When the old Reformed theologians dealt with the attributes of God, they used to classify them in two groups: incommunicable and communicable.
In the first group, they put those qualities which highlight God’s transcendence and show how vastly different a being he is from us, his creatures. The usual list was—God’s independence (self-existence and self-sufficiency); his immutability (entire freedom from change, leading to entire consistency in action); his infinity (freedom from all limits of time and space: that is, his eternity and omnipresence); and his simplicity (the fact that there are in him no elements that can conflict, so that, unlike us, he cannot be torn in different directions by divergent thoughts and desires). The theologians called these qualities incommunicable because they are characteristic of God alone; man, just because he is man and not God, does not and cannot share any of them.
In the second group, the theologians lumped together qualities like God’s spirituality, freedom and omnipotence, along with all his moral attributes—goodness, truth, holiness, righteousness and so on. What was the principle of classification here? It was this—that when God made man, he communicated to him qualities corresponding to all these. This is what the Bible means when it tells us that God made man in his own image (Gen 1:26-27)—namely, that God made man a free spiritual being, a responsible moral agent with powers of choice and action, able to commune with him and respond to him, and by nature good, truthful, holy, upright (Eccles 7:29): in a word, godly.
The moral qualities which belonged to the divine image were lost at the Fall; God’s image in man has been universally defaced, for all of humankind has in one way or another lapsed into ungodliness. But the Bible tells us that now, in fulfillment of his plan of redemption, God is at work in Christian believers to repair his ruined image by communicating these qualities to them afresh. This is what Scripture means when it says that Christians are being renewed in the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18) and of God (Col 3:10).
Among these communicable attributes, the theologians put wisdom. As God is wise in himself, so he imparts wisdom to his creatures.
The Bible has a great deal to say about the divine gift of wisdom. The first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs are a single sustained exhortation to seek this gift. “Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. . . . Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life” (Prov 4:7, 13). Wisdom is personified and made to speak in her own cause: “Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For whoever finds me finds life and receives favor from the LORD. But whoever fails to find me harms himself; all who hate me love death” (Prov 8:34-36).
As a hostess, wisdom summons the needy to her banquet: “Let all who are simple come in here!” (Prov 9:4). The emphasis throughout is upon God’s readiness to give wisdom (pictured as wisdom’s readiness to give herself) to all who desire the gift and will take the steps necessary to obtain it. Similar emphases appear in the New Testament. Wisdom is required of Christians: “Live—not as unwise but as wise. . . . Do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Eph 5:15-17); “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders” (Col 4:5). Prayer is made that wisdom may be supplied to them: “asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom” (Col 1:9). And James in God’s name makes a promise: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, . . . and it will be given to him” (Jas 1:5).
Where can we find wisdom? What steps must a person take to lay hold of this gift? There are two prerequisites, according to Scripture.
1. We must learn to reverence God. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111:10; Prov 9:10; compare Job 28:28; Prov 1:7; 15:33). Not till we have become humble and teachable, standing in awe of God’s holiness and sovereignty (“the great and awesome God,” Neh 1:5; compare 4:14; 9:32; Deut 7:21; 10:17; Ps 99:3; Jer 20:11), acknowledging our own littleness, distrusting our own thoughts and willing to have our minds turned upside down, can divine wisdom become ours.
It is to be feared that many Christians spend all their lives in too unhumbled and conceited a frame of mind ever to gain wisdom from God at all. Not for nothing does Scripture say, “with the lowly is wisdom” (Prov 11:2 KJV).
2. We must learn to receive God’s word. Wisdom is divinely wrought in those, and those only, who apply themselves to God’s revelation. “Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,” declares the psalmist; “I have more insight than all my teachers”—why?—“for I meditate on your statutes” (Ps 119:98-99).
So Paul admonishes the Colossians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly . . . with all wisdom” (Col 3:16). How are we of the twentieth century to do this? By soaking ourselves in the Scriptures, which, as Paul told Timothy (and he had in mind the Old Testament alone!), “are able to make you wise for salvation” through faith in Christ, and to make us “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:15-17).
Again, it is to be feared that many today who profess to be Christ’s never learn wisdom, through failure to attend sufficiently to God’s written Word. Cranmer’s Prayer Book lectionary (which all Anglicans are meant to follow) will take one through the Old Testament once, and the New Testament twice, every year. William Gouge, the Puritan, read fifteen chapters regularly each day. The late Archdeacon T. C. Hammond used to read right through the Bible once a quarter. How long is it since you read right through the Bible? Do you spend as much time with the Bible each day as you do even with the newspaper? What fools some of us are!—and we remain fools all our lives, simply because we will not take the trouble to do what has to be done to receive the wisdom which is God’s free gift.
J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2011).
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