Who Is the “Natural” Man in 1 Corinthians 2:14?

By Wayne Jackson

“Please explain this passage from First Corinthians. ‘Now the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged’ (2:14).”

The passage is a difficult one due to the complexity of the phraseology. Moreover, its obscurity has been further shrouded by considerable theological baggage that is without basis in Scripture.

It is unlikely that one can fully appreciate the instruction of 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16 without some understanding of the term “wisdom,” as that concept was viewed in Greek culture.

The Greeks vaunted in their alleged wisdom. Herodotus reported that these intellectual sophisticates had the reputation of “pursuing every kind of knowledge” (History IV.77). Celsus (c. A.D. 178), a Greek philosopher who wrote a bitter diatribe against Christianity, characterized the followers of Jesus as those who eschewed wisdom, but who welcomed the senseless and the ignorant (see: Origen, Against Celsus, 6:12-14). The Greeks viewed those outside the pale of Hellenism as “barbarians” (cf. Rom. 1:14).

Also, 1 Corinthians 2:14 must be viewed in the larger context of 1:18-3:23. Within the first three chapters of this book, the apostle uses the noun “wisdom” sixteen times, and the adjective “wise” ten times. Clearly, “wisdom” is a predominate theme in this section of the book.

For example, Paul argues the case that true wisdom is not the “wisdom of the wise” (1:19), the “wisdom of this world,” (1:20; 3:19), or the “wisdom of men” (2:5; cf. “fleshly wisdom,” 2 Cor. 1:12). While this was the sort of “wisdom” of which the Greeks boasted, genuine wisdom (divine wisdom) is embodied in the gospel revelation that pertains to the mission and message of Jesus Christ (1:24,30; 2:7). The person who ignores this body of truth is not wise; he is a fool.

Let us give brief consideration to the material that leads up to 2:14, and Paul’s discussion of the “natural man.”

Christ — the Wisdom and Power of God (1:18-25)

The apostle sets the philosophy of those who are under the spell of worldly wisdom in stark contrast to the disposition of those who yield to Heaven’s redemptive plan, which culminated in the cross. By and large, both Jew and Gentile failed to recognize the true “wisdom of God.” A crucified Messiah was a stumbling block to the Hebrews, and to the Gentile pseudo-intellectuals, the idea of a vicarious sacrifice for sin was sheer foolishness.

Such rebels would be dealt with eventually. In the meantime, any who accepted the “call” of God through the gospel, whether Jew or Gentile, could be saved from sin through the work of Christ, who is the manifestation of the power and wisdom of God.

The Divine Calling (1:26-31)

The Lord’s call to sinful humanity, as made known through the gospel (cf. 2 Thes. 2:14), would not appeal to those who haughtily perceived themselves as wise, mighty, noble, etc. In view of man’s arrogance against the Creator, abject humility is requisite to becoming a Christian.

The Lord’s choice, therefore, of seemingly “weak” and “foolish” things in the plan of redemption was by design; it was and is a test of faith.

Paul’s Credentials at Corinth (2:1-5)

The apostle introduces the circumstances that pertained to himself, as he initially evangelized in Corinth, as evidence of the nature of the gospel system. Paul’s method of presentation (not with eloquence or with human wisdom) and his presence (weakness, fear, much trembling) both were manifestations that the power of the gospel was by the Holy Spirit. Christianity is a divine system.

A Plan Once Hidden, Now Revealed (2:6-13)

Again the apostle draws a distinction between the “wisdom” of the world, which will be rendered powerless, and Heaven’s wisdom. God’s wise plan, as it was secretly worked out across the ages, could not be accessed by human mental ingenuity. This lack of man’s intellectual acumen was evidenced by the fact that the rulers crucified the Lord of glory. Accordingly, one is driven to the conclusion that the divine scheme of things had to be revealed by God’s Spirit, who, being deity himself, knows the “deep” things of the sacred plan.

Paul illustrates the matter. Just as one cannot know the mind of another person, unless revealed by that person, even so, no one can access the “things of God” unless such were made known by his Spirit. The apostle then pinpoints the medium and method of that communication. The medium was Lord’s inspired spokesmen (“which things we speak”); the method was by means of sacred words (“words which . . .the Spirit teaches”).

The Impotence of the Natural Man (2:14-16)

The student is now prepared to identify the “natural man,” in light of the preceding context. The term “natural” (Grk. psuchikos — v. 14a) stands in contrast to “spiritual” (pneumatikos man mentioned in 15a. (Note the adversative particle de that begins verse 15.)

From the context, it is perfectly clear that the “spiritual” person is one who is supernaturally endowed with the Spirit, and thus is qualified to bring those “words” which the Holy Spirit is teaching him (v. 13). Accordingly, the “natural” man is simply the one who does not have access to divine revelation. He relies upon the “wisdom of the world,” hence, knows nothing of the “things of God.” He has no ability to “receive” (i.e., access; a middle voice form suggesting “unto himself”) the sacred truths that issue from the “mind of the Lord” (v. 16).

Calvinistic Confusion

It is, of course, quite common to hear the view that the “natural” man is the unregenerated sinner who is so enslaved in sin as to be unable to apprehend the gospel of God unless “illuminated” by a direct operation of the Holy Spirit. The sad reality is, it is difficult to locate many scholars who have not been tainted with Calvin’s views of this matter (cf. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975, Vol. I, Bk. II, 19-20). But this theory may be faulted on several grounds.

(1) The theme of this section of Paul’s letter is not “sinner” versus “saint,” or the “unregenerate” in contrast to the “regenerate.” Rather, as we have carefully documented above, the distinction is between “human wisdom” and “divine revelation.”

In the original setting, the “spiritual” man was the one upon whom the gift of “inspiration” was bestowed. In principle, to us it would be the testimony of the Holy Writings (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

On the other hand, then, the “natural” man is the one who seeks whatever union he hopes to gain with the Creator by means of his own arrogant, self-serving intellect. And the kindred descendants of the ancient Greeks are legion.

(2) The language of verse 13 plainly indicates that the “spiritual” person of verse 16 received “words” that the Holy Spirit employed, not some undefined “illumination.” Accordingly, if this text affirms that the Christian today directly receives that which is addressed in this passage, then it must be concluded that God’s children in this age are being given “word” messages from the Spirit personally.

If that is the case, and they should write down these words, would not their words be as binding as those of the apostles? And would not this make the Bible itself virtually obsolete? What do we need with documents two millennia old, if we have a direct, word-by-word pipeline to heaven? Sometimes folks simply do not “think through” the positions they espouse.

(3) Finally, the Calvinist view of this context makes God morally culpable. For instance, note this declaration from A.T. Robertson. This Baptist scholar argued that the “mind of the flesh” does not possess ability “to receive the things of the Spirit untouched by the Spirit. Certainly the initiative comes from God whose Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to accept the things of the Spirit of God” (Word Pictures in the New Testament, Nashville: Broadman, 1931, IV, p. 89).

If this position is true, whose fault is it if the “unregenerate” man never accesses the “things of God”?

In conclusion, then, we must insist that the key to understanding the “natural man,” as discussed by Paul, is to be found in viewing this passage in the light of the broader context of the early portion of his epistle. The Calvinistic assertion with reference to this text reflects both a misunderstanding of the local context, and the general scriptural teaching relative to the work of the Holy Spirit.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.