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An Exposition Of the Epistles Of Saint Paul And Of The Catholic Epistles Volumes 1&2


In this chapter, the Apostle shows how far he himself acted in accordance with the economy of God in excluding human wisdom in the work of redemption, when he came to preach the gospel to the Corinthians. His preaching was recommended neither by the graces of oratory, nor by the powers of reasoning, because he wished that their faith should rest on its proper basis, viz., the powerful grace of God (verses 1–5). He next asserts his own dignity, and says that, although he rejected all the aids derived from human wisdom in preaching the gospel among the Corinthians; still, he discoursed on another and more exalted kind of wisdom, on befitting occasions—a wisdom far different from that of men or demons (6)—a wisdom concealed from the world in all past ages, and now revealed for our temporal and eternal glory (7)—a wisdom unknown to the devils (8); and according to, the prophecy of Isaias, fully comprehended by God alone (9). But, though hidden and mysterious, it was made known to the Apostle by the revelation of God’s spirit, who is intimately acquainted with the divine secrets; and who alone knows the hidden thoughts of the divine mind (10, 11). This was the spirit from whom the Apostle received a knowledge of the general benefits and gifts conferred through Christ on his Church, of which gifts he treats in proper circumstances in a manner suited to the capacity and requirements of his hearers; he treats of the exalted truths of faith before those only, who are far advanced in Christian knowledge (12–13). Because it would be useless to treat of them before persons not sufficiently versed in the principles of faith. To such men, truths of this kind would appear folly. Hence, he declined proposing them to the Corinthians (14, 15). He should not be judged or undervalued for this line of conduct; for, to judge him, acting in this way, would be to judge and instruct God himself (16).


1. (Since, then, God has been pleased to confound human wisdom in the work of redemption), I, therefore, when amongst you, preaching the gospel of Christ, did not employ the elegant diction of the orator, nor the fine-drawn conclusions and reasonings of the philosopher.

2. For, I judged it expedient, and, therefore, I resolved, to pretend to no further knowledge amongst you, except as regarded the principal mysteries of Christ, and especially those of his death and crucifixion.

3. And when amongst you, I was in a state of great weakness, both as regards mental anxiety and bodily uneasiness;

4. And my private conversation, and my public preaching were recommended neither by the eloquence of the orator, nor by the reasoning of the philosopher; their only recommendation were the zeal inspired by the Holy Ghost, with which they were delivered, and the miracles, with which they were accompanied.

5. And I pursued this line of conduct in order that your faith might be referred’ to its proper cause only, viz., the power of God (which is particularly displayed in bringing about prodigies of strength by means so weak and inadequate).

6. It is not, however, to be imagined that we are devoid of wisdom. We discourse on the true and exalted wisdom contained in the Christian economy, but it is only before those who are advanced in spiritual knowledge—(a wisdom quite different from the wisdom of this world) which has been rejected by God, (chap. 1:20)—or from any description of wisdom introduced by the princes of the world—viz., the devils, whose power is destroyed.

7. The wisdom of which we discourse before those advanced in Christian knowledge, is the wisdom of God hidden in mystery; or the wisdom of the mystery of God, which has been hidden; a wisdom which God has ordained from eternity, to serve our glory in Christianity here, and in heaven hereafter.

8. A wisdom unknown to the devils, for, had they known it they would have never instigated the Jews to crucify the author of glory, from whose death such great benefits have accrued to the human race.

9. But the wisdom of which we speak is that in which are fulfilled the words of the prophet Isaias (64:4): “Neither hath eye seen, nor ear heard, nor the mind of any man conceived, what God has prepared for those that love him.”

10. But, although this wisdom be mysterious, and for ages hidden from the world, it has been made known to us by the revelation of God’s spirit, who is intimately acquainted with all the secret counsels of God.

11. (And that the spirit of God, or the Holy Ghost, alone is capable of knowing the secret thoughts and designs of God, may be easily illustrated by a human example); for, who is it that knows the private and hidden thoughts of man, except his own spirit? So it is also with regard to the private thoughts of the divine mind.

12. And it is this same spirit, co-essential with God—a spirit opposed to the spirit of this world—that we have received, so that through him we may be enabled to know the general gifts which have been bestowed on the Church by Christ.

13. Of which general gifts and blessings, contained in the wisdom of God, we treat, not in the learned language borrowed from human wisdom, but in the language taught us by the same spirit of God, accommodating spiritual language and subjects to spiritual persons.

