True Spiritual Knowledge

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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 Cor 8:1–3 NKJV)

The Corinthian church thought that their conduct should be based on knowledge, and that knowledge gave them the right to act as they wanted to regarding things offered to idols.

But Paul had a different view: knowledge is not the basis for Christian behavior, love is.

True spiritual knowledge is based on love

Paul starts by stating “we all have knowledge.” but that should not define us, love should. On behavior, love takes the form of “the stumbling-block principle,” which does not have to do with “offending” someone, but with causing people to fall by urging on them an action they cannot do freely.

Paul’s response goes right to the heart of things. The emphasis of the Corinthians is totally wrong; the aim of our faith is not knowledge but love. Knowledge and love are thus contrasted in two ways. First, the net effect of each (knowledge puffs up; love builds up); second, the difference it makes for the one doing the knowing or loving. 1 Corinthians 8:1b-3 (as translated by Gordon Fee) reads:

Knowledge puffs up but love builds up
If anyone thinks he has arrived at knowledge,
he does not yet know as he ought to know;
If anyone loves, this one truly knows.

Paul’s point is not that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” (which is usually true, and does fit their situation); rather, it is biting irony. The one who thinks he is “in the know” by that very fact has given evidence that he does not yet have the real thing. Like the person who “thinks he is wise”, the one who thinks he has knowledge is self-deceived; true knowledge has eluded him. Thus the clause “he does not yet know as he ought to know” does not refer to some lack of content, but to the lack of real spiritual knowledge (gnōsis) itself, which, as the next clause points out, has to do with love.

Paul is not here dealing with loving (or knowing) God. Rather, his concern is with the failure of the Corinthian church to act in love toward some in their midst who do not share their “knowledge.” True gnōsis consists not in the accumulation of so much data, nor even in the correctness of one’s theology, but in the fact that one has learned to live in love toward all.

Christian behavior is not predicated on the way of knowledge, which leads to pride and destroys others, but on the way of love, which is in fact the true way of knowledge. All of this is spelled out in greater detail in 1 Corinthians chapter 13.

The tyranny of “knowledge” as the basis of Christian ethics has a long and unfortunate history in the church. Once one’s theology is properly in hand, it is especially tempting to use it as a club on others. This does not mean that knowledge is either irrelevant or unimportant, but it does mean that it cannot serve as the primary basis of Christian behavior. In Christian ethics “knowledge” must always lead to love. One should always beware of those teachers or systems that entice one by special “revelation” or “deeper insights.” Such appeals are invariably to one’s pride, not to one’s becoming a more truly loving Christian.

In the Christian faith “knowledge” or “insight” is never an end in itself; it is only a means to a greater end, the building up of others.[1]


  1. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 363-69 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987).