Can Spiritual Man Learn from Natural Man?

by Jack Crabtree


As Gutenberg faculty interact with the Christian public, they hear one question more frequently than any other: What profit can there be in studying the writings of non-Christians? Three assumptions, I think, provide the impetus for this question: (1) unbelievers have nothing to offer with respect to one’s coming to understand the important truths revealed in the Bible; (2) exposing oneself to the thought and teaching of unbelievers is inevitably destructive to one’s faith; and (3) exposing oneself to the thought and teaching of Christians is “safe”–that is, not destructive to one’s faith.

This article is an abstract from a longer paper in which I address all of the above assumptions and discuss the benefit resulting to my own faith from my personal study of philosophy. In this briefer article, I offer a personal response to one aspect of the first assumption.

Unbelievers Have Nothing to Offer

Some Christians assume that unbelievers have nothing to offer with respect to their coming to understand the important truths revealed in the Bible. Is this assumption biblical?

A handful of New Testament passages make clear that only those whom God’s Spirit has prepared to receive the wisdom that God has revealed to mankind will be able to receive it. I Corinthians 2:10-14 is one of the more important of such passages:

For to us God revealed them [the elements of the secret purposes of God] through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. [NASV]

Consider how some Christians reason from such a text. The text says only those to whom God, by his Spirit, has revealed divine wisdom will possess it. By definition, no unbeliever’s heart has been so enlightened by the Spirit. Hence, no unbeliever possesses any divine wisdom that he can offer me. I must show why such reasoning is fallacious. To do so, we must better understand the teaching of I Corinthians. 2:10-14.

Understanding I Corinthians

I Corinthians reads as if Paul were defending himself from personal attack, and in a sense he was. But we misunderstand him if we think he was just being defensive. Paul’s concern was not with his personal rejection; his concern was for the Corinthians’ spiritual well-being. He was concerned about their seeming disregard for the gospel.

Paul could not effectively separate the Corinthians’ attitude toward his teaching from their attitude toward the gospel. As an apostle, appointed and inspired by God to proclaim divine truth, Paul’s teaching was identical with the wisdom of God. To disregard or demean Paul’s teaching was to demean the wisdom of God itself.

Why would one do that? How can one confront the very wisdom of God in the teaching of Paul and not duly appreciate it? There can be only one explanation: one’s personal values are fundamentally out of synch with God’s values. One cannot appreciate the truth of the gospel unless one truly embraces the values of goodness, mercy, truth, justice, and righteousness; for these are embedded in the story of the gospel. In other words, if one does not fundamentally like God, he will not like the truth; for the truth about what God is doing in human history reeks of the character of God. A person whose life is driven by lesser (“worldly”) values will be unable to appreciate the value of the gospel; he simply will not “see” the value of the things God is doing.

Left to oneself, everyone is driven by worldly values and is blind to the value of God’s promised Kingdom. Only by the miracle of regeneration–where one becomes newly committed to the same values that drive God’s purposes–is any person capable of appreciating the value of the gospel. Apart from such a miracle, none of us would have any regard for the divine wisdom revealed in the gospel.

Paul proclaimed the gospel revealed to him by the Spirit of God, yet the Corinthians were unaffected by what he had to say. They did not judge that he had any significant wisdom to offer them. Apollos, on the other hand, was impressive! He spoke with such power, charisma, eloquence, and practicality. His message was something a person could get excited about. But why? On what basis did they appreciate Apollos’s teaching? Paul feared that the Corinthians appreciated it for the wrong reasons. If they appreciated it because it was supportive of the truth of the gospel, then they would have been equally appreciative of Paul’s proclamation of the gospel. But if they appreciated Apollos’s teaching for more superficial reasons–namely, because the worldly standards of excellence in Corinthian culture judged it “impressive”–then Paul’s teaching, to the extent it fell short of those standards, would embarrass the Corinthians.

The latter situation appears to be the case. The Corinthians perceived Paul as intellectually and rhetorically unsophisticated and unpolished; he was uncool, a hack. As a spokesman for the Christian faith, he was an embarrassment; not someone with whom to identify proudly. Accordingly, some of the Corinthians tried to disassociate themselves from Paul and more closely associate themselves with the more charismatic and sophisticated Apollos. As Paul saw it, therein lay the problem: if one truly valued the content of the gospel Paul proclaimed, he would have no desire to disassociate himself from it–no matter how unsophisticated or uncool the messenger. The Corinthians’ anxiousness to disassociate themselves from the message (and its messenger) could mean only one thing: they didn’t have a clue how fundamentally valuable the message was. In other words, they had not been given “eyes to see” its essential value. Paul saw that they would have been equally impressed with Apollos no matter what the content of his message. Apollos could have taught utter falsehood and vanity to the Corinthians, and, so long as he presented it with eloquence, erudition, and charisma, they would have valued it more highly than the truth from God Himself. Such a phenomenon alarmed Paul. He wondered whether they were truly believers at all, because they showed no evidence that the miracle of regeneration had opened their eyes. Out of that concern, Paul wrote the letter; and in that context, the language of I Corinthians 2:10-14 must be understood.

