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Understanding God


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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. . . . 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. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ. —1 Corinthians 2:11, 14–15

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For what man knoweth? Two different things he intends to teach here: first, that the doctrine of the Gospel cannot be understood otherwise than by the testimony of the Holy Spirit; and secondly, that those who have a testimony of this nature from the Holy Spirit, have an assurance as firm and solid, as if they felt with their hands what they believe, for the Spirit is a faithful and indubitable witness. This he proves by a similitude drawn from our own spirit: for every one is conscious of his own thoughts, and on the other hand what lies hid in any man’s heart, is unknown to another. In the same way what is the counsel of God, and what his will, is hid from all mankind, for “who hath been his counselor?” (Rom. xi. 34.) It is, therefore, a secret recess, inaccessible to mankind; but, if the Spirit of God himself introduces us into it, or in other words, makes us acquainted with those things that are otherwise hid from our view, there will then be no more ground for hesitation, for nothing that is in God escapes the notice of the Spirit of God.

This similitude, however, may seem to be not altogether very appropriate, for as the tongue bears an impress of the mind, mankind communicate their dispositions to each other, so that they become acquainted with each other’s thoughts. Why then may we not understand from the word of God what is his will? For while mankind by pretenses and falsehoods in many cases conceal their thoughts rather than discover them, this cannot happen with God, whose word is undoubted truth, and his genuine and lively image. We must, however, carefully observe how far Paul designed to extend this comparison. A man’s innermost thought, of which others are ignorant, is perceived by himself alone: if he afterwards makes it known to others, this does not hinder but that his spirit alone knows what is in him. For it may happen that he does not persuade: it may even happen that he does not properly express his own meaning; but even if he attains both objects, this statement is not at variance with the other—that his own spirit alone has the true knowledge of it. There is this difference, however, between God’s thoughts and those of men, that men mutually understand each other; but the word of God is a kind of hidden wisdom, the loftiness of which is not reached by the weakness of the human intellect. Thus the light shineth in darkness, (John i. 5,) aye and until the Spirit opens the eyes of the blind. The spirit of a man. Observe, that the spirit of a man is taken here for the soul, in which the intellectual faculty, as it is called, resides. For Paul would have expressed himself inaccurately if he had ascribed this knowledge to man’s intellect, or in other words, the faculty itself, and not to the soul, which is endued with the power of understanding.

Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XX, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Baker Books, 2009), 1:111–112.

But the animal man. By the animal man he does not mean (as is commonly thought) the man that is given up to gross lusts, or, as they say, to his own sensuality, but any man that is endowed with nothing more than the faculties of nature. This appears from the corresponding term, for he draws a comparison between the animal man and the spiritual As the latter denotes the man whose understanding is regulated by the illumination of the Spirit of God, there can be no doubt that the former denotes the man that is left in a purely natural condition, as they speak. For the soul belongs to nature, but the Spirit is of supernatural communication.

He returns to what he had previously touched upon, for his object is to remove a stumblingblock which might stand in the way of the weak—that there were so many that despised the gospel. He shows that we ought to make no account of a contempt of such a nature as proceeds from ignorance, and that it ought, consequently, to be no hindrance in the way of our going forward in the race of faith, unless perhaps we choose to shut our eyes upon the brightness of the sun, because it is not seen by the blind. It would, however, argue great ingratitude in any individual, when God bestows upon him a special favor, to reject it, on the ground of its not being common to all, whereas, on the contrary, its very rareness ought to enhance its value.

For they are foolishness to him, neither can he know them. “The doctrine of the gospel,” says he, “is insipid in the view of all that are wise merely in the view of man. But whence comes this? It is from their own blindness. In what respect, then, does this detract from the majesty of the gospel?” In short, while ignorant persons depreciate the gospel, because they measure its value by the estimation in which it is held by men, Paul derives an argument from this for extolling more highly its dignity. For he teaches that the reason why it is contemned is that it is unknown, and that the reason why it is unknown is that it is too profound and sublime to be apprehended by the understanding of man. What a superior wisdom this is, which so far transcends all human understanding, that man cannot have so much as a taste of it! While, however, Paul here tacitly imputes it to the pride of the flesh, that mankind dare to condemn as foolish what they do not comprehend, he at the same time shows how great is the weakness or rather bluntness of the human understanding, when he declares it to be incapable of spiritual apprehension. For he teaches, that it is not owing simply to the obstinacy of the human will, but to the impotency, also, of the understanding, that man does not attain to the things of the Spirit. Had he said that men are not willing to be wise, that indeed would have been true, but he states farther that they are not able. Hence we infer, that faith is not in one’s own power, but is divinely conferred.

Because they are spiritually discerned. That is, the Spirit of God, from whom the doctrine of the gospel comes, is its only true interpreter, to open it up to us. Hence in judging of it, men’s minds must of necessity be in blindness until they are enlightened by the Spirit of God. Hence infer, that all mankind are by nature destitute of the Spirit of God: otherwise the argument would be inconclusive. It is from the Spirit of God, it is true, that we have that feeble spark of reason which we all enjoy; but at present we are speaking of that special discovery of heavenly wisdom which God vouchsafes to his sons alone. Hence the more insufferable the ignorance of those who imagine that the gospel is offered to mankind in common in such a way that all indiscriminately are free to embrace salvation by faith.

—Ibid., 1:115–117.



Posted 2019·07·11 by David Kjos
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Posted in: 1 Corinthians · Calvin’s Commentaries: 1 Corinthians · John Calvin · Regeneration · Total Depravity

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