and the Knowledge that Puffs Up:
A Taste for Idolatry*
entire pericope of I Corinthians 8-10 can be situated between the
strange juxtaposition of two phrases that we find at the beginning
of chapter eight: "Peri de ton eidolothuton" and "oidamen hoti
pantes gnosin exomen" ["now concerning food sacrificed to idols"
and "we know that 'all of us possess knowledge'"].1 While
it might seem as if Paul turns to idolatry only to be immediately
distracted by one of the chief claims of the Corinthians-that they
"know"the linking of idolatry and knowledge is crucial to
Paul's argument.2 Since knowledge claims and idolatry
often go together, Paul actually addresses what turn out to be variants
of a well-established pattern.
2. I Corinthians
8-10, of course, has been the subject of intense debate. At issue
are not merely how the different themes in these chapters relate-themes
such as partaking in pagan rituals, eating food sacrificed to idols,
love and knowledge, the "weak" versus the "strong," the Corinthian
exercise of their rightsbut also what Paul's position regarding
food sacrificed to idols truly is. In chapter eight, he seems to
go along with the Corinthians who claim that idols are "nothing."
On that reading, eating food sacrificed to idols is not wrong per
se: it only becomes wrong when it causes a "weaker" member of
the body to stumble. Yet, in chapter ten, Paul appears to change
his mind when he asserts that eating food sacrificed to idols is
the equivalent of dining with demons. To complicate matters still,
at the end of chapter ten he advises that, when buying food in the
market or eating with friends, one should refrain from asking questions
about the food's provenance. So what is Paul's real position? Is
it that of 8:1-13, 10:14-22, or 10:23-11:1? Further, sandwiched
between chapters eight and ten is Paul's apparent digression regarding
his apostolic rights in chapter nine. Exactly how does that relate
to the chapters on either side?
3. In what follows,
I will argue that Paul in effect lays out two economies, that of
a kind of knowledge (rather than simply knowledge per se)3
and that of love. These economies are in turn defined by a series
of dichotomiespuffing up and building up, the strong and the
weak, and exercising one's freedom versus being a servant and a
steward. All of these categories have a connection to idolatry.
For, even though puffing up, being strong, and exercising one's
freedom do not necessary constitute idolatry, they make one
dangerously prone to it. To see why that is so, we need to
consider what Paul says about these two economies and relate that
to Paul's letter to Corinth as a whole, to what Scripture says about
idolatry elsewhere (particularly Genesis 3), and to recent work
by Continental philosophers. In so doing, we'll also arrive at an
account that explains how I Corinthians 8-10 is a unified rather
than divided passage, that Paul's seemingly strange juxtaposition
of idol food [eidolothuton] and knowledge makes perfect sense,
and that traditional interpretations of the passage centering around
"weak" and "strong" groups in the Corinthian church are unfounded.
As will become clear, Paul is chiefly concerned with the Corinthians'
taste for idolatry.
The Economy of Knowledge
4. That Paul
thinks knowledge and love are dichotomous is clear from the way
he contrasts them already in verse one. "Knowledge puffs up," he
says, "but love builds up" (8:1). Gnosis phusioi, agape oikodomei.
This puffing up versus building up is not merely a feature of
English translation. Each verb carries the idea of "contructing,"
though the two constructions are remarkably different in nature.
Phusioo literally means to inflate (coming from the term
for bellows, phusa). Yet Paul always uses the term metaphorically
(and negatively) for the pride that inflates one's ego. Oikodomeo
is the literally the building of a house, an oikos. For instance,
Matthew uses the term (Mt 7:24) in that well-known parable of two
persons who build houses, one on the rock and the other on the sand.
Yet the term is used both literally and metaphorically for building
5. Although Paul
doesn't explicitly "build" his argument on the root of oikodomeo,
in effect he sets outboth in this verse and throughout the
lettertwo conflicting economies. The economy of love is an
oikonomia that is focused on an oikos, not a house
in this case but the household of faith. But, as we will see, it
is also a "stewardship" of that with which one has been entrustedthe
right use of something that comes as a gift. Paul clearly would
have been aware of the etymological connections between oikodomeo
and oikonomia, though whether he is thinking in terms of
two economies per se would be hard to argue. Yet such is
what he effectively does.
6. Given that
Paul begins chapter seven by saying "now concerning the matters
about which you wrote," commentators generally agree that Paul is
responding to a letter or series of letters from the Corinthians.4
His use of the locution "peri de" here and elsewhere in this
text indicates that he is responding to a concern raised by the
Corinthians. Further, Paul appears to be quoting from the Corinthians'
letter(s) and responding to each point. What makes Paul's use of
quotations complicated is that it is not always clear as to the
degree with which he agrees with what the Corinthians write (nor
clear as to the degree of what is part of the quotation and what
is Paul's addition). As will become evident, Paul's use of quotation
in the text is often both ironic and critical.
the first quotation of chapter eight fits that description. Paul
quotes back to the Corinthians something that seems to have been
a kind of motto of theirs: "we all know" [pantes gnosin exomen].
