Wisdom Christology

An Interview with Dan Ebert

This is the latest volume in Explorations in Biblical Theology, a series edited by Robert Peterson: Dan Ebert, Wisdom Christology: How Jesus Becomes God's Wisdom for Us. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2011. (Sample PDF here.) It's endorsed by Don Carson, Doug Moo, Chris Morgan, and Mark Gignilliat.

Dan Ebert served as a missionary in Asia from 1977 to 1999, then taught at Clearwater Christian College for nine years, and now teaches at Cedarville University. He wrote his dissertation under D. A. Carson: “Wisdom in New Testament Christology with Special Reference to Hebrews 1:1-4” (PhD diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1998).

Dan graciously agreed to answer some questions about his book:

What do you mean by “wisdom Christology”?

This is certainly the right question. I am pleased that the publisher settled for the title Wisdom Christology because it gets right to the heart of the matter: how do Christ and wisdom interface? Three issues are wrapped up with this question: one is academic, one theological, and the third practical.

1. Academics. Certain streams of biblical and theological scholarship have played loose with the identification between Jesus and an antecedent Wisdom figure, sometimes called Lady Wisdom or Sophia. As a result the expression “wisdom Christology” has been hijacked by all sorts of ideas alien to the biblical witness. But I am not willing to give up the expression itself, and so in part I have been trying to reclaim it. The Church desperately needs the Christological wisdom of the New Testament.

This brings us to the next two questions: how is a proper wisdom Christology constructed, and what is its practical application?

2. Theological Construction. Along with the basic New Testament narrative concerning Jesus, certain key texts provide much of the biblical data for the orthodox doctrine of Christ. I deal with several of these passages in Wisdom Christology. These texts are discrete units that reveal Christ's participation in the divine identity, and they highlight his role in revelation, creation, and redemption. These apostolic testimonies to Jesus can be described as “confessions” of the gospel.

Christ certainly was a “sage” or wisdom teacher, and he does take up (and surpass) certain features of Old Testament wisdom. But what is most important is that these heightened Christological passages celebrate the gospel. And it is precisely the gospel, with all its Christological richness, that is New Testament wisdom. This is best expressed in 1 Cor. 1:23-24, where Paul unequivocally identifies wisdom as “Christ crucified.”

3. Practical Application. These passages not only reveal the shape of God's wisdom in Christ, but are actually doctrinal confessions applied to the practical life of the church. My thesis is that Christology functioned as wisdom in the early church. How could a church living in crisis be faithful? The answer was found in her confession of Christ as the wisdom of God.

In other words these Christological passages are functioning in their contexts precisely as wisdom. So I am arguing that “wisdom Christology” has two senses:

  • It refers to Christ in all his crucified glory as God's wisdom.
  • It refers to this Christology as it functions as wisdom for the needs of God's people.

Chapters 1-6 in your book each explain a New Testament passage. How would you summarize the connection between Jesus and wisdom in each of those passages?

Part I studies two passages where Jesus and then the Apostle John invite us to God's wisdom in Christ, and Part II analyzes four Christological passages that apply this gospel-wisdom to specific challenges in the church's life.

