When is "Human Wisdom" Suspect?
What is "human wisdom" and how is it related to the study of science? A look into Paul's musings for Christ followers in his age.
If you spend time talking to Young Earth Creationists (YECs) about science, you have probably heard someone counter a scientific claim with the contention that it is just “human wisdom,” and Christians should rely on “God’s wisdom” instead. This dichotomy comes up so often, it is worth taking a serious look at the Bible passage in 1 Corinthians that people are alluding to when they invoke this distinction. Does what the Bible says really justify or require dismissing human learning and scientific achievement?
In 1 Corinthians 1 and 2, Paul develops the idea that the gospel is “foolishness” to those who are considered wise, intelligent, and scholarly by human standards. But the demonstrated power of the gospel to save both the Jews and the Gentiles is proof that God’s “foolishness” is wiser and stronger than anything. After all, Christ conquered sin and death through the ultimate expression of weakness and humiliation, crucifixion.
“The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. As the Scriptures say, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.
So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.
But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-24)
What is the human wisdom of the world that the gospel destroys, discards, and makes look foolish? Does it have anything to do with scientific research or academic preparation, things that are frequently dismissed by YEC proponents as worthless “human wisdom?”
To address those questions, it helps to take a step back and think about how radical the gospel Paul was preaching seemed in its historical and cultural context, and how much it contrasted with the basic assumptions people made about the way the world worked.
As Jesus was on earth preaching, he constantly challenged the accepted social and religious wisdom of the day. He reprimanded and humiliated the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, those people who were considered the wisest and most educated men of their community. Throughout the Gospel accounts, who is praised for understanding the message of the Kingdom? The poor, the socially marginalized, and the disenfranchised. Who is chided for missing the point? The rich, the pedigreed, and the powerful. This was a stunning reversal for everyone whose expectations were based on conventional “human wisdom.”
Then we come to the centerpiece of the gospel: Jesus Christ suffering the ultimate humiliation of crucifixion in order to defeat sin and death and bring salvation to those who don’t deserve it and can never earn it. As Paul and the other apostles traveled around preaching the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, none of it made any sense by the standards of “human wisdom.” Kings and gods do not give up power and become nothing (Philippians 2:1-11). The religious status afforded by birthright, disciplined study, and conscientious living should count for something, not be looked down on as “rubbish” (Philippians 3:2-11). The right to approach the throne of heaven with confidence as one of God’s own children could not possibly be a free gift of grace requiring only faith (Hebrews 4:14-16, Ephesians 2:4-9, Galatians 3:26-29). But over and over in the New Testament, we see Paul confronting “human wisdom” about how the world should work with the amazing message of the cross; it thwarts one expectation after another with the demonstration of its power.
Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit, slaves and their masters become brothers, the dividing wall of hostility between Hebrews and Greeks is torn down, and women are valued co-laborers in spreading the good news. Human wisdom about the way the world is supposed to work is completely overturned.
Clearly, the “human wisdom” being overturned by the gospel is not the same thing as academic knowledge or scientific understanding. Knowledge is valued in the Bible. Over and over again in Proverbs, the Bible’s book of wisdom, we are instructed to seek knowledge and understanding, even at great cost (Proverbs 18:15, 8:10, 15:14, 4:7). In the beginning of the same letter where we find Paul’s comments to the Corinthians about the message of the cross destroying “human wisdom,” Paul tells the Corinthians, “I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. Through him, God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge.” (1 Corinthians 1:4-5, NLT). Their intellectual aptitude and knowledge were valuable things that God was using to enrich their church.
So, how do we apply passages like 1 Corinthians 1:18-24 to our modern Christian lives? We honor its truth by recognizing that the structures our society uses to assign worth to people, and the criteria it uses to judge success, may not be in line with the great inversion of expectations that we see in the gospel. We honor its truth when we remember that people considered uneducated or weak by worldly standards may have deep insights into spiritual truth and be powerful examples of faithfulness to the gospel. But, the “human wisdom” we are warned not to rely on doesn’t have anything to do with science. We do not have to devalue education or dismiss the discoveries and insights afforded by centuries of careful study and academic discipline. All truth is God’s truth, and we should pursue it, both through academic study and through spiritual discipline. And just as God did for the Corinthians, he is able to use our knowledge and intellectual development to enrich our church.
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