A Merciful Surprise

An Excerpt from The Word of the Cross: Reading Paul, by Jonathan Linebaugh

Mockingbird / 3.31.22

The following is an excerpt from the preface of Jonathan Linebaugh’s recently-released book, The Word of the Cross: Reading Paul. Linebaugh is a University Associate Professor at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Jesus College.


“Nothing can save us that is possible,
we who must die demand a miracle.”
~ W.H. Auden, For the Time Being

“The word of the cross.” This Pauline phrase is both a summary and a surprise. “We preach Christ crucified,” Paul announces (1 Cor 1:23; cf. 2:2; 15:3). But this sermon is a scandal: “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks” (1 Cor 1:23).[i] The cross is the site of weakness and shame, of degradation and death. According to “the word of the cross,” however, God acts in and at the nothingness of “Christ crucified” to contradict and overcome the conditions of the possible: “the cross is folly … but it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18); “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified” (1:23); this news is scandalous and foolish, “but to those who are called it is Christ: the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:23-24); not many among the Corinthians were “wise” or “powerful” or “of noble birth, but God chose what is foolish and weak in the world to shame the wise and the strong; God chose what is insignificant and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1:26-28). For Paul, this pattern is a promise, a sermon that proclaims the gospel as a merciful surprise: out of the grave of Good Friday—at the place of foolishness, sin, bondage, and death—God, “in Christ Jesus,” creates “wisdom” and “righteousness,” “liberation” and “life” (1 Cor 1:30).[ii]

W.H. Auden captures something of this merciful surprise, as impossible as it is strange: “nothing can save us that is possible, we who must die demand a miracle.”[iii] There is a diagnosis here as deep as death. In this tomb, anything less than a “miracle”—anything that is “possible”—can only be what George Eliot calls “feeble words.”[iv] The word of the cross, however, proclaims a hope beyond the horizon of what can be. The gospel, Paul insists, is not the possible but “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18, 24; cf. Rom 1:16), not “feeble words” but what Thomas Cranmer called “comfortable words” (cf. 2 Cor 1:3-7). “We preach Christ crucified”: this announcement, weak and foolish though it seems, is a wisdom beyond the world, a power beyond the possible, and a miracle whose name is Jesus Christ.

This pattern of grace, or what might be called the Pauline grammar of the gospel, emerges at the point where the honest diagnosis collides with and is overcome by the hope of mercy. Paul is an apostle of a double apocalypse. “The wrath of God is revealed” (Rom 1:18). The diagnosis, according to Paul’s announcement, is sin and death, a captivity and need that runs beneath any human divide: deeper than “us” as opposed to “them,” Paul’s preaching unveils the reality that “there is no distinction, for all sinned and lack the glory of God” (Rom 3:23; cf. 3:9). “We,” to return to Auden, are those “who must die,” and “we … demand a miracle.” But “the righteousness of God is revealed” (Rom 1:17). This, for Paul, is the miracle, the good news that opens the grave: “but now the righteousness of God is manifested” and the “all sinned” gives way to the “are justified as a gift by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:21-24). God’s righteousness is revealed where “none are righteous” (Rom 3:10), but instead of this collision leading to condemnation (cf. Rom 3:19-20), the gift of Christ comes into the condition of bondage and sin and redeems and creates righteousness.[v] As Cervantes has the ever-realistic Sancho Panza say, “What is called need is found everywhere, and extends to all places, and reaches everyone.” Such honesty resonates with Paul’s “there is no distinction,” and it provides grounds for solidarity and compassion (“Lift every roof, and you will find seven puzzled hearts,” wrote Thornton Wilder). But diagnosis is not Paul’s final word. To quote Cervantes’ character who can always see past what can be, in the gospel that gives Christ to the bound and the dead and so sets free and makes alive, “one finds,” as Don Quixote puts it, “the reality of all the impossible.”[vi]


The word of the cross. It is sometimes said that titles are a first interpretation, a way of signalling a core or unifying theme. While none of the studies in this book focus on 1 Corinthians 1, the theme of that passage suggests itself as a leitmotif when the chapters are read together. Each chapter is an instance of “Reading Paul,” but only the first part does so without reference to other texts or traditions. The second section reads Paul in conversation with early Jewish literature and the third reads Paul with later readers of Paul. What varies, in other words, is the method. What emerges as consistent is the motif: the Pauline gospel is a merciful surprise.

