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Wisdom Theory in Various Christianity Periods Essay

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Updated: Jan 10th, 2021

Early Church

The Early Church Period of the history of Christianity lasted for more than three hundred years between the birth of Jesus Christ and the First Council of Nicaea. A part of this period was the Apostolic Age when the disciples of Jesus Christ and people who personally knew them lived; so-called Apostolic Fathers were influential Christian writers who had known one or more apostles. One of them was St. Clement of Rome who is now regarded as the third Pope (if Saint Peter is not counted as the first Pope). His address to the Christians of Corinth—The First Epistle of Clement—is one of the earliest known Christian texts not included in the Bible: it was written between 80 and 140 CE. Throughout the English translation of the late 19th century, the words “wise” and “wisdom” are used 15 times; two quotes are particularly notable. Clement writes, “And so we…are not justified through ourselves or our wisdom or understanding…but through faith, whereby the Almighty God justified all men that have been from the beginning” (“First Clement,” n.d., para. 32:4). In a different part, the author writes, “Let the wise display his wisdom, not in words, but good works” (“First Clement,” n.d., para. 38:2). In the first quote, Clement suggests that people can only be “glorified and magnified” (“First Clement,” n.d., para. 32:3) through God’s will despite their deeds, feelings, or wisdom. In the second quote, however, the Apostolic Father claims that people should still do good things and work hard, and wisdom is displayed in these actions.

Another Apostolic Father was St. Ignatius of Antioch who was a disciple of St. John and authored several letters to the people of different cities. In one of them, the letter to the Smyrnaeans, the author writes at the very beginning, “I glorify God, even Jesus Christ, who has given you such wisdom;” further, it is explained that the wisdom is observed in “an immovable faith” (“The Epistle of Ignatius,” 1885, para. 2) that people demonstrate. In this regard, a difference can be seen between St. Clement’s and St. Ignatius’ understandings of wisdom; the former differentiates between wisdom and faith and between wise words and wise actions; the latter suggests that having faith and acting according to it is what should be called wisdom.

There is a notable difference between both these understandings and the most frequently used word for wisdom in the New Testament: “Sophia.” In the Bible, it is said that people who listened to Jesus Christ were amazed at his wisdom (Mark 6:2); in this and other examples, it is evident that wisdom is seen as something that appeals to a listener and inspires him or her. The Early Church Period, on the other hand, seems to suggest that wisdom should be rather manifested in what one does rather than says. An important similarity can be observed, too: in both the New Testament and the Early Church writings, wisdom is closely connected to faith. Another word for wisdom in the New Testament—”Epignosis”—is the transformed knowledge of God and His intentions. Therefore, in both periods, a wise person is one who knows God and is faithful.

Age of the Imperial Church

The Age of Imperial Church began in the 4th century CE when the Emperor of Rome made Christianity the state church of the Roman Empire. Before that, tolerance for Christianity had been established, but the Edict of Thessalonica of 380 CE placed the religion above all other religions; Christians were not only freed of persecution but also occupied the dominant position in the Empire, and the church became intertwined with the state. During this period, one of the most influential Christian writers of all times, St. Augustine, lived and wrote his famous works, including Confessions. At the beginning of Chapter XI of Book VI, St. Augustine (1999) writes, “And I, viewing and reviewing things, most wondered at the length of time from that my nineteenth year, wherein I had begun to kindle with the desire of wisdom, settling when I had found her, to abandon all the empty hopes and lying frenzies of vain desires” (p. 76). The author repeatedly refers to the wisdom of God throughout his book, and from this quote, it is evident that St. Augustine understood wisdom as the ability to control desires and know real things from empty hopes.

Among other famous authors of the period, there was St. John Chrysostom, whose epithet means golden-mouthed and comes from his known eloquence. Considered one of the Early Church Fathers, St. John Chrysostom authored many homilies. In Homily II on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, the author discussed the way people were waiting for the revelation (the apocalypse), and Jesus Christ told them that the day was at the doors so they should not be worried. St. John Chrysostom writes, “And consider his wisdom; how withdrawing them from human considerations he terrifies them by the mention of the fearful judgment-seat and thus implying that not only the beginnings must be good, but the end also” (“Homily II,” n.d., para. 6). Similar to New Testament texts, the author refers to the wisdom of Jesus Christ, and the idea is that people tend to be worried about wrong things, e.g. earthly things instead of things related to their immortal souls. An example in the New Testament is the story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:42), in which Jesus Christ suggests that, if he is a guest in a house, listening to his words is much more important than taking care of the reception or serving food.

