There is no shortage of writings on the nature of human wisdom.1
But what of divine wisdom, the wisdom that is unique and specific to the triune life of God?
This, after all, is the source of any other reality we might call wisdom. Philosophical and psychological observations regarding human wisdom are at best suggestions and pointers to be affirmed or challenged by God’s self-revelation in Scripture.2 Christian theology does not project human values and virtues onto God; rather, it attends to the enacted character of God in the history of his self-revelation, using human language to witness to the character he reveals.
And according to Scripture, God is wise. God is the “only wise God” (Rom 16:27), a God of “manifold wisdom” (Eph 3:10). His creation was a work of his wisdom (Prov 8:23–31; Psa 104:24–26; Jer 10:12; Col 1:15–20). And this wisdom is powerful and active, for throughout Scripture wisdom is paired with both power and understanding (Job 12:13, Psa 33:10–11). God seeks to make his wisdom known to the powers and principalities through its realization in the work of Christ (Eph 3:9–11), and we praise him for the depths of his wisdom, knowledge, judgments, and ways (Rom 11:33). This wisdom confronts and triumphs over the false wisdoms of the world (1 Cor 1:20–24).
God’s masterful life
To put it most generally, that God is wise means that God lives well—God lives masterfully. As Bruce Waltke puts it, “‘Wisdom’ (ḥokmâ) means generally, ‘masterful understanding,’ ‘skill,’ ‘expertise.’”3
In keeping with Waltke’s location of his definition of wisdom within his definition of life itself,4 it follows that wisdom, understood most broadly, is a matter of having “masterful understanding of life,” or being “masterfully skilled at life.” And God, who is the source of all wisdom, who is “wisdom’s sole possessor,”5 is the one who is masterfully skilled at life, and as such lives well.
Put more fully, that God is wise means that God lives well by bringing about the full range of his purposes by the most fitting means, taking full account of the whole array of circumstances and factors surrounding him.6 As Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God is the living God, the one who in and of himself lives, moves, responds, and acts—the one in whom is life (John 1:4): “To its very deepest depths God’s Godhead consists in the fact that it is an event—not any event, not events in general, but the event of His action.”7
Why “God is alive” and “God is wise” mean the same thing
Unlike false gods, who are lifeless, static, and motionless, ours is a living God. His existence is that of event—a living, active, and powerful event or history.8 And because God is wise, he lives well: for him to be the living God and the wise God are one and the same. All the Proverbs, all the wise sayings that guide us to a life well lived, have their source and origin in a living God who in himself lives well, and created that he might share with others a life well lived (e.g., Prov 1:33; 2:6–8; 3:5–6).
For God to live well is also for him to reject chance or caprice. His will is “meaningful in itself,” since God “knows not only what He wills, but why and wherefore He wills it,” which is to say that his willing is bound up with “plan and intention.”9
To say that God lives well is to say that he lives fully; he lives a fulfilled life in which the full range of his purposes is met. This is a life of full perfection, in which God is conserved in his own end, because there is no conflict between end, means, and fulfillment for God. They are all rooted in, accomplished by, and fulfilled in himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.10
God does not need to seek food, shelter, or pension, because he has all he needs within himself—his action springs forth out of the fullness of his perfect life; fulfillment is intrinsic to the divine act rather than a striving toward it as a distant and perhaps unachievable goal.
Does God need things to live well?
But to speak of ends or purposes is to speak of means—the methods, tools, or resources by which a purpose is brought to completion. What means does God employ in his wisdom, in his living well? Surely nothing outside of himself, no person, angel, or created reality would do, since then God would rely on something other than himself for his own perfection, entailing an intolerable dependence of God upon his creation. But if God does not rely on something other than God, then on what does he rely? Surely it is the divine life itself.11
God is his own means to living out his life in the fullness of his perfection.
Seeing God’s wisdom in the Trinity
God lives out the divine life by means of the divine life. God is not alone, not without resources, not dependent on others for his fulfillment.
As Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God is able to be the means by which he is who he is. This is true in the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father and the breathing forth of the Spirit, and also in the shared life in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to each other, enacting the divine character in eternity. God, in his wisdom, uniquely lives well by being the means through which he lives his divine life, accomplishing his divine purposes.
But to accomplish a purpose, you have to employ certain means within a context, within certain circumstances. What are these circumstances within the life of God? Again, nothing but himself. 12
God’s life of wisdom is the Father’s eternal begetting of the Son and breathing forth of the Spirit; in it God lives his life well (the Father) by means of himself (the Son) and in relation and unity with himself (the Spirit).
God is God’s own goal
Whereas we set goals for ourselves that are not ourselves, with God it is altogether different. God is God’s own goal, which he accomplishes in eternity by means of himself. God lives out his life by means of himself, before and in relation to himself, because he fully knows, understands, and rejoices in himself.
