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.

~ 1 Corinthians 2:14

I remember the conversation vividly. It took place almost twenty years ago when I was participating in meetings related to the training of pastors in the former Soviet Union. Since it was held at an evangelical seminary, I took the opportunity to become acquainted with a professor there who shared my interest in hermeneutics. He kindly invited me into his office. Observing his collection of books, I asked him which textbook he believed was most helpful for training expositors in Bible interpretation. His answer was telling. He pulled out a volume and stated with notable enthusiasm, “Even though this author was not a believer, I believe he has written the best textbook on biblical hermeneutics.”

This professor’s optimism regarding the unbeliever’s ability to interpret the Bible is not atypical. A perusal of hermeneutics textbooks published in the last several decades reveals the substantial influence secular theories and methodologies have come to assert on evangelical hermeneutics. This is observed not only by surveying what fills the footnotes, subject indices, and bibliographies of these textbooks, but also by considering what is absent. One omission in particular stands out. It is the lack of substantive treatments of 1 Corinthians 2:14 and its implications for biblical exegesis.

The Context

In sum, 1 Corinthians 2:6–16 is a crucial text for explaining the inspiration of Scripture.[1] Paul’s focus in this paragraph is on “wisdom”—a term he uses as a synonym for “divine knowledge.” In vv. 6b–9, Paul explains where this “wisdom” comes from. It does not originate in man—not even in the most powerful or educated—but in God. In vv. 10–13, Paul then explains how this “wisdom” is made known. It is revealed by the Spirit of God to God’s spokesmen, and he ensures that their articulation of this knowledge to others is accurate—even to the specific choice of words. Finally, in vv. 14–16, Paul identifies who can understand this “wisdom.” It is not understood by the natural man, but only by the one who is spiritually alive.

The Assertions

It is this third section of the paragraph (1 Cor 2:14–16) that has direct relevance to the topic of the interpretation of Scripture, and especially v. 14: “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.” Here the apostle Paul makes two stark assertions about the state of the “natural man” and his relationship to divine revelation. His argument can be summarized as follows:


The Unbeliever’s “Interpretation” of Divine Knowledge

according to 1 Corinthians 2:14






“a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God”

“for they are foolishness to him”

the unbeliever’s active rejection; his moral bias


“he cannot understand them”

“because they are spiritually appraised”

the unbeliever’s natural disability; his intellectual incapacity


1. The Natural Man Does Not Accept

The first assertion Paul makes—“a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him”(1 Cor 2:14a)—refers to the unbeliever’s active rejection of divine revelation. The verb “to accept” (dechomai) is a term used by Paul elsewhere to explain a characteristic of genuine conversion (1 Thess 1:6; 2:13). It implies receptivity and approval.

But the unconverted man, Paul states, does not accept or approve of the truths of God. Why? “They are foolishness to him.” Paul implies here that the unbeliever sees enough objective clarity in God’s verbal revelation that he can consciously reject its message. He does not merely dismiss the meaning of the biblical text because it is ambiguous or confusing. His judgment is a rational one. He reads the biblical text and assesses its message as “foolishness” or “moronic.”[2] As Kaiser states,

This is not to argue that there are two systems of logic in the world, one for the converted and the other for the unconverted. Instead, the natural man has a cognition of this teaching which he then repudiates. Indeed, he must first know at least to some degree what he then comes to despise.[3]

In this sense the unconverted person is like Mark Twain, who admitted that “it is not the things which I do not understand in the Bible which trouble me, but the things which I do understand.”[4]

2. The Natural Man Does Not Understand

The apostle Paul adds a second assertion related to the natural man’s relationship to the truths of God: “he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor 2:14b). The verb used for “understand” refers to a “familiarity acquired through experience or association with person or thing.”[5] It refers not merely to a mental perception of things, but to “embracing things as they really are.”[6] Paul asserts that the unbeliever simply does not possess the ability to embrace the words of God for what they really are. The reason? “They are spiritual appraised.” They require the presence of an intellectual circuitry that is absent in the unconverted man. It is only through the Spirit’s work of enlightenment that this new circuitry is installed and energized. Referring to this ministry of the Spirit, Kaiser again writes,

His work does not offer the believer a short-cut which avoids the perspiration of grammatical, syntactical, historical, cultural, and theological exegesis. There is no royal road to interpreting the Scriptures. He does not infuse a meaning or meanings beyond what he has already taught to the writers when they combined spiritual truths with the appropriately taught spiritual words. But on the other hand, the Holy Spirit does, and, indeed, he must, aid me in assessing, appraising, and evaluating the word, value, application, and significance of that biblical truth with my need and my personal condition, my time, my family, my church, and my country and world.[7]

The Implications

Ultimately, it is important to note that Paul does not limit his assessment of the unbeliever’s aptitude to the mere application of biblical truth to everyday life. Because of the effects of the Fall on the entire being, the unregenerate man is both morally biased against the plain meaning of the text (v. 14a) and intellectually incapable of embracing its message (v. 14b). As Paul says elsewhere, the unregenerate “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” and have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Rom 1:18, 25). They are “darkened in understanding” and demonstrate “hardness of heart” (Eph 4:18).[8] And this is further compounded by the fact that “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4).