In the quotes above, St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom referred to different kinds of wisdom, but an important aspect of both understandings is that wisdom, from the Imperial Church perspective, is the ability to tell the right thing from the wrong one, and the true thing from the false one. This concept does not contradict the concept from the previous period of Early Church, in which wisdom was associated with actions and true faith. Importantly, both for the Apostolic Fathers and for the Great Fathers (this term is used sometimes to refer to some especially influential Christian writers, including St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom), achieving wisdom was associated with spiritual transformation or revelation from God.

Christian Middle Ages

According to a general definition, the Middle Ages were a period in the history of Europe that started with the fall of the Roman Empire in the late 5th century CE and lasted until the Age of Discovery in the late 15th century, i.e. about one thousand years overall. During this time, Christianity was the dominant religion in Europe, and the most important events were the Great Schism in 1054 (when Christianity was divided into the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church), the spread of the Inquisition (the church’s punitive organ), and the growing power of the church, manifested in the way some Popes were regarded as superior to kings and emperors. Many Christian scholars lived and worked during these thousand years, and one of the most influential was St. Thomas Aquinas. Not only a priest but also a theologian and philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote many works on human nature and the nature of things. Unlike earlier scholars, he did not only reflect on Christian ethics (i.e. what is right and what is wrong) but also meta-ethics (why something is right or wrong) and epistemology (how we know things). In his book On Prayer and the Contemplative Life, St. Thomas Aquinas (2007) writes that “a man has habits of wisdom and knowledge which enable him to indulge in contemplation without difficulty” (p. 211). The author suggests that human beings have the natural desire to know, and the knowledge of truth is a pleasure for them.

Another important medieval Christian scholar is St. Francis of Assisi, a friar, and preacher who founded several religious orders, had remarkable numbers of followers over centuries, and authored several prayers that are still popular today. In one of his works, “Letter to All the Faithful” (n.d.), St. Francis of Assisi wrote, “They [who give themselves to vices and sins] have no spiritual wisdom, for they have not in them the Son of God who is the true wisdom of the Father” (p. 105). In this context, the author refers to the absolute, divine wisdom, and suggests that the channel through which humans can reach it is the teaching of Jesus Christ.

A remarkable difference between St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi is that the former explores human nature, while the latter condemns sins and calls upon people to follow Jesus Christ; it can be argued that the former is more of a scholar than a preacher, while the latter appears to be a preacher to a larger extent. St. Thomas Aquinas refers to habits of wisdom as the people’s ability and the inclination to learn. St. Francis of Assisi refers to wisdom as a representation of God’s intentions contained in what Jesus Christ said. Compared to previous periods, it can be said that, on the one hand, scholars went further to profoundly explore religious concepts, including wisdom, from a more critical, scholarly perspective, while preachers went further in equating wisdom with the Christian faith.

Reformation

The Reformation was the process of separation of some European countries from the Roman Catholic Church and the establishment of Protestantism. The process started with the publication of the Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther in 1517, and there was a wave of religious wars in different European countries, as Catholics fought against Protestants. Martin Luther was a theologian and priest who initiated the opposition to the Pope. In the theses, wisdom is not mentioned; however, in a different book written by Luther (1999), The Large Catechism, it is said that “to be a judge requires above all things a godly man, and not only a godly, but also a wise, modest, yea, a brave and bold man” (para. 202). It is noteworthy that, unlike many authors discussed previously, Luther does differentiate between wisdom and what he refers to as godliness. Therefore, for the key figure in the Reformation and Protestantism, wisdom and devotion to the Christian faith are not the same things. Also, throughout the book, Luther refers to two different types of wisdom, divine, and human, and clearly distinguishes the former from the latter, as he suggests that the latter can never comprehend the former.

Another important figure in the history of the Reformation is John Calvin. His works in theology were largely influential and led to the creation of a separate branch of Protestantism known as Calvinism. At the beginning of his most notable work, the book called Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes, “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and ourselves” (p. 37). This is the first phrase in the book’s body and the central idea of the entire work. Similar to Luther, Calvin does not think that wisdom and faith (or devotion to it) are the same; however, he connects the two notions and claims that being wise means knowing God (which is related to faith) but also knowing oneself. According to the author, the two goals can be achieved by studying the sacred writings and engaging in spiritual practices and self-reflection.

