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Total Depravity: Theological Finesse Needed, Part 4
October 7, 2013 Kurt Jaros

Total Depravity: Theological Finesse Needed, Part 4

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In my current series I’ve been looking over a number of passages that appear to support Inability—the idea that humans are unable to do anything toward their own salvation apart from an act of superadded grace from God.  Thus far I have contended that Romans 3 and Ephesians 2:1 do not assert that humans are unable to do anything toward their own salvation apart from an act of superadded grace from God.  In this post I want to look at 1 Corinthians 2:14.

Some of you may have come across Christians that cite 1 Corinthians 2:14 as an example for why using argumentation (or apologetics) does not work in bring people to the faith.  In that verse Paul 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.”

So what does Paul mean here?  There are a number of things to consider that, if true, would not support the doctrine of Inability (and I believe these things are more likely to be true than any interpretation of this verse that supports Inability).

1) a) Norman Geisler has written:

Paul insisted that ‘the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God’ (1 Corinthians 2:14). What use, then, is apologetics? In response to this argument against apologetics, it should be observed that Paul does not say that natural persons cannot perceive truth about God, but that they do not receive (in Greek ‘dekomai’ meaning ‘welcome’) it. Paul emphatically declares that the basic truths about God are ‘clearly seen’ (Romans 1:20). The problem is not that unbelievers are not aware of God’s existence. They do not want to accept him because of the moral consequences this would have on their sinful lives. First Corinthians 2:14 (NKJV) says they do not ‘know’ (in Greek ‘gnosko’) which can mean ‘to know by experience’. They know God in their mind (Romans 1:19-20), but they have not accepted him in their heart (Romans 1:18). ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God’” (Psalms 14:1).[1]

b) He has also written:

The apostle Paul wrote, ‘the world by wisdom knew not God’ (1 Corinthians 1:21). This cannot mean that there is no evidence for God’s existence, however, since Paul declared in Romans that the evidence for God’s existence is so ‘plain’ as to render ‘without excuse’ one who has never heard the gospel (Romans 1:19-20). Further, the context in 1 Corinthians is not God’s existence but his plan of salvation through the cross. This cannot be known by mere human reason, but only by divine revelation. It is ‘foolish’ to the depraved human mind. Finally, in this very book of 1 Corinthians, Paul gives his greatest apologetic evidence for the Christian Faith – the eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Christ which his companion Luke called ‘many infallible proofs’ (Acts 1:3 NKJV). So his reference to the world by wisdom not knowing God is not a reference to the inability of human beings to know God through the evidence he has revealed in creation (Romans 1:19-20) and conscience (Romans 2:12-15). Rather, it is a reference to human depravity and foolish rejection of the message of the cross. [2]

Geisler’s point about unbeliever’s rejection of God because of the potential ethical implications and about the distinction between general/special revelation may be enough to argue against those who believe 1 Corinthians 2:14 guarantees the truth of Inability. But there are a couple of other points, other than the ones Geisler presents which one might consider.

2)  I don’t know very much koine Greek, but I know how to utilize lexicons and other resources.  There are two Greek words which may help us in our understanding of the verse at hand.

a) ψυχικὸς (rendered in some Calvinist-biased translations as ‘natural’; Geisler’s translation above renders it ‘man without the Spirit’) could be translated as ‘unspiritual’ as it is in the second edition of the Revised Standard Version, which is based upon the Novum Testamentum Graece (which many critical scholars consider to be authoritative).  ψυχικὸς is described as “an unspiritual pers., one who merely functions bodily, without being touched by the Spirit of God 1 Cor 2:14″ (A Greek Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed, re. ed. Frederick William Danker).  First, perhaps it is the case the Paul is speaking broadly of God’s general revelation as what constitutes “being touched by the Spirit of God” (emphasis mine).  One who isn’t touched by the Spirit of God would be a hedonist, for example.  Second, it seems to me that ‘natural man’ carries connotations regarding man in the state prior to divine revelation that ‘unspiritual man’ or ‘man without the Spirit’ doesn’t, because an ‘unspiritual man’ or ‘man without the Spirit’ may be one who has heard the Gospel message but rejects it.  This is important because if Paul is referring to those that reject the Gospel, then he isn’t writing about the universal condition of all humans pre-Gospel-sharing. And this would mean that …

b) δέχεται (rendered ‘accept’ or ‘receive’) is literally translated as ‘welcome’ (Geisler also mentions this).  ‘Not being welcomed’ connotes rejection (something must be offered to be unwelcomed) which ‘receive’ doesn’t necessarily connote (especially in the Reformed notion of regeneration where God arbitrarily picked some individuals and not others to correct their fallen status; thus, if God did not pick you than you will not receive the spiritual things of God).  If it is true that ‘welcome’ implies something being offered before it is rejected, then referring to the person as ‘natural man’ is a label given/determined/concluded by the Christian after the Gospel sharing.  And if ‘natural man’ is a label given/determined/conclude by the Christian after the Gospel sharing, then it therefore does not refer to a universal condition of all humans pre-Gospel-sharing.

In each of these four points (Geisler’s points on rejection because of ethical implications and the general/special revelation distinction along with my two arguments pertaining to linguistic criticism) Inability finds no support.


[1] http://www.bethinking.org/what-is-apologetics/intermediate/the-need-for-apologetics.htm

[2] Ibid.

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