Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (15): Christian theology aims for wisdom.

In the last installment, we noted that Christian theology strives for truth. In our Western intellectual context, we tend to equate “truth” with science-oriented knowledge. But Christian theology provides more than that sort of knowledge. It also leads one to wisdom. In fact, for two millennia, theologians have debated about what type of intellectual activity characterizes the task of theology. Should it be construed upon a scientific model (Latin, scientia) or upon a wisdom model (Latin, sapientia)? Augustine preferred sapientia to scientia, but later medieval theologians preferred scientia to sapientia. This chapter will argue that theology is indeed science, but more ultimately it is wisdom. We agree with Vanhoozer that, “Doctrine has a cognitive component . . . but the thrust of Christian doctrine is not mere knowledge, but rather wisdom.”[1] In our opinion, wisdom is the ultimate goal of theology because it includes not only the scientific aspect of knowing, but also the prudential aspect of living wisely in light of what we know. In order to flesh out this view of theology as science and wisdom, we will address both aspects of theological knowledge.

On the one hand, theology is scientific, if by scientific we mean that it is a bona fide discipline oriented to a legitimate object and possessing appropriate methods of investigating.[2] Wolfhart Pannenberg argues that theology is a science because it has a defined sphere of investigation, an internal coherence, a purposive attempt to describe external reality, and a public sphere of justification.[3] Likewise, Millard Erickson writes, “(1) Theology has a definite subject matter to investigate, primarily that which God has revealed about himself. (2) Theology deals with objective matters. It does not merely give expression to the subjective feelings of the theologian or of the Christian. (3) It has a definite methodology for investigating its subject matter. (4) It has a method for verifying its propositions. (5) There is coherence among the propositions of its subject matter.”[4] Pannenberg and Erickson both argue that theology must be subject to verification, and in Pannenberg’s criteria, public justification. We agree with Pannenberg and Erickson that theology is a bona fide discipline oriented to a legitimate object and possessing appropriate methods of investigating, and in that manner science-oriented.

On the other hand, theology is wisdom-oriented. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10; Ps. 111:10). As Craig Bartholomew and Ryan O’Dowd have argued, the wisdom theme pervades the biblical witness.[5] Although theology is science-oriented, it is more ultimately wisdom-oriented for two reasons. First, theology is more than science because it involves a personal relationship between the knower and the known.[6] True knowledge is rooted in commitment to God. Gerhard von Rad writes, “The thesis that all human knowledge comes back to the question about commitment to God is a statement of penetrating perspicacity. . . . Israel attributes to the fear of God, to belief in God, a highly important function in respect of human knowledge. She was, in all her seriousness, of the opinion that effective knowledge about God is the only thing that puts a man into a right relationship with the objects of his perception.”[7] Indeed, theology goes beyond correct information, extending ultimately to right relationship with God. Second, theology is more than science because it seeks to equip the church to live wisely in light of its knowledge. Theology is wisdom in that it involves both true theory and right practice. David Ford writes, “[theology] asks not only about meaning, interpretation and truth but also, inextricably, about living life before God now and about how lives and communities are shaped in line with who God is and with God’s purposes for the future. In short, it is about lived meaning directed toward the kingdom of God.”[8] If one focuses on theology’s science-orientation to the exclusion of its wisdom-orientation, one warps and distorts the task of theology and hinders the mission of the church.[9]

In summary, theology is more than science because theology is missional by its very nature. Theology is centered on knowing and loving God, on being transformed by Him, and on being a light to the nations so that they also can know and love God. David Bosch writes, “Just as the church ceases to be church if it is not missionary, theology ceases to be theology if it loses its missionary character.”[10] God’s biblical self-revelation is the true story of the whole world, but he does not reveal this account merely for us to step back and be wowed by its elegance and power. He has given us the Bible so that we can live within its pages, allowing its missional story to shape our identities so that we can in turn take this story to the nations.

[1] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 88.

[2] This sense of the word “scientific” stems from the earliest medieval universities. I have adapted this definition from David Clark’s definition. Clark, To Know and Love God, 213.

[3] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and Philosophy of Science, trans. Francis McDonagh (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 326-345.

[4] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 36.

[5] Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O’Dowd, Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011), 231-260.

[6] Ellen Charry writes, “Sapience [English, “wisdom”] includes correct information about God, but emphasizes attachment to that knowledge. Sapience is engaged knowledge that emotionally connects the knower to the known.” Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 4.

[7] Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, trans. James D. Martin (London: SCM, 1970), 67-68.

[8] David Ford, “Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God (1),” in David Ford and Graham Stanton, Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom (London: SCM, 2003), 4-5.

[9] David Clark notes that overly cognitive approaches to theology (1) obscure the transformational aspect of theology, which is its true purpose; (2) give the false impression that one must have a seminary degree in order to read the Bible; and therefore (3) intimidate Christians who have not formally studied theology. Clark, To Know and Love God, 240-241.

[10] Bosch, Transforming Mission, 494.