14. And my reason for not treating of these exalted spiritual subjects indiscriminately before all is, that the sensual or animal man, that is to say, the man who is not practised in the principles of faith, cannot understand the exalted truths of God’s spirit. To such a man they are folly, because they arc to be examined on spiritual principles, with which he is not conversant.

15. But the spiritual man—the man who is fully conversant with the principles of faith taught us by God’s holy spirit—understands and discerns all spiritual matters, and he himself is judged by no man for this line of conduct, when acting upon the principles of faith.

16. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, so as to instruct him?—(and to judge the spiritual man, acting as such would be only judging the Lord himself, by whom the spiritual man is instructed). But we, when preaching to you, were instructed by Christ himself.


1. The Apostle applies now to his own case, what he said in the preceding chapter, in general, regarding the decree of God, “to save the believers by the folly of preaching,” (1:21). It was in accordance with the will of God in this respect, that he preached “the testimony,” or “gospel of Christ,” (in the Greek, τοῦ θεοῦ, of God), among them, in a plain, simple style, and “not in the loftiness of speech or of wisdom,” i.e., without employing the splendid diction of the orator, or the wisdom of the philosopher, so attractive at the time to the Corinthians.

2. He conducted himself amongst them, as if he knew only “Christ crucified.” Not that his preaching was confined to this article merely; for, it is likely, he explained to them all the necessary articles of faith, as well as some duties of Christian morality; but that he merely propounded, in a simple, catechetical way, the rudiments of Christian faith, founded on the article of Christ’s crucifixion; reserving for more befitting circumstances the more elevated doctrines of faith, “the wisdom in a mystery,” (verse 7). Of what avail will all other knowledge be to us, if we neglect this all necessary knowledge “of Christ crucified?” From this sacred fountain, the saints derived more useful knowledge than they could find in the most learned books. Who can seriously meditate on this prodigy of justice and mystery of mercy, the dead body of a God hanging on a cross, and not be moved to hate sin and forcibly drawn to love God? It is because men never seriously meditate on the passion of Christ. It is because they never seriously reflect on, who it is that suffers these ignominious tortures. Why, is it He thus suffers? It is because they never attend to the cause, the circumstances, the consequences of His sufferings, that their callous hearts are so insensible to this excessive charity of God, which should press them—charitas Christi urget nos.—2 Cor. 5:14.

3. “In weakness,” is understood by some to refer to bodily distempers and sickness; by others, to the lowliness of his condition, being obliged to earn his subsistence by working at a trade. “And in fear and in much trembling.” The former refers to his mental anxiety; the latter, to bodily uneasiness. This was probably occasioned by his fears of persecution from the Jews. Hence, he required a vision from God to comfort him.—(Acts, 18:12). According to others, it arose from the apprehension that he might, either by word or deed, give offence, and obstruct the cause of the gospel. He wishes to convey to us in this verse, that not only was his language simple, but also that his personal appearance was lowly.

4. “And my speech,” i.e., private conversation, “and my preaching,” in public, “was not in the persuasive words of human wisdom,” i.e., recommended by the graces of oratory, or the reasonings of philosophy, which men are apt to employ when they endeavour to persuade others, and which, with the haughty Corinthians, especially, would be a most powerful instrument of persuasion—“but in the shewing of the spirit and of power,” are thus interpreted by some, “but in the shewing of the power of the Holy Ghost.” It may, however, be better to understand the words “spirit and power” separately; the former referring to the zeal and energy with which the Apostle discoursed both publicly and privately on the truths of faith—a zeal and fire which displayed the interior workings of the Holy Ghost—and the latter, to the miracles which he wrought in confirmation of the truth of his doctrine.

5. We have disregarded the adventitious aid of human wisdom and eloquence, in order that “your faith,” your conversion to Christ might not be ascribed to human wisdom, but to the powerful grace of God; so that it should appear to be, not a human, but, as it is in reality, a divine work.

6. In this verse, the Apostle asserts his own dignity, lest the Corinthians, despising him, might undervalue his teaching, and attach themselves to others who displayed more wisdom and oratorical skill in their discourses. He says, he was not devoid of true wisdom, but that they were not in a condition to hear it treated of. However, he discoursed on it before “the perfect,” i.e., those who were advanced in Christian knowledge, and were practised in the principles of faith. Similar is the idea conveyed by the word “spiritual man,” (verse 15), and also Hebrews (chap. 5 verse 14). By the “wisdom” of which he speaks in this verse are meant the abstruse truths of Christian faith—predestination, vocation, grace, &c., of which the Apostle treated in his Epistles to the Romans, Ephesians, Colossians—as also the various effects of redemption, and the mystical and moral meanings contained in the different mysteries of Christ’s Death, Resurrection, Sepulture, Ascension, which are fully explained on befitting occasions by himself, and by St. Peter, in his Catholic Epistles. “The princes of this world,” viz., the devils, who are frequently termed such in Scripture.

