Most of the time, when 1 Corinthians 13 is mentioned it is in context of the chapter being the love chapter, but as might be imagined, the chapter has a lot to say about knowledge as well. In our general interest to talk about love, perhaps not enough has been said about the implications of what the chapter says about the limitations of knowledge. Epistemology is the field that studies about how people acquire and recognize knowledge, and given the critique of knowledge that 1 Corinthians 13 contains, it is worthwhile to examine the relevance of 1 Corinthians 13 to what the Bible says about knowledge.
Let us look at the relevant texts in this chapter when it comes to the issue of knowledge and its limitations. 1 Corinthians 13:1-2 reads: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. ” 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 then reads: “Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”
What aspects of epistemology are focused on here? Most obvious, knowledge is viewed as having a limited shelf life. The knowledge of speaking languages, not only of men but also of angels–and to my knowledge, the linguistics of angelic tongues is not very well advanced–is compared to useless noise. The gift of prophecy, highly desired among people at present, to say nothing of knowledge of everything as well as the understanding of all mysteries, is compared to nothing when compared to love. This speaks highly, obviously, of love, and demonstrates the comparative lack of permanent importance of knowledge, something we tend to value highly.
The second part of the passage continues where the first passage left off. Prophecies will fail–eventually they will be fulfilled and will become matters of history rather than areas where knowledge might have some practical benefit. Tongues will cease when God brings about better communication, this reducing the current linguistic diversity of the universe by a considerable degree. Knowledge will vanish away–and when knowledge is available to all and known by all as the waters cover the sea, there will no longer be anyone who can gain any sort of plaudits for knowing more than others or knowing what others are ignorant of.
The most relevant aspect of this passage, though, is the last one: “For now see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I am also known.” Love will always be necessary. For all eternity, if we are fortunate enough to enter into eternal life, we will be in relationships with others. Even when we know everything about them, and everything about everything, we will still be able to love and be loved. The biblical view of knowledge acknowledges that our knowledge is presently limited, but that the expansion of knowledge to be total ends up diminishing the value of knowledge while not affecting the value of love. Knowledge is valuable to the extent that it is scarce. The difference between love and these other lesser virtues is that they are time-bound and limited, and their value becomes less over time, while love remains valuable no matter how universal it is.