Tradition as a Telescope Not a Dirty Window

genesis imageIn the introduction to their new translation of Genesis, Genesis 1–11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators, Samuel Bray and John Hobbins explain various aspects of their translation philosophy. For instance, they emphasize rendering words consistently which keeps intratextual ties tight, clear, and without leaving the reader to wonder why a change occurred in the text where none actually does. Or again, they play special attention to how the translation sounds when read aloud, impacting the experience and encounter of the reader with the text.

Commenting on their willingness to let the reception-history of translation play a role in their own translation, using traditional phrases drawn from earlier renderings, they say:

This translation is traditional in a further sense: it takes seriously the reception of Genesis as scripture. It has become conventional for translators to seek to recover what the text was, without the distraction (or taint) of what the text would later become. Some might consider the intervening millennia a dirty window, and desire to see the text in the clear light of day. That is a good and worthwhile pursuit, but it is not the only one.

Here the reception of Genesis as scripture and its history of interpretation, both Jewish and Christian, are taken as a telescope; they do not eliminate the gulf between us and this distant text, but they let us see further and better than we can see on our own. And if Genesis may be interpreted as part of a broader corpus of Scripture, it may also be translated with attention to that corpus. After all, to make a translation is inescapably an act of interpretation. Thus, this translation reads Genesis in a broader corpus of Scripture, one that in the translators’ tradition includes the New Testament.

In practical terms, later meanings are not forced on a clear text. Instead, translation choices are made, at least in a few key instances, that allow the reader to participate in the long conversation about Genesis down through the centuries. The reader is in a position to see the Old in the New and the New in the Old. And, as noted above, the renderings of the Tyndale-KJV tradition are favored (e.g. Gen 3:15 “He shall bruise your head”). At present, it is not conventional for a translator to be candid about considering the later reception of the text. It was not always this way. When Archbishop Richard Bancroft distributed rules for the translators of what would become the King James Version, he included: “When a Word hath divers Significations, that to be kept which hath been most commonly used by the most of the Ancient Fathers, being agreeable to the Propriety of the Place, and the Analogy of the Faith.” (10-11)

I find this view eminently reasonable and applicable beyond even translation of the text. Tradition can cloud. Tradition can impede. Tradition can stultify. But it need not always do so. Tradition can also clarify, guide, give insight, and function as a telescope rather than a dirty window. Hence the wisdom of engaging with the history of interpretation and the history of doctrine when preaching, teaching, and formulating our own.

Soli Deo Gloria

Retrieval–It’s What All The Hip Reformed Catholic Kids Do

reformed catholicityThe theological hills are alive with the sound of “retrieval”–the idea that theology can only go forward if it begins by looking backward to the tradition that maintained and fed the faith that came before it. Whether it’s looking back to the Fathers, or Thomas, or the early Reformed tradition, across the denomination divides, theologians are increasingly explicit about their necessary dependence on the theology of their forebears, whether in the Creed, Counsels, or Confessions. In his section arguing for the importance of recovering traditioned thought in The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin Vanhoozer listed a number of reasons (Biblical, traditional, philosophical, inevitable, and spiritual), but among them was the fact that it was “fashionable” (pg. 158), by which he meant supported by contemporary movements in literary theory.

In other words, all the cool kids are doing it.

I was reminded of this point as I opened Michael Allen and Scott Swain’s little volume Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation. Part of their project is making the case for a Reformed iteration of this movement that appreciates the traditional shape of even Protestant practices like Sola Scriptura, which commonly is interpreted as precluding this sort of activity. In order to set the stage for their own project, though, they begin by compiling and briefly describing a fascinating list of recent movements in theology that have set the stage, or contributed to the revival of retrieval in theology (pp. 4-12). I thought it might be useful to briefly summarize their summary and comment on their summary list.