But, more than that, he prefaces that motto with the phrase "oidamen
hoti." Taken together, the entire phrase "oidamen hoti pantes
gnosin exomen" is a meta-epistemological claim: "we know that
we know."5 Although we could explore exactly how gnosis
functions here (for instance, does it denote some esoteric knowledge
regarding the true nature of the physical and spiritual realms?),
I leave that question aside. Whatever this gnosis may be,
the Corinthians clearly think it empowers themand that is
what disturbs Paul. While Paul often uses gnosis positively
(for example, in I Cor 1:5), here he thinks that it is problematic.
Rather than read Paul as including himself in the "we know that,"6
it seems more likely that Paul is describing the attitude of the
Corinthians. That the problem here is not simply "knowing" but a
kind of "knowing that one knows" becomes clear in verse two. Paul
says: "Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the
necessary knowledge" The key word here is "dokeo," which
means to suppose or think something. In effect, Paul says that,
at the very moment you think you "know" you don't actually know
as you ought to knowwhich is to say you don't really "know."
Here we have Paul at his enigmatic best. But he is certainly not
without precedent in making such a puzzling claim. One cannot help
but think of the similarly enigmatic remark Jesus makes to the Pharisees.
They say to him: "Surely we are not blind, are we?" He responds:
"If you were blind, you would have no sin. But now that you say,
'We see,' your sin remains" (Jn 9:40-41).7 It is not
the moment of knowing (or seeing) but the moment of claiming knowledge
that is problematic. Not only is the claim disproportional to the
actual knowledge they possess, but also how they make the claim
8. Let us first
turn to the "disportionality" of the claim. At issue here is the
status of their knowledge claimsor, put more pointedly, the
status they claim for those claims. If one says "oidamen
hoti pantes gnosin exomen," then one is making a very strong
claim indeed. The verb oida (to know) comes from the root
*eido (to see). In Plato's philosophy, for instance, knowing
the eidos (usually translated as "form" or "idea") of something
means that one has grasped it perfectly. To know the eidos
is not merely to know the "outward form" of something but to know
its "true reality." When comparing his knowledge of the Father to
that of the Pharisees, Jesus claims "you have never heard his voice
or seen his form [eidos] (Jn 5:37). In other words, they
don't really "know" the Father. The kind of knowledge that oida
provides is "comprehension," as opposed to "apprehension." Whereas
comprehension is to "conceive fully or adequately,"8
apprehension suggests incompleteness. "Adequately" here does not
mean "good enough" but "adequation" in the sense of the medieval
phrase adaequatio intellectus et reia perfect one-to-one
correspondence between the mind and the object of thought.9
Oida is often used in this sense of knowing perfectly or
fully in the New Testament. Again, in rebuking the Pharisees, Jesus
contrasts his knowledge of the Father with theirs by claiming that
his is on the order of oida (John 8:55). That Paul uses the
term "dokeo" in the phrase "anyone who claims to know" [dokei
egnokenai] shows that he thinks their knowledge claim is no
more than an opinionand a bad one at that.
9. But there
is a second, even if closely related, aspect at stake: how
those claims are made. It is a common interpretation to suggest
that Paul contrasts knowledge and love in verse one with the intention
of saying that love needs to temper or inform knowledge. For instance,
Now the Apostle,
under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says, 'Knowledge inflates;
but love edifies'. The only correct interpretation of this saying
is that knowledge is valuable when charity informs it. Without charity,
knowledge inflates; that is, it exalts man to arrogance which is
nothing but a kind of windy emptiness.10
At the risk of going
against "the only correct interpretation," I want to argue for a
distinction between the economy of knowledge and the economy of
love.11 The difference between the two is where each
begins, which is to say their respective grounds. Whereas
the economy of knowledge begins with me, the economy of love begins
with the other. Or, to put it another way, while knowledge is something
that I ground, love is that which the other grounds.
Precisely that difference explains another strange transition, the
one that occurs between verses two and three. In verse two, Paul
speaks from the active perspective of the knower. Yet, in verse
three, he suddenly reverses perspectives: he now talks (passively)
about being known by God: "but anyone who loves God is known
by him." Further, it is here that knowledge and love are connected,
not in the sense that love "informs" knowledge (pace Augustine)
but in the sense that love proves to be the possibility condition
for knowledge. So there is still knowledge but two significant changes
have taken place: first, one only obtains knowledge by way of love
and, second, knowledge is fundamentally not about what I do but
what God does. Love is put in first place, with knowledge
taking second place. Moreover, God is put in first place, with me
taking second place. This reversal in no way destroys subjectivity;
rather it makes a proper subjectivity possiblethe result being
a de-centered self that is grounded upon God.
10. That Paul
thinks there is a distinct difference between the economy of knowledge
and the economy of love is already clear from the first chapter
of his letter. There he asks (rhetorically): "Has not God made foolish
the wisdom of the world?" (1:20). Although Paul does distinguish
between "wisdom" and "knowledge" (most notably in I Cor 12:8, in
which they are listed as separate gifts of the Spirit), that distinction
is irrelevant for the point here. For both the "wisdom" and the
"knowledge" that Paul criticizes in I Corinthians have a human
basis, meaning that they are grounded on the self. Moreover, both
provide license for sinful practices.12 For Paul, the
"wisdom of the world" [sophia tou kosmou] includes both the
Jewish demand for signs [semeia] and the Greek search for
wisdom [sophia] (1:22). In their place is put a new logos,
"ho logos ho tou staurou" [the logos of the cross]
(1:18). As Stanislas Breton notes, with the adoption of this new
logos "we have left the home of Israel just as we have left
the home of Greece," the result being that "the Western thinker
is divided from within."13 Leaving Jerusalem means
that we can no longer demand a sign as the requirement of our belief.
