Sunday, June 8, 2014

Wisdom in Corinth and Pentecost: Part 2

Ever feel at a loss to define wisdom? Even today, Bible study leaders often struggle to give a simple definition for wisdom in the Bible. There is a real danger that we try to give a one-size-fits-all definition to wisdom, and then read that definition into every appearance of the word. Not wise. Wisdom meant different things to different cultures in the first century Mediterranean world, as we saw in my last post about Greek philosophy at Corinth. It even meant different things through time among God's people.

In Judaism, "wise" used to mean "skilled" as a master of a craft. It could be masonry, wood working, anything. Eventually a wise person came to describe a person who had "mastered" life and its secrets. In the pagan world this often meant sorcery, but in Israel it often meant a person who had "mastered" life's rules, or more specifically, God's laws about how we should live. Thus, for much of the Hebrew Bible, wisdom simply means morality. This is confirmed by doing a word search for "moral" or "morality" in the Bible. Its absence is conspicuous, but makes sense when we realize Hebrew already had a word it could use this way.

This is why wisdom is so important to the book of Job. What does wisdom have to do with suffering? It may seem tangent to our ears, but to their ears, debating God's wisdom verses Job's wisdom is the same as debating God's morality verses Job's morality. Who is just? Who is culpable? In the same way, Proverbs is not a book about getting smart and intelligent as our academies pursue research and data. Proverbs is a book about getting smart about life, about developing moral character in young men, men who are prone to wreck their lives by the choices they make.

Since this morality came to Israel through the revelation of the Torah, the word "wisdom" then came to describe both the study of the Torah and any other secrets God might reveal to humanity through prophetic experiences. For the scribes, the epitome of wisdom was scripture itself. For many Jews wisdom became charismatic inspiration. Finally, for some Jews, perfect observance of the wisdom in scripture led to the out flow of heavenly power in people's lives, manifested as miraculous gifts. For these sages "wisdom from God" was "power from God".

It is at this point that we catch up to the Corinthian churches. In their pursuit of prestige and "wisdom" in its various ancient forms, it seems they married respectable Greek wisdom (philosophy) with the pursuit of Jewish wisdom (spiritual insight/power). Then they began to flaunt this "wisdom" against more primitive or simple churches. Their effort to be relevant and attractive within their culture seemed juxtaposed to the disgrace of Jesus' crucifixion.

I find this interpretation ironic when compared to the Pentecostal movement today. While there are some churches which have an air of superiority because of the presence of the supernatural, don't most of our churches fear the supernatural precisely because we want respectability? We want to be accepted by cessationist evangelicals, sensible to anti-supernaturalist theologians, and credible to scientific congregants. We might not lose our soul in the process, but our spirituality is left by on the roadside.

I do feel that Paul would commend us on the education (a more Greek sense of "wisdom") we pursue, the degrees we earn, and the books we publish. Our movement is growing up after all and I am a product of the trend toward researching widely and thinking deeply. But when our sensibility and respectability makes us look down on more emotional and charismatic churches, we have forgotten the cross of Jesus and the stigma we ourselves used to bear when we were accepted by God.

At this point, because Paul is writing to correct a specific situation of distention between churches, I believe his emphasis on the cross of Christ is means to a behavior, not a end in itself. In other words, I don't think Paul is asking the churches to be unified in order to emphasize the centrality of the cross in theology (though by all accounts it should be). I think Paul is asking arrogant Christians to remember the cross so that they remove the divisions between them.

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