What is Wisdom? | Jesus’ Creed
Today we begin a series with the graduates of the Séminaire du Nord summarizing their chapter of Wise church.
This post is from Dan Hanlon.
Parents and teachers of toddlers know how important and yet difficult it can be to provide brief definitions for everyday words, words whose meanings are often taken for granted. This, I think, is true of “wisdom”. How would you define wisdom? The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates would answer: “knowing yourself is the beginning of wisdom”. Good advice. And yet, contradiction with the affirmation of the biblical sage: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).
My chapter in Wise Church offers a Biblical definition of wisdom that aims to be both deep enough and broad enough to provide a basis for the range of topics covered in the book. Hopefully this also provides a basis for further thinking on topics not covered as well.
Defining wisdom begins with the terminology of Proverbs, which, as the only book in the Bible that specifically claims to make its adherents wise, is the necessary starting point for any discussion of Biblical wisdom. Proverbs has a rich terminology of wisdom and the first word is hokmah (1: 2-7). Hokmah has two levels of meaning and the second builds on the first. Wisdom is above all the skill or ability to do something well. The skill of artists, artisans, and weavers is wisdom (Exodus 35:10, 26, 35). The ability to lead and govern well is wisdom (Deuteronomy 34: 9; 1 Kings 3:28; 2 Chronicles 1:10). The skill for war and conquest is wisdom (Isaiah 10:13). The ability to make wealth is wisdom (Ezekiel 28: 4-5). The vocal abilities of professional mourners are wisdom (Jeremiah 9:17). The list could go on and on.
The second level of meaning of hokmah is based on the idea of competence. If wisdom is the ability to do something well, then it is the ability or ability to do life well. It is this second level sense that is so central to Biblical wisdom. This wisdom, however, cannot be reduced to terminology and touches on the fields of epistemology, ethics and theology. The remainder of my chapter focuses on these three dimensions of biblical wisdom, which form the foundation upon which our other writers build.
First, epistemology is that dimension of wisdom that deals with ways of knowing. Wisdom is the product of observation, experience, and receptiveness to instruction. Gray hair is not a prerequisite for wisdom, but wisdom comes with age. The father / son language in Proverbs is an analogy for the sage / disciple relationship.
It is often thought that wisdom and apocalyptic genres are opposed, as they seem to breathe the air of conflicting assumptions about the worldview. Yet biblical wisdom also comes by revelation, especially the revelation of God by his Spirit. Paul, along with his Jewish contemporaries in the Second Temple, saw this and recognized the importance of the wisdom revealed by the Spirit for the life of God’s people (see Ephesians 1:17).
Second, the ethical dimension of wisdom concerns behavior. Hokmah is a neutral term and can be used negatively. Jeremiah speaks of the ability to do evil (4:22). Not only that, but insanity and wickedness are also related in the Bible. Wisdom demands moral instruction in righteousness, justice, and equity (Proverbs 1: 3).
A growing consensus among experts is that Old Testament law is customary law, rather than our modern sense of statutory law, or code of law. That is, the law of the Old Testament is very similar to wisdom. If so, then the Law (Torah) is a source of wisdom. This is how the Jews of the Second Temple, like Ben Sira, thought it. The Law also remains a source of ethical wisdom for the Church. But ethical wisdom is not limited to the Law, but is also guided by the Spirit (eg Ephesians 5:18) and shaped by Christ (eg Philippians 2: 5; 1 Peter 4: 1).
Third, and perhaps most important, Biblical wisdom is theological. This is because the wisdom in the Bible relates to God or the divine order of the world. At the heart of biblical wisdom is therefore “the fear of the Lord”, a concept which grounds wisdom in a covenant relationship with God. In connection with God, one acquires the wisdom necessary to navigate life in the world that God has created. Wisdom is life within limits, the companion necessary to live according to God’s purpose (Proverbs 8).
Ultimately, wisdom is theological because of Jesus’ association with wisdom, both in his teachings and in his person. Josephus identified Jesus as a wise man, a wise man. The teachings of Jesus are wisdom, and the Sermon on the Mount is a prime example. But the wisdom of Jesus is also embodied. Jesus is the embodiment of the wisdom of God for the church. Paul often points to Jesus as an example for the church to follow.
These three dimensions of biblical wisdom (epistemology, ethics and theology) should not be separated, as if they were competing ideas about wisdom. Rather, they are interconnected and work together in the life of the church, as Paul shows in Colossians. The unity of biblical wisdom is rooted in the Triune God of the Bible who gives wisdom to the church to face the challenges of being the People of God in the world. Two New Testament examples of practical wisdom in church life complete my chapter.
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