Spiritualism and the New Testament: Paul: 1 Corinthians 2:10-15

This study on Spiritualism and the New Testament (cf. the Introduction and article defining the term “Spiritualism”) will be divided into two main sections, corresponding to the Pauline and Johannine writings, respectively. We begin with the Pauline Letters.

The Letters of Paul

Paul wrote extensively on the Spirit, and doubtless he played a significant role in shaping first-century Christian views on the subject. Paul inherited early Christian traditions and beliefs regarding the Spirit, but, in his own way, he also developed these, presenting them within a deeper and more systematic framework. Before proceeding to the first passage of our study, let us first conduct a brief survey of several key beliefs which Paul shared, we may assume, with many other believers in the mid-first century (c. 50 A.D.).

    • The coming of the Spirit upon believers marks the fulfillment of the exilic/post-exilic prophetic oracles regarding the pouring out of God’s Spirit on His people in the New Age (of Israel’s restoration).
    • Believers receive the Spirit in connection with the ritual of baptism, which parallels the tradition of Jesus’ own baptism (Mk 1:8, 10 par).
    • The Spirit is communicated (by God) through the person of the exalted Jesus.
    • The exaltation of Jesus (to heaven, at God’s right hand), following his resurrection, gave to him a Divine status and position that enabled Jesus to share in God’s own Spirit. For more on this, cf. below.
    • Thus, when believers receive the Spirit of God, they/we are also receiving the Spirit of Christ. Through the Spirit, the exalted Jesus is manifest and present in (and among) believers.
    • Upon receiving the Spirit, believers are enabled to function as prophets, communicating the word and will of God, accompanied by other special abilities and ‘gifts’ (including speaking in ‘tongues’ and the working of miracles).

Because of the number of Paul’s letters that are available to us, we have a clearer understanding of these early beliefs. For example, Paul is the only New Testament author who offers any kind of an explanation of how Jesus came to share the Spirit of God (as his own Spirit). We can obtain a glimpse of this Christological point by combining Paul’s words in 1 Cor 15:45 (in the context of his discussion on the resurrection in chap. 15) with the declaration in 6:17. And, on this point, we may note the way that Paul can refer to the (Holy) Spirit as the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ (or of Jesus) interchangeably (see esp. Rom 8:9).

1 Corinthians 2:10-15

In the section 1:18-2:16, Paul contrasts worldly wisdom with the wisdom of God. The Gospel proclamation centered on the painful and humiliating death (by crucifixion) of Jesus, embodies, rather paradoxically, the wisdom of God. And yet, Paul speaks in vv. 6-15, of a wisdom that is spoken among those believers who are complete (te/leio$). In describing this wisdom, Paul’s exposition seems to have a spiritualist emphasis. The key verses are 10-15; however, before examining them in detail, it is necessary to give careful consideration to how Paul leads into that discussion. Let us begin with verse 6.

1 Corinthians 2:6

“And (yet) we (do) speak wisdom among the (one)s (who are) complete, and (it is) wisdom not of this Age, and not of the chief (ruler)s of this Age th(at are) being made inactive…”

This statement introduces a new section, building upon vv. 1-5 (see my earlier note). In verse 5, Paul contrasts human/worldly wisdom (“the wisdom of men”) with the power of God; now, here in verse 6, he returns to the earlier contrast between two different kinds of wisdom. The conjunction de/, translated “and” above (first two instances), has adversative force, and could just as well be rendered “but”. In contrast with worldly wisdom:

    • Believers (and esp. Christian ministers) do speak/use wisdom, but
      • It is altogether different from the wisdom of the world and its rulers

There have been longstanding questions regarding the precise identity of both this “wisdom” (sofi/a) and the ones who are “complete” (te/leio$). In a prior note, I outlined some of the more common suggestions offered by commentators; here they are listed again for reference, with no priority indicated by the numbering:

    1. The basic Gospel message (wisdom) is given to all believers, but a more advanced (esoteric?) Christian wisdom (teaching, etc) is offered for those who are “complete”—mature and committed in the faith sufficiently to receive it.
    2. Paul is simply making a rhetorical contrast. There is only one wisdom—that of the person of Christ and his death/resurrection. The “complete” believers are able to recognize this and do not need to seek after any other “wisdom”.
    3. He is distinguishing between the Gospel proclamation and the teaching/instruction, etc., which builds upon the basic message, interpreting and applying it for believers as they grow in faith. For the “complete” this includes a wide range of “wisdom” —ways of thinking/reasoning, use of argument, illustration, allegory/parable, (creative) interpretations of Scripture, etc.
    4. Paul himself evinces certain gnostic/mystic tendencies whereby there are envisioned levels or layers in the Gospel—i.e. the basic proclamation and belief regarding the person and work of Christ—as in the Scriptures, the deepest of which involve the most profound expressions of God’s wisdom. Only the “complete” are able to realize this, and to be able to communicate something of it to the wider community.
    5. Paul is responding to gnostic/mystic tendencies among believers in Corinth. Here, as a kind of rhetorical approach, he is drawing upon their own thinking and sensibilities, trying to bring their focus back to the centrality of the Gospel and a proper understanding of the work of the Spirit. As such, the apparent distinctions he makes are somewhat artificial, perhaps running parallel to the (actual) divisions among the Corinthians themselves.
    6. The wisdom for the “complete” reflects a deep understanding of, and participation in, the work of the Spirit. Believers who are completely guided by the Spirit need no other instruction. Paul is essentially expounding this thought in vv. 9-16, only to make (painfully) clear to the Corinthians how far they still are from the ideal.

