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Knowing Nothing Except Jesus Christ (Part 1): Reductionistic or Cosmic?

While ministering at the church in Corinth, Paul resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). The tactic sounds admirable and rings as worthy of imitation in the ear of the believer, but what exactly did it entail? What does knowledge of Jesus Christ and him crucified encompass? I want us to explore this in the context of 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16, drawing primarily upon the insights of Herman Ridderbos in Paul: An Outline of His Theology and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. in “Epistemological Reflections on 1 Corinthians 2:6-16.” This will be the first in a series of articles that will look to explain and apply Paul’s teaching on knowing Jesus Christ within his two-age eschatology.

Two-Age Eschatology, Huh? 

By “two-age eschatology” I simply have in mind Paul’s philosophy of history by which he divides all of history (past, present and future) into two comprehensive ages: (1) the present age and (2) the age to come. This two-age scheme is explicit in Ephesians 1:21 where Paul says Christ has been raised and seated “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” 

Paul is clear throughout his letters that Jesus Christ has inaugurated and already entered into the age to come upon his resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:3-4). This has a profound impact on believers who are united to Jesus Christ by faith, for it means that “in Christ” we too have already entered the age to come, at least in part (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1). It’s for this reason Paul can say that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). This is further confirmed by the fact that Christ has poured out the Holy Spirit upon the church. The Spirit properly belongs to the age to come; he is the future breaking into, or better yet, invading, the present age. Vos writes, “The Spirit’s proper sphere is the future aeon; from thence he projects himself into the present, and becomes a prophecy of himself in his eschatological operations” (Pauline Eschatology, 165). This is also brought out when the Spirit is set in opposition to the powers of the present age, such as “the spirit of the world” (1 Cor. 2:12) or “the flesh” (Gal. 5:16ff).

With that said, when we speak about “eschatology” (which literally means, “last things”) we are referring to everything that properly belongs to the future age to come. In other words, if something is “eschatological,” it exists in the age to come. Hence we can speak about the eschatological Spirit, for example. And because the age to come has been inaugurated and we have already entered into it by means of our union with the resurrected Christ, we can also speak of an “inaugurated eschatology.” Much more can be said (and probably should be said) about these things, but hopefully this provides us with some clarity to move forward in our discussion of the knowledge of the eschatological Christ. (For more on this see Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology.)

So the question before us in this first article is this: what does knowledge of Jesus Christ and him crucified encompass?

Is Paul Being Reductionistic?

You may have heard these words echoed at a Bible study as a sort of (probably well-meant) excuse to avoid considering difficult passages in Scripture or topics in theology. Someone might say, “It’s not worth wrestling over these obscure issues. We’re overcomplicating things. What really matters is simply knowing Jesus Christ and him crucified.” In this sense, to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified is to find the lowest common denominator, the minimum that can be understood and agreed upon. According to this application, Paul would’ve reduced the content of his knowledge by knowing nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

However, when we consider the context in which Paul writes and his two-age eschatology, which is made explicit in the passage (he mentions the “wisdom of this age” and “rulers of this age” in 2:6), we see that far from being reductionistic, Paul actually has in mind what is all-encompassing and cosmic in scope. We can get at this in two broad steps by first considering the knowledge of Christ within Paul’s two-age eschatology and then bringing the cosmic work of Christ to bear on it.

Knowing Nothing Except Eschatology

Paul says that the wisdom that he imparts is “not a wisdom of this age” (2:6). This implies that the wisdom belongs to another age, that is, the age to come; it is eschatological wisdom (see Gaffin, 21-22). We see further proof that this wisdom is eschatological in that it is imparted by Paul to τοῖς τελείοις, which is unfortunately translated by the ESV and NIV as “the mature.” It instead refers to those who have been “perfected,” not in a moral or ethical sense, but as having come to “participate in the fullness of Christ” (Ridderbos, 271). In other words, it refers to those who have an eschatological existence in Christ, namely, the church (2 Cor. 5:17). It is only to them that this eschatological wisdom is imparted.

What is the content of this eschatological wisdom? Earlier in 1:30 Paul said that Christ Jesus “became to us wisdom from God…” So when Paul goes on to write that he decided to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, he is speaking of the eschatological wisdom that belongs to the age to come. Jesus Christ and him crucified is the hidden wisdom of God that has now been revealed.

What becomes evident is that there is a wisdom that belongs to the age to come (received by the Spirit who is from God) and there is a wisdom that belongs to the present age (received from the spirit of the world), and these are in stark opposition to one another. Those who possess the wisdom of the present age, whether Jew or Gentile, find the wisdom of the age to come to be either a stumbling block or folly. (This antithesis of two sets of wisdom/knowledge will be developed in a subsequent article especially as it relates to apologetics, evangelism and the point of contact between the believer and unbeliever.)

