Science in Christian Perspective



The Limits of Human Wisdom: Scientific Knowledge and Religious Commitment
Robert S. Weathers
Graduate School of Psychology
Fuller Theological Seminary

From: JASA 36 (March 1984): 45-46.

The question of how we come to know what we know continues to elicit abundant interest amongst religiously concerned scientists. Recent journal articles (Neidhardt, 1983a, 1983b; Poythress, 1983) as well as pertinent book-length treatments during the past decade (Barbour, 1974; Gill, 1981) are representative of various ways in which issues of epistemology in the current science/ religion dialogue are being handled by scientists, philosophers, and theologians. This essay examines the parameters of human knowledge as they relate to the domain of the scientist personally committed to religious faith. In so doing, the present analysis expands on previous work by directly applying relevant insights from the biblical wisdom literature (e.g., Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes) to more recent formulations pertaining to scientific knowledge and religious commitment.

Peculiar as it may initially appear, the ancient Israelite wisdom authors were faced with problems of knowledge quite similar to those encountered by contemporary scientists involved in tasks of religion/ science integration. On the one hand, the Israelite sages confronted trends toward skeptical humanism which would dispute and/or deny humanity's dependent relationship to God. On the other hand, the sages met the challenges of obscurantist religiosity, wherein intellectual difficulties were blithely rationalized away as merely indicative of the utter lack of human wisdom vis-a-vis God and nature.

Israelite Wisdom Beyond Humanism

In response to the former position, i.e., skeptical humanism, the Israelite authors were radical in affirming all of nature as emanating from, and dependent upon, God. As Gerhard von Rad declares so unequivocally: "More than any other ancient people, Israel was aware that all spheres of life were encompassed in the most direct way by the power of God" (1972, p. 108).

The impact that such a profound notion of creation, as contingent upon God, had on the Israelites in their search for wisdom is reflected in several characteristic passages from the Old Testament wisdom literature (as translated in Today's English Version):

To have knowledge, you must first have reverence for the Lord. (Proverbs1:7)

To be wise you must first have reverence for the Lord. If you know the Holy One, you have understanding. (Proverbs 9:10)

Reverence for the Lord is an education in itself. (Proverbs 15:33)

God said to men, "To be wise, you must have reverence for the Lord." (job 28:28)

There is only one thing to say: Have reverence for God and obey his commands, because this is all that man was created for. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

It is apparent from these passages that the Israelite sages understood reverence for God as having precedence over human wisdom. Von Rad comments: "The thesis that all human knowledge comes back to the question about commitment to God is a statement of penetrating perspicacity.... It contains in a nutshell the whole Israelite theory of knowledge" (1972, p. 67). Thus understood, human reliance upon God was viewed as the only thing that places human observers into a satisfactory relatedness with objects of their inquiry. Relation to God facilitates the human seeker of wisdom in asking the most germane questions, in interpreting the data of experience most adequately, and generally, in facing with integrity all aspects of the created order (Scott, 197 1, p. 226f.).

Israelite Wisdom Beyond Obscurantism

Such whole-hearted dedication to an essentially theistic hermeneutic, laudable as it was, left the Israelite sages at risk of being misinterpreted. Were they suggesting that human achievement and active participation in the accumulation of knowledge are only pagan illusions? Obscurantism under the mantle of religious devotion would support such a reading of the wisdom writers. Such an interpretation, however, maintains a distorted half-truth most likely based on a posture (no doubt, well-meaning) defending against over-secularization. Yet, as previously explained, the Israelite worldview was so all-embracingly a religious one as to alleviate most concerns about the possible influx of a secularistic epistemology.

Remembering the foundational considerations of religious commitment intrinsic to the Israelite people, what we see in the biblical wisdom literature is no less a serious commitment to humans understanding creation and living in accordance with it (Beavin, 1971, p. 1105). The sages counseled their people to "beg for knowledge and plead for insight" (Proverbs 2:3 in Today's English Version). "Why the press for knowledge?" one might rightfully ask. The sages addressed this query by personifying wisdom as both primordial and omnipresent in God's creation.

The Lord created me first of all, the first of his works, long ago. I was made in the very beginning, at the first, before the world began. (Proverbs 8:22-23 in Today's English Version) For wisdom ... pervades and permeates all things because she is so pure. Like a fine mist she rises from the power of God, a pure effluence from the glory of the Almighty.... She is the brightness that streams from everlasting light, the flawless mirror of the active power of God and the image of his goodness. (Wisdom of Solomon 7:24-26, an apocryphal book in the New English Bible)

The Israelites transcended obscurantism insofar as they diligently engaged in the observation and setting down (in their wisdom literature) of empirically verified principles from the natural order. Preisendanz offers a comment suggestive of just how it was that the Israelite sages approached what was to them a dynamic equivalent of our present-day "science": "The proverb differs from a statement which communicates only factual material in that it is able to grasp not only the factual, but a human element, an inner attitude, an intellectual relationship to thefactual" (as cited in Von Rad, 1972, p. 50; italics added).

