“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction” – Proverbs 1:7.
I often hear reproach, as a biblical and theological researcher, denouncing theological education. These critics claim that the academic pursuit of knowing God is somehow detrimental to one’s faith, the church and world, and advancement of the cause of Christ. Frankly, such claims are utter nonsense. All of our doctrines have been derived from the study of the Bible by theologians, whether they call themselves that or not, throughout the history of the church.
The very definition of scholarship is learning or knowledge acquired by study. Anyone who studies the Bible, or reads the teachings of another Christian, or inquires into church history, is a scholar, even if what they read is written by the uneducated or the misinformed. The academic study of these things is simply scholarship conducted in a formal, institutional setting. Whether one grows in faith and obedience has little to do with the venue of study but has everything to do with the heart of the one pursuing godly knowledge. If the researcher is cynical about God going into their studies, they will find a way to justify their skepticism and unbelief. On the other hand, if they are truly seeking to know God and his ways, God will freely give of himself, revealing a growing knowledge of himself, his love, and his calling to us.
Psalm 37:4-6 is a good launch point: “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart. 5 Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: 6 He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.” Too often we take verse four to mean that God will give us the perfect spouse or a fulfilling career or even a new car and a big house. But the verse actually sets up a circular process: as we delight ourselves in the Lord, he becomes the desire of our heart, and he gives himself to us. Verses five and six follow suit. As we commit ourselves to God and his ways, trusting in him by growing faith, he will increasingly lead us into righteousness which pulls us more deeply into committing our ways to him.
With that, then, I offer a brief survey of the statements on godly knowledge in Proverbs which are largely attributed to Solomon. Though the authorship of some of Proverbs’ content remains in dispute and may have come from several different collections of wisdom sayings, the whole book stands as an amalgamation of wisdom pivotal to the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, and Christian faith.
The purpose of the Proverbs as wisdom sayings is explained in the book’s opening chapter in Proverbs 1:2-4. The proverbial sayings are for the attainment of wisdom and discipline, to gain understanding and insight, to acquire a disciplined and prudent life (doing what is right, just, and fair), for giving prudence to the simple, and knowledge and discretion to the young. The first use of the term knowledge comes in verse four and is translated from the Hebrew da`at (Strong’s 1847), which is derived from yada’ (Strong’s 3045), which means to know by seeing. This is enormously important if we believe in the revelation of God, that God reveals his glory in creation and history. Nature and the events of God’s intervention for Israel, and the church and even all the world in the ministry of Christ, is to be remembered and shared as even the accusations against us before God, voiced by our enemy Satan, are overcome by the blood of Christ and the power of our testimony (Revelation 12:11), that is, our witness. It is the evidence of what has transpired in the past, reflected upon in the present, which gives us hope for the future. Without the knowledge of God’s benevolence in creation and history, especially delivered to us in the pages of the Bible, we have little hope for a victorious future.
I had a pastor several years ago who came to our church just a year before I started seminary. George had a way of being very succinct, capturing the core importance of issues in short sentences. I posed two questions to him in the months before I began my master’s education. The first was “what is your best advice for me before starting seminary?” He said, simply, “Be teachable.” The second question I posed knowing he would also give a straight answer that would be an encouragement to my studies. I asked, “Why should we study theology?” He answered, “Theology is the study of God. That is always a good thing.”
Next, we will simply survey what the Book of Proverbs says about knowledge. Remember the purpose of the Proverbs is for attaining wisdom and discipline, gaining understanding and insight, acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, giving prudence to the simple, and for the knowledge and discretion of the young (Proverbs 1:2-4). Also keep in mind that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (1:7).
God asks, “How long, O naive ones, will you love simplicity? And scoffers delight themselves in scoffing, And fools hate knowledge?” (Proverbs 1:22). Near the end of the first chapter, God warns that the godless “will call on me, but I will not answer; They will seek me diligently, but they shall not find me, Because they hated knowledge, And did not choose the fear of the LORD” (Proverbs 1:28-29).
The knowledge the theologian seeks (and we are all theologians on some level) is the knowledge of God, that is, about him and his ways.
Proverbs 2 starts by assuring us that if we will seek wisdom, listening intently and searching diligently, we will “discern the fear of the LORD, And discover the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:1-5), for it is God who gives wisdom, knowledge, and understanding (v. 6), and wisdom will enter our hearts and be pleasant to our souls (v. 10). We find ourselves increasingly at peace and being joyful as we come to know him more deeply.
It is by God’s knowledge that “the deeps were broken up, And the skies drip with dew” (Proverbs 3:20). This is the creator God who created by his knowledge. That one may be a bit too deep for this discussion here and now but it tells us something about him . . . his knowledge can make things happen our of nothing!
When we listen to wisdom and seek understanding, we will be prudent and speak true knowledge (Proverbs 5:1-2). Wisdom utters righteousness and no perversions and its sayings are clear and right to those who understand with knowledge of God. We should choose knowledge before wealth (Proverbs 8:8-10 and 20:15). Those wise and prudent will have knowledge and be discrete (v. 12).
