- Written by Mark Surey
The Wisdom Of Jesus: face to face with the author of our discipline
The pre-existence of Jesus is one of the most neglected fields of Christology and is uniquely precious to me. It says in Proverbs 8 (22-36), that wisdom is God’s master craftsman or chief architect in the creation of the universe. That it was bought forth ”before His deeds of old. That wisdom was appointed before eternity, from before the world began”. That wisdom “set the boundaries in place, and delighted in its work as it marked out the foundations”. Wisdom was face to face with God before there was any creation and the creation of everything was done through wisdom and by wisdom.
This co-existence of wisdom alongside God in eternity raises an interesting theological question which is as simple as it is profound. If wisdom exists before time and space is it part of the creator rather than creation? Does wisdom therefore relate to the Father of the universe as His ontological equal? Within Judaism there has been an obvious historical emphasis on an indivisible monotheism, but even here there has been philosophical speculation about wisdom as being emanations from God, which may be embodied in the form of the Messiah. The concept of the Messiah as a philosopher king who through receiving God’s Shekinah presence becomes the personification of wisdom is a core Messianic theme, and probably the closest rabbinical thought has got to conceding the possibility of a divine Messiah.
The New Testament has, however, gone much further than this. Paul and John both consciously made Jesus the embodiment of divine, pre-existent, Messianic wisdom. In Colossians Jesus is the eikon, the exact copy, of the invisible God. The protokos ,in the sense of being a distinct prototype of humanity, since He was seated in heaven before the creation of Adam. For “by Him all things were created, things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible, or powers, or rulers, or authorities, all things were created by Him and for H He is before all things and in Him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body the Church, he is the beginning, and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He may have supremacy. For God was pleased to have all the fullness dwell in Him”. (Col 1 13-18). This theme of Jesus as having the grandeur of divinity, does however turn towards Jesus’s character as also being the embodiment of humility as He reconciles a fallen creation to Himself by “making peace through his blood, shed on the cross”(Col 1.20). In Philippians, Paul continues this theme, stressing that the modesty of Christian disciples should model that of Jesus, who although he was in very nature God, or, alternatively, having the same morphe of the Father, which in colloquial English would mean having the same substance or stuff. (Philippians 2.6), did not grasp his equality (or regard it as an act of illicit robbery), but instead emptied Himself, taking the form of an unknown servant and dying on the cross. (vs 6-8) Furthermore, it is Jesus’s own humility, ultimately demonstrated on the cross, which leads to His greatest triumph, when his Father exalts Him to the highest place, and gave Him the name that is above all Names, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven, and earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (vs 9-11). If we emulate Jesus humility we are to shine like stars. In our celebrity culture we often want everyone and everything to resolve around us, something which, when all do the same, leads to strange orbits and planetary collisions. But we all have orderly orbits around Jesus, who both created and redeemed the cosmos, and who stands in the middle as the measure of all things.
John also writes of Jesus as the man from beyond the beginning in both his theological prologues. In John’s gospel we have “in the beginning was the Logos- a Greek word nuanced with active wisdom! And this wisdom was both alongside God the Father and just like him (John 1.1). Furthermore, through the Logos all things were made, and nothing was made without it. The Logos alone creates life, and is the creative light which establishes that life. He is energy. (vs 6-9) Finally the Word took flesh and dwelt among us- Jesus the Messiah is the embodiment of wisdom . (v14) In 1 John 1.1, the apostle further adds that “That which is from the beginning (an allusion to genesis) which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at, and which our hands have touched, we proclaim concerning the Word of Life”. Jesus , pre-existent wisdom, has responded to sinners breaking his universe, by humbly coming to earth to fix it at the expense of His own death, and He can be heard, seen, gazed at and even touch- for he offers intimacy as well as greatness.
