(1 Cor. 2:14) Are non-Christians unable to understand the Bible or be persuaded by evidence?

CLAIM: Some Reformed interpreters (specifically from a Van Tillian, presuppositional perspective) claim that non-Christians cannot be persuaded with evidence, because they simply refuse to accept God’s authority through Scripture. Does this passage support this claim?

RESPONSE: Let’s look at this passage closely:

“But a natural man…” This surely is an expression for referring to a non-Christian.[1]

“…does not accept the things of the Spirit of God…” This stands in contrast to those who have “received… the Spirit who is from God” (v.12). Why can’t non-Christians know God or God’s wisdom? They don’t know him, because they don’t want to know him. Their problem is volitional (“does not accept…”). Surely our attitude affects our ability to know God.

“…for they are foolishness to him…” The non-Christian rejects God’s wisdom as “foolish” (1 Cor. 1:18, 25). But read carefully: this passage does not say that non-Christians reject evidence or reasons for Christianity. In the context of 1:18-2:14, the non-Christian is rejecting the gospel itself—not the evidence for the gospel. Thus, a consistent interpretation of this passage would not be to abandon apologetics, but to abandon evangelism.

“and he cannot understand them…” Non-Christians have an inability to know God if they persist in not “accepting” the Spirit (see above). This passage says nothing about how a person comes to know God. It simply states why a person cannot know God’s wisdom: they refuse it.

“…because they are spiritually appraised…” Fee states that “spiritual appraisal” simply “means to have the Spirit.”[2] That is, you need to be a believer to understand the wisdom of God. Again, the whole context from 1:18-2:14 supports this contention.

“Appraised” (anakrino) means “to engage in careful study of a question, question, examine” (BDAG). It is used for “examining the Scriptures” (Acts 17:11). Elsewhere Paul writes, “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21-22). The believer in Christ can discern all things because he has accepted the Spirit’s view, and the Spirit can discern all things—even the depths of God (v.10). In order to evaluate God’s wisdom, it is essential to have the Spirit of God.

Non-Christians are surely able to follow grammatical-historical hermeneutics or be persuaded by evidence. After all, when Paul came to Corinth, he “reasoned” and “persuaded” the truth of Christ with them (Acts 18:4). Rather, Paul is saying that non-Christians are unable to truly understand God’s plan for the world through Christ, while they persist in unbelief. If the non-Christian did understand God’s wisdom, then they would be followers of Christ.

[1] Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 116). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[2] Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 117). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.