The Jews seek signs and the Greeks seek wisdom. Notice that both signs and wisdom are in the cognitive order; both are perfections of intellect. Notice again that they exhaust the ways God is manifested in the cognitive order: signs are God’s peculiar and special manifestation of himself; wisdom deals with his general manifestation of himself in nature and the human person.
Nevertheless, Paul mentions these things to condemn them, or at least to critique them. But the condemnation has a context: he wants to oppose God’s cognitive manifestation of himself with the power of the Gospel. Power is related to action and thus to the order of the will. The Gospel consists precisely in this power: I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God (Rm. 1: 16) When placed relative to this, both signs and wisdom are ways of being short of the Gospel. Intellect is prior to will – and though this gives it primacy in one way it confers on it an imperfection relative to the Gospel itself. The search for signs and wisdom become a substitute for the Gospel so far as one rests in them as prior perfections of intellect alone, whereas the Gospel consists in a perfection that comes after this.
Augustine’s conversion serves as a model for what Paul is speaking of here. Augustine spends a number of years trying to deal with his intellectual objections to the faith: the problem of the origin of evil; the putatively vulgar style of the Gospels; the apparent truth of astrology; the spiritual nature of God, etc. But after he resolves all these problems, he still finds that there is a bondage of his will, and this is his last challenge. The intellectual problems were extremely difficult, but they are child’s play compared to the problems of the will. Augustine deals with his intellectual problems with flair, genius, and comparative ease – but in dealing with his own iron will, he experiences a nervous breakdown and a sense of absolute powerlessness (scroll down to Chapter 8). Again, even after Augustine dispels all of his intellectual problems, he still finds that he is not converted, and he has not yet experienced the power of the Gospel. He is simply a man who knows what he needs to do but refuses to do it. In fact, Augustine’s conversion happens after reading a passage that tells him nothing new! He converts after reading St. Paul tell him, in effect, “stop living a carnal life”. But Augustine already knew that the Gospel told him to do that – this was exactly his problem with the Gospel. The passage that converted him was one that he would have seen as a depressing condemnation of his whole life had he read it a half hour before. The difference is that, at the moment he read it, he experienced the power of the Gospel that turned a command that condemned him into a precept that governed his life. Nothing changed on the intellectual level – all that changed was that one and the same thing went from condemning him to empowering him.
The Gospel has intellectual and moral components; it asserts truths and makes commands. But the Gospel is most formally the interior unification that is experienced as not simply the awareness of truth or goodness but also as the empowerment to live that truth. It is a light that dispels all the gloominess of indecision, wondering, doubt, and the iron grip of those habits that we only discover after months of regret over being unable to change them. The whole world is looking to know something, and it raises question after question, hoping at one time for miracles and at another for insight. This is all fine, but even if we could satisfy every intellectual problem, this would only lead to the final confrontation in which we experience the heart of the Gospel, for dispelling the intellectual problems brings us only to the ultimate enemy: the iron will that, though formed willingly, oppresses us unwillingly.