Knowledge, Pride, and Truth
Since doctrine and apologetics has been so instrumental in rebuilding the foundations to my faith, I naturally spend a lot of my time reading, studying and immersed in learning more about God’s word and God’s world. However, I got to thinking the other day about knowledge, it’s relative value, and the immense amount of time required to acquire, absorb and internalize (or “own”) it.
The question naturally arises from time to time, “is it worth the effort?” I mean, for me personally it clearly is since without this knowledge of God, science and scripture I very likely would not be sitting here, writing this article with quiet confidence in the faithfulness of the God whom I serve. The more I learn, the more awe, reverence and love I feel for the one who did it all.
But beyond whatever level is personally needed for a reasonable grounding for your belief, is it worth it? Is it worth the time spend reading, watching, writing, preparing to teach, teaching, discussing, sharing and then learning more and deeper and better to do it all over again with another group of people?
Knowledge Puffs Up
After all, does not scripture teach that “knowledge puffs up”? As this often quoted excerpt clearly shows, right?
[We] know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.
1 Corinthians 8:1-3
As it’s often (mis)quoted it seems pretty damning. However, it is, or should be, immediately clear that we have insufficient context to understand what “knowledge” Paul is discussing. Backing up into chapter seven shows a clear break in thought, so let’s look at the passage in context.
4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” – 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
1 Corinthians 8:4-13 (emphasis added)
Paul clarifies what he is talking about: The knowledge in question is that of that fact that idols have “no real existence” and that food is just food, whether previously offered to such idols or not. In fact it’s the application of that knowledge without exercising love and consideration for a fellow believer that is the subject of criticism. Indeed, as he makes clear in 1 Corinthians 13:2, “if I have … all knowledge … but have not love, I am nothing”.
So it seems quite safe to say that the condemnation of learning because “knowledge puffs up” is founded on a faulty exegesis of this passage. Worse, it’s deeply prejudicial because it’s taken on the power of a “truism”; something the majority of people just assume is true and biblical.
That leaves me wondering, what does scripture actually say about knowledge?
Knowledge and Scripture
A simple search of the entire Bible on the word “knowledge” turns up 159 hits – many are not related to this subject; searching for “know” would provide a much more exhaustive understanding. However, it’s more than sufficient to consider those occurrences of the word “knowledge” that pertain to the engaging of the intellect in matters of life and faith.
Old Testament Survey
15 An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.
Proverbs 18:15 ESV (emphasis added)
Like most proverbs, this is one of a collection of individual sayings. There’s no context to look into, just a simple affirmation of the value of knowledge and that seeking it is an indication of wisdom.
And, of course, Proverbs chapters one and two are replete with praise of knowledge and wisdom. Particularly well known is “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge…” This famous verse is introduced by instructing us that “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” were given so we would be able…
2 To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
3 to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
4 to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
5 Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
6 to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
Proverbs 1:1-7 (emphasis added)
Having established the value of the proverbs, the pearl of great price with which Solomon prefaces his long discourse on wisdom is this:
7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Proverbs 1:1-7 (emphasis added)
Notice that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (some translations say “wisdom”); there’s still a lot of hard work and learning that a good student needs to do in receiving and internalizing instruction; it clearly requires instruction from others to attain knowledge and wisdom. Also, while it’s true that knowledge does not always lead to wisdom, it’s difficult, if not impossible to be wise without knowledge. So called “wisdom” without knowledge is usually in the form of meaningless “deep” thoughts that amount to nothing more than “the sound of one hand clapping.”
It’s the reflection, consideration and pondering of knowledge in the light and context of God that brings a man to true wisdom. So fear (reverence, awe and respect) of the Lord is the proper worldview for the pursuit of knowledge, but knowledge and wisdom are valuable in their own right; a high calling. Read the rest of Proverbs one to see how those who despise knowledge are repeatedly called fools – a very strong word in Hebrew culture.
