Wisdom: Is Biblical Wisdom Secular Wisdom?

Longman FearThe claim by many today is that wisdom emerges from creation theology, not redemptive theology. Or, better yet, it emerges not from the reality of being redeemed but from the reality of being created. In other words, it is secular. Here is Tremper Longman’s summary of this set of convictions (in his new and important book) made especially popular by Walter Zimmerli and Walter Brueggemann:

Wisdom thinks resolutely within the framework of a theology of creation (Zimmerli’s statement).

In the wisdom literature there is an absence of the patriarchs, promises, covenants, law, cult and rituals. Why? Because wisdom is not rooted in redemption but in creation. Longman:

In its most extreme form, some scholars, particularly of the previous generation, have argued that God himself plays a secondary role in wisdom literature and that it emphasizes humanity and not the God of Israel. Some even go so far as to suggest that wisdom is secular in orientation, at least as compared to the rest of the OT.

So Tremper quotes Brueggemann:

I believe it is much more plausible to suggest that in the wisdom tradition of Israel we have a visible expression of secularization as it has been characterized in the current discussions. Wisdom teaching is profoundly secular in that it presents life and history as a human enterprise.

Tremper’s not so sanguine about this:

The wisdom literature of Israel and the wisdom literature of the surrounding cultures, particularly Egypt and Mesopotamia, share many features and much specific content, leading to the idea that wisdom literature is universalistic in its appeal (and thus based on creation) rather than particular to Israel and its unique redemptive history.

After all, if Israel shares these ideas with other non-Yahwistic cultures, wisdom must be based on creation, available to all, rather than redemptive history unique to Israel.

What to say? He examines creation in wisdom literature: Poverbs 3:19-20; 8:22-31; Job 38:4-11; Ecclesiastes 3:1, 11; 7:29; Psalms 8, 19, 24, 104, 136; Song 2:8-17 (Edenic). Thus, “We have examined five of our main sources for wisdom (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, and Song of Songs) and have seen that each, to various degrees and in various ways, has exhibited an interest in creation. …  But are the sages really so confident that their advice based on their understanding of how the world works will really lead to successful results defined as a flourishing life?” (136).

But…

Thus, when we think of wisdom’s connection to creation theology, it is wrong-minded to think only of Gen. 1-2. To the extent that wisdom is related to creation theology, it does not return us to Eden but recognizes that we live in a troubled, disordered world.

The relevant point for our discussion is that the connection between wisdom and creation and order is not as simple as some would make it out to be. It is not simply a matter of if one is wise, then one knows how the creation works, since God created the world ordered. The wise understand that creation order has been disturbed, and therefore it does not always work as one might expect.

Wisdom, however, does not naively assert that wisdom will always work. To act wisely does not automatically bring reward. … we observed that the sages were well aware that the world was broken. However, the world’s brokenness does not bring chaos, so there is still great benefit to the “way of wisdom.”

The world, though broken, is not shattered beyond recognition, and God’s human creatures. though deeply flawed, are not insane. Wisdom remains accessible to all, at least to a certain point. That certain point, though, falls short of theological wisdom. The unbeliever does not, in the words of O’Donovan, have to be ‘ignorant about the structure of the family, the virtue of mercy, the vice of cowardice, or the duty of justice,” but by definition the unbeliever remains ignorant of what is the most fundamental and essential truth of the cosmos— that God created it and that everything is dependent on him. While one can live with wisdom on a practical and perhaps even on an ethical level, without fear of the Lord there is, in the final analysis, no foundation to that wisdom.

Longman then devotes a chp to examining wisdom in ancient Near Eastern cultures, observing important connections and similarities, but he concludes with what makes biblical wisdom distinct and divergent from ANE wisdom:

Let’s begin with the obvious. We have seen that the central theme of wisdom repeated over and over again with slight variations and taught in a multitude of ways is “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” This is the fundamental lesson of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, the wisdom psalms, and Deuteronomy.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Whether beginning is taken temporally or foundationally, the clear point is that unless one fears the Lord, there is no wisdom. And it is the Lord, Yahweh, Israel’s deity, not the “common God,” who is to be feared.

There is, accordingly, no way that the Israelite sages who produced Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes would think that ancient Near Eastern wisdom teachers were wise in the most important sense of the word. After all, the latter are ignorant of the most important and basic truth of the cosmos.

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