7. “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, a wisdom which is hidden.” The “wisdom” refers to the mode in which the great mystery of man’s redemption was accomplished, and to the different consequences of the same. This “wisdom” was hidden “in mystery,” because no one could understand it, till it actually took place. Similar is the idea conveyed (Eph. chap. 3). The word “hidden” refers to “wisdom,” as appears from the Greek, σοφιαν ἐν μυστερίῳ, την αποκεκρυμενην. It was the wisdom contained in the mystery of the whole economy of redemption that was “hidden” and unknown, until it was revealed in time by its full accomplishment. Estius explains the words “in a mystery,” to mean privately, or to a few.—Secreto ct apud pauciores. This is rather an improbable meaning; for, the Apostle said this already, at least equivalently, by saying, he spoke it only “among the perfect,” who were but few.

8. Of the wisdom contained in the mysteries of Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion, and the effects following from them, and the secret ways of God in bringing about the great work of redemption, “the princes of this world,” that is to say, the devils, were ignorant; otherwise they would have never crucified the Lord of glory by the hands of the Jews: since, by this they destroyed their own dominion. There is another interpretation given of the words in the preceding passage, “wisdom of God,” which understands these words of the Son of God, hidden in the mystery of the Incarnation. This interpretation is not at all probable; for, it is by no means clear, that the devils did not know Christ to be the Son of God. The contrary is deducible from several passages of the gospel; it is even asserted by many that Satan’s pride arose from envy at the future Incarnation of the Son of God. Moreover, it is not clear, that he would not crucify him out of hatred and malice, although he should have known him to be the Son of God. It was the economy and designs of God in the crucifixion of his Son the devils were ignorant of.

9. Of this passage, taken from chap. 64, verse 4, of Isaias, which approximates nearest to the Hebrew, and, consequently, to our Vulgate version, the Apostle does not so much quote the words as the sense, which he accommodates to his present purpose. In the writings of the prophet, as here, the words refer both to the blessings conferred on us in this life, in the multifarious wisdom of God displayed in his Church, and to their final completion in heaven. They are quoted by the Apostle to prove, that the wisdom, of which he treats, is unknown to the devils, as in the preceding verse, since Isaias foretold, that no human experience or knowledge could fathom it. God alone could fully know it. “The eye hath not seen, O God, besides thee, what things thou hast prepared for them that wait for thee.”—(Isaias, 64:4). “O God, besides thee,” just qtioted, exclude every creature from a full knowledge of the wisdom in question. “For them that love him.” In Isaias it is, “them that wait for thee.” The sense of both is the same. These latter words are not opposed to the gratuitousness of predestination and of graces consequent on it; because, these graces are gratuitous, although the end of eternal life, to which, as means, they conduct us, is given in consideration of our good works; it is to their accomplishment in heaven that the Apostle principally refers in the words: “What things God hath prepared for them that love him.”

10. In this verse the Apostle answers an objection which might be made to him, viz.:—If these things be so hidden and mysterious, how came you to know them? He answers, that he has known them from the revelation of God’s spirit, who is intimately acquainted with the secrets of God. “Searcheth all things.” These words express perfect and intimate knowledge, and contain an allusion to the mode in which human knowledge is acquired; for the Holy Ghost sees all things intuitively without requiring to search for them.

11. He illustrates by a human example, how the Holy Ghost, and He only, is intimately acquainted with the secret designs of God. As no one on earth knows the hidden thoughts of man’s mind, but his own spirit; so no one knows the hidden thoughts of God but “the Spirit of God;” i.e., the Holy Ghost, co-essential with him and possessing the same divine nature. Of course the Son of God is no more excluded here than the Holy Ghost is in another passage, where it is said: “No one knows the Father but the Son,” &c., because when there is a question of the absolute, essential attributes of the Godhead, they alone are excluded, who have a different nature.

12. “Of this world,” in Greek, τοῦ κοσμοῦ, “of the world.” “That we may know the things,” &c. These words refer to the general effects of God’s goodness, contained in the wisdom of God, of which he speaks all through this chapter. Hence they furnish no argument in favour of the justifying faith of heretics, which requires a particular knowledge, and has a special object, viz., the justification of the particular individual who has this faith; whereas here, there is a question of general knowledge imparted by God’s spirit.

