Christ, Our Wisdom

Israel’s Wisdom and Its Fulfillment in Christ

Wisdom in the New Testament

The word wisdom in the Bible is a technical term whose meaning we easily take for granted. The problem arises when we define biblical terms on the basis of our own human experience and use of language rather than on the basis of the biblical description of reality. Wisdom is an elusive enough idea when we try to pin it down in terms of the human activity of thinking and the appraisal of man in relationship to experience in the world. But such a humanistic stance makes it impossible to understand the whole biblical picture of wisdom—particularly when, on the one hand, Christ is described as our wisdom and yet, on the other hand, a contrast is made between human and divine wisdom.

Paul speaks of wisdom in several ways. First, he asserts that God made Christ to be our wisdom (1 Cor. 1:30). Then he says that Christ is God’s wisdom, thus showing that wisdom is synonymous with gospel.

. . . we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God—1 Cor. 1:23-24.

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. —1 Cor. 2:7.

Jesus our wisdom

Jesus our wisdom

First Corinthians 1-2 provides a discourse on wisdom in two forms: the wisdom of the world, which is God-denying; and the wisdom of God in the gospel. There is a clear distinction between Christian and pagan (Greek) thinking, yet it is a distinction which does not deny an area of continuity. After all, the pagan is speaking about the same reality as does the Christian when he talks about man and the world about him. The differences occur when the pagan misperceives the nature of man and the world because he does not see them in relation to the self-revealing and sovereign Creator-God.

James says that God imparts wisdom to those who ask in faith (James 1:5-6), and this faith-condition strongly suggests wisdom’s relationship to the gospel.

Furthermore, James characterizes this wisdom that comes from above (James 3:15-18) in a way very similar to Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Beyond this, we note that the New Testament has in excess of fifty references to wisdom (sophia) as well as about twenty uses of the adjective wise (sophos). In many instances wisdom is the property of Jesus (e.g., Matt. 12:42; 13:54; Mark 6:2; Luke 2:40, 52) or of His followers (e.g., Luke 21:15; Acts 6:3,10). In the context of the gospel we see the wisdom of men set against the wisdom of God (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:17,19, 21-22; 2:5-6, 13; 3:19; 2 Cor. 1:12; James 3:15).

Wisdom (sophia) is not distinct to the New Testament but stems from the wide use of the term in the Old Testament (hokhmah). Not only do direct references to the wisdom of Joseph (Acts 7:10), ‘Moses (Acts 7:22) and Solomon (Matt. 12:42) link the wisdom ideas of the two Testaments, but much of the teaching of Jesus is couched in the well-worn forms developed by the wisdom teachers of the Old Testament. Jesus used parables, aphorisms and proverbs in a way that was long established in Israel through the wisdom movement and the traditions of the scribes. But He did so in a way that drew attention to a remarkable distinction between Himself and the scribes. The scribes and wise men of Israel sought to understand wisdom and to possess it, but Jesus spoke with authority as the Source of wisdom. After He applied the classic wisdom contrast between the wise man and the foolish man to conclude the great Sermon on the Mount, the crowds were astonished, for He taught as One who had authority and not as the scribes (Matt. 7:28-29).

Israel’s Wisdom

The background to Israel’s wisdom lies in two directions: the revelation of God, and the common human activity in all cultures of seeking to know the meaning of reality by perceiving order in the complexities of man’s existence. To understand what the word wisdom embraces, we need to see it in as wide a context as possible. Furthermore, the Bible drives us to this wider perspective as it describes Solomon as the one who gave the greatest impetus to a wisdom movement.

It is at this point that a major theological problem emerges. Solomon receives wisdom from God in order to be able to rule his kingdom well. His activity as a wise man is then related, not in judicial or political terms, but in terms of natural history! (1 Kings 4:33). Furthermore, its universal—that is, its non-Israelite—flavor is accentuated by comparison between Solomon’s wisdom and that of other cultures (1 Kings 4:30-31). The literary forms mentioned in 1 Kings 4:32 remind us of the book of Proverbs, which contains a great deal of material that hardly relates in any direct way to Israel’s specific covenantal religion and salvation history.

When the Queen of Sheba—a pagan—visits Solomon to ply him with difficult questions, she is left breathless by his answers and by the material splendor of his kingdom, all of which is seen in the context of wisdom. This reinforces the impression that wisdom is concerned in a very concrete way with life in this world as the real existence with which we have to do.

