This is the text of an academic paper I recently presented at the Northeastern Seminary theology conference (Participation in God’s Mission, featuring Michael Gorman).
This paper arose from my own search for solid ground underneath the Christian faith. In other words, if Christianity is true, shouldn’t we be able to dig down to some ultimate foundational truth that cannot be undermined? The answer is…
Revelation and Knowledge Bridged in Proverbs: the Confident Cruciform Life
The cruciform life begins, for each Christian, by the authoritative call of God. That call, which comes through hearing his word, is radical in its implications, absolute in authority, and transformative. It is predicated on the superior authority of God’s self-revelation through redemptive history. This divine authority does not confront us as first of all a proposition to be studied, or to be accepted by some degree of probability, or even as the conclusion to a complex syllogism. Notice there is no philosophical defense of the existence of God in Genesis 1:1, but rather a naked assertion of his being (“In the beginning, God. . .”). Jesus’ radical call to discipleship comes from that same assumed authority.
To heed the call, and to follow Christ is to put oneself at peril. Human nature is bent toward self-preservation, yet the example and commandments of Jesus bend us away from self toward God and others, even to the embracing of dangerous enemies. If we are to obey Jesus, forsaking even “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands” (Mark 10:29), then we must have a solid confidence in the preeminent authority of God’s self-revelation.
But this begs the question of how we receive an external revelation in the first place. How can a human subject have true knowledge of a reality external to him or herself, let alone a supernatural realm? In order to die to self we must be able to know, with justified knowledge, that we have heard from the living God. Since the God of Israel is true, he must be revealed beyond mere subjective impressions or degrees of probability. So then, what is the bridge between revelation and human knowledge? Put differently: How can we, finite and fallen, have objective knowledge of the word of God? There is an answer that may put to rest doubts and fears in Christ’s disciples.
In this paper, I am not attempting a comprehensive discussion of epistemology (that being the study of the nature and formal justification for human knowledge), and I will not survey the history of its debate. Here I will put forth a generally overlooked argument from the book of Proverbs. Proverbs is usually categorized as simply observational wisdom—if one does X, then a life of blessing will follow, but if one tends to do Y, they will live under a curse. To be sure, this characterizes the proverbs, but woven seamlessly into this garment of wisdom is the justification for a bridge between divine revelation and human knowledge. As the crown jewel of the wisdom literature, Proverbs gives the logic for intelligibility between Creator and creation. Proverbs, therefore, contains justification for human knowledge and apprehension of the divine revelation such that when grasped and tested in experience, pastors and disciples together may venture into self-sacrificial living by a conscious confidence in Christ’s centrality as the speech and example of God.
A Question of Authority
To participate in God’s mission of cosmic renewal, one must first know the God with whom they are participating. In the history of God’s self-revelation, he virtually always declared his identity before giving instructions for a mission. The liberation of Israel from Egypt began with this pattern. Moses was drawn in by the burning bush and accosted by God, who began their interaction by an act of self-revelation, saying “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exod. 3:3-6). When Moses wavered, asking for the divine name as his badge of vicarious authority, God revealed that he is “I AM WHO I AM” (v. 14). God does not give Moses a lesson in philosophy, and he does not lay out a dozen proofs for the existence of God as if his existence would be a reasonable conclusion for the members of the Egyptian palace court. Instead, God puts forth himself—the infinite, uncaused, personal being—as the foundational axiom of reality, and therefore the confidence of Moses’ ministry. Proverbs argues what Exodus describes.
The Beginning of Knowledge
The volume of Proverbs begins, after six introductory verses, with the bridge between revelation and knowledge: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7a). This sentence works on at least two different levels. From a subjective perspective, the author has found it to be true in his life that the fear of YHWH is the beginning of his own knowledge, and so he invites the reader to consciously adopt this same perspective. But read from its objective perspective, this verse is a claim that the fear of YHWH as the beginning of knowledge is the foundation necessary to make rational sense not only of wisdom literature, but of every element of human life. This verse has its echo in 9:10, where “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” To say “the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” parallels Psalm 36:9, which says “for with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.” Like with Proverbs, the epistemology of the Psalmist is ontological (based in God’s absolute, personal being): the source of life is logically the source of knowledge, metaphorically called “light.” For these wisdom writers, rational insight is a byproduct of knowing the Holy One, or read differently, of being known and designed by the Holy One. Any other logical starting point for knowledge will fail at some point through incoherence and self-contradiction, (whose fruit is a cursed life), as Proverbs argues through multifaceted examples.
The authors see God’s absolute, exhaustive knowledge as the grounds for our human, derivative knowledge. In Proverbs 25:2 “it is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” The implication is that God has sovereignty over all human acquisition of knowledge, and the perfect wisdom of when and to whom knowledge is revealed. Likewise in 22:12 “the eyes of the LORD keep watch over knowledge” speaks of his omniscience as the justification for true knowledge in human minds—from God’s objective, reality-defining viewpoint, people really can and do have certainty in knowledge.
