It is next to impossible to fully understand Paul’s intention of 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16 without first having a firm grasp on the concept of “wisdom” in the Greek culture. Paul uses a form of the word “wisdom” twenty six times in just the first three chapters. Needless to say, the apostle’s theme is overwhelming.
The mistake of many Calvinists is to presume this passage is a contrast between the abilities of the “regenerate” and the “unregenerate,” or the “natural man” versus the “spiritual man.” In actuality, the contrast is between “human wisdom” and “divine revelation.”
Obviously Paul felt the inspired scriptures were sufficient to grant mankind the understanding for salvation, as he wrote to Timothy:
“…from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness…” (2 Tim. 3:15-16)
The Calvinist begins on the wrong footing when he reads the phrase, “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” and assumes that man’s “unregenerate” nature determined his assessment in such a way that he could not have deemed it otherwise. God does not determine or decree all of mankind to deem His own word as foolish. That is the free choice* of those depending on “human wisdom” versus those depending on the spiritually wrought truth of “divine revelation.” It is mankind’s responsibility to decide on which to place their trust.
Besides Calvinists beginning with an unfounded assumption, their interpretation places the culpability back onto their Maker. Consider the claims of Calvinism — God decreed for fallen man to be born morally incapable of assessing His own word as anything other than “foolish” and then are made to “perish” as a result. This is NOT the intention of Paul in this or any passage. His intention is to say that those who rely on human wisdom instead of the spiritual truths brought by the inspired apostles will see the cross as foolish and perish as a result.
Paul’s overarching concern in this passage is to make a case for true wisdom as held in contrast with the “wisdom of the wise” (1:19), the “wisdom of this world,” (1:20; 3:19), or the carnal “wisdom of men” (2:5). The Greeks boasted in their wisdom and Paul is providing them a spiritually inspired warning by teaching them what true divine wisdom looks like. That wisdom is contained in the gospel revelation (1:24, 30; 2:7). And there is nothing about that revelation that is insufficient in enabling a willing response (Rm. 1:16). Those who ignore the apostle’s warning are not to be thought of as victims of God’s unchangeable decree, as we must conclude if the claims of Calvinism are true. No, anyone who chooses to trade the clearly revealed truth in for lies stands as a fool “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20; Ps. 14:1).
Once a clear distinction is drawn between the wisdom of the world and heaven’s wisdom, Paul moves on to speak of “the deep things of God” (vs. 10). Just as you cannot know what is in my mind unless I reveal it, so too, no one can access the “deep things of God” unless these mysteries are made known by His Spirit. Clearly, there are some deep mysteries kept hidden in the mind of God for a time. As the Apostle Paul noted in verses 8 and 9:
“We speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8-9).
It is only now that the mystery of Christ is being fully made known to all people. By what means? Some inner spiritual enlightenment? An irresistible regenerative working?
What does the scripture tell us is the means God employed to help the world understand the depth of God’s spiritual mysteries?
Paul expounds in Ephesians 3:1-10:
For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace which was given to me for you; that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. (emphasis added)
Clearly, the means by which God assists mankind to understand the deep mysteries of spiritual truth is by inspiration of chosen messengers. As Paul writes in 1 Cor. 2:13, “…we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.”
The Holy Spirit revealed mysteries to “His holy apostles and prophets” and in turn they write down “insight into the mystery of Christ” and “preach to the nations” so that the “wisdom of God might now be made known.” There is absolutely nothing in all of scripture that even remotely suggests that humanity is unable to willingly respond to this gracious Holy Spirit wrought truth of divine revelation!
With this in mind, let’s focus on the key passage of this debate: 1 Corinthians 2:14 reads as follows:
“The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
Simply put, this can be taken in one of two ways:
Calvinistic Meaning: “Fallen humanity, if not irresistibly regenerated by the Spirit, cannot want to accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for God has unchangeably decreed that revealed truth (the apostle’s teaching, scripture) will only be seen as foolish to them.” (God is ultimately responsible for man’s unbelief)
Traditionalist Meaning: “The man who freely chooses not to accept the things that come from the Spirit of God (apostles teaching, scripture, etc), but freely deem them as foolish, cannot understand spiritual truth, because those are the means of spiritual revelation.” (Man is responsible for his own unbelief)
The understanding of 1 Cor. 2:14 becomes very simple when we answer the first question posed by this verse, “Why won’t the natural man accept the things that come from the Spirit of God?”
Possible Answer #1: Because God so determined it by divine decree as a punishment for the sin of Adam.
Possible Answer #2: Because the man freely chose the wisdom of the world over the wisdom being revealed by spiritually wrought means (apostles, scriptures, etc).
We believe Paul is saying that the “natural man” is one who will not accept the wisdom from the Spirit of God, because he himself considers these things to be foolish by HIS OWN FREE CHOICE, NOT GOD’S DETERMINATION. Therefore, he is incapable of ever understanding spiritual things unless and until he turns from human wisdom and accepts the wisdom being revealed by the Spirit through His chosen means (apostles, scriptures, etc).
How can any man really understand something he has already deemed foolish in his heart? He cannot. Those who rely upon the wisdom of this age over and above the clear revelation of the Spirit cannot begin to understand the deep truths of God. This message seems to be the clear intention of the apostle.
The following verses support this line of reasoning as Paul goes on to confront the carnal brethren in Corinth as likewise being unable to receive these same “deep things of God” due to their carnality (3:1-3). The clear implication is that these believer’s choices to live carnally, just like the unbelievers choices to deem God’s word as foolish, is the root cause of their inability to accept and understand spiritual truth (the apostle’s teaching). The believer’s carnality, like the unbeliever’s rejection of God’s word, is a result of their own choosing, not of God’s determination. It is the responsibility of the believer to turn from carnality so as to receive spiritual meat of God’s word, just as it is the unbeliever’s responsibility to turn from fleshly wisdom when confronted by the Holy Spirit wrought truth of the gospel, “the power of God unto salvation” (Rm. 1:16).
*When the term “freely” is used we mean: Contra-causal free will, which is the ability of a morally accountable agent to refrain or not refrain from any given moral action. We DO NOT means what the Calvinistic compatibilists means when they say “freely.” <read this for more>