In fact, we discover that the Babylonians and the Egyptians both developed literary expressions of wisdom very similar to those later found in Israel. The Egyptians’ wisdom is especially interesting in view of their relationship to Israel through Moses and others. Also, it is generally conceded that the wisdom of the Egyptian sage, Amen-em-ope, provides the basis for Proverbs 22:17-23, 11. Important to Egyptian wisdom is the concept of ma’at, which is variously translated as truth, righteousness, justice or order. So strong are the similarities with Israel’s wisdom, which also uses the ideas of truth and righteousness in the context of world order, that some scholars propose that righteousness must be extended beyond the ethical concept to embrace cosmic order (e.g., H. H. Schmid, Gerechtigkeit als Weltordnung [Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1968]).

When we turn to Israel’s wisdom to inquire about its origins and development, we find that we must distinguish at least three aspects, which do not necessarily coincide at all points.

1. The Hebrew word hokhmah (wisdom) is used alongside a number of words (e.g., discernment, discretion, prudence, knowledge, etc.) to express a way of thinking which includes the ability to understand the nature of things and events, to perceive and take advantage of the order or lawfulness of the universe which is obscured by complexity.

2. Wisdom applies to an institutional development which, in Egypt at least, was associated with the education of an elite nobility for office. The evidence is not so strong for such schools in Israel, but there were men, known as wise men, who had a distinct office of counsel in the Israelite establishment. Later the scribes appear to have succeeded as the wise men of Israel, whose task it was, among other things, to teach.

3. Wisdom refers to the distinctive literary productions (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and some psalms) which deal with a broad spectrum of concerns within the ambit of the wisdom way of thinking. Job and Ecclesiastes are difficult to classify as far as literary form is concerned, but Proverbs reveals two basic forms not at all distinct to Israel. First, there is the instruction (e.g., Prov. 1:8-19; 2:1-19), which betrays an educational process of a formal kind, involving teacher and pupils. Second, there is the proverb, which seems to stem more from the folk-wisdom of the people that was accumulated over the centuries and passed down by oral tradition until collected and committed to a written form.

Recognizing these distinct ways in which the wisdom idea is used, we find that a precise definition of wisdom is well-nigh impossible. The problem is compounded by different emphases that emerge in wisdom thought. Gerhard von Rad proposed three main areas of wisdom: (a). empirical, (b). theological and (c). skeptical (G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology [Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1965]).

Empirical wisdom is seen in the mass of proverbs which make no reference to God, to His revealed character and will or to His deeds in salvation. In isolation, these proverbs seem to express a nonreligious view of life and the world. Such wisdom seems difficult to fit in with the explicitly revealed knowledge of reality that comes principally in the framework of the covenant and Israel’s salvation history. Any overlap that this empirical wisdom has with revealed law appears at the level of common sense.

Theological wisdom
is a term sometimes used to refer to that wisdom which is understood more as a divine gift and revelation than as a purely empirical activity. There is a danger of overstressing the distinctions in this regard, and the relationship between the emphasis on revelation and on empirical knowledge must be carefully observed. Solomon was granted wisdom as a divine gift, yet his activity as a sage was empirical (1 Kings 4:29-33). Furthermore, the largest concentration of empirical wisdom—the book of Proverbs—is peppered with theological statements and, most significantly, is contained within the theological framework: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

It is clear that there is a wide range in wisdom expressions—from the simple empirical observations couched in proverbial form to the complex examinations of human existence within a theological framework. The question we must answer is how this wide range of expression relates to the dominating framework of covenant theology and salvation history.

The Teaching of Wisdom

The problem of wisdom teaching is that it operates in the area of creation rather than covenant and salvation. So long as we accept the view that theology consists in the recital of God’s acts in history, this difficulty remains. Thus G. E. Wright says:

In any attempt to outline a discussion of Biblical faith it is the wisdom literature which offers the chief difficulty because it does not fit into the type of faith exhibited in the historical and prophetic literatures.—G. E. Wright, God Who Acts (London: SCM Press, 1952), p.103

Gerhard von Rad gives a superb analysis of wisdom but is only able to regard it as part of Israel’s response to the theology proper of salvation history (von Rad, op. cit, Vol.1).