There are forty-two mentions of knowledge in Proverbs alone, fully 26% of the total mentions, all of them positive. Now, to be fair, Ecclesiastes offers some balance from Solomon in that knowledge and wisdom without God are a source of “vexation” and “sorrow”, but goes on to say that “to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy”. So knowledge and wisdom are not and end unto themselves, but they are the reward God gives to those who please him.
2 "See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 3 and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, 4 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, 5 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.
Exodus 31:3-5 ESV (emphasis added)
Here, God speaking, the chief craftsman for the furnishings of the Israelites’ tabernacle is specifically gifted by the Holy Spirit with “ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship” in artistic design and metallurgy. That doesn’t sound like the deprecation of knowledge often seen in our Evangelical churches, nor does it give any sense that God’s workers should simply wing it with some vague “leading of the Spirit”. It’s a subtle distinction, but, I think, an important one. In Exodus 35:31 Moses repeats the identical claim with respect to Bezalel.
This famous prayer of Solomon for wisdom and knowledge was recognized by God as being so worthy that God granted him the things of this world that a lessor man would have asked for besides. It seems clear here that God considers wisdom and knowledge to be worth possessing.
The prophet Isaiah closely correlates wisdom, knowledge and honoring God with a clear sense that knowledge about God is necessary for properly fearing God and comes from God through the Holy Spirit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
Jeremiah puts it thus:
“And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. …”, declares the Lord.
Jeremiah 3:15,16 (emphasis added)
Which is a wonderful picture of the heart of God filled with knowledge and understanding, which he wants us to share.
Daniel was renowned in the history of Israel for being “endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace”. Indeed it was his “excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems” which elevated him in Belteshazzar’s court, eventually to the highest post in the land, answering directly to the King. So great was his learning that it was sufficient to eclipse all the wise men of Babylon (Daniel 1, 2 and 5).
The words of Hosea decry what happens to a people who despise knowledge:
1 Hear the word of the Lord, O children of Israel,
for the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or steadfast love,
and no knowledge of God in the land;
6 My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
because you have rejected knowledge,
I reject you from being a priest to me.
And since you have forgotten the law of your God,
I also will forget your children.
Hosea 4:1,6 (emphasis added)
To be clear, in the context this is speaking specifically of the knowledge of God, but, nonetheless, it should serve as a caution to churches which would despise even theological and philosophical study.
With such a high value placed on knowledge, wisdom and learning, it becomes abundantly clear why the people of Israel have been historically called people of the book and have an unprecedented per-capita number of outstanding academic achievers. Comprising just 0.2% of the world’s population, people of Jewish heritage represent a full 22% of the total number of Nobel laureates.
There’s more in the Old Testament, but let’s move on to the New Testament. Perhaps the coming fullness of the Spirit has changed matters?
New Testament Survey
We might as well go in order by book. Let’s start with Paul’s letter to the Roman church.
14 I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.
Romans 15:14 (emphasis added)
It would seem that Paul places a high value on knowledge, placing it on par with goodness, but we won’t jump to conclusions quite so soon.
… 4 but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: … 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness …
2 Corinthians 6:6 (emphasis added)
One of many ways in which the Apostles commended themselves to the church was by knowledge.
7 But as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you – see that you excel in this act of grace also.
2 Corinthians 8:7 (emphasis added)
Again, knowledge appears in a list of virtues, in which to excel. It would seem a strange thing for an apostle to say if knowledge were an impediment to faith. But Paul has more to say about knowledge a couple of chapters later:
3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.
2 Corinthians 10:3-6 (emphasis added)
This is possibly one of the most significant scriptures in the entire New Testament regarding the life of the mind. We “walk” in this world, but we do not wage war as ones in this world. Rather our weapons have divine power to destroy “strongholds”, “arguments” and “lofty opinion[s]” as we make our thoughts obedient to Christ. Our thoughts. And our weapons destroy what kinds of strongholds? Those of arguments and opinions. This is a battle of the mind. And in this spiritual battle, knowledge is power. Confer Ephesians six, where the armor of God includes a belt of truth, shoes of readiness in the Gospel, and a sword which is the Word of God. These are weapons of the mind, of the intellect – things in which you must be learned, to know truth and right thinking. Even Jesus resisted the temptations of Satan with, “It is written…” How will you do likewise if you are unknowledgeable about what is written.
