The Word of Knowledge
OK, this might be a bit controversial, as I’m going to challenge a charismatic shibboleth…
I have had a blog entry in preparation for a couple of years now on the meaning of “word of knowledge”, as I am not sure that the what charismatics tend to use this phrase to mean is what Paul means when he uses it. Many charismatics use “word of knowledge” to refer to supernaturally obtained knowledge about a person. For example, when Jesus says to the woman at the well, “you have five husbands”, this would be seen as a “word of knowledge”. Personally I think that this would more naturally be called a gift of “prophecy” (Gk: propheteia) or even “revelation” (Gk: apocalypsis).
What’s more, there are some concerns I have with the way this gift is used. Very often it takes the form of announcing a specific fact about a non-specific person in a meeting. In other words, it starts with “there is someone here who…”. Now all the examples of “words of knowledge” that can be found in the Bible were directed specifically at the person they relate to. This meant they could be tested, at the very least by the recipient of the word of knowedge. And where Christians use any spiritual gift, that gift should be tested.
I think this non-person-speicific approach can result in “words of knowledge” that are very vague and therefore can be seen as a risk-free form of prophecy, where there is no come-back if it misses the mark. I sometimes hear what I call “words of statistical probablity” e.g. “there is someone here with a bad back” in a room of 500 people. People argue that it causes faith for healing to rise in the hearers. I would say that I have spoken to many for whom this type of utterance leads to skepticism. I have seen non-Christian magicians wow gullible people with probability tricks – “does the name ‘Steve’ mean anything to you?”. I’m not saying that God can’t give a specific prophecy without telling the prophet who it is for, but it just strikes me as out of keeping with the biblical precedents we have.
Anyway, I am not convinced we have enough exegetical material to know exactly what Paul means when he talks about a “word of knowledge”. It is only mentioned briefly in passing (1 Cor 12:8), and not given a definition. The Greek word for “knowledge” (gnosis) could refer to natural knowledge – the type you get by studying and learning, but also could refer to supernaturally revealed knowledge (hence the “gnostics”).
So which is it? Let’s survey the places the word occurs in 1 Corinthians to see whether it refers to knowledge obtained by natural means (i.e. being taught), or by supernatural revelation.
1 Cor 1:5 in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge – probably natural knowledge
1 Cor 8:1 we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. – again probably natural knowledge
1 Cor 8:7 However, not all possess this knowledge. – again natural knowledge (also 1 Cor 8:10,11)
1 Cor 12:8 to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit – the verse in question. not enough information from the context to decide
1 Cor 13:2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. – could be either in this context.
1 Cor 13:8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. – OK, now we have the feeling that Paul can use “knowledge” to refer to some kind of supernatural revelation. Surely we will not all be ignoramuses in heaven.
1 Cor 14:6 Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? – I’ve seen lots of attempts to differentiate between these four terms. I have no idea who is right. Here’s my suggestion. Paul is saying: “revelation or knowledge … in other words … prophecy or teaching” i.e. revelation is another word for prophecy and knowledge is another word for teaching. Its only a guess though.
1 Cor 15:34 For some have no knowledge of God. – this is talking about personal knowledge rather than factual so doesn’t help us
I won’t bore you with all of Paul’s other uses of this term (and there are a lot), but suffice to say that on the whole when “knowledge” refers to knowledge of factual information rather than personal knowledge of God, its source seems to be through natural means. So someone teaches us doctrine, or we study the scriptures ourselves, and we come to have knowledge – knowledge of the truth about God, about doctrine, about the mystery of salvation. In other words, with the exception of 1 Cor 13:8, it seems Paul does not usually use knowledge to mean “something that I didn’t learn from any person or book – God dropped it into my head”. Prophecy or revelation are the words to describe that. What’s more, the knowledge Paul is usually talking about seems to be doctrinal in nature – which again is out of keeping with the idea of facts about people being the normal content of a “word of knowledge”.
So on balance I am tempted to think that the gift of knowledge refers to some who has a working understanding of the Bible and a good grasp of theology, who edifies the church by explaining things to people, whether it be one on one, in a small group context, or in a teaching ministry. They bring a “word of knowledge”, by applying that knowledge in a way that teaches people, and gives them insight to see and appreciate how the Bible applies to them, and to understand God and the gospel better. This is not a dry intellectual gift – the Holy Spirit is impressing these truths on them as they study the word so they can share them with others.
What prompted me to finally post about this was that I listened to Mark Driscoll preaching on 1 Cor 12 (listen here), and he takes a similar line, arguing that the person with this gift is a “book geek” who loves to study and research, and is over the moon at the arrival of a new parcel from Amazon. People with this gift assimilate loads of information and like to hear all sides of an argument. They become a “google for Jesus” as people come to them to ask difficult questions and they love to explain what they have learned in a way that is accessible. Although its a long sermon, its well worth listening to. He also explains in it that his position on the gifts is that he is a “charismatic with a seatbelt”, and his definition of how you know whether you are in a charismaniac church is hilarious (11 minutes in to the sermon). The discussion of the gift of knowledge is towards the end of the sermon.
Anyway, whatever the gift of “knowledge” really means, I like the idea of studying to be a “google for Jesus”. I think that kind of describes a lot of Christian bloggers – theology book lovers who are looking for people to share what they have read with.