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Knowledge Puffs Up

“Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him” (1 Corinthians 8:1-3).

In this text the apostle Paul addressed a conflict that existed in Corinth.  How were the Corinthians to handle the eating of meat offered up to pagan idols?  Though some of the Corinthians were aware that “an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one” (vs. 4), others “until now eat it [meat offered to an idol] as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (vs. 7).  Paul recognized that those with superior knowledge could be guilty of acting arrogantly in the matter, and eating meat in the presence of those whose understanding was limited.  He asked, “And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?” (vs. 12).  In considering the responsibility he had toward his brother, Paul proclaimed his love by writing, “Therefore if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (vs. 13).

While Paul did not devalue the importance of knowledge in this passage, he did indicate that knowledge, in and of itself was not only insufficient, but fraught with danger.  Knowing can lead to sinning!  In the context, Paul emphasized that such knowledge must be tempered with love for the brethren.

In his ministry, the great apostle dealt with two groups of people who had problems because of what they “knew” — the Jews and the Gentiles.  From the fact that these two “groups” encompass all men, we can see the importance of this subject.  Men fall into sin when they either place too much emphasis on knowledge, not enough emphasis upon it, believe that they “know” a thing to be true when it is not, or use their knowledge in sinful practices.  It happened then, and it happens now.

Historical Attitudes Toward Knowledge

Consider the Athenians and their attitude toward knowledge.  These Greeks enjoyed world renown because of their search for knowledge.  They built a great civilization, and even today their influence, from government to language, remains.  Luke, however, was not kind in his description of them as he recorded Paul’s sermon in their midst.  “For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21).  When Paul preached the truth of the gospel to them, a few believed (cf. vs. 34), but the record shows, “And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, ‘We will hear you again on this matter’” (vs. 32).  The majority were undiscerning regarding the truth of the gospel, giving it no more weight than any other “new thing” they might hear.

The Jews were only a little better.  Paul continually battled Judaizing teachers in the church, who sought to bind circumcision as necessary under the covenant of grace.  Paul wrote to the Romans, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God” (Romans 2:28-29).  These Jews were ensconced in the old covenant, and were either unable or unwilling to rightly divide “the word of truth” (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15).  Because of this, what they “knew” was simply not so!

Another problem with knowledge began later in the first century.  As the New Testament neared completion, the late additions to the canon included warnings about false teachers who were bringing in “destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them” (2 Peter 2:1).  Peter warned, “By covetous words they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber” (2:2).  Many scholars believe the “great swelling words” (cf. Jude 16), and the characteristic licentiousness of these false teachers, identify the heresy as an incipient gnosticism, which did much damage to the cause of truth in succeeding centuries.

The gnostics believed that salvation came from a reception of Gnosis, their term for an esoteric and intuitive knowledge.  Initiates claimed an understanding that others could not naturally attain.  They denied the concept of Jesus, as God’s son, sent to earth as Savior.  They distinguished between the spirit and flesh to the extent that they felt no indulgence of the flesh could diminish their spiritual prowess.  They were the embodiment of Paul’s warning that “knowledge puffs up.”  They were arrogant, and dismissive of even the apostles as they championed their views.

As centuries passed and a great apostasy took place, another problem became prevalent – a suppression of knowledge.  Due to the Roman influence, a rigid ecclesiasticism became the norm.  The Catholic church viewed the laity as incapable of a proper understanding of God’s will, and individual study was discouraged.  According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (online edition), until about 1,200 AD there were no systemic prohibitions against the reading of the Bible “in the vernacular.”  However, in the centuries that followed, increasing restrictions made a reading of the scriptures a breach of church law.  As early as 1080 A.D., pope Gregory VII denied the country of Bohemia the right to publish the scriptures in the Slavic language.  In 1794, pope Pius VI confirmed in a Bull that the laity should not be allowed to read the scriptures indiscriminately.  It is readily admitted by the Encyclopedia that the Catholic Church prohibited the reading of the Bible “when it was almost certain to cause serious spiritual harm.” Coupled with the fact that few were taught to read during this time period, it is not surprising that expressions of faith were characterized by ignorance and superstition.  It is interesting that the period of time described by secular historians as the “Dark Ages” (5th – 15th centuries) coincides with the period when the Catholic Church enjoyed its greatest influence and control.