It also cannot be missed that Paul does not limit this assessment to a particular category of the unconverted. His assertions in 1 Corinthians 2:14 do not merely describe barbarians and Scythians, the illiterate and irreligious, the boorish and the naïve. In fact, the broader context of 1 Corinthians 2:14 demonstrates that Paul’s assertions relate specifically to the elite of the world—to the powerful and educated, to the Jew and to the Gentile, to the biblical scholars of Jerusalem and to the erudite philosophers of Athens (cf. 1 Cor 1:18–25).

So, what implications does this text have for the Christian seeking the wisdom of God’s word? Here are a few:

  • Do not be shaken by allegations of factual errors and moral inconsistencies in the Bible asserted by those claiming to be biblical scholars. Yes, such allegations must be taken seriously, and it is the responsibility of evangelical exegetes to provide thorough and respectful responses. But recognize that skepticism to the truthfulness and authority of Scripture is natural to the unconverted scholar.
  • Do not be overly impressed with degrees in biblical studies attained at Ivy League schools. The history of evangelical institutions of higher learning is replete with illustrations of how this inordinate respect for prestigious, secular education commonly leads to doctrinal compromise.[9]
  • Be very careful about whom you allow to influence the development of your convictions and the exercise of your reason. This is especially important in the early years of the Christian life, before one’s aptitude in discernment has increased. Find a church that truly believes the Bible to be the word of God. Learn from elders who are fully submitted to the lordship of Christ as mediated by his word. If you need training for ministry, find the school that is unashamed in its commitment to biblical authority, sufficiency, and inerrancy. Believe the psalmist when he writes, “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers” (Ps 1:1).
  • When choosing resources for Bible study, look for writers who are unashamedly evangelical. Look for those whose delight is in the law of the Lord (Ps 1:2), and who approach the biblical text not with skepticism but with the hermeneutic of submission.
  • Remember that methodologies and worldviews are never neutral. Whether it is higher criticism or critical race theory, interpretive grids and quests for truth are always embedded with presuppositions. Identify these presuppositions. Consider their origins.

Ultimately, any thorough treatment of the topic of Bible interpretation must grapple with the implications of 1 Corinthians 2:14. If we take the Bible seriously and confess sola Scriptura, we cannot pretend Paul’s description of the unconverted is merely hypothetical, or assume it applies only to the illiterate or unscholarly. Paul’s statement—given by the inspiration of the Spirit Himself—is absolute. It is as relevant today as ever. It relates directly to how we view the presuppositions, theories, methodologies, and conclusions of “natural men” in the field of biblical scholarship. To put it in the words of Calvin,

To be sure, it is my conviction that the Spirit of God is not only the best, but even the only guide, since apart from Him there is not even a spark of light in our minds to enable us to grasp heavenly wisdom, while the moment He has shone forth His beams into our minds they are adequately, nay amply, furnished and prepared to attain wisdom itself.[10]

Do we really believe this truth? Is this evident in our evangelical scholarship? To ignore it is to undermine the need for supernatural regeneration—a consequence which strikes at the very heart of the gospel itself.


[1] For a helpful treatment in this regard, see Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “A Neglected Text in Bibliology Discussions: 1 Corinthians 2:6–16,” Westminster Theological Journal, 43, no. 2 (Spring 1981): 301–19.

[2] The word for “foolishness” in 1 Cor 2:14 is mōria, from which we derive the English word “moron.”

[3] Kaiser, “A Neglected Text in Bibliology Discussions,” 318.

[4] Attributed to Mark Twain by Hugh Elmer Brown in the May 30, 1926 edition of Chicago Sunday Tribute.

[5] BDAG, γινώσκω, 199.

[6] Daniel Fuller, cited by Kaiser, “A Neglected Text in Bibliology Discussions,” 318.

[7] Kaiser, “A Neglected Text in Bibliology Discussions,” 318.

[8] Os Guinness identifies four activities which characterize the unbelieving mind when it encounters divine truth: (1) unbelief abuses truth through a deliberate act of suppression; (2) unbelief abuses truth through a deliberate act of exploitation; (3) unbelief abuses truth through a deliberate act of inversion; and (4) unbelief abuses truth through a deliberate act of deception that ends in its own self-deception. See Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 84–93.

[9] For example, see George M. Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).

[10] John H. McIndoe, “John Calvin: Preface to the Homilies of Chrysostom,” Hartford Quarterly 5 (1965), 20.