Knowledge puffs up

I don’t want a doctor who flunked out of medical school.  Or a therapist who can’t pass a licensing exam.  Or a mechanic who can’t tell the difference between an air filter and an oil filter.  What a person knows is important, especially when that knowledge is for the service of others.

But even the most accurate and up-to-date knowledge can be used for self-serving purposes.  The question is not simply what you know, but what you do with it.

In dealing pastorally with the conflicts in Corinth, Paul has had to contend with the cultural values new believers brought with them into the life of the church.  As discussed in earlier posts, some of this had to do with the Corinthians’ fondness for knowledge, wisdom, and verbal sophistication.  Each of these had become a source of personal pride, creating social divisions between the perceived “haves” and the “have-nots.”  This even extended to how they perceived their leaders: some remained loyal to Paul, while others threw in with the more articulate Apollos.  All, however, were apparently “puffed up” with pride over which leader they had chosen to follow (1 Cor 4:6).

It’s no surprise, therefore, that as Paul attends to questions they’ve raised in writing, he returns to this matter of intellectual arrogance.  “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1b, NRSV), he says, using the same word as he did earlier to talk about their prideful divisions.  Almost comically, the underlying Greek word suggests the image of being inflated with a bellows (indeed, the word actually sounds a bit like someone blowing up a balloon).

Here, what Paul makes explicit is the opposition of arrogance to love.  Some Corinthians have turned following Jesus into a religion of knowledge–in essence, a form of Gnosticism–instead of the pursuit of the commandments to love God and neighbor.  Paul goes even further in challenging their gnostic tendencies:

Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.  (1 Cor 8:2-3, NRSV)

Paul doesn’t deny that they have knowledge (1 Cor 8:1).  But the fact that they take such pride in what they know suggests, as we might say today, that they really “don’t get it.”  Their priority should not be the prideful pursuit of knowledge, not even religious knowledge or correct doctrine; the priority is to love God.  And those who truly love God “get it”: it’s not about what you know, but Who knows you.

And as the apostle John might say, if we really know the God whose very essence is expressed in love, it should result in our love for one another (1 John 4:7-8).  That’s the concrete problem Paul has to address.  Some of the Corinthians want to argue theology with him, but they are blind to how they are hurting others with their self-serving theological arguments.

More on that in subsequent posts.