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Should you practice your sermons? (1 Cor 1:17)

Paul tells the Corinthians, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom (οὐκ ἐν σοφίᾳ λόγου), lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor 1: 17; see the NJB, “wise words”).

The problem with this translation is that it would mean no pastor should speak with eloquence? I guess that means all pastors can speak wisdom but they can’t sound fluent or persuasive. And it means the two days I used to spend practicing my sermons were an unbiblical waste of time.

The NIV (2011) has, “not with wisdom and eloquence,” a poor change from the 1984, “not with words of human wisdom,” which makes it sound like divine wisdom never overlaps with human wisdom (see the nonsensical KJV, “not with wisdom of words”). The problem with the 2011 is also that it makes σοφίᾳ λόγου sound like two coordinate nouns, which they are not; λόγου modifies σοφίᾳ.

The NET is getting closer to the Greek, “not with clever speech,” as is the NASB, “not in cleverness of speech” with the footnote on “cleverness,” “Lit. wisdom.” I struggle with these types of footnotes. If σοφίᾳ “literally” means “wisdom,” then translate “wisdom.” If it doesn’t mean “wisdom,” then don’t say it literally does!

Word for word Paul says, “not in wisdom of word.” That’s what he says; what does he mean? Part of the solution is to recognize the semantic range of λόγος, which extends far past the English gloss “word” or “speech.” Part is also to see that λόγου is singular, but to translate “wisdom of a word” makes no sense.

Culture to the rescue. Paul is not condemning the use of words or the use of human wisdom; true wisdom will always be coordinate with divine wisdom and find its source in God. Thiselton suggests, “not by manipulative rhetoric”; BDAG has “cleverness in speaking,” on σοφία).  Paul is battling the Sophists, people who had no regard for truth but sought to win arguments by the use of rhetorical devices. Paul is not like them, and neither should we.

What do you rely on in your preaching and teaching? Human wisdom that is not based on divine revelation? The cute turn of phrase? Studied rhetoric at the expense of divine truth? Human machinations rather than the simple telling of divine revelation? Do you spend more time on your exegesis or on your delivery?

Practice your sermons and lectures. Think carefully and seriously about how to express yourself. But at the end of the day, you are a herald of the king and are charged to relay his words with clarity and volume. Not with human cleverness.

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