  1. Nouvelle Theologie. Earlier in the 20th Century a bunch of Roman Catholic theologians like De Lubac and Congar led the way in trying to reappropriate patristic and biblical theology for systematics, sacramental theology, and liturgical practice. Much of this theology set the stage for the developments of Vatican II.
  2. Karl Barth. Barth’s Church Dogmatics did many things, but one of the big long-term effects it had was reviving the discipline of dogmatics in theology, drawing heavily as it did on patristic and Reformational sources.
  3. Reception History. Plenty of Biblical scholars like working with the historical context of the text, but there’s a big movement to do work on compiling commentaries or studies on the historical reception of texts. In other words, not just asking “how ought we read it?”, but asking “how has it been read in the past?” in order answer the former.
  4. Donald Bloesch and “Consensual Christianity.” Bloesch was a UCC theologian who tried to develop a “consensual” Christianity based on the witness of Holy Scripture and the Church’s tradition as a cross-denominational resource for the Church
  5. Thomas Oden’s “Paleo-Orthodoxy.” Thomas Oden’s conversion from liberal, Protestantism to a sort of “paleo-orthodoxy”, a “pastiche” of patristic and Protestant theology is an approach towards a “consensual Christianity.” He has also headed up the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series in order to facilitate this sort of scholarship and spirituality as well.
  6. Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Christianity. Webber has written various works and developed a number of ministries devoted to helping Evangelicals tap in the Christian past for the sake of engaging postmodern culture in worship and evangelism.
  7. The Modern Hymn Movement. Reformed and Presbyterian churches and ministries like RUF, Indelible Grace, and Keith and Kristyn Getty have been retooling classic hymns and developing new ones for revived congregational worship.
  8. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson’s Evangelical Catholicism. From within the Lutheran tradition, Braaten and Jenson have been trying to focus the church on classical resources as a way forward for the ecumenical conversation and the strength of the church. To that end, they launched the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, begin the journal Pro Ecclesia, and published a number of influential volumes in that vein. Allen and Swain note, though, that while Bloesch and Oden’s retrieval ends up looking like pretty standard classical theism, Jenson and others have still engaged in quite a bit of theological reconstruction, showing the retrieval doesn’t only lead to repetition.
  9. Theological Interpretation of Scripture. One big movement afoot is the drive towards theological exegesis”, or reading Scripture to do theology and not just historical or textual criticism. To that end, a lot of theoretical ink has been spilled, but a number of good theological commentary series have begun as well.
  10. Radical Orthodoxy. The movement by theologians like Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, and John Milbank, to reappropriate a sort of Christian Platonism in order to combat the decline of the Church, leans heavily on the idea of retrieval, even if it has been often criticized for its idiosyncratic and problematic readings of the history it’s attempting to retrieve.
  11. Evangelical Ressourcement. Evangelicals are getting in on the fun too. D.H. Williams has been arguing for recovering the early church as a theological resource and Hans Boersma has been even more specific in advocating a particular sacramental ontology, mostly drawing on the Nouvelle Theologie of Roman Catholic theologians.
  12. The Emerging or Emergent Church(es). Whatever their problems have been, the emerging or emergent movement did have an emphasis on retrieving the various insights, texts, and practices of the Christian past to meet the postmodern future. Of course, this played out differently for various kinds of emerging or emergent churches.
  13. Ressourcement Thomism. Thomism is the gift that keeps on giving. At least, that’s what a number of recent Roman Catholic theologians like Matthew Levering, Gilles Emery, and Reinhard Hutter have been arguing. Engaging with movements in biblical studies, systematics, and philosophical movements, these theologians have been making the case that Thomas still has something to say to the modern church.

As I read Allen and Swain’s list, I was fascinated to note how many of the movement and theologians had their effects on my own journey. When I was young in theology, the emergent conversation was in full swing and so the talk of appealing to tradition was definitely in the air. Thankfully reading some Pelikan and Vanhoozer showed me early that it could be done while keeping your Orthodox and Evangelical wits about you. In philosophy, MacIntyre’s work in After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? had its effect as well. Oden and Bloesch are sitting on my shelf, duly marked up, as well as some Barth, Boersma, and Jenson. I suppose my early classes in the history of philosophy had their effect as well. It’s hard to take a whole class on Augustine’s thought and believe him irrelevant to any theological conversation. This is also largely the impulse behind my big reading projects.