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10), and wise men store up knowledge (Proverbs 10:14). Sadly, the godless man runs down his neighbor but the righteous are delivered through knowledge (Proverbs 11:9).
“Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, But he who hates reproof is stupid” (Proverbs 12:1) and “A prudent man conceals knowledge, But the heart of fools proclaims folly” (v. 23). “Every prudent man acts with knowledge, But a fool displays folly” (Proverbs 13:16). God not only calls us fools if we reject the opportunity to grow in our knowledge of him, he flats out calls us stupid! Our knowledge need not come by formal study and advanced degrees but he expects us to seek knowledge.
“A scoffer seeks wisdom, and finds none, But knowledge is easy to him who has understanding.
Leave the presence of a fool, Or you will not discern words of knowledge” (Proverbs 14:6-7).
“The naive [the ignorant!!!] inherit folly, But the prudent are crowned with knowledge (v. 18).
“The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, But the mouth of fools spouts folly” (Proverbs 15:2). “The lips of the wise spread knowledge, But the hearts of fools are not so” (v. 7) and “The mind of the intelligent seeks knowledge, But the mouth of fools feeds on folly” (v. 14).
Those knowledgeable of God hold their tongue and levelheadedness demonstrates understanding (Proverbs 17:27). The prudent acquire knowledge and the wise seek it (Proverbs 18:15).
Without knowledge we are prone to error (Proverbs 19:2). Correction and discipline will keep us growing and abiding in godly knowledge (vv. 25 and 27, 21:11, and 23:12)
“The eyes of the LORD preserve knowledge, But He overthrows the words of the treacherous man” (Proverbs 22:12). “Incline your ear and hear the words of the wise, And apply your mind to my knowledge” (v. 17). “Have I not written to you excellent things Of counsels and knowledge” (v. 20).
By attaining knowledge of God, we will be blessed and increase in wisdom and influence (Proverbs 24:4). Understanding (wisdom) and knowledge will even preserve our nation (Proverbs 28:2)
Much of godly knowledge is wrapped up in economic justice, protecting the rights of the poor, but the wicked do not understand (Proverbs 29:7). In fact, Jesus said that all of the wisdom and godly knowledge of the Law and the Prophets stood on the foundations of two commandments: to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40).
While gaining godly knowledge is to be highly prized, it also comes with a heavy burden of responsibility. According to Luke 12:48, “from everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” In the Epistle of James, assuming those with greater knowledge should be teaching those with less knowledge, the author warns, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). The Apostle Paul, that famous learned Pharisee (Philippians 3:5), wrote to the Romans to consider humility in relation to whatever knowledge they possessed: “Do not be wise in your own estimation” (Romans 12:16).
Perhaps Thomas à Kempis, a fifteenth century Augustinian monk, captured the sentiment of Paul’s directive best. Writing Of the Imitation of Christ in 1441, he advised, “Affect not to be overwise, but rather acknowledge thine own ignorance” (II.3). The idea of seeking knowledge and then acknowledging one’s own ignorance seems counterintuitive but it is not at all. Any honest scholar will tell you that the more they learn the more intensely they are aware of their own lack of knowledge. Any statement made in a scholarly article or book is based on a hierarchy of interconnected thought through eons of time and many hundreds or even thousands of previous scholars. To trace the history of complex theories, the resulting diagram would look something akin to an inverted genealogical chart. I am often impressed by the degree of scholastic interactions when some assemble their books and cite hundreds of other sources, often offering three or four to illuminate or expand on a single point. I have been reading one book that contains almost forty pages just in its bibliography!
Some who denounce theological education have encountered fools in their own studies who are arrogant about even the little knowledge they have accumulated. But they do not stop to think that no matter how deep, wide, or profound their knowledge may be, their knowledge in other disciplines very often rises no higher than what might be common among high school students and it will almost always fall far short of the expertise of the learned in other fields.
The central problem with knowledge is, because we worship an infinite God, it is infinite. We, on the other hand, are decidedly finite. Even all the collected knowledge of all the human race, living and dead throughout history, together still does not amount to even one percent of the knowledge of God. That’s the nature of infinity. It knows no bounds and cannot be measured. To think we have gained much knowledge is to become arrogant. That is why Paul must direct his readers to choose a humble way in light of any knowledge they have gained.
Andrew Murray was a writer, teacher, and pastor of Scottish, French, and German descent born in South Africa to missionary parents in the early 19th century. One of Murray’s most famous books, Humility: The Beauty of Holiness, is short and an easy read, at least in length. Murray’s challenge that we embrace and practice humility is not, however, at all easy. Perhaps the most poignant sentiment in Humility is that we will recognize humility when we recognize God for all that he is and reflect on ourselves in light of that view of God.
The study of theology is essential for the advancement of the church and God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. One need not have a seminary education to become wise in the knowledge of God but we should take care if we feel we need to denigrate those who have responded to God’s calling to higher education. Our God is not some simpleton whom we can “figure out” with a shallow knowledge or follow according to pithy statements, platitudes, and random verses from the Bible. He reveals himself graciously to all according to their capacity but more importantly according to their desire to know him.