The Wisdom of God
Biblical wisdom invites people to a way of life that is in harmony with both the created order and God’s redemptive work. In the Old Testament wisdom is oriented around the fear of the Lord; in the New Testament wisdom is amplified and reoriented around Christ.
A Christian theology of wisdom begins and ends with Christ. The New Testament identifies Jesus as the ultimate source of wisdom. The Old Testament anticipated an eschatological fulfilment of wisdom, both by its call to wisdom as well as by Israel’s failure to live by that wisdom. In Christ Old Testament motifs related to wisdom found their fulfilment and reconfiguration. Old Testament wisdom was revelatory, organizing life around the fear of the Lord. In the New Testament this life is reoriented around Christ’s invitation to the wisdom of the gospel.1 In the Old Testament wisdom undergirds the whole creation. In the New Testament, like Lady Wisdom of Proverbs 8, Christ is identified with the work of creation but far exceeds that role as sovereign Lord of the universe. In the Old Testament wisdom plays a saving role, though not a redemptive role. In the New Testament wisdom is strikingly reoriented around the cross work of Christ and sets a new pattern for life. Wisdom in the Old Testament was to lead to a life of virtue; such a life is now made abundantly possible through Christ.
The study of God’s wisdom can be as broad as the Bible and all theology or it can be as narrow as the words for wisdom in Hebrew and Greek. The first approach is too expansive. The latter is too narrow, since a wide range of words fall into wisdom’s semantic domain (e.g., intelligence, insight, prudence).2 One could limit the study to the wisdom literature (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and certain Psalms). But this tends to miss the role that wisdom plays across the canon.3 To make the material manageable and to offer a concise theology of wisdom, this essay will focus on four motifs: creation, revelation, redemption, and virtue. These thematic connections grow out of the biblical material and inform the shape of Christian wisdom. Beginning with the New Testament’s identification of God’s wisdom with Christ, we will summarize the contours of Old Testament wisdom around these four motifs, in each case showing how wisdom reaches its culmination in Christ.
Christ and the Gospel
A Christian approach to the study of God’s wisdom starts and ends with Christ. Paul, in opposing false wisdom, locates true wisdom in God’s plan that climaxes in Christ and the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 1:24 and 30 he explicitly calls Christ “wisdom.” This gospel wisdom is the source of all wisdom for the Christian community which by the Spirit has the mind of Christ (2:7-16).4
Colossians and Ephesians amplify the apostle’s understanding. God has “lavished upon us” the saving grace of the gospel “in all wisdom and insight” (Eph. 1:8). In Christ, God gives believers “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation” (Eph. 1:17). Paul prays that God would fill the saints “with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col. 1:9). The apostle proclaims Christ, “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom” to present everyone mature in Christ (Col. 1:28). In Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).5 We can call this “christological wisdom.”
There is a tendency in certain streams of contemporary theology to reorient christology around some preconceived conception of wisdom. The New Testament, however, moves in the opposite direction: it is wisdom that is reconfigured around Christ. Authentic Christian wisdom is always constituted in relation to the person and work of Christ.
How is this christological wisdom related to the Old Testament? All the major motifs related to Israel’s understanding of wisdom are fulfilled and surpassed in Christ. The broader canonical movement between the Testaments is anticipated both by the sense of failure in the Old Testament as well as by prophetic promises of hope – this double strand of failure and promise encompassed all of Israel’s institutions and life: temple, covenant, city, priesthood, rest, and even her wisdom. No one is more clearly identified with wisdom than Solomon. Yet in the end his life became a prototype of both wisdom and folly: a type of Christ and a picture of human failure (1Kgs. 3-4; 11:4). Sadly, in Israel’s history wisdom was distorted (Jer. 8-9).6 What was needed was one greater than Solomon (Isa. 11:1-10; Matt. 12:42).