Leaving Athens means that we give up the demand of logon didomaigiving
reasons. From the standpoint of the economy of knowledge, then,
the logos of the cross is truly foolishness. Indeed, the
very connection of logos with stauros [cross] can
only be reckoned as folly [moria]. Yet that folly, which
has at its heart the kenotic self-emptying of Godself, demonstrates
its own sort of strength in that it "shatters the idol of power."14
In place of the wisdom of the world is put God's wisdom, which is
"secret and hidden" and "decreed before the ages" (2:7). Such wisdom
cannot be "owned" or "mastered." It is beyond our comprehension.
A Taste for Idolatry
11. The strange
series of reversals that we noted in verses 1-3 of chapter eight
takes place within the context of idolatryor, more specifically,
food sacrificed to idols. And that is not purely coincidental, for
there is an important connection between Paul's claims regarding
knowledge and the topic of idolatry. Earlier, we noted the connection
between oida and *eido, in which seeing for the Greeks
is equated with knowing. The word for idol in Greekeidolonis
linked to both of those terms. Unlike God, the idolat least
in principleis something we both see and are truly able to
grasp (to comprehend), for the simple reason is that we are
its creators. As Jean-Luc Marion puts it, "The idol presents itself
to man's gaze in order that representation, and hence knowledge,
can seize hold of it."15 While Marion is certainly right
concerning some idols, idolatry actually turns out to be more complicated
than that. For many idols are ones that others have created,
which is why we find ourselves within a network of idols that is
only partially of our own making.16 Yet, claiming that
the idol is in reality "nothing," the Corinthians feel confident
enough to write "we know that 'no idol in the world really exists'"
and "'there is no God but one'" (8:4). In one sense, the Corinthians
are correct. But it is in both the Corinthians' claim and the way
in which it is made that Paul detects the threat of two sorts of
idolatry. The first sort is the obvious one of partaking (either
directly or indirectly) in pagan rites. We'll turn to that momentarily.
But it is the other sort of idolatrywhat we might call the
idolatry of knowledge or "conceptual idolatry"that we turn
to first. In such idolatry, not only are human claims made too strongly
but also those claims foster an arrogance that can lead one to idolatry.
This sort of idolatryrather than that of creating or
bowing down to graven imagesis actually the first recorded
Bonhoeffer points out that in Genesis three we have "the first conversation
about God, the first religious, theological conversation."17
Like all theological conversations, this one depends upon a particular
conception of God, for there can be no theology without a
"logy" or a logos. It is here that we find the first
misconceptions of God. But it is also here that human beings
develop a taste for idolatry.
the opening salvo of the serpent's seduction of the woman.18
"Did God ['elohim] say, 'You shall not eat from any tree
in the garden'?" (Gen 3:1) The serpent's subtle rhetorical twist
turns the focus from God's gracious permission ("You may freely
eat of every tree of the garden," 2:16) to the one and only prohibition
placed on Adam and the woman's liberty ("but of the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat," 2:18).19
Given the serpent's characterization, God's nature has already been
distorteda false image of God, as one who prohibits rather
than enables, has been put in God's place. To this distortion, the
woman responds: "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden;
but God said: 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is
in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall
die'" (3:2). The woman rightly rejects the image of God presented
by the serpent, even if she also slightly distorts what God has
said by adding "touching" to God's more simple command of "eating"
(2:17).20 In response to the woman's correction, the
serpent simply provides a different distorted image of God.
For the serpent now says: "You will not die; for God knows that
when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like
God, knowing God and evil" (3:4-5). Here we have not merely an image
of God as liar but also one that actually reflects the serpent's
deceitfulness. Yet this should come as no surprise, for Marion reminds
us that the idol serves "as a mirror, not as a portrait; a mirror
that reflects the gaze's image."21 That is exactly what
we get from the serpent: a "portrait" of God that is a mirror image
of the serpent. Such is the nature of all idolatry, according to
The idol reflects
back to us, in the face of a god, our own experience of the divine.
The idol does not resemble us, but it resembles the divinity that
we experience, and it gathers it in a god in order that we might
Thus, the nature of
the conceptual idol is always based upon the nature of the viewer.
What we get in idolatry is a "picture" of God that reflects our
distorted experience of God. Yet the idolatry does not stop there,
for the serpent in effect claims to be able to get into the mind
of God and postulate why God has made this command. Not only
does this theory regarding God's motives presume knowledge the serpent
cannot have (resulting in it being ungrounded), it also makes
God out to be both petty and envious.
14. Up until
this point, only the serpent is engaged in idolatry. But the hook
that draws the woman in is the claim that she "will be like God."