But biblical theology does not thus divide the concern for creation and the concern for salvation. Even von Rad has recognized that Israel sees her salvation as another creation (see Isa. 43:1; 65:17-25; cf. 2 Cor. 5:17; 2 Peter 3:13). There are many places in the Old Testament where the final day of salvation is described, not in terms of a return to Israel, but of a return to Eden (e.g., Isa. 11:6-9; 51:3; Ezek. 36:35). We cannot ignore so prominent a theme as the tree of life which was denied the sinning Adam in Eden (Gen. 3:22) but which is found through wisdom (Prov. 3:18; 11:30) and is the goal of salvation (Ezek. 47:12; cf. Rev. 22:2; 2:7).

Indeed, this is not surprising when we reflect on the way reality is depicted in the Bible. Reality consists of God and the created order. Creation in turn consists of man, who is made in the image of God, and of all the rest of animate and inanimate creation over which man exercises dominion. These three aspects—God, man and the world—are all perfectly related before the fall. This proper relationship is integral to the concept of life, so that when the relationship is fractured in the fall, the result is called death.

Every understanding of salvation must penetrate behind the immediate terminology of salvation history—covenant, Israel, kingdom of God, etc.—to the basic reality underlying it all. Salvation involves the re-establishment of man into his proper relationship with all reality. Leaving aside for the moment the question of the way salvation is achieved through the ages, we recognize that salvation involves man, the created order and God—all brought into proper relationship.

Two errors contribute to the difficulty of getting the wisdom material into focus with the rest of the Bible. The first error is to see salvation in a Hellenistic, pagan framework as the rescuing of the immortal soul from bondage to sinful flesh and matter. The soul of man is not open to empirical investigation, and so it is difficult to see how the empirical and materialistic wisdom material relates to the soul. The second error is to think of salvation exclusively in terms of one or other of the strata of biblical revelation which relate to salvation history. Old Testament wisdom has very little specific reference to the covenant and salvation history, and the biblical emphasis on Israel (or the new Israel) may seem to be wide of the thrust of wisdom.

The three aspects of reality—God, man, the world—are clearly the three aspects of the kingdom of God—God’s rule, God’s people, God’s place—which can be discerned at every level of revelation of the kingdom (see G. Goldsworthy, “The Kingdom of God and the Old Testament,” Present Truth Magazine, Feb., 1976, pp.16-23). If wisdom speaks to God, man and the world, and salvation history speaks to God’s rule over God’s people in God’s place, then there is no essential difference in the subject matter. Let us now briefly relate wisdom to these terms.

1. Wisdom Is God-affirming. As we gain the broader perspective of wisdom, we see that empirical wisdom affirms God as much as does theological wisdom. But some wisdom is explicitly God-affirming in the sense that it designates the nature of the relationship of God to the world and to man. The book of Job is a mighty exposition of God’s sovereignty at work in the world of human experience. Many proverbs give direct expression to man before God, thus explicating the wisdom theme of the fear of the Lord. It is a fundamental error to regard theological wisdom as the result of a development and sophistication of an older and earthier empirical wisdom. It is true that some of the wisdom of the inter-Testamental period takes a fairly clear direction in developing certain theological themes such as the identification of wisdom and the law of God. But there is no evidence that Israel’s early wisdom was ever purely empirical or that it was seen to belong to a different thought-world from that of Israel’s covenant existence before God.

2. Wisdom Is Man-affirming. In no sense may we misrepresent the seriousness of sin and of man’s fall. Reformation theology has always stood firm in the confession of man’s total inability to will or to do anything that counts for righteousness before God. But the doctrine of the total inability of man must be placed alongside the doctrine of the total responsibility of man. The image of God is not totally obliterated in fallen man, and fallen man in a fallen world remains responsible to God. Wisdom affirms the responsible freedom that man has, not in the Arminian sense of freedom of the will in an autonomous being, but in the sense that man remains a thinking, reasoning, decision-making being.

Just as total depravity does not mean that God has allowed the sinner to become as corrupt as he can possibly be (rather, that corruption infects his total being), so wisdom in its empirical form shows that God has not permitted total noetic corruption in the sense that the sinner’s thinking is as corrupt as it could possibly be. In the mercy of God, such is the remnant of the image of God in man that, although all his thinking is affected by sin, he is still able to use his reason to respond to the world around him. One does not have to be a Christian to understand the empirical relationships which are given expression in much of the wisdom literature.