Beyond this personal reflection, though, a few things are worth noting about this list.

First, retrieval is an ecumenical endeavor. Theologians across the major traditions, both Catholic and Protestant, are well-represented. Although, one important absence ought to be noted and that is the names of any Eastern Orthodox theologians. The burgeoning awareness of Eastern Orthodox theology has definitely spurred on the movement towards engagement with the Fathers on the part of Western theologians.

Second, retrieval is not a monolith. As already noted with the case of Jenson and someone like Oden, two theologians may be committed to the project and yet their engagement may yield wildly diverging judgments on something like the doctrine of God. What’s more, since it is an ecumenical endeavor with a catholic spirit, it will inevitably bear diverse fruits as theologians approach the catholic tradition from within their own ecclesiastic locations.

Third, and connected to the second, retrieval theology need not yield theological sterility. Some of the most creative theological minds of the 20th Century are included in that brief summary. Indeed, when think of some of the work being done in the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, some of the brightest of our own very young century are those looking back to the wisdom of yesteryear through figural and typological readings. Many have ended up breaking the modern, interpretive mold in the process.

Finally, retrieval can be quite practical. Indeed, most of the movements and theologians mentioned are quite heavily involved with the cause of church renewal within their respective communions. Looking to the past is not simply done for the sake of dry antiquarianism, but for the life of the Church in the world today. In other words, it’s not only done to preserve the memory of the victories of church triumphant, but for the battles the church militant is currently embroiled in.

Now the question is, what exactly will Allen and Swain contribute to the discussion? I suppose I’ll just have to keep reading to find out. I’d suggest that many of you consider doing the same. You can purchase the book here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Judge or Expert Witness? Vanhoozer and Calvin on Scripture and the Councils

gavel and bibleKevin Vanhoozer’s Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology has one of the most sophisticated and nuanced Protestant approaches to the doctrine of sola scriptura and the relationship between scripture and tradition that I’ve encountered yet. As I was perusing through it the other day, I ran across this wonderful little teaser passage on Calvin, scripture, and the councils:

The Reformation was not a matter of Scripture versus tradition but of reclaiming the ancient tradition as a correct interpretation of Scripture versus later distortions of that tradition. The Reformers regarded the early church councils by and large as true because they agreed with Scripture, not because they had authority in and of themselves.

Certain critics of sola scriptura that the Reformers demythologized tradition by chasing the Holy Spirit out of the life of the church into a book. This goes too far. It is preferable to view tradition, like the church itself, as an example of what Calvin calls “external means” of grace. Tradition does not produce its effect ex opere operato; on the contrary, tradition efficaciously hands on the gospel only when it preserves the Word in the power of the Spirit. It is an external aid to faith, but not an infallible one. To speak of the ministerial authority of tradition is not espouse not a “coincidence” but an “ancillary” view of the relationship of Scripture and tradition.

Calvin honors the early church councils precisely because, for the most part, they were governed by word and Spirit: “[W]e willingly embrace and reverence as holy the early councils, such as those of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus I, Chalcedon and the like…insofar as they relate to the teachings of the faith. For they contain nothing but the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture.” (Institutes 4.9.8) However, when one council contradicts another, as Chalcedon contradicted Ephesus II, the church must return to the word as ultimate norm. Church councils have a provisional, ministerial authority. To give them absolute authority, says Calvin, is to forget biblical warnings about false prophets and false teachers (Matt. 24:11; Acts 20:21-29; 1 Tim 4:1; 2 Tim 4:3; 2 Pet. 2:1). Indeed, with regard to Ephesus II–the council that accepted Eutyches’ heresy concerning the person of Christ–Calvin offers a sobering judgment: “The church was not there.” (Ibid., 4.9.8) This haunting observation neatly reverses the medieval formula extra ecclesiam, nulla salusCalvin might well have said: Extra scriptura et pneuma, nulla ecclesiam–“Outside word and Spirit, there is no church.”