It is notable that, during the Reformation, Christian scholars were more philosophical than theological; in this sense, they were rather closer to Thomas Aquinas than to Francis of Assisi, as they pursued studying human nature and exploring religious concepts profoundly. It is also evident that unlike Francis of Assisi or Early Church authors, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch, Luther and Calvin did not define wisdom as something equal to faith. They still recognized the connection, but it is important that the concept of wisdom, according to the two authors, applies not only to the relationship with God but also to the way one thinks, behaves, and is aware of his or her motivations.

Age of Reason and Revival

The Age of Reason was the period of an intellectual movement in Europe that is known today as the Enlightenment, and the main idea of the movement was that reasoning (as opposed to mysticism) is the way for human beings to find the truth. It began with the publications of influential works on logic, such as Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, and ended with the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. In the context of Christianity, two major movements appeared during the Age of Reason: rational supernaturalism (which defended the concept of revelation and the possibility to explain it through reasoning) and deism (which denied revelation and promoted rational understandings of religious phenomena). For example, John Tillotson, a prominent English priest and the Archbishop of Canterbury (the leader of the Church of England) in the late 17th century, was a rational supernaturalist, and he speculated on the notion of wisdom in his sermon “The Wisdom of Being Religious.” In the sermon, Tillotson (n.d.) says, “I shall endeavor distinctly to prove these two things. 1. That Religion is the best Knowledge. 2. That it is the truest wisdom” (p. 7). The author argues that being religious is wise for oneself and wise for his or her interest and concernment; the main interest, according to the author, is happiness, and wisdom is the way to achieve various aspects of happiness, such as being free of the pain of the body and anxiety of spirit.

An example of a deist Christian scholar of the Age of Reason is John Toland. A famous philosopher of his time, he was a rather prolific writer. Apart from books and pamphlets, he also wrote many letters, and in one of them, a consolatory letter to an alderman of London, Toland (2010) wrote, “The passions are such an essential part of our constitution, and so inseparably united to our understanding, that on this account they are commonly termed natural affections; nor is there any part of our fabric wherein the effects of divine wisdom are more visible and obvious” (p. 318). Many authors mentioned above differentiated between human wisdom and divine wisdom; Toland is one of the scholars who believed that the divine wisdom is manifested in the way human beings are designed, and this is rather different from the early Christian vision.

The idea that humans are the crown of creation became widespread during the Renaissance times, although the concept itself originated in the Old Testament (Genesis 1:29). Early Christian scholars rather viewed human beings as sinners who should work hard on themselves throughout their lives to become closer to God. As seen from Toland’s quote, there had been a shift toward humans as beautiful confirmations of the superior wisdom of God. Tillotson’s vision, however, brings the Christian thought back to the medieval times and the Early Church Period when prominent scholars promoted the idea that wisdom and religion are essentially the same things.

Modern Period

The Modern Period can also be referred to as the Age of Progress because it is associated with the industrial revolution that happened in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In terms of politics, Europe was largely affected by the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars were coming, and the United States had just declared independence. The world was changing rapidly, and many countries moved toward more democratic development, and one of the effects of the liberation was that more women gained access to education and intellectual spheres in which they had not been welcomed before. The world saw many brilliant women who were writers and scientists, and among them, there were Christian scholars, too. An example is Mary Baker Eddy, an American theologian, and writer who founded Christian Science, a religious movement that was one of the early attempts to combine scientific knowledge with Christianity. In her most famous book, the author addressed many aspects of the concept of wisdom, and two examples can be examined.

First, when speculating on suffering and diseases, Eddy (n.d.) suggests that they can be defeated with prayers, and states, “You will learn at length that there is no cause for grief, and divine wisdom will then be understood” (p. 386). In the same chapter, the author also reflects on two biblical quotes: “‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,’ but the Scriptures also declare, through the exalted thought of John, that ‘perfect Love casteth out fear’” (Eddy, n.d., p. 373). In the first quote, the founder of Christian Science refers to the divine wisdom and, unlike many other scholars before her, suggests that it can be comprehended by human beings. In the second quote, she revises the idea of wisdom found in the Old Testament and replaces its meaning of fear of God with the New Testament concept of love for God.

