Three Cheers for Wisdom: Clarifications Contra Critics

Henri de Vulcop, Lady Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius

Last week, I wrote a brief summary of our objections (here at Davenant) to “Christian worldview” thinking, and why we prefer the language of “wisdom” instead. The post was in many ways an experiment to see whether it’s possible to make a big-picture argument, about big and controversial concepts, in roughly 1,500 words. I’m tempted to think that, as such an experiment, it might have been a failure, even if it may still prove to be the beginning of an edifying conversation.

The responses to the piece were varied; for many, perhaps familiar with the phenomena I was responding to or otherwise attuned to where we were coming from, it seemed to resonate deeply. Others read it as a harsher and more sweeping critique than was intended, and defended the “worldview” category accordingly; there were a lot of “what about X?”s. And some worried that the category of “wisdom” that I proposed as replacement was too thin or flimsy. In short, a lot of the questions raised were the sorts I would have tried to address in a 4,000-word essay, but which instead will have to be addressed in a 1,500-word essay plus a 2,500-word one!

Clarifying the Critique of Worldview

The first main category of questions or objections could be summarized as: “You’re being too harsh on this ‘worldview’ term.” I had tried to forestall this objection by saying “as a metaphor, [worldview] need not be evaluated as “right” or “wrong,” but rather in terms of whether it is helpful or unhelpful.” I also emphasized later on that the problematic tendencies I observed could in principle be guarded against and avoided. Still, I should have emphasized more that context matters a lot if we are evaluating “helpfulness” and there are contexts in which the concept has been deployed more helpfully. Indeed, in retrospect, my purpose in the article was less to propose an utter abandonment of the term, and more to call for a period of fasting and introspection in certain quarters of Evangelica where the term has been used and overused for decades. If you have not inhabited such a quarter, you may count yourself blessed and move on

I should also certainly clarify that in singling out the unfortunate title and subtitle of James Sire’s The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, I was not making a more global critique of Sire’s actual approach in that book or more broadly (nor was I aware that he had just passed away last week). My point was simply to illustrate that the metaphor itself can tend to reinforce the very sort of relativism that it is being deployed to critique.

The second main category of questions or objections could be summarized as: “Will ‘wisdom’ really do all the work that the category ‘worldview’ does? Seems like the latter is a more useful term.” To this, I would answer three things. First, my proposal was for something like the category of “story-formed wisdom,” which I think does serve to cover a lot of the ground that “worldview” is often mis-deployed to address. Second, in part, my objection was to the whole idea that we needed a single grand master concept or catch-all phrase to talk about Christian intellectual virtue. So if we end up needing a range of different terms, mission accomplished, I say. Third, though, I think that when reduced to a merely descriptive category for diagnosing the different biases and conceptual systems which different people display, the term “worldview” might have a useful place, though “paradigm” might work just as well.

What is “Wisdom”? Michael Spangler’s Critiques

A final, more comprehensive critique was mounted earlier this week by my colleague Michael Spangler, and deserves some close engagement here. Michael levelled a series of charges at my piece which can themselves be summarized under three main headings (though I depart here from the way he himself organized his points):

  • I made “wisdom” practical rather than theoretical, replacing knowledge with mere ritual.
  • I used the category of “wisdom” to smuggle in an unwarranted relativism, skepticism, or anti-authority mindset.
  • I downplayed the centrality of Scripture as the sine qua non of wisdom

After reading through his article a couple of times, I am startled by how fully I agree with it, and puzzled as to why he would think otherwise. In part, I am convinced it must be due simply to my quest for conciseness, which forced me to make some very important points in very few words, so that Michael just missed them. For instance, my affirmation that wisdom is above all a matter of respect for tradition—a reception of that which is handed down—occupied a single, all-important clause. But in part, I was probably just less clear than I should have been. So let me try to clarify all of these points and then see what differences might remain.

