Christian Wisdom

In the next couple of posts I am going to look at David Ford’s Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Christian WisdomFord offers a low-flying biblical/exegetical/theological account of wisdom as the overriding concept of Christian theology. The first thing that struck me about this book is Ford’s clear concern to work closely with the biblical text. At several points he quotes larges portions of scripture to exposit, and the book, in many ways, is an explication of these central biblical texts. In one such instance, commenting on Luke 24:13-53 (Road to Emmaus), Ford states:

So the person who at the beginning of the Gospel is filled with wisdom and amazes the teachers in the Temple, and in the middle has exulted in knowing the Father, and in death has cried out in words from a Psalm, here interprets ‘all the Scriptures’. Yet, even as he does this and their hearts burn within them, the vital recognition of who he is does not occur through this conversation: it happens only through the breaking of bread” (37).

In an important methodological comment, Ford notes, “One of theology’s main temptations is to formulate doctrines or other theological conclusions with reference to scripture and then forget that reference, failing to keep open the engagement with scripture that is needed if the theology is to avoid becoming fossilised” (43) Theology therefore is oriented by hope in God’s promises, that desires a wisdom true to God’s desires, and navigates life through a pneumatologically rich reading of the text. The theologian must cry out to God for wisdom, and in so doing, find oneself calling out in a chorus of all those who cry out to God, even God himself, calling out to his Father from the cross.

Christian theology therefore, is “an engagement with scripture whose primary desire is for the wisdom of God in life now” (52). This is a “wisdom interpretation” of the scriptural texts that we as the community of God seek to undertake. In an important comment, Ford states:

All of them together [incarnation, cross, etc.] are essential to any Christian hermeneutic, but not as some sort of formula or method; rather as a reminder to return again and again to the particularities of the testimonies to Jesus Christ seeking the wisdom that he himself inspires in new contexts as the ongoing interpreter of them through his Spirit” (62).

This of course begs the question, What is reading in the Spirit look like? Ford suggest that the core practice of a distinctively wisdom oriented interpretation is rereading. He links the canonization itself to this concept of rereading, of rehearsing the tradition in such a way as to provide the context for wisdom. Our rereading then is not mere repetition, but is learning to read with the people of God, the whole people of God. “The question: With and for whom do we read and reread? is, after the question of God, the second (though simultaneous) question for wisdom interpretation…To live in the Spirit is to reread with others for the sake of God and the Kingdom of God and to let oneself be addressed, schooled and transformed accordingly” (68-69).

What do you think about this initial analysis? Is a “wisdom rereading” the way we need to go? We will see this played out more specifically in later posts, but I just wanted to stop and ask the question: Is this how we should develop an account of biblical reading? Any thoughts?


4 thoughts on “Christian Wisdom

  1. Well stated question, Kyle.

    This thread seems to continue the examination of our motivation and telos in “doing theology” on prior
    TF threads like Theological Temptations: Grandiosity and Should Theologians Be Spiritual?

    In my own work on Wisdom in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, the operative terms (IMO) for engaging Ford’s work (and indeed the terms that are most naturally adduced from the texts) are the opposing human dispositions of “self-sufficiency” and the “the fear of God.” Theologians, just like other members of the people of God, naturally vacillate between the extremes of self-sufficiency and the fear of God, and this vacillation has both individual and collective components; that is to say, we can choose to be self-sufficient in our approach to the text both as individuals and as theological “camps.”

    This oscillating dynamic is alive and well in my own theological “camp”—the so-called Free Grace movement—and it has been painfully obvious when individuals and “sub-camps” within this movement have gravitated more toward the “self-sufficient” pole in the name of maintaining theological “purity” or adherence to tradition, even within this relatively recent (at least in any organized sense) theological movement.

    I return to a key theme of Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text?—that of the high priority of “respect for the A/author” in our approach to Biblical texts. In this light, I would venture that “reading in the Spirit” will “look” like the fear of God much more than it will look like self-sufficiency. My sense of the “substance” of the notion of the fear of God is that it is very close to “respect for the Author” in showing one’s primary willingness to grant God the prerogative of “life or death” over one’s “dreams” and “many words.” (See further the index entries for these themes in my Unlocking Wisdom.)