Sola Scriptura refers to the practice of attending the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures as the final appeal in doctrinal disputes. How do we recognize the Spirit’s speaking? Church tradition enjoys the authority not of the judge but of the witness. Better: tradition enjoys the authority that attaches to the testimony of many witnesses. In this light, we many view the church fathers and church councils as expert witnesses as to the sense of Scripture in the courtroom drama of doctrine. Neither the Fathers nor the councils sit on the bench; the triune God has the final say. The task of theology is to cross-examine the witnesses in order to offer proximate judgments under the ultimate authority of the presiding judge: the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.

To practice sola scriptura  is to treat Scripture alone as the “norming norm” and tradition as the “normed norm.” A theology that practices sola scriptura recognizes the ministerial authority of tradition, namely, its ability to nurture individuals in and to hand on the apostolic faith through the church’s corporate witness. Canon may be the cradle of the Christian doctrine, but tradition is its wet nurse. —The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine, pg. 233-234

Again, that’s merely a teaser–Vanhoozer expands on each of those points at length. He shows us that the practice of sola scriptura is not a necessary recipe for historical ignorance or hopeless subjectivity in interpretation. It is a call to treat expert witnesses with all the due deference they deserve, while recognizing the true judge of the church: God in his Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Responses to “Calvin Killed Servetus!” by Denomination (Or, Dealing with Theological Moral Hubris)

men_debate_calvinism

HT: The Sacred Sandwich

It’s a well-known fact that the heretic Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva during Calvin’s pastorate there. This is universally condemned by both Calvin fans and foes alike. At least it should be. What’s often debated is Calvin’s role in the whole affair and what impact, if any, it should have on our judgment about the man, his theology, and the subsequent theological tradition that follows him. And indeed, it is problematic. That anybody could think that burning at the stake those with whom we disagree on theological matters is, in any sense, compatible with the Gospel of the crucified Messiah, is a morally disastrous lapse in judgment to say the least.

So what do we say to this? Especially when the subject is brought up in order to discredit Calvin or the Reformed tradition as a whole?

Two Classic Responses
1. The General Point. The first typical (and I believe valid) response is to make the general point that one wrong action, incident, statement, or even habit, doesn’t necessarily invalidate someone’s entire career. Obviously, one can find dubious actions and statements in the biographies of most of history’s heroes. Lincoln’s anti-slavery record is brilliant and yet he made statements that by contemporary standards (as well as transhistorical ones) are quite racist. Martin Luther King Jr. broke his marital vows to Coretta Scott King numerous times. And no, this isn’t just prudery or relativistically equating personal sexual misdeeds with corporate violence. By engaging in the adulterous trysts he did, he risked the public moral integrity of the entire Civil Rights movement he came to represent. At the biblical level, one might point out that not a single figure in the Bible, even its authors, comes out clean except for Jesus. In that sense, Calvin keeps company with the long line of saved wretches like Abraham, Moses, David, and Paul.

2. Moving to Calvin. Second, one can move to the particulars of the case, placing Calvin in his historical context. Clearly, he wasn’t the only one at the time to make that lapse. Calvin was unfortunately a “Constantinian” in the sense that he un-biblically mixed the authority of the State with that of the Church. But then again, so was everybody else. It’s easy to forget that Servetus was already condemned to death by the Roman Catholics. He escaped a death sentence in Vienne to run to Geneva. Similarly, if the Lutherans had gotten their hands on him he would have been executed. When the Magistrates of Geneva asked the magistrates and theologians in places like Zurich, Basel, and Wittenberg, they all agreed that Servetus should have been burned.

Further, Calvin had earlier explicitly warned Servetus in correspondence not to come to Geneva or things would not go well for him there either. He even risked his own life at one point to go meet him in an area outside of Geneva where he himself was a wanted heretic in order to reconcile theologically. It is not the case that Servetus was the victim of Calvin’s peculiarly authoritarian personality that flowed from his inhuman, predestinarian God. If anything, it was an inherited, though still culpable, flaw in thought and practice. It should be noted that Calvin held no explicit political authority in Geneva and was not even a citizen until much later in life. He did play theological witness in the trial, while at the same time arguing with him in private in prison, urging him to recant. Beyond that, he is reported to have pleaded with the city elders to, at the very least, execute him in a more humane manner than burning, but rather by hanging. (Now, to us that doesn’t sound like much, but comparatively-speaking that’s something.)