This theme runs throughout Paul’s letters to the churches:
8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ
Philippians 1:8-10 (emphasis added)
Now the evidence is becoming undeniable. Paul’s prayer is that the Philippians will “abound more and more” with “knowledge and all discernment”. Furthermore, this would approve what is excellent. That is not a description of a vain waste of time.
9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
Our “self” is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Thus our God is one of knowledge and we are being remade in his image. As the omniscient one, knowledge is a central quality of his very essence.
Knowledge and Truth
The subtitle of this website is the Latin translation of Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed, by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This scripture illustrates the fundamental process of sanctification. The mind is the gatekeeper to what the heart believes; we “take every thought captive” in a process of critical thinking to filter the garbage and retain that which is worthwhile. Therefore, brothers, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” As a wise man once said, “that which we contemplate is that which we emulate.”
Epistemology is the study of theories of knowledge, or how we know and how we know that we know. Part of this are the different theories of truth. The author holds to a correspondence theory of truth, that is, true beliefs and true statements correspond to the actual state of affairs, or, to reality. So knowledge then, is that which describes truth, and truth is that which corresponds to reality. That might seem so obvious as to not need saying, but, surprisingly, post-modern thinking does not hold to so rational a defintion of truth. In western society truth has largely become what an individual defines it to be.
Some truth is self-evident:
2 + 2 = 4. It does not matter what labels when assign the numbers (two, four; dos, quatro; swi, veer), the truth of the equation is certain. Mathematics has such certainties, even though the proofs might be highly complex. Fascinatingly, in the realm of mathematics it is provably certain that 9.999… is exactly equal to 10; but that’s a subject for another website.
Some truth is accepted as axiomatic; self-evident, unable to be proven absolutely, but fundamentally necessary for other knowledge. I am a self. I exist in a world. My senses provide reliable insight into that world. And so on. These things are not necessarily true, but their acceptance comprises the only reasonable way in which to interact with our experiences of reality. We accept, a priori these sensory inputs as true.
Some true is rationally derived. In this process we accept the rationality of our being as a reliable way to discover truth. The validity of rationally discovered truth is best exemplified using an absurd extreme: it’s wrong to torture toddlers to death slowly for fun. No rational human being would dispute this, and if they sincerely did dispute it we would lock them up as insane, giving them the label sociopath or psychopath.
And some truth, is written on our inmost heart by our loving, perfect Creator.
Whatever else, the Bible clearly holds the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom in high regard, considering it to be a manifestation of our creation in the image of a rational, thinking, knowing God. And of all the kinds of knowledge to pursue, the knowledge of God is the highest truth. Far from being an impediment to our faith, knowledge is properly a foundation to it. Christianity has always been a faith based on evidence, on knowledge of true events – the Gospels were recorded that we might have a faithful witness to the things that Jesus did, and therefore might believe that he is the Son of God.
The acquisition of knowledge about God’s creation is an essential avenue to understanding God, revealing his hidden attributes to those who will look without the blinders of moral autonomy (Romans 1:19ff); those who have “eyes to see” and “ears to hear”. That the creative force behind our universe is transcendant is clear from the fact that there was a beginning to all space-time, energy and matter. That this force is a personal, relational, rational, disembodied mind, is clear from what he has created; for no better explanation for personal, relational, rational, mindful creations exists.
Romans says the transforming of our minds proves what is good, acceptable and perfect. Ephesians shows us that truth is an essential part of our armor that guards our most vulnerable “midsection” in the spiritual battle. Second Corinthians says our battle is against augments and opinions that hold themselves in opposition to the knowledge of God. Philippians says we should aspire to abound in knowledge, amongst other virtues.
Knowledge is the discernment of truth and it’s pursuit is a virtue, for the pursuit of truth is the pursuit of the one who claimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”.