This summer, I read the book Biblical Interpretation: Past & Present by Gerald Bray (incidentally, Dr. Bray was my professor this January for my Puritan Spirituality class). It is an incredibly fascinating book that served as a wonderful introduction to seminary through giving a comprehensive overview of how the church has read the Bible throughout every era of church history. (What better way to understand the church than to understand how she reads the Bible?)
This line, more than any other in the book, has had me thinking since I read it:
The modern tendency to regard Proverbs as a collection of useful but rather boring advice, Ecclesiastes as the work of a jaded humanist and the Song of Songs as a piece of erotica shows how little the Wisdom tradition is understood or appreciated nowadays, in sharp contrast to earlier times, when these three books were regarded as among the choicest in the whole Scripture. Literal interpretation has removed these books from everyday church use, and they have almost ceased to be a part of the canon for all practical purposes. (p. 160)
So, what should we make of the Wisdom Literature that God gave to his people?
As I have been thinking about this, I have been wondering if we Christians are too interested in a narrow conception of “truth.” When modernism rolled onto the scene, claiming scientific ability to get to the bottom of every mystery in the universe, its first task was to rid the world of “superstitious” things like Christianity. So, we Christians responded in kind: we began to direct much research toward rationalistic fields such as textual criticism (trying to get the Hebrew and Greek texts as close to the originals as possible), archaeology (trying to get definitive proof that biblical events happened in just the way that biblical writers portrayed them), and apologetics (trying to use logic and reason to demonstrate the truth of Christianity, essentially beating the scientific naturalists at their own game).
Now, these things are all good in themselves, and we have made tremendous advances in these fields. The problem, though, is that Christianity now tends toward being an intellectual, scientific philosophy rather than being a life built upon the fear of the Lord through the person and work of Jesus Christ. So, when we evangelize, we often (consciously or unconsciously) try merely to persuade people of a certain number of facts about God and about Jesus. When we make disciples out of our converts, we generally try to stuff them with Christian information.
Of course, I would be a fool if I said that I were the first to point this out. Many have become so disillusioned with this intellectual-only approach to Christianity that they have rejected the intellectual part altogether and insisted that Christianity is totally about “relationships,” both with God and with other people–these are the postmoderns and the emergents. In response, some Christians have reacted by an even greater emphasis on biblical exegesis, theology, and teaching-heavy preaching. I find myself in the latter category.
But what of wisdom? In my Old Testament Survey textbook, in the section on the book of Job, John Walton writes:
An interesting contrast of focus can also be seen in modern lists of God’s attributes. They often emphasize omniscience (knowing everything) instead of infinite wisdom. They tend to focus on omnipotence (being all-powerful) perhaps at the expense of sovereignty (control and maintenance). (p. 338-39)
I wonder if both intellectual, modernistic Christians as well as relational, postmodern Christians need to grow in their understanding of God’s wisdom. Instead of trying to evangelize and disciple so that people merely give their intellectual assent to Christian theology, or instead of trying to reduce Christianity to its lowest common denominator, we Christians should give a renewed emphasis to our study and interpretation of Wisdom Literature.
I am becoming increasingly persuaded that one of our biggest needs as a Church is to seek Jesus Christ in order to gain wisdom rather than facts, virtue instead of narrow dogmatism, and the fear of the Lord instead of flawless theology. This doesn’t devalue truth, but rather heightens its value because it puts truth in its right context. Furthermore, this doesn’t devalue relationships, but finally gives us a framework within which we might understand what exactly our relationships should look like.
So, instead of doing yet another scientific study of the book of Romans or a fuzzy reflection on Jesus’ friendships in the gospels, let’s read and study and pray through Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. We might not only discover why the early Church and the Old Testament Hebrews were so enamored with these books, but we also might come to know God in ways in which we find ourselves desperately lacking.