be clouded by charisma and skill. That does not mean we avoid trying to be persuasive. It does mean that we don’t make the message about ourselves.