Difficult Bible Passages: 1 Corinthians 3:19

Refusing to love God with your mind is not a mark of godliness:

Sadly there are many Christians who believe that it is somehow virtuous and spiritual to NOT use their minds. They delight in anti-intellectualism, and they look down on those who are learned and well-read. They seem to think the more brainless you are, the more God approves of you.

And they will latch onto some verses to try to make their case. A number of such texts will be ripped out of context and misused from Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians – including the one under consideration here. The verse itself says this: “For the wisdom of this world is folly with God.” And the context (verses 18-23) must be considered as well:

Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,”  and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

In the opening chapters of this letter Paul deals with various problems in the Corinthian church, including divisions. Often he speaks of worldly wisdom and earthly knowledge. In 1 Cor. 1:18 for example he quotes from Isaiah 29:14: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

He goes on to speak about “the foolishness of the gospel” (verses 21-25). In chapter two he contrasts the wisdom of the Spirit with the wisdom of the world. And in 1 Cor. 8:1 he speaks about how knowledge puffs up. So one might think Paul is fully disparaging knowledge, learning, wisdom, the use of the mind, and so on.

But clearly this is not the case. Throughout Scripture – including in the writings of Paul – the use of the mind, the role of reason, and the place of intellect are all held up and encouraged. Simply consider the greatest commandment Jesus ever gave to us: the one about loving God with our mind and the rest of our being.

That alone should dispel this foolish notion of thinking we can please God by being brainless wonders. But I have written about this often, and offered plenty of biblical texts to back this up. The most recent piece on this is found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/10/31/not-to-think-is-a-sin/

But what about the passages listed above? Is Paul contradicting himself? Not at all. When Paul and others speak negatively of the ‘wisdom of the world’ they do NOT mean all knowledge and understanding of all people who happen to live on planet earth. The Greek word for world – kosmos – is used in various ways in the New Testament.

It often can just refer to the earth that we live on. But when used like it is here in a negative light, it refers to the evil, ungodly world system. It refers to the wisdom of those who shake their fists at God and are wise in their own eyes. So the context usually makes it clear how we are to understand the term.

So humanistic knowledge and wisdom, cut off from God and his wisdom, and used to resist what God has for us, is of course to be eschewed and condemned. But that is NOT true of all learning, knowledge and wisdom. God gave us minds to love him. We are to reason for his glory. We are to learn and grow and become mature Christians – even intellectually.

If you think you can worship God while checking your brain in at the door each week, you are not really loving God as he asked us to. If you are intellectually lazy or spiritually proud as you denounce those who love God with their minds, you need to repent. But I have often spoken to this, as in this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/03/17/let-my-people-think/

Of course Christians can become proud and ugly with the wrong use of their minds and intellect. But in the same way believers can become proud and ugly in their anti-intellect stance. They end up looking down on others and think they are so vastly superior, because they want nothing to do with the mind, or learning, or books, and so on. Pharisaic arrogance in one extreme is NOT eliminated by going to the other extreme.

Disparaging others

Related to the above is something I encounter far too often, and it really grieves my spirit, as I am sure it grieves God. This has to do with these same sort of Christians elevating themselves as some kind of spiritual giant while they look down on others for daring to mention a book or a quote or a theologian or a commentary, and so on.

You might have been really blessed by something you read in a theological tome, or something you heard from some Bible expositor, and so you post it online to help and bless others. But these guys will come along and let you know that they are Bible-only Christians and they have no need of mere human teachers.

They will insist on how unhelpful it is to listen to the words of men. Of course it always amuses and amazes me when folks like this come along telling me that only the Bible should be listened to and not mere men. They do not seem to get the fact that they are also mere men – yet they fully expect me to listen to them as they tell me I am wrong!

And they will claim that the Bible is above all human books and learning. Of course that is the case – who ever said otherwise?! Only the Bible is the inspired and infallible word of God. No human sermon or book or teaching is. If I am helped greatly by a human teacher or writer, I never claim they are on a par with Scripture. But God certainly can use such resources.

We should know what the New Testament clearly teaches on this. For example, God has given pastors and teachers to the Body of Christ to help us learn, grow, develop and mature. So these arrogant believers who think all this is a waste of time are telling God that he is wrong. That is a very scary place to be in.

Usually these folks are either spiritually immature or spiritually arrogant. As to the former, they might just be new Christians, and we can be a bit forbearing with them. Hopefully things will change over time with some Christian growth and maturity. As to the latter, that is harder to deal with, and what is needed is some humility and repentance.

The truth is, we need each other. None of us have all the truth. We can learn from others. For some silly Christian to come along and pretend he is more spiritual than all of us because he only listens to Scripture is not a sign of being really spiritual and holy – it is an indication of carnality and arrogance.

Refusing to love God with your mind is not something to be proud about. Nor is refusing to learn from others. But I have often dealt with these matters. See here for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/07/05/we-need-each-other/

And here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/02/21/godly-spirituality-or-fleshly-pride/

I for one will keep sharing great spiritual insights and biblical truths wherever I find them, be they from sermons or commentaries or old theology books or online teachers, and so on. And I will ignore some of these holier-than-thou believers who think they are so close to God while they judge and condemn other Christians for daring to think for the glory of God.

Sadly, about all we can do for these believers with their proud anti-intellectualism is pray for them. As mentioned, they might just be young, immature believers who will hopefully move on from their unbiblical position over time. If it is more a matter of spiritual pride, that is more serious, but that too must be renounced and moved away from.

In both cases what is needed is some humility and a teachable spirit. See more on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/04/01/perilous-pitfalls-unteachable-spirit/

Without those vital necessities, none of us will get very far in the Christian life. Indeed, we will end up going backwards.

[1418 words]

3 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: 1 Corinthians 3:19”

  1. Indeed you are correct Bill. The reason we need to work so hard at using our mind is because our intellect is so limited. Jesus may have said those who do wrong unknowingly will be worthy of a lesser beating than those who do wrong deliberately (Luke 12:47-48, 1 Tim 1:13, Heb 5:2 ) but the idea is to not do wrong at all and so not get beaten. From what I can make out from scripture (E.g Rom 10:3, 11:25, 1 Cor 14:38, Mar 12:24) being deliberately ignorant of what God requires does not give people the same reduction in punishment as being ignorant through no fault of their own which is is what I would expect. Even under worldly laws they say ignorance is no excuse but I suspect it may result in a slight reduction in penalty.

  2. Maybe people misinterpret this passage in Romans 12:2

    “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

    To say the “removal of your mind”?

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