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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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1. In OT and Apocrypha.-In the OT, Wisdom in its nature and office is discussed in the series of books known as the Ḥokhmâh or Wisdom literature of the Hebrews. We find here not so much a philosophy as the rudiments of a philosophy on the practical side. The ‘wisdom,’ e.g., of Joseph or Solomon, in the earlier literature of the OT, is ‘the clever judicial decision, the faculty of clothing a practical experience in a rule of life or a witty saying, the acuteness which can solve an enigma’ (Duncker, quoted by Skinner in Cent. Bible, ‘I and II Kings,’ p. 88).

Wisdom was not regarded as the peculiar possession of Israel; indeed in certain portions of the OT, Edom is regarded as its home. As time went on, however, and brought the people sorrow and crisis, when trouble pressed hard upon the heart, and faith wavered or declined, Wisdom developed into a serious spirit of inquiry.

A. B. Davidson (Biblical and Literary Essays, London, 1902, p. 29) differentiates the Hebrew Wisdom from the Greek or any other secular philosophy by its standpoint or approach to the problems of the world’s life; the former started with God, while the latter reached Him, if at all, only at the end of a long process. The Wisdom of the Hebrews, since it came down from God upon life, was a process of recognition, while secular philosophy was one of discovery. The nature of the Hebrew Wisdom is apparent: ‘It is not a view of the Universe distinct from God, much less a view of God distinct from the Universe; it is a view of the Universe with God indwelling in it’ (ib., p. 32).

For the understanding of Wisdom, as it appears in the discussions of the Apostolic Age, the Book of Proverbs (chs. 1-9, and especially ch. 8) is of capital importance, for there in germ is the speculation of Philo, and the subsequent identification of Wisdom with the Logos of the Fourth Gospel. ‘The eighth chapter of Proverbs, and those associated chapters of the Apocryphal Wisdom-books, are fundamental for the primitive Christology’ (Exp , 8th ser., xii. 169). The development has been thus traced-‘the unity of thought and efficiency that animates and operates the world may be abstracted from God, the actual living Operator.… This plan or organism of principles may be idealized, and regarded as animated and active, and have consciousness attributed to it, … it may become the Fellow of God … it may be described as “playing” before God, in the joyous consciousness of power and capacity, and having its delights with the children of men.… This remarkable conception is the contribution which the literature of the Wisdom furnishes to the Christology of the Old Testament.… There can be no doubt that’ this conception of Wisdom ‘entered into the Messianic consciousness of Israel, and enriched it; and’ it is ‘reproduced in the New Testament in connection with the Son. “The Word was with God.” “All things were made by Him.” “In Him do all things subsist” ’ (Davidson, pp. 34, 80 f.; the reader may also be referred to an interesting series of papers by Rendel Harris on ‘The Origin of the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel’ in Exp , 8th ser., xii. 161). This Wisdom literature strongly influenced both the Jewish and the Christian Church, but it is, perhaps, in its later developments, in the Book of Wisdom and Sirach, and, above all, in the other Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the OT, that we can see the developments of thought that enriched and guided Judaism in the age 180 b.c.-a.d. 100 (cf. R. H. Charles, Religious Development between the Old and the new Testaments, London, 1914, p. 184 ff.).

But the Wisdom books, as a preparation for the gospel, raised difficulties which they could not solve, and thus pointed forward to the revelation of God in Christ; through them also contact was made with the Greek world; Judaism and Hellenism met together over the pages of the LXX , especially in its sapiential portions (cf. R. L. Ottley, The Religion of Israel, Cambridge, 1905, pp. 154, 172).

In estimating the influence which OT Wisdom literature had upon thought in the Apostolic Age, regard should be had to the various currents of Judaism, and to the fact that in some cases the Wisdom books have a different outlook from that of the prophetic message. Often ‘the counsel of the wise’ was chiefly political and secular; even Sirach sometimes commends a line of conduct that is more prudential and self-centred than religious. Above all, we should remember the pervasive influence of Hellenism, especially in a centre like Alexandria, where East and West met and mingled (cf. Hort, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, London, 1895, passim). All these influence the conception of Wisdom as it crosses the path of apostolic Christianity.

