By focusing our thoughts on biblical wisdom, Paul Woods reminds us that God’s teaching encompasses all of creation and requires us to draw “together Scripture, theology, and human experience and concerns” into what can be an untidy web of ideas and concepts that are necessary if we are to rightly communicate God’s message to his world.
Paul Woods has previously worked with doctoral students at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and master’s students at Singapore Bible College. Before that, he served as language and culture consultant for the Fellowship as a whole in Singapore and for the Mekong Field based in Chiang Mai. He now has a new role as outward-facing Theological Educator at Large within OMF (UK).
Wisdom as the Basis and Aim of Theological Education
Mission Round Table Vol. 17 No. 2 (May-Dec 2022): 7-9
To download a PDF of this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 17:2.
As we come together for this theological educators’ consultation, I would like us to engage with a few thoughts from Proverbs 8 and Colossians 1. Both connect to the role of wisdom and of God’s people in the world. Also, both lead me to worship at the feet of Christ. Christ is king over creation and then the church. We are co-labourers in his redemption project. From Proverbs and Colossians, we can think of ourselves as Christ’s colleagues in a derivative kind of way.
I want to think of wisdom as a motif in Scripture and for us in theological education. Rather than religious knowledge, wisdom is the everyday, practical application of the faith, outside the church and during the week.
The book of Proverbs urges us to gain wisdom and warns of dangers that await those who lack it. Proverbs 8 is especially beautiful and attractive to me because of its pseudo-Christological central section.
1 Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
2 At the highest point along the way,
where the paths meet, she takes her stand;
3 beside the gate leading into the city,
at the entrance, she cries aloud:
(Prov 8:1–3, NIV)
We begin with the personification of wisdom as female. Wisdom calls out and raises her voice, confident and assertive. She appears at the city gates, where the elders sit to debate and hear court cases.
6 Listen, for I have trustworthy things to say;
I open my lips to speak what is right.
7 My mouth speaks what is true,
for my lips detest wickedness.
8 All the words of my mouth are just;
none of them is crooked or perverse.
9 To the discerning all of them are right;
they are upright to those who have found knowledge.
In most cultures, the commandment to “listen” means “listen and obey.” In our enlightenment-influenced world, including the western theological academy, knowledge and wisdom have become different, separated. Knowledge is commonly associated with facts, scientific or otherwise, but wisdom is about values, and is richer, deeper, more organic, inscribed in human cultures, and ultimately located within God. Wisdom contains a moral element that goes way beyond knowing “stuff” and keeps us on the right track. These few verses remind me of Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” It is about cultivating a basic moral orientation to wisdom.
12 “I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence;
I possess knowledge and discretion.
13 To fear the Lord is to hate evil;
I hate pride and arrogance, evil behaviour and perverse speech.
14 Counsel and sound judgment are mine;
I have insight, I have power.
Wise people show prudence and discretion. A quiet word here and there can achieve so much. For me, these verses resonate with the Ten Commandments as well as with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians.
17 I love those who love me,
and those who seek me find me.
18 With me are riches and honour,
enduring wealth and prosperity.
19 My fruit is better than fine gold;
what I yield surpasses choice silver.
20 I walk in the way of righteousness,
along the paths of justice,
21 bestowing a rich inheritance on those who love me
and making their treasuries full.
In verses 17–21, wisdom, prudence, and honesty help us run our lives and affairs in ways that God and people approve of and that keep us on the path of righteousness. If we had time to look at Proverbs 8 in detail, we would see that wisdom is useful and available to all.
This central section of the chapter, including verses 22–31, is one of my favourite sections of the whole Bible. It is one of those spooky pieces of text that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up as it takes you to a higher place. Wisdom teaches us to keep our feet on the ground and is intensely practical, yet the associations and implications of these central verses take us up into the heavenlies and into the ancient mind and purposes of God himself. So far, much of what we have read is very human—wisdom is a human as well as divine thing, and there is wisdom in every human culture and religion. But things shift here. This is the fresh, moist air of a beautiful spring morning not long after the creation, as this view of wisdom brings us to God’s embrace.
22 “The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old;
23 I was formed long ages ago,
at the very beginning,
when the world came to be.
