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

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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.

God’s Guidelines for the “Gray Areas” of Life: Wise Decision-Making in a Wicked World, Part 4

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Ethical and moral decision-making presents a great challenge for devoted followers of Jesus in the 21st century context. In 1 Corinthians Paul provides helpful guidelines for navigating what could be called “the gray areas” of the Christian life.

These biblical principles are true anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances. They are extremely helpful in leading us to be wise decision-makers as we live out a gospel-centered ethic.

5). Is this action consistent with my new life in Christ?
Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: no sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, revilers, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom. Some of you were like this; but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Cor. 6:9-11

Do you not know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own… – 1 Cor. 6:19

Followers of Jesus are brand new creatures. We are now temples of the Holy Spirit corporately (1 Cor. 3:16) and individually (1 Cor. 6:19). One aspect of this “newness” is that we honor God and bring Him glory in our bodies (1Cor. 6:20). This is a Pauline way of saying glorify God all the time in every way with all that you are. Body, mind, will, and emotions are all to be brought under His Lordship and control. Unfortunately, we sometimes forget this and tragic consequences follow. Christ is hidden rather than displayed in our lives. Let me illustrate. Sometimes in our desire to communicate the gospel clearly and without unnecessary baggage, we go too far and actually miscommunicate the message and send an uncertain sound. To gain a hearing from our “cultural despisers” we adjust our vocabulary, compromise purity and holiness, and we are reckless with what we do with our bodies and thereby cloud or even hide the glorious gospel that transforms and changes life. German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg in a First Things article entitled, “How to Think About Secularism” provides needed words of wisdom in this context:

The absolutely worst way to respond to the challenge of secularism is to adapt to secular standards in language, thought, and way of life. If members of a secularist society turn to religion at all, they do so because they are looking for something other than what that culture already provides. It is counter productive to offer them religion in a secular mode that is carefully trimmed in order not to offend their secular sensibilities.

Christians should not shy away from the fact that our lives are centered on the divine things. We offer a different way of making sense of reality and a different way of living, which go against the grain of what modern society offers as the norm. We also should not shy away from referring to the wrath of God against human sin even though most moderns ignore, disbelieve, or sweeten the pill with deceptions about God’s complaisance over sin (Wolfhart Pannenberg, “How to Think About Secularism,” First Things 64 (June/July 1996), 31).

Tim Keller wisely informs us, “All of our personal problems and church problems come because we don’t come continually back to the gospel to work it out and live it out….Christians are enormously bold to tell the truth, but without a shred of superiority [remember 6:9-11!], because you are sinners saved by grace. The balance of boldness and utter humility, truth and love-is not somewhere in the middle between legalistic fundamentalism and relativistic liberalism. It is actually off the charts” (Tim Keller, “Being the Church in Our Culture”). When considering how to live for Christ in the 21st century, our new life demands that we proclaim and live the message with great boldness, holiness and humility. We are to live a life that is in harmony with who we are as new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).

6). Will this action violate my conscience?
Eat everything that is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake, for the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it. If one of the unbelievers invites you over and you want to go, eat everything that is set before you, without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you,” This is food offered to an idol,” do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake. I do not mean your own conscience, but the other person’s. For why is my freedom judged by another person’s conscience? – 1 Cor. 10:25-29

It is risky, even dangerous, to ignore the inner voice of conscience. It is God-given and under redemptive-reconstruction thru the Spirit, Word and fellowship of the Christian community. A well-informed, Scripture-saturated, Spirit-sensitive conscience will be an asset in warning us of things that are sinful, evil, and unwise.

Now, I do not think Paul would say, “Let your conscience be your guide,” as if conscience by itself is a sufficient umpire or arbitrator when it comes to good decision-making. Rather he would say, “Let your conscience guided by Scripture and controlled by love be your guide.” This will involve some tension in your lifestyle preferences, but it will also result in God conforming you more to the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5). We must get used to living with this tension. While most would love for every decision to be crystal clear (I certainly would!), that is naïve and simplistic. It would also stunt spiritual growth and maturity as we grow in Christ. Thus, Christians must know what is going on in their own cultural context. The internal voice of a believer’s conscience can be a great aid when guided by Scripture and controlled by the ethic of love. It can give you peace in what you are doing and joy in the doing. Romans 14:23 reminds us, “Whatever is not from faith is sin.” Living with a clear conscience before Christ and others is a worthy goal for all of us to pursue.