Old Testament Wisdom Motifs & Their Fulfilment in Christ7
The relation of Christ to Old Testament wisdom is complex. Jesus’ teaching ministry reflected that of a sage or wisdom teacher, but it was much more than that. His teachings paralleled that of Old Testament wisdom both in form (e.g., parables, sayings) and content (e.g., the invitation to wisdom, the two paths). But his teaching was also like that of a prophet, and in other ways it was totally unique (e.g., his claim to sonship, and the cry of “Abba, Father”).
The relationship of Christ to the personification of wisdom is likewise complex. No attribute of God was expressed in figurative form so powerfully, and developed so thoroughly, as wisdom. This occurs in the Old Testament and was developed in Second Temple Judaism. Here too, Christ surpasses the antecedent wisdom material.
A consideration of four themes (revelation, creation, redemption, and virtue) captures and yet distinguishes Christ’s relationship to Old Testament wisdom.
Wisdom and Revelation
The attribute of God’s wisdom appears in the Old Testament as Lady Wisdom. She reveals God’s will and ways in the created order (Prov. 8; Job 38), as well as in the law (Deut. 4:6). In the apocryphal literature wisdom is further described as reflecting God’s glory (Wisdom 7:24-26). While this latter document is not canonical, it shows that people continued to reflect on God’s revelation in terms of wisdom.
Like the function of other Old Testament revelatory phenomena (e.g., prophets, angels, Torah, temple), the revelatory function of wisdom reaches its culmination and is surpassed in Christ. To use the vocabulary of Hebrews, the former figures were good, but Jesus is “better” (Heb. 1:4). It is helpful to see Christ in the light of antecedent revelatory figures such as wisdom, but we must not miss the uniqueness of Christ.
In the Old Testament, wisdom is personified as an attribute of God, but wisdom is not a personal being. Even in the more fully developed apocryphal literature, Lady Wisdom never bridged the gap between personification and actual being. Christ is a person within the triune identity of God. This is what makes Christ’s revelatory power unique. The Son is the image of the Father; he reveals him as no other can.
Yet a typological pattern can be affirmed. This is illustrated by wisdom’s invitation (e.g., “let the wise listen,” Prov. 1:5; cf. 9:1). This divine invitation is ultimately fulfilled in Christ: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-29).8
Wisdom and Creation
A gift that biblical revelation gives to the world is its understanding of creation’s rational, moral, and aesthetic structure—a structure grounded in the omnipotence of a personal Creator.9 God is the creator of the beauty and order of creation (Ps 104). This creational design is linked with God’s wisdom (Prov. 3:19). At the moment of creation personified wisdom makes her joyful appearance (Prov. 8:22-31).
The strongest conceptual tie between personified wisdom and Christ may well be this creational role. In the New Testament it is Christ who is present at the moment of creation (John 1:1-2); it is Christ who is the agent of creation (John 1:3; 1Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2). Personified wisdom functions at this point as a type of Christ. However, here too, we must carefully attend to Christ’s uniqueness.
Not only was wisdom represented as playing a role at creation, so was God’s creative word, the divine Spirit, and in rabbinic Judaism, Torah. These phenomena can also be seen as picturing Christ’s function as creator. But Christ’s companionship with God at creation far exceeds what was ever said of wisdom. The Son is present as a person and not merely as a literary figure or personification. Wisdom is described as created, while the Son is eternal and uncreated (Prov. 8:22). The New Testament connects this companionship with the Son’s divine identity: not only was the Son “with God” (John 1:1a), he was God (John 1:1b). Christ is not only the agent of creation he is the glorified Son and sovereign Lord (Phil. 2:11; Heb. 1:4; Col. 1:17-18).
The cosmic scope of God’s wise plan for the world will be brought to completion in the saving work of Christ (Rom. 16:25-27). This leads us naturally to the third theme.
Wisdom and Redemption
Personified wisdom is represented as playing a saving role in providing insight, revelation, and providential guidance, but not in a redemptive or atonement sense. A careful reading of Proverbs 1-9 illustrates the point.10 To read Old Testament wisdom’s role in terms of atonement is a mistake.