2. Wisdom in the Apostolic Age.-The discussion may be confined to the use of the term in 1 Corinthians 1-3. Other references (Ephesians 1:8; Ephesians 1:17; Ephesians 3:10, Colossians 1:9; Colossians 1:28; Colossians 2:3; Colossians 2:23) will be covered by that discussion. For it is improbable, e.g., that in Colossae any definite system was being propagated. The indications point rather to a blend of elements from Eastern faiths with notions and practices current among Jewish circles which were sensible to semi-Alexandrian influences (cf. J. Moffatt, LNT , Edinburgh, 1911, p. 152).

‘The Church of God which is at Corinth’ explains the vindication which St. Paul had to make of his gospel and the manner in which he presented it as well as the difficulties he found in the defence of Christian teaching and social order. For Corinth was the city of licence. ‘He was here confronted not merely by the old religion of polytheism, not only by a stunted or degraded moral sense; the greatest barrier was the prevailing mode of thought, the spiritual atmosphere, the habit of judging everything according to the form, the rhetoric, and the dazzling dialectic with which it was presented, the habit of accepting nothing, of even being willing to hear nothing, which did not respond to these demands’ (C. von Weizsäcker, The Apostolic Age, i. [London, 1897] 311). ‘Corinthian words’ was only another synonym for rhetoric and the frothy speech with which one intellectual party confuted the opinions of another.

It was not strange, therefore, that these parties should be perpetuated inside the Christian Church, where Jew and Greek met one another, each with his contribution to the preparation for the gospel, or his idiosyncrasy of thought inherited from his fathers. From this there sprang up what has been called ‘a Graecised Judaism,’ an anticipation of the later Gnostic systems, which endeavoured to construct a theology from an allegorical interpretation of the OT, the loftier forms of philosophy, and also from the ideas and mythologies of various Eastern religions. The process is seen in Clement of Alexandria (Strom ii. 480 [P.]). whose leading idea is that the Divinely ordained preparation for the gospel ran in two parallel lines, that of the Jewish Law and Prophets, and that of Greek Philosophy (cf. Hort, Ante-Nicene Fathers, p. 88). Thus, in Corinth, Hellenism and Judaism met and mingled, and there sprang from the combination the pseudo-philosophy which is the morbid growth of an intellectual age among a people that has passed its meridian.

The intellectual ferment imported from the city and the schools into the church at Corinth manifested itself in an outcrop of party-feeling and division which at first was of Jewish origin. But the corrupting leaven soon spread in a community that Clement of Rome (Letter to the Church of Corinth, iii.) characterized as prone to faction and quarrel (στάσις), and led away by an unrighteous and impious jealousy (ζῆλος).

The difficulties of the Church were increased by the fact that in Corinth the Christian religion had to find its footing on Graeco-Roman soil. It was not easy for Hellenic thought to fit itself to the new faith whose centre was a Cross, and one can sympathize with, or at least understand, men of an intellectual type who honestly thought they were doing a service to the good cause in presenting Christianity as a σοφία, and proclaiming its message in terms of the philosophy of the day. ‘Greeks seek after wisdom,’ but St. Paul’s speech and the thing he preached were not in persuasive words of wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:4-5 RVm ). There is no ground for connecting Apollos with the special method favoured by the Corinthians, which departed from St. Paul’s positive doctrine of the Christ, though it may well have been that the eloquent Alexandrian’s teaching ‘awakened a tendency to further free speculation’ (Weizsäcker, i. 322).

From St. Paul’s First Epistle we are left in no doubt as to the substance of his first gospel preaching in Corinth. He did not ‘begin by opposing idolatry and inculcating monotheism,’ and so ‘advancing from this basis to the doctrine of redemption, of Christ.… He began with the mystery of redemption.… He did not begin with those rational principles that might have paved the way for his gospel, but he presented to his hearers in all its strangeness, yet in all its power, the doctrine of the cross’ (Weizsäcker, i. 314 f.). These are the historical facts he imparted to them in the first instance: ‘I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scripture; and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve; then he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep; then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles; and last of all, as unto one born out of due time, he appeared to me also’ (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). ‘That was absolutely the whole gospel.… It was the doctrine with which he began’ (Weizsäcker, i. 314).