Human intellectual endeavor in science and the humanities is not totally invalid even when it is not theistic. Yet human corruption affects all of it until it is brought into full subjection to the sovereignty of God. Wisdom affirms the intellectual, cultural and social adventures of man as that creation-subduing task which belongs to the image of God in man. But it also points up the inadequacy of a wisdom divorced from God, for man and his world are only a part of reality.

Thus, when wisdom looks at the characteristics of the wise and the foolish man, at the lessons to be learned from nature, or at the desirable results produced by wise or righteous behavior, it gives expression to the realization that man is called upon to be responsibly human in seeking to subdue all things through understanding of the basic world order that exists behind the bewildering complexities of existence. The truly wise man is the godly man who knows that reality is God’s ruling relationship to man and creation.

Wisdom is one of the surest antidotes for the enervating error of the hyper-Calvinism which undercuts man’s responsibility for the sake of God’s sovereignty. Wisdom is also the remedy for a kind of hyper-Calvinism which infects many evangelicals in the area of guidance and Christian behavior. The super-spiritual “leave it to the Lord” approach—as much as the charismatic claims to immediate revelation through the Spirit—is often an abdication of human responsibility to use one’s brains in the process of arriving at the best course of action. In no way do we denigrate the place of prayer, and we certainly believe in the absolute sovereignty of God. But these truths must not become the spiritual cloak of irresponsible laziness.

3. Wisdom Is World-affirming. Let us reflect on the general biblical perspective of the created order. God made the material universe in the beginning and pronounced it good. When man fell into sin, the universe was also subjected to a fall on account of man and, like man, awaits a redemption from that fall. However much we spiritualize the new creation or the new heavens and the new earth of the New Testament hope, there are no grounds at all for asserting that there is no continuity between this present creation and the new creation. The bodily resurrection of Jesus reinforces the fact that, whether we think it a good idea or not, God made man for bodily existence in a material universe, and we are stuck with a form of universe for eternity.

Of course, it is only the pagan Hellenistic mind-set toward matter that could describe us as being “stuck” with it! Never doubting for a moment the radical transformation of all things, including our bodies, that the resurrection will bring, we nevertheless are inescapably tied to a created environment—a “world.”

In contrast with the biblical view is the Greek view that matter, including our bodies, is evil and that our destiny lies in the final escape of our immortal souls into a timeless and matterless eternity. But Hebrew wisdom is a sure antidote for Greek world—denying thought. Wisdom recognizes the place of the material world in the whole of reality. Though fallen, the world has its intrinsic value as God’s world. Man is distinct but not separate from this world, and thus he may learn much about himself and about the meaning of his existence by observing and understanding the world. When the wise man says, “Go to the ant, O sluggard . . . ” (Prov. 6:6), he expresses this unity which we have with creation—a unity that says something about our existence. But when he says, “As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed” (Prov. 26:14), he speaks of the need for man to recognize his uniqueness in creation so that he does not become fused with the inanimate. To be a sluggard is to be world-denying and man-denying.

To sum up this very brief survey: Wisdom recognizes that in God’s world there is order. For man to be properly related to reality, to his fellow man, to the creation and to God, he must fit into this order; he must acknowledge it and master it. Wisdom thus describes the nature of reality in a manner that is distinctive and yet which overlaps the way that this same reality is portrayed in salvation history.

Wisdom and Law

Wisdom deals with the lawfulness of reality but is not itself to be confused with the law. The apodictic (categorical) law in the Old Testament expresses universal imperatives as “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not.” The casuistic law (“if . . . then . . . . “) shows how the absolute moral law applies in concrete situations and prescribes the action to be taken by those charged with the responsibility of executing judgment. Many Christians read the book of Proverbs as if the multitude of proverbial sentences contained in it were, in the same manner as law, timeless abstractions complementing the law of Moses. Wisdom thus becomes a kind of Pharisaic development of law which sets out explicit guidance for a large number of circumstances in life.

But wisdom must not be treated as law. Certainly it expresses the truth about the same reality as does the law, but it does so in a different way. Law is concerned with the “what” of our response to reality; wisdom is just as much concerned with the “how.” That is, wisdom has to do with not only what sort of behavior we exhibit but with how we arrive at a correct understanding of things so that we may seek to behave aright in any given situation. The nature of a proverb is such that if it is treated as a timeless, abstract law, it will prove true in some circumstances but will produce a disaster in others. Part of being wise is understanding to what specific situation a given proverb may be applied. When we understand this characteristic of the proverb, we can see how two proverbs can give exactly opposite counsel (e.g., Prov. 26:4-5).

