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What is Spiritual and Human Wisdom (1 Cor 2:13,15)


Question:

What does 1 Corinthians 2:13 mean? Including some help with the different ways it can be translated. I’ve heard this verse used to argue for some very bad teaching that basically separates discussions about spiritual things from anything else such that logic, reason, etc. are excluded from those discussions. What does 1 Corinthians 2:15 mean, especially the part that says “the spiritual person… is himself to be judged by no one”?

Answer:

The verses in question are part of a larger passage showing the process by which God through His wisdom communicates spiritual truth to us. The verses read, “And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual… The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.” (1. Cor. 2:13, 15) 

Defining terms

What is natural wisdom, and how does it differ from spiritual wisdom? Natural wisdom as used in scripture can be defined as the use of experience, learning, logic, and intelligence to perceive the true nature of a situation and address it with good judgment and prudence. For example, the Lord told a parable of a shrewd (wise) manager in Luke 16:1-8 where the rich man is impressed with the prudence of his household administrator whom he was firing for mismanagement. The manager assessed the situation and concluded that in order to prepare for his forced unemployment he would reduce the debts people owed to his employer while he still had a job so that the people would gratefully welcome him into their homes. Verse 8 concludes with the Lord’s statement that the sons of this age are more prudent than the sons of light when dealing with natural affairs. The Greeks at the time of Paul were dedicated to the search of wisdom and philosophy (Acts 17:18-21, 1 Cor. 1:22), and through it laid the foundations of much of our modern western political, scientific, legal, and educational systems. Thus natural wisdom is of earthly origin and is useful within its proper sphere.

By contrast, spiritual wisdom is given by God (Jas. 1:5) and through the Spirit’s guidance and His word incorporates our logic, experience, and education to produce fruit for God with good spiritual judgment and prudence (Col. 1:9-12, Jas. 3:13). Spiritual wisdom’s foundation is fearing God (Job 28:28, Psa. 111:10, Prov. 9:10). It is heavenly in origin (Jas. 3:17) and allows us to understand more of the nature of God and act and think more like Him (Eph. 1:17). When we come to Christ, we become a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). The old has passed away; the new has come. With this new birth our thought processes become new as well (Rom. 12:2).

Revelation through Scripture

It may be helpful to outline the passage to see the context of the verses in question. The second half of the first chapter of the letter to the assembly (church) at Corinth contrasts natural wisdom with God’s wisdom as expressed through Christ (verses 17 – 31).

Chapter 2 continues the theme of the preaching through the Spirit’s power rather than through natural wisdom. The preaching brought out God’s wisdom, once secret and hidden, now revealed in Scripture. Verse 9 and 10 explain the mechanism of this revelation, the Holy Spirit. This revelation is not acquired through our senses (our eyes and ears), nor is it obtained through our creativity or invention (our heart and mind imagining). Rather it is made known by the Spirit, God Himself. Note that verse 9 does not speak of heaven, per se, but of what God has supernaturally revealed in the Bible of the future He has prepared for us (Jn 14:2-3). Verses 11 and 12 show that only God can interpret and comprehend His thoughts. The Spirit of God has been given to us so we may also understand some of His thoughts communicated to us, something those who have this world’s spirit can not understand.

Inspiration of Scripture

Verse 13 speaks of inspiration of the Bible, of how God’s truth was transferred by the Holy Spirit through the writers of the Bible. The “we” speaks specifically of the Apostles here, but can be applied to all writers of the Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Pet. 1:21). The final clause of the verse can be translated several different ways, each of which may help clarify the meaning. The literal translation is “comparing spiritual [things] in spiritual”. The NASB says, “combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.” The ESV (quoted above) says, “interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” The Darby translation translates the phrase as, “communicating spiritual [things] by spiritual [means].” Peter expands on this idea when he talks of Paul writing Scripture through the wisdom given him even though they are misunderstood and twisted by ignorant and unstable people (2 Pet. 3:15-16).

As your question alludes, verse 13 can also be misapplied. The verse does not mean that God wants us to exclude logic and reason from understanding the Bible. The same God who says, “Come now, let us reason together” (Is. 1:18) asks us to use our minds regarding spiritual things. Romans 12:1-2 points to offering our bodies as a living sacrifice to God as “our intelligent service”, or literally, our “service by logic (or reason)” and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. When we come to Christ, God gives us a new mind and a new way of thinking (Eph. 4:20-25). We will be able to evaluate and judge spiritual matters in a reasonable, sensible manner (1 Cor 10:15). 

Logic itself is found throughout the Bible, and Paul, in particular frequently uses logical arguments in his writings. As an example, consider his “if… then” style of demonstrating the fallacy some were falling for regarding the resurrection of Christ and its logical conclusions. Read 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, paying attention to each use of “if” and “then” in Paul’s logic. Look also at the Lord Jesus’ own logic in answering the logical traps set for him by the Pharisees (Matt. 22:15-22) and the Sadducees (Matt. 22: 33). Wonder at his own challenge to the Pharisees concerning the nature of Christ (Matt. 22:46). No one was able to answer His logic or to dare ask Him any further questions.

However, verse 14 cautions us that the natural person cannot accept or understand things that come from the Spirit of God because they are spiritually discerned. We can understand God’s power and divine nature through studying His creation, but we can’t comprehend spiritual mysteries of, for example, the incarnation, the rapture (1 Cor. 15:51-52), the unique unity of the Church as a body (Eph. 3:1-6) and with Christ (Eph 5:32), or how we become a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17-18). Without the Spirit guiding us we have no ability or mechanism to understand things from the Spirit no matter how much reasoning we use. As people without God, our thoughts are controlled by our cravings and desires (Eph. 2:3) and eventually become futile (Rom. 1:21). Our understanding is darkened (Eph. 4:18), and we are alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds (Col. 1:21).

This means that we must yield our minds to the service of Christ, and come to Him with humility (Jas. 4:5-6, Luke 18:17). This may mean giving up our natural wisdom in order to become spiritually wise (1 Cor. 3:18-21), especially if our natural wisdom is producing fruit such as pride and division (1 Cor. 3:1-3).

Illumination from Scripture

Now we come to verse 15. Since we have come to faith in Christ, we have God’s Spirit in us. If we are controlled and enlightened by the Spirit (as a spiritual person), we can judge or investigate all things (both spiritual and natural), even though we are not subject to judgment by anyone else. God will judge us, but the natural world has no jurisdiction. For example, Pilate (Jn. 18:29-31) and Gallio (Acts 18:14-16) were judges who, as unconverted men, recognized they didn’t have jurisdiction to judge spiritual matters. The natural world cannot see inside us and doesn’t understand our nature as shown in verse 14.

God has given us light and knowledge through Christ by His Spirit (1 Jn. 2:20). “For God, who said ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6) Let us use the knowledge of the Scriptures through the understanding the Spirit provides to build each other up in our Christian faith and share Christ with a lost, natural world.

By Daniel Hayes

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