Fake News Versus the Word of the Cross

One way of characterizing this age with its “fake news,” with Russian meddling through social media, with the Press demonized as the enemy, and now the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is as an age of rhetoric. Rhetoric is not harmless but uses language with the aim of manipulating the appearance of reality (connected even to torture in its classic sense). It is not that some deploy rhetoric and others tell the truth but all, at least in Paul’s depiction, are caught up in the house of human language (rhetoric, law, and philosophy). While the human speech problem may be accentuated at this moment, Paul characterizes the present age (which extends from then to now) in terms of a failure of language. Certainly, in his preaching (as described in I Cor), Paul has not used manipulative language; he has not brow beat people, he has not wheedled, bullied, used special lighting and stirring music.[1] However, it was not just that his preaching was not rhetorical or an entertainment but, in form and content, his “logos of the Cross” exposes this form of speech as a nullity tied to a dying age.

In pitting the logos of the Cross against the world’s talk and talkers (philosophers, scribes, rhetoricians (I Cor 1:19)), Paul is depicting an apocalyptic disruption of one world as a new world unfolds, in terms of language.  The primary difference between the age that is passing and that which is being inaugurated is found in the forms of speech deployed by the respective ages. Paul’s tripartite linguistic characterization of the passing age might be taken to describe the universal possibility for being human.

Rhetoric covers every form of manipulative, fictional, persuasive, speech which in its primary focus on effect is sometimes referred to as empty speech.  The word derives from the verb ἐρῶ, “I say,” or “I speak” and pertains to the world of the ego or appearances. In Paul’s explanation (in Ro 7) the ego is connected with desire, as the “I” is the spectral object of desire, which means alienation and loss of being (death) characterize this aspect of the Subject. Rhetoric then, is concerned with the pursuit of being through its image or representation (the simulacrum of the self in the ego).

Scribes are experts in the Jewish law and are concerned with meaning as it exists in the written form of the law. Where rhetoric is primarily concerned with the spoken word, scribes work with words set in stone. One can obey, disobey, interpret, or apply the law but the law is not, like rhetoric, concerned with effect but with instantiation. The law, unlike rhetoric, is not fluid or dynamic but is immovable – it is not living. Though the law is meant to be applied, embodied, or lived out, in Paul’s explanation the law is not instantiated in this sense (written on the heart). One might describe the “law of sin and death” as being instantiated but this does not get at the peculiar elusiveness of attempting to be the originators of one’s own law. The law is that symbolic order which we would cathect, make our own; we would be our own law givers, the arbiters of our own ethics, which we might imagine would set us completely free. However, in inscribing our own symbolic order or in attempting to inscribe ourselves into the origin of this order (being like God) we become our own punishing presence. To instantiate this law is to feel its effects – to suffer and sacrifice before this law/god is to ensure its reality and presence. The condemnation, guilt, and shame, is not God’s doing but god’s doing – we are the originators of the law of sin and death which is killing us. We are leveraging this law and exacting death in our own body. This “body of death” has not been foisted upon us from above or below but from within. It is not just the scribes who have perfected re-inscribing the law on tombstones (they are white washed tombs or builders of memorials to death in Jesus’ description) but we all compulsively chisel away at our head stone.

The philosophers are those who would find truth in language per se which means philosophy, at least up to the postmodern refutation of this understanding, is premised on the understanding that “the power of thought has the highest worth.”[2]  The realm of language is life giving and not subject to death, thus the psyche or soul (wherein the capacity for language resides), according to Plato, preexists birth and survives death and is not bound to the body. In this understanding, language literally imparts the likeness of God and denies the reality of death. “In the period around and after 500 b.c. ψυχή is then commonly used as an omnibus term for human thought, will and emotion and also for the essential core of man which can be separated from his body and which does not share in the body’s dissolution.”[3] In this sense, philosophy, and with it the religion which it serves to sum up, articulates the form in which death is taken up. As in Genesis 3, death denied (you won’t die) takes death into the self. Believe this lie and one institutes what is denied. Again, this is not simply due to an arbitrary law implemented by God but is the natural outworking of turning away from life found in God – which is to say God’s absence leaves a definitive trinitarian trace.

The three deployments of language constitute not only the house of language for corporate man but describe the dynamic of language in the constitution of, what Paul calls, “natural man” or psychicos humans. This soulish human is constituted apart from the presence of God and thus contains the sense that man is absolute, eternal, or innately immortal. Paul describes this absolute something as a nullity three times over. The ego (“I”) is, in Paul’s explanation, the image subject to dissolution through being joined to the image on the cross (the “I” crucified with Christ). The law of the mind, or the punishing effect of sin taken up into the self, is suspended (καταργέω) or rendered inactive in Paul’s technical description. It is rendered inactive due to the fact that, just as the orientation to the law served to displace God, being joined to Christ, and knowing God as Abba, displaces this punishing orientation to the law.[4] The lie of philosophy, death taken as life, is dissolved in Christs exposure of the grave – rendered forever empty.