For many years the pre-existence of Jesus as Wisdom, and his embodiment as Messiah has been an inspiration to me. It has also had a pragmatic relevance in both witnessing to my fellow Jews as well as Muslims, for it has offered a more direct and tangible expression to them of how Jesus can be divine, than the doctrine of the Trinity, something which, although true and precious, even Christians struggle to comprehend. The Lord, however, does like to shine new light through old windows, and since focusing on ministry within the academy over the past two years, a whole new application of this theme has emerged.
It should be a particular source of encouragement, comfort and inspiration for the Christian academic, in particular, to be consciously aware of the fact that everything that we study, research and teach was created by, through and for, the Jesus that we are in personal relationship with. Please sit back, relax and think of it- Christian academics are investigating the world which the person they walk with made at the creation of time and space. What a joy and privilege to look at the building in the company of the architect!
What are the practical implications of that being true.. First of all it should allow us to more easily keep academia in perspective. Academics are in the business of knowledge: research is its acquisition and teaching is its conveyance. We should surely delight in our discipline but beware of making it an idol. Knowledge is not the be all and end all. What did Solomon ask for to his credit- Wisdom. The correct use and application of knowledge is a major aspect of wisdom, and it can make all the difference between knowledge blessing as benefit, or it being irrelevant, or in the wrong hands harmful. We should worship our creator not his creation, likewise, we value understanding wisdom before comprehending the world that he creates. In order to do this it can only help if we keep prayer close to our research and teaching rather than see it in a detached and separate compartment. This is something I feel strongly about from experience. I concede that if ministers are batsmen and academics bowlers I have always been a batsman who can bowl rather than a bowler who can bat. My “academic career” consists of teaching undergraduates and being a dean, and I have never researched beyond one short postdoctoral project. But although I have not written nearly as often much as most of you , I can confidently say that every thesis and publication consists of blood, sweat, tears and a one or two essential bursts of creative, original thought. And an active prayer life with Jesus must give us an edge in delighting Him by discovering and expressing them! Prayer can turn study into worship. Finally, it is important to have the character as well as the insight that comes from Jesus. Academic life is becoming increasingly more competitive and funding becomes tighter, and we will increasingly be faced with collaborating with colleagues one day and fighting for the same pot of gold, in the knowledge that the loser may have their career “culled” or “curtailed” the next. How do we approach this in God’s grace? Did Daniel adopt the career methodology of Babylon? In his days it was not so much publish or perish as prophesy or perish! Did Daniel and his team respond to the brutality of court life by being even more cut-throat than his competitors, no, at times he even demonstrated the Wisdom of Jesus by endeavouring to bless his opposition. We can so easily have our character tainted by the harsh professional climate of the contemporary world, and Universities are not immune from this, but we are called to be salt and light instead. Christian academics increasingly need to know how to be street-wise and not nasty, to be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves. How did Daniel pull this off? His relationship with the Lord was so intimate, his life so dependent on the Almighty, and his prayer life so close to his discipline, that he survived and thrived through that divine inspiration which active spirituality can ignite in a field of knowledge. As some departments become more ideologically antagonistic toward the gospel we need to raise up young academics like Daniel! These are those who trust in God, and can outrun their colleagues who try to trust self and rely on trying to impress others rather than have the Wisdom of Jesus impress them. This will require a certain level of social skills and emotional intelligence, which can be essential compliments , as the future of Christians in universities may rely as much as them having to read situations and people as it does articles and data. In order to discover how to secure funding and get published, as well as witness to the perceived inconvenient truth of the gospel without losing friends and not influencing people, Christians will need to rely on the Wisdom of Jesus to guide their insight and decision making on all kinds of levels, as did Daniel in the University of Babylon! Because the academic career in every subject, discipline and college is variable, there is no panacea to be found. Mentors should be found to guide early career academics through the landscape, and training in how to be a self-employed businessman seriously sought, (since we still don’t know how far the privatisation of British Universities will go, and we need to think as entrepreneurs and not count so much on institutional loyalty in a mobile and financially insecure world), but ultimately, there is no substitute for what Jesus reveals to the individual about their own life and subject when they are in prayer! The professional challenges of the vacation Christian academics have loved and embraced, coupled with its mobility and financial insecurity could make many of our people anxious, Nevertheless,, it is not wise to pay interest on tomorrow troubles. Jesus implores us to cast our anxiety on Him and he will give us a light yoke and carry our burden (Matt 11 .28). This is simple but not easy for us!