In the 1500’s the Protestant Reformation performed the great service of returning the scriptures to the common man.  The invention of the printing press in 1438 by Johannes Gutenberg, coupled with the insistence of reformers that Bibles be printed in their common languages led to a renewal of scriptural knowledge in the realm of Christian faith. “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).

The United States of America was conceived and established during a period (1650 – 1800) that is referred to by historians as the Age of Enlightenment.  Men continued to cast aside the shackles of ignorance and superstition.  Science began to flourish, as did the arts (painting, music and literature).  Great thinkers and statesmen helped to establish societal influences that still resonate in the present.  The republican form of government that we enjoy was a radical experiment that owed its genesis to the prevalent influences of that age.  However, there was a dark edge to this period of human history, as it pertained to the Christian faith.  Consider the following quote:

The most fundamental concept of the Enlightenment were faith in nature and belief in human progress. Nature was seen as a complex of interacting laws governing the universe. The individual human being, as part of that system, was designed to act rationally. If free to exercise their reason, people were naturally good and would act to further the happiness of others. Accordingly, both human righteousness and happiness required freedom from needless restraints, such as many of those imposed by the state or the church. The Enlightenment’s uncompromising hostility towards organized religion and established monarchy reflected a disdain for the past and an inclination to favor utopian reform schemes. Most of its thinkers believed passionately in human progress through education. They thought society would become perfect if people were free to use their reason.

(International World History Project)

The emphasis upon human reason, and disdain for the restraints of “the church” echoes attitudes the apostle Paul warned about in his epistle to the Romans: “…although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools…” (1:21-22).  In 1859, Charles Darwin published his book, On the Origin of Species, and popularized a natural explanation for the origin of life.  Attacks upon scripture, faith, religion and God have continued unabated from then until now.

The most damaging attacks come not from the infidel, but from those who purport to be friends of faith.  Colleges and seminaries, created for the purpose of aiding in the study and comprehension of God’s word, have become hotbeds of heretical thinking.  The leadership of many Christian denominations consists of rank modernists who deny the inspiration of scripture, the Bible canon, and most of the miracles and significant events contained in its pages.  Consider a few examples.  1) The Jesus Seminar (a group of about 150 modernist “scholars”) was formed in 1985 to vote on what they believed to be the actual historical words and actions of Jesus, as contrasted to what is found in the four gospel accounts.  2) Catholic scholars officially ceded the Creation/Evolution debate to evolutionists by rejecting the concept of intelligent design as an adequate explanation for life.  The present pope (Benedict XVI) signed off on a July 2004 statement while serving as a Cardinal in the Catholic church.  The statement endorsed the view that the universe began with the “Big Bang” postulated by stellar evolutionists, and that all life has descended through evolutionary processes from an initial microscopic organism formed 3.5 to 4 billion years ago.  3) Most archaeologists believe the biblical accounts of Israel as an established and influential nation during the time of David and Solomon’s rule to be fanciful.

Consider the following quote from a National Geographic article titled, David and Solomon, referring to a Tel Aviv University archaeologist by the name of Israel Finklestein:

During David’s time, as Finkelstein casts it, Jerusalem was little more than a "hill-country village," David himself a raggedy upstart akin to Pancho Villa, and his legion of followers more like "500 people with sticks in their hands shouting and cursing and spitting—not the stuff of great armies of chariots described in the text.

(NationalGeographic.com)

Examples could be cited ad infinitum.  We have reached a point in modern culture that to proclaim oneself a Christian equals, in the eyes of many, an admission of bigotry, superstition and ignorance.  Bible doctrines regarding women, homosexuality, the sanctity of life and morality are rejected as not only unworkable, but also unpalatable.  It has reached the point in our time where views of morality and righteousness have been turned upside down.  In this the present generation resembles Judah in the time of the prophet Isaiah. “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, And prudent in their own sight!” (Isaiah 5:20-21).  And, it is not surprising that the present worldly attitudes toward knowledge and scripture have had a deleterious effect upon God’s people.