  1. Matthew 11:29. Jesus invites us into his school of wisdom, calling us to take on his “yoke.” First-century Judaism understood this metaphorical yoke to refer to the law, namely, Israel's wisdom (e.g., Sirach 51:26). Jesus shifts wisdom's center of gravity from Torah to himself, inviting us to study at his feet.
  2. John 1:1-18. John's prologue, at the very center of its concentric structure, is the apostle's implied invitation to receive Christ as the supreme Word of God (1:13). While John does not use the word “wisdom,” the prologue is filled with language of revelation: “word,” “light,” “truth,” “made known.” John identifies Jesus as that higher wisdom that is rooted in special access to God (1:1-2, 18) and that is not known by the world (1:10). Again wisdom's orientation shifts from the law to Christ and the gospel (1:17). Christ as divine wisdom reveals God, creates the universe, and saves the world.
  3. 1 Corinthians 1:18-24, 30-31; 8:6. Paul explicitly identifies Christ with the wisdom of God. First Corinthians 1:18-25 is one cohesive paragraph; it begins and ends with the same point: the gospel is God's counterintuitive wisdom and power manifested in Christ.
  4. Colossians 1:15-20. The three wisdom motifs in John's Gospel resurface here. Christ as the Son is the revealer of God, the sustaining Creator and center of the universe, and the Redeemer who brings redemption and peace.
  5. Philippians 2:5-11. This chapter may most clearly illustrate the thesis of Wisdom Christology. On the one hand, Paul celebrates Christ and his cross-work (what he calls the wisdom of God in 1 Cor. 1:24, 30); he sets Christ's obedience unto death, “even the death of the cross,” at the literary center of this text. On the other hand, this divine wisdom becomes wisdom for the daily life of the church as believers are called to have Christ's “mind” (a synonym for wisdom) in their common life together (2:5).
  6. Hebrews 1:1-4. Some commentators have argued that the author of Hebrews presents Jesus in the guise of Lady Wisdom. While I would qualify this, the author does masterfully build on earlier confessional material to announce God's Son as the supreme revealer of God, the powerfully qualified Redeemer-Priest, and the exalted messianic king who rules the universe. Again we see the three wisdom themes of revealer, creator, and redeemer.

You write, “The primary focal point of this study is the application of Christology to issues in the life of the New Testament church” (p. 5). What are some specific applications?

Let's consider the situations at Corinth and Philippi:

  1. Corinth. A major problem for the church at 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 (1 Cor. 2:8; 8:6). But such wisdom is also defined by the Son's sacrificial death for others. The content of this wisdom is Christ and the cross-centered gospel. Identifying “Christ crucified” as God's wisdom sets aside all human wisdom and self-confidence and points us toward the way of the cross as our model for life. To illustrate the ethical implications of this wisdom, Paul later applies it to the situation of proud believers who were not properly caring for weaker brothers in the practical matter of meat offered to idols. Believers must not have a knowledge that puffs up, but imitate Christ's wisdom and sacrificially love one another (1 Cor. 8:1).
  2. Philippi. The Roman citizens of Philippi, along with the power elite of the empire, prided themselves in status and self-advancement. To help the church live as true citizens of heaven, Paul presents a hymn-like confession in which the center is the cross of Christ. The way of the cross models life for believers in the world. The cross is the place where God's redemptive wisdom is found, but it is also the place where God manifests his own heart. Such wisdom means humility, being oriented toward others, and following the way of the cross-the divine path to exaltation and glory. This is exemplified not only in Christ's life and death but also in Paul's life and in the life of his coworkers. Such wisdom functions in a practical way to unify church leaders. This is the kind of practical Christian wisdom that our churches need today.

The Gospel Coalition has been highlighting resources on preaching Christ in the Old Testament. How does your book help people in this regard?

These confessional texts and New Testament Christology in general have multiple Old Testament roots. So when students of the New Testament locate such a strand (particularly one related to creation, redemption, and revelation) the proper move would be to

  1. run the theme through the OT,
  2. then to the life and ministry of Jesus, and
  3. finally to a confession about Christ in one of these apostolic texts.

Consider “wisdom” in Proverbs 8. Like the function of other Old Testament figures and institutions (e.g., prophets, angels, Torah, temple), Wisdom culminates in Christ. If I were preaching from Proverbs 8, I would look earlier to God's creation by his word in Genesis 1. Then I would move forward to Christ's public ministry, with his verbal power over creation exhibited in his nature miracles. I would then land in John's prologue, which emphasizes the Word and the Son's creative power. Or one could end in Hebrews 1:1-4, where the Son's creative power symmetrically aligns with his redemptive power (i.e., the one who “made” all things is the same one who “made” cleansing for sin).

The practical takeaway is that we can be confident that the gospel is the wisdom and power of God (Rom 1:16). God powerfully removes our sins. This helps God's people see that the Old and New Testaments cohere, that Christology is rich, and that the gospel is climactically important.