24 When there were no watery depths, I was given birth,
when there were no springs overflowing with water;
25 before the mountains were settled in place,
before the hills, I was given birth,
26 before he made the world or its fields
or any of the dust of the earth.
This central section might cause grief to some systematic theologians, because it is messy and raises more questions than it answers. Hallelujah!
Before any of the physical creation existed, wisdom was there. It predates the creation. Wisdom is required for there even to be a creation. Does wisdom have personhood? Is this just a device to help us engage with it? Is it helpful for us to conceive of wisdom as a person? Is there something deeper going on here?
27 I was there when he set the heavens in place,
when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,
28 when he established the clouds above
and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,
29 when he gave the sea its boundary so that the waters would not overstep his command,
and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.
30 Then I was constantly at his side.
I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
31 rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in the human race.
Throughout these verses, wisdom is a witness to the creation. Wisdom personified manifests a wide range of human attributes, and stands side by side with the creator God himself.
The picture is of God as celestial and terrestrial architect, mandating, measuring, marking, making, all the while with wisdom at his side. Was wisdom just watching the process or somehow part of it? The details of the physical creation and the delineation of land and sea here remind me of God’s final exchange with Job, when the creator responds to the creature’s attempt to call him to account. God’s supremacy and primacy are positive and reassuring.
In verse 30, wisdom is side by side with God and for me this evokes John’s the Word was with God. And wisdom rejoices in three ways: being in the presence of God, in the whole created order, and in the human race itself.
As I have read this passage over the years, I have come to believe that there is something Christological or Trinitarian here. Is wisdom pointing to or in some way representing the Divine Son or the Holy Spirit? Is this entity, full of wisdom, with God at the beginning, and taking such joy in the creation of heaven, earth, and humankind, showing us the Godhead? In the Orthodox tradition, it is accepted that in the Proverbs, Wisdom personified points to Christ. We may not want to go as far as the great Russian theologian Sergei Bulgakov, who was criticised for making wisdom into the fourth person of the Trinity, but these verses do at least make connections to Christ or hint at him. I like the rather old-fashioned English word adumbrate. Perhaps God is making us think and is breaking some of the neat boxes of the western academy.
Wisdom is not just a resource; she is a creative, moral entity for whom humanity is a source of joy. Wisdom rejoices at what God has done, the whole of his created order. There is so much of delight and joy here as wisdom contemplates the greatness of God and what he had made. Wisdom must be part of our lives, helping us as she engages with us and delights in us; it is deeply relational.
32 “Now then, my children, listen to me;
blessed are those who keep my ways.
33 Listen to my instruction and be wise;
do not disregard it.
34 Blessed are those who listen to me,
watching daily at my doors,
waiting at my doorway.
35 For those who find me find life
and receive favour from the Lord.
36 But those who fail to find me harm themselves;
all who hate me love death.”
In the light of all that has been said, listen to wisdom and keep to her ways. Look at the words here: listen, blessed, instruction, watching. These lead to life and the Lord’s favour. Wisdom is God’s character written down; dare I say it, his Word—in both senses—written down.
And now, we transition to the Christ hymn of Colossians 1. I sometimes think of this passage as John chapter 1 for Jews. But while John uses the Greek concept of the logos in exploring Jesus’ divine nature and role in the universe, Paul draws on Old Testament themes and links them to the church. We don’t have time to explore overlaps between John’sGreek logos and Jewish ideas on wisdom from Proverbs 8 and the supremacy of Jesus in Colossians. Do that when you get home!
It is striking that Christ’s supremacy over the created world is presented before his pre-eminence over the church.
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. (Col 1:15)
Paul’s way of writing makes you sit up straight in your chair. His “the Son is the image of the invisible God”is a bold statement about Christ that feeds into our understanding of God as Trinity. The firstborn refers to Christ’s unique status as Son and heir to all things, given to him by his victory on the cross and his work in creating. Already, I can sense a pull back into Proverbs 8.
The scope of all creation is vast! This is important as there are Christians who follow a kind of dualism that puts the things of faith and the things of the rest of life into separate silos. Some do not know how to engage the world with the Bible and default to simple evangelism. When churches do not grasp the broader and richer message of the Scriptures, in their enthusiasm for Christ they risk making him small.
A different kind of problem is associated with a more liberal position. Here, a cosmic Christ works somehow for justice in society and really cares for small furry animals, but doesn’t have any transformational application to our day-to-day lives.
The reality of Jesus and the genius of Paul’s portrayal of him here is that the risen Christ is the firstborn, with authority and sovereignty over all things. He combines transcendence and immanence, ruling over the out there and the in here. He is neither the Christ of the world-fearing and world-rejecting Christian, nor the Jesus of the liberal, world-subservient Christian.
For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. (Col 1:16)
All of what you perceive, even in the spiritual shadows and the half-light where waking and sleeping come together, were made by Christ. What we might separate as earthly and heavenly, or visible and invisible, are an integrated whole for Jesus, because he made all things. As regards our physical world and its ecological system, including animals and plants, our status as God’s image bearers brings awesome responsibility! And Jesus’ authority over the creation is not a form of deism, in which the creator makes the wristwatch, winds it up, and then walks off. No, all that we see and understand, from our own experience and the discoveries of science and human wisdom, exists for him and he is committed to it.
The for him is more incredible than the through him. The whole created order is established to serve and glorify Christ according to his purposes. There can be no other orientation for the universe. As Revelation 22 tells us, Christ is the alpha and omega, the bookends of all human history and endeavour.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1:17)
In some way that I do not understand, this whole created order is sustained by Christ—as Hebrews 1:3 also tells us. How can we understand this? When human wisdom reaches its limit, cognition gives way to surrender, which is so liberating. The physical universe, the laws of science, and the living organisms of people and animals are somehow integrated by Christ. This is what he does!
And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. (Col 1:18)
Only after presenting Christ as master of the universe—the Pantocrator—does Paul turn to the church. The king of the world is also the king of the church; it couldn’t really be any other way, could it?
If our understanding and presentation of Christ are as provider of individual salvation only, we are doing a disservice to him, his people, and those outside the church.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, (Col 1:19)
Verse 19 begins with for and connects back to the previous verse. Christ is supreme in everything not only because of his divine nature or role as creator, but also because the fullness of the Godhead was infused into him at the incarnation. The one in charge of the creation and the church is both human and divine; what an affirmation of created humanity! We are called to great things in Christ
and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col 1:20)
And true greatness spills over into mercy. This transcendent and immanent Christ is supreme over the universe and the church. But rather than crush our sinful nature, the royal procession that marches through the universe rescues and transforms it. Colossians is not just about the power of Christ, but also about his love. All things are reconciled to the love and justice of Christ.
We have good news, and Christ’s dual headship over world and church conveys to us the responsibility and resources to engage for him. Scripture indicates the vital role the church should have in helping Jesus judge, redeem, and administer his planet and the civilisations it sustains.
The history of the church has shown how easy it is to fall into either of two extremes. Oppose the world, hide away, and then complain when we are irrelevant. Or, push God away out there and make him an ineffectual, white-bearded old man who doesn’t really make any difference. Jesus, Paul, and whole of Scripture command us to walk the middle way, combining the out there and the in here, ongoing personal transformation and critical engagement with the world around us.
There can be no ongoing creation and restoration in the kingdom sense without wisdom. Wisdom is more than knowledge; it is the application of knowledge gained from Scripture and the Lord, refined through testing and human experience, rooted in community, and directed for good. The OT passage gives us the mandate as followers of the God who created wisdom and created with wisdom. The NT passage continues the theme of God’s sovereignty and the vital role of the community of faith.
Biblical and theological knowledge are not enough, but they are a precious and vital foundation. We need to build on these and go out into the world. Think of these Scriptures and the task of theologising itself as a worldwide web of related ideas and concepts. Or perhaps a group of ideas joined by Wittgensteinian family resemblances. How do we understand wisdom and how do we work out Christ’s supremacy of the creation and the church? We need a theological method that draws together Scripture, theology, and human experience and concerns. This is not neat and tidy, but God’s wisdom, heart, and love require us to minister into complex situations and equip God’s people to communicate with and help a needy world.
This is why we are passionate about theological education!