Competing wisdoms



The Bible is a very binary book. It does not wallow in greys and pastels, but sets out the grand issues in bold black-and-white terms that demand of us a commitment, a response, leaving us no place for dithering. Jesus famously said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30). There is no middle ground!

Paul told the Corinthians that his commission from Christ was “to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void” (1 Corinthians 1:17). This message would be seen as folly to those lost in their sin, but welcomed as the power of God by those whom He is saving (1 Corinthians 1:18–19). Thus the “wisdom of the world” (1 Corinthians 1:20) is at loggerheads with the saving, Christ-centered, cross-centered “wisdom of God” (v. 21).

Paul sets up two competing wisdoms between which there can be no compromise. But he did not invent this state of affairs. In fact, this dichotomy goes back to nearly the beginning of Scripture. The first collision occurs in Genesis 3.

In Genesis 3, we witness the introduction of the world’s wisdom, as set forth by its first philosopher, Satan:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1)

Notice the wily serpent’s stance: he is a created being (v. 1), talking to another created being about God, in the third person. By his very framing of the question, Satan has subtly moved God from being the sovereign and ever-present Lord who is owed devotion and obedience to being a topic, an object of debate. Satan speaks critically about God, calling God’s character and competence into question. He enlists Eve in this debate as a judge, with him, of God.

The assumption from the outset, then, is God is in the defendant’s seat. God is the accused. With that comes the companion assumption that we have the right, the ability, and the qualifications to be His judges.

Here Satan, first philosopher of the world’s wisdom, has found his first pupils in Eve and Adam. Remember God’s order:

  • God appointed Adam and Eve to rule creation. In Genesis 1:26, God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
  • God appointed Adam to lead Eve. After Adam had been formed and tasked first (Genesis 2:5-8, 15-17), Eve was brought in as his complement, to help him (Genesis 2:18). Adam’s naming of Eve was a clear act of authority (Genesis 2:23; cf. v. 20).
  • Satan—using a creature’s body—goes to Eve to persuade her to lead Adam to rebel against God.

Worldly wisdom’s first lesson has five principles:

1. God’s WORD is insufficient

God had told Adam everything he needed to know about the tree in Genesis 2:16–17. All of Adam’s needs would be met by the other herbage; only this tree was forbidden and would be fatal to him. So Adam had both the moral guidance and the factual information he needed.

However, Satan says God did not speak fully nor truly. So far from dealing death, the tree would bring enlightenment, independence, power, and freedom. So in fact, what they most needed to know, God did not tell them—and what He did tell them was wrong. So they ‘need’ to look to another source.

Regardless of the topic, this is the world’s starting-point: the Word of God is both insufficient and unreliable. This applies whether we’re talking about morality (and especially sexuality) or science.

2. God’s WISDOM is uncompelling

It was God’s judgment that they did not need this fruit. But Satan insisted that he knew the real scoop, and had a better idea. If Eve really wanted to be wise, she would eat.

So Satan was calling Eve to set aside God’s wisdom, and to replace it with her own wisdom—which is to replace it with Satan’s wisdom. She must act on the basis of that wisdom instead of the wisdom of the Creator God.

So whatever Scripture might say about marriage, humanity, children, life, The Experts know better. We know better. But of course the result is spiritual, intellectual, and moral chaos. How else can we explain the recent German ethics council’s pronouncement that incest is a fundamental human right?1

3. God’s CHARACTER is dubious

Do you see what’s behind “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” It is an incredulous exclamation. Satan is saying:

“You have real needs, Eve. God is harsh and narrow, and does not care about your real needs. God is holding you back. I’m your true friend, and (unlike God) I want what’s really best for you!”

The serpent says that the Creator of all can’t be trusted to give His creatures what they need. We’re on our own—with a little help from our new ‘best friend forever’, Satan.

And so, for instance, the real reason God doesn’t want us indulging our every sexual whim is because He’s a spoil-sport. Whenever God says no to what I want to do, it is because He doesn’t want me to be happy. His word is insufficient to lead me to real joy. I must make my own way, following my own drives. According to the world’s wisdom, your heart will never steer you wrong—but God will.

4. God’s JUDGMENT is debatable

God says there will be judgment for transgression of His law. However, Satan knows better! Not only will violating God’s law not bring bad consequences; in truth, it will bring good consequences! Eve’s eyes would be opened, she would be like God, knowing good and evil … on her own terms.

The expression “good and evil” is a merism, a figure of speech that means picking out two poles of a concept and including everything in-between. To search ‘high and low’ is to search everywhere. So to know ‘good and evil’ would mean to know those two opposites, and everything in-between.

So it is the promise of autonomy, of being a rule unto myself. Eve would be her own moral judge. She would be able to size things up and come to her own conclusions, either independently of God or (as in this case) actually contrary to God’s judgment.

5. The only sufficient judge of reality is ME

Note Satan’s voice, his tone, if you will. He doesn’t overtly assert his authority or demand obedience—He simply assumes the position, speaks as the authority, and calls Eve to be her own authority. No reality-based syllogism could ever make a cogent case that the creature is wiser than its Creator; so the position simply has to be assumed and insisted on.

This is exactly what happens here in v. 6:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

This is a massive, tremendous revolution—and not a good one. By her thoughts and choices, Eve is saying

“I will set God aside. I will set God’s words aside. I will set the totality of God’s mind and judgment aside. I am free and right to do that. In His place, I will substitute my perception, my evaluation, and my judgment. Instead of God, there will be me.”

This is autonomy, and it is how it spreads: One sees, one takes, one eats…and then one gives. The sad history of Israel during the time of the Judges is twice summed up, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25).

The culmination of all this is the modern false gospel, the Gospel of Hollywood and everything else: we all must seek our own happiness by following our own hearts. What is the unspoken presumption of this false gospel?

  • God’s word is an insufficient guide to happiness.
  • God doesn’t really know or care what’s best for us.
  • What God thinks about reality just isn’t so; and
  • You and I are really the only ones who can say what’s right for us—not God!

This is the wisdom of the world. The specifics are just so many rhinestones on a cheap costume. The heart of all of it is: “I will be as god”—and we’re no more conscious of it than a catfish is of being in muddy water.

The problem

The problem with worldly wisdom is found back in the very first words of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God conceived, created, defined, rules, and judges all the universe. God alone is ultimate. Therefore, creation and all creatures (including us!) are derived and dependent

That is why Genesis 1:1 is the most offensive verse in the Bible. If this verse is true, then every premise and postulate of the world’s wisdom is a lie. This is why men respond in such fury against even the namby-pambiness of Intelligent Design. If there’s a Designer, then I am not ultimate—and if that is the case, everything collapses.

If we turn to the last pages of the Bible, we see this:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. (Revelation 21:1)

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:5)

God is Lord, on His throne. He designed and created the original universe, which was ruined by sin. God will design and create the new heavens and new earth. So we see here: God’s words (not Satan’s, not ours) that are faithful and true, and God’s deeds (not Satan’s, not ours) that are final and determinative. Worldly wisdom is false, temporary, and doomed.

The solution

Our only hope lies in the wisdom of God, which centers in the cross of Jesus Christ. We must turn from the pipe-dream of our own ultimacy, bow before the ultimacy of the Lord God. It is only when we start from God’s ultimacy, and the sufficiency of His Word, that we have any hope of true wisdom and knowledge (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10).

First published: 23 October 2014
Re-featured on homepage: 16 February 2017

References and notes

  1. Huggler, J., Incest a ‘fundamental right’, German committee says, telegraph.co.uk, 24 September 2014. Return to text.

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