Worldly Attitudes Regarding Knowledge, as Found in the Lord’s Church

The point can be illustrated with specifics.  For example, in 1986 two professors at Abilene Christian University were criticized for teaching evolution as a fact of science.  One of the professors, Dr. Archie Manis, gave students a photocopy of the text of Genesis 1 from his personal Bible, where he had written in the margin, “myth, hymn” beside Genesis 1:1.  He encouraged students to synthesize “a personal statement of belief about origins.”   When criticized, the administration of the college defended the two professors.  In 1988, a book was published by the college titled Evolution and Faith.  In the book, M.E. Sadler, a physics professor at the college, wrote, “The Bible does not say how old the earth is, much less the solar system or the universe. To judge as heretics all those who believe that the present universe has evolved from a big bang is unfair and creates controversy over something that is certainly not a central part of Christianity” (p. 93).

Only a decade later the scenario repeated itself at Florida College.  A professor in the Bible department of the college, Shane Scott, came under heavy criticism for teaching four different positions regarding the text of Genesis 1.  He defended himself in writing:

“In my one lecture I present at FC on Genesis 1, I present four basic interpretations and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each. This is exactly how I was taught when I was at FC. I only tell the students which view I prefer if I am directly asked…” (emp. his)

“On the exam in which I test the students over the material in Genesis 1, the questions (sic) I ask is this: ‘Choose one of the four interpretations of Genesis 1 and defend it.’ I do not ask my students what view I (sic) take, and I do not test my students over things I don’t present in class. Further, they are not graded on the basis of which view they choose. They are graded on their ability to defend their own view.”

(A Response to the Open Letter)

Florida College President Colly Caldwell and Bible Department Head Ferrell Jenkins both came to Shane Scott’s defense.  Caldwell indicated that such an approach was appropriate to the circumstance.  He wrote in defense of Scott, “The responsibility in the college classroom is to inform students of the several positions identifying strengths and weakness of each position.”  Such a view coming from the President of the college is a big departure from the attitude expressed by the college’s first President, James Cope, in 1949.  In a letter written to the Gospel Guardian, published in June of that year, Cope wrote the following under the heading “Academic Ambitions”:

We have no objections to any institution’s desire to improve it’s educational standing by seeking entrance into any recognized accrediting organization or agency. In fact, in the future we would like to be so honored, but let the following be once for all known and understood: if Florida Christian College must surrender any principle prompting its founding and existence in order to obtain entrance into any secular or educational accrediting organization, those organizations can go their way and we shall go our own. We do not propose to sell principle for popularity even if it means the closing of our doors never to open again.

While brother Cope indicated he would close the doors of the college rather than compromise the teaching of the truth of God’s word, fifty years later Caldwell affirmed that very thing to be necessary because of the academic setting of the college classroom.

The parallels between the two incidents noted above are obvious, as both scenarios were played out in the academic setting.  Both institutions were established as a means for Christian parents to secure a higher education for their children in an atmosphere conducive to and supportive of their faith.  With time, both institutions exhibited a change in philosophy, and defended such changes as necessary to their charter as universities.  The fact that ACU has assimilated this change more thoroughly and quickly than FC is understandable.  However, both colleges seem to be heading in the same general direction.

Another example solidifies the parallel.  Andre Resner, a professor of Preaching and Theology at ACU, wrote an article in November of 1992 that appeared in Wineskins Magazine.  The article was titled “Christmas at Matthew’s House”.  In the article, he characterized Matthew’s account surrounding Christ’s conception and birth as “sneaky”, referred to Matthew’s statement that Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit as “covert”, and characterized Mary as “another sexually questionable woman” along the lines of Rahab, Tamar and Bathsheba.  He characterized the gospel account as “the most embarrassing scandal.”  Later, in a statement of clarification he contended that he believed in the virgin birth of Jesus, and was critical of those who interpreted the article “in ways which depart far beyond my own intentions.”

Twelve years later, in the 2003 Florida College Lectureship Book, Florida College professor Marty Pickup wrote about the Genesis account of the temptation of Adam and Eve.  Specifically, about the references in the text of Genesis 3 to the serpent.  He wrote:

It is also worth considering that the account of these events may be, to some degree, accommodative and symbolic. Genesis may use the serpent motif because it is borrowing the imagery from the mythological culture of that day regarding a cosmological foe of deity. Old Testament writers commonly take features of well-known pagan myths and rework them in order to present the truth of Israelite monotheism… It is possible, therefore, that Genesis recounted man’s primeval fall using the language and symbology that was best suited for its original audience. Since ancient creation myths gave a serpentine form to the being who opposed the order of creation, it was fitting that the tempter in the garden be depicted in this way (Boyd 156). Such a literary device may have been quite obvious to the original audience of Genesis. (Marty Pickup, “The Seed of Woman” 2003 Florida College lecture book, pp. 49-78; “Identifying the Serpent” pp. 55-62).