The crux of our present treatment of the Israelite wisdom authors involves appreciating what Preisendanz refers to as "an intellectual relationship to the factual." In the course of their search for knowledge, the Israelite sages often used completely secular language forms (e.g., proverbs) to express the truths which they discovered (Beavin, 1971, p. 1102). Yet there was never the least consideration given to any possible bifurcation between knowledge qua knowledge and the Israelite's determinative faith in the Almighty God. The sages were incapable of intellectually apprehending the "factual" (i.e., empirical reality) outside of a sincere and profound relationship to God in his purview over all creation.

The sages personified wisdom (as depicted in the two previous passages) in an effort to clarify the radically personal nature of human knowledge in an ultimately theocentric universe. Objective analysis of the created order was deemed acceptable only insofar as it was accompanied by an abiding reverence for the Creator and a personal commitment to humbly receiving gratuitous wisdom pertinent to the rationality inherent in creation. Such truth, once encountered, comprised for the Israelites knowledge to which they were personally committed. For the Israelites, knowledge of the world about them had as much to do with personal character as with intellect (Von Rad, 1972, p. 64).

A Relational Epistemology For Contemporary Scientists

Insights gained from the biblical wisdom literature as regards human knowledge vis-a-vis faith in God are complementary to many more recent formulations by scholars invested in the interaction between science and religion. We find continuing precedent for current developments toward personalizing scientific knowledge in the history of ideas dating from the Israelite sages down through the Christian philosophies of Augustine and Duns Scotus and into the modern era with such diverse thinkers as Kierkegaard (1846/194 1), Bergson (1903/1949), and Buber (1923/1970). Essential to all such epistemologies are the priority of relationship and commitment to God and creation over scientific conceptualization and/or rational comment. The limits of human wisdom are honestly acknowledged as represented in the healthy tension between scientific knowledge and religious commitment.

Such a rich historical backdrop permits latter-day observers (as ourselves) easier access into the labyrinth of innovations in such disciplines as the philosophy of science. When Poythress articulates our world as being "personally structured" by a benevolent Creator, we recall the Israelite sages' constant recognition of God's presence in, and governance of, the created order (1983, p. 66). Poythress focuses on the quest for scientific knowledge in a manner which the sages would have no doubt understood clearly, that is, he asserts that "God is the chief 'reality' with which to reckon; he is the center of things" (p. 69). Neidhardt concurs by establishing in religious faith that the truth which scientific observers would seek out is "openended in nature, always pointing beyond itself, ultimately pointing back to God, the author of all truth" (1983a, p. 39).

Once the priority of divine relationship is properly recognized (as in the preceding two quotations), scientists and those in related disciplines have much to say that is instructive in regards to accruing scientific knowledge. In our world, where God is Creator, Sustainer, and most characteristically, Love Himself, it makes sense to posit that knowledge of the created order (the work of science) is possible only insofar as the knowing subject actively engages with (i.e., loves) that which is known (Gill, 1981, p. 89). Are we suggesting hypersubjective anti-rationalism and/or anti-empiricism? Not necessarily. Rather we maintain, with the Israelite sages, that human expectations and commitments greatly influence perceptions of the world about us. "There are no bare uninterpreted data" (Barbour, 1974, p. 95).

As contemporized from the Israelite wisdom authors to the present age, the proper human response %ithin the scientific enterprise involves a mixture of: (a) open lines of communication with other seekers of wisdom (e.g., members of scientific and/or religious communities), (b) honest appraisal of one's own motives and candid exploration of one's overarching schemas of what is most "real," and (c) a preeminent reverence for the Author of all wisdom. We stand to gain much from the Israelite sages insofar as we would at times view our professional/ scientific tasks as separable from our relation to, and contingency upon, God in His grace. For it is only as creatures committed to a truly personal God of Love that we will best gain, integrate, and share the wisdom which we seek.


Barbour, I.G. (1974). Myths, Models, and Paradigms. New York: Harper & Row.

Beavin, E.L. (1971). The wisdom literature. In C.M. Layton (Ed.), The Interpreter's One-volume Commentary on the Bible (pp. 1101-1105). Nashville, TN: Abingdon.

Bergson, H. (1949). An Introduction to Metaphysics (T. E. Hulme, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill. kOriginal -ork published 1903)

Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou (W. Kaufmann. Trans.). New York: Scribners. (Original work published 19-23)

Gill, J. H. (1981). On Knowing God. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Kierkegaard, S. (1941). Concluding Unscientific Postscript (D.F. Swenson & W. Lowrie, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University. (Original work published 1846)

Neidhardt, W.J. (1983a). The open-endedness of scientific truth. Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 35. 65-71.

Neidhardt, W.J. (1983b). Unity through communication. Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 35, 1.3-16.

Poythress, V.S. (1983). Science as allegory. Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 35,65-71.

Scott, R.B.Y. (1971). The Way of Wisdom. New York: Macmillan.

Von Rad, G. (1972). Wisdom in Israel (J.D. Martin, Trans.). Nashville, TN: Abingdon.