Word Study #130 — Wisdom, Wise

If you are trying to follow a “train of thought” here, the “departure station” was the reference in the previous post, where Paul asserts that in Jesus (Col.2:3), “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”! We have already dealt with “knowledge” (#29), and since the words are often used together, it is reasonable to assume that they are connected, but not synonymous. (The astute observation of our son’s late father-in-law was, “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is having enough sense not to put one in a fruit salad!”)

In exploring “wisdom”, though, we are faced with another dilemma: two Greek words, sometimes interchangeably and sometimes identically translated as “wise” and “prudent”. Scholars with much higher credentials than mine have tried and failed to make a neat distinction between sophos and phronimos. L/S leans heavily toward practicality for phronimos, but also retains that flavor in more than half of the listings for sophos. Trench insists that only sophos has a moral component, and is used only with respect to God or to good men – but that simply is not true (see Rom.1:22, I Cor. 1:3, II Cor.1:12, Col.2:23, Jas.3:15,17). Bauer’s approach is more balanced, including both natural worldly wisdom and that which comes only from God in the treatment of sophos, and relegating phronimos primarily, although not exclusively, to matters of judgment or opinion.
Both words, to a degree at least, appear to be subject to one’s conscious choice, as well as being a native, gifted, or learned ability.
Plato and Aristotle used both words: the former for flights of philosophical fantasy as well as carefully reasoned argument, and the latter of scientific or mathematical understanding!

So perhaps we may also be forgiven for our occasional confusion!
Primarily because of the contexts in which they occur, I usually use words like “sensible” or “reasonable” for phronimos, and reserve “wise” for sophos, but I would not insist upon either choice.

Words related to phronimos (used 18x), phronesis (2x), phronimoteros (1x), and phronimos (the adverb – 1x) appear much less frequently than sophia (51x) / sophos (21x) / sophizo (2x) / sophoteron (1x). The older term, “prudent” fits well for most of the former group, as they refer to people behaving sensibly, from the world’s standpoint, in their situations (Lk.16:8 – 2x, Mt. 7:24, 24:45, 25:2-9 – 4x – , Lk.12:42). Please note, that simply using “good judgment” is nowhere represented as “wrong”. “Worldly wisdom” is only criticized when it is valued above that which comes from God, or contradicts Kingdom principles, as in the warnings recorded in Rom.11:25, 12:16; I Cor.4:10, II Cor.11:19. Indeed, using one’s best judgment is recommended in Mt.10:16, Lk.1:17, I Cor.10:15, and Eph.1:8.

The uses of sophia / sophos, on the other hand, require some sorting. L/S lists “cleverness or skill in a craft or art, skill in matters of common life, sound judgment, practical wisdom, learning, speculative wisdom, natural philosophy”, and notes that only among the Jews was it considered an attribute of God. This is not really surprising, if one considers the antics ascribed to the Greek and Roman deities. Both Paul (I Tim.1:17, Rom.16:7) and Jude (25) actually use the phrase, “the only wise God”. Might they have had exactly that contrast in mind?

Paul is careful to distinguish, in the first three chapters of I Corinthians, between “the wisdom of the world” and “the wisdom of God” – but he uses sophia /sophos for both. James also makes a clear distinction in Jas.3:13-17, offering a reliable standard by which the “real thing” may be recognized.
When the Ephesian and Colossian churches were under assault by advocates of mystical Eastern cults which claimed a superior, esoteric “wisdom”, Paul reminded them (Eph.1:8, 1:17, 3:10; Col.1:9, 1:28, 2:3, 2:23, 3:16) that disciples have already been made partakers of the very wisdom of God himself – “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” in the Lord Jesus Christ – and consequently have no need of anything “beyond” that (Col.3:16) “Christ’s word must continually reside among you all, richly, in all wisdom, as you keep teaching and admonishing each other”!

The wisdom required for that assignment is plainly and overtly recognized as the gift of God. Jesus had promised it for times of trial (Lk.21:15). It was listed right up there with the Holy Spirit among the qualifications sought for the first deacons (Ac.6:3), and heavily relied upon by Stephen (Ac.6:10), Paul (Rom.2:6,7; I Pet.3:15), and James 1:5.
A “word of wisdom” is listed among the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the church in I Cor.12:8, paired with a “word of knowledge” – the combination being a necessary component of faithful discipleship (#51). Someone has said, “knowing what needs doing, AND what to do about it”. “Walking in wisdom” (Eph.5:15, Col.4:5), likewise, is essential for faithful witness (#18).
Even Jesus himself, as a child, “increased in wisdom” as he matured (Mt.13:54, Mk.6:2, Lk.2:40,52), but for us “ordinary mortals”, it seems primarily to be the result of gracious revelation (Mk.11:25, 23:35; Rom.16:19, Eph.1:8, 1:17, Col.1:9).

A few other words are rarely rendered “wise”: suniemi (once — II Cor.10:12 —  “wise” and 24x “understanding”), sunetos (only used 4x, and invariably rendered “prudent” – Mt.11:25, Lk.10:27, Ac.13:17, I Cor.1:19), and magos (rendered 4x “wise men” in Mt.2, and 2x “sorcerer” in Ac.8 and 13). This latter word is Persian, and referred to astrologer-priests.

By way of contrast, several of the words appear with the negative prefix, “a-”, and are rendered “unwise, foolish, without understanding”: asophos (Eph.5:15), anoetos (Rom.1:14,Gal.3:1,3; I Tim.6:9, Tit.3:3), asunetos (Rom.1:21, 10:19; Mt.15:16, Rom.1:31), and aphron (Rom.2:20, Eph.5:7, I Pet.2:15). The contexts of most of these give the impression that the ignorance in each case was a matter of choice, unlike moros, which seems to be a condition that can be remedied.

Perhaps Paul’s (Eph.5:17) admonition, “be not unwise, but understand what the Lord’s will (#12) is,” the gracious invitation of James (1:5) to simply ask when we lack the wisdom for faithful living, and Paul’s reminders (Col.3:16 and I Tim.1:17) of the Word (#66) as the vehicle for communicating and sharing that wisdom, provide the best summary for those of us who are serious about learning faithfulness.

“Oh, the depth of God’s wealth and wisdom and knowledge! How (far) beyond searching are his judgments, and beyond comprehension his ways! For who knew the Lord’s mind? Or who became his advisor? Or who gave anything before to him, that it should be repaid to him? Because everything has its source, existence, and goal in him! Glory to him forever!” (Rom.11:33-36, PNT)


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