Is Science Merely Wisdom of this World? (RJS)

Is Science Merely Wisdom of this World? (RJS) March 1, 2012

Oftentimes when discussing issues of science and faith, or other issues that challenge the conventional thinking of the Christian faith, someone will up and quote or paraphrase Paul from his letters to the Corinthians.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? (1 Cor. 1:18-20)

Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” (1 Cor. 3:18-20)

The implication when this is brought into the conversation is, implicitly or explicitly, that we should forsake the wisdom of this world – the questions raised by philosophy, psychology, science, archaeology – and have faith in the wisdom of God and in his Holy Word, the “plain” reading of scripture. To accept an old earth and evolution or to question the historicity of Adam, Noah, Babel, Job, or Jonah is to succumb to the wisdom of the world, forsaking the wisdom of God (it is usually fine to turn the Song of Songs into an allegory though). To question the reality of Hell, eternal conscious torment,  or the exclusivity of salvation is to succumb to the wisdom of this world.

In the 1 Cor. 23  Paul notes that Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks” (1. Cor. 1:23). I have at times heard people claim that this view of Christ crucified as “foolishness” explains the resistance to so-called “biblical” views of creation be they young earth, old earth progressive creation, or intelligent design.

Does this stumbling block have anything to do with our approach to science?

Without discussing the specifics of the age of the earth, evolution, the historicity of Adam or the concept of Hell, I would like to look at this more closely today and pose a more fundamental question as well.

What is the wisdom of the world?

By the way – there is a link to an intriguing new “scientific” study of greed and entitlement below. One that merely confirms, perhaps, the wisdom of God.

God has made foolish the wisdom of the world. But I don’t think this has anything at all to do with the age of the earth, the historicity of Adam, or many of the questions raised by the scientific study of God’s creation. The wisdom of the world is far more down to earth … and far, far dirtier.

The wisdom of this world involves jealousy, quarreling, and following human leaders. In the passages quoted above Paul is writing to a church in Corinth troubled by conflict, human pride, and divisiveness.

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? (1 Cor. 3:1-4)

The wisdom of this world involves greed, power, ambition, and self-interest. This “wisdom” is insidious and comes up repeatedly in the pages of the NT, in the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the gospels and in the letters of the apostles.

Along this line there was an interesting article Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior published on the website of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. The article itself requires a subscription, but you can get access to nice summaries of this article in several places, including Wired (Greed Isn’t Good) and Science Now (Shame On the Rich).

The authors performed seven different studies looking at the relationship between social status and unethical behavior.

Although greed may indeed be a motivation all people have felt at points in their lives, we argue that greed motives are not equally prevalent across all social strata. As our findings suggest, the pursuit of self-interest is a more fundamental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing. Unethical behavior in the service of self-interest that enhances the individual’s wealth and rank may be a self-perpetuating dynamic that further exacerbates economic disparities in society, a fruitful topic for the future study of social class. (p. 4 of the article)

It isn’t that the poor are inherently more ethical, but that status conveys a sense of entitlement. The Science report notes: “When participants were manipulated into thinking of themselves as belonging to a higher class than they did, the poorer ones, too, began to behave unethically.”  Perhaps this study simply brings to light what Jesus taught.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mt 19:23-24)

The wisdom of God overturns the wisdom of the world in pursuit of self-interest, be it money, power, status, or adulation. In the Kingdom of God self-interest and entitlement take a back seat to the love of God and love of neighbor.

The wisdom of this world involves failure to worship God and the world through its wisdom does not know God. At times the science and faith discussion does become mired in the wisdom of this world. Not because of the science, be it geology or evolution, but because of the arrogance to think that the knowledge that comes from human reason describes all of creation. It comes from an attitude that declares there is no God and rather steadfastly fails to acknowledge what the Psalmist knew … The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

What would you add to the list as part of “the wisdom of this world?”

Does the “wisdom of this world” have anything to do with the science and faith discussion? If so what and why?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • Well, my initial thought is that calling science the wisdom of this world is a misapplication of scripture. I think Paul is primarily referring to the cross as the means for God’s salvation in 1 Cor, and the fact that human wisdom would not choose to do things the way God did. Hence the allusion in 1 Cor 1:23 to the Jews and the Greeks. The Jews trusted the law and their ability to obey its commands, and the Greeks trusted in philosophical wisdom, but God did something that confounded them both.

    I do think that the scientific endeavor, like all human endeavors, could become tainted by the wisdom of this world, but I don’t think the verse is directly applicable to science as such.