On another occasion, in 2000, Pickup discussed the New Testament canon, and specifically mentioned 2 Peter and Jude.  While he stated his personal belief that the two texts were inspired of God, he wrote, “I can’t just be dogmatic about that, I’m not a hundred percent certain about that” (The Canonicity of the General Epistles, Florida College Annual Lectures, [8 Feb. 2000]).

As was the case with Resner, Pickup was astonished that his words caused a stir, and he objected to being characterized as one who fomented doubts among Christians.

Anecdotally, this writer has witnessed other examples unhealthy attitudes towards the pursuit of Bible knowledge.  Often these are exhibited by those who are members of the church of Christ.  On other occasions they are expressed by those who have left the church because of personal dissatisfaction.  One only has to monitor online discussion groups and social networks to see myriad examples of the following:

  • Bible discussions where long held positions regarding Bible doctrines on eschatology, the Lord’s Supper, musical worship and the organization and work of the church are characterized as merely traditional, and often legalistic.  Such positions are dismissed as irrelevant and narrow minded.
  • The call for doctrinal purity rejected in favor of a call for tolerance and diversity.
  • Contending for the faith seen as an indication of arrogance and a lack of love – “like the Pharisees of old”.
  • Arguments made for unscriptural positions that often indicate a lack of knowledge regarding simple concepts of Biblical authority.
  • Devotional and experiential expressions of faith that are favored over reasoned conclusions based upon scripture.

Throughout history men have exhibited the same failings.  Pride, superstition, and human sophistry regularly combine to lead men astray.  It is interesting and instructive to contrast such failings with what God reveals to be the proper attitude toward the knowledge of His truths.

The Proper Attitude Towards Knowledge of the Truth

It is right to emphasize the importance of gaining knowledge of God’s word.  The apostle Paul admonished Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).  The Psalmist expressed the proper attitude toward seeking such knowledge when he wrote, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2).  However, it must be recognized that gaining knowledge is the means to an end in it’s impact on the Christian’s faith.  It is not an end in itself.  Misunderstanding this concept leads to misplaced emphasis.  As noted, the gnostics placed a wrong emphasis upon knowledge, claiming it as the basis of their standing before God.  Our standing with God is not dependent upon of our knowledge of truth per se, but upon our acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord.

One might object that knowledge of Christ is necessary for that acceptance, and that is entirely true.  Jesus affirmed this very thing when he said to a group of Jews who expressed their faith in Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32).  We are to be disciples of Christ.  To be His disciples, we must know and adopt His teachings.  However, it is important to remember that the newborn babe in Christ is as accepted of God as the most mature Christian.  Immediately upon being washed in the blood of the Lamb, we receive the forgiveness of our sins, and can claim the right to an eternal inheritance.  The Ethiopian Eunuch who “went on his way rejoicing” (cf. Acts 8:39) immediately following his baptism, had equal claim to the heavenly Father as the aged Paul, who had “fought the good fight” (cf. 2 Timothy 4:7) as a learned and mature apostle of the Lord.

So, why is it so important to gain a knowledge of God’s will?  Study allows us to know what He requires of us, and what He requires us to avoid.  It is by his study and meditation of God’s word that the Psalmist was able to avoid walking as the ungodly, the sinner, the scornful.  Study helps to mature the child of God.  The writer of the book of Hebrews admonished his readers because of their spiritual regression.  He wrote, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food” (Hebrews 5:12).  As we gain knowledge, we have opportunity to exercise our spiritual senses, to “discern both good and evil” (vs. 14).  Study gives us an answer for Satan when he entices us.  Each time Jesus was tempted by the Adversary in the Wilderness, he answered with the phrase, “It is written” (cf. Matthew 4).  His knowledge of His Father’s will equipped Him to avoid the devil’s snares. Study builds our faith.  “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).  Other benefits could be cited.  However, in each case consider that knowledge is gained as a means to an end.

