Intellectual Vacancy

In the 8th chapter of First Corinthians, a clear shift in subjects from sexual immorality to food offered to idols is marked by the little phrase, “Now concerning”. In chapter 5, the apostle addressed the report of sexual immorality that had been tolerated by the Corinthians. As this discussion unfolded to include a variety of topics, a verse central to the focus of chapters 5-10 occurs in 1 Corinthians 6:12-14
12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.

1 Corinthians 6:12-14
This passage helps pull together the rebuke of tolerating sin from chapter 5 yet looks forward to the discussion of chapter 8 concerning food (note too the quotation marks in verse 12 and its use again near the conclusion of the section in 1 Corinthians 10:23). Introducing this new section, Paul again emphasizes one of the Corinthians central problems, namely intellectual pride.
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 1 Corinthians 8:1-3
We may recall that the letter begins with Paul giving thanks to God that the Corinthian believers had been, “enriched in all speech and knowledge”. There it is most likely stated in a positive sense. Later, he devotes much space to developing a discussion of wisdom and folly (Chapter 2). As we know of ancient Greek societies there was a desire and love of knowledge both as “entertainment” and in acquisition. They paid rhetoricians to stand up and wax eloquently, a point relevant to much of 1 Corinthians as well. Here in our passage cited above we see knowledge spoken of in a negative sense, that it “puffs up” and is contrasted with love which builds up. In other words, knowledge without love artificially inflates the one who proposes to have knowledge, an intellectual arrogance. Whereas love (not absent of knowledge) is said to build up with the implication that this edification would occur with the recipient. Practically, loveless knowledge is selfish.

As the introduction of this section unfolds, we find a rebuke of those who would consider themselves to have an abundance of knowledge (defined later in the chapter). Verse 2 is essentially saying if a person thinks they know it all, then they actually know nothing. Indeed, knowledge of God is not the end goal, rather it is through loving God that the goal is attained namely, to be known by God.

While the context of the passage appears to change towards the direction of meat offered to idols and the doctrine of Christian liberty of conscience, the application remains grounded in love for others over and against the pride of intellectual arrogance.

This brings up a question of application for us today. Given the direction that the passage takes concerning meat offered to idols but also noting the prevailing discussion of liberty of conscience, how does the introduction of this passage with a rebuke of intellectualism apply to us today? One particular area is noting how often this tendency towards intellectual pride, even theological pride, has been prevalent within us and then within Christendom (Matthew 7:1-5). Writing in the section of practical considerations from this passage in his commentary, Kistemaker notes the history of instructing new believers in the faith, particularly within the family from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries. Clearly then we are not talking about the absence of knowledge, nor the absence of gaining knowledge. He observes during the Reformation the rise of catechisms as instructional tools, but then notes the following:
“At times this instruction became an intellectual exercise separated from genuine faith and love. Consequently, knowledge was glorified, with ecclesiastical stagnation following as an inevitable result. Kistemaker, Simon. A New Testament Commentary, pg 264
What Kistemaker is observing is the tendency, and we might add particularly among the Reformed community, towards a detachment of knowledge from love; a theological intellectualism. As I have moved within Reformed circles for some years now, I too have noted this tendency of a cold love of intellectual stimulation and acquisition of knowledge or facts as an end in themselves. I have noticed this within myself and have observed it among friends, within online groups, churches, etc., particularly among those who came up in the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement. As seen here in our passage from 1 Corinthians indeed it is the type of knowledge that puffs up.

While this is the context of the passage, in application there is an equal and opposite danger of intellectual arrogance and that is biblical ignorance.

Returning again to Kistemaker, he comments on the historical trajectory from intellectual arrogance to biblical ignorance:
In recent times, however, the problem which the church faces is not a lack of love but a lack of knowledge. The problem with the members of the church is not intellectual arrogance but rather biblical ignorance. The rich heritage of the past is no longer passed on from generation to generation. Apart from the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, many church members know little of the Bible’s content. Because of this scriptural illiteracy, the church’s need of the hour is solid instruction in the truths of God’s Word. Kistemaker, Simon. A New Testament Commentary, pg. 265
While his commentary was published in 1993, what Kistemaker has highlighted as the central problem among professing believers is no less true today. In fact, in the thirty years since its writing, we might add that an entire generation has been raised up in this pattern of biblical ignorance out of which we are bearing fruits today.

Knowledge, instruction, and the mind are important – indeed necessary, but not without love. Conversely, a lack of knowledge is just as deadly and just as injurious to growth and health in a body of believers. Our problems today are not due to an abundance of theological egg-heads, rather its due primarily to an abundance of theological dunce caps. The solution is a serious return to God’s Word, instructing the people of God in His truths, and discipleship (learning) in love as commanded by God.

Soli Deo Gloria

About the author

Christian saved by grace through faith.

Click in the box below to subscribe and get new content delivered straight to your inbox. Or leave a comment to join the discussion.

%d bloggers like this: