1 Cor. 13:8-13
by Jeph Holloway, ETBU
I don’t know when it first began to dawn on me that 1 Corinthians 13 is about epistemology. We are so accustomed to its use in nuptial settings that the hard edge of Paul’s argument against Corinthian pretensions is often obscured. I am all for 1 Corinthians 13 being read at wedding ceremonies; of course, I think it even better to read it about three or four weeks into the marriage and at regular intervals thereafter. But what about at an academic meeting of this sort?
We are in many ways in the knowledge industry, an enterprise which Paul informs us is destined for some degree of failure and concerning which our every effort at present is at best an approximation. For those of us who love the letters of Paul and who seek greater understanding of their meaning, we encounter this odd feature: that the more we know of what Paul has to say, the more we sense the only qualified importance of such knowledge. On more than a few occasions, Paul relativizes human intellectual attainments concerning divine matters: “Who has known the mind of God?” he asks, quoting Isaiah (Rom. 11:34; Isa. 40:13). He catches himself as he comes close to affirming the Galatians’ knowledge of God, but insists, rather, that what counts is that God knows them (Gal. 4:9). Almost mocking the Corinthians, he insists that God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1 Cor. 1:27). And, in anticipation of the concerns of 1 Corinthians 13, in 8:1-2 Paul contends that “knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.” Challenging their posturing, Paul announces, “If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know.”
Not for a moment do I think Paul would dismiss as inherently snobbish the effort to gain greater knowledge of Scripture, or of science, the arts, or literature, for that matter. But Dale Martin speaks of “Paul epistemological reservation—the constraints of knowledge that come with our present, natural existence” [“Teleology, Epistemology, and Universal Vision in Paul,” 96]. Of course it is, as Martin notes, Paul’s eschatological reservation that restricts our knowledge claims concerning God. We enjoy now only partial knowledge. Whether that knowledge comes via Spirit-endowed prophets or other forms of pneumatic speech, the time will come when the character of such knowledge will be revealed for what it is—sufficient for the day, but dim in the light of eternity.
This dimension of Paul’s epistemological reservation has been largely ignored, Martin says, in current dialogue between Paul and continental philosophy. Paul’s apocalyptic frame of reference does not function well within attempts by avowed atheists to find in Paul a partner for contemporary political philosophy. That frame of reference, however, should have an important place in any understanding of what role knowledge has in our profession, particularly if we consider our tasks in light of what Paul says about knowledge here in 1 Corinthians 13.
Whatever brand of knowledge we think Paul has in his sights, he clearly wants to downplay its significance; specifically, he relativizes knowledge. We might take this in two associated ways. First, he relativizes knowledge by stressing its partial or incomplete status. Second, he relativizes knowledge by relating knowledge to other commitments, so that knowledge can only be properly pursued or valued in relation to other, more fundamental, goods.
I have to admit that both prospects I find annoying. It is not his insistence that our knowledge on any matter, divine or otherwise, is partial and incomplete that particularly troubles me. It is why Paul says this that bothers me. Paul’s reference to the speech, thoughts, and reasoning of the child is often taken simply as an illustration of the incomplete character of our knowledge. Martin Luther stresses this dimension of epistemological reserve when he insists we know as much about the age to come as the unborn child knows about life beyond the mother’s womb. I think, though, there is an additional point to the comparison. It is not simply that the child’s knowledge is incomplete; it is that the child confuses his or her partial perspective with the whole. The five month old knows only that he is hungry, not that his needs infringe upon someone else’s good night’s sleep. We know how difficult it is for the five year old to see things from any other perspective than her own. We are aggravated when the tendency still finds display in the fifteen year old, but remain hopeful that the frontal lobe will kick in some day.
It is this tendency Paul has to challenge among the Corinthians as they have, for whatever reasons, divided themselves into rival camps. Their claiming absolute status on the basis of the relative merits of attachment to this or that servant of the gospel, whom they perceived as purveyors of wisdom, sufficiently proves to Paul that they are acting like children (1 Cor. 3:1).
