Wisdom And Authority: A Response to Brad Littlejohn / by Michael Spangler

Wisdom & Authority

In a recent article, “What’s So Bad about ‘Worldview’?”, Dr. Brad Littlejohn, president of the Davenant Institute, speaks seriously about some serious issues in Christian thought. He discusses the weakness of the term “worldview” and offers as a replacement the term “wisdom,” which he defines as “the soul’s attunement to the order of reality.”

His article has two notable strengths. First is its positive declaration that wisdom is natural. This is to say, to grow in wisdom is to become fit for the world as it really is. Truth and grace are not foreign powers closing our eyes to reality or rescuing us from complicated earthly life, but rather blessings that make us truly able to live that life well. Moreover, wisdom is not a mere subjective state but conformity to objective reality, which is the unyielding measure of whether our wisdom is truly wise.

Littlejohn’s defense of the objectivity of wisdom is complemented, second, by his critique of the subjectivism often inherent in talk about “worldview.” He shows that the term has its origin in the skepticism of Kant and that it is often used today to describe a way of looking at the world that, like a pair of glasses, can be simply exchanged at will. This postmodern fantasy that there is no one absolutely right view of the world is absolutely wrong, and it is refreshing to hear a public Christian voice say so.

However, given these strong statements in favor of objective truth, it was a disappointment to see that other parts of the article effectively undermined them. The article was apparently written to expose a crisis of authority: it pointedly asks us whether our Christian thought and life will be shaped by objective reality or by our own subjective worldview. But despite its good intentions, it contributes to that very crisis of authority. It does so first in its proposal of the means of seeking wisdom, and second in its definition of the wisdom we are to seek.

The Means of Wisdom

First, in its critique of the “intellectualism” of worldview thinking, the article creates some confusion concerning the means by which we are to obtain our “map” of the world. Consider this quote:

To the extent that we are preconditioned to map the world in certain ways, this tends to take place by virtue of rituals, habits, symbols, and forms of community life much more than it does by virtue of conceptual systems.  

In the first place, nothing should be very shocking about this statement: who would deny that our thinking is formed by “rituals, habits, symbols, and forms of community life”? Even the “worldview warriors” have their conferences, their books, their homeschool cooperatives, etc. But in the second place, the confusion it expresses should raise concern. “Conceptual system” and “ritual” are not like things, such that one could or should be replaced with the other. One is more objective, the other more subjective; one is a goal, the other is a means. Consider, if we replaced the one with the other, where would that leave us? Ritual without system? Habits without law? Symbols without objective content? Community life without community standards? This would indeed make an effective end of intellectualism, but unfortunately also of the intellect, which was made by God to seek a consistent and universal system of truth.

Long before “worldview” was a popular term, such a system is exactly what our fathers in the faith sought in carefully developing their systematic theology and comprehensive philosophy. And surely they saw no conflict between their “conceptual systems” and their “rituals, habits, symbols, and forms of community life.” Indeed, their systems were the fruit of a life full of rewarding rituals. In theology, the chief ritual was the preaching of the Word, joined by a whole host of others: public worship, the sacraments, church discipline, the Lord’s Day, family devotions, scholastic theology, Bible reading, prayer. In philosophy and the rest of the sciences, the chief ritual was going to school, that is, sitting at the feet of proven experts and embracing their teaching with a willing mind, together with reading the best books and carefully observing the creation.

These means are rich and varied, but they share one common characteristic—authority. Their source is absolutely authoritative: they are all tools in the hands of the God who is absolute Truth itself. And their exercise is accordingly also authoritative: whether the one instructing is a preacher, a teacher, a father, or a writer, he represents the God of truth and is therefore bound, within the limits of his own calling and ability, to speak the truth authoritatively. And when our teacher is not a man but the heavens, even they speak with authoritative declaration (Ps. 19:1). Thus all the historic “rituals” that have proven apt to help us “map the world” are all united in this one fact: they are all authoritative.

But the article, for all its emphasis on rituals and habits, does not mention any of these historic, authoritative means of obtaining knowledge. Perhaps it assumes them all. But assuming is dangerous, especially in an evangelical culture that is in some corners not even aware of basic Christian rituals like church membership, catechism classes, and congregational singing. Many Christians pour hours into discussion groups, they avidly follow their favorite bloggers, they love attending small group meetings and spiritual retreats, and yet they have little desire to hear the authoritative preaching of the Word on Sunday evenings, as the widespread loss of the evening service (a common historic ritual) testifies. And constantly beckoning them away from such authoritative means is the siren call of a culture hell-bent on avoiding authoritative “conceptual systems” at all costs. And since the rituals the article promotes are defined over against such systems, then whatever those rituals are, it seems doubtful that they will be very effective at teaching Christians to take an authoritative stand against such powerful anti-authoritarian forces.

