Seeking the True Knowledge of the Spirit (Wed. July 20)

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 true learning. It is the same for religious understanding.

In today’s reading of 1 Corinthians 1:9:3-8, Paul addresses the contending 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). Today we will seek to discern the difference between the true knowledge of the “spiritual man” and the false understanding of the “natural man.”

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 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 Claim to Possess Superior Spiritual Knowledge

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.

Their “envy, strife and divisions” show that they are still “carnal,” (OSB vs. 3), that is, ruled by their worldly passions. They 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 oneself. So it is with God. Only the Spirit of God knows what is in the hidden heart and mind of God.

God Has Revealed Himself Through the Spirit

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.

So then, the question is 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 struggling 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 man” to the knowing of the spirit.

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 to 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.

1 Corinthians 1:9:3-8, the Knowledge of the Spiritual Man, The Knowledge of the Natural Man, Only the Spirit Knows the Things of the Spirit




Leave a Reply