Wisdom’s Paradox

19 Wisdom Theology as an Axial Phenomenon: Methodological Reflections on the Jesus Tradition

Niels Henrik Gregersen

This chapter focuses on a particular strand of the Wisdom tradition. More precisely, my aim is to place the biblical wisdom motifs into a wider historical perspective by situating the wisdom teaching of Jesus in the context of Axial Age self-reflexive religion, while acknowledging its particular roots in Jewish-Hellenistic wisdom literature.[1] In contemporary New Testament scholarship, it has become a generally accepted view that the gospels of Matthew and Luke depict Jesus as a representative of divine Wisdom, while the Gospel of John even views Jesus as an embodiment of the eternal Logos. This raises the question: what happens in the interpretative process as we move from seeing Jesus as a man of wisdom to seeing him as God’s own Wisdom/Logos in person? This question has a methodological correlative: what is the relation between historical and theological approaches to the wisdom motifs in the Jesus tradition?

In what follows, I argue that a phenomenological approach to the Jesus tradition offers a shared platform for historical studies and contemporary wisdom Christology. By focusing on typical human attitudes to world, self, and other persons, a phenomenological analysis is able to elucidate what is at stake in the New Testament wisdom traditions—without presupposing particular historical hypotheses, and without making any explicit theological interpretations. By bracketing historical background conditions, as well as metaphysical concepts of divinity, phenomenology explicates typical dilemmas of human co-existence to which the New Testament wisdom texts provide their particular answers. In this sense, a phenomenological reading of the New Testament wisdom traditions offers a mediating perspective between past-oriented historical studies and the present-and-future oriented interests of wisdom Christology.

Using historical and phenomenological analyses as discussion partners involves two commitments that are at once secular in orientation and fully consonant with basic theological convictions. First, historically speaking, the Jesus tradition stands in continuity with other wisdom traditions in the post-Axial Age, in particular with the Jewish-Hellenistic traditions. For example, the Gospel of Luke portrays the twelve-year-old boy Jesus in the Temple as “sitting among the teachers and asking them questions” (2:46). Jesus is here definitely not seen as a pure exception to other wisdom traditions. Second, phenomenologically speaking, the sayings and acts of Jesus exemplify particular interventions into well-known dilemmas of human agency, interventions that can be understood and recognized by any self-reflexive human person, believer or not. As I will show, the wisdom teaching of Jesus moves within shared domains of human understanding, even where Jesus appears to be driving ordinary human understandings to their edge. Phenomenologically speaking, his teaching was remarkable but not exotic. Correspondingly, Christian theology emphasizes that Christ is “fully human” even when embodying divine wisdom.[2]

Proverbial, Prophetic, Skeptical and Metaphysical Strands of Wisdom Theology

More specifically, the wisdom teaching of Jesus, and its subsequently Christological interpretation, build on four interrelated strands of Jewish wisdom theology: (1) the proverbial strand from the Book of Proverbs and other general wisdom traditions; (2) the prophetic strand of Isaiah and Jeremiah; (3) the skeptical strand from Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job; and (4) the metaphysical strand that comes to the fore in the Book of Wisdom and other Jewish-Hellenistic writings. Already within the Jewish tradition to which Jesus was an heir, divine Wisdom was seen as penetrating into all things and networks of reality, both natural and cultural. For as the Book of Wisdom says:

Wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness (7:24–26).

The combination of these four strands is characteristic of the New Testament portrayals of Jesus of Nazareth as the representative of divine Wisdom. The proverbial and prophetic strands relate to the problem of confusion and reorientation, either in practical affairs of life or in concrete historical conditions, while the skeptical strand shows Jesus as a contrarian thinker who was aware of the limitations of human knowledge and security, thus setting up a clear wedge between divine and human wisdom (transcendence and immanence). Finally, the metaphysical strand informs what Martin Hengel has called the “generative matrix” of later Christology, by implicitly assuming Jesus to be God’s eternal yet mobile Wisdom in person.[3] In this view, wisdom is not a commodity to be exchanged, but presupposes some form of personal embodiment enacted in the midst of mundane experiences.

Evolutionary Explanation and Historical Development

Even while zooming in on a particular wisdom tradition in the present essay, I remain convinced that a wider evolutionary perspective has something important to say about the emergence and proliferation of religion in general. Religion, just as any other phenomenon of human culture, will have to adapt to reality, and will have to pay the costs of natural selection if it does not. Religions may be delusional in many respects, but if religious conceptions were fully out of tune with the reality that human beings encounter, and without a sense for what makes life flourish in the long run, they would hardly have survived to this day. Likewise, it is unlikely that religion would have captured the commitment of a majority of the human species if religious life were only about esoteric ornamentations of an otherwise stable and well-functioning human mind. As I will argue, in contrast, wisdom traditions combine common sense observations of ethical co-existence with a self-reflexive awareness of dilemmas and problems of human existence.