‘Christ! I am Christ’s! and let the name suffice you,

Ay, for me too He greatly hath sufficed:

Lo with no winning words I would entice you,

Paul has no honour and no friend but Christ’

(F. W. H. Myers, St. Paul).

From the vehemence with which the Apostle reiterates the staple of his message, one can infer the distaste with which ‘the foolishness of the preaching’ was received. The cultured and ruling classes rejected it with something of the energy of contemptuous loathing with which cultured Athenians spoke of the οἱ βάναυσοι; it was good enough only for the vulgar, the illiterate, and the base. They, on the other hand, were to be saved by the wisdom of the schools.

To this St. Paul’s answer was two-fold: (a) the gospel was not a philosophy to be discussed, but a message of God to be believed (cf. EGT ii. 774); (b) in point of fact, σοφία had not brought them the knowledge of God. The verdict of history had shown that ‘the world by wisdom knew not God’ (1 Corinthians 1:21). It has not been saved by dialectic; God ‘will not be apprehended by intellectual speculation, by “dry fight” ’ (EGT ii. 769). The wisdom of the world (κόσμος = the material world) in its very nature could not but fail to interpret the spiritual world (1 Corinthians 2:11-12). As a matter of historical fact, reason, apart from a special revelation, has never been able to attain any practical knowledge of God, nor has it been able ‘to show to the soul a fountain of cleansing, healing, and life.’ These things ‘are beyond the limits of man’s intellectual tether’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:14).

The Apostle’s experience in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) had not encouraged him to meet philosophers on their own ground, and, when he came to Corinth, it was with the deliberate purpose of not commending his message by the devices of rhetorical display, or the arguments of philosophy-‘I came not with any striking rhetorical or philosophical display, for I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ, and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). ‘When [therefore] eccentric teachers inculcated views which threatened to transform Christianity, to alter, as it were, its centre of gravity, or to pivot it on some new axis, resistance was instinctive’ (R. Rainy, The Ancient Catholic Church, p. 95).

This resistance ruled St. Paul’s presentation of his message: οὐκ ἐν σοφίᾳ λόγου, ἵνα μὴ κενωθῇ ὁ σταυρὸς τοῦ Χριστοῦ (1 Corinthians 1:17), ‘The term κενοῦν denotes an act which does violence to the object itself, and deprives it of its essence and virtue. Salvation by the cross is a Divine act which the conscience must appropriate as such. If one begins with presenting it to the understanding in the form of a series of well-linked ideas, as the result of a theory concerning man and God, it may happen that the mind will be nourished by it, but as by a system of wisdom, and not a way of salvation.… The fact evaporates in ideas, and no longer acts on the conscience with the powerful reality which determines conversion’ (F. Godet, Com. on St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, Edinburgh, 1893, i. 89).

Denney in illustration of this point instances a Hindu Society which had for its object to appropriate all that was good in Christianity without burdening itself with the rest. ‘Among other things which it appropriated, with the omission of only two words, was the answer given in the Westminster Shorter Catechism to the question, What is repentance unto life? Here is the answer. “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth with grief and hatred of his sin turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience.” The word the Hindus left out were in Christ; instead of “apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ” they read simply, “apprehension of the mercy of God.” But they knew that this was not compromising. They were acute enough to see that in the words they left out the whole Christianity of the definition lay’ (Studies in Theology, London, 1894, p. 130). St. Paul perceived that by the abstractions of Greek philosophy the gospel would be emptied (κενοῦν) of its significance and power, and his answer to this was: ‘We preach Christ’-not a system, but a Person-and Christ as crucified.

His method was justified by his experience of the Corinthian Church. Even though ‘by the enticing words of man’s wisdom’ a number of intellectually disposed Greeks had been attracted to the Church, in the absence of what has been called ‘profound conscience-work,’ the results were not lasting. ‘The wants of the understanding and imagination had, in many cases, more to do with their adherence than those of the heart and conscience’ (F. Godet, 1 Corinthians, i. 18). From the Corinthian letter we can see that there was an outcrop of old pagan habits and a reversion to type among men who had never really been evangelized. This was another evidence of the failure of wisdom as a substitute for ‘the word of the cross.’