Two final implications of being face to face with Jesus, the Wisdom who created our universe is how it can impact both our evangelism and how we shape our disciplines for Christ. All of the six people I have had the joy and privilege of leading to Jesus over the past two years have been academics. What their conversion stories have in common was that something pertinent was revealed to the, either “prophetically” about their personal life or within the discipline which is their vacation. Although they all had Christian friends who could elegantly and thoroughly construct a Christian world view, and frequently did, all of them had a tendency to switch-off from Christian apologetics as the transmission of “inconvenient truth which could be delayed for consideration until later” until something was revealed which really mattered. The Christians in their colleges were effectively talking apologetics amongst themselves until the profoundly personal challenged spiritual allegiance. I would like to be clear at this point about not being anti-apologetics, Christians always need to think clearly and in depth and I would hate to be misread as advocating the abandonment of giving reason for our hope. I am saying that apologetics are necessary but usually not sufficient. For it is only when the personal pertinent is brought to bear that they have effect and are energised. Sometimes this game changing breakthrough is in the life of the individual, as their Christian friend’s relationship with Jesus the embodiment of wisdom, brings something critically life changing into the equation. As often, it relates more to the field of study of the person and/or their Christian colleague.
If Jesus is the embodiment of all wisdom and we are face to face with him in our daily walk it should help us find the original, creative, and yet academically grounded within our disciplines. Why not? Please forgive any simplification from a non-specialist, but I am told that Faraday discovered electro-magnetic fields, because unlike his contemporaries who were looking for mechanics, he could contemplate a parallel with the Holy Spirit who can act at a distance. Let that be an inspiration for us all! I dream, and I hope in grounded vision rather than fantasy, of a generation of Christian Daniels who can get publications and funding, and witness and not be regarded by their professors as awkward, because they have insight in critical and beneficial fields of their discipline. They are seen as connected to the heart of their discipline rather than perceived as leading a distracting theological assault on it.
Andrew Basden, my colleague within C-A-N-, has written an excellent booklet called “Shaping Our Disciplines for Christ” It starts with laying a foundation of Intuitive awareness within the discipline, discusses perspectives and missing pieces within the discipline, which sets up a dialogue on how uniquely Christian thought can creatively contribute to those perspectives in order to make a more whole picture, and finishes with guidance as to who could either collaborate with or be particularly blessed by this process. I would warmly recommend this approach be extensively used, but would advocate it being applied in harmony with the principles within this article. The more face to face we are in prayer with Jesus the embodiment of wisdom the more this rigorous approach will yield the quality of insight which could challenge a colleague, lead to a quality publication, help find a grant, give us a secure voice in our department, or just bless people by pushing good knowledge forward.
I would like to share one final story from John 8. Jesus has been claiming to both forgive sin and fulfil the law and He is brought a woman who is caught in adultery. We don’t know if she is guilty. The man is suspiciously missing, maybe on a legal technicality by claiming he thought he was taking a concubine. Maybe it is all a hostile set up mas Jesus enemies ask whether they should stone her or not. The implied trap, if we realise her, your soft on crime and don’t fulfil the law; but if we stone her you can’t forgive sin! Jesus bends and starts to write. Maybe a bible verse, maybe her name and crime as required at a place of execution in the Roman Empire. He then stops and says that he without sin can cast the first stone, no-one can, so they evaporate from the most experienced downwards, until, Jesus, the only one who could convict, acquits the solitary woman. Jesus actually escapes the trap by going out of the box; he never tries to answer or argue with the question he is asked, but, instead, goes well beyond it for the creative and inspired insight which answers the dilemma.
My prayer and pastoral endeavour is that Christian academics can set people free and solve intellectual dilemmas by accessing the Wisdom of Jesus from their devotional life and apply it to their disciplines.