Learning that Loves

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” We’ve all heard this well-worn phrase, or some variation of it. Cleverly, the saying contains both the warning and the solution: if a little knowledge can be dangerous, the only safeguard is to press on to fuller knowledge. But is the saying Biblical?

Yes! Paul warns the Corinthians that knowledge “puffs up, but love builds up” (1Cor 8:1 ESV). Knowledge is dangerous; it can puff us up with an inflated sense of our own importance and a dim view of everyone else’s. By our knowledge we can destroy another Christian (1Cor 8:10-11).

What can save us from the dangers of knowledge? More knowledge, fuller knowledge. “If anyone imagines that he knows something,” Paul explains, “he does not yet know as he ought to know” (1Cor 8:2 ESV). The saying is more Biblical than we might have thought. It is “a little knowledge” that is dangerous, and therefore it is in further knowledge that we find safe ground. Here is a Biblical principle full of practical potential for Christian living.

I remember as an elementary student studying the illustrations of plant and animal cells in a biology textbook when my father looked over my shoulder and remarked, “That’s complicated stuff for someone so young.” I can also remember my internal response: “That’s right. I am pretty smart to be learning these things!” What was happening? My knowledge was puffing me up. What could have saved me from such pride? The answer is surprising: more knowledge! To repeat Paul’s words, knowledge “puffs up … If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” In my vaunted pride, I imagined that I knew something about cellular biology. To which Paul would say, “You think you know this stuff? You think you’re so smart? Then clearly you know nothing at all.”

Pride in our knowledge is the proof we have little of it. Why? Because reality is so awesome that any true grasp of it will humble us. Had I truly understood something of cellular biology, I would have fallen on my face beside David and prayed, trembling, “I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psa 139:14 ESV). The nature of truth and reality is such that only a surface understanding of it can engender pride; it humbles all who begin to plumb its depths.

Before we flesh out the solution further, let’s return to the danger: a little bit of knowledge. It puffs up self, which is a form of growth, but of the wrong kind, and in the wrong direction. Knowledge puffs me up, whereas love builds others up. As an example, if the assembly were likened to a building site where I, in my pride introduced an expansion project – the expansion of me and my kingdom – at best this might lead to competition, and at worst it could lead to demolition and destruction. My personal Bible study beforehand can arm me to tear down another believer in the assembly. A smattering of knowledge of Greek or Hebrew means I should be the go-to person for everyone else with questions. If I’ve read a couple of books on apologetics, I feel I now know how everyone else should modify their gospel preaching. I attend a conference on innovative outreach and then can’t wait to rub in how outmoded everyone in the home assembly is.

Knowledge-based pride can cause destruction in other settings as well. How many fellow students and colleagues have we turned off from the gospel because of our intellectual strutting? This is not a problem restricted to the young. Seasoned Christians, preachers, and elders are all susceptible to the pride that accompanies a little knowledge. God help us!

We’ve considered the danger; now consider the cure. To return to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 8:2, what does it look like for someone to “know as he ought to know?”

Paul gives us three clues in chapter 8. However, we have space for only two of them. First, after saying that anyone who imagines he knows something doesn’t yet know as he ought, Paul adds, “But if anyone loves God, he is known by God” (1Cor 8:3 ESV). This casts “knowing as we ought to know” in terms of our relationship with God, of being known by Him. All truth is God’s truth. Creation and all that is true about it and in it ultimately declares the wonders of God (Psa 19:1-6; Rom 1:18-23; 2:12-16; John 14:6; Prov 30:15-33; Matt 6:25-33). Study pre-calculus, a theology, book, or music theory, and let your studies transport you into the presence of the God Whose truths these are, marveling that you know Him, and are known by Him.

If the first way of knowing more fully is to grasp our subject in the light of what it reveals about God and the wonder of our relationship with Him, Paul’s second strategy is to see it in light of the cross. Whereas those with a little knowledge saw a brother with a sensitive conscience as being “weak,” Paul saw the same Christian as “the brother for whom Christ died” (1Cor 8:11, ESV). When we look down at a brother with whom we disagree, it only highlights our own lack of knowledge. But when we press on to know truly and fully, we see a Savior who gave up His “rights” (1Cor 8:9, Phil 2:5-8), and we feel ourselves to be the “weak” (1Cor 8:9, Rom 5:6) “brother for whom Christ died” (1Cor 8:11). Superficial knowledge provokes pride; fuller knowledge invokes humble love. As an old proverb puts it: “Greek, Hebrew, and Latin all have their proper place. But it is not at the head of the cross, where Pilate put them, but at the foot of the cross, in humble service to Christ.”[1]

Let’s boil this down to a practical, three-step process. Use it every time you study any subject.

Test the depth of your knowledge by checking if you’re proud of it. If you are, your knowledge is insufficient. Confess your pride. Then press on further to know it deeper, seeing the subject matter in light of the realities of God and the cross of Christ. Don’t stop until you know it so well it humbles you.

Be motivated in your study by a desire to learn it for the sake of others and for the sake of love, and not to further yourself. Hint: You will find that the best way to perform these steps is through prayer.

[1] Quoted by David Alan Black.