Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 6/25/00
Some passages of Scripture demand to be read in tandem with each other. Two such are Hos. 4:6 and 1 Cor. 8:1. For lack of knowledge my people perish; but knowledge puffeth up, and charity edifieth. Now, Scripture never contradicts itself. When it seems to, there is always an important lesson behind the appearance. These passages raise the question, "What is the role of knowledge in the Christian life?" Which is really another version of "What is the role of truth in the Christian life?" We need both verses to get an answer that is balanced and whole.
First, 1 Cor. 8:1. Knowledge puffeth up. Well, it can. But this verse has been used by legions of conservative Christians to make knowledge seem suspect in and of itself. It is obviously not that important; in fact, too much isn't good for you. After all, it only puffeth up. Neither my parents (who were good people) nor the church I grew up in could understand why I needed to go to seminary. After all, its pastor only had a Bible college degree. Why wasn't that good enough for me? I was constantly subjected to veiled warnings, horror stories about people who had gone to seminary and lost their faith. If they didn't lose their faith, they at least lost their zeal. With heads stuffed full of "head knowledge," they became useless for ministry. Imagine the consternation when I decided to go on for a PhD! Knowledge and zeal were treated as a zero-sum game: the fuller the head, the emptier and more barren the heart. This was a self-evident equation that couldn't be challenged, and verses like 1 Cor. 8:1 were quoted in support of it.
But look more closely at the verse. I find it interesting for what it does not say: it does not say that knowledge puffeth up but ignorance edifieth! Ignorance is one of the most unedifying phenomena you will ever encounter. The problem with the Corinthians was not the presence of knowledge, but the absence of love.
This verse certainly teaches us the limitations of knowledge. In the fist place, knowledge alone is not sufficient for living the Christian life. It is not even sufficient for living human life. Ancient Greeks like Socrates believed that human nature was morally neutral, and that our chief problem was ignorance. If people chose evil over good or lesser goods over greater, it was because they were confused. So they just need to be enlightened. Strangely, Socrates so enlightened the Athenians that they murdered him on trumped up charges. Now, I am all for clear thinking, I agree with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living, and I honor him for having said it. But human nature is fallen, i.e., twisted and perverse. It is entirely capable of choosing evil even when it knows better. So knowledge alone is not enough, and history has been working overtime for at least the last 2500 years to provide us with examples to prove this point.
Second, this verse teaches us that knowledge alone (without love) can be ugly. It certainly was in Corinth, and it has been since. But love without knowledge can be just as deadly. See Rom. 10:2-3. The Jews had zeal (a form of love); but without knowledge it led them only to condemnation.
Finally, knowledge alone cannot save. The demons know their theology better than I do, but this avails them nothing. The Bible does not say "Know about the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved." It does not say, "By grace are ye saved through knowledge." What we need is faith. But what is faith? In English we treat it as something less than knowledge; some things I only believe, others I know. But biblically this is entirely wrong. Faith is more than knowledge, not less. I cannot believe in what I do not know about. Faith is not less than knowledge; in fact, knowledge is a prerequisite to faith. What does faith add? We could define it as "Knowledge plus commitment," or knowledge acted on.
Well then, knowledge without love does not edify; neither does ignorance. What does edify, then? Loving knowledge, a knowledgeable love.
Hos. 4:6 adds the other side of the coin. For lack of knowledge, my people are destroyed. Knowledge can be a life or death issue. The story is told of a man trapped out in a blizzard. He got exhausted, gave up, lay down, and froze to death--just 100 feet from a farmhouse. If only he had known!
Not all knowledge is that important. Some is merely trivial. The mere possession of gigabytes of factoids does not equate to wisdom. I heard a trivia question on the radio in the car while driving, but got to my destination before they gave the answer, and it's driving me crazy: Who is the major league pitcher who won the most games in a season without a loss, but who is famous for something else? Well, I will probably survive ok if I never find out. But the great themes of Scripture, and much else beside, is of a different order indeed.
So what then is the nature of the knowledge without which we perish? Hosea, like Paul, presupposes that people possess, or at least have accesss to, the relevant information. But they have rejected it (v. 6b), and they are contentious about it (v. 4b). This is willful ignorance.
The knowledge we need is personal knowledge of God (Hos. 4:1). This is more than factual knowledge, but not less. If I claimed to know a friend well but couldn't tell you where he lived, what his favorite books were, his favorite foods, or what he did for a living, you would rightly conclude that my claim to personal knowledge of this person was a complete delusion. It is exactly the same with people who claim to know God but who do not have or feel a need for any knowledge of his Word, his ways, the history of his dealings with his people, etc.
What then should we do? We should not warn people away from knowledge but encourage them toward love, with the warning that no love can be real which does not become knowledgeable. We should strive to learn as much as we can about God, his Word, his ways, his world. But we must be sure that this knowledge flows from, is rooted in, and has its uses conrolled by Love. Knowledge without love is ugly; love without knowledge is impotent. We should simply refuse to accept the dichotomy between them any longer.
Richard Sibbes, the great 17th century Puritan pastor, gives us a sentence that puts it in a nutshell: "The whole Christian life consisteth of naught by knowledge digested into affection [i.e., love], will, and practice." Let us never be satisfied with anything less.
Here endeth the lesson.