In light of the above, we must look at an important way in which people commonly misunderstand I Corinthians 2:10-14:

(1) In I Corinthians 2:14, Paul did not suggest that the “natural man” (anyone whose mind and heart has not been enlightened by the illuminating work of the Spirit of God) is incapable of intellectually comprehending the secrets revealed by the Spirit of God. The natural man’s problem is not intellectual obtuseness; his problem is moral/spiritual rebellion against the truth from God. So, although the NASV translates verse 14, “But a natural man…cannot understand them [the things of the Spirit of God]…,” we must take care to understand in what exact sense the natural man cannot “understand” them. Paul did not suggest that a natural man is incapable of grasping them with his intellect; rather, Paul was saying that the natural man is incapable of holding the things of the Spirit of God and believing them as true knowledge. Why? Not because he is stupid; but because his natural sinful rebelliousness against God makes him fundamentally unwilling to acknowledge God as God and truth as truth. The natural man’s mind will find a way to rationalize his rejecting the truth of God before it will bow to God and acknowledge–with all of its implications–the truth about Him.

(2) I Corinthians 2:10-13 is not counterevidence to the point above, for it is a mistake to identify the “us” to whom the secret of God’s wisdom has been revealed as Christian believers. Paul was not saying, “For to us believers God revealed the mysteries of God’s wisdom through the Spirit…” Rather, Paul was saying, “…to us apostles God revealed the mysteries of God’s wisdom…” Paul made the point alluded to above: As an apostle, he had been entrusted with the secrets of God. How, then, could his teaching be of little or no value? How could it possibly matter whether or not his teaching was delivered with eloquence and sophistication? With content so important, who could possibly care about the delivery?

In I Corinthians 2:10-13, then, Paul was simply asserting the significance of the content of his teaching: it was none other than the secret of God’s plan of salvation that God had entrusted to him to proclaim. Paul did not teach worldly wisdom. Its source was not in human perception and discovery. Its source was in the person of God Himself. When Paul proclaimed the gospel, he was declaring what God wanted mankind to know. The point to note is this: whereas it is true that Paul had divine wisdom supernaturally revealed to him, that is not the lot of every believer. God does not supernaturally reveal truth to us; he supernaturally prepares us to receive the truth that will come to us through ordinary rational means.

The bottom line is this: though a hasty reading of verse 14 might lead one to conclude that the natural man is incapable of comprehending the things of the Spirit of God, this was not Paul’s point. On the contrary, Paul’s point was this: apart from enlightenment by the Spirit of God, the natural man will never be capable of rightly appraising the truth, importance, and value of the things revealed to the apostles by the Spirit of God.

Truth and the “Natural” Man

I have intimated that the assumption that unbelievers have nothing to offer toward an understanding of the important truths revealed in the Bible is utterly unbiblical. We are now in a position to see the fallacy in thinking that unbelievers, since they do not have the Spirit of God at work in them, cannot, in principle, grasp anything of divine wisdom.

(1) Nowhere in the New Testament–neither in I Corinthians 2 nor anywhere else–does the Bible suggest that unbelievers are intellectually incapable of coming to an understanding of divinely revealed truths. On the contrary, unbelievers are fully capable of grasping biblical truth–which is why they will be judged for rejecting the gospel. Intellectually, they understand it and know it is true, but they reject it anyway. The unbeliever will be judged for his unbelief because he willfully and stubbornly refuses to believe what he good and well understands is the truth. If the gospel were incomprehensible gobbledygook to the unbeliever, on what basis would he then be condemned for not believing it; for how can one be expected to believe what he cannot even understand? No, the unbeliever is fully capable of understanding–of intellectually comprehending–the truths revealed to the apostles. Experience bears this out, and the Bible does not contradict it.

(2) Furthermore, nothing in the Scriptures requires us to believe that the unbeliever cannot believe and embrace any of the truth. Rather, the Bible tells us this: for a person to embrace the entirety of the truth of the gospel in all of its implications requires the miraculous working of the Spirit of God. But, to understand and believe certain aspects of the truth of the gospel while rejecting the rest, no miracle is required. Any unbeliever can and will go part way along the path of believing the gospel. In the end, apart from the grace of God, he will swerve off the path and come short of embracing the full apostolic gospel. Being a moral/spiritual rebel, the unbeliever cannot bring himself to submit to the entirety of the truth of God revealed in the gospel. But nothing prevents the unbeliever from embracing some aspects of God’s truth. Indeed, a partial commitment to truth is just as potent a strategy of unbelief as is out-and-out rejection of it all.

In light of the above two facts, note the possibilities that remain for understanding and belief to exist among unbelieving, “natural” men: (1) the natural man can have an intellectual grasp of the entire gospel in all its implications while not believing it and not personally embracing it as the hope for his own existence; and (2) the natural man can personally embrace many aspects of the gospel as true while failing to embrace the whole of the gospel in all of its implications. There remains, then, a great deal of room for the possibility that believers can learn important things from unbelievers.

The rebellious sinner has a vested interest in adulterating and distorting the truth; so, more often than not, the natural man will present an adulteration of the Bible’s teaching. But it is important to remember that this is not because the natural man is incapable of grasping and articulating the truth from God. Rather, he is unwilling to face the truth himself. In principle, the unbeliever could offer me some important insights into the nature of truth. His capable, God-given mind functions reliably to give him a knowledge of truth, reality, and biblical revelation. To the extent that the natural man allows his reason to function without interference from his passionate hostility to God and divine truth, the deliverances of natural reason will be trustworthy and reliable. Only as sin is allowed to influence his reasonings and to skew them in the direction of unreason and self-deception will his reasonings become untrustworthy and foolish. Certainly we need to be critical and cautious in all that we read and study. In principle, however, there is no reason to discount the possibility that much of profit can be gained by reading the works of unbelievers; nothing the Bible teaches us about the difference between the believer and the unbeliever rules it out.

Copyright August 1996 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Jack Crabtree