Uniform 07.13.2014: Knowing God through Love

1 Corinthians 8

I come from a family that highly values education. Both of my parents are teachers, as were both of my maternal grandparents. Advanced degrees are scattered throughout the family. For my siblings and me, going to college was never a choice to make but an expectation to fulfill.

This love of knowledge extends into our Christian lives as well. With several seminary graduates and Sunday school teachers in our ranks, I grew up wanting to learn about the Bible and my faith tradition in the same way I learned about grammar and long division.

I am thankful for my education—both the kind that came in classrooms and the kind that I’m still receiving through life experiences. I believe that knowledge is important and can open many doors. But when I read Paul’s words to the Corinthians, I have to admit to myself how easily I let my knowledge make me “puffed up” (1 Cor 8:1). I too often feel that I have achieved some kind of special status because I have learned something that others might not have had the opportunity to learn. Or worse, I congratulate myself for interpreting common knowledge in the right way while others don’t seem to get it. I allow my education to be a barrier, a way to avoid knowing people who are different than me.

Paul reminds me why this is so dangerous, especially in my spiritual life. The goal of Christian faith is not to collect all the theological knowledge we can. In fact, we are continually told that our faith is a mystery and that we cannot know all the answers. Instead, the goal of our faith is to love God and others in the same way that Jesus did. Knowledge can give us a false sense of superiority. Love can “build us up” (v. 1); love can help us grow as people and as Christians.

For Paul, the goal of our faith is to be “known by [God]” (v. 3). Knowledge might help us feel like we know and understand God—and we shouldn’t stop trying to do those things—but it doesn’t provide us with a relational connection to our Creator. Only love can do that. By opening ourselves to God in love, we allow ourselves to be known fully by the one who made us and loves us. No amount of academic study can do that.

Discussion

1. What value was placed on education in your family? How has that shaped your life?
2. How can we value knowledge without becoming “puffed up”?
3. What role does knowledge play in your faith life? How does knowledge distance you from God? How does it draw you closer?
4. What is the difference between knowing God and being known by God?
5. When have you felt known by God? By friends or family members? How can you help others feel known?

Reference Shelf

The basis of the Corinthians’ view that eating food offered to idols was not a problem is evident in Paul’s opening words in this section. In all probability, when Paul states in v. 1, “We know that we all have knowledge,” he is repeating a claim made by the Corinthians. Whether their statement “We have knowledge” also included the word “all” is debated. Some commentators think that Paul added the word “all” to counter an assertion by some of the Corinthians that they possessed a special knowledge that was not available to or not understood by certain others within the church. Thus, they were claiming an esoteric knowledge that gave them enlightenment regarding idols that less informed Christians did not have. In response to their smugness then, Paul began by affirming that all Christians actually possessed the knowledge that certain believers considered to belong only to them.

At least two problems emerge for this view, however. For one thing, Paul seems to claim in v. 7 that not everyone does, in fact, have this knowledge. It would be odd for Paul to affirm universal Christian possession of the knowledge in question in v. 1 and then admit in v. 7, as his opponents in this issue supposedly claimed, that other believers did not actually possess the knowledge they had. Furthermore, the content of this knowledge does not appear to have been esoteric (much less “Gnostic”) at all. When Paul apparently defines this knowledge in v. 4, he seems to use his opponents’ own words: “No idol exists in the world” and “No God exists except one.” This is hardly secret information belonging to the enlightened few within the church! Undoubtedly, Paul’s preaching in Corinth had included an affirmation of the oneness of God and the nonexistence of pagan deities. Whether all of the converts understood the full implications of monotheism may be seriously doubted. That any converts (or outsiders) were unaware of the early Christian movement’s claims regarding one true God, however, is highly doubtful. It was a basic tenet of the faith and the chief concept that differentiated the movement from practically every other religion of the time known to them except Judaism. In all probability then, the Corinthians addressed by Paul here had affirmed a basic position that they took for granted every believer shared. In addition to the conclusions that his opponents drew from this general knowledge, Paul challenged their assumption that all believers really did understand the basic concept of monotheism.

Before discussing the content of this knowledge, though, Paul attacks the problem that
 arises from allowing knowledge to be the determinative criterion for behavior. Knowledge may simply “puff up.” Four times before in this letter (4:6, 18, 19; 5:2) Paul charged the Corinthians with being “puffed up.” In each of the previous instances, his charge was that their self-inflation was groundless and detrimental. Here again, Paul’s use of the term physio is intended to deflate pretentious claims to status. “Knowing” in and of itself is inade
quate; what one does with what one knows determines one’s true standing. Status claimed on the basis of knowledge leads to a ballooned ego that is easily pricked by a greater knowledge. In contrast, Paul asserts that “love builds up.” The juxtaposing of “puffing up” and “building up” highlights the emptiness of claims to status based on knowledge. Substantial enlargement (i.e., edification) comes by way of love. Later in 10:23, when Paul begins to summarize his argument for the whole section, he makes the point that while “all things are allowed, not all things build up.” He follows that with an appeal: “Let no one seek his/her own [edification] but that of the other” (10:24). The basis for that later appeal is already being laid here in v. 1.

In v. 2, Paul continues his initial challenge of their assumptions about the importance of knowledge. If the maxim “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” had been available to Paul, he might have used it at this point. Instead, he subverts their reliance on knowledge by subtly raising a question about the extent of their knowledge. He uses two parallel conditional statements that continue his contrast between knowledge and love. Some questions exist about the actual wording of vv. 2-3, but the longer reading given in the UBS Greek New Testament fourth edition is usually accepted. Based on that text, the verses read: v. 2, “If anyone supposes (dokei) to know something, he/she does not yet know as it is necessary to know”; v. 3, “but if anyone loves God, this one is known by God.”

Paul typically uses dokeø to indicate presumptuous knowing that is unsubstantiated (cf. 3:18; 10:12). What they know (namely, that there is only one God) is correct, but this is insufficient knowledge. What is “necessary to know” is the proper role for knowledge. Knowledge itself is incomplete and impermanent (cf. 13:8, 12). Love, by contrast, is the “better way” that never “falls” (cf. 12:31b; 13:8a).

Since Paul has just said that love builds up and since he will soon go on to warn about tearing down another believer (v. 11), we might expect at this point for Paul to urge his audience to show love to fellow believers. Instead, he recasts the issue in terms of loving God (cf. Deut 6:5). From this vantage point, what one knows is no longer in the picture. Rather, the focus is on “being known.” Paul does not say here that one who loves others knows God, nor that one who loves God knows God, but that one who loves God is known by God. Loving the neighbor is, of course, of concern to Paul, and he will quickly address this matter. The more fundamental issue, however, and the one that drives his argument in the end, is exclusive love for the one God. Love for the God who knows us, not what we know, is the prior issue. This love for God frames Paul’s argument about loving the fellow believer who might be harmed by the “knowers’” action. By acting unlovingly, they hinder the weaker believer’s exclusive love for God.

The language here is similar to that of Galatians 4:9. There, Paul first states that the Galatians had come to know God, but then he rephrases his words by qualifying that, rather, they had come to be known by God. The context in the Galatian letter is similar, too. There Paul is concerned that those who were formerly in bondage to beings who were not gods are returning to their enslavement. Here Paul is concerned that the Corinthians will become entrapped, unwittingly through their reliance on their knowledge, to beings who are not gods. In both instances, being known by God places believers in a state that calls for exclusive allegiance to the one God.

Resource

Robert Scott Nash, 1 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 248-251.

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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