We Need Wisdom, Not Just Commands

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One of the central points of Eschatological Discipleship is that biblical faithfulness requires not only the keeping of biblical commands, but also the outworking of biblical wisdom and discernment on what obedience looks like in our day. An “obedient Christian” not only takes the direct commands of God seriously, but also seeks a biblically formed outlook so that wisdom and discernment is evident in decisions where there is no clear command in Scripture.

Here’s what I say in the book:

Wisdom not only considers what we are in this world but when we are as people who inhabit this world. Living in harmony with God’s created order means we must put our faith into practice in particular times and places.

Kevin Vanhoozer focuses attention on practice when he distinguishes between wisdom and knowledge by claiming,

“Disciples need more than knowing that (knowledge); they need to know how to live out their knowledge of Jesus Christ (wisdom). Wisdom is lived knowledge, the ability to transpose what we know here to that problem over there.”

According to Vanhoozer’s metaphor of a drama, to have doctrinal wisdom is to see oneself on the stage and instinctively “know what to say and do in order to advance the main action of the play, and to do so in a contextually fitting way that effectively communicates to others.” Wisdom, therefore, means understanding the story we are part of and what temporal place we occupy in the unfolding of that story and then living accordingly.

Vanhoozer’s distinction between “knowledge” and “lived knowledge” is helpful in that it includes the element of moral discernment and judgment. For Christians who view the Bible as a rulebook, offering timeless wisdom for life and a series of commands to obey, holiness turns into a timeless moral code that brings reward from God and earns his favor, or a moral code followed out of gratitude for being saved by God’s grace. Either way we conceive of holiness as following a moral code that is universal for all Christians.

The problem with this view is that many moments in our lives do not require obedience at the basic level of discerning God’s commandments (for example, the Ten Commandments) but rather a deeper, more fundamental obedience that requires wisdom and discernment in understanding the times and acting accordingly. Simon Chan defines discernment this way:

Discernment is knowing God’s will in particular situations. And knowing God’s will, as we learned earlier, is not just a matter of grasping a piece of information. It has to do with our whole attitude toward God and ourselves, with an ongoing relationship with God and loving him. Discernment, therefore, is more than just the scientific application of principles to particular situations. It requires practical wisdom that no amount of formal study can impart, that is, a kind of spiritual sensitivity that comes with long experience.

Discernment is on display when, before we can answer the question, “What am I to do?” we ask the question (in O’Donovan’s words), “What am I to do in this state of affairs?” which is another way of asking the question, “What time is it?”

Eschatological discipleship, then, is not a timeless moral code but rather a timely application of moral wisdom that is cultivated through growth in Christian character, immersion in the grand narrative unfolded in the Scriptures, and reliance on the Spirit’s guidance.

Although wisdom transcends time (because it is what we need in any epoch), it is cultivated and applied in time. Wisdom draws on the resources of the past, looks to the promise of the future, and relies on the Spirit’s guidance in the present.

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