Again, Auden’s lines gesture towards a Pauline grammar. For Auden, “we” are those who “must die” and therefore “nothing can save us that is possible.” Paul’s diagnosis runs this deep: it announces a “we” beyond and beneath every “us” and “them” (see chapter 6), a fundamental bondage and need that “demands a miracle” of redemption and resurrection out of captivity and death (see chapter 4). But Paul does not preach the possible. In Christ, and then in Israel’s canonical history (see chapter 3), he encounters the creator who promises beyond the possible: the God who, “according to grace” (Rom 4:4, 16), “justifies the ungodly” and also “gives life to the dead and calls into being that which is not” (Rom 4:5, 17; see chapter 2). For Paul, the gospel is Good Friday: it is Christ going into and given for those in the grave. But the word of the cross is also an Easter sermon that rolls away the stone. This, according to Paul, is the grammar of the gospel: not the old or the possible, but only the “grace of God” that is “the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20-21). This grace is christological, incongruous, and creative: God’s gift of Christ, given at the site of sin, fear, slavery, and death, creates righteousness, peace, freedom, and life (see chapter 9).[vii]

This pattern emerges in a particular way through both comparative readings of Paul and reception historical interpretations.[viii] Read in conversation with other early Jewish texts, Paul both shares a tradition and stands out within it: he reads the same scriptures, but interprets them differently (see chapters 2, 3, 5, and 8); he considers the relationship between Israel and the nations, but announces a fundamental solidarity “under sin” and “in Christ” (cf. the phrase “there is no distinction” in both Rom 3:23 and 10:12-13; see chapters 6 and 7); he speaks the language of righteousness and grace, but this inherited and canonical vocabulary is defined by the particular gift of Christ that reveals God’s righteousness as it is given to sinners and recreates them as righteous (see chapters 1, 7 and 8). The reception historical studies consider readers of Paul—Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer—who sensed and tried to find new ways to speak the merciful surprise. For Cranmer, this meant saying, “hear what comfortable words … St. Paul saith.” Luther emphasizes the surprise and the mercy, calling the gospel “strange and unheard of” while also insisting that it gives “rest to your bones and mine.”[ix] For both, this rest and this comfort is anchored in the incongruity of grace: “Christ Jesus came to save sinners,” quotes Cranmer, and as Luther writes, “God accepts no one except the abandoned, makes no one healthy except the sick, gives no one sight except the blind, brings no one to life except the dead,” and “makes no one holy except sinners.”[x] These Reformation interpretations sometimes entail translating Paul into new contexts and idioms, but the deep exegetical question is not so much whether later interpreters used the same words as Paul. The question is whether they proclaim the same word as Paul: the word of the cross.[xi]

The word of the cross. As Paul in 1 Corinthians, this phrase summarizes this book and indicates its surprise. The Pauline gospel does not promise the possible. According to Paul’s diagnosis, “we who must die”—or we who are dead—“demand a miracle.” But as Ernst Käsemann preached the gospel he learned from Paul, the “impossible is not the boundary of hope,” because “hope” is born “where graves cannot hold the dead.”[xii] That is the merciful surprise: God gives Christ, incongruously, to the bound, sinful, and dead; and Christ, impossibly, creates freedom, righteousness, and life.

Excerpted from The Word of the Cross: Reading Paul by Jonathan A. Linebaugh ©2022 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) Reprinted by permission of the publisher.



3 responses to “A Merciful Surprise”

  1. Todd Brewer says:

    Working through this book now. A fantastic read so far.

  2. Joey Goodall says:

    This excerpt is so good. Can’t wait to read the whole book.

  3. […] Law and the Gospel to a grammatical pattern. This is what Jonathan Linebaugh is talking about in his new book, that, according to Luther, “divine speech does not merely correspond to but actually creates […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.