These thoughts are unfinished. In fact, I’ve only published this post because I am feeling brave today. What you have here are only seeds which will perhaps one day flower in my thinking. So feel free to comment and, when you do, please be gentle!
So much of Jewish theology (at least as we have it in Scripture) seems to have been God’s revelation. In Torah, he speaks through his commandments to his people. In the Prophets, he speaks even more directly perhaps through chosen men. And even in the historical Writings, we have this thread of salvation history running throughout – a thread which bears witness to a God who has spoken. The same God whom the writer to the Hebrews later said spoke to us by his Son.
Yet the Wisdom writings are somehow different. The more I read them, the more I am convinced that the sages did theology from ‘down here’. What they wrote was founded in creation theology. Their understanding of life came from experience, from empirical observation. And their conclusions and advice for life presupposed the existence of an unchanging cosmological order.
I would not thereby say that wisdom is exclusively anthropological. It’s not. Wisdom also contains a divine thread. That is obvious from the presupposition of order. Creation theology clearly teaches that such an order is contingent upon a God who has made it so. And the personification of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs underlines this; Proverbs 8 seems to present Wisdom as some form of mediator between God and humankind.
Yet for once in Scripture, the divine is muted in some way. Even in Job, when God speaks, he does so in the language of creation. It is as if God sometimes prefers to reveal himself through what he has created rather than through a direct spoken revelation from heaven.
I realise that I’m on shaky ground here for some of my readers. I know that you will tell me that in the end God chose to speak through the very Word himself, that in the end creation’s revelation was not sufficient and nor was it ever intended to be. Yet, walk with me here a moment…
The Wisdom writings did not get into Scripture by accident. We believe that all of Scripture is inspired, that canonisation was carefully watched over by God in some way that we do not understand. So, we must have the Wisdom writings for a reason. We must have the record of this ‘way of doing theology’ for a purpose. And I would like to suggest that God intended us to understand that whilst we must read the wisdom enterprise through the lens of his final self-revelation in his Son, we can also follow the example of the sages, engaging with him and learning truth about him through creation.
Now perhaps if my only application would then be that we can commune with God outside and in the countryside, everyone would be happy. But I want to go a step further.
I want to suggest that we can do theology even with the created wisdoms of the day. I want to posit that contemporary ‘wisdoms’ such as the self-help craze may parallel the Old Testament wisdom endeavour. Just as the sages looked for the laws of the cosmos, so also self-help looks for universal truths. Just as the sages applied themselves to practices of rigorous observation and reflection upon experience, so also self-help seeks to draw principles from life experience and to codify them in some way.
What is the difference? In method, I mean. What Scripture seems to approve as a method for doing theology, self-help devotees are doing today.
Yet you and I probably struggle with that. We’d like to undo my reasoning so far – because we don’t like the conclusion! Yet I am not saying that the answers proposed by contemporary wisdoms are correct at every point; merely, that we cannot fault their methodology.
Now what if instead of fighting against contemporary wisdoms, what if instead of trying to ignore them, we took this for the opportunity that it is? What if we were to engage with this ancient-yet-contemporary way of doing theology? What if we were to engage with those in our day who have unconsciously followed the methodology of the sages, whether they be self-help devotees, creation care proponents, New Agers or even those whose knowledge of cosmological order focuses on the field of capitalist markets?
What if we were to let this parallelism in methodologies be a bridge between their understanding of the wisdom of creation and our understanding of the cosmic Christ in whom ALL things are held together? What if we were able to affirm their methods yet gently present the personal revelation of Christ as the firstborn over all creation, the one in whom all things were created, the epitome of God’s Wisdom and the only framework within whom we can do theology?
You see, it’s not that I would affirm the conclusions of any who are trying to do theology without Christ. Some things they might have right but, in the end, without Christ they have nothing. Yet perhaps if I can affirm their method as one which even God seems to have approved in Scripture, I have a bridge over which the gospel might pass.
It’s not as yet a well-used bridge. I don’t even know how sturdy it may prove. But I think it is a bridge for mission all the same. And I wonder if the Apostle Paul might have thought so too. Think about Romans 1:20 and Acts 17. The wisdom of creation can be a bridge and a partial revelation of God.
Let us not quash the wisdoms of this age without question then; let us rather affirm in them what we may affirm, correcting only where Scripture clearly contradicts them, and then fill them full of the true meaning of the cosmological order which they seek to understand – Christ, who fills everything in every way! And may we thus see those who are the very pinnacle of creation, the ones in whom God intended to display his infinite wisdom, become truly wise.