Scholars Compass – Wisdom Literature

306px-Wisdom_-_Google_Art_Project-191x300 I recently posted three pieces in an online devotional called Scholars Compass, which is part of the Emerging Scholars Network with IVCF.

Post 1 – How I Discovered Wisdom Literature

Post 2 – How I Fell in Love with the Library

Post 3 – How Wisdom Calls Out in the Streets

On Books, March Madness and Biblical Study

isaiah-scroll-lThe Emerging Scholars Network blog is running a Sweet Sixteen topics tournament  for the topics of most interest to believers in academia.  Bracket

I submitted a topic that got listed as #15 seed, so the chances are weak of beating @2, but we live in hope.

The suggestion I made was how can we make use of academic biblical studies, who often are technical in nature and also may have nothing theological in their content, or the theological content is far afield from an evangelical’s set of beliefs.

An example of this is in the book of Proverbs.  There are a large number of books at a popular level who deal with this book. Some take each proverb as a law that must be literally kept – which in my view does not take into account the literary nature of Wisdom Literature or of proverbs.  An example of this approach suggests that not spanking is a denial of biblical authority.  (Pv 13:24).

A good number of evangelical commentaries will have a discussion in them about the literary value of a proverb and it’s “rule of thumb” quality.  That is, it is a general saying that generally is true, but it is not absolute.  An example are the twin proverbs in Pv 26:5,6 which seem to contradict at first glance.

I like Duane Garret’s commentary in the NAC series (Vol 14) who went so far as to cluster proverbs in the more random chapters starting at chapter 10.  I also like Bruce Waltke (NICOT series) who does a lot of literary outlining.

Then there are works like Michael Fox’s Proverbs 1-9 in the Anchor Bible series.  He is a well respected academic. I find that his analysis of the shape of the text in chapters 1-9 is very helpful.  However he has very little that is theological or pastoral in nature. That is not his interest.

So what I try to do as a preacher is this. I will buy or find books from the second and third categories. I can skip the popular level books that do not even consider scholarship.  I try to balance the works with evangelical conviction, such as Garrett and Waltke with more academic works such as Fox.  Sometimes I find the second category at the main library at the University of Wisconsin.  This saves me lots of money on books and lets me sit at an oak table in a large room where cell phones are prohibited.

If interested, I have a bibliography on Wisdom Literate here.  Bibliographic Notes on Wisdom Literature

Review: Wisdom & Wonder by Abraham Kuyper

wisdom & wonder_frontWisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art, Abraham Kuyper, Edited by Jordan J Ballor and Stephen J. Grabill, Translated by Neslson D. Kloosterman; Christians Library Press, Grand Rapids, 2011

Wisdom & Wonder contains a new translation of chapters written originally under the title “Common Grace in Science and Art.”

Common Grace refers to God’s preservation and self-revelation within the created order, which is imperfectly but universally available.  It is revelation by the creation as well as an invitation to study, understand and enjoy the creation.  It is “common” because it is not limited to Christian believers.

I’d like to give a brief account of Kuyper’s perspective on Science and Art – though he discusses a number of other topics.   Kuyper states that art and science were given their start and patronized by the church and the state.  One sees this in any survey of Art History: the earlier the art, the more likely it was part of worship.   Art and Science, though birthed by church and state, possess legitimate and independent domains.

“First, then, let us emphasize the independent character of science.  Before everything else it must be understood that science is a matter that stands on its own and my not be encumbered with any external chains.”  (p. 33)

Science had its origin in the church as it grew out of the universities, which had their birth in the church.