    As hinted at by the subtitle of Ford’s book, this will entail on the one hand a willingness to undergo some healthy deconstruction of both personal theological “commitments” and larger traditions or systems; and on the other hand a very practical commitment to love “difficult” others as a test of whether theological fine-tuning is actually occurring, as opposed to building momentum in a return to the “self-sufficient” pole of our theological development in response to revelation.

  2. Jim, thanks for your response. Would self-sufficiency entail, negatively speaking, an understanding of hermeneutics that evangelicals have tended towards – which is that if I disappear in my office long enough, and think hard enough, I can come to the right interpretation? In other words, is this just a highly propositional account of hermeneutics?

    In comparison, would a “fear of God” interpretation lean more towards a communal and ethical reading, communal in the sense of the Christian tradition and ethical in the sense of interpretation being more than just getting the right answers but living the right way?

  3. Well stated, Kyle.

    The way you have framed the issue reveals exactly what has been going on in my own theological camp. There are those who have been insisting on, as you put it, “just a highly propositional account of hermeneutics” and in the process have been progressively isolating themselves from those who disagree, even on the finer details of the propositions being floated for debate. What has resulted is a kind of theological separationism that is rupturing fellowship by degenerating into ad hominem attacks. Those who insist on requiring a uniformly propositional account as a test of fellowship are IMO approaching the text out of a self-sufficient disposition and, to varying degrees, not “living the right way,” as you put it.

    (I am a little reticent to use the term “ethical,” because many people hear that term and instinctively image in their minds some variety or other of law-based, “checklist” behavior toward others [i.e., “good manners”], rather than Spirit-led behavior toward others. “Good manners” for some, like me, will in fact be Spirit-led, but others may be called to abandon “good manners” in order to love well.)

    There is on the part of some of the players in my camp a remarkable lack of compassion and forbearance for those whose propositional “understanding” does not match their own. Some of this is due to self-aggrandizing pride in their own understanding of the propositions; some of this is just plain fear of the innate, non-propositional existential uncertainty that our flesh is heir to and, consequently, a tenacious, fear-based clinging to the propositions more than to the “proposition-Giver.” Both of these are “flavors” of hermeneutic self-sufficiency.

    Moreover, in light of your previous thread on post-foundationalism, we may in retrospect well view much of the grounding of foundationalism to have been forged in such hermeneutic “self-sufficiency.” It is not that we should embrace an anti-propositional hermeneutic as much as to humbly acknowledge that much, if not most, of our invited response to propositional revelation is non-propositional in nature yet, ironically, may result in greater “understanding” of the truth.

    What is happening now in my theological camp is nothing less than a test of ecclesial unity in the Spirit; yet sadly, there is a profound lack of ecclesiological “identity” among the various “players.” This is a perfect recipe for continued profound fragmentation and, hence, the utter trivialization of our theological impact. Consequently, yes, Kyle, to use your terminology, we have all but abandoned a “communal and ethical reading.” I would, however, not restrict the sense of “communal” to “Christian tradition.” In fact, I believe the more important aspects of understanding end up emerging “non-propositionally” from “living the right way” in community because we are committed a priori more to the unity of the Body than to theological precision.

    I must say that for most of my 28 “hermeneutic years” since I entered seminary I have lived out of pride in my own understanding of the propositions and have approached others out of a mindset of “persuasion” rather than the kind of forbearance and compassion that is rooted in the righteous character of the proposition-Giver. What has been happening to me over the last 5-6 years is a new understanding of discourse in community that is more “ethical” in the way we treat each other yet doesn’t necessarily “give away the theological store,” so to speak.

    Ironically, theological forbearance on the “front end” (without necessarily “compromising”) may actually result in greater theological precision on the “back end,” ultimately to be consummated only in the eschaton.

    Does that make enough sense?

  4. Jim, yes, that does. Thanks for the expansion.

    I think you are right. My inclination is that one of the many culprits is how theology is understood and how the theological task is undertaken. Our account of Scripture, in evangelical circles, tends not to be theologically informed as mcuh as it is apologetically-oriented to maximize our ability to invoke Scripture in polemics.

    I think you are right about the theological forbearance on the front end providing greater precision and uniting which will only see its culmination in the eschaton.

    I’ve been thinking about self-love lately, on account of Edwards use of it, and wonder if that could be mapped onto this as well? Self-sufficiency is a kind of self-love that is oriented towards my texts, my interpretation and my ecclesial tradition. Engagement with others becomes hard because I know myself as I know these various facets of my background. Anyway, just some random thoughts…back to Edwards.

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