June 18: 1 Corinthians 2:9-16

1 Corinthians 2:9-16

The extensive Corinthian letters of Paul, so complex in structure and rich in content, provide us with a number of key passages indicating how an understanding of the Spirit of God developed in early Christianity. As one of the most influential voices of the time, Paul’s theological brilliance and inspired expression makes his treatment of the Spirit in his letters of the utmost importance.

The first main passage in the Corinthian correspondence (as it has come down to us) is in 1 Cor 2:9-16, part of the opening section (1:18-2:16) of the main body (probatio) of the letter. In it, Paul begins to address the main issue—the propositio (1:10ff)—on the existence of various divisions in the congregations which are contrary to the ideal of Christian unity. In 1:18ff, as Paul’s initial line of argument, he focuses on the Gospel message (“the account of the cross”) as a fundamental point of unity for believers. He draws heavily upon Wisdom traditions, emphasizing that the message of Christ represents the true wisdom of God, revealed especially now, at the end of the current Age. The wisdom of the “world”, of this current Age, is set in direct contrast to God’s wisdom (the Gospel).

In 2:9-16, this wisdom is defined in terms of the presence and activity of God’s Spirit. The association between wisdom and the Spirit is ancient, part of a line of Wisdom tradition that goes back at least to the book of Job in the Old Testament. This was discussed in earlier notes, especially those on Job 32:8 (cf. 33:4) and Gen 41:38. The association is especially prominent in the Book of Wisdom (the so-called Wisdom of Solomon, cf. my earlier note), and Paul’s use of the motif in 1 Corinthians has much in common with this Hellenistic Jewish outlook. The basic line of tradition begins with the idea that the very ability for human beings to understand and comprehend is due to the Spirit of God as the source of the human spirit (at creation/birth). More than this, those individuals who evince a special kind of understanding, ability, or skill were seen as being uniquely gifted by God’s Spirit.

Paul draws upon this idea, but turns it decidedly in the direction of the Gospel—that is, those who accept the message of Christ, and who receive the Holy Spirit (at baptism), possess a special wisdom and insight due the presence of God’s Spirit. This argument is introduced by way of a composite Scripture quotation (from Isaiah 64:4, cf. also Isa 52:15; Sirach 1:10), emphasizing that the spiritual revelation accessible to believers is of a kind of “wisdom” that is unknown and unintelligible to people at large. In verse 10, he states clearly:

“But to us God (has) uncovered (it) through the Spirit—for the Spirit seeks (out) all (thing)s, even the deep (thing)s of God.”

Paul explains this further in verse 11, on the basic (philosophical/epistemological) principle that a thing can be truly understood only through familiarity with the essence (or “spirit”) of the thing. What it means to be human (“the [thing]s of man”) can only be understood (“seen/known”) by “the spirit of man”, i.e. the spirit that is within a person. From this standpoint of understanding, the “spirit” is more or less equivalent to the “mind” (nou=$, cf. below). By extension, “the (thing)s of God” can only be known by the Spirit of God (= the “mind” of God). Paul’s claim in verse 12, that believers are able (unlike the rest of humankind) to understand the “(deep) things of God”, is striking indeed:

“But we did not receive the spirit of the world, but the Spirit (that is) out of God, (so) that we would see [i.e. know] the (thing)s given as a favor to us under [i.e. by] God.”

The participle xarisqe/nta (charisthénta), from the verb xarizomai (“give/grant [as] a favor”), establishes the important theme of the “spiritual gifts” that will be developed further on in the letter. Those “gifts” reflect the presence and activity of the Spirit in/among believers, giving to them—both individually and collectively—understanding of the “spiritual things” and the “things of God”, which Paul refers to here, more dramatically, as “the deep (thing)s [ba/qh] of God” (v. 10). Indeed, the Spirit teaches these things to believers (v. 13)—spiritual things can only be understood by teaching in “spiritual (word)s” (i.e., words spoken to us by the Spirit).

In verses 14-15, Paul returns to the contrast between worldly and divine wisdom, defining it more precisely in anthropological terms which are most difficult to translate. Two contrasting adjectives are used: yuxiko/$ and pneumatiko/$. The latter is typically translated “spiritual”, which is generally accurate; however, based on that pattern, the former adjective would have to be translated something like “soulish” (from yuxh/, “soul”). Many translations render yuxiko/$ as “natural”, but that is rather inaccurate and misleading, in terms of the contrast Paul is making. In the context here, it is better understood as “with (only) a soul”, in the sense of persons who only possess a human soul/spirit, but not the Spirit of God. That this the point of Paul’s comparison, is indicated by his use of the same terminology in 15:44-46, a usage that finds definite confirmation elsewhere in the New Testament (James 3:15; Jude 19). Indeed, Jude effectively defines the adjective yuxiko/$ in context as a person “not holding [i.e. possessing] the Spirit”.

The character of believers, who do possess the Spirit of God, as “spiritual” (pneumatiko/$), means that they/we are able to discern “all things”, including the “deep things” of God. The concluding quotation of Isa 40:13 in v. 16 again identifies the Spirit of God with the “mind” (nou=$) of God. That believers are seen as possessing this divine mind is not surprising, given Paul’s line of argument here; however, what is especially notable is how Paul further identifies the mind of God (“the Lord”, in Isa 40:13) with the mind of Christ. This interpretation, uniquely Christian, is possible because of the dual-meaning of the title “the Lord” (o( ku/rio$) among early Christians—it can refer both to God the Father (YHWH) and Jesus Christ.

“and (yet) we hold (the) mind of (the) Anointed”

This closing declaration clearly states that believers possess the “mind of Christ”, which can be understood several ways:

    • It refers to the presence of Christ himself in and among believers
    • Individually and collectively, believers possess a dual-mind, whereby our own mind/spirit interacts with the mind/spirit of Christ
    • We are able to understand the very mind/thought of Christ (which also means we can understand the mind of God)
    • Our own mind is conformed to the mind of Christ himself

All of these are valid concepts, though the second and third aspects are most directly relevant to Paul’s line of argument here. What is most significant is the implication that the “mind of Christ” (and, by extension, the mind of God) is communicated to believers through the Spirit. Paul does not explain here the theological/Christological basis for this, nor indicate in any detail the dynamic or process that is involved. However, there are other passages in his letters which do shed some light on the matter, including elsewhere in 1 Corinthians. This will be discussed in the next daily note, as we look at 1 Cor 6:17ff together with 15:44-46.

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