ἐπειδὴ γὰρ ἐν τῇ σοφίᾳ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἔγνω ὁ κόσμος διὰ τῆς σοφίας τὸν θεόν, εὐδόκησεν ὁ θεὸς διὰ τῆς μωρίας τοῦ κηρύγματος σῶσαι τοὺς πιστεύοντας (1 Cor. 1:21 -BGT)
For it is because in the wisdom of God the world did not know, through its wisdom, God, God was pleased through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe. (1 Cor. 1:21. Own translation)
How does one translate the Greek genitival phrase τῆς μωρίας τοῦ κηρύγματος? Is it an objective genitive, subjective genitive, adjectival or reverse adjectival genitive? Therein lies part of the beauty of such Greek phrases, which cannot be translated into English, and many other languages, without an attempt to decide how the genitival relation between "foolishness" and "preaching" is to be understood.
Various English translations have translated the phrase differently. The KJV decided to leave the ambiguity as it is by just literally stating it as "the foolishness of preaching." The NIV and ESV and even the NKJV decided to resolve the ambiguity by interpreting the phrase as an objective genitive and thus interpret the phrase as stating that it is the content of the preaching that is foolishness to the world. But is that a correct interpretation of the phrase? Surely it is the most natural understanding in our modern scientific context, but is that what Paul is trying to convey to us?
We note here the larger context of the phrase as describing the means by which someone can come to know God. The world, utilizing the instrument of its own wisdom, has shown itself unable to come to know God. In contrast, the "foolishness of preaching" is the instrument that God uses so that sinners who believe can come to know God. That is the contrast the verse is putting forward. The world's wisdom, versus the "foolishness of preaching." The people of the world, her philosophers, utilize their thinking and their wisdom to create empires and ideology, and ultimately the entire modern world with the modern nation-state and science and technology. But despite the greatness of the world's wisdom, the world cannot come to know God.
The question for us then is whether the interpretation taken by many modern translations of the Bible is correct. Certainly, on a theological level, what is preached, the Gospel message, is foolishness to the world. Saying that it is the message preached that is the foolishness that saves, or saying that it the act of preaching that is the foolishness that saves, are both true. And certainly grammatically, there is nothing wrong with translating that particular phrase as an objective genitive instead of a subjective genitive. But which interpretation fits better for our text? Since the "foolishness of preaching" is contrasted with the world's wisdom, and thus the "wisdom of the world," it is better for the phrase "foolishness of preaching" to be a subjective genitive just like the phrase "wisdom of the world" is a subjective genitive. Moreover, does the world just throw propositions in an attempt to come to know God? Or rather, they engage in the act of reasoning using their reason in an attempt to come to know God. Likewise, just as the means of wisdom is thinking, so the means of "foolishness" must be an action as well, which corresponds to preaching.
The phrase in 1 Corinthians 1:21, the "foolishness of preaching," therefore in my opinion should be best translated as the "the foolishness of the usage of preaching." Certainly it is true that the mere act of preaching is an issue, since Greeks love orations and speeches. But rather, it is the act of preaching as the instrument for salvation that is foolishness to the world. For if you want to "make friends and influence people," and even more, save the souls of men, would anyone past and present consider preaching to be a valid means to bring a person to salvation? Sophists engage in orations to entertain their audiences with their eloquence. Philosophers engage in dialogues (e.g. the Socratic model) to convince people of their truth. Many people today prefer the use of drama and multimedia presentations to bring the Bible stories "to life." (Since when was the Bible ever dead?) But God has ordained the means of preaching unto salvation, foolish though it seems to the world.
As those called to proclaim His Word, pastors therefore ought to stand firm in their conviction of the necessity of biblical preaching, not for mere instruction but also to save souls. It is in the faithful preaching of God's Word, Sunday after Sunday, where the Holy Spirit will most certainly work in the hearts of its hearers. While God can use any other means, we should not think that our "ministry" in workplaces or elsewhere is any substitute for biblical preaching, and most certainly should not have the expectancy that God will certainly work in those extra-ecclesial gatherings. For pastors, the burden to correctly parse and proclaim our Lord's work is heavy when one pauses to see its importance, so let us not treat this lightly but seriously, so that we may handle such a privilege and responsibility with reverence and godly fear.