Wisdom as Practical and Theoretical

First, since “wisdom” is a term we don’t use very often any more, let’s make a fuller stab at defining it than my original piece offered. David Daube, in hismagnificent Law and Wisdom in the Bible, offers a useful summary of the biblical usage at least:

“Basically, ‘wisdom’ means a more than ordinary understanding of the nature of things; it is partly a gift, partly the result of experience; and it confers on its possessor superiority in the mastery of life. Its various manifestations, however, can be confusing. There is ‘wisdom’ in the sense of ‘shrewdness,’ [or] ‘cunning’. . . . There is ‘wisdom’ in the sense of ‘excellence in craftsmanship.’ Where this sense prevails, law . . . is a branch of wisdom, and especially law as a system of detailed, meticulous rules and machinery. . . . There is wisdom in the sense of ‘moderation,’ ‘restraint,’ ‘give-and-take’. . . . There is ‘wisdom’ in the sense of ‘life-and-death-dealing insight,’ a power saving its possessor and those it approves and destroying its enemies. . . . That most commonly in mind when Scripture is being discussed is no doubt ‘a grasp of the ways of God, men, and nature,’ ‘a comprehension of man’s position in society and the scheme of things,’ and ‘the conduct to be adopted by a person of such understanding’” (3-4).

Nicholas Poussin, The Judgment of Solomon

This lengthy summary should be sufficient to justify my emphasis on the often practical and hands-on nature of wisdom, though it should also be sufficient to put to rest Michael’s fears that I am somehow justifying an abandonment of the intellectual nature of wisdom. On the contrary, my central claim for the notion of wisdom, and the reason I think it is so crucial to recover today, is that it encapsulates the primordial unity of theoretical and practical reason which it has been the great quest of modernity to destroy. My complaint about “worldview” is that it has often been complicit in the modernist separation of theoretical and practical reason by overly stressing, even if inadvertently, the theoretical. Some, like Jamie Smith, have responded to this with what can risk being an overly post-modernist stress on the practical; it is apparently this latter with which Michael associates my claims about the important role of ritual in forming our habits of heart and mind. But I do not “see a conflict between ‘conceptual systems’ and ‘rituals, habits, symbols, and forms of community life’” any more than he does. Both must go together. And indeed (shameless promotion alert!) this is exactly what we strive to model with our Davenant House Wisdom courses, which involve rigorous intellectual discussion framed by the shared rituals of prayer, praise, preparing and enjoying meals, gardening, etc.

Michael is particularly keen to make the point that rituals must not be unmoored from the intellect, lest they become subjective self-justifying exercises in personal formation and fulfilment. Rituals must be framed by authority. As someone whose primary scholarly work revolves around a Protestant retrieval of the concept of authority, and as a tireless advocate for the restoration of the Sunday evening service (an authoritative ritual that Michael calls for in his piece) I can only say “Amen” to everything in these sections.

Or at least, almost everything. If forced to choose, Michael seems to prefer a more rationalist to an empiricist account of how humans gain knowledge/wisdom, saying for instance, “The Bible teaches, and so should we, that wisdom is first an intellectual habit before it is a practical one.” The “first” here seems to me to be a slippery term, a point I shall return to below. Call me pagan, but I’m with Aristotle (and Hooker!) in arguing that, as we see it in the life of an ordinary human being, knowledge is built up from experience. Now, to be sure, this knowledge gained from experience is then tested against and where necessary corrected by the knowledge that comes from revelation; experience is hardly a self-justifying category. However, it would appear that much of Michael’s hostility to “empiricism” stems from an overly-individualist construal of what this means, or of what I intend. Aristotle and Hooker and I would all say that the chief form that “experience” takes for most of us is that of being taught, of receiving (and actively appropriating!) the handed-down experience of former ages—whether that be scientific knowledge (the experience of nature) or theological knowledge (the experience of God’s activity and self-revelation in history). Thus, I agree with Michael when he says, “We do not learn most things by simply looking at the world, no matter how closely we do so. Most of human knowledge is delivered just like theology is: line upon line, precept upon precept (Isa. 28:10). It comes from above, ultimately from God and instrumentally through authoritative teachers, as we have argued.”