It is here that the taste for idolatry (one already latent?) is
cultivated. Jacques Derrida speaks of his "taste" for the secret,
for whatever can "never be broached/breached."23 We have
a taste for that which is secret precisely because it stands at
the edge of our limits. It is the "absolute," that which language
cannot express or human reason fathom. We want to invert the order
of things, taking ourselves beyond our natural limits. It is this
taste that the woman has. At the moment that she lusts after the
fruit, she has a developed taste for idolatry. She seeks the transcendence
of human limitations, enabling her to become like God. Gerhard von
Rad describes that desire as follows:
insinuation is the possibility of an extension of human existence
beyond the limits set for God at creation, an increase in life
not only in the sense of pure intellectual enrichment but also
familiarity with and power over, mysteries that lie beyond man.24
Exactly what this God-like
"knowing" [yd'] involves is certainly open to debate,25
but it is instructive that the woman sees the tree as 1) "good for
food," 2) "a delight to the eyes," 3) "desired to make one wise."
While there is nothing wrong with the first two aspects, it is the
woman's taste for knowledge (whether yd' or oida)
that constitutes idolatry. For the delight that Eve experiences
is primarily the delight of inverting the proper order of creator
and creature and usurping God's place. She lusts after the knowledge
that puffs up. The eating of the fruit is merely the satisfaction
of that desire. Yet the result of that "puffing up" is a broken
fellowship. What had been a perfect relation between human and divine
being is broken at the very moment the human wants to become divine.
So idolatry begins with a distorted image of God and ends with wanting
to be God.
15. The Corinthians
likewise have a taste for idolatry, in at least two different (though
not unrelated) senses. The most obvious aspect of that taste is
the literal taste that appears not to be "idolatrous" at all. Although
commentators have often taken the issue in these chapters to be
simply about buying idol meat in the market or the possibility of
being served it while at dining with friends, the situation faced
by the Corinthians was far more complicated than that. For the Corinthians
were literally surrounded by pagan practices. Imagine an
atheist living in the Bible Belt in the 1950's and you begin to
get a kind of reverse perspective. There were all sorts of social
occasionsweddings, birthdays, thanksgiving dinners, funerals,
holidaysthat would have included sacrificial rites or at least
prayers as part of the celebration. Moreover, meals were served
both in temples as part of pagan ritual and likely also just as
"regular" meals.26 Given that environment, if one wanted
to take part in Corinthian social life, one had to make some concessions
to pagan practices. And how could one turn down those invitations
to lavish parties and dinners given by one's pagan friends who served
such tasty fare, especially if one wanted to get ahead in life?
Just as in our society, in the Greco-Roman world one's status was
measured by the company one kept and the people with whom one dined.
The Romans actually had a word for a "social climber" who advanced
by getting dinner invitations from important personsparasitus.27
But the Corinthians rationalize that they can continue social life
as usual just by thinking "no idol in the world really exists."
Going back to my earlier comparison, it would be like an atheist
attending a thanksgiving dinner at the home of Christian friends
who begin the meal with a prayer in which they asked God's blessing
upon the food. The atheist thinks: "there's no god, so the prayer
is just meaningless." Likewise, the Corinthians insist that, since
idols don't really exist, eating idol food shouldn't be a problem.
16. While it
might appear (from chapter eight) that Paul agrees with them, his
argument in chapter ten makes it clear that he has been parroting
back their own beliefs, not necessarily agreeing with them.28
For, in chapter ten, he claims "what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice
to demons [daimonion] and not to God" (10:20). In other words,
it is too simple to say that idols are not just "nothing." Although
an idol does not truly "exist," Paul thinks that taking part in
pagan rites (including meals associated with them) means partaking
in "the table of demons" (10:21). On that reading, eating in pagan
temples or taking part in meals associated with pagan rites is truly
idolatrous. For it means that one is taking part in the realm of
the demonic and also indirectly affirming the existence of idols.29
Thus, for the sake of social standing, the Corinthians have become
(as Paul so strongly puts it) "partners with demons" (10:20). That
Paul thinks they are in danger of idolatry is clear from his warnings
in the first part of chapter ten, where he draws a parallel between
the ways in which the Israelites continually "tested" God and the
ways in which the Corinthians are testing God by their behavior.
"We must not put Christ to the test," warns Paul in 10:9, and asks
"are we provoking the Lord to jealousy? (10:22). Paul thinks the
Corinthians' arrogance has caused them to be so bold as to put God
to the test, which is why he says "do not become idolaters as some
of them did" (10:6). Idolatry often follows this pattern of "putting
God to the test." We found a similar kind of "testing" of God, in
which the serpent suggests that the woman will not actually die,
despite God's warning to that effect. Here the testing of God is
by engaging in idolatrous practices.
17. Yet the Corinthians
test God in another sense. Their arrogance does not merely lead
to this literal sort of idolatry. It likewise leads to one of a
much subtler sort, one that might not even seem to be idolatry at
first glance. For the Corinthians have a taste for pushing things
to the limits, for seeing just how far they can really go. Again,
the taste is for a kind of transcendence. In the same way that "we
all know" was one motto for the Corinthians, "all things are lawful"
(6:12 and 10:23) was another. Literally, this could be rendered
"I am free to do anything" [panta moi exestin], but we might
better capture the force of the claim if we translated itin
keeping with current usageas "we have our rights!" What is
at stake here not merely the Corinthians' exousia (right)
and eleutheria (freedom) but also their absolute insistence
upon being able to exercise those rights without hindrance. That
haughty insistence stands behind Paul's entire discourse in chapters
six through ten. The Corinthians are using their liberty as license
to go beyond their limitations as members of the body.
