The Agora
Bible Commentary
1 Corinthians

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1 Corinthians 8

1Co 8:1

KNOWLEDGE PUFFS UP, BUT LOVES BUILDS UP: "[Paul] was not condemning knowledge, but simply stating a truth. Knowledge of the right kind is excellent, but even that may tend to inflate the individual who possesses it. Men may be puffed up even by their knowledge of the Scriptures, especially if their reading has been ill-balanced. Much charity is needed to guard against this evil and to make knowledge lead to edification. There are people who will say that it is only the dangerous 'little knowledge' that puffs men up, while those who have studied deeply are truly humble and never boast. This thought has been stated often, but it is not true. Indeed it would be difficult to define the words of such a saying. All the knowledge of mankind is only little. The most ignorant and the most cultured are only separated by a few degrees. It is quite true that intelligent people perceive the ugliness and folly of blatant boasting and so if they boast they do it more skilfully. Or it is possible for a man to feel himself so superior to the common run of humanity that he finds no pleasure in the admiration of the multitude. His detachment is a form of pride, and he may fall into the worst of errors by being puffed up against God" (PrPr 128-129). See Lesson, Wisdom and knowledge.

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.

1Co 8:1 is a popular verse within "evangelical" Christianity. The proverbial portion of the verse, "knowledge puffs up," regularly echoes through the corridors of 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. Pro 1:7 reads, "The fear of the lord is the beginning of knowledge." Knowledge, according to this proverb, is a desirable commodity to be sought in conjunction with the fear of God. It is the fool, according to Pro 1:22, who hates knowledge; the wise store it up (Pro 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 (1Ki 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 NT, one of the few passages recording a compliment on the lips of the Savior is Mar 12:34. Here, a teacher of the law is said to be close to the kingdom of God because he had answered thoughtfully. In 2Co 8:7, knowledge is a field in which to excel alongside faith, speech, earnestness, and love. In 1Co 13:12, Paul identifies one of the benefits of glorification as the capacity to know fully. Numerous other passages could be cited, to say nothing of the gift of knowledge conferred by the Holy Spirit (1Co 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 1Co 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, 1Co 8:7 describes some who do not share in the knowledge 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, 1Co 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 (1Co 8:4-6). According to 1Co 8:2, however, "He does not know to the degree that he needs to know." That is, his knowledge is deficient of proper love (1Co 8:1b,3). He possesses the right knowledge pertaining to the status of sacrificed meat and his liberty to partake (1Co 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 (1Co 8:1b). On the contrary, his knowledge devoid of love serves only to build himself up; it demonstrates his selfishness (cf 1Co 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 (1Co 8:13). That is, he knows to the degree that he needs to know (1Co 8:2). He decides not to exercise his liberty out of consideration for his brother.

If 1Co 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 1Co 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. 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.

1Co 8:6

FROM WHOM ALL THINGS COME: "Dr Thomas, in a scrap written just before his death, and found among his papers afterwards, thus defines the scripturally-revealed conception of the Father, of whom are all things: 'Absolute power, from whose incorruptible substance or hypostasis free spirit radiates, is before all existing things. This self-existing incorruptible substance is essentially spirit -- spirit substance -- a concentration and condensation into one body of all the attributes, intellectual, moral and physical, of omnipotence -- all things are out of Deity. All things being out of Deity, they were not made out of nothing. The sun, moon and stars, together with all things pertaining to each, were made out of something, and that something was the radiant effluence of His substance, or free spirit, which pervades unbounded space' " (WP 13).

1Co 8:7

...IS DEFILED: "Their thoughtlessness might embolden their weak brother to follow their example DESPITE his scruples. Thus, by disregarding his conscience (even in a matter of indifference), he would find the same disregarding to be easier a 2nd and a 3rd time -- on vital issues, eventually being led to spiritual ruin" (WFB 103).

1Co 8:9

"It is not enough to be the inflexible advocate of policies which are right because they can be justified intellectually. Paul is also the passionate champion of WHATEVER best helps men and women attain the Kingdom" (WFB 101).

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