Tom McLeish on biblical wisdom for academics

In his second talk at the annual FiSch Leader’s Conference, Tom McLeish picked up where he had left off at the end of his first talk. He took us back to the Scriptures and the biblical idea of wisdom, showing how wisdom engages with the created world, and how wisdom should lead us to joined-up thinking.

Biblical wisdom (Hebrew: hokma) is both reflective and practical: it is about understanding God by seeing the world and acting righteously in it. The Greek and Latin words used to translate the Hebrew word hokma show something of the richness of meaning of this word. In Greek, two words are used: sophia, or contemplative wisdom, and phronesis, or practical wisdom. Likewise, in Latin, these two domains of wisdom are expressed in sapientia and scientia. Obviously the English word ‘science’ derives from the latter.

Many of the Scriptures that talk about wisdom use images related to seeing, as well as providing practical application. Wisdom concerns our relationship to the observable world. It is essentially integrative: we need all kinds of knowledge to faithfully exercise dominion over creation, and such a diversity of knowledge only exists in community. We need each other to become wise.

So let’s look at a few Bible passages that focus on wisdom.

Proverbs 8 describes the birth of wisdom and how wisdom delighted and rejoiced in the creation of all things. Wisdom created order out of chaos and established the boundaries that make life possible. The book of Proverbs emphasizes that God is present (although often hidden) in the secular, by using parallel sayings that refer to God and a secular saying that embodies the same ideas but does not contain a reference to God. Compare e.g. Proverbs 17:3 and 27:21. God is there for those who serve and see him, even when he is hidden to those who do not.

In Psalm 139 we see wisdom growing up. Notice the number of times this Psalm uses concepts of seeing, saying and doing. This Psalm also mentions the Spirit, showing the close connection between wisdom and the Spirit of God, which hovered over the waters at creation. Verses 9-12 engage with the ancient Near Eastern idea that connected wisdom with the sun and the sun god. God’s sight goes all around the earth. All secular wisdom has a sacred core – we must put it in the crucible and smelt out the dross to help all creation to glorify God. Our praise of God’s wisdom originates in our knowledge (vs. 6, 14). Human wisdom is related to, but a pale reflection of, God’s wisdom (vs. 17).

But the clearest link between wisdom and the natural world is made in an unlikely place: in the book of Job. Natural imagery is common throughout the book of Job. And Job’s charge against God is that God is just as out of control of the moral world as he is out of control of the natural world. This is why God’s answer to Job in chapters 38-41 is all about the natural world.

In the middle of the book of Job one finds a beautiful song about wisdom, in chapter 28. The chapter describes the search for wisdom. The chapter starts by describing how only humans can, through research, see the earth ‘inside out’ and harness its riches. Verse 11b can be taken as a motto for Christian scholarship: ‘the thing that is hidden [man] brings out to light’. Verses 12-22 show how wisdom is displayed in creation, but at the same time is also hidden. Only God understands the way to wisdom (vs. 23-28). Note how this involves our different senses and a contemplative (dare I say theoretical) understanding of the deeper structure of the world. Wisdom is not a thing that can be found in a certain place; it is seeing the world through God’s eyes, seeing creation in the light of God rather than seeing God in creation. It is sharing God’s perspective.

This understanding of integrative wisdom leads to unity in our knowledge. Tom formulated three principles for joined-up thinking based on the biblical concept of wisdom:

Creativity with constraint. A completely ordered world is a frozen world, and a frozen world is a dead world. But the greatest artworks are characterized by creativity constrained by form, e.g. in a sonata or a sonnet. Science reimagines the world constrained by what the universe is actually like.

All wisdom and knowledge are connected.

There is no divide between sacred and secular. The New Testament has a dynamic of unity, of being reconciled, not just in the church but in the entire world.

Lots of food for thought! It would be great to hear your reaction, and how this interacts with your own understanding of your research in the light of God’s wisdom.

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