13. “But in the doctrine of the spirit.” (In the common Greek, of the Holy Ghost; the epithet, “Holy,” is wanting in some of the chief MSS. and some versions, and rejected by Griesbach). “Comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” The interpretation of these words, given in the Paraphrase, is the one that accords best with the entire context. The Apostle wishes to convey by them, that his reason for not preaching the sublime truths of religion to the Corinthians was, because they were not “spiritual” persons, to whom alone such spiritual subjects were suited. This interpretation derives probability from the following verse. The words may also be interpreted thus: “accommodating spiritual language to spiritual matters or subjects; according to which interpretation these latter words are nothing more than a repetition in a different form of the idea conveyed by the words, “not in the learned words of human wisdom.” It is by no means unusual with writers to repeat the same idea in different words.

14. “But the sensual man perceiveth not the things that are of the Spirit of God.” In this verse, the Apostle assigns a reason for not preaching the sublime truths of the Christian economy to the Corinthians. “By the sensual man,” (“animalis homo”) is meant the man who, although he may have received the faith and may be a saint—and this the Apostle supposes; for, in the next chapter (verse 1), he calls the same persons, “little ones in Christ”—still, is not practised in its principles, and cannot, therefore, relish the more sublime truths of religion, “these things that are of the Spirit of God.” “For it is foolishness to him;” such things appear to him quite unmeaning. “Because it is spiritually examined.” The Greek, πνευματικῶς ανακρινεται, may also be translated, and with more propriety, “because they are spiritually examined.” These things are to be examined on spiritual principles, in which he is not versed; just as the sublime truths of natural philosophy (v.g.), those regarding the revolution of the earth, the magnitude of the sun, &c.—would appear “foolishness” to a child or untutored peasant, who judges from sensation; because, such truths are to be examined on scientific principles, with which these persons are not conversant.

15. “But the spiritual man,” i.e., the man who has not only received the faith—in which respect he and the sensual or animal man do not differ—but is also, unlike the sensual man, practised in its principles. “Judgeth all things.” In Greek, ανακρίνει μεν πάντα, discerneth all things. Such a man understands all spiritual matters. “And he himself is judged,” or examined by no man in order to be set right—not surely by the “sensual man,” who is supposed to be incapable of such a judgment, for “he perceiveth not the things that are of the Spirit of God;” nor by the spiritual man, who would himself have acted in the same way. These latter words are added by the Apostle to show how foolish a part the Corinthians acted in censuring his own mode of preaching.

In order to see how utterly unfounded is the objection against church authority derived from the two preceding verses, we have only to examine the meaning of the several words, and also their bearing on the context. “Sensual” or “animal” has, in Sacred Scripture, different significations, according to the different functions of anima (ψυχη), from which it is derived; and anima denotes—first, the vegetative soul, or the principle of life; thus it is said of Adam in Genesis, “factus est in animam viventem;” secondly, it denotes the soul, inasmuch as it is the principle or seat of sensation; thirdly, inasmuch as it is the seat of carnal affections, or the anima concupisciblis. Viewed without reference to the grace of God or faith, it designates the inferior part of the soul as it judges from sensation, rather than from reason, ψυχη, its corresponding Greek word, has the same meaning in the Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy; it designates the animal nature of man, common to him with the beasts. “Spiritual” also has as many significations as the word, spiritus has (in Greek, πνευμα), from which it is derived. Abstracting from grace and faith, it denotes the superior part of the soul, as it follows reason. Then, in a natural point of view, anima and spiritus, from which animal or “sensual” and spiritual are derived, designate different states or faculties of the soul: anima, inasmuch as it is directed by sensation; spiritus, as guided more by reason. But considering the operation of divine grace, the words have another signification analogous to their former meaning. And it is in this latter or spiritual point of view, St. Paul here regards them. He considers the soul as imbued with the principles of faith in different ways. “The spiritual” man—the man who has the faith, and is conversant with its principles, a signification analogous to that which the word bears, when, in a natural point of view, it means the man practised in the principles of reason. “Animal” or “sensual.” the man who has received the faith, is versed in its rudiments and necessary points of belief, but unpractised in its principles. The word by no means signifies a man who has not the Holy Ghost, and is not in justice; for, St. Paul calls the same “little ones in Christ” (chap. 3), consequently baptized; and these he always regards as saints. Hence, then, the passage means, that the Apostle refrained from discoursing on the sublime truths of faith, “the wisdom of God in mystery, before the Corinthians. Why? Because, being “sensual” or “animal,” and not conversant with the principles of faith, they were incapable of understanding them, or his explanations regarding them; for “they are examined on spiritual principles,” spiritualiter examinantur; just as it would be downright folly to treat of the sublime truths of natural science before children or rustics, whose ideas are derived from sensation. From a want of acquaintance with the principles of science, the very terms thereof would be to them unintelligible. But “the spiritual man” understands all the truths of faith, because practised in its principles, “and he is judged by no one.”—(See Commentary, verse 15). Hence, the utter folly of the Sectaries who understand by “spiritual man,” the man who has the Holy Ghost; for then “animal” or “sensual,” would mean one who has not the Holy Ghost; and that the Apostle supposes the very reverse, has been already shown. Besides, the answer which the foregoing plain and obvious interpretation of the word “sensual” and “spiritual” contains, in reply to the objection against church authority, founded on this passage, the meaning of the word “judgeth” fully refutes the objection. The word corresponding with “judgeth” in the Greek (ανακρίνει), never means passing a judgment or sentence at all; it is a juridical term, designating the examination of witnesses. Hence, St. Paul by no means here speaks of a definitive, but only a discretionary judgment, or the faculty of understanding the matter in question, in consequence of being versed in its principles. Moreover, can it be supposed for an instant, that St. Paul declined preaching the sublime truths of religion to the “sensual” or “animal” man, because such a person was incapable of passing a definitive judgment on the doctrine which he proposed? In other words, can we suppose that the Apostle would submit to the definitive judgment of any man the truth of that doctrine, which he knew would outlive the heavens and the earth: which he received from the Holy Ghost: which he quoted from the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and confirmed by numerous miracles; and, particularly, when addressing men who received the faith (such as “the sensual” man is supposed here)—men whose very first duty it was, “to reduce their intellect to captivity unto the obedience of Christ”?—(2 Cor. 10:5). The judgment, then, of which St. Paul ascribes the faculty to the spiritual man, regards not disputed truth, but the mere faculty of understanding proved and admitted doctrine. And even supposing the Protestant interpretation, for an instant, to be correct, how will they prove that they have the Holy Ghost, according to their understanding of the passage?

No doubt, the words, “sensual” and “spiritual” have here a moral signification also, and convey to us, what we know from daily experience, that those gross, carnal men, “whose God is their belly,” spending their whole lives in the pursuit of forbidden pleasures, and the gratification of their guilty passions, “cannot understand,” i.e., can have no idea of the spiritual, unmixed joys which the faithful servants of God enjoy even in this life. Talk to these voluptuaries of the mortification of their passions—of faithfully following the model divinely pointed out to them on the Mount—of seeking the things that are above—of the consequent joys and tranquillity of conscience; such language sounds in their ears as no better than folly; they cannot understand it. However, at a future day, when it shall be too late, they shall be forced to see things in a different light. “We fools esteemed their life madness … behold now they are numbered among the children of God … therefore, we have erred from the way of truth,” &c.—(Wisdom, 5:5). Oh! Jesus, crucified for our sakes, preserve us from ever experiencing these unavailing regrets!

16. In this verse, he assigns a reason why the spiritual man, acting as such, can “be judged by no man,” not by the sensual man, who cannot “perceive the things that are of the Spirit of God,” nor by the spiritual man, who, in this judgment of discretion of which there is question here, would apply the same criterion or standard of judgment, which he himself had applied—I say, acting as such, because, should he not judge spiritually, he may err, and, therefore, be corrected as was St. Peter by the Apostle himself (Gal. 2:11)—and in it he also assigns a reason why the Apostle himself should not be judged or undervalued for his mode of preaching the Gospel among the Corinthians. “For who hath known the sense of the Lord?” These words are a quotation from Isaias, 40:13; at least, they express the sense of the prophet. “That he may instruct him.” If the word “him” refer to the “Lord,” then, these words are a part of the prophetic quotation. If it refer to the “spiritual man,” they are the words of the Apostle, and mean, that to attempt the correction of the spiritual man, judging as such, would be only instructing the Lord himself, by whom he is guided in his spiritual judgments. The Greek word tor “instruct,” συμβιβασει, in a physical signification, means to make come together. In a moral sense, as here, it means to put mentally together, to prove, to instruct others.

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