Yet, while the Apostle rebukes and resists the superficial σοφία of the Corinthians, he also has his wisdom by which he relates the fact of Christ and ‘the word of the cross’ to his general view of the world: ‘unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, [we preach] Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:24). Thus he appropriates for the Crucified the ‘power’ and ‘wisdom’ of God, terms which were recognized ‘synonyms of the Λόγος in the Alexandrian-Jewish speculations’ (EGT , in loc.). But, since the Corinthians were no philosophers (1 Corinthians 1:26), ‘we speak wisdom among them that are perfect’ (2:6), i.e. his philosophy is intelligible only to the initiated and to the spiritually mature. To them all the things that God hath prepared are revealed. There is a wisdom; it is a revelation, not a discovery but a recognition (cf. Hebrew Wisdom, ut supra); it is mediated to men by the Spirit, and otherwise it cannot be discerned. This wisdom the Apostle would have proclaimed ab initio, for it is no esoteric doctrine; but how could he? The Corinthians were Christians, they had believed (3:5) but they had not yet (οὔπω) reached the stage of a purely spiritual appreciation. ‘There is nothing esoteric in Christianity, but the presentation of it has to be adapted to the capacities of those who are taught’ (J. E. McFadyen, The Epistles to the Corinthians, London, 1911, p. 46). Of some things our Lord said to the Twelve, ‘Ye cannot bear them now’ (John 16:12), and He pointed them to the revealing Spirit who would bring them into the full knowledge of the truth. Similarly, concerning the preaching of the true wisdom, St. Paul says, ‘I was not able (οὐκ ἠδυνήθην), because ye were not yet able (οὔπω ἐδύνασθε)’ (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).

3. Humanism versus Christianity.-Apart from its application to the experience of the Apostolic Church, St. Paul’s discussion of wisdom has timeless interests in its bearing on the evangelization of the world, and on the true method of what is called evangelical preaching. R. Flint (Sermons and Addresses, Edinburgh, 1899) raises the subject in a discourse on the text ‘Christ is made unto us wisdom.’ ‘There were people,’ he says, ‘who thought he [Paul] might profitably have imitated admired philosophers and popular orators; that he should have had a wider range of subjects and used more enticing words. Those foolish Corinthians have many successors among ourselves, who fancy that the pulpit would gain greatly in power if ministers would only discourse more about science and philosophy, nature and history, political and social reform, and the various so-called questions of the day.… The power of the pulpit will most certainly not be increased by ministers forsaking their own glorious work, the direct preaching of Christ, for the lecturing on lower themes.… The power of the pulpit lies in preaching Christ, and will be strong or feeble according as He is faithfully and zealously or faithlessly and coldly preached’ (p. 217). The persuasions to depart from the centre which Flint, himself a great preacher, so energetically repudiates meet every minister on the very threshold of his office, and are echoed again and again in the more or less strident voices of the world. There is always the aversion of men of taste to evangelical religion, from Corinth to the present day. ‘If our connection with Christianity is nothing better than a mixture of captious criticism and transient enthusiasm, with a dash of graceful posing thrown in, we are in danger … of just playing with Christ’s religion-playing, too, in the marketplace, surrounded by the realities of life and death, where business has to be done with God. The grace and gospel of Jesus are too serious to be thus trifled with. Their genius and office are not to be profaned by aesthetic handling either in the pulpit or in the pew’ (J. Moffatt, Reasons and Reasons, London, 1911, p. 137). One does not need to be an obscurantist or illiberal in turning back again to St. Paul as he contends for the purity and simplicity of the gospel message and vindicates its power. In every generation there will be found some who decry it as ‘weak and foolish,’ yet history has abundantly justified the power of the word of the Cross, and also the apostolic method in the delivery of the message. The victory over the world has never been with ‘moonlight theology’ or ‘extra-mural Christianity.’ Philo was a contemporary of St. Paul, but Philonism did not save the world; it was the simple, unaffected word of the Cross from a preacher such as St. Paul that won the Roman Empire, and brought-what Greek philosophy had failed to bring-a real knowledge of god to bond and free. If a system is to be judged by its fruits, if a method of preaching is to be so judged, one may well endorse the words, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God’ (Romans 1:16) If Humanism and Christianity be placed on their trial as instruments for the regeneration of the mass of mankind, Christianity has no need to blush for its record, while philosophy, as regards the mass of mankind, has been a light only to itself and an ornament. The contrast between St. Paul and the Corinthian seekers after wisdom is seen in historical examples; in the message of Luther and Erasmus; the Evangelical Revival, ‘by its intense reality, its earnestness of belief, its deep tremulous sympathy with the sin and sorrows of mankind, did what no intellectual movement could, it changed in a few years the whole temper of English Society’ (J. R. Green, A Short History of the English People, London, 1882, p. 718). Thomas Chalmers draws a sad picture of the failure of his earlier ministry, when he preached apart from the Centre, or, as St. Paul would say, laid another foundation for life than that which had been laid. When the light of the Cross broke upon him, his method was changed, and the fruit appeared, and that not only in specifically religious results, but also in the social reforms that the old method (directly as it had sought them) failed to produce.