Another scholar of the period, Nathaniel William Taylor, contributed largely to the development of theology and founded a school of thought known as New Haven Theology; it is sometimes referred to as Taylorism. Taylor established the Theological Department at Yale University and authored many works on Christianity; particularly, on Protestantism. In one of his lectures, Taylor (1859) says, “Instead, however, of relying wholly on on, or even partially on their [intelligent voluntary beings’] own wisdom or judgment…they may rely partially or even wholly on the decision of superior wisdom and superior goodness” (p. 11). Concerning the context of the saying, the author discusses the moral government of God, and he suggests that, instead of making decisions based on the considerations of his or her well-being, a person can rely on the superior will of God. The context shows that, unlike Eddy, Taylor believed that superior wisdom is unlikely to be understood by humans but can be followed by them.

Two different understandings of divine wisdom in the Age of Progress correspond to different visions in the previous periods. However, what is unique in a way is the suggestion that divine wisdom can be comprehended through certain spiritual practices. Also, what was new about the period is the attempt to reconcile religion with science. In the Age of Reason, scholars tried to explain religious concepts rationally, but those were strictly philosophical attempts, and until the Modern Age, no scholars tried to combine religion and scientific knowledge about nature and the way the human organism works.

Analysis

It is evident from the quotes above that the concept of wisdom in the writings of Christian scholars is complex and may refer to different things. In the Early Church Period, influential scholars identified wisdom with faith and thought that is wise for a person meant following the teachings of Jesus Christ. During later periods, this understanding was observed, too; particularly, during the Middle Ages, St. Francis of Assisi claimed that Jesus Christ was the embodiment of divine wisdom. However, during the Reformation, Christian scholars—and Martin Luther himself—distinguished between godliness and wisdom. It suggests that, for some later writers, acting wisely and being devoted to God were not identical behaviors. Nonetheless, the vision of early Christians was preserved until recent periods of the history of Christianity.

Another theme observed in different periods is the differentiation between human wisdom and divine wisdom. There is the concept of revelation that was the subject of an extensive debate during the Age of Reason: while some scholars believed in the ability of people to cognize the world rationally and denied revelation (e.g. John Toland), other scholars suggested that true cognition could be achieved through revelations only (e.g. John Tillotson). Although the revelation was seen as the channel for gaining a better understanding of God, most scholars who wrote on this believed that the divine wisdom could not be comprehended fully. It was only in the Modern Period when Christian scholars who pursued reconciling religion with science suggested that “divine wisdom will then [after learning that there is no cause for grief] be understood” (Eddy, n.d., p. 386), meaning that this wisdom is not incomprehensible.

Many Christian scholars regarded the concept of wisdom outside of the context of faith and in connection with natural features and inclinations of human beings. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas discussed the notion of the habit of wisdom that is manifested in the aspiration for knowledge. During the Reformation, John Calvin studied the notion of wisdom and suggested that it consisted of two things: knowledge of God and knowledge of self, and he dedicated many pages of his book to the attempt to understand what true wisdom is.

The previous exploration of the concept of wisdom in the Bible revealed certain differences not only between the use of the concept in the Old Testament and the New Testament but even among different words used in both Testaments and translated as “wisdom.” Within two millennia of the history of Christianity, all those meanings were explored and reflected in scholars’ writings, but some meanings turned out more popular and were more widely accepted by theologians. For example, the idea of wisdom as skillfulness is almost fully absent in Christian scholars’ works; at the same time, the idea of wisdom as devotion to Christian principles in one’s everyday behaviors was shared by many scholars. Finally, writers in almost all of the periods of the Christian history agree that wisdom is something manifested in one’s actions, while in the New Testament, wisdom can be manifested in words that demonstrate a profound understanding of what things are and how they work.

References

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Eddy, M. B. (n.d.). Web.

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Luther, M. (1999). The large catechism. (F. Bente & W. H. T. Dau, Trans.). Web.

St. Augustine. (1999). The confessions of St. Augustine. (E. B. Pusey, Trans.). Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

St. Thomas Aquinas. (2007). On prayer and the contemplative life. (H. Pope, Trans.). Web.

Taylor, N. W. (1859). Lectures on the moral government of God, (Vol. 1). New York, NY: Clark, Austin & Smith.

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Tillotson, J. (n.d.). Web.

Toland, J. (2010). The miscellaneous works of Mr. John Toland, now first published from his original manuscripts …: To the whole is prefixed a copious account of Mr. Toland’s life and writings (Vol. 2). Charleston, SC: Nabu Press.

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