The “Wisdom of the World”

Often when one Christian thinks that another is utilizing too much philosophy (or the wrong kind of philosophy), the former charges the latter of using “the wisdom of the world,” or relying too heavily on “human wisdom.”

The bite of this charge comes from the fact that Scripture does draw a distinction between the “wisdom of the world”or “the wisdom of man”and “the wisdom of God.” The problem, though, is that this charge often confuses precisely what Scripture means by that very distinction. Does it mean that all of the wisdom in the world, or all of the wisdom of man, is contrary to the wisdom of God; that God’s wisdom and man’s wisdom are necessarily and utterly at odds? And if not, then what does it mean? A closer look at one of the most prominent passages on this issue will help us sort it out.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

-1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (ESV)

Here, Paul draws a very clear distinction between God’s wisdom and “the wisdom of the world.” And our question is, what does Paul mean by “the wisdom of the world”? Here are a few observations:

  1. According to the wisdom of the world, the Gospel is foolish (18, 21, 25).
  2. According to God, the wisdom of the world is foolish (20).
  3. The wisdom of the world includes the folly of the Jews who ask for signs (22-25).
  4. The wisdom of the world includes the folly of the Greeks who search for wisdom (22-25).
  5. The Gospel is the wisdom of God (24).
  6. The Gospel’s “foolishness” is wiser than the wisdom of the world (25).

So we’ve got God’s wisdom and the world’s wisdom. God’s wisdom is represented by the Gospel, and the world’s wisdom is represented by objections to the Gospel. So, here’s the question: is the world’s “wisdom” actually wise? Were the Jews actually exercising wisdom as they demanded signs? Were the Greeks actually exercising wisdom as they “searched for wisdom,” but scoffed at the Gospel? Is the Gospel actually foolish? The obvious answer of this passage is, “No!”

Paul is not granting the label of true wisdom to “the wisdom of the world.” He’s arguing that true wisdom (which is on full display in the Gospel) reveals that the so-called “wisdom of the world” is no wisdom at all. It’s foolishness. The Jews demanded signs, while ignoring the signs of the times (Mt. 16:1-41). The Greeks claimed to be searching for wisdom, while evading the plain truth staring them in the face through all of creation (Rom. 1:18-32). The Jews wanted a political messiah who would come in power and might, because they evaded the true meaning of everything foretold to them in the Old Testament. The Greeks scoffed at the idea of the resurrection (Acts 17:32), as if such a thing would be too hard for the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Were these mindsets actually wise? Maybe by their conventional standards of their culture, but surely not by the standards of true wisdom. Conventional wisdom refers to the common and ordinary assumptions of a given culture or timeand that more appropriately fits what Paul is calling “the wisdom of the world” here.

According to conventional wisdom, God would never want to become a man. According to conventional wisdom, if He did become a man, He’d haveand exercisephenomenal power to establish His rule on earth. According to conventional wisdom, He’d never associate with sinners. According to conventional wisdom He’d surely never be put to deathlet alone in the most shameful and excruciating way yet imagined. And according to conventional wisdom, people don’t rise from the dead. But conventional wisdom isn’t true wisdom. True wisdom takes all the facts into account, and the one fact that conventional wisdom failed to take into account in this case was: God’s staggering passion for His own glory.

If God’s end in creation was ultimately to glorify Himself; and if manthe crown-jewel of His creationrebelled against that aim and spat in His face with sin, then man deserves nothing short of infinite wrath in exchange for spurning the infinite glory of God. But if God, wanting still to display His glory through man, chose to pass over the wrath-deserving sin of some, then to meet the just demands of His passionate love for His glory, a substitute would be required to take the place of those wrath-deserving men. And since the wrath they deserve is infinite, the substitute must likewise be infinite. And since those deserving the wrath are men, the substitute would also have to be a man. Thus, the God-man, Jesus Christ. The incarnation and atonement of Christ makes all the sense in the world, once one realizes the white-hot-intensity of God’s passion for His own glory.

But “the wisdom of the world” failed to take that into accountand so, failed to see the glaringly obvious wisdom of the truth being presented in the Gospel. The important thing to see here though is that Paul does not mean to communicate that the Gospel is actually foolish, or that the world’s objections were actually wise. On the contrary, the takeaway regarding the “wisdom of the world” here is that that which people passively adhere to as conventional “wisdom” is typically very foolish, and that which conventional “wisdom” condemns as folly may very well be the true wisdom of God.

Contrary to the way many cite this passage (and others like it), God’s ways are not necessarily or inherently foolish to men, as though His actions are arbitrary or incoherent. On the contrary, He always acts in perfect harmony with His rational character, and therefore, true wisdom will never be shocked at what He does. His ways are only inscrutable to us to the extent that we fail to take the necessary facts into account. This means that if one is truly guilty of utilizing the “wisdom of the world,” his error is not that he is thinking too philosophically, or too rationally. Rather, his error is that he is not thinking rationally enough. The “wisdom of the world” is only partially wiseit’s the result of lazy, half-hearted, thinking. The remedy to partial wisdom is more wisdomnot less. So, going back to our opening, if anyone is guilty of exercising the “wisdom of the world,” it is the one who yearns to put a damper on the fullest and most rigorous use of the mind in the search for wisdom; the one who warns against a passionate phileo for sophiathe one who is anti-philosophy.2


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1
Note that in the Matthew passage, their guilt was not in seeking signs, per se, but in the refusal to accurately interpret the signs they had already been given.

2For those who don’t know, the word philosophy is made up of the two words phileo (love) and sophia (wisdom)—and it means “love of wisdom.”

Bachelor of Theology, Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis. M.A. in Philosophy, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.