The one point at which Christ is explicitly called the wisdom of God in the New Testament is in relation to his redemptive work on the cross (1Cor. 1:23-24, 30). This is a function of Christ as wisdom that is not applicable to personified wisdom, but it is the pivotal center of God’s wisdom in Christ. The cross of Christ is always the defining factor. This leads us back to the gospel narrative and the unique way in which this wisdom is applied in the life of the church. It also leads to the fourth wisdom theme – that of a transformed and virtuous life.
Wisdom and Virtue
The aim of Old Testament wisdom was a life of virtue lived in the fear of the Lord, in harmony with the order of creation, and within the community of God’s people.11 The unresolved tension, illustrated by Job and Ecclesiastes, was the problem of evil, springing from the fall and spawning folly, sin and death. In the gospel Christ has defeated sin, Satan, and death, with the final victory awaiting his second coming and the consummation. In the interim Christ has given the redeemed his example, teachings, and Spirit so that believers might live virtuous lives consonant with God’s wisdom.
The New Testament reflects both continuity and discontinuity with wisdom’s call to the virtuous life. The continuity can be found scattered throughout the New Testament and is best modeled in the Epistle of James.12 “James’s handling of themes has particular resonance with the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, not least the straightforward counsel on how to live, cast in polarities: better this than that; live like this, not like that.”13 This style is also found in the teachings of Jesus.14
There are, however, important discontinuities in the New Testament. These relate to the redemptive work of Christ, the presence and power of the eschatological Spirit (Col. 1:9), the unique pattern of wisdom life modelled by Christ (Col. 3:16), and the mission of the church (Col. 4:5).
Our Response to God’s Wisdom
In Ephesians Paul teaches that the “manifold wisdom of God” is made known “through the church” even in heavenly places (Eph. 3:10). Because of the church’s missional role, God’s wisdom needs to shape our lives both in the local fellowship and in our public witness. We are to let the word of Christ indwell us so that we can instruct one another “in all wisdom” (Col. 3:16). Toward outsiders we are to “walk in wisdom” (Col. 4:5) and to think deeply about how we live – as people who are truly “wise” (Eph. 5:15). This is not a generic philosophical wisdom that is to transform us, but God’s unique and often counter-intuitive wisdom found in Christ. What does this look like?
Practical examples of living shaped by christological wisdom are embedded in the New Testament. For example, a problem at the church in Corinth was a divisive spirit. This was caused by pride in human wisdom. It is in this context that Paul explicitly calls Christ “the wisdom of God.” Such wisdom has its foundation in the Son’s participation as “the Lord of Glory” in the identity of God (1Cor. 2:8; 8:6). But such wisdom is also defined by the Son’s sacrificial death. The content of this wisdom is the cross-centered gospel. Identifying “Christ crucified” as God’s wisdom sets aside all human wisdom and points us to the way of the cross.15
- Bartholomew, Craig G., and Ryan O’Dowd. Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011.
- Belcher, Richard P. Finding Favour in the Sight of God: A Theology of Wisdom Literature. New Studies in Biblical Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic 2018.
- Carson, D. A. . “James,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, 997-1013. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.
- Crenshaw, James L. Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction. 3 ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
- Davids, Peter H. The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982.
- Ebert IV, Daniel J. Wisdom Christology: How Jesus Becomes God’s Wisdom for Us. Explorations in Biblical Theology. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011.
- Estes, Daniel J. Hear, My Son: Teaching and Learning in Proverbs 1-9. New Studies in Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.
- ———. The Message of Wisdom. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, forthcoming.
- Kantzer, K. S. “Wisdom,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell, 940. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.
- Ortlund, Raymond C. Proverbs: Wisdom That Works. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.
- Schnabel, E. J. “Wisdom,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by Brians S. Rosner T. Desmond Alexander, D. A. Carson, Graeme Goldsworthy, 843-48. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
- Treier, Daniel J. “The Gift of Finitude: Wisdom from Ecclesiastes for a Theology of Education.” Christian Scholar’s Review 48, no. 4 (2019): 371-90.
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