Spiritual Gifts: What are Words of Wisdom and Knowledge?

In 1 Corinthians 12:8 Paul mentions two spiritual gifts that have consistently puzzled commentators and readers alike: words of wisdom and words of knowledgeAccording to some, these gifts are the spontaneous ability to discern the sins, thoughts, or details of someone’s life. On this understanding, Christians must practice getting their “words” right by “stepping out in faith” and “risk” getting their words of knowledge wrong. Unfortunately, this rather novel view, aside from lacking any convincing biblical support, turns these gifts into nothing more than cold readings (cf. Deut 18:9-14).

However, Thomas Schreiner’s commentary on 1 Corinthians provides a more biblical understanding of these gifts that is both clarifying and convincing:

The most promising solution understands both wisdom and knowledge to refer to the gift of teaching; if this is correct, a sharp distinction between wisdom and knowledge is not present, for the two words are often conjoined in the Old Testament (e.g. Exod. 31:3; 35:31; 2 Chr. 1:10; Prov. 1:7; 2:6; 14:6; Eccl. 1:18; 2:21, 26; Isa. 11:2). The following arguments support the interpretation proposed here.

  1. First, there is no mention of the gift of teaching in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10, yet the gift is so important in Paul that it is included in every other list of spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:6–8; 1 Cor. 12:28–30; Eph. 4:11). It seems unlikely that there would be no mention of the gift at all in the first listing of the gifts.
  2. Second, Paul’s long discussion of wisdom (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18–2:16) is linked with the proclamation of ‘the message of the cross’ (1 Cor. 1:18), suggesting that a message of wisdom unpacks the message of the cross.
  3. Third, if we look at the NASB, we see the parallels between ‘the word of wisdom’/‘the word of knowledge’ and the message Paul preached. He refers to ‘the word of God’ (Rom. 9:6; 1 Cor. 14:36; 2 Cor. 2:17; 4:2; Eph. 6:17; Phil. 1:14; Col. 1:25; 1 Thess. 2:13; 1 Tim. 4:5; 2 Tim. 2:9; Titus 2:5), ‘the word of faith’ (Rom. 10:8), ‘the word of truth’ (Eph. 1:13; Col. 1:5; 2 Tim. 2:15, ESV), ‘the word of life’ (Phil. 2:16), ‘the word of the Lord’ (1 Thess. 1:8, ESV) and ‘the word of Christ’ (Col. 3:16, ESV). The ‘word’ refers to the gospel Paul preaches and teaches.
  4. Fourth, knowledge is closely related, it seems, to teaching—to the gospel which is proclaimed (cf. Rom. 15:14; Phil. 1:9; Col. 1:9–10; 2:2–3; 2 Tim. 2:25; 3:7; Titus 1:1).

All of this suggests that the ‘word’ of wisdom and ‘word’ of knowledge are best understood as referring to the gift of teaching. Paul does not sharply distinguish the words from one another; they overlap in meaning, and are different facets of the same reality. 1

Further support for this understanding comes from 1 Corinthians 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?” Schreiner points out that since revelation and prophecy are used to refer to the same spontaneous gift, then knowledge would therefore be related to what Paul pairs it with, namely teaching.2

Let Scripture Interpret Scripture

Of course, those who claim to have been given insight into people’s sins, thoughts, situations may reject this view. And I’ll even grant that God may, at times, give his Spirit-filled-and-led children such impressions—although they will always be accurate, never “practiced,” and certainly not the norm (which rules out much of what is claimed as a word of knowledge today). But to suggest that these “insights” are the words of knowledge and wisdom Paul is talking about doesn’t seem to fit with the biblical data. A stronger argument would be to consider these accurate and rare insights as one way the gift of prophecy might be redemptively-recalibrated to function in the church today, which has been built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets (Eph 2:20).

While Schreiner’s proposed understanding of words of wisdom and knowledge may not be the most novel or exciting, it certainly has sufficient biblical support. Rather than letting these gifts be the grounds for wild speculation, Schreiner looks to let Scripture interpret Scripture, allowing clearer passages to shed light on the more difficult ones. This example of interpretation serves as a good reminder for us. As we seek to understand these often-debated gifts, let’s remember to always interpret our experiences in light of Scripture, and never interpret Scripture in light of our experiences. Let’s pray that God would give us these gifts as we seek to teach and apply the gospel truths in God’s holy and sufficient word.

Notes

  1. Thomas R. Schreiner, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, ed. Eckhard J. Schnabel, vol. 7, The Tyndale Commentary Series (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2018), 257 (Emphasis original). For the sake of readability, this quote has been slightly modified through the use of a numbered list without alteration of the wording.
  2. Schreiner, 287.

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