Natural Knowledge and Spiritual Wisdom (Wed. July 28)

The word of the day is “knowledge.”  Socrates said that the only thing I know is that I know nothing.  Western civilization pays homage to Socrates, yet the claims to knowledge in our society are thousands of times more abundant than authentic learning.  It is the same for religious understanding.

In today’s reading of 1 Corinthians 2:9-3:8, Paul addresses the claims of spiritual knowledge that are dividing the Corinthian congregation.  He writes “But the natural man does not receive the things of the spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them because they are spiritually discerned” (OSB vs. 14).  In this way, he challenges the bitter disputes in the fellowship over who has the superior spiritual knowledge.  Today we will seek to discern the difference between the true knowledge of the “spiritual man” and the false understanding of the “natural man.”

A Congregation Divided

St. Paul is responding to a report about what is happening among the Corinthian believers. Members of the “household of Chloe” have informed him of contentious divisions in the congregation (1 Cor. 1-11).   The Corinthians are splitting up into factions: one following St. Paul; others following St. Paul’s successor in Corinth, a brilliant preacher named Apollos; and others claiming to follow Christ (1 Cor. 1:12).  These reports are upsetting to Paul who sees himself as the “father,” that is, founder and pastor, of the fellowship.

The root of the conflict is that each side is claiming to possess superior spiritual knowledge from their chosen teacher.  Paul began his letter by saying that the Corinthians had been “enriched in everything by Him [Christ] in all utterance and knowledge (1 Cor. 1:5).  But now he charges that they are not acting like they possess true understanding.

Those the Passions Rule Are Not Spiritually Enlightened

Their “envy, strife and divisions” show that they are still “carnal,” (OSB vs. 3), that is, ruled by their worldly passions.  The Corinthians pretend to be spiritually enlightened.  However, they are, in fact, mere “unspiritual” persons.  Accordingly, Paul teaches the difference between the “natural man” and the “spiritual man” (OSB vs. 14).

Paul bases the difference on the premise is that no one can know the inner life of other persons except their own spirit.  We might say that no one can know the “heart” and “mind” of another except the person himself or herself.  So it is with God. Only the Spirit of God knows what is in the hidden heart and mind of God.

But here is the point:  God has revealed his heart “through the Spirit” given to us (1 Cor. 2:10-12).  Furthermore, God has made His mind known to us by giving us the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor: 2:16).  These thoughts enable Paul to contrast the “natural man” who does not have the Spirit of God nor the mind of Christ with the “spiritual man” who does.  The “spiritual man” has true knowledge of spiritual things.  The “natural man” thinks that spiritual knowledge is foolishness.

What Kind of Knowledge Are the Corinthians Bragging About?

So then, the question goes without saying: what kind of knowledge are the factions at Corinth bragging about?   Surely the spirit of envy, strife, and division does not manifest the Spirit of God nor the spiritual knowledge that He gives.  But “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness,” these manifest the Spirit because they are “fruits of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22).  These fruits demonstrate that those who produce them have the knowledge of the Spirit.

For Reflection

We might reflect on the question of which kind of knowledge, guides our lives?  Are we living by  the spirit of the “natural man” or the Spirit of God who gives us spiritual knowledge?  If we are doing our best to live by the understanding of the “natural man,” then the Philokalia can help us understand how we might turn from the knowing of the “natural mane” to the knowing of the spirit.

St. Maximos: The Light of the Spirit Illumines the Intellect

In this manual of Orthodox spirituality, St. Maximos the Confessor writes, “Just as it is for the eye to perceive sensible objects without the light of the sun so the human intellect cannot engage in spiritual contemplation without the light of the Spirit.  For physical light naturally illuminates the senses so that they may perceive spiritual bodies; while spiritual light illuminates the intellect so that it can engage in contemplation and best grasp what lies beyond the senses” (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 239).

Let us pray for the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit today that we might attain the spiritual knowledge of the truth of God

Works Cited

G.E.H. Palmer, et. al. Trans. 1981. The Philokalia: the Complete Text Vol. 3. New York: Farber and Farber.


Leave a Reply