To place it in a broader framework, sadly Servetus was one of many heretics tried and executed in the Reformation era by both Catholics and Protestants of all stripes–they were universally more violent and barbarous times. To put it bluntly, the reason Servetus is brought up today is that he was a little more famous, something of a symbol, and because it’s an easy way to criticize and single out Calvin. For more along these lines, see R. Scott Clark’s post on the “Calvin as Tyrant Meme“, and a more complete summary of the Servetus affair here.

Dealing with Theological Hubris by Denomination
Now, while all of these points ought to be considered and weighed, there’s another way to handle the whole charge: the tu quoque (“you too”). Admittedly, it is formally a fallacy, but in response to the ad hominem nature of the “Servetus” denunciation, I think it has a part to play in the discussion. It’s more commonly-observed that most of us suffer from chronological moral hubris, the malady that makes us think we obviously wouldn’t have done what our historical forebears did if we had been there, attributing to ourselves a righteousness in some particular area that is only ours by dint of our social-historical location. What also needs to be recognized is how easily people fall into denominational or theological moral hubris, in thinking one’s own tradition has no truly dark stains in it. This particular hubris is commonly-spotted whenever the Servetus charge is raised.

In order to remedy this situation, I thought it would be helpful to begin to catalog differing “Calvin Killed Servetus”-type rejoinders to some of the major theological and denominational traditions. Some might find this dubious and divisive. I sympathize. I find my writings dubious most of the time as well. In this case, I’d like to think of it as a helpful moral reminder to cool your theological jets when it comes to traditions other than your own. It’s a negative task, with a positive goal: greater humility towards the various wings of God’s family.  That’s a little easier when we remember that everybody’s got something–I just thought it might be helpful to list some of the biggies.

Note: this is not intended to be a comprehensive list, nor is it intended to be denial of the fact that each of these denominations have martyrs, and gentle heroes of the faith. Still, in no particular order, here goes:

  • Anglicanism – Long history of violently persecuting Puritans, Dissenters, Lollards, Society of Friends, Catholics, and everybody not going to the State church. Also, Henry the VIII. ‘Nuff said.
  • Anabaptists – John Leiden and the freaky weird, violent, Munster incident. I’ve long been convinced the Anabaptists saw the beauty of pacifism partly because they got their lunches handed to them at Munster. I know that’s not entirely true, but… (For contemporary Anabaptists brought in via John Howard Yoder, you might want to think about his shady legacy.)
  • Roman Catholics – Do I really have to? Well, just off the top of my head: the Inquisition, various Crusades, vaste swathes of Papal history…
  • Eastern Orthodoxy – Some crossover highlights with the Roman Catholics, (Crusades), 1000s of years of collaboration, collusion, and sanctioning of corrupt governments by various patriarchs and theologians in the church. In our own day, one thinks of the persecution of fellow Christian Evangelicals in Orthodox countries like Russia supported by current patriarchs.
  • Lutherans – Well, Luther wasn’t a daisy himself. Most of us know that, but let’s just mention two: “The Jews and their Lies” and the Peasant revolt.
  • Methodists, Baptists, Society of Friends – All three of these streams and denominations, in their American iterations at least, have, alongside of others, had devastating struggles with slavery and racism. For quite some time it was perfectly acceptable to own slaves within the Society of Friends until the valiant efforts of John Woolman. Both the Baptists and the Methodists had separate African-American counterparts formed because of white racism.
  • Pentecostalism, Charismatics – Now, when you start moving closer in historical distance to the current day, denominations and traditions are less likely to make some of the tragically violent mistakes of their pre-cursors, simply by dint of cultural and political shifts. Given that the rise of Pentecostalism and Charismatic movements in the last 100 or so years, most of the excesses will be of the more common sort: pastoral indiscretion, financial shadiness, abuses of power, and widespread problems with heresy and false teaching. This can happen in all streams, though.
  • Non-Denoms and Young Denoms – Of course, there are many random theologically-indeterminate, non-denominational evangelicals, or maybe emergents, who don’t feel very bound to any tradition and sit loose with respect to Christian history as a whole. They might pride themselves on their virtually stainless record. Let me just say that having a decent theological-history that goes all the way back to the 70s is nothing to brag about. That’s like boasting about your perfect attendance on the second day of school. The reality is, in some way you’re dependent on what comes before so you, regardless of whether or not you acknowledge it.