Relativism and Attunement to Reality

This leads to the second point, which can be addressed more quickly—the charge of relativism. Here I must simply protest that Michael has foisted a meaning on my essay which was simply not there (although perhaps the conciseness of the original left room to read such meanings into it). Michael complains that “’Attunement’ implies a constant process of adjustment with no settled arrival.” I would argue on the contrary that the metaphor of “attunement” is thoroughly objective. The ancients, indeed, were inclined to think of music as one of the most objective and precise things that could be imagined; a note was either in tune with its octave or it was not, and the subtlest departure from mathematical ratio meant it was not. Thus, when I speak of “wisdom” as an “attunement to reality,” I mean that our quest should be for our minds, hearts, and senses to achieve an absolute, precise, fine-grained correlation to the truth of the world that is really there, the truth we were created to internalize. To say that we never in this life fully achieve such attunement is not to relativistically deny it exists, but a simple statement of basic finitude. But to Michael’s question as to whether it is possible “to have a true [theological] system that is actually free from error, at least in its ‘fundamental assumptions’,” I (and the Davenant Institute as a whole) would answer resoundingly “yes!” (However, that last qualifier is crucial.)

As already mentioned, Michael also seems to read me as articulating an individualist mode of knowledge-acquisition (with inevitably relativist results), whereas in fact I was careful to foreground the “handed down through the generations” character of wisdom. Indeed, what devotee of Richard Hooker could do otherwise? To be sure, I was, and am, very keen to stress that we do not just passively receive that which has been handed down—that would be a Catholic, rather than Protestant, model of tradition. Growth in wisdom must have happen within an individual, by virtue of that individual’s active attention to the reality he or she has been given to inhabit

Wisdom and the Fear of the Lord

What then of Michael’s final concern—that my take on wisdom “implicitly denies that wisdom is first and foremost a matter of submission to God”? Michael specifically takes me to task for softening Prov. 9:10’s “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” to “the fear of the Lord is central to wisdom.”

I certainly do not wish to deny Prov. 9:10—that would be unwise indeed!—but it would also be unwise not to ask how we should interpret it. Given that many of the words of wisdom found in Proverbs itself echo similar aphorisms found in extra-Biblical literature, and given that Proverbs often describes wisdom in everyday commonsensical terms, it seems unsound to read Prov. 9:10 as saying that ‘nothing that we might call wisdom can come into being unless it first begins in faith and obedience to the God of Israel (and, in light of the NT, to the Lord Jesus Christ).’ Would Michael really wish to deny that an experienced, just, and merciful (but unbelieving) judge can dispense justice with wisdom? Does he want to deny that a skilled craftsman can build or carve with “wisdom,” as Bezalel and Oholiab are said to do in Ex. 31, unless they love the Lord? To be sure, Bezalel and Oholiab may have had the true wisdom of godliness in addition to their wisdom in metal-working, but I do not think this means that the latter does not count without the former—that somehow there is no genuine knowledge of any part of reality without explicit recognition of the transcendent ground of all reality. That is the error of a Van Tillian world-viewism such as my original essay was most keen to contest.

Here Daube’s long catalog of different Biblical senses of the word “wisdom” can help us. There are senses in which we can and should recognize wisdom as present even where the fear of the Lord is not—shrewdness, craftsmanship, insight—precisely because these are all forms of habituated, educated attunement to the shared reality that God has given us to know, love, and navigate. It is also true, however, that the full integration of these, and their subordination to their proper end, does require the fear of the Lord, and the re-alignment of all these partial wisdoms around Him who is Wisdom. It is this essential Biblical teaching that Prov. 9:10 alerts us to.

In my view, my original article is careful to stress both sides of this dialectic, emphasizing in closing that the story of Scripture gives the Christian unique insight “into the nature and ends of things,” and that only the virtues of the Christ-follower can bring wisdom to perfection and fullness of insight. All I deny—the error of much worldviewism—is that we should think that mere head-knowledge of certain truths of special revelation, without attention to the natural revelation which Scripture presupposes, can enable us to take a shortcut to true wisdom, achieving knowledge without learning, and virtue without struggle.


With all of this, I expect my friend Michael would agree, even if we disagree in whether it is present in my original article. Hopefully, however, this exchange has provided an opportunity for both of us, and our readers, to grow in wisdom just a little bit.


Bradford Littlejohn is President of the Davenant Instituteauthor of The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty, and editor of Reformation Theology.