Meditation on Proverbs 1:20-22

Submitted by Jonathan on Tue, 12/19/2017 - 22:34

Wisdom cries aloud in the street,

in the markets she raises her voice;

at the head of the noisy streets she cries out;

at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:

How long, O simple ones,

will you love being simple?

How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”

--Proverbs 1:20-22

Lady Wisdom
Lady Wisdom (See Proverbs 3:13-20)

Evangelicals are my "tribe." I was raised and educated mostly in evangelical circles. I grew up in an evangelical Baptist church in Richmond, Virginia, where I also went to a private evangelical school from kindergarten through high school. I received both my bachelor's and master's degrees from evangelical universities (both born from the Bible college movement in the early 20th century), and I now teach philosophy at one of those same evangelical institutions.

Like many evangelicals in the contemporary US political milieu, I am not always comfortable with this label. It now carries with with a heavy baggage of association with a certain political party and certain political positions. In just the last couple days there have been a number of op-ed pieces published by self-identifying evangelicals expressing frustration over the way the term has come to be used: Amy Sullivan in the New York Times, Tim Keller in the New Yorker, and David French in the National Review.

Historically, the term 'evangelical' has been used of Protestants, regardless of denomination, who hold to four primary religious/spiritual ideas: first, a Gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ; second, the importance of personal conversion/commitment to Jesus Christ (as opposed to, say, just being a member of a Christian church); third, the authority of the Bible in the life of the Christian; fourth, the importance of missions--spreading the Gospel of Christ to all nations.

All three of the authors mentioned above point out that the term "evangelical," as used in political polling today, has only a scant relationship to the historical sense of the term as designating a certain kind of Christianity. (Indeed, according to this article, pollsters use it to mean "a white Christian Republican.") Tim Keller advises us to distinguish between the big-E "Evangelicalism" of politics, and little-e "evangelicalism" of history, but continue to use the historical term. David French, however, argues that the term may already be too soiled by politics, and may need to be abandoned by those who consider themselves evangelicals in the historical sense.

But I continue to self-ascribe this label because of its history, or rather, because of those who originated and embraced this label in history: people like John Wesley, George Whitfield, Isaac Watts, John Newton, William Wilberforce, and others. I do not think that current US political trends and the definitions used by demographers and pollsters should rob evangelicals of the historical sense of this term.

Time will tell whether this is a sustainable position. If the historical significance continues to be increasingly obscured by the usage in my own context, the time may come when it is best abandoned. But it seems to me, for now, worth retaining and insisting on its original meaning.

Even if we can make a distinction between big-E Evangelicalism and little-e evangelicalism, and even if many who tell pollsters they are Evangelicals do not possess the qualities of historical evangelicalism, it seems clear that there is a significant overlap between the two. At least, judging by my social media feeds, it would seem that way.

Evangelicalism has had its own internal critics who have long pointed out certain trends toward anti-intellectualism and know-nothingism in evangelicalism. For example, the historian Mark Noll (himself an evangelical), in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (first published 1995), argued that "the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." By this he meant that evangelicals had largely abandoned whole swaths of learning as they similarly abandoned universities and institutions of higher learning. He specifically mentions economics, political science, literary criticism, history, linguistics, social theory, and the arts (among others).

Some will say, no doubt, that the abandonment of these areas has been, to some degree, been forced upon evangelicals, along with "conservatives" of all stripes. The work of Jonathan Haidt (here's his TED talk) and others may be instructive here. But this strikes me as an excuse--if we valued these areas as highly as we seem to value, say, business and MBA programs, we would find ways to pursue them. Furthermore, the earlier abandonment that Noll identified may be a contributing factor to the current ideological homogeneity of many university departments that Haidt identifies. In any case, we need correctives and not excuses.

So what does all this have to do with Proverbs 1:20-22?

This passage extols the value of wisdom and knowledge, and the disvalue of naiveté and the arrogance of the scoffer. Wisdom is personified as a woman who stands in the busiest place in the city--the marketplace--and calls out to the masses. She calls them naive and stupid (the meaning of the Hebrew term translated "simple"), lovers of arrogance and mocks of what they don't understand. Instead of being like this, they should seek wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. 

Those familiar with the book of Proverbs will know that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (or knowledge; see Proverbs 1:7 & 9:10); but it would be a mistake to infer from this that a godly wisdom or knowledge consists in nothing but fearing the Lord. The fear of the Lord is the beginning, not the entirety, according to Proverbs. Indeed, the Hebrew term translated 'knowledge', dahath, is used of both theoretical and practical knowledge and skill. In the fear of the Lord, one seeks to acquire the knowledge and skill that will be required for discernment and judgment in the life one must lead. This will include learning to think and reason well, and learning whatever facts are relevant to the judgments one must make. 

We see this pattern of valuing learning and clear thinking in many of those early evangelicals. For example, John Wesley wrote a logic textbook right in the middle of some of his busiest years of ministry. Isaac Watts, an evangelical who is known as the "father of English hymnody," and author of the carol "Joy to the World," was also the author of a logic textbook that was the standard logic text at Oxford University for 100 years. These leaders of the evangelical movement believed that training in clear thinking was essential for those seeking godly wisdom in Christ. 

The message of Proverbs is that wisdom is worth seeking; it is worth far more than all the money in the world. While knowledge is not sufficient for wisdom, it is necessary. You cannot have wisdom without having knowledge, because those who love ignorance thereby hate wisdom. To hate, mock, despise, or otherwise de-value factual or theoretical knowledge and understanding is to love foolishness rather than wisdom, and this is anything but godly.

As evangelicals, then, we must be true philosophers--lovers of wisdom, as the term philosophia means--where this wisdom is understood in a very robust sense. It begins in a motivating fear of the Lord--that fear that is a partner rather than enemy of love--and extends to passionate engagement in acquiring the knowledge, skill, and understanding that is appropriate to the lives we have been given. 

Evangelicals who display this sort of love of wisdom in their lives may help turn the use of the term back toward its historical sense. If evangelicals again became known for their intellectual and cultural accomplishments, as well as for their zeal for the Gospel, perhaps the pollster's use of the term will be the one to end up in the dustbin of history.