Is Wisdom Knowledge-by-Experience?

Is Wisdom Knowledge-by-Experience? September 25, 2017

Longman FearTremper Longman asks this question because this is how it is often discussed by biblical scholars who distinguish the source of various segments of the Bible’s faith: law, prophecy, narrative and wisdom.

He discusses this in chp 7 of his fine book The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom. Here’s his opener:

We ask this question at a time when many scholars believe that the source of wisdom is categorically different from that of other aspects of the OT. If one asks concerning the source of prophecy, the answer is clear. God reveals his prophetic word to his servants the prophets, so they can say: ‘thus says the Lord” or “decree of Yahweh.” If one asks concerning the source of law, again the answer is obvious as we read about Moses ascending Mount Sinai to receive the law from God (Exod. 19-34). In a word, the source of much biblical tradition is revelation.

Many scholars remark that wisdom is different in this regard. Biblical (as opposed to postbiblical, see chap. 14) wisdom does not emanate from God directly (revelation) but rather is gained through ordinary human means of knowing: experience, observation, tradition, and learning from mistakes.

To this day I hear people connected to churches and seminaries speak of “best practices” and I always wonder — as one not in tune with the “Best Practices” sources — where did they get their best practices. The answer more often than not is the business world. Wisdom, if the term is even used, comes from experience.

I also hear people talk about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, and more often than not Revelation/Scripture is about to get only one vote and Tradition will get an equal vote but before long it comes down to Experience, and it too often has the deciding vote. Wisdom once again comes from experience.

What happens when Christ is Wisdomas in Colossians 1 and 2?

Now to Tremper’s exceptional book.

At root, however, wisdom (contrary to much scholarly opinion) emanates from God and thus may ultimately be called revelatory. Indeed, the OT makes clear that the only true source of wisdom is God. We will see that when wisdom is sought from tradition, experience and observation, and so forth apart from revelation, not only is wisdom unattainable, but it becomes twisted and actually proves to be folly.

Yes, from tradition too:

Wisdom learns from tradition, insights passed down from past generations. Indeed, both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (see Eccles. 12:12 and earlier comments)4 are presented as fathers instructing their sons. Note all the admonitions of the father for the son to pay attention that typically begin his teaching throughout the speeches in Prov. 1-9 (1:8; 2:1; 3:1; 4:1; etc.). We have seen that this tradition has connections with the law and with the instructions of the broader ancient Near East.

And experience:

What is tradition based on? In part, it is based on experience and observation. learn by our life experience if we observe what works and what doesn’t work. We learn by also observing the experience of others and seek to emulate them when their experience leads to successful living and seek to avoid their behavior and attitudes when it leads to trouble.

Hence, the elders:

In the light of the above, we can see why the default belief in the ancient Near East, and in Israel proper, was that the older people became, the wiser they were. After all, young people have not had much experience from which to learn about life. They may have begun to benefit from tradition, but the future would give them more opportunities to learn and apply the lessons from the past. In addition, youth are just making their first mistakes from which they will learn as their elders correct them. Thus, under expected circumstances, youth are immature (peti) and the elderly have wisdom.

Best Practices are what they are, but…

Biblical wisdom is consistent on this theme. True wisdom’s ultimate source is not human intelligence or insight, but only God. In this sense, wisdom’s source is divine revelation. Notice that even our very ability to learn by what we have called normal human investigative methods is only possible because God has given us that capability: “An ear to hear and an eye to set Yahweh made both of them” (Prov. 20:12). Thus even our capacity to reflect on our experience, learn from our mistakes, and benefit from tradition ultimately is a gift from God. That wisdom is from God is taught in many ways in the Hebrew Scriptures.

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