Given this distinction between law and wisdom (while always recognizing the unity between them), we gain a better feeling for the relationship of Job to Proverbs. The book of Proverbs places great emphasis on the wise or good behavior leading to a good result and on folly leading to evil. This appears to amount to a doctrine of direct and inexorable retribution in our lives. It is only by treating such proverbial wisdom as abstract law that one can arrive at the “logical” conclusion that misfortune is always the result of sin and that happiness is the result of goodness. Such was the error of Job’s friends, and some theologians have referred to this as the crisis of wisdom (e.g., H. H. Schmid, Wesen und Geschichte der Weisheit [Topelmann, 1966]). Job’s friends sought to abstract proverbial wisdom out of the concrete situations of origin and to turn the particular case into the general rule. To them the logic was clear and irrefutable: Job stood condemned.

But wisdom does not allow itself to be cast into such a mechanical form. It is guidance for life in that it atunes our thinking to the nature of reality. The concrete situations behind every individual wisdom saying may never be repeated in our experience, but they point to the complex relationships in reality which are affecting each and every one of us continually.

The Christology of Wisdom

The gospel fulfills all the expectations of the Old Testament. In short, it proclaims that reality, as it has been partially revealed in the Old Testament, is now perfectly revealed in Christ. Jesus Christ is true God and true man. His manhood is not a partial one of spirit or mind, but it is a complete bodily existence of man. insofar as Jesus’ existence is material, it is one with the created order, and the Person of Christ may be seen to embrace all reality—God, man and the world.

It is unfortunate that in popular thought Christology is almost exclusively conceived of in terms of the doing of Christ—especially His dying for sins. Let us be clear that Jesus could only do what He did by being what He was. Of course, if we think of the gospel as “Jesus in my heart,” we have a bodiless indwelling Spirit, and we are bound sooner or later to think of salvation merely as the saving of our immortal souls. But Jesus was true God and true man in perfect relationship. In His incarnate Being all reality was perfectly related. When Paul says that God is the source of our life in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 1:30), he reminds us that life is in Christ outside of us. Whatever Adam lost at the fall is restored in Christ. Life in Eden was the right relationship to all reality. Wisdom sees the tree of life as the perfect world order. (Prov. 3:13-20; 6:23; 11:19, 30; 14:27; 15:4). Jesus declares that He is that life (John 14:6). We have already seen that this life is not simply eternal soul-existence but life in relationship with all reality. Life can be viewed from different perspectives—wisdom, salvation history, the Christian life. But whichever way we look at it, it is there for us now in Christ, “whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).

From the point of view of Christian existence, wisdom has a twofold application:

1. It is the possession of the believer in Christ. As righteousness is imputed to the believer, so wisdom is also imputed, for wisdom and righteousness are ultimately synonymous. If Christ is our wisdom, we possess it before God in Christ, not in ourselves; and we possess it by faith. Another way of putting this is that the Person of Jesus Christ, now exalted on high, embraces within Himself all reality perfectly related and that this is so for us.

2. There is the experiential and noetic wisdom. This wisdom bears the same relationship to imputed wisdom as sanctification does to justification: it is the fruit of our perfect standing in Christ. A significant aspect of this noetic wisdom is the conforming of our thinking to the truth about reality as seen in the Person of Christ. That all reality is perfectly related in Christ is true, but it is the place of Christology to designate how reality relates. The Christological definition of the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) is a vital dogmatic aid at this point. Chalcedon recognized that the two natures of Christ—God and man—relate as union without fusion, maintaining a distinction without separation. Wisdom affirms God, man and the world. This “trinity” of reality reflects a structure which bears the same kind of relationships as we find in the Person of Christ and in the triune Godhead. The wise man recognizes the integrity of each aspect of reality, neither fusing them nor separating them.

Armed with this perspective, the Christian is in a position to step boldly into the world, seeking to be responsibly human in his relationships to his fellow man, to the world and to God. By this means the gospel is lifted out of the private spiritual haze of an “in my heart” Christianity and brought into the light of day to speak to us about the world, science, art, history, politics and every other field of human concern. Thus may we appreciate the purpose of God “which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:9-10).

By Graeme Goldsworthy

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