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Knowledge Puffs Up? — Deflating a Popular Proverb

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(First appeared in The Threshing Floor, Vol. 5, Nu. 4)

A popular maxim for Bible study—and an essential canon for accurate hermeneutics—states that an exegete should never allow one verse alone to dictate his or her theology on a matter. This oft-repeated truism attempts to protect both the callow Bible student and the seasoned theologian from embracing principles as biblical without first considering the instruction of the whole counsel of God. When this habit of biblical correlation is not practiced consistently, and the emphasis of the Bible on a matter is overlooked in favor of one passage or verse, false doctrines begin to emerge in the community.

1 Corinthians 8:1 is a popular verse within Evangelical Christianity. The proverbial portion of the verse, “knowledge puffs up,” regularly echoes through the corridors of our churches. Normally, the proverb is spoken as a subtle rebuke of a believer seemingly falling in love with learning. Since learning brings forth knowledge and knowledge brings forth arrogance, we reason, then learning isn’t a habit worthy of our love. According to many who voice this proverb, some learning is necessary, but the sole objective of study is practice: Doing, not thinking. Our goal as Christians is not to know about God—which sounds impersonal and academic—but to know God. We know far more about the Bible (we imagine) than we can possibly obey, and so our focus must shift from that of impractical, pride-feeding knowledge to application and ministry skills acquisition. Our rallying cry: Let’s get spiritual (not academic)!

But does the Bible teach a corruption intrinsic to knowledge? Does God berate the believer who loves learning and who demonstrates considerable knowledge of his discipline? On the contrary, the whole of Scripture lends itself to the high value of learning and knowledge and, yes, to academics. From among dozens of passages highlighting the benefits of knowledge, only a few examples will be examined here. Proverbs 1:7 reads, “The fear of the lord is the beginning of knowledge (tu^D*).” Knowledge, according to this proverb, is a desirous commodity to be sought in conjunction with the fear of God. It is the fool, according to Proverbs 1:22, who hates knowledge (tu^d*); the wise store it up (10:14). Solomon, whom God endowed with great wisdom and understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore, was skilled not only in government and rhetoric, but also in botany and zoology (1 Kings 4:29-33). Job’s three friends were subject to the very wrath of God not because they acted disobediently, but because their knowledge about God was deficient and inaccurate (Job 42:7). In the New Testament, one of the few passages recording a compliment on the lips of the Savior is Mark 12:34. Here, a teacher of the law is said to be close to the kingdom of God because he had answered thoughtfully (nounecw'"). In 2 Corinthians 8:7, knowledge (gnwvsei) is a field in which to excel alongside faith, speech, earnestness, and love. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul identifies one of the benefits of glorification as the capacity to know fully (ejpignwvsomai). Numerous other passages could be cited, to say nothing of the gift of knowledge (lovgo" gnwvsew") conferred by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:8).

While the careful Bible student will refrain from developing a doctrine from one verse alone, he or she must also avoid excluding obscure verses from his or her system of theology. What then can be said about 1 Corinthians 8:1 if the bulk of Scripture appears to teach the integrity of knowledge? In this chapter, Paul addresses the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols. Three distinct levels of knowledge are delineated regarding sacrificed meat. First, 1 Corinthians 8:7 describes some who do not share in the knowledge (gnw'si") that an idol is nothing at all. “They” consider food that has been sacrificed to an idol unclean, and so the eating of this food is defiling for them. Next, 1 Corinthians 8:1, 2, 10, and 11 describe the person who knows that there is no such thing as an idol, and so knows that food sacrificed to an idol is not ceremonially unclean (8:4-6). According to 8:2, however, “He does not know (e[gnw) to the degree that he needs to know (dei' gnw'nai).” That is, his knowledge is deficient of proper love (8:1b, 3). He possesses the right knowledge pertaining to the status of sacrificed meat and his liberty to partake (8:10, 11), but his paucity of love blinds him from his weaker brother’s sensitivity. His knowledge does not build up his brother, as it would were it coupled with love (8:1b). On the contrary, his knowledge devoid of love serves only to build himself up; it demonstrates his selfishness (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:2, “[if I have] all knowledge . . . but do not have love, I am nothing”). The final level of knowledge rests with those who understand that an idol is powerless and that the meat is not unclean. His knowledge of this information, however, coexists with enough love to refrain from eating (8:13). That is, he knows to the degree that he needs to know (8:2). He decides not to exercise his liberty out of consideration for his brother.

If 1 Corinthians 8:1 has been historically misused in Evangelical Christianity, then when is the proverb “knowledge puffs up” appropriate? Certainly not when one encounters a lover of learning. It is appropriate and necessary, however, when a believer “does not know to the degree that he needs to know.” As in 1 Corinthians 8, when a Christian is not using his knowledge to build up his brother—when his knowledge is not coupled with love—he is deserving of correction. He is not to be discouraged from further learning, but encouraged to grow in knowledge and love.

I love learning. It is refreshing to publicly profess that in a subculture that has overtly frowned upon such love in recent years. The rallying cry that I endorse, “Let’s get spiritual,” must not preclude knowledge. Rather, it must embrace the academic if it wishes to be biblically compatible. Dr. Craig Blaising, professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has cogently stated, “The antithesis of spiritual is not academic. The antithesis of spiritual is unspiritual. And the academic can subsist in either a spiritual or an unspiritual mode.”

Related Topics: Scripture Twisting, Apologetics

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