This explains why Paul, in I Corinthians, maintains that these things which “are” (or those things considered to be absolute) are exposed as nullities and nothings by that which would appear to be nothing (1:28). The Logos of the Cross or the foolishness of kerygma addresses that which is otherwise rendered inaccessible and unconscious by the “natural psyche.” The Jews seeking signs (being through sight) and the Greeks seeking wisdom (being through knowing) are simply attached to alternative registers of a Subject grounded in nothingness. The Cross is a stumbling block to the Jews seeking signification ((1:22) seeking a “mark”) as they are literally seeking “optical impressions” by which they might attain life giving insight.[5] It is not revelation of the Cross they seek, but insight on the basis of their own understanding. They want a visual disclosure confirming their knowledge, not a revelation which would overturn it. Likewise, through wisdom man would know the being of all that is or, at least, gain access to being.[6]  Paul maintains that the world cannot come to know God on this basis (1:21).

It is not just that these mediums are inadequate but they are structured (in the natural psyche) like a lie. There is the object of the lie (the ego or the realm of rhetoric), the medium of the lie (the law or the symbolic realm), and what is covered over (death or the realm of sophistry and metaphysics). “Where is the sophist? Where is the scribe? Where is the rhetorician? God has nullified these things that are.”

Paul’s preaching deploys a language which, by way of contrast, is a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (2:4). This word gave rise to a new order of human being: “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God” (1 Co 2:12). The spirit of the world, the archon of the age, amounts to an absence of knowing and presence. The Spirit marks the presence of God and speech founded on this presence need not conjure its appearance, strive to produce it, or manipulate it. While manipulation through language will continue to characterize this age, the tragedy is recourse to a rhetorical, philosophical, or legalistic deployment of language in the Church. Where preaching is manipulative or a rhetorical entertainment, by definition, this is fake news and not the word of the Cross.


[1] According to Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Greek Testament Commentary) 52.

[2] Schweizer, E., Bertram, G., Dihle, A., Tröger, K.-W., Lohse, E., & Jacob, E. (1964). ψυχή, ψυχικός, ἀνάψυξις, ἀναψύχω, δίψυχος, ὀλιγόψυχος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 9, p. 611). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[3] Ibid TDNT.

[4] This is not a dissolution of the law, as if there was anything to dissolve or abolish. It is a suspension of the laws punishing effects through a reorientation to the law. The law as an end in itself, the source of meaning, the means to life, is displaced. The striving to integrate the ego and body into the law of the mind is on the order of attempting to reduce the spectral to the realm of speech and language. The register of the ego (the field of vision or the “minds eye” or imaginary) cannot occupy, attain to, be integrated with, the symbolic realm of law. Thus, the ego is “frustration in its essence” in that the striving is aimed at establishing an unreality (the ego, taken as absolute reality) through a mode of nonbeing (the law taken as ultimate being).

[5] Rengstorf, K. H. (1964–). σημεῖον, σημαίνω, σημειόω, ἄσημος, ἐπίσημος, εὔσημος, σύσσημον. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 7, p. 204). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[6] Which is why Socrates in admitting he does not know achieves a certain wisdom. Plato acknowledges the limits of human wisdom but maintains that knowing, even in part, is a participation in absolute being. Aristotle presumes one can know the structuring principles of the world and thus has access to pure Being. See Rengstorf, Ibid.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

3 thoughts on “Fake News Versus the Word of the Cross”

  1. Interesting argument Paul. I do have a question. Are you saying, then, that rhetoric and the use of rhetorical devices are always inappropriate? Or maybe you do not equate the two. For the Bible, including the apostle Paul, makes use of all of these rhetorical devices:

    Alliteration refers to the recurrence of initial consonant sounds. …
    Allusion is a reference to an event, place, or person. …
    Anaphora repeats a word or phrase in successive phrases. …
    Antithesis makes a connection between two things. …
    Hyperbole refers to an exaggeration.

    1. I like the question and point. One might raise the question about all three linguistic categories, law, philosophy and rhetoric. Paul obviously uses all three (in some sense of the term but not in the way I lay out) – and even in I Co 2, Paul says he does use wisdom but wisdom for the mature. Some commentators seem to think he is being ironic but I do not. He is simply setting forth an alternative form of wisdom – one which is not anthropocentric but one which is Christocentric. Rhetoric, is indeed concerned with the various compositional devices which Paul employs. So this is probably a hint he is not critiquing the use of alliteration and other devices, but rhetoric as I have described it – the pursuit of being through its image or representation (the simulacrum of the self in the ego).

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