Consider a man today who desires to preach.  He is encouraged first to get a rounded education.  He is told of the importance of good grammar, and the fact that men will be more apt to listen if he is erudite and well read.  He goes to college, where he is most likely inundated with humanistic philosophies and theories.  If he majors in religious studies, he will be introduced to modernistic views regarding the Bible.  He will hear professors express doubts with regard to the inerrancy of scripture, the historicity of the Old and New Testament narratives, and the validity of the Bible accounts of miracles and prophecy.  As he progresses in his “studies”, he is told of the importance of gaining an advanced degree.  To do so he will have absolutely no choice other than travel to the very center of the enemy’s camp, and sit at the feet of modernists who will attack his faith daily.  No wonder that he comes out the other side with doubts and equivocations.

Now consider the apostle Paul.  He sat at the feet of Gamaliel (cf. Acts 22:3), and enjoyed every benefit of Jewish education.  He was sophisticated and zealous, receiving the approval of the high priest in his service to the Jewish nation.  And yet this urbane, educated Jew, wrote, “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:7-11).  On another occasion he wrote, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God.  For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling.  And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).  Paul was not concerned with being well rounded.  His desire was to know nothing “except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”

There are Christians today who struggle with every new “discovery” and claim that is made by the enemies of God. When secular archeologists opine that the Old Testament does not supply a viable history of the ancient world, the faith of many falter.  When astronomers reveal the probability that there is water on Mars, doubt enters the heart of some.  When physicists smash atoms together, and possibly uncover evidence of the so-called “God particle”, some begin to question the historicity of Genesis 1.  Too many worry that science may one day uncover some bit of evidence that will finally and ultimately defeat our belief in a Divine Being.  Such doubts are sad.  The attempts made to compromise Bible teaching in order to accommodate current “realities” is misguided.

The apostles had no such qualms.  Paul trumpeted the risen Lord with the assurance of one who had seen Him (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:8).  He was dismissive of proconsul Festus’ doubts, saying concerning King Agrippa, “the king, before whom I also speak freely, knows these things; for I am convinced that none of these things escapes his attention, since this thing was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26).  Peter concurred, and wrote in his second epistle, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain” (1:16-18).

As Christians, we know that Jesus is the Son of God.  Further, we know that the Bible is His inspired word.  It is not necessary that everyone of us be able to address the “higher criticism” that denies the Bible claims of inspiration.  We don’t have to become experts at archeology, that we might interpret a shard of clay within the construct of the Bible narrative.  We don’t have to be able to explain the fallacies of Carbon dating, and discuss intelligently the biological concept of “irreducible complexity.”  And we certainly don’t have any legitimate reason to doubt our faith in God when the infidel expresses his contempt.

When we study, we should do so to gain knowledge of God’s word.  We may not understand it completely, but that is no reason to doubt.  If at any point we encounter difficulties reconciling one passage with another – we can attribute it to our own inadequacies, rather than any discrepancy in the text.  Just as Peter and Paul, we know that Jesus is God’s Son, and we know that the Bible is God’s word.  The gaining of knowledge will serve to strengthen our faith and remove insecurity.  This is the healthy and right attitude to take as we seek awareness of God and His will.

Consider the following illustration:

I Study My Bible Like I Plow My Field

A farmer explained: “I study my Bible like I plow my field. Oftentimes when I’m plowing or breaking new ground, my plow will get hung under a root, and if I’m going at a pretty good clip it will really jar me. But I don’t get mad and beat my mule and burn my plow. No, I just back up a little, ease over the root and get on with my plowing. Next time around I’ll probably hit that root again and it still shakes me up, but I don’t quit farming. I just back up, ease over the root and keep on working. Pretty soon I have hit that root so many times that it’s loose and the first thing you know I plow right through it and don’t even notice it. I’ve got it shook loose.

That’s the way I study the Bible. When I come upon a hard passage, it might shake me up a little bit, but I don’t throw away my Bible and quit the Lord on that account. I just ease over it and keep on studying. The next time I read that passage I jar it a little bit more. I keep on doing this until finally, because of information that I have gathered from other parts of the Bible I am able to jar the passage loose. I understand it.”

Don’t study to gain knowledge for knowledge’s sake.  “Study to shew thyself approved unto God…” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV).