We Regard No One From a Human Point of View: Part 3, Triumphalistic Misunderstandings

Having argued for kara sarka being a form or mode of knowing in 2 Corinthians 5.16-17, J. Louis Martyn turns to how various audiences in Corinth would have heard Paul's claim.

Specifically, two audiences Martyn calls the "Enthusiasts" and the "Pseudo-Apostles" would have felt quite comfortable with Paul's description of knowing via "the flesh" versus knowing via "the Spirit." The Enthusiasts were those in the church who held proto-Gnostic ideas, viewing themselves as possessing special insight and wisdom. The Pseudo-Apostles were Jewish Christian teachers who had arrived and upset Paul's work in the church (see 2 Cor. 11.12-15). Both groups would have remembered Paul contrasting two modes of knowing in his prior letter to the church, the distinction between spiritual and unspiritual people:

These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Cor. 2.10-16)
As Martyn argues, surely the Corinthians would have had this passage in mind when they heard 2 Corinthians 5.16-17. That is to say, they would have readily agreed that there were spiritual and unspiritual people, and that the unspiritual know kata sarka, according to the flesh. Spiritual people, by contrast, know according to the Spirit. And, of course, the Corinthian audiences, both the Enthusiasts and the Pseudo-Apostles, would have identified themselves as being in the spiritual group. 

This presents a bit of a challenge for Paul, and for us today I'd argue. Specifically, there can be a triumphalism in seeing oneself as "spiritual," as possessing special spiritual insight or knowledge. This is a chronic temptation among pentecostals and charismatics, Christian groups who can grow a bit too optimistic and certain about their prophetic insights. The Corinthians had a similar problem. 

As Martyn argues, the Corinthians would have misunderstood Paul's point in 1 Corinthians, interpreting him trumphalistically, as seeing themselves as wholly separated from the old age and totally in the new. For Paul, that contrast is too neat and tidy. We live, rather, at the turn of the ages, at the juncture. That complicates the spiritual versus unspiritual distinction. At the turn of the ages, where the old and new are colliding, "spiritual knowledge" might not be obvious to us. In fact, it isn't. Paul, therefore, is very, very keen that the Corinthians don't view knowing via "the Spirit" trimphalistically as they were in the habit of doing, and growing proud as a consequence. Consequently, wanting to avoid triumphalistic misunderstandings in his follow-up letter in 2 Corinthians Paul doesn't contrast "the flesh" with "the spirit" as he had earlier. And if that's the case, what is this new mode of knowing? If not a "spiritual" knowledge, what sort of knowledge points us toward the new creation? 

We'll finish up this series with an answer to that question in the final post.

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