18. What makes
the Corinthians so sure of their rights? It is reasonable to think
that Paul himself would have preached a message of freedom from
the law when he had been in their midst. After all, his rebuke of
the Galatians was that they had let go of their freedom and placed
themselves back under the law. So, at least to some degree, Paul
is probably the "source" of that view of Christian liberty. Now,
though, Paul needs to put the brakes on that liberty. Paul clearly
thinks they are abusing it in selfishand even idolatrousways.
Once again, Paul takes on an ironic posture, much like that he exhibits
in 4:10 where he says: "We are the fools for the sake of Christ,
but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You
are held in honor, but we in disrepute." That passage almost drips
with sarcasm. Paul's move is first and foremost deflationary. When
he writes "not all possess this knowledge" (8:7), it is an inversion
of what he had said only a few verses beforeoidamen hoti
pantes gnosin exomen. As it turns out, we don't all possess
knowledgeand that "we" can easily be taken to include the
seemingly "strong." In other words, Paul can be read as suggesting
that the Corinthians are not necessarily so strong after all. With
that in mind, Paul's famous warning in chapter ten"so if you
think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall" (10:12)should
be taken as a rebuke to those who think they are strong.
The message is clear: your pretensions to strength may well prove
19. But Paul
does not stop with merely undercutting their arrogant claims to
"knowledge," to "knowing the secret." To correct the abuse of their
exousia and eleutheria, Paul articulates a guideline
by invoking the so-called "weak." Interestingly enough, there is
no textual evidence to suggest the existence of any "party" of weaker
believers in Corinth, so it is hard to maintain the usual view of
this passage: viz., that there were "weak" and "strong" factions
in the church at Corinth.30 If anything, it seems that
the Corinthians uniformly consider themselves "strong." So the example
of the weak is not meant as an actual case but as the articulation
of a guiding principal designed not only to call up the Corinthians
short but also to demonstrate what the proper exercise of Christian
liberty looks like in practice. By turning to the weak, Paul shows
that one's freedom is not curbed by some law but rather by other
members of the body. As he puts it: "'All things are lawful' [quoting
the Corinthians], but not all things are beneficial. 'All things
are lawful', but not all things build up. Do not seek your own
advantage, but that of the other" (10:23, my italics).
20. Here one
cannot help but think of the way in which the Emmanuel Levinas argues
that it is the other who curbs my freedom. "Autonomy or heteronomy?"
asks Levinas. "The choice of Western philosophy has most often been
on the side of freedom."31 Such is certainly choice of
the Corinthians, who are insisting on their autonomy. To act with
autonomy is literally to be one's own [auto] law [nomos].
Yet Levinas calls us to "heteronomous" acting, in which concern
for the other curbs our freedom. There is a good reason why Levinas
speaks of being "traumatized" by the other in Otherwise than
Being: for the other's appearance radically disturbs my egoism
and calls my vaunted autonomy into question.32 In effect,
Levinas distinguishes between a natural self, one defined by its
egoism of enjoyment, and an ethical self that takes the other into
account.33 In order to become an ethical self, I must
become a self that is directed toward the other, and this requires
a radical rethinking of who I am. Levinas says: "The word I
means here I am, answering for everything and everyone."34
Thus, the subject for Levinas is truly a "subject" in the sense
of being subject to another.35 And the paradigmatic
figures to whom the subject is "subject" are precisely the lowest
in terms of strength. "The Other who dominates me in his transcendence
is thus the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, to whom I am obligated."36
In this, as in so many other ways, the economy of love demands that
the "first will be last" (Mk 10:31). The result is that "I am
no longer able to have power: the structure of my freedom is
. . . completely reversed."37 "Before the Other, the
I is infinitely responsible."38 What Levinas means by
this "infinity" of responsibility is (among other things) that there
is no point at which I can draw the line and say: "I'm no longer
responsible for you." Instead, my responsibility extends indefinitely,
in the same way that Jesus makes clear that our responsibility to
the neighbor has no clear boundaries or limits in the parable of
the so-called "good" Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37). I say "so-called,"
because Jesus makes it clear that the Samaritan, while "good," does
nothing extraordinary or even particularly commendable. Rather he
simply does what a good neighbor would do.39
21. In invoking
the weak, Paul is telling a story of what true neighborliness looks
likewhich is to say a proper exercise of exousia and
eleutheria. And, evidently, Paul had read his Levinas. For
he makes it clear that, given the choice of autonomy or heteronomy,
I am compelled to choose heteronomy. My responsibility is fundamentally
to my neighbor. It is not that I am not free or that I do not have
any rights; rather, it is that the boundaries of my freedom and
rights are drawn by the mere existence of my neighbor. Moreover,
not just any members of the body have this effect on us:
the weakest ones turn out to have the strongest claim
on us. No doubt, the Corinthiansif they took Paul's letter
seriously, which is certainly open to questionwould have found
his claim traumatizing. "I have to turn down those important social
invitations just because my eating affects someone else?"
