Wisdom: Scientific, Biblical, and Otherwise
by Dru Johnson
Researchers explore the world through the skilled use of scientific tools, but also through the discerning sight they develop through training. And the Scriptures praise prudent knowledge that attends closely to the reality that surrounds us. Proverbs portrays wisdom as a process of submitting to God and authorities (like fathers, mothers, and Lady Wisdom), and then practicing their instruction in order to be wise.
Most of the eight Hebrew terms translated as “wise” can be best captured by the English phrase “skilled discernment.” Biblical scholar Michael V. Fox sums up “wisdom” this way: “[Wisdom] describes men who, in some sense and in some sphere, are ‘competent,’ ‘skilled.’ It can be used even of manual workers or sailors. . . . Even an embryo which cannot find the way out of the womb can be described as ‘unwise’” (Hosea 13:13).
Biblical wisdom is not merely knowledge applied to a circumstance—it’s a skill of seeing beyond the thin surface of how things appear. The wise person reaches to grasp what is the driving force beyond how things appear.
For new parents, wisdom is the ability to discern a child’s fussiness and fever apart from the virus that causes the fever. For teachers, shrewd discernment sees beyond the words of the essay to the interior critical mind of the child. But how do we become wise?
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Wisdom as Apprenticeship: According to Scripture and the canons of science, we must become apprentices under the supervision of good authority. So, Proverbs focuses on listening to the correct authorities (such as parents) and ignoring the wrong ones (like the lascivious woman of Proverbs 7).
But wisdom should not be deflated to a religious view of knowing. Chemist-turned-philosopher Michael Polanyi offered a view of scientific knowledge that overlaps nicely with what we find in the Scriptures. How scientists know, as discoverers of our world, mimics and formalizes how all discovery happens.
Moreover, everyday human discovery is exactly what we find in the biblical texts. Both the Bible and scientists value wise knowing—skilled discernment—as the height of human knowing.
For instance, we find many accounts of communal discovery in the Scriptures. Those who have the skill to discern what goes beyond appearance try to help the people of Israel see skillfully. As Moses guided Israel to discern that YHWH is her God, we also find Jesus guiding his disciples to discern the “secret of the kingdom of God.”
Throughout Scripture, and particularly in the wisdom literature (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs), the wise are those who skillfully see reality under the authoritative guidance of God who guides Israel through His prophets: the experts…