As I said, this is a far from comprehensive list. It’s open to revision and addition. Sadly the history of Christian sin and failure is broad and wide. Thankfully so is the grace of God. He can use the broken and sinful to do his good work. People like you and me. Even people like John Calvin. Just something to keep in mind next time you’re about to write of a particular thinker or an entire tradition. 

Soli Deo Gloria

Addendum: Benjamin Corey wrote a version of this Calvin argument recently. Honestly, there’s not much new here. The one extra point I did want to address is his comments about “Calvinists” who’ve never read Calvin, nor grappled with the roots of their theology. The implication is that:

  • To be a proper Calvinist is to follow the teachings of one man, John Calvin.
  • If you would just look at the source, you’d see it’s a spoiled well.

Let’s take those in reverse order. First, this is essentially a version of the genetic fallacy. The fact that my fourth grade teacher was a drunk and a torturer of puppies would do nothing to invalidate him as a source of history, mathematics, English, or anything I may have learned in his class. Also, see the whole article above.

Second, the term “Calvinist” originated as a pejorative insinuating that the Reformed Churches took their teachings only from one man, John Calvin, that they were novel, and so forth. In fact, “Calvinism”, so-called (thought of only as predestination), had its origins (excluding the NT), at least as far back as Augustine, and much of the Medieval tradition, which affirmed a very robust account of predestination (Anselm, Aquinas, Ockham, not to mention Luther, etc). Also, Calvin had a ton of contemporaries (Bucer, Zwingli, Viret, Vermigli, Musculus, etc) who taught in various churches and cities in and beyond Geneva, who crafted confessional statements and wrote theology consistent with Calvin’s, independent of Calvin, and even, at times, influencing Calvin. It is, then, a gross theological caricature of “Calvinists” or the Reformed based in historical ignorance to say that we are limited to, or even find our roots in this one teacher. It’s simply not true.

For more on this sort of thing, I’d point you to Kenneth Stewart’s 10 Myths About Calvinism.

4 Sources of Wisdom (Or, How to Stop Being a Moron)

Proverbs was one of my favorite books in the OT as a teenager because it was just straight advice. Advice is a good thing when you’re a moron high schooler. I mean, I didn’t understand half of it, but the verses were short and it felt easier to read. When I hit college and went through my bitter realist phase (which I may or may not still be in) Ecclesiastes and Job jumped up the list. The reality that life doesn’t work out cleanly, that bitterness has corrupted our work and our play “under the sun”, and that our only hope is in Christ really resonated. It still does.

Still, now that I’ve got my own ministry working with college kids I find myself returning to the Proverbs. One of the things I’ve realized about my job is that I’m not just here to preach the Gospel. I mean, that’s my main job, but part of loving and discipling college students is teaching them some of basics of being an adult. Apparently, I’m supposed to teach them wisdom–the practical knowledge of living in God’s world. Go figure.

Since I’m still somewhat of a youngster myself, the Proverbs have been a blessing to me. In many ways it’s a biblical short-cut on the road to not being a moron.

As I started doing some more in-depth study, I picked up Tremper Longman III’s commentary on Proverbs in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms series. (Book nerd note: it’s excellent, readable, preachable, and scholarly.) In it, he notes that not only do the proverbs teach us specific bits of wisdom and practical advice like, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov 15:1), a key tidbit to remember in the blogging world, but also teaches the way to gain wisdom.