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (14): Christian theology aims for truth.

In the past several decades, certain philosophers, literary theorists, and other intellectuals have put forth intellectual programs that are (more or less) relativist. While metaphysical relativists (there is no such thing as truth) are rare, epistemological relativists (we cannot know truth) are on tap in nearly any department on a given American university campus. The central problem with such relativism is obvious (and has been pointed out repeatedly)-the assertion of relativism is itself a purportedly true assertion. In other words, this assertion is self-referentially absurd (difficult to sneak this one past the epistemology police). If we’ve given up on knowing “truth,” we can’t deign to offer relativism as a “truth.” You can’t have it both ways (or, as my grandfather would say, “Let’s not go peeing down both legs”).

In light of the varying shades of relativism that can be found in our Western intellectual context, Christian theology’s claims to have truth (and even “Truth”) are often met with skepticism or even ridicule. Indeed, for many Westerners, this entire blog series lacks even minimal plausibility because the series has been written under the belief that Scripture is revelation from God which provides the true story of the whole world. As we noted, Christian theologians recognize Scripture, tradition, reason, experience, and culture as sources upon which they draw. They integrate the insights given by historical, biblical, philosophical, systematic, and practical theology in order to build an integrative theology which remains in conversation with philosophy, science, and other fields of knowledge. All of this is done in order to provide a unified and coherent account of the truth about God and the world. “The church’s affirmation,” writes Lesslie Newbigin, “is that the story it tells is the true interpretation of all human and cosmic history and that to understand history otherwise is to misunderstand it, therefore misunderstanding the human situation here and now. . . . From age to age, the church lives under the authority of the story that the Bible tells, interpreted ever anew to new generations and new cultures by the continued leading of the Holy Spirit who alone makes possible the confession that Jesus is Savior and Lord.”[1] But what does it mean to say that something is “true”?

Some philosophers set forth a coherence theory of truth.[2] Under this theory, any coherent system of belief counts as a “true” system of belief. Any belief that coheres with the rest of one’s beliefs counts as “true.” The problem with this theory is that one can construct a coherent set of beliefs that has no connection with reality. While the logical coherence of a belief system is a factor one takes into account when judging whether or not such a belief system is true, coherence is not itself constitutive of truth. Other philosophers set forth a pragmatist theory of truth.[3] Under this theory, whichever beliefs prove to be invaluable instruments of action can be counted as true. However, not all true propositions are immediately useful and not all useful propositions are true. Adolf Hitler’s belief system proved to be a valuable instrument of action for him and for Germany’s economy, but his belief system was built upon deeply inhumane falsehoods. While the pragmatic value of a belief system is a factor one takes into account when judging whether or not such a belief system is true, pragmatism is not itself constitutive of truth. In contrast to these theories, Christian theologians traditionally have espoused a correspondence theory of truth. In this view, truth is what corresponds with reality. Truth is independent of the human mind. Even if the human mind cannot recognize a particular truth, the truth of a matter still stands. This view of truth is pre-theoretic and intuitive, rooted in the human experience. We believe this view tallies with the biblical testimony, which teaches that God is truth and that God speaks truth (e.g., John 14:6).

Related to the question of truth is the question of knowledge (epistemology). Can human knowers access objective reality? Some philosophers have espoused naïve realism. In this view, it is assumed that the human knower can directly access objective reality. Naïve realism is called by this name because it naïvely overlooks the obstacles to knowing truth, obstacles such as human idolatry, and the historical and cultural location of the human knower. Other philosophers have held to epistemological nonrealism. In this view, it is assumed that the human knower does not have access to objective reality. In contrast to these two views, we believe that Christian theology best fits with a view known as critical realism.[4] In this view, human knowers are constrained by the limitations of our rational and empirical faculties and by the historical and cultural locatedness of our attempts to gain knowledge. But Christian theologians recognize a further reason that human knowers are limited and fallible: the distortive, corrosive, and ultimately subversive effect of human sin on the mind’s ability to know. In other words, sin has epistemological consequences. While God’s knowledge of reality is comprehensive, therefore, our human knowledge of reality is partial, inadequate, and dependent upon God. N. T. Wright puts it well when he writes that critical realism “acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence, ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower or the thing known (hence, ‘critical’).”[5] We believe that a critically realist theological method is necessary in order to take full account of the biblical testimony concerning truth and knowledge. What humans can know and say about God is not comprehensive, but it is true, trustworthy, and sufficient for faithful living.[6]

[1] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 77-78.

[2] Brand Blanshard, “Coherence as the Nature of Truth,” in The Nature of Thought, 2 vols. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948), 2:264-269.

[3] William James, Pragmatism (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University, 1975).

[4] Some of the foremost theological proponents of critical realism are David K. Clark, Lesslie Newbigin, and N. T. Wright. See Clark, To Know and Love God; Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995); N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 47-64.

[5] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 35.

[6] This way of putting it is a slight modification of Spykman, Reformational Theology, 74.