    Another thought that comes to my mind is that other parts of scripture seems to affirm human observation and learning from that as a generally good and reliable thing (ie. Proverbs)

    Those are just the initial random thoughts that came to my mind.

  • CGC

    I believe on of the underlying issues behind Paul’s words deals with selfishness, power, greed, etc. I also think philosophy can came under this rublic (expecially when it functions as a worldview that subject everything under its authority). So maybe the problem some people have with science is not science per se but the philosphy of science that becomes the determining factor for beliefs over everything else. Of course, people who use the Bible in this way don’t see it that way. Their worldview interprets the Bible and so they merely believe this is what God or the Bible is about. How is it that we can have so many competing modern theologies today if there are not competing philosophies, worldviews, and methodologies? I believe classical Christianity of the first five centuries can be a check on some of this but then many don’t won’t any hinderances or limitations on the democratic ideal that all ideas, new or old, have a place at the theological table today. One underlying assumption today is newer is better or we are simply smarter today than Christians from the past. I believe this kind of stuff has just as much to do with a kind of superiority or arrogance that Paul does argue against in the text. Of course, arrogance and theological superiority is a temptation we all face, especially the acedemy.

  • RJS

    Gordon (#1),

    I agree that it is a misapplication – but it is an application that comes up fairly often in comments here and elsewhere, and in conversation. I thought it was worth musing on a bit. Certainly scientists are at least as prone to the problems of worldly wisdom as anyone else.

  • I think the “wisdom of the world” would include any and everything that anybody exalts against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:5). Every thought is to be brought to the “obedience of Christ.” Whatever is out of alignment with the nature of Jesus the Messiah and what God has revealed about Himself, about us and about the world must be brought back into line.

  • Great article, RJS.

    I think you are spot on with regards to your thoughts on the wisdom of this world.

    I think it starts by first recognising the 2 main uses of our word world: a) the earth which was created very good (though affected by sin) and b) the ways of the world, which you point to the practical fruit of it in your article. The ways of the world are a systemic and foundational approach to following the flesh and the enemy, to following the ways of this present evil age that is not fully transformed by God’s kingdom yet.

    But this is far different from true Christians looking to be faithful to Christ & Scripture while also engaging the knowledge we have available to us in our world. We live in the world. We are discovering that world, since the Bible doesn’t give us full information on any one topic. We can engage with the goodness of this earth and what we find, but also staying humble and recognising we cannot know all things.

    So I feel quite sad, even rightly angry, that people would suggest a Peter Enns or Kenton Sparks or BioLogos are dangerous. I can allow for disagreement. But these folk are not dangerous. They are not trying to make us turn from God or God’s revelation in Scripture. They are recognising what is available knowledge today and trying to help God’s people engage with it while also maintaining a robust faith in God and his word.

  • phil_style

    @ Jeff
    “Whatever is out of alignment with the nature of Jesus the Messiah and what God has revealed about Himself, about us and about the world must be brought back into line”

    Does God reveal himself in nature/ his creation?
    Has God revealed things about us in nature?

  • CGC

    HI RJS,
    I understand one of my proffesors will be giving a paper at ETS that sounds similar to what Enn’s has done on the Evolution of Adam. How much controversy that creates, I don’t know? I think renewed dialogues on issues of this can be helpful if people can do it? Unfortunately, some people’s faith are so fragile, that dialogues like these may be harmful or dangerous to them. I also think intelligent Christians like Peter Enns and G. K. Beale can strongly disagree on approach and conclusions and still be brothers in Christ. I for one would think another fascinating discussion would also be on the evolution of evolution. I can’t help but think even in the last ten years, how this view has changed compared to several decades ago.

  • CGC

    Oops, #7 should be addressed to ScottL.

  • Though I think you are touching on the meanings of the “wisdom of this world”, I think Scripture already defines it in the 1 Cor. chapter you didn’t refer to right in the middle of chapters 1 and 3. In Chapter 2:7-10 it says:
    7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written:
    “What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
    and what no human mind has conceived”[b]—
    the things God has prepared for those who love him—

    10 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.

    This is the age old battle between the Flesh and the Spirit. Flesh (or worldly wisdom) is man’s attempts to live without God’s direct revelation. That’s why the culmination of these verses is the declaration “…but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit”.

    That’s why Science without the leading of the Spirit of God is worldly wisdom. That’s why Church without the leading of the Spirit of God is worldly wisdom. That’s why philosophy, psychology, theology, anthropology, history, economics, education etc. without the Revelation of the Spirit of God are all worldly wisdom.