Longman specifically notes four sources of wisdom in Proverbs–where morons ought to look to become wise:

1. Observation and Experience. This should be obvious, but wise people are those who pay attention to life and reflect on the meaning of their experiences. In 6:6-11, the teacher tells the student to go look at the ant, observe his ways, and learn diligence. Wise people stop and think about which of their behaviors work and which don’t. They consider the actions of others, the way the world, history and draw lessons from it. This is why typically older people have more wisdom. Longman points out that in the Proverbs it is always the father or the mother instructing the son and never the other way around. (pg. 75) This not a universal truth–I’ve met some old fools–but it is a general one, that you will grow wiser as you grow older because you’ve experienced more. So, if you’re young and wanting to gain wisdom, listen to older people who’ve gone before and learn from their experiences. It’s the first step to not being a moron.

2. Instruction Based on Tradition. This last point is the essence of the next source of wisdom: tradition. In this passage, a father tells his son to cling to the instruction that was taught to him by his father, which apparently has served him well in his own life:

Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction,
and be attentive, that you may gain insight,
for I give you good precepts;
do not forsake my teaching.
When I was a son with my father,
tender, the only one in the sight of my mother,
he taught me and said to me,
“Let your heart hold fast my words;
keep my commandments, and live.
Get wisdom; get insight;
do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth.”
(4:1-5)

See, tradition is not just dead, trite ritualism. Over the years accumulated observations about successful and failed strategies for living, truths of human nature, and relationships end up becoming “tradition” that we can learn from. To some degree we know this instinctively. When we want to learn a new skill or a trade, we apprentice ourselves to someone who knows it–an expert that’s been doing it long enough to know the ins and outs of the business. Living well is also a skill, a practice that people have been working at for a long time, and the wise take advantage of the wisdom of their elders. That’s another great way to not be a moron.

3. Learning from Mistakes. Connected to the last two is the idea of learning from one’s mistakes. A great amount learning from experience and heeding the wisdom of the tradition has to do with finding out what doesn’t work. The sages know that you’re gonna screw things up as you go. That’s why two common words you’ll find in the Proverbs are “discipline” and “correction.”

“Those who love discipline love knowledge; and those who hate correction are dullards.” (12:1)

“Those who guard discipline are on the way to life, and those who abandon correction wander aimlessly.” (10:17)

The idea is that the wise are those who receive correction, learn from their mistakes, and do not reject the counsel of those who are trying to return them to the way from which they’ve strayed. This is why pride is so foolish; the proud never learn from their mistakes that eventually lead to their destruction. (Prov. 16:18) On the contrary, the wise humble themselves to the point of loving correction because it leads to wisdom. (Prov. 9:8) The bottom line is that a significant part of learning from experience and from tradition is figuring out what didn’t work and avoiding it. Only morons don’t learn from their mistakes.

4. Revelation. Longman notes that while these three sources–experience, tradition, mistakes–are key for gaining wisdom, nothing is more foundational than revelation, for “at the heart of wisdom is God himself.” (pg. 78) This is clear from the very beginning:

“The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” (1:7)

How can you know how to live properly in the world, if you don’t know the character of the one who made it? Indeed, it’s not simply that God is an important feature of reality that one must account for in order to be wise. The Lord is the source of wisdom:

For the LORD gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk in integrity,
guarding the paths of justice
and watching over the way of his saints.
(2:6-8)

Ultimately God is the one who teaches you through experience, tradition, and correction. Whatever you learn, you learn because of him. This is why, according to Proverbs, the way to gain wisdom, and yes, stop being a moron, is to humble yourself before the creator of the universe and ask him for it.

Wisdom in Christ

Finally, for the Christian the ultimate source of wisdom is Christ himself “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col. 2:2-3) If we want to see the fullness of human life, to know what a truly wise life, a life lived in sync with the rhythm with which God created all things, then we must look to Christ. He is not simply wise, but wisdom from God himself, incarnate for us. (1 Cor. 1:30) Jesus is God’s gracious wisdom come to us–to help us stop being morons.

Soli Deo Gloria