I have discussed the passage, running through 3:1-3, in considerable detail in earlier notes, a portion of which I am reproducing (especially those on 2:10-15) as part of this series. I have indicated certain conclusions which may be drawn from the text, that help clarify what Paul means here in 2:6. I list these as bullet points:

    • The wisdom spoken to the “complete” comes by way of the Spirit. No other source of “wisdom” is possible.
    • The revelation of the (secret) wisdom of God is fundamentally tied to the proclamation of the Gospel.
    • The hidden wisdom of God relates to the very depths (the deepest parts) of God’s own being.
    • The “wisdom” is not limited to the Gospel message, but ought to be understood more comprehensively as “all the (deep) things under God”.
    • It is dependent upon our having received the (Holy) Spirit
    • Through the Spirit we are able to know and experience this wisdom
    • It is “taught” by the Spirit to believers, and is to be communicated (“spoken”) to others in turn.
    • The ones who are “complete” essentially = the ones who “have the Spirit”
    • The ones who are “complete” are defined, in a negative sense by the opposite—those who think and act in a “fleshly” manner are “incomplete”.

From these points, the spiritualistic tendency in Paul’s thought seems clear enough. That is to say, the wisdom of God is manifest fundamentally, and principally, through the presence of the Spirit in and among believers. But let us look more closely at the wisdom Paul has in mind. I would isolate three primary aspects:

    • It is based on the proclamation of the Gospel, i.e. of the person and work of Christ
    • It includes all that the Spirit communicates to believers, which they receive as a gift to be shared/communicated to others
    • It extends to the working and guidance of the Spirit (= the “mind of God/Christ”) in all things

With regard to those who are complete, this can be defined even more simply:

    • They are those believers who consistently think and act under the guidance of the Spirit; this must be distinguished on two levels:
      • The reality of having/holding the Spirit (in us)
      • The ideal of living out this identity—i.e., “walking in/by the Spirit” (cf. Gal 5:16, 18, 25)

The very fact that Paul, like Jesus himself, exhorts believers to be “complete”, means that it is not automatically realized through faith in Christ and receiving the Spirit; rather, it reflects a process of growth and development which, in most instances, will take place over a lifetime. This, however, does not change the force and urgency of the exhortation. Jesus’ own exhortation (Matt 5:48) to his followers essentially takes the form of a promise—if you live according to the teaching (i.e. in 5:21-47, etc), “you will be complete [te/leio$], as your heavenly Father is complete”.

In Gal 5:16ff, Paul expounds upon this idea, now in a decidedly Christian sense, with the force of an imperative; note the sequence of phrases, with its central (conditional) premise:

    • “Walk about in the Spirit…” (v. 16)
      — “If you are led in the Spirit…” (v. 18)
      — “If (indeed) we live by the Spirit…” (v. 25a)
    • “We should step in line in the Spirit” (v. 25b)

The statement in Gal 5:16 reflects the very issue Paul is dealing with in 1 Corinthians, and the lament he expresses in 1 Cor 3:1-3:

“Walk about in the Spirit, and you should not complete [tele/shte, related to te/leio$] the impulse of the flesh”
“We speak wisdom among the (one)s (who are) complete
“And (yet) I was not able to speak to you as (one)s (who are) of the Spirit, but as (one)s (who are) of the flesh”

Is it possible that Paul, in some sense, does have a more precise and sharp division in mind, i.e. between the “complete” and the ‘incomplete’ —two distinct groups or categories of believers? While this would seem to contradict much of his own argument in 1:18ff, it is conceivable that he is playing off of the very “divisions” which exist among the Corinthians. Certainly, it has been suggested from the distinction he makes in 3:2 between “milk” (ga/la) and “(solid) food” (brw=ma)—the Corinthians are behaving as immature “infants” (v. 1), and cannot be treated (i.e. spoken to) as mature adults. There are several possibilities for understanding this distinction:

    • “Milk” is the simple Gospel message, while the solid “Food” represents deeper (Christian) teaching and instruction
    • The difference is between the basic ‘facts’ of the Gospel, and its deeper meaning
    • Similarly, it is between the Gospel message and how it is (effectively) applied and lived out by believers in the Christian Community
    • It rather reflects a difference in the way believers respond—as immature infants or mature adults
    • It is simply a rhetorical image, drawn from the idea of the Corinthians as “infants”, and should not be pressed further

Something may be said for each of these interpretations, except perhaps the first. Insofar as it reflects a substantive distinction in Paul’s mind, the third and fourth best fit the overall context of the passage.

Finally, I would like to bring out a particular point of emphasis that is sometimes overlooked in this passage. When Paul speaks of the wisdom of God in terms of “the (deep) things” of God, he couches this within the general expression “all things” (pa/nta). In my view, this should be understood in an absolute comprehensive sense. Note how this is framed conceptually in chapters 2 & 3:

The wisdom of God encompasses “all things”, as Paul makes clear in 3:21-23, where he establishes a (hierarchical) chain of relationship, presented in reverse order— “all things” (pa/nta), he says:

belong to you (pl., believers), and you in turn
belong to Christ, who in turn
belongs to God the Father

If we allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit and the mind of God/Christ, then we are free to study and examine all things (cf. 2:10, 15), and this itself becomes an integral expression of the “wisdom of God” which we speak.

This analysis of the thrust of 2:6-16 (extending to 3:1-3) provides the framework for our detailed study of 2:10-15, which contain the key references to the Spirit. For this study, see the first note, on v. 10.

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