    But when the Spirit of God infuses Science, the meanings change behind the facts. When the Spirit of God infuses Church, the meaning behind the ceremony changes lives, destinies and nations.

    Worldly wisdom is living with any understanding that is not undergirded by the Daily Bread of communion with Holy Spirit.

  • TimHeebner

    “To question the reality of Hell, eternal conscious torment, or the exclusivity of salvation is to succumb to the wisdom of this world.”

    Maybe the wisdom of this world is what has led to the interpretation of scripture into our ideas of Hell, eternal conscious torment, and exclusivity of salvation. A worldly view is very judgmental and revengeful, thus our ideas of these things make perfect sense to us.

  • gingoro

    I would say that the vast majority of science, at least outside of the social sciences should, to a very great extent, be seen not as the wisdom of this age. But there are cases even so where the world view, religion or philosophy of the scientist modifies her scientific results. For example:

    ” the cosmological constant was proposed by Albert Einstein as a modification of his original theory of general relativity to achieve a stationary universe. Einstein abandoned the concept after the observation of the Hubble redshift indicated that the universe might not be stationary, as he had based his theory on the idea that the universe is unchanging”

    However when it comes to the social sciences I am a lot more cautious of accepting their science as I see it being heavily influenced by their world view. While I despise the so called Christian yellow pages never the less I would not go for counseling sessions with a none Christian psychologist.
    Dave W

  • Tim

    Interestingly, Gordon Fee’s (impeccably evangelical; impeccably rigorously academic) commentary on 1 Corinthians picks up the same thread re the tendency for the rich to correlate with worldly wisdom. This is not the whole of Fee’s argument of course, but see his comments on esp 1 Cor 1:25-28, and consistently throughout. It is the few wealthy patrons who most likely lead the whole church astray, seeking be bend theology to serve their vested interests rather than Christ’s. “By bringing “good news to the poor” through his Son, God has played out before our eyes his own overthrow of the world’s false standards. Every middle-class or upper-class domestication of the gospel is therefore a betrayal of that gospel.” Fee, p82)

    thanks RJS and all for this post and discussion.

  • AHH

    Mike @9 seems to draw a distinct dividing line where science and other intellectual pursuits when done by non-Christians are “worldly wisdom” and therefore apparently subject to Paul’s condemnation. As a believer in what the Reformed call “common grace”, I don’t buy that division.

    If “all truth is God’s truth”, then any discovery of truth by a secular scientist is in some sense from God and is a good thing that Christians should celebrate. Yes, ultimately any such discoveries do not get their fullest meaning until they are viewed through the lens of the Kingdom of God, but I don’t think we can thereby dismiss them as mere “worldly wisdom”. I think RJS has a better angle in talking about jealousy, quarreling, and following human leaders as the essence of “worldly wisdom”.

    I guess I’m sensitive because I sometimes hear my fellow Christians dismiss scientific truth on the grounds that, coming from non-Christians, it is worthless worldly wisdom.
    Of course when I tell them that some leading climate scientists and evolutionary biologists were and are Christians, they have to find another excuse …

  • phil_style #6

    I believer there are some things that can be known from nature about God and about us. I’m thinking of Romans 1 here, where Paul speaks of things that can be known about God, e.g., His eternal power and Godhead (Romans 1:20; although Paul might have more in mind there deriving this knowledge from nature, or creation, as differentiated from knowing these things since creation).

    Paul also speaks of knowing things from nature about humankind. In Romans 1:26-27, he speaks about men leaving the “natural use of the woman and burning in their lust for one another.” Likewise, “women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature.”

    God has given us a higher revelation, however, one that does not come from nature but is given and illuminated to us by the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 2).

  • I think I agree with your overall point – that is your understanding of worldly wisdom.

    However, when Paul speaks of the Gospel as being foolishness to the Greeks isn’t he referring to how the Gospel story was literally foolish to the Greek philosophers of his day? Such beliefs as the incarnation and the bodily resurrection would have been ridiculous to a Greek philosopher – simply backwoods superstitious nonsense.

    Despite this, Paul’s response to such attitudes is a good example for us. He didn’t disengage, he didn’t become anti-intellectual, and he didn’t start a culture war. He continued to reason with anyone who was willing to listen.

  • RJS


    Yes, I think Greek philosophy is part of the wisdom Paul is talking about. That is part of what I was trying to get at in my last point.

    The ontological naturalism that permeates much of our society today is part of the “wisdom of this world” for our day. To people like Dawkins or Harris or Coyne the gospel is foolishness. But that is, I think, separable from science as an investigation of the world.