The Definition of Wisdom

And that bring us, second, to the positive statements of the article. After critiquing “worldview” it offers “wisdom” as its replacement. But its definition of wisdom suffers from the same lack of authority. Consider the following:

What is wisdom? I think we could define wisdom as “the soul’s attunement to the order of reality,” an attunement that is to some extent natural, and to a large extent handed down through the generations, but that can only be fully cultivated through long and close attention to the fine-grained reality that confronts us. Although wisdom does consist of principles, they are principles gleaned from experience and reflection, not prefabricated. Wisdom involves intellectual knowledge and an understanding of how things relate, but it is just as often hands-on and tacit, consisting of and nourished by virtuous habits.

First, the definition is as far as I can tell a novel departure from the historic use of the term, particularly in how it downplays wisdom’s intellectual character. The great scholastic theologian Peter van Mastricht spoke of wisdom as the power or perfection of knowledge, though he admitted there can be other definitions: some say wisdom is absolute knowledge, others the sum of all the intellectual habits, others the practical application of knowledge, coinciding with prudence (1). But note that by all these historic definitions, wisdom is intellectual: it stands squarely within the category of knowledge. Compare Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10, where the one term is replaced by the other. The Bible teaches, and so should we, that wisdom is first an intellectual habit before it is a practical one. But the way the article puts it, it seems that these two realities are competing rather than complementary: wisdom is “just as often hands-on and tacit, consisting of and nourished by virtuous habits,” as if hands-on living and habits are not first a matter of “intellectual knowledge and understanding.” Should we therefore conclude that the human soul, which through wisdom is to be “attuned to the order of reality,” is not fully, or at least not primarily, rational, a “reasonable soul,” as it is called in the Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 4? In this regard the author’s dismissal of the popular use of Romans 12:2 and 2 Corinthians 10:5 is telling. The apostle Paul was not wrong to describe the whole work of grace as as “the renewal of your mind” and his entire ministry as “taking every thought captive.” Whether these texts are always properly used is immaterial—they show beyond doubt that life, and therefore wisdom, is first a matter of the mind. Now of course, the intellectual must always result in the practical: only doers of the word will be blessed (James 1:22-25). The point is simply that all doing begins with hearing. The first source of wisdom is intellectual understanding.

Second, the definition of wisdom is marred by a subtle skepticism about human knowledge, and especially theological knowledge. “Attunement” implies a constant process of adjustment with no settled arrival. Consider what Littlejohn says in the same article when critiquing the overconfidence of some worldview thinkers:

Much of our best learning takes place when our fundamental assumptions are challenged and we have to honestly reconsider them; too often, worldview thinking persuades its adherents that there is nothing that could possibly challenge their assumptions, because these are based on a “biblical worldview” and the Bible cannot err. But the Bible’s inerrancy does not, sadly, extend to our deductive system-building.

Thank God indeed that he challenges our fundamental assumptions when they are perverted by sin. But though our system of theological truth should never be called “inerrant,” is it therefore impossible to have a true system that is actually free from error, at least in its “fundamental assumptions”? Perhaps the article does not give a clear answer. But again, consider the world in which we live, a world in which many Christian organizations and even Christian churches do not want to be tied down to a detailed confession of faith, or even a summary creed, presumably because submission to historic church teaching leaves no room for further “attunement” of our “fundamental assumptions.” Yet such continual openness to theological change really is nothing more than theological skepticism. Yes, the Bible is inerrant, but if we cannot know and profess with certainty what it does and does not teach, at least in regard to the fundamentals of the faith, then its inerrancy is of no use to us.

Third, the definition puts a decidedly empirical spin on human learning. Whatever it means that wisdom is “largely handed down through the generations,” apparently such tradition is at best only a secondary help, for wisdom “can only be fully cultivated through long and close attention to the fine-grained reality that confronts us.” The blessing of this statement, as noted above, is its emphasis that truth is in accord with reality, that all we learn, even when we learn it supernaturally, is perfectly natural. But to go from the fundamentally natural character of truth to the fundamentally empirical character of its means is an unwarranted leap. We do not learn most things by simply looking at the world, no matter how closely we do so. Most of human knowledge is delivered just like theology is: line upon line, precept upon precept (Isa. 28:10). It comes from above, ultimately from God and instrumentally through authoritative teachers, as we have argued. It works in a sense against our nature even as it shapes us to be more natural. And this is in part because sin has warped our nature, turning our intellect against the truth of God and of the world. And it is also in part because God never intended man to know naturally without supernatural help.

