Bible Commentaries

Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae

1 Corinthians 8

Verse 2



1 Corinthians 8:2. If any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.

OF all the apostolic churches, not one abounded with such various and enormous evils as that of Corinth. To bring the people to a better mind was the continual labour of the Apostle; and a difficult task he found it: for, whilst some denied his authority, others justified the very evils which he endeavoured to correct. Hence, on different subjects, an appeal was made to him, that he might state his sentiments upon them fully, and lay down rules for their future conduct.

The eating of meats offered to idols was a ground of much contention among them. They all, to a certain degree, were agreed on this, that “an idol was nothing in the world;” and that the circumstance of meat having been offered to an idol could not defile the meat itself, or render it unfit for food. But there were some who thought, that by eating such meat they should, in some respect, be partakers in the idolatry of those who had offered it to their idols. Those who saw their liberty in relation to this matter felt proud of their superior discernment; and, for the purpose of displaying their superiority to such antiquated prejudices, would actually go into the very temples of the idols, and eat with the idolaters themselves. This, as might be well expected, gave great offence to their weaker brethren, and proved a stumbling-block to many; who were induced, by this example, to pursue the same line of conduct, whilst yet they doubted the lawfulness of it in the sight of God; and thus were led to the commission of damning sin by the unhallowed boldness of their own brethren [Note: ver. 7–11.]. The Apostle marked the precise line of distinction which ought to be observed in this matter. The eating of meat offered to idols was allowable; since neither the act, nor an abstinence from it, would make them either better or worse in the sight of God. But the eating of it in an idol’s temple was decidedly wrong; since it did, in fact, both sanction idolatry, and involve them in a participation of it [Note: 1 Corinthians 10:18-22.]. But the eating of it at all, in the presence of one who doubted the lawfulness of it, was wrong; because it put a stumbling-block in the way of a weak brother, and tempted him to violate the dictates of his less-enlightened conscience. The Apostle acknowledges that the general sentiment respecting the vanity of idols was right; but still declares, that if any person thought his knowledge so decisive that it needed not to be under the regulation and controul of love, it was a clear proof that, “as yet, he knew nothing as he ought to know.”

Now, though this subject is not of any great interest to Christians in general, I conceive it to be of very great importance to Churches, where there is any considerable profession of religion; and especially to Churches wherein there are, as at Corinth, a number of persons who need to have the lines of demarcation drawn between Christian liberty and Christian duty.

I will proceed, then, to set before you,

I. The defects usually attendant on knowledge—

We must not take the Apostle’s words in too strict a sense, as though a person must be unconscious of any proficiency in knowledge: it is not possible for one who has studied a subject thoroughly to imagine himself as ignorant of it as he was before he turned his attention to it, or as another person who has never spent one hour in the contemplation of it. It is not possible for a philosopher to suppose himself on a level with a peasant in point of intellectual attainment. The very idea is altogether repugnant to reason and common sense: and, therefore, we must be careful not to put on the Apostle’s words a construction which would involve such an absurdity as that.

But knowledge, through the corruption of our fallen nature, is attended with many and great defects. It is but too frequently accompanied with, yea, and too often generates in its possessors,

1. Conceit—

[To speak of knowledge generally, would draw us too far from our subject. It is of knowledge as connected with religion that we are called to treat: and perhaps it is in that precise view that its attendant evils are most fully seen. For it is not attained by great labour, like other knowledge. There is a key to that, which is not to be found in relation to any other branch of knowledge whatever; a key which will open a way to all its richest stores, and without which its stores are inaccessible to mortal man: and that key is a broken and contrite spirit. Now, as this key may be in the possession of a poor unlettered man, whilst a man of learning and research has not found it, the poor man may have his mind enriched with stores to which his more learned neighbour is an utter stranger: and therefore it must not be thought strange, if, in an uncultivated mind, it should generate somewhat of conceit. The possessor of that key has a consciousness that “God has revealed to him, a babe, what he has hid from the wise and prudent;” and therefore feels himself, in that respect, superior to his less-enlightened, though more learned, neighbour: and if he be somewhat elated with a superiority which nothing else could give him, we may lament it, but we cannot altogether wonder at it. But this conceit is frequently carried beyond the objects of mere spiritual discernment, and leads persons to think that they have a like superiority in reference to all things connected with religion: and here they greatly err; for the things which come within the sphere of spiritual discernment are few; such as, the depth of our fall, the necessity of a Saviour, the beauty of holiness, and our entire dependence on the influences of the Holy Spirit for the production of every good work within us: but the things connected with these are infinite; and, for a just view of them, we must be indebted to much deep learning and critical research. And it is an evil, a very great evil, when religious people, because their eyes have been opened, and they can say, “Whereas I was blind, I now see,” imagine that they can see what is really beyond the sphere of their observation.]