In summary, when Paul says that he decided to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, what he means is that he rejected in toto the wisdom of this age and expounded only eschatological wisdom. That he rejected the wisdom of this age is evident when he writes, “I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom” (2:3-4). That he expounded the wisdom of the age to come only is clear by his “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (2:4)—both of which are eschatological (see Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption, 68-70). Paul resolved to know nothing except eschatology, that is, the all-encompassing knowledge that belongs to the age to come that has dawned in Christ. This eschatological knowledge is made available to us by the Spirit, who comprehends the thoughts of God, and by our having “the mind of Christ” (2:16).

The Cosmic Nature of “Christ-Eschatology”

Herman Ridderbos speaks of Paul’s eschatology as “Christ-eschatology.” This is helpful for at least two reasons. First, it keeps us from thinking of Paul’s eschatology in isolation from his Christology. Knowledge of Christ is not just a subset or category that makes up part of the eschatological wisdom; no, Christ is the eschatological wisdom of God.

Second, it helps us get at the all-encompassing and cosmic nature of the knowledge of “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” When Paul speaks of Christ “crucified,” we should recognize with Calvin that this is a synecdoche, that is, a part for the whole (see Institutes 2.16.13). It doesn’t exclude his resurrection, but actually entails it, along with the whole redemption complex that constitutes the gospel.

The center of [Paul’s] gospel (“of first importance”) is Christ’s death and resurrection in their significance as the fulfillment of Scripture (1 Cor. 15:3-4), entailing ultimately the soteriological-eschatological renewal of nothing less than the entire creation (Rom. 8:19-22; 2 Cor. 5:17). (Gaffin, 20n11)

Because God has created everything, nothing exists randomly, aimlessly or independently of his plan and goal for it. This means that if we are to know something truly and rightly, then we must see the impress of God’s plan upon it.[1] And what is God’s plan? Paul writes in Colossians 1:16 that it was by Christ “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him (see also Rom. 11:26; 1 Cor. 8:6; Heb. 2:10). Everything exists for Christ. Sin has sought to defy this, but through Christ, God has reconciled “to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19). This reconciliation is nothing less than a new creation (2 Cor. 5:16-19). Here is where we begin to feel the full force of the eschatological impact of knowing nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. The death and resurrection of Christ have an all-embracing, cosmic significance that is at the basis of all true knowledge.

Ridderbos puts it this way:

God in Christ has brought to fulfillment and will yet bring to fulfillment his man- and world- and history-encompassing redemptive work in a conclusive way. This all-embracing character of Paul’s eschatology and Christology come to the fore, as we shall see still further, in the epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians. But it forms the great presupposition of all of Paul’s preaching. For the Christ in whose death and resurrection the new aeon [or age] dawns is the Messiah of Israel (Rom. 1:2-4; 9:5), in whom God gathers and saves his people (2 Cor. 6:16ff.), and whom he has exalted and appointed Savior and Kyrios of all things (Phil. 2). … Paul proclaims Christ as the fulfillment of the promise of God to Abraham, as the seed in which all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gal. 3:8, 16, 29), the eschatological bringer of salvation whose all-embracing significance must be understood in the light of prophecy (Rom. 15:9-12), the fulfillment of God’s redemptive counsel concerning the whole world and its future. (Ridderbos, 49-51)

Conclusion: Rightly Understanding Everything

So what does knowledge of Jesus Christ and him crucified encompass? Everything! There is not an inch of creation that the gospel of Jesus Christ does not have an eschatological impact on; it is as all-encompassing as the new creation and cosmic in its scope. To know Jesus Christ, then, is to know something fundamental about everything. “The saving revelation of God in Christ, taught by the Holy Spirit, is the indispensable key to rightly understanding God himself and, with that understanding, literally everything (panta) in his creation. Right knowledge is saving knowledge. Anything else, every other knowledge, no matter how operationally effective or functionally productive, is essentially misunderstanding” (Gaffin, 30). So then,

Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Cor. 3:18-23)

[1] Cornelius Van Til writes, “For the Christian system, knowledge consists in understanding the relation of any fact to God as revealed in Scripture. I know a fact truly to the extent that I understand the exact relation such a fact sustains to the plan of God. It is the plan of God that gives any fact meaning in terms of the plan of God. The whole meaning of any fact is exhausted by its position in and relation to the plan of God. This implies that every fact is related to every other fact. God’s plan is a unit. And it is this unity of the plan of God, founded as it is in the very being of God, that gives the unity that we look for between all the finite facts” (A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 6).


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