“Science has not demanded such independence in overconfidence, but possesses this independence by diving design, so much so that science neglects its divine calling if it permits itself again to become a servant of the state or church.  Science is not a branch growing from the trunk of government service, and even less a branch that grows from the root of the church.  Science possesses its own root…” (p.34)

            If, therefore, God’s thinking is primary, and if all of creation is to be understood simply as the outflow of that thinking of God, such that all things have come into existence and continue to exist through the Logos, that is through divine reason, or more particularly, through the Word, then it must be the case that the divine thinking must be embedded in all created things. Thus there can be nothing in the universe that fails to express, to incarnate, the revelation of the thought of God.”  (p. 39)

            “In this way, then, we obtain three truths that fit together. First, the full and rich clarity of God’s thoughts existed in God from eternity.  Second, in the creation God has revealed, embedded and embodied a rich fullness of his thoughts.  And third, God created in human beings, as his image-bearers, the capacity to understand, to grasp, to reflect, and to arrange within a totality these thoughts expressed in the creation.”  (p. 41-42)

Art had a similar origin and division from the church.  Art does not need to return to the patronage of the church.  The Reformation, according to Kuyper, with its restrictions on art in worship, brought about an abrupt separation in Western Europe, especially where the Reformed Churches predominated.  This is a good thing. Yet a true artistic vision will be incomplete without the corrective influence of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures.  Art is independent, but needs guidance to find integration

           “The inspiration for art never belonged to particular grace, but always proceeded from common grace.  It is exactly everyday human living that constitutes the broad arena where common grace shines, and simultaneously the arena where art constructs its own temple as well.”  (p. 118)

The separation between church and art, therefore, does not at all bear the character of a complete separation between art and religion. Instead, the bond between both is guaranteed in the ideal character of both, so that if people refuse to permit the refined religious impulse to affect art, that defect belongs not to art as such but to the impiety of those advocates.” (p. 118-119)

By way of evaluation, I have several comments.

One has to read the Kuyper with grace.  He made assumptions about non-European cultures and non-Christian religions that could offend our sensibilities.  We are all marked by the prejudices and judgments of our town times. Try not get impaled on these thorns.

The independence of Art and Science as domains intended by the Creator and built into the world is a scriptural idea.  Kuyper cites passages such as Genesis 1 where God created by the Word.  Wisdom Literature sees wisdom imbedded in all things (e.g. Proverbs 3:19-20; Proverbs 8).  The wise even seemed to gather wisdom from other places (see Proverbs 22:27ff and the 30 Sayings of the Wise).

One does not need to do Christian science or Christian art to be a faithful Christian in those domains.  One needs to do good science or good art.  Yet, science and art are powerful tools that come without a clear moral compass or centering integration.  A believer ought to do art or science in a way that is truly integrated by means of Special Grace.

            “Sin’s darkening lies in this, that we lost the gift of grasping the true context, the proper coherence, the systematic integration of all things.  Now we view everything only externally, not in its core and essence, each thing individually, but not in their mutual connection and in their origin from God. That connection, that coherence of things in their original connection with God, can be sensed only in our spirit.”  (p. 55)

What I’d like to do is gather a few bible students, some artists and scientists from any field and read and discuss this work together.


Wisdom Literature – bibliography

scribe.2I am posting this in response to a Face Book conversation about Proverbs.  I find Wisdom Literature to be scripture in another key signature, it tends to be observational, not doctrinal in the strict sense, inviting to outsiders  sometimes borrows from outsiders.  We can fall into making it kid stuff, or simplistic rules and regulations   It is best to realize that a proverb, “mashal” in Hebrew, means to lay one thing next to another and see what can be learned.  It is writing to help us notice, think and consider all things but most importantly the “fear of the Lord” before we act.

There are a number of posts on FRESH READ tagged with Wisdom.

Bibliographic Notes on Wisdom Literature

Psalm 34 – an Acrostic

An acrostic is a poem where each verse starts with a subsequent letter of the alphabet.  It is frequently used in the bible, often in Wisdom Literature.  The book of Lamentations is made up of acrostic poems.

Psalm 34 is an Acrostic, and the second half bears a number of the marks of wisdom literature:  instruction to the young, call to fear god, two paths, among others.  However it also bears the marks of personal testimony, it is one of the psalms identified with an incident in David’s life, where he had to escape with his life from Saul.

Attached is a worksheet for the Sunday Evening Study group where we will turn Psalm 34 into an acrostic in the English Language.  Verse 1, A; Verse 2, B; etc.


James – last thoughts

We are ending the sermon series on James this week.  here are some last thoughts.

