Does 1 Cor. 2:14 Support Calvinism?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, March 25, 2010 at 4:37pm
QUESTION: What is your exegetical take on 1 Cor. 2:14? This is a favorite Calvinist proof text, as you know. Do you believe “psuchikos” [“natural”] is about nonbelievers or carnal Christians? What is the overall point of the passage?
ANSWER: 1 Cor. 2:14-16 (NASB) reads, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.”
(What follows here is adapted from my book, “Power from on High: What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit,” from the section refuting the doctrine of illumination.)
What shall we say about 1 Cor. 2:14-16? These verses are almost always cited as teaching illumination, and as affirming the need for it based on the total depravity of the unsaved. The key point is the contrast between the “natural man,” who “cannot understand” the things of the Spirit, and the “spiritual” man, who CAN understand them. The usual interpretation is that the “natural man” is the totally-depraved, unregenerate person, and the “spiritual” man is the one who has been regenerated and enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Thus this passage is also used to prove the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity and the need for irresistible grace, both of which are key essential doctrines of Calvinism.
This is a serious misunderstanding of these verses that is based on a complete ignoring of the context in which they appear. Here Paul is addressing the divisions in the Corinthian church (see 1:10ff.), which were related in part to excessive loyalty to specific individuals, including Paul himself (1:12). In addressing this problem Paul attempts to put his own place in Christ’s kingdom into proper perspective. In so doing he finds it necessary to defend his apostolic authority against his critics (4:3-5; 9:1ff.), while at the same time humbly admitting that he possessed no great earthly talent or charisma or claim to fame (2:1-5). His apostolic authority rested not on human wisdom and great oratorical ability, but solely on the fact that the message he spoke was received from God.
Paul declares that his message is the hidden wisdom of God that has been shrouded in mystery (2:7), a wisdom that cannot be discovered and known by natural means (2:8-9). But Paul and God’s other inspired spokesmen knew this wisdom, because God revealed it to them through the Holy Spirit (2:10a), who alone knows the things (Greek, “ta”) that are in the mind of God (2:10b-11). This is the very same Spirit of God that we have received, says Paul, so that WE (apostles) may know these things (“ta”) that are hidden (2:12). These are the things we have spoken to you, in words taught to us by the Spirit himself (2:13).
(In these first chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul uses first person (I, we) to refer to inspired apostles and prophets who received revelation and spoke inspired messages from the Holy Spirit. He uses second person (you) to refer to the Corinthians and Christians in general. This is VERY important.)
The next three verses (2:14-16) are a continuation of Paul’s defense of his apostolic authority. He is not a natural man, but a spiritual man, he says. The designation “natural man” has nothing to do with moral qualities; it is not a synonym for sinful, depraved, or unregenerate. (The NIV translation, “the man without the Spirit,” is inexcusably misleading.) This phrase refers rather to one who is limited to merely natural or human abilities and resources, as contrasted with one who is endowed with the Holy Spirit and his supernatural gifts of revelation and inspiration. A natural man does not have access to “the things” (“ta”) of the Spirit of God (2:14a). “The thoughts of God” in 2:11 (NASB, NIV) are literally “the things [“ta”] of God”; these are “the things [“ta”] freely given to us [apostles] by God” (2:12).
A natural man—one without revelation from the Spirit—“cannot understand” these things (2:14b). The word translated “understand” is “ginosko.” But “understand” is not a good translation here; the more usual meaning, “know,” is much better. I.e., the natural man cannot KNOW the kinds of things I am revealing to you. The issue is not whether he can understand them, but whether he is even aware of them. Paul says he cannot know them, i.e., he is not aware of them. Why not? Because only the Holy Spirit KNOWS (“ginosko”) the things (“ta”) of God (2:11). These secret things can be discerned only by the Holy Spirit, and by those to whom the Spirit has revealed them, i.e., the “spiritual” man in 2:15a. Paul is such a “spiritual” man, endowed by the Spirit with revealed knowledge and with the words by which to speak it. Thus you cannot sit in judgment on me, says Paul (2:15b; “appraise” in the NASB). Why not? Because I am speaking words which ultimately come from the mind of Christ himself! Only if you, too, have such access to the mind of Christ can you sit in judgment on me (2:16; see 4:3-5).
These verses (2:14-16) thus follow directly upon the flow of thought in 2:1-13. The content of verses 10-13 interprets the content of verses 14-16. There is nothing here about total depravity, and nothing about the necessity for the Spirit’s regeneration of sinners through irresistible grace, and nothing about his illumination of Christians. Paul applies it all to himself in the concluding words of 2:16: “But we have the mind of Christ” (“WE” meaning himself and other inspired apostles and prophets).