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Knowledge Puffs Up, Love Builds Up

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By Andy Pope

In a recent column, I suggested we shouldn’t be too hung up on the “context” of certain Scriptures, if the passage expresses a universal truth.  I used Leviticus 19:33-34 as a topical example, illustrating that we are to treat those who are not among our native-born as equals.  Another example would be this:

“Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” 1 Corinthians 8:1.

While the immediate context has to do with food sacrificed to idols, the next two sentences in the Scripture express absolutes. All have knowledge.  And while knowledge “puffs up,” love “builds up.” 

The accumulation of much knowledge will ultimately lead to arrogance; that is, if it’s not balanced out by good will toward those who may not be “in the know.” Many knowledgeable people become impatient with those who lack their depth of understanding. At the extreme, certain forms of theoretical information will become misconstrued for absolute truths. This happens when the learned person becomes so steeped in a particular doctrine or ideology, that they cease to see the validity of differing points of view.

We frequently see this dynamic in religious and political discussions. One can sense that someone is frustrated with their opponent in a debate.  They may be thinking: “But if only they knew what I know, they wouldn’t come across so simplistic — so out of touch!” But let’s take a step back from that.

Are all the details of our knowledge really more important than their simplicity?  That would indeed be the case, if someone were stubbornly hanging on to a comfortable little fantasy. Sometimes people prefer to believe something pleasantly simple, without being willing to consider the details of a more intricate, truthful picture. But more often than not, I have seen knowledgeable people get lost in the details of their own ideology, to the point where they can no longer see the forest for the trees.

I’ve always been stricken by the use of the word “simplicity” in this verse:

“But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ,” 2 Corinthians 11:3.

Outside of context, the Scripture clearly states that devotion to Christ involves simplicity. But how often do we complicate our devotion by adding to it our defense of knowledge we may have gained? Whether it’s biblical knowledge per se, or knowledge of a certain doctrinal slant — Calvinism, Arminianism, etc. — at what point is the pursuit of knowledge a deterrent to that of a godly simplicity?

A Bible study is always most inspired when all the participants continue to seek the truth — when all remain open to the ultimate truth that there is in Christ.  The picture of the classic theological argument among die-hards is quite a different picture than the quest for the truth in love. 

I’ve been to all kinds of Bible studies. Ecumenical, evangelical, Reformed, charismatic — you name it. Frankly, I’ve enjoyed just about all of them, because I am a person who appreciates the Bible. It’s possible, however, that I have enjoyed the ones that contained a boisterous debate just a wee bit too much.

Recently I argued with another believer over the issue of wearing masks. I confess to have enjoyed the argument immensely, even as we both screamed at each other  — hurling Scriptures back and forth, rebutting with other Scriptures, and having a grand old time. But is that really what we’re meant to do with Holy Scripture?

In that case, my anti-masker opponent and I parted on excellent terms. He respected my integrity and I respected his — even though we disagreed.   And yet, how much more powerful is the experience of watching believers of opposing positions become silenced by the power of the Holy Spirit, when an atmosphere of humble reverence consumes every person in the room?  

The Holy Spirit is, after all, the spirit of truth, as identified in the Gospel of John, chapters 14-16.  And we are to “speak the truth in love.” (Ephesians 4:15).  How many times have we spoken the truth without love?  Probably, for most of us, many times.  And how many times has that been effective?   Very few times, I’m sure.  

To whatever extent knowledge has “puffed us up,” I will pray that love, to that same extent, will build us up. Then maybe we will see with clear eyes the abominable nature of the contentious controversies and doubtful disputations we have engaged. Then maybe we will begin to rebuild the bridges that the divided heart of this nation has burnt. 

About Andy Pope

Andy Pope is a freelance writer currently residing in Moscow, Idaho, where he is a member of Moscow First Presbyterian Church. His work on social justice has appeared in Classism Exposed in Boston, Berkeleyside in Berkeley, California, and also in the Bay Area newspaper Street Spirit, where his regular column, Homeless No More, encourages those making the transition from homelessness to housing. An accomplished pianist and lifelong musical theatre person, Andy is also the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.

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