Today’s note concludes this series of daily notes on 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16. For those just coming to this study, or who are interested in reading the prior posts, it began with the note for August 6. Of special interest in the study is the interpretation of Paul’s statement in 2:6a:
“And (yet) we (do) speak wisdom among the (one)s (who are) complete…”
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:
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
In the notes on the passage, running through 3:1-3, 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”.
I would summarize these points, in light of our study of the passage as a whole, as follows—first, regarding the wisdom, I 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.