We begin today a series with Northern Seminary DMin grads who summarize their chapter from Wise Church.
This post is by Dan Hanlon.
Parents and teachers of little ones know how important and yet challenging it can be to provide brief definitions for every-day words, words with meanings often taken for granted. This, I think, is true of “wisdom.” How would you define wisdom? Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates would answer, “to know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” Good advice. And yet, a contradiction to the claim 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 foundation for the range of topics covered in the book. Hopefully, it also provides a foundation for further reflection on topics not covered as well.
Defining wisdom begins with the terminology of Proverbs, which, as the only book in the Bible to specifically claim to make its adherents wise, is the necessary starting place for any discussion of biblical wisdom. Proverbs has rich wisdom terminology and the first word is hokmah (1:2-7). Hokmah has two levels of meaning and the second builds on the first. Wisdom is first of all the skill or ability to do something well. The skill of artists, craftsmen 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 is wisdom (Jeremiah 9:17). The list could go on.
The second level of meaning of hokmah builds on the idea of skill. If wisdom is the skill to do something well, then it is the skill or ability to do life well. It is this second level meaning that is so central to Biblical wisdom. This wisdom is not reducible to terminology, however, and touches on areas of epistemology, ethics, and theology. The rest of my chapter centers on these three dimensions of biblical wisdom, which provide the foundation our other authors build upon.
First, epistemology is that dimension of wisdom dealing with ways of knowing. Wisdom is the fruit of observation, experience, and receptivity to instruction. Grey hair is not a prerequisite for wisdom, but wisdom does come with age. The father/son language in Proverbs is an analogy for the sage/disciple relationship.
It is often thought that wisdom and apocalyptic genre types are opposed to one another, since they seem to breath the air of conflicting worldview assumptions. Yet, biblical wisdom also comes by revelation, especially the revelation of God through his Spirit. Paul, along with his Second Temple Jewish contemporaries, saw this and recognized the importance of Spirit revealed wisdom for the life of God’s people (see Ephesians 1:17).
Second, the ethical dimension of wisdom deals with behavior. Hokmah is a neutral term and can be used negatively. Jeremiah speaks of skill in doing evil (4:22). Not only that, but foolishness and wickedness are also connected in the Bible. Wisdom requires moral instruction in righteousness, justice and equity (Proverbs 1:3).
A growing consensus among the experts is that Old Testament law is custom law, rather than our modern sense of statutory law, or law code. That is, Old Testament law is a lot like wisdom. If so, then the Law (Torah) is a source of wisdom. This is how Second Temple Jews, like Ben Sira thought about it. The Law remains a source of ethical wisdom for the church as well. But ethical wisdom is not limited to the Law, but is also Spirit-led (e.g. Ephesians 5:18) and Christ-shaped (e.g. Philippians 2:5; 1 Peter 4:1).
Third and, perhaps most significantly, biblical wisdom is theological. This is because wisdom in the Bible is about relating to God or the divine ordering of the world. At the heart of biblical wisdom, therefore, is “the fear of the Lord,” a concept that grounds wisdom in a covenantal relationship with God. In relationship with God one gains the wisdom needed to navigate life in the world God has made. Wisdom is life within limits, the companion needed to live along the grain of God’s design (Proverbs 8).
Ultimately, wisdom is theological because of the association of Jesus and wisdom, both in his teachings and in his person. Josephus identified Jesus as a wise man, a sage. The teachings of Jesus are wisdom and the Sermon on the Mount is a great example. But the wisdom of Jesus is also embodied. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s wisdom 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 held apart, as if they were competing ideas about wisdom. Rather, they are interconnected working 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 the life of the church round out my chapter.