As the triune God, he is able to be himself by means of himself and in relationship to or knowledge of himself. Wisdom, as Barth puts it, is “the inner truth and clarity with which the divine life in its self-fulfillment and its works justifies and confirms itself”—but confirms itself to itself, in self-fulfillment.13
God’s wisdom is God living his life on the basis of his self-knowledge, properly ordering himself and his actions so as to continually bring about his purposes by means of himself so that there is a continual and limitless well-living on the part of God in and for himself.
In summary, God’s wisdom is God’s living well. He lives well by bringing about the full range of his purposes by the most effective and fitting means, given a thorough understanding of the whole spectrum of relevant circumstances. This wisdom, though powerfully enacted in the work of Christ, is at the same time—and as its basis—a reality within the inner life of God, a description of the relation between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As we describe God in his wisdom, we do not attribute something to him that is foreign to his inner life as God. Rather, in speaking of the wisdom of God we are delving into the very heart of God, the internal relational dynamics of the Trinity in which God is who he is by means of himself, in knowledge of or relation to himself. God, in himself, is wise, is the source of all that we call wisdom.
This post has been adapted from The Reconciling Wisdom of God: Reframing the Doctrine of the Atonement by Adam J. Johnson.
Adam J. Johnson (PhD, TEDS) is the author of Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed and God’s Being in Reconciliation. He teaches theology and Western Classics in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.
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Daniel Treier, for example, writes that wisdom is “cleverness or instrumental skill, about a human moral judgment, about a quest to live in harmony with the order of creation, or about a prudence incorporating all of the above after beginning with ‘the fear of the Lord.’ ” (“Wisdom,” in Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al., eds., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005], 844). Roberts and Wood write that wisdom is a practical, or “aiming” virtue: “it posits ends or an end to be achieved through the actions that it guides” amidst “a variety of situations,” implying “an element of improvisation in the exercise of practical wisdom.” (Roberts and Wood, Intellectual Virtues, 306). This entails wisdom as a living responsibly and well within “the interwovenness of the world and humanity and God.” Daniel W. Hardy, “The Grace of God and Earthly Wisdom,” in Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? Wisdom in the Bible, the Church, and the Contemporary World, ed. Stephen C. Barton, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 231.
- Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, 105.
- Bruce K. Waltke and Charles Yu, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 913.
- Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 908–10.
- Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 919.
- See Karl Barth, “The Beginning of Wisdom,” in Deliverance to the Captives (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 127; Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Robin Hard (New York: Oxford, 2011), 67; cf. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 308; Waltke and Yu, An Old Testament Theology, 913.
Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, 263. “This is no metaphor,” according to Barth, but “describes God Himself as the One He is. ‘As I live’ or ‘As the Lord … liveth’ is not for nothing the significant formula for an oath in the Old Testament. God is ‘the living fountain’ (Jer. 2:13, 17:13), ‘the fountain of life’ (Ps. 36:9). The Father has life in Himself (Jn. 5:26). Christ is ‘the author of life’ (Ac. 3:15), even ‘the life’ (Jn. 14:6, Phil. 1:21, Col. 3:4, 1 Jn. 1:2), and ‘eternal life’ (1 Jn. 5:20), ‘alive for evermore’ (Rev. 1:18). The Holy Spirit is life (Jn. 6:63, Rom. 8:10). All this is clearly in contradistinction to the gods and idols who ‘have no life’ (Jer 10:14, Ac. 14:15).” He goes on to write that “In speaking of the essence of God we are concerned with an act which utterly surpasses the whole of the actuality that we have come to know as act, and compared with all that we have to know as act is no act at all, because as act it can be transcended. This is not the case with the act of God that happens in revelation” (ibid.; cf. ibid., 257–72, esp. 271–72).
- It is because he is living and active that he can say: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa 41:10), that his word “shall not return empty,” and he will accomplish that which he purposed (Isa 55:11), that he is able to work things for the good of those he loves (Rom 8:28), that he is able to make “the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24).
Thomas Aquinas, Prologue to Aquinas’s Commentary on the Sentences (http://dhspriory.org/thomas/Sentences.htm). Thomas writes: “The fourth thing that pertains to the wisdom of God is perfection, whereby a thing is conserved in its end. Take away the end, and only vanity remains, which wisdom cannot suffer to abide with her.”
Friedrich Schleiermacher is helpful here, in his warning that “we must be on guard lest we … introduce the contrast of end and means. The reason for caution lies in [the fact that] … every human work of art is the more perfect, the more it conforms to the idea that elements within it should not be distinguishable as end and means, but are all reciprocally related as parts to the whole; whereas the means remain external to it.” He continues, “Means are never employed except where the agent has to have recourse to something not originated by himself.” Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1968), 733–34.
In this section I am exploring in my own terms the territory charted by Augustine in The Trinity, book VII. There Augustine makes wisdom a relational reality within the life of God, akin to the relation between Father and Son, or speaker and word, so that God is not merely wise as a matter of being; he is wise as a matter of relationship. The very dynamics of the Trinity are the dynamics of wisdom, and the basis for our ascribing wisdom to God. What does it mean for God to be wise? For him to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, 426.