New Article: When is "Human Wisdom" Suspect?

Our very own @Christy wrote this piece for us about “human wisdom” and how it’s related to the study of science. A look into Paul’s musings for Christ followers in his age.

READ: https://biologos.org/articles/when-is-human-wisdom-suspect

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Thanks for this article, Christy.

Just in doing a simple word search for the word ‘reason’ (and all its longer forms) in the New Testament, it strikes me that probably well over half (I didn’t actually count) are speaking of it in a positive sense … as in Paul reasoning with people or about the positive place that “sober judgment” (NRSV - Romans 12:3) - which is called ‘reasoning’ in some earlier English translations seems to have an assigned and expected role among believers. Indeed if thought and reason are generally dismissed, then much of Paul’s writings are reduced to nonsense as he leans heavily on all sorts of reasoning to persuade his recalcitrant audiences.

I’m about to give a talk on ‘strength’, and this “inversion” of the world’s wisdom I think runs closely parallel to what I hope to say about strength. In some of my circles, we’re big on “upside down kingdom” talk. I think it could be fairly suggested that the world we are enculturated to is really the ‘upside down’ place, and that God’s Kingdom is where we finally get to experience a tasted of “rightedness”. Reading your article is helping me think and prepare for what I want to say. So again … thank you!

-Merv

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Thanks! I like upside down kingdom talk. But yes, good to recognize that the Kingdom is the “righting” of our upside down values. I think upside down is a relative not an absolute directional concept. It all depends on your original frame of reference.

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Thank so much for writing this article @Christy! It’s was a great read. Particularly, loved your conclusion:

So, how do we apply passages like 1 Corinthians 1:18-24 to our modern Christian lives? We honor its truth by recognizing that the structures our society uses to assign worth to people, and the criteria it uses to judge success, may not be in line with the great inversion of expectations that we see in the gospel. We honor its truth when we remember that people considered uneducated or weak by worldly standards may have deep insights into spiritual truth and be powerful examples of faithfulness to the gospel. But, the “human wisdom” we are warned not to rely on doesn’t have anything to do with science. We do not have to devalue education or dismiss the discoveries and insights afforded by centuries of careful study and academic discipline. All truth is God’s truth, and we should pursue it, both through academic study and through spiritual discipline. And just as God did for the Corinthians, he is able to use our knowledge and intellectual development to enrich our church.

Thanks for all your hard work.

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Thanks for the kind words, Liam. The articles you believe with your whole heart are the easiest to write. I’ll take every chance I can to talk about the gospel’s power to create a reality that thwarts our expectations. That has to be one of the most exciting aspects of the Christian message.

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Amen! I’ve been trying to get a chance to comment on your article since it appeared, but time hasn’t been on my side lately. Loved the piece! Couldn’t agree more! I especially wanted to highlight and comment on this paragraph:

Throughout the Gospel accounts, who is praised for understanding the message of the Kingdom? The poor, the socially marginalized, and the disenfranchised. Who is chided for missing the point? The rich, the pedigreed, and the powerful. This was a stunning reversal for everyone whose expectations were based on conventional “human wisdom.”

Exactly! The conventional wisdom of the time said that God blessed the righteous with health, wealth and long life, and sinners he punished with sickness, poverty, and an early grave. Witness how the disciples are astonished when Jesus says it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom. Why? They took riches as a sign of God’s favor. What do the disciples ask about the man born blind? Who sinned – this man or his parents, that he should be born this way? And what does the Sanhedrin say when they throw him out? “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

I could go on and on. Jesus violated every prejudice and preconception of his culture. Given the society and culture in which he lived, it is hard to comprehend why Jesus attracted an audience at all. He might as well have been preaching racial equality in Alabama during the 1920s, or religious reform and love for Westerners to 21st-century jihadists. His execution should come as no surprise. Humanly speaking, it is even harder to imagine why Jesus so confidently assumed the worldwide spread of his message, particularly when he violated virtually all of society’s norms and did not conform to any of his audience’s expectations or desires. One could hardly characterize that as a strategy for success.

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Yes! Great examples of human wisdom. One of the sad effects of the term being co-opted to mean “evolution and old earth science” is that those of us who disagree with that characterization sometimes stop at saying, “that’s wrong,” and then get sidetracked defending the value of good science. And then we don’t ever get back to asking what human wisdom we are supposed to be rejecting in light of Jesus’ message, and we miss out on the chance to be punched in the spiritual gut by how revolutionary the gospel really is.

Yes, I have a whole book on the subject that I’m keeping in my back pocket for now. My thesis is that contemporary Christians have little real understanding of Christ because they have absorbed him by cultural osmosis. Jesus spent his entire ministry challenging the expectations, traditions, and prejudices of his first audience. If we read his story without questioning our own preconceived notions, we will misunderstand his meaning as badly as his contemporaries who could not question theirs.

The Pharisees, for example, failed to recognize Jesus as the Christ because he didn’t fit their literal interpretation of the prophets – a king who would sit on the throne of David, crush Israel’s enemies in battle and rule the world from Jerusalem. And look how often Jesus upbraided the disciples for taking him literally and missing his greater meaning. (“How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread?”)

How many of our contemporaries fail to understand Jesus because they can’t get past their literal and cultural interpretations?

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Thanks for your article, Christy. But allow me to give some pushback. So what do you do when “human wisdom” conflicts with our faith? Science and “human wisdom” tells us that people don’t rise from the dead…that mud doesn’t cure blindness…that people cannot walk thru locked doors…and the virgin birth just isn’t the way such things happen.