Paul's answer to any such objections takes up all of chapter nine.
There Paul details his reasons for why he couldif he so choseexercise
his rights not just as a Christian but as an apostle who has actually
seen the risen Lord (9:1). Paul's argument is that it is not his
rights that compel him to act as he does but his responsibility.
He says: "an obligation is laid on me" and "I am entrusted with
a commission" (9:16-17). It is in light of that responsibility that
Paul talks about becoming all things to all people. But, of course,
such is the truly neighborly thing to do.40
22. What, though,
does all of this have to do with idolatry? Paul makes it clear that,
in improperly exercising one's liberty, one sins not merely against
one's neighbor but also "against Christ" (8:12). To say that such
believers sin against Christ is really to say that they are guilty
of idolatry, because they have allowed themselves a freedom that
they simply are not allowed to have. In effect, such persons make
themselves out to be "God" by elevating themselves above others.
It is the same desire for transcendence found already in Genesis
23. In response
to their supercilious claims of "knowledge" and insistence on their
exousia and eleutheria, Paul provides an account of
the economy of love, which overcomes knowledge and has its own kind
The Wisdom of Love
the literal meaning of "philosophy"[the love of wisdom], Levinas
speaks of "the wisdom of love." What distinguishes this "wisdom"
is that it is "at the service of love."41 Here
Levinas follows the same kind of inversion that we saw earlier in
Paul: love takes the place of knowledge, in the sense that it both
founds knowledge (and founds us) and transcends
knowledge. "Knowledge puffs up," says Paul, maybe not always but
often. In contrast, love edifies, for love partakes of an entirely
different economy than that of knowledge.
25. The economy
of love is the economy of the gift, which is to say an economy that
does not begin with us and is in reality no economy all (in the
sense that it does not operate by the usual structure of reciprocity).42
Earlier, we noted the strange reversal between verses two and three
of chapter eight, in which Paul suddenly shifts from our knowing
to our being known. That formula of being known by God as preceding
our knowledge of God is common in Paul. For instance, in Gal 4:9
Paul begins by saying "Now, however, that you have come to know
God" but then he quickly corrects himself by adding "or rather to
be known by God." We think in terms of our "knowing God," but thatto
use Heideggerian languageis a "founded" mode of knowing. Properly
speaking, the ground of our knowing is our being known by
God. In speaking of one day knowing "fully" (whatever that means
exactly), Paul describes this state with the phrase "even as I have
been fully known" (13:12).43 But this shift of standpoint
from us to God is not just found in Paul's comments about knowing:
it applies universally. Paul says to the Corinthians "all things
are yours," but immediately qualifies that claim by saying "and
you are Christ's" (3:23). In short, our knowing and our having both
begin with God's knowing and having. That we have anything at all
is purely a gift.
26. Much like
Levinas, Marion speaks of the other's claim upon me. Yet this "other"
turns out to be the ultimate "Other." In language clearly reminiscent
of that of Levinas, Marion says that we are held in God's gaze,
which means that we are "deposed from any autarchy and taken by
surprise."44 In effect, God's call displaces me from
being the center of my world. Since the call (vocative) is to me
(dative), there is no longer an I but a me. The "I"
is no longer the source of reason or even my identity, which "can
be proclaimed only when called-by the call of the other."45
In Reduction and Givenness, Marion refers to the one called
as the "interloqué." But, in Being Given, he speaks
of the adonné, "the gifted." There he says that the "gift
happens to me because it precedes me originarily in
such a way that I must recognize that I proceed from it."46
In keeping with what Paul says about knowledge (i.e., that it is
a gift, 12:8), Marion says "the gifted [adonné] does not
have language or logos as its property, but it finds itself
endowed with them."47
27. The logic
of love is that we are first loved. And the love bestowed upon us
is the possibility condition of our showing love to others. Thus
far, the logic of love makes sense. But, at its very core, it is
inscrutable. For the logic of love is the logic of a gamble, of
a loss without any assurances of a possible gain, a kenosis. As
Marion puts it, "to obey the logic of love, it must not pretend
to found itself on a certain assurance."48 And yet love
persists. The oikonomia that constitutes the oikodomeo
of love that Paul describes is remarkable in its tenacity. In what
is clearly meant as a stinging rebuke of the Corinthians, Paul describes
precisely how they have not been acting:
Love is patient;
love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable
or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices
in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes
all things, endures all things (13:4-7, my italics)
That love "bears," "believes,"
"hopes," and "endures" all things is precisely why Marion
calls it an "unconditional surrender," a surrender that certainly
also requires faith.49 No better illustration
of the sheer inexplicability of love is that Christ gave himself
despite the fact that "his own received him not" (Jn 1:11, KJV).