In 20:12, we read something like a child’s catechism: “the hearing ear and the seeing eye, the LORD has made them both.” Rather than being an obvious throwaway line, this is a reminder that without the logical starting point of God’s creative, rational purpose for physical senses, we have no way of telling if ears and eyes are not delusional. This turns out to be the simple, yet final refutation of philosophical materialism under which atheists labor.
These verses dovetail with the basic exhortation of Proverbs, which is to “trust in the LORD with all your heart (לִבֶּ֑), and do not lean on your own understanding” (3:5). Even more forcefully, the author in 28:26 declares “whoever trusts in his own mind (לִבֶּ֑) is a fool.” This is not a blatant self-contradiction, as if the author is exhorting the reader not to use the very mind engaged in reading his words. The meaning is plain: the human mind is not a sufficient, trustworthy foundation for rational knowledge of the external world; it is the fool who searches for meaning, ethics, and knowledge from the basis of his observations of the world. The authors have reasoned thus: our formal reasoning must be predicated on the prior, absolute being of YHWH, from whom all things have their being and nature. In other words, we possess the objectivity of facts about the world because humans—all humans—derive knowledge from having been made in the image of the immutable God.
This begs the question of why all people do not have the same religious beliefs. If all people derive true knowledge from the same infinite, personal being, should not everyone essentially agree on everything? The problem lies in the fallen nature, to which the proverbs are inclined to speak. This principle, so colorfully illustrated throughout Proverbs, finds explicit argumentation in Romans 1, as Michael Horton explains, “unbelief is not the result of a lack of evidence . . . it is not that God fails to reveal Himself, but that humanity does ‘not honor him as God or give thanks to him’” (Rom. 1:21). Horton via Paul sees the cause of unbelief and the confusion of reason as the result of our hostile stance toward God. Horton goes on with Paul’s argument, saying “to be grateful is to acknowledge dependence, but that is precisely what our fallen hearts do not want to do.” Our sin nature, therefore, renders human experience an uncertain foundation for explanations of knowledge and wisdom.
Proverbs rests on this doctrine, consistently undermining an experiential, subjective epistemology. In 1:22, “simple ones,” “scoffers,” and “fools” are those who “hate knowledge,” refusing to hear the words of wisdom. Notice they are not said to have no knowledge, but rather they are said to hate the knowledge they do have.
This is illustrated throughout Proverbs in causal relationships between choices and consequences. In 5:6, the “forbidden woman . . . does not ponder the path of life,” where in 7:14 her refusal of the path of life leads to the foolishness of “offer[ing] sacrifices” and “pay[ing] vows” as an indulgence against the adultery she plots. She knows the need for religious duties; she has the knowledge of God in her mind, but suppresses it, ironically, with ceremonial observances. This is the picture of the schism within every sinful heart: we have the knowledge of God as the foundation of our participation in the world of facts, but through moral suppression and rebellion, each person warps reality into an irrational, self-pleasing escape from the source of knowledge.
This is highlighted in 14:12 in an explicit warning against relying upon a subjective foundation for truth: “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” It would be challenging to overstate the condemnation in Proverbs toward those living by what “seems” right according to his or her internal compass; there is no room in the scheme of knowledge in Proverbs for a person to construct an explanation for reality by beginning within (2:1-11ff.; 3:5-7, 13; 4:1, 7; 5:1, 7-13; 6:20ff.; 7:1ff.; 8:22ff.; 9:10; 10:17; 11:2 cf. 15:33; 16:9; 19:20-21, 27; 21:2, 30; 25:2; 26:12; 28:26). This blind wandering is the hallmark of the present Western world.
In our postmodern culture, the only wrong way is the way of certainty, the only wrong reading of a text is to read for the author’s intent, and the only wrong answer is to exclude other answers as untrue. As one example among myriads that might be cited, David J.A. Clines lays out a perfect postmodern paradigm in the afterword of his celebrated textbook, The Theme of the Pentateuch. Writing the afterword for a new edition nearly twenty years after its first being published, Clines mildly laments his previous assumptions (having once believed in objective knowledge), reporting “nowadays I tend rather to believe that texts do not have meaning in themselves, and that what we call meaning is something that comes into being at the meeting point of text and reader.” Clines continues on, “the meaning of meaning is problematic,” and “there is no text without readers,” in which context he even goes so far as to question the concept of a reader. His self-defeating propositions grow to a fever pitch, claiming “my interpretations are relative to myself” followed directly by the caveat, “that does not mean for a moment…” Clines here appeals to what he—the author—means in the course of arguing for no fixed meanings. He completes his afterword by making multiple appeals to truth and facts, all while explicitly discarding his own argument. Besides being an example of painful intellectual myopia, postmodernist theory represents a futile rebellion against certainty in knowledge, being that our mind is rooted in and reflecting the God we desire to suppress. Into this cognitive dissonance comes the voice of Proverbs, reminding us “Whoever trusts in his own mind (לִבּ) is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered” (28:26).