Moreover, though the natural sciences surely are much more empirical than theology and philosophy in their method of knowing, even they thrive on authoritative teaching that discriminates between competing empirical claims. But that barely needs to be said: the disciplines to which this article most closely applies are not the hard sciences, but the liberal arts, and especially theology. And that is why its empiricism is especially troubling. Theology is a true science, indeed the queen of the sciences, but it is not an empirical science. The heavens declare the glory of God, as does the nature and conscience of man, but they cannot teach anyone to believe their testimony, much less demonstrate the way of salvation to those who suppress natural theology in unrighteousness. This is all to say, man’s greatest intellectual need is not observation, but revelation. “Thus says the Lord” is the first principle of human learning.

The fourth and most troubling element of the article’s definition is closely related: it implicitly denies that wisdom is first and foremost a matter of submission to God. It rightly summarizes the Bible’s command to seek wisdom (Prov. 4:5, 8:11, etc.). But falling short of Prov. 9:10, it calls the fear of the Lord “central to wisdom,” and then claims that unbelievers can be wiser than Christians:

wisdom is not a self-contained system unique to Christians, but an attunement to a shared reality, a reality that unbelievers are sometimes considerably more attentive to than we are. 

We cannot deny that this claim has a good measure of truth: sin has not utterly destroyed man’s intellect, regeneration does not produce omniscience, unbelievers do perceive some truth, their unrighteous cleverness is instructive for the righteous (Luke 16:8), the tabernacle was built with Egyptian gold, and so on. This is standard Protestant teaching, and it is why the Reformers made such good use of Aristotle and Cicero. But the article’s claim nonetheless obscures the clear teaching of Proverbs 9:10, a teaching that is also fundamental to historic Protestant thought: true wisdom, wisdom that is not a mere outward show, wisdom that is truly worthy of its name, does not even begin without the fear of the Lord.

The article’s conclusion, however, says exactly the opposite:

In addition to this general wisdom, focused on the structure of the world, Scripture calls us to remember, internalize, and be formed by the story of God’s acts in this world. By knowing the narrative of God’s saving acts in history, the Christian is equipped with a privileged understanding of the nature of things, and the ends of things, and most importantly, with the virtues of faith, hope, and love that elevate Christian wisdom—crowning it, in the most mature saints, with piercing insight and indomitable confidence. But if we do not first have wisdom, an attunement to our shared reality, then we can hardly expect that merely being privy to more secrets about reality, as Christians are, will suddenly enable us to navigate the world with poise and grace.

But according to the Bible, wisdom is not a general, natural understanding that is sharpened and elevated when grace makes us “privy to more secrets about reality.” It is instead the skillful reception and application of the knowledge of God (Prov. 1:7), which is the first of all knowledges (Jer. 9:23-24). It is an intellectual and practical habit that is thoroughly theological and supernatural. And only because of that does it restore our sight to see nature rightly. In the article’s terms, our “privileged understanding of the nature of things” is the only way to be truly attuned to the reality that we share with unbelievers. To borrow Calvin’s analogy, Scripture provides the spectacles that we need to see nature rightly—which is a wholesome use, we might add, of the image of a “worldview.”

But even given all this, we must remember that wisdom is not first and foremost our subjective attunement to God and the world. The subjective, as the article itself reminds us, rests on the objective. And among objective realities, there is one that is first of all. And that is why in Proverbs, Wisdom is a person, and that person is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:24, 30). The one calling out on the street corner (Prov. 8:1-3) is the one who was brought forth before the foundation of the world, the one by whom the Father made the heavens, the earth, and man himself (Prov. 8:22-31). And this, at bottom, is why wisdom is fundamentally a matter of authority, and why not only its content but its means are fundamentally authoritative. When we come to the truth, whether through the Bible or through nature, we are encountering the one who is “the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20), who is himself is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Thus worldview, or wisdom, or whatever you call your comprehensive system of thought and life, is nothing without the authority of Jesus Christ.

In sum, though the article in some ways points to the need for authority in seeking wisdom, in its proposal of the means and definition of wisdom, it does not adequately fulfill that need. It is confused about the beginning of wisdom, submission to the authority of God, and therefore it is also confused about the means of wisdom, the rituals God has given to train us in that submission. It is good that Dr. Littlejohn and the Davenant Institute are publicly calling Christians to seek wisdom, and we should certainly heed their call. But we must make sure that the wisdom we seek is true wisdom, and that we use the right means to obtain it wisely.


1. Van Mastricht, Theoretico-Practica Theologia, 1.2.13 §III, XVI