Yet such is the nature of agape that "surpasses all knowledge,
with a hyperbole that defines it and, indissolubly, prohibits access
to it."50 How could one make sense of that which bears
and believes and hopes and endures all things? Love utterly confounds
the wisdom of the world. It is no wonder, then, that Heidegger asks:
"Will Christian theology one day resolve to take seriously the word
of the apostle and thus also the conception of philosophy as foolishness?"51
28. What could
be more at odds with the Corinthians' pretensions to "knowledge"
and their insistence upon their exousia and eleutheria
than love? Precisely in not being "envious or boastful or
arrogant or rude" and in refusing to "insist on its own way," love
does not puff up but edifies. Yet it also escapes idolatry. Whereas
the economy of knowledge, with its certainty and insistence upon
its exousia and eleutheria, naturally leads to idolatry,
the economy of love leads one in the other direction. For the one
who loves neither makes boastful claims about one's "knowledge"
nor seeks to be elevated to a higher station. The one who loves
is instead content to be held in God's loving gaze, not clinging
tightly to a knowledge that "will come to an end" but instead basking
in the gaze of a love that "never ends" (13:8).
* This paper
was originally presented at a Society of Christian Philosophers
meeting in conjunction with the Society for Biblical Literature
annual conference. Thanks to J. Richardson Middleton (the Old Testament
respondent) and Sylvia Keesmaat (the New Testament respondent) for
their gracious and insightful comments. Thanks also to the philosophy
department of Wheaton College for their help in further refining
1. All biblical
citations are from the New Revised Standard Version, unless
2. Gordon Fee claims that the entire passage of 8:1-6 seems to be
a non sequitur. But the non sequitur actually occurs
between the first and second part of verse one. Verses two and three
follow Paul's switch to the theme of knowledge, while verses four
through six return us to the original theme of food sacrificed to
idols. See Gordon D. Fee, "Eidolothuta Once Again: An Interpretation
of 1 Corinthians 8-10," Biblica 16 (1980) 172.
3. As will become evident, "knowledge" here refers to knowledge
of God. My focus is on how this "knowledge" leads to a sense of
entitlement on the part of the Corinthians.
some possible hypotheses on the exact sequence of exchange of letters,
see Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First
Epistle to the Corinthians, trans. James W. Leitch (Philadelphia:
Fortress, 1975) 3-4. For an attempt at reconstructing the exchanges,
see John C. Hurd, Jr., The Origin of 1 Corinthians (New York:
Seabury, 1965) 290-93.
It is quite possible that the entire phrase"oidamen hoti
pantes gnosin exomen"is from the Corinthians. But what
matters here is whether the claim "oidamen hoti pantes gnosin
exomen" (we know that we know) represents what the Corinthians
think about themselves.
6. Such is Conzelmann's reading, for example.
strange saying is preceded by yet another. Right before the Pharisees
ask their question, Jesus says "I came into this world for judgment
so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become
blind" (John 9:39). It is in response to that statement that
the Pharisees pose their question.
8. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1999) s.v. "comprehend."
9. Of course, medieval philosophersThomas, for instancesaw
this "adaequatio" as a guiding epistemological telos,
not necessarily a goal that has been or necessarily could
10. Saint Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson
(London: Penguin, 1972) 9.20.
11. Some might argue that the existence of these contrasting economies
actually fits with Augustine's interpretation. If so, then all the
12. Wisdom and knowledge are woven together in Paul's discussion
in 2:6-16. For more on the relation of wisdom and knowledge in I
Corinthians, see Michael D. Goulder, Paul and the Competing Mission
in Corinth (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2001) 92-103.
13. Stanilas Breton, The Word and the Cross, trans. Jacquelyn
Porter (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002) 132.
14. Ibid., 98
15. Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being, trans. Thomas A.
Carlson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) 9-10.
16. I am indebted to J. Richard Middleton for this point.
17. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition
of Genesis 1-3, trans. and ed. Martin Rüter and Ilse Tödt (Minneapolis:
Fortress, 1997) 111.
18. The woman only takes on the name Eve after the seduction,
and the name is given to her by Adam.
19. Walter Brueggemann points out that the story of the garden is
one in which God gives human beings a vocation, permission, and
a prohibition. By deliberately focusing on the prohibition, the
serpent distorts what God has said (and thusI would addwho
God is). See Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: A Bible Commentary
for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982) 46.
20. Of course, some commentators assume that "touching" is implied
21. God without Being 12.
22. Jean-Luc Marion, The Idol and Distance, trans. Thomas
A. Carlson (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001) 6.
23. Jacques Derrida and Maurizio Ferraris, A Taste for the Secret,
trans. Giacomo Donis (Cambridge: Polity, 2001) 57.
24. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, rev. ed., trans. John H. Marks
(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972) 189.
25. See E.A. Speiser's discussion in his Genesis (New York:
Doubleday, 1982) 26. He claims that yd' means not merely
"know" but the entire process of coming to know. Lyn M. Bechtel,
no doubt influenced by structualism, claims that this knowing is
"the capacity to discern the binary oppositions of life." See her
"Rethinking the Interpretation of Genesis 2.4B-3.24," in A Feminist
Companion to Genesis, ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield
Academic Press, 1993) 88.