2. Dogmatism—

[Wherever there is conceit, there will be a proportionate degree of readiness to dictate to others. Men, conceiving themselves to be right, will of course conclude all others to be wrong; and will lay down the law with as much confidence as if they were infallible. Persons of every different communion will do this: the Papist and the Protestant, the Churchman and Dissenter, the various classes of Dissenters, all are alike assured that they themselves are right, and that all who differ from them are wrong. Nor is it only in the forms of Church government that they will express this confidence, but also in relation to the doctrines of our holy religion; every one being ready to make articles of faith for his neighbours, as well as for himself, and to exclude from the pale of his Church all who cannot pronounce his Shibboleth. In truth, this has been the source of almost all the divisions that are to be found in the Church of God. It is this species of dictation which has driven from the Popish Church millions of holy men: and I am not sure that the Church of England also would not have done better, if she had left on neutral grouud all which has no direct bearing on the spiritual welfare of her communicants. The Apostle complains of those at Corinth who insisted on points, which, if complied with, rendered men no better, or, if neglected, rendered them no worse. And had his spirit been more generally prevalent amongst every denomination of Christians, there would have been more real unity amongst them than all the acts of uniformity in the world, and all the rules of every distinct body, ever did, or could, produce.]

3. Contemptuousness—

[This is nearly allied with the former. The next step to the believing that others are blind in comparison of ourselves, is, to despise them for their want of just discernment. Hence religious professors often speak of those who maintain different sentiments from themselves, as ignorant and carnal. With what contempt will a Calvinist regard an Arminian brother, as having no insight into Divine truth; whilst an Arminian will ascribe to his Calvinistic brother every sentiment that is degrading to God, or discouraging to man. Those of their own party are wise: but all others are “fools and blind.” How much of this leaven was there in the Corinthian Church! and how much is there of it in the present day! How many are “fond of vain jangling, desiring to be teachers, though they understand not what they say, nor whereof they affirm,” but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmises, and perverse disputings [Note: 1 Timothy 1:6-7; 1 Timothy 6:4.]!” Whereas the one rule of conduct to a Christian should be this: “We that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves [Note: Romans 15:1.].” In truth, I scarcely know whether ignorance itself be not preferable to knowledge so absurd: for ignorance is destructive to ourselves only; whereas a contemptuous spirit of dictation is injurious to the whole Church. But this I know, at all events, that “if a man think himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself [Note: Galatians 6:3.];” and that true wisdom is, to “esteem others better and wiser than ourselves [Note: Philippians 2:3.].”]

But let me turn from this painful subject, to mark,

II. The qualities with which our knowledge should be imbued—

Knowledge is doubtless a most signal blessing, if it be accompanied with those dispositions which will turn it to good account. It should in every instance be blended,

1. With humility—

[The effect of knowledge should always be, to shew us how little we know. In every science under heaven we can advance but a little way: after a few steps, we are wholly out of our depth. And, if this be the case with respect to sciences which admit of demonstration, how much more must it be so in reference to religion, where we know nothing but by revelation! Look at the philosophers of Greece and Rome, and see how little they knew, either of God or man. The most unlearned person who has been instructed in the knowledge of the Gospel has juster views of God, and of man, than all the wise men of antiquity put together. Yet what does the most exalted Christian know, either of the one or the other? Of God we have no positive knowledge at all: our knowledge of him is altogether negative. We know that He is not a material being; and therefore we call him a Spirit: but we know no more what a Spirit is, than we did the hour that we were born. We assign to him certain perfections: but what those perfections are in themselves, or how they are exercised, we know scarcely any thing: we only know that he is not weak,not unwise, not unjust, not unmerciful, and so on: but, if we should attempt to declare what he is, we should only “darken counsel by words without knowledge.” Of man, too, how little is known! Self-knowledge is exceeding rare: and the person in whom it exists in the highest degree will be the most ready to acknowledge the truth of that observation, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” In a word, “If any man would be truly wise, he must become a fool, that he may be wise [Note: 1 Corinthians 3:18.].”]

2. Diffidence—

[Where such a multitude of opinions prevail on all subjects, who is he that shall claim an exemption from error? Who will venture to say, ‘All others are wrong, and I am right?’ Doubtless there are some truths of which, in a general riew, we may be confident; because they are revealed so plainly in the word of God, that they cannot be misapprehended; and because we have the witness of them in our own souls. But when we come to enter into particulars, we soon find ourselves involved in difficulties that are insurmountable, if not in absolute contradictions. Let us try this in reference to any point whatever; and we shall have evidence enough of our ignorance, even in the things that we are best acquainted with: nay, we shall find, on many occasions, reason to alter our opinions, and, on fuller information, to adopt those which we had before rejected. We should be careful, therefore, so to embrace sentiments, as to hold ourselves still open to conviction; and so to maintain opinions, as to admit that others may be possessed of truth as well as we.]