Amiel, who will not be suspected of narrowness, or bondage to old forms, speaking of the efficacy of religion, writes: ‘When the cross became the “foolishness” of the cross, it took possession of the masses. And in our own day, those who wish to get rid of the supernatural, to enlighten religion, to economise faith, find themselves deserted, like poets who should declaim against poetry, or women who should decry love.… It is the forgetfulness of this psychological law which stultifies the so-called liberal Christianity. It is the realisation of it which constitutes the strength of Catholicism’ (Journal, Eng. tr. , London, 1891, p. 171). In ‘Cleon,’ browning adopts the same attitude in his study of the failure of paganism, even in its forma of highest, culture, to solve the riddle of human, life and to answer the requirements of the human spirit. Cleon has heard of Paulus and of Christus, but who can suppose that a mere barbarian Jew

‘Hath access to a secret shut from us’?

The doctrine of Christ preached on the island by certain slaves is reported by an intelligent listener to be one which no sane man can accept. And Cleon will not squander his time on the futile creed of slaves (Poetical Works, London, 1883, v. 299). But wisdom is justified of her children. The best Humanism is founded upon the word of the Cross, because it appeals to needs that are common to all the generations of men. This is the Wisdom St. Paul preached: Christ Jesus who was made unto us Wisdom-that is to say, righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30); ‘a triangular constellation, with Wisdom reigning in splendour in the centre’ (cf. A. B. Macaulay, The Word of the Cross, London, 1912, p. 162 f.).

Literature.-art. ‘Wisdom’ in HDB iv. and EBi iv.; art. ‘Philo’ in HDB v.; A. B. Davidson, Biblical and Literary Essays, London, 1902, p. 23; R. L. Ottley, The Religion of Israel, Cambridge, 1905, p. 172; R. H. Charles, Religious Development between the Old and the new Testaments, London, 1914, p. 206; C. F. Kent, The Makers and Teachers of Judaism (Historical Bible), do., 1911, p. 162; ExpT viii. [1896-97] 393; Exp . 8th ser., xii. 161 ff.; C. von Weizsäcker, The Apostolic Age. i., Eng. tr. 2, London, 1897, p. 303 ff.; F. J. A. Hort, Six Lectures on the Ante-Nicene Fathers, do., 1895, passim; R. Rainy, The Ancient Catholic Church, Edinburgh, 1902, p. 95; M. Dods, An Introduction to the NT, London 1888, pp. 100, 139 ff.; EGT , do., 1900, ad loc.; ICC , ‘1 Corinthians,’ Edinburgh, 1911 (Robertson and Plummer), ‘Ephesians and Colossians,’ do., 1897 (T. K. Abbott); R. Flint, Sermons and Addresses, do., 1899, p. 213.

W. M. Grant.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Wisdom'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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