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You’ve probably heard this verse or at least part of this verse quoted before, “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up,” (1 Corinthians 8:1, ESV). Particularly, you’ve probably heard the part, “knowledge puffs up,” and probably like me now as you read the verse you may be thinking to yourself that you never knew the verse had anything to do with food offered to idols. Therein lies the problem of quoting parts of verses or passages out of context. What I hope to do is quickly summarize what Paul is actually saying in this verse and then speak to a certain way that I believe the portion of this verse in question is being misused.

The Meaning

Paul here of course begins this chapter and this verse with, “Now concerning food offered to idols,” therefore we can deduce that whatever he is about to say is concerning food offered to idols. Additionally, as we see in the previous chapters, Paul is discussing several issues of Christian freedom like sexual ethics, marriage and lawsuits. The issue of food that has been offered to idols presents the question for the Corinthian believers as to whether they should eat this food. For the Corinthians, they were probably contemplating the concept according to the teaching found in Paul’s words to the Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” (Galatians 5:1, ESV). Their argument, as tends to be the case in most issues of Christian freedom, probably was something to the degree of, “we are free in Christ to eat as long as we are not eating in worship to these idols.” (A good, recent article on Christian freedom by Brett McCracken can be found here.) Of course, Paul explains in the following verses why it is a bit more complex than them simply eating with the knowledge that they are not worshipping the idols to which the food was offered.

The knowledge he refers to, he explains as the essential knowledge about God, who He is and who He is not, “…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,” (1 Corinthians 8:6, ESV). Then he offers this warning, “However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, andtheir conscience, being weak, is defiled,” (1 Corinthians 8:7, ESV). So the Corinthians are saying that they know who God is and what idols are and Paul is saying that their knowledge isn’t everything in this situation. If they do not marry their knowledge with love, meaning that they keep those who are weaker around them in mind, then their knowledge means nothing. Therefore, this is not an area where just knowing is enough, because the knowledge should lead us to a certain type of action. The action in this case is a loving discernment of what to partake in and what not to partake in relating to the freedom that believers have in Christ. Or as John Calvin put it, “how frivolous a thing it is to boast of knowledge, when love is wanting. Of what avail is knowledge, that is of such a kind as puffs us up and elates us, while it is the part of love to edify?” (Calvin, Commentary on Corinthians – Volume 1). Knowledge only edifies in love.

The Error

This brings me to the error that seems to arise from this verse. I wish I had a nickel for all the times I have heard someone say something negative about formal Christian education, particularly seminary, and then say, “knowledge puffs up.” Usually, the person saying this has not had any sort of formal, ministry education and is a pastor. Now when I say formal, ministry education, I am being a bit general because this could include and has included for this example, any kind of further, formal, traditional, Christian education consisting of either undergraduate or graduate level degrees. However, this has not only been confined to formal, Christian education, in the general sense, but also to any notion of advanced, biblical or theological learning for the express purpose of preparing for ministry. The funny thing is, is that most of the guys that would say that knowledge puffs up in response to the question of formal, ministry education, usually have some kind of training that they do attend. However, they call it different things like learning communities, study groups, advanced learning, study and other general terms. The general feel of each of these types of “learning” is that they are not formal and that you may leave getting the sense that you weren’t taught anything but rather asked to consider the opinions of a few speakers. It’s all very postmodern.

Calvin said in relation to our verse in question from above:

Paul, however, did not mean, that this is to be reckoned as a fault attributable to learning — that those who are learned are often self-complacent, and have admiration of themselves, accompanied with contempt of others. Nor did he understand this to be the natural tendency of learning — to produce arrogance, but simply meant to show what effect knowledge has in an individual, that has not the fear of God, and love of the brethren; for the wicked abuse all the gifts of God, so as to exalt themselves. (Calvin, Commentary on Corinthians – Volume 1)

Calvin is correcting here the possibility of anyone assuming that Paul is denouncing knowledge in relation to learning and preparing themselves for ministry. Many have said that they would not want a surgeon opening them up who simply felt called to be a surgeon, but would rather have someone who had studied, was trained and was prepared to do the task to which God had called them. The same of course can be said for pastors. The camp that seems to rail against seminary and/or formal training for ministry are in danger of putting their ignorance and pride on display. In so doing, they train up their respective congregations to do and think the same.

Full disclosure, I attended seminary and I am not yet a full-time pastor. My call to ministry clearly was preluded by a call to seminary. I believe that the process of formal education for the purpose of training for the ministry is essential, whether it is undergraduate, graduate or both. I believe that it, like submission to the church, brings us to a better footing in orthodoxy. I like Peter Leithart’s recent article entitled The Adventure of Orthodoxy. In it he helps bring to light that historically, it was the orthodox (in the general sense) Christians who were the adventurous ones who went against the safe, “normal” heretics of the day. This article brings to the light the issue that I think exists now with many of those who are against formal ministry education. Those guys usually seem to come up with the kooky ideas that dance on the lines of orthodoxy in an effort to be more palatable to the culture. From that logic, I’m not calling every person that doesn’t approve of formal ministry education a heretic, but I am suggesting that they are missing out on an important part of discipleship and are putting themselves in a situation where they are more susceptible to error.

The Solution

Having said all this, it is important to note that academic knowledge does indeed puff up. We cannot use this verse from Corinthians that we have been discussing to support this, because the verse is getting after a different context. However, it isn’t hard to see the pride and coldness that comes from a strictly academic person. This has always existed within the church and continues to be evident today. We can look at the quote from Calvin above where he is explaining what Paul does not mean concerning the Corinthian verse, “…who are learned are often self-complacent, and have admiration of themselves, accompanied with contempt of others,” (Calvin, Commentary on Corinthians – Volume 1). We have probably seen that the inverse of this can be true, that those who are learned can in fact be self-complacent, have admiration of themselves and have contempt for others. I think that the guys who are against formal ministry education are sometimes against it directly in light of this prideful sin of academia. The overly academic sneer at those without the ability to have an “intelligent” conversation about theology or whatever, thus pushing the other camp farther away. Those who are seemingly anti-academic create their own ways of learning where they talk badly about those “academics” and put lots of emphasis on spiritual things, thus further solidifying their people’s stance against formal learning. They are almost quasi-Gnostic in the way in which they purport their own special brand of knowledge and learning. It is a stupid, sinful war that goes on within the Church and needs to stop. Left in the wake of all this are churches full of people who don’t really know what to think or what is really important.

I believe that the Christian university/seminary and the Church should be closely tied. I believe that the university can serve the Church and the Church can serve the university. The ROI for all this is deeper, healthier discipleship. (Read this.) Surveying the learning ethic of the church in this day provides us with pretty pitiful results. That is derived from cultural shifts, busyness and laziness. The only way to bring life to a Church that is a mile wide and at best an inch deep is for the leaders and pastors to lead the way. That requires discipleship. Pastors need to submit to the discipline of formal ministry education, model that for their people and raise the bar. I think of Bonhoeffer regarding this topic. He was a very accomplished academic in the field of theology before he was ever converted to Christ. When he was converted he didn’t just throw away the pursuit of learning and academics, instead he pushed on as a Christian in the academic world among many other things. His efforts and his discipleship have forever blessed the Church. We get really excited about thinking missionally about everything these days. We drink coffee missionally and on and on. How could it not help God’s mission to have pastors who better knew the things of God and called their people to do the same?