  • In Colossians, I think the philosophy in view was some early form or gnosticism and/or folk religion. I don’t think “wisdom of this world” is limited to any one set of ideas. Nor do I think scientific investigation, in and of itself, is the “wisdom of this world,” unless it is exalted as the arbiter of truth.

  • AHH…not really my point. I don’t believe that science, humanities and even theology is worldly in and of itself. When divorced from a living, daily communion with Holy Spirit any KNOWLEDGE is simply knowledge and falls into the category of worldly wisdom.

    For instance, we can have all our theology “correct”, but fail to hear God telling us to give a cup of cold water to someone in need and all that theology amounts to worldly wisdom.

    When a scientist presents “facts”, they are only knowledge and not wisdom. Knowledge says “here are 9 solutions to this problem”…Godly wisdom says “here is God’s solution”. Knowledge says “here is the formula to success that works every time.” Godly wisdom says “Here’s what God is leading me to do in this unique situation.”

    Big difference. I am not against knowledge, but without the input from Holy Spirit, even an knowledge of the Bible is worldly wisdom. That’s my point.

  • RJS,

    I have been reading your blog posts for several years now. They are always thoughtful and charitable without sacrificing the integrity of the scientific evidence that has been produced. I’m currently reading The Language of Science and Faith. I’ve been pretty well prepared for the contents in that book by your posts and some other writing on the subjects of astro-physics and biological evolution written by others in broader scientific community.

    I believe your that perspective on knowledge and wisdom of the world is correct. It is not scientific knowledge that is a threat to faith in Christ or that diminishes the true value of Scripture. The wisdom of the world looks like self-serving greed, authoritarian control and a demeaning perspective toward those who are unlike us. Christians avoid the real spiritual issues that cause us to be in conflict with other by choosing to insist on orthodoxy about origins and destiny rather than the evil that lies within our everyday encounters with people we classify as enemies.

    I read that article about social status and ethical behavior and it is indeed a telling commentary on the distance that comes into relationships based on a sense of superior status with others. That is the wisdom of the world; scientific discovery is merely knowledge exposed by investigation and examination.

  • Steve Sherwood

    Just this past Sunday, during open worship at the Evangelical Friends church we attend, someone stood and made this claim almost exactly as RJS states it. “We need to reject all the ‘so called’ wisdom that created science and tells us that Genesis 1 isn’t true history.” To me, it was a sign that Quaker Open Worship doesn’t always result in an agreed upon word from the Spirit.

  • I’d like to make a distinction concerning “worldly wisdom.” When the scriptures mention the wisdom of the world, as in the passages quoted above, it is primarily a question of value. Some people have sort of mixed it up with different ways of understanding things, certain ideas of how the world works, but those are merely ideas. It really is not talking about ideas, either philosophical, scientific, or theological. It’s talking about a certain value. The wisdom of the world values wealth, power, adulation (those things mentioned above), and doesn’t understand any kind of wisdom that doesn’t value those things. The wisdom of the world says that in order to get what you want (money, power, etc), you have to stomp all over other people. And it says this because it doesn’t value the dignity and humanity of others. The wisdom of God, of course, values much other things, and reveals how worthless those things are which so many in the world covet.

    I cannot see how Science values those things which God doesn’t value. I’m not a scientist, but I don’t see science itself valuing anything at all except truth, and that’s a really good thing. Particular scientists might have their own pattern, but of course, that’s an individual matter.

    #18, I cannot agree with you about your assessment of what is worldly. I don’t see that there is any such thing as KNOWLEDGE without the revelation of God’s Spirit. And that’s not to say that anyone without God’s Spirit living and breathing in them is incapable of finding knowledge, but that God is capable of revealing knowledge to anyone. I think you are really getting at a similar thing to what I’m saying, that it’s a question of priorities, but I would not relegate simply anything that was not some high-minded, spirit-filled prophecy, as resting on some lower plane called “worldly wisdom.” The “worldly wisdom” of the scriptures, is always in the context of what rjs mentions, the kind of wisdom that tells people how to acquire more and more of what they don’t truly want or need, at the expense of others, in ways that are ignorant of or rebellious against God’s ways. Science might be used for such concerns (ie. weapons technologies).

    I would add that even if science were wrong about the age of the earth or the history of humankind, it would not be considered “worldly wisdom.” It would simply be ignorance, or… wrong.

  • *Science might be used for such concerns (ie. weapons technologies)*, but it is not inherently involved with them.