With the foundational epistemology of Proverbs now dusted off, the conventional wisdom appears comparatively weak. Michael V. Fox, for one example, sees in Proverbs “little . . . said about how knowledge is created, where it comes from, and how truths[sic]-claims are verified.” He sees the epistemology of the authors as workable, but “unreflective and unsystematic.” Fox notes that the “scholarly consensus” (with which he disagrees) sees knowledge in Proverbs as elementary empiricism, which Fox characterizes as “knowledge . . . derive[d] from sensory experience.” He attempts to categorize the epistemology of Proverbs otherwise, as a “coherence theory of truth.” According to Fox, the “coherence theory” is described as an interdependent set of abstract “assumptions” about how reality works. The wisdom writers drew on timeless, immaterial principles that complement and overlap in the outworking of daily life. As such, Fox’s alternative to empiricism falls right back under the subjectivity of the empiricist, (with his distinctions noted). In his attempt to describe an alternative to a materialist, sensory epistemology, he characterizes knowledge in Proverbs as relying on an immaterial, yet still subjective experience. Fox therefore characterizes the authors as trusting in the foundation of their own minds, which is denounced in 28:26 and elsewhere.
Fox then reveals his blind spot in stark form, stating in the coherence theory of knowledge, “there is no prime axiom from which all ideas are spun out; the system itself is primary.” Stating there are no prime axioms is of course a prime axiom(!) As such, there ensues in Fox’s paper—like in Cline’s afterword—a litany of self-defeating propositions.
Ultimately, subjectivist explanations for wisdom begin with the foundation of human experience. Logically, any such explanation for a bridge between revelation and human knowledge could be the way “that seems right . . . but its end is the way to death” (16:25). This is the exact fruit of what Proverbs says happens to the one who fails to recognize YHWH as the prime axiom of objective knowledge in the human mind.
Observational Wisdom in its Proper Order
Philosophy of every age has beaten and hacked at this question with the result being voluminous formulations with little consensus; alone stand the patronized authors of Proverbs, declaring “no wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the LORD” (21:30). The rest of the book is the application of these foundational claims. By the underpinning of God’s prior, absolute being, we read of wisdom gleaned everywhere from the ant (6:6) to the great ships on the sea (30:19). In fact, nearly all of the proverbs are observational and subjective in and of themselves, yet justified as objective truth by the acknowledgment of God’s infinite, unchanging being as the prime reason for intelligibility (1:7; 9:10). In other words, one can be certain that “in a multitude of people is the glory of a king” (14:28), or that “a bribe is a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it” (17:8), not because some desert sage saw these things happen 3,000 years ago and attempted to explain the world through a system of assumed experiential norms; but rather because desert sages 3,000 years ago saw these things and justified their observation as being grounded in the one, true, living God.
Confidence for Dying People
Much of this discussion can tend toward the realm of theoretical or purely academic interest. Technical terminology can threaten to intimidate the average man or woman who wishes to grasp the discussion of epistemology, yet we must understand the bridge between God’s revelation and our minds. Christians in the post-Christian cultures of the West must be prepared to give “a reason for the hope” within (1 Pet. 3:15b). In this generation where too often all truth is considered relative, it is a transgressive act for one to claim objective knowledge of any truth, and even more so to claim knowledge of the truth. Christians must know and proclaim God’s self-revelation—truth about the One who created the universe, who judges each person by his own standard, and who speaks a coherent, comprehensive, intelligible word about humanity through the authors of Scripture.
To give up this ground in the arena of ideas is not meekness or humility, but rather a betrayal of the God who created the human mind. Proverbs presents an epistemology of revelation as a foundational explanation for human beings knowing true facts about ethics, morals, science, and so forth. The fact that the scholarly consensus seems to miss this grounding argument in Proverbs is a comment, not on the difficulty of biblical interpretation, but on the malformed beliefs and presuppositions of these biblical scholars.
This paper presents ideas rich in pastoral application, as should be apparent. No preacher of God’s word should view Proverbs as a collection of colorful, yet antique beads rolling around disconnected in the Old Testament shoebox, but rather, the book should be viewed and dispensed to the church as true, divine wisdom fit for equipping the saints for all seasons of life. Indeed, the epistemological foundations revealed in Proverbs are those lines that ought to be recited to the children, to the adults, and to the dying among the church. The Christian needs confidence that the God of Israel lives beyond our imaginations, outside our experience, and independent of this world’s dark happenings; but also that this same God chose to speak a word in flesh, to dwell among us, and to invite us to participate in subverting a world order that rests upon the imaginations and philosophies of rebellious humankind. Proverbs can and should equip the church to think from a foundation of clarity and strength as we join Jesus outside the camp.
Thanks for reading,
Clines, David J.A. The Theme of the Pentateuch, 2nd ed. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic, 1997.
Fox, Michael V. “The Epistemology of the Book of Proverbs.” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, no. 4 (2007): Pp. 669-684.
Horton, Michael S. “Man.” Tabletalk Magazine (January 2016): Pp. 14-15.