That’s what I don’t like—the pointed reminder, not just that my knowledge is partial, but that I am all too eager to confuse my partial grasp for the whole. This tendency still goes far in explaining a fractured Christianity. And it is what we try to resist in our efforts at a scholarship that necessarily dialogues with competing voices, appropriates alternative methodologies, is open to correction, and recognizes that we must be at work on at least two of the three tasks of the scribe—rendering judgments and raising up disciples who might do us one better on behalf of the next generation of ministerial students.
It is the Corinthians’ tendency to confuse partial knowledge with the whole that I believe Paul challenges in 1 Corinthians 13 and why he relates knowledge to other commitments, insisting that knowledge is only properly pursued or valued in relation to other, more fundamental, goods. What goods? The goods of Christian fellowship and worship in the body of Christ, united in the practice of God’s love. We might see a link between the childish supposition held among certain members of the Corinthian congregation that their knowledge of divine things suffered no eschatological constraints and the notion of some that they really could do without other members of the body of Christ—the eye, as it were, not needing the hand (1 Cor. 12:21). Paul checks such attitudes in 1 Corinthians 13 where, along with his insistence on the imperfect character of our knowledge, he asserts the necessity and supremacy of love.
That’s another thing I don’t like. I am enough of a child of modernity that I believe, not only in my own objectivity, but in the virtue of curiosity, the pursuit of knowledge as a stand-alone good. Interestingly, both Augustine and Aquinas condemn curiosity as a vice. Augustine distinguishes the studious from the curious by noting the presence or absence of love for the other. The studious is prompted by a love for that which is already known, seeking greater intimacy, while the curious is driven only by a love of knowing what is already possessed and under control. What the curious does not know is hated until it too becomes known as a possessed object under dominion (de Trinitas, 10.1.3). Aquinas follows Augustine and contrasts a curiosity we must not gratify with an intellectual appetite that serves as a “ladder to ascend to immortal and everlasting goods” (Summa Theologica, II.2.167).
I was troubled when I first read of Aquinas’ refusal to finish his massive Summa. When pressed to complete the work, he insisted all he had written was as straw. How could the master synthesizer of philosophy, Scripture, and Church tradition dismiss his own work in such fashion? While participating in the Eucharist, just months before he died, he was overwhelmed by the presence of God in worship so that he saw all his previous efforts in the divine science in a new light—of value only in relation to immortal and everlasting goods. Both Augustine and Aquinas offer reinforcement of Paul’s epistemological concerns in 1 Corinthians 13—that knowledge, even of divine matters, is only properly valued from within the context of other commitments—here commitments within the worshiping community to the practice of the love of God.
To my mind, current waves in epistemological thinking in some ways echo this Pauline pattern. Neuroscience highlights bottoms-up thinking where behavior influences the formation of neural pathways in the brain and thus structure patterns of thinking. Berger and Luckmann insist that our models for interpreting the world derive from our participation in particular social settings. Postmodernism’s incredulity to meta-narratives celebrates our embeddedness in the particularities of time, place, economics, and gender. Wittgenstein’s account of language games suggests they obtain meaning within a set of shared practices. All these voices and more resonate with Paul’s account of knowledge in 1 Corinthians 13 as properly valued only when it’s limits are admitted and it’s pursuit ultimately placed within a concern for the community created by the gospel and sustained in a worship made possible by the Holy Spirit.
It is an interesting question as to whether current sensitivities have led us all-too-conveniently to discover an emphasis in Paul on the situatedness of knowledge, or whether Paul himself is properly being read beyond the blinkers of modernity. The question itself already tilts towards an approach to knowledge that fits uncomfortably with what I believe are the concerns of this passage—that our pursuit of and claims to knowledge only find their proper place as the expression of gifts guided by a love of God concerned to build up the body of Christ. That seems to me unassailable. Whether I am wrong on this, or right, it is not the most important thing.
There could be no better way for me to conclude this reflection than with a prayer from Aquinas himself:
Ineffable Creator, You who are the true source of life and wisdom and the
Principle on which everything depends, be so kind as to infuse in my obscure
intelligence a ray of your splendor that may take away the darkness of sin and
ignorance. Grant me keenness of understanding, ability to remember, measure and
easiness of learning, discernment of what I read, rich grace with words. Grant
me strength to begin well my studies; guide me along the path of my efforts;
give them a happy ending. You who are true God and true Man, Jesus my Savior,
who lives and reigns forever. Amen