26. I am particularly here indebted to Peter D. Gooch, Dangerous
Food: 1 Corinthians 8-10 in Its Context (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid
Laurier University Press, 1993). Gooch argues that Paul is not primarily
addressing sacrificial meat sold in the market. Instead, Paul is
concerned with partaking in meals connected to pagan rites. Note
that the question is not just one of "meat" (krea), since
Paul also uses the generic term for food (broma) in 8:13.
I find Ben Witherington's claim that "eidolothuton" (which
he distinguishes from "ierothuton") refers exclusively to
meat both sacrificed to idols and eaten in the temple to
be unconvincing. See his article "Not So Idle Thoughts about Eidolothuton,"
Tyndale Bulletin 44 (1993) 237-44. Alex T. Cheung makes the
important point that, since Paul's discussion in Rom 14 is about
"unclean" food rather than food sacrificed to idols, one cannot
simply take what Paul says in Rom 14 and apply it to I Cor 8-10.
See Alex T. Cheung, Idol Food in Corinth: Jewish Background and
Pauline Legacy (Sheffield: Sheffield University Press, 1999)
27. See the discussion in Dangerous Food 40-45.
28. In 8:4, Paul repeats the Corinthian claim that "no idol in the
world really exists," but he does not necessarily affirm
29. Although Peter D. Gooch says that Paul makes no "distinction
between food as food and food as instrument of idolatry," Cheung
(rightly) counters by saying that Paul's concern is not about the
food per se but the eating of it in a context that seems
to affirm the existence of idols (i.e., pagan rituals). Precisely
that difference explains why Paul is so vehement in condemning partaking
in pagan ritual (10:14-22) and relatively nonchalant about buying
food in the market that might (or might not) have been sacrificed
to idols (10:25). See Idol Food in Corinth 309.
30. Both Hurd and Fee (following Hurd) take this view and I find
their arguments convincing. See The Origin of 1 Corinthians
124-25 and "Eidolothuta Once Again" 176, respectively.
31. Emmanuel Levinas, "Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity," in
Collected Philosophical Papers (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer,
32. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, trans. Alphonso
Lingis (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 1991) 111.
33. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso
Lingis (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 1979) 175.
34. Otherwise than Being 114.
35. Simon Critchley makes this point in Ethics, Politics, Subjectivity
(New York: Verso, 1999) 51.
36. Totality and Infinity 215.
37. "Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity" 55.
38. Emmanuel Levinas, "Transcendence and Height," in Basic Philosophical
Writings, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert
Bernasconi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996) 18.
39. One might take issue with Levinas for overemphasizing
our responsibility to the otherand to all others. Surely there
are practical limits to what we can do for the other. And surely
one has responsibilities (to one's parents or children) that are
special responsibilities. While acknowledging those limits and particular
responsibilities is appropriate, there is a clear danger of dulling
the force of both Levinas and Jesus' claim of the other upon me
(and thus evading our responsibility).
40. I should note that there is one thing that Paul says
which might be taken to support the Corinthians' free exercise
of their exousia and eleutheria. In 10:29 he writes:
"For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone
else's conscience?" Yet, if that question is set in context, it
becomes clear that Paul merely means that our own respective consciences
should normally be our guideexcept when following my
conscience does another harm.
41. Otherwise than Being 162.
42. Whether a gift can truly be "given" has been the subject of
heated controversy. Derrida insists that the gift is "the very figure
of the impossible," which is why we want it all the more. See Jacques
Derrida, Given Time I: Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) 7. Marion responds
by refiguring the gift in Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology
of Givenness, trans. Jeffrey L. Koskey (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 2002) and In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena,
trans. Robyn Horner and Vincent Berraud (New York: Fordham University
Press, 2002), particularly chapter six. John Milbank has attempted
to argue for the possibility of gift giving with reciprocity
as a component by refiguring the notion of reciprocity. See his
"Can a Gift Be Given? Prolegomena to a Trinitarian Metaphysic,"
Modern Theology 11 (1995) 119-61; "The Soul of Reciprocity
Part One: Reciprocity Refused," Modern Theology 17 (2001)
335-91; and "The Soul of Reciprocity Part Two: Reciprocity Granted,"
Modern Theology 17 (2001) 485-507. Here I will assume that,
while gift giving is a rather complicated enterprise, gifts truly
can be given. But it is beyond the scope of this paper to provide
an argument for that stance.
43. For an interesting attempt to make sense of Paul's claim "For
we only know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the complete
comes, the partial will come to an end" (13:9-10), see Paul W. Gooch,
Partial Knowledge: Philosophical Studies in Paul (Notre Dame,
Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), particularly chapter
44. Jean-Luc Marion, Reduction and Givenness: Investigations
of Husserl, Heidegger, and Phenomenology, trans. Thomas A. Carlson
(Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1998) 201.
45. Ibid. Whereas one of Marion's strategies for making sure the
gift remains truly a gift is by making sure the call remains unidentified
(particularly in chapter six of In Excess), Scripture identifies
Godthough on God's own terms.
46. Being Given 270.
47. Ibid., 288.
48. God without Being 194.
49. Jean-Luc Marion, Prolegomena to Charity, trans. Stephen
Lewis (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002) 101.
50. God without Being 108.
51. Martin Heidegger, "Introduction to 'What is Metaphysics?'" in
Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1998) 288.