So trusting any “human wisdom” that bases itself on the weak and miserable principles of this world (like naturalism, uniformitarianism, scientism and empiricism) is a recipe for disaster. How do you respond?

Thank you…and I wish you all the best!

You are changing the meaning of human wisdom to the very thing I was arguing it wasn’t. Human wisdom in the Bible simply doesn’t mean “science.” Also, I don’t believe that “our faith” is a set of truth claims. “Our faith” is a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ, the risen and exalted Lord of all whose kingdom we are invited to work for as we hold on to the hope of a dawning new creation where all will be set right. This is the gospel Jesus and Paul preached, and I don’t think science speaks to any of it. If you are asking what do I do when claims of science conflict with truth claims of the Bible, then I look more closely at what the perceived conflict is, because it is often not being portrayed accurately.

Miracles are by definition unexpected, paradigm-shattering events initiated by God. If they didn’t challenge the norms and expectations shaped by our prior human experience, and if there were natural explanations, there wouldn’t be anything miraculous to talk about. Saying, “humans don’t rise from the dead” or “mud doesn’t cure blindness” is simply making observations about the way the natural world works. It isn’t making a truth claim about what is possible or impossible for God. I reject the idea that science definitively tells us people can’t rise from the dead or Jesus couldn’t have healed a blind person. Science does no such thing. It simply can’t offer a natural explanation for miracles. Science admits it can’t speak to supernatural causes or scientifically describe God’s actions. Only metaphysical naturalists who insist the natural world is the only reality make the mental jump from “Science can’t describe miracles” to “things science can’t describe can’t happen.” Most humans aren’t metaphysical naturalists.

I think all knowledge has a source and all truth can be applied well or badly to how we live. We need to be wise and discerning when we think about how we know things and how we apply what we know. Knowledge about the natural world obtained via methodological naturalism and analysis of empirical evidence has value and can be applied in beneficial and wise ways or in destructive and foolish ways. We shouldn’t dismiss or discount scientific truth because of who brought it to light or the methods they used to uncover it. Anything that corresponds with reality is true. Nature is part of reality and we can discover true things about it through scientific inquiry, but that doesn’t mean nature is all of reality or that science is capable of inquiring into spiritual realities. Knowledge about spiritual things obtained via meditating on the Bible’s truth in the context of a loving relationship with God mediated by his Holy Spirit has value and can be applied in beneficial and wise ways and in destructive and foolish ways. I don’t think wisdom is equivalent to truth or knowledge, I think it is equivalent to righteous and just application of truth and knowledge. We can act wisely on the things we learn from science and we can act wisely on the things we learn from God and the Bible. It’s not an either or. The recipe for disaster is less about the source of our knowledge (science vs scripture) and more about the misuse of our knowledge. Knowledge from both science and the Bible can be twisted and abused in the service of sinful human impulses to dominate, control, and exploit. Both can be used to justify selfish, unloving choices. I don’t think the most important question is “Where did this truth come from?” (e.g. science or the Bible, atheists or Christians) but rather “Is this true?” If its true, then our task is to apply it wisely to life, using the standards for wisdom that the Bible gives us, not the standards for wisdom that the world gives us. I don’t think empiricism, naturalism, etc. are systems that become standards for wisdom. Worldly standards for wisdom that might conflict with godly standards would be systems like unfettered capitalism, nationalism, pragmatism, racism, sexism, classism, utilitarianism, colonialism, materialism, etc. The gospel will constantly be challenging the justice and righteousness of how those systems apply knowledge of truth to choices.

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I like it. . .

Great topic, thanks @Christy! I’m glad this one was brought up again because I hadn’t read this article, and it was very helpful after having “love vs. knowledge” come up in Bible study this week. It seems that knowledge is sometimes looked down on out of envy or pride, when we can also be puffed up in knowledge about our own interpretation of Scripture. This is a good reminder that who Christ welcomes into His Kingdom is more sure than what my own interpretation says who He welcomes. Hopefully I can recognize this plank in my eye sooner and sooner.

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Your article was thought provoking. Sorry I forgot to comment when I first read it. But I think you may have just surpassed it.

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Great point. The irony is that when Paul talks about knowledge puffing up in 1 Corinthians 8, he is talking about those who think they have special spiritual knowledge that everyone else needs to listen to.

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That’s what a Jewish Greco-Roman intellectual meant in 50 AD is it? That physics, geology, rationality and observation are miserable? Anachronism certainly is.

@Christy did a perfect job of identifying how the imperialist world works yet in it’s unenlightened, Machiavellian abuse of privilege. How Paul in the trajectory of Jesus inverted, everted that loveless, Godless ignorance in the pursuit of equality of outcome as the goal in this life, for the poor, women, children, the disabled, the sick, minorities. Those attributes of the Spirit of a sound mind, the Spirit of truth which you bizarrely vituperate as a denial of incarnation, align with that gospel which will be fully realised in the transcendent.

Just reread the article and now I don’t even remember which trail of crumbs led me back to it. Forgetting seems to be the key to making all things old new again, a gift that seems to improve with age.

I like the sound of your upside down kingdom. I wonder if being a Christyphile is enough to get me in the door. :wink:

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Christy and Christ are phonetically close, but one of us does not have any salvific power, I’m afraid.

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YES!

I thought the “rich, the pedigreed, and the powerful” didn’t quite hit the nail on the head. For it would be Romans who fit that description best and those were not the object of Jesus derision… It was the Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees – ergo the most educated in the religious community of Israel, the religious teachers and leaders.

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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