It is to me inescapable that James needs to be read as wisdom literature because

  • It is practical. Everyone notices this and even says that it is the “Proverbs” of the New Testament.
  • It is not primarily about salvation or sacrifice – as most of the Wisdom Books do not take  Sacrificial system of the OT as their main focus, neither does James speak much of the Cross.  One wonders where there is mercy in Proverbs, full of choices and consequences at it is.  Where is any word of the covenant, the temple, the law, etc. in the OT Wis Lit?  It is because the focus is different.  Now, how should we live.
  • Thus it presents a challenge to “bring the Gospel into every message.”  But it is not hard to bring Jesus in, see below.
  • It is organized with typical Wisdom literary techniques.  So look for catch phrases, loose links in general, juxtapositions without phases such as “so that” and “because”, repetition, inclusio and so forth.  I find it remarkable how often commentators will talk about the lack of cohesion to James, because they are looking for linear sequentiality.
  • It is preaching, and it preaches.
  • The gospel is embedded in verses such as 1: 18, 21 but is not explicit.
  • James sounds like the teaching of Jesus recast – and those who don’t like the “legalism” of the Sermon on the Mount say the same about James.
  • The best work for useful study and application that I have found is J. A. Motyer’s, The Message of James, in the Bible Speaks Today series, IVP.   His outline (Keying the topics of chapters 2-5 to 1:26-27 makes a lot of sense.)

“Has not God chosen the poor…” James 2:5

James certainly has a preference for the poor.  In the rich brother/poor brother discussion in 1:9-11 the poor are elevated and the rich are taken down a few pegs.  In the rich visitor/poor visitor event (2:1-4), he is not against the rich, but against us if we prefer the rich to the poor.  In 4:13ff he warns the businessman to remember God in his plans and in 5:1-6 he has harsh words for rich oppressors, who do not pay the promised wages to their workers.

In addition, he mentions the major categories of groups that are given special concern in the OT prophetic, legal and wisdom literature. For example: Deuteronomy 10:17-19 –

17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18  He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19  Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.  (ESV)

The widow and the orphan are mentioned in 1:27, the laborer in 5;4 and the poor in chapter 2 extensively.  One of the marks of true religion is how we treat others who can not give us advantages.

So is James against the rich?  Not per se, but as James is writing in the wisdom style, as we find in the book of Proverbs, his observations are generally true, but not always true.  (Diligence does not always lead to wealth, even though many proverbs say there is a link.)

It is in this light that I add three more comments by J. A. Motyer.

“…we see that he is expressing a general rather than an invariable truth.  The Lord does not choose only the poor; it is not only the rich who persecute the believers and blaspheme the name of Jesus.  Yet, in general, this is not only true but overwhelmingly true.  The preponderance of the Lord’s concern is shown for those who are towards the bottom of the world’s heap.  This appeared in the Old Testament’s fundamental historical event, the Exodus…” p. 88

“We can so easily excuse ourselves from facing the bluntness of James’ words by allowing that (after all!) he is expressing a general rather than an exclusive truth. Yet the infrequency with which the Bibles makes comparisons in this way — by allowing one side of the comparison to swamp the other — should alert us to the fact that we are not permitted to find an escape hatch for ourselves…” p. 89

“Money still does the talking far too loudly in Christian circles, and where and when it does, the glory of Christ departs.” p. 90

The Message of James, J. A. Motyer, IVP, 1985

If I wrote a book…

If I had the time and focus to write a book, well, I have a few ideas.

Isaiah for Preachers: how to make the massive book with its rich theology and poetry available to preachers and learners in the church.  Ok, I need to shorten the title a little.

Wisdom on the Road: how wisdom literature is another dialect that can speak to “blue state” Americans.

Reformed without the Tulip: Is it possible to grasp onto the Kuyper like approach to culture without getting hung up on the old Reformed theology debates (plenty of books on that).

Reading the Books: the book of Scripture and the book of nature, with emphasis on the right side of the brain, and a nod to the Belgic confession.


Why I detest church health/growth/technology/ books with badly borrowed social science wed to superficial exegesis.  This one will get everyone mad.

Ok, next on the to-do list:

Better titles!