3. Consideration—

[There may be much knowledge, where there is but little wisdom. Knowledge may be superficial and crude; though, I confess, in that state it scarcely deserves the name of knowledge. It ought to be matured by a large and comprehensive view of things, under all the variety of circumstances in which they can occur: for, without such an attention to circumstances our very knowledge may be foolishness, and our light no better than darkness. We know that we are to observe every ordinance that God has enjoined: but if the calls of mercy be heard, they must supersede even the plainest ordinance that is of a ritual nature. In the chapter before us, as in the Epistle to the Romans also [Note: Romans 14.], the want of consideration was that which was particularly blamed in those who ate the meat which had been offered to idols. Had they done it in secret, there had been no harm: but, when they did it in the presence of a weak brother, they shewed a grievous want of consideration, to discern the expediency or inexpediency of their conduct. It is right to declare the Gospel without fear: but it is not right to “cast pearls before swine.” In every thing, therefore, of a practical nature, we should so attend to every minute circumstance of time and place, as to keep clear of offence to any, and to “prevent our good from being evil spoken of [Note: Romans 14:16.].”]

4. Love—

[Without this, all knowledge is vain. Of what value was the knowledge of those Corinthians, who would display it at the expense of the souls of their own brethren, whom they led into sin! Many who preach the Gospel are particularly faulty in this respect. They mind only what they are able to declare, without ever considering what their hearers are able to receive. A man, coming into a sick chamber, would not at once cast a flood of light upon the eyes of the patient, when he was scarcely able to endure the glimmering of a taper: love would keep him from so injurious an act: and the same heavenly principle should operate universally in the exercise of our knowledge: we should put a veil over our faces, if men be unable to behold the splendour of our communications; or, in other words, we should give “milk to babes, and strong meat to those only who are capable of digesting it.” In reference to the point before us, St. Paul shews us the proper office of love in these things: “If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no meat while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend [Note: ver. 13.].”]

In order to a due improvement of this subject, let us cultivate,

1. Docility of mind—

[In this especially are we to resemble little children [Note: Matthew 18:3.]. Divine truth is manifestly beyond our comprehension; and we must receive it simply on the authority of God. It is in this way that we attain even human knowledge. What does a child know of grammar? but, from acquiescing in the instructions given him, he comes to find that all those things which once appeared to him so dark and unintelligible have a real foundation in language itself, and that we could not communicate ideas upon any abstract subject without them. Much more, therefore, must Divine knowledge be so received. We do not comprehend any thing fully at the first: but from receiving implicitly God’s declarations, respecting our fall in Adam, our recovery by Christ, and all the other wonders of redeeming love, we shall at last attain an internal evidence that things both are so, and must be so. The proper frame of mind for all of us is, that of the Centurion and his friends: “Now we are all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God [Note: Acts 10:33.].” If we come to God “poor and hungry, we shall be filled with good things: but if we come rich and full, we shall surely be sent empty away [Note: Luke 1:53.].” “Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? there is more hope of a fool than of him.”]

2. Moderation of sentiment—

[We must guard against running to extremes; or so embracing any subject, as to be unwilling to weigh what is to be said against it. I do not mean by this, that we should run into scepticism, or involve ourselves in controversy; but that we should so hold our own sentiments, as to conceive that others who differ from us may have a measure of truth on their side as well as we. We should doubtless form our own opinions on all things that come fairly before us: but we should concede the same liberty to others; and be as willing that others should walk according to the dictates of their consciences, as we of ours. Had this disposition reigned in the apostolic Churches, how happily might those of different sentiments have lived together! But “the weak would judge the strong; and the strong would despise the weak [Note: Romans 14:2-3.].” Had each made due allowance for the other, God had been honoured, and peace preserved.]

3. Tenderness of deportment—

[Lovely is that rule which the Apostle has laid down, in his Epistle to the Romans; “Him that is weak in the faith, receive you; but not to doubtful disputations [Note: Romans 14:1.].” How happy would it be, if this rule were more generally observed! But the evil is, that almost every one is ready to insist on his own peculiarities, and to make them a ground of controversy and division. Surely it were far better to live under the influence of love; and to leave matters of minor consideration to the judgment of every individual. Doubtless, about things of primary and vital importance, we must both maintain our own opinions, and inculcate them on others, with a holy zeal; according as it is written, “Ye should contend earnestly for the faith that was once delivered to the saints [Note: Jude, ver. 3.].” But even in this we should be careful always to “speak the truth in love;” and be studious only to “win the souls” of men, and not to proselyte them to a party. We may “have all the knowledge of men or angels; but it will profit us nothing if it be not under the influence of love [Note: 1 Corinthians 13:1-2].” Knowledge may puff us up; but it is charity alone that edifieth [Note: ver. 1.].”]

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Bibliographical Information
Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8". Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae. 1832.