Despite promising book titles such as Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religion by Pascal Boyer or Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett, only a few philosophers of religion believe that we have at hand a satisfying evolutionary understanding of religion.[4] Evolutionary cognitive theory of religion, however, has rightly pointed to the apparently universal assumption of the existence of a divine power having a “mind” of its own, a mind higher than human minds per se, and not always accessible to human cognition. Quite a few religious assumptions, such as the existence of a divine mind with a penetrating presence, are widespread among the different religions. As Boyer points out, no religious person has ever argued that God, or the gods, exist always apart from Thursdays, or that God immediately forgets what God intimately knows.[5] Neither can God in this sense be defined in purely geographical terms, as with a God caring for the citizens of London only. Still, there may well be a sensed presence of the divine more pungent somewhere than elsewhere; for example, in the common distinction between more holy and more profane areas of life.

Evidently, wisdom traditions build on basic religious intuitions of a divine Mind and a divine Law while further developing such intuitions and coupling them with a self-reflective thinking. But the almost-universal spread of a religious mind-first view does not imply that the mind and will of God are everywhere evoked as “supernatural” causal agencies for specific salient events.[6] After all, religion is only seldom about retroactively explaining particular facts of reality (say, predators, thunder, floods), and more often about finding meaning and orientation in a clouded world. Practices of divinization may be explanatory in orientation, but not so the more widespread religious practices of prayer and meditation. Here other questions prevail, such as how to find practical orientation and directionality. Which way to go? These are the typical questions within religious life.

In particular, it seems to me that neither a reductive causal perspective (explaining all religion as a “hyperactive agency detection device,” or the like), nor excessive teleological views of reality (arguing that everything that happens has a preset divine goal) do justice to the reflective and self-reflexive level of religious wisdom traditions. In general:

  • Wisdom traditions are concerned with living forwardly rather than explaining backwardly (thus they are inherently pragmatic);
  • Wisdom traditions are concerned with understanding the proximate context in the context of wider concerns of reality (thus they also embody cognitive concerns);
  • Wisdom traditions are about understanding oneself as another, knowing that one cannot understand oneself without understanding other persons (thus facilitating a versatility of moral orientation).

In all of this, wisdom traditions are only rarely decoupled from other religious activities.

  • While wisdom traditions may have emerged as oral traditions, its experts are more often than not members of literate cultures, knowing rituals and ceremonies from the inside, and knowing holy scriptures well, often by heart. Neither Jesus nor Socrates was a writer, they were both part of literate cultures.
  • Wisdom representatives have a relationship with the ritual aspects of religious life. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, is known to have been associated with the Temple cult while simultaneously protesting against the purely external observance of religious rituals. Distinguishing between the two and associating them at one and the same time, the Lord says, according to Jeremiah, that “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (31:33).
  • Wisdom traditions thus internalize external religious forms of life. Without despising the latter, wisdom representatives require and facilitate a way of bringing traditionally formulated religious beliefs and orientations into lived religion and into complex moral questions about living rightly and appropriately in the many streets of life, where confusion more often than not is paired with small windows of potential clarity and opportunity.

Wisdom traditions are thus inherently self-reflexive and move decisively beyond the merely ad hoc explanations and automatic reactions of a hypothetical “hyperactive agency detection device” (HAAD). Wisdom traditions are not created by solitary hyper-productive minds, but emerge in the interactions between human beings and their environments. As such, wisdom traditions both prompt and accumulate levels of self-awareness, including the awareness of one’s own ignorance. Often we simply do not know why something happens. In particular, the skeptical strand of wisdom theology maintains distance from widespread common-sense orientations. Likewise, wisdom traditions may be skeptical of automatic and semiautomatic reactions. “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?,” Jesus asks (Luke 6:41). Why do we so often think that the evil happening to other people is due to their particular sins, and why do we find supernatural explanations of divine wrath against others when we ourselves are sinners as well—perhaps even greater sinners? A fragment from the Jesus tradition:

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did’ (Luke 13:1–5).

Wisdom Traditions as Expressing an Axial Mentality

Wisdom traditions emerged around the middle of first millennium BC, when several civilizations, probably prompted by urbanization, the ascendency of literacy, and a critical mass of highly educated people, came up with universalist ideas. In 1949, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers dubbed this period the “Axial Age” in his Vom Ursprung and Ziel der Geschichte. More recently, the American sociologist Robert N. Bellah gave an extended interpretation of Axial cultures and the role of religion in his major 2011 work Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age.[7]

In the context of Axial civilizations, it may be more appropriate to speak about historical development than about evolution, even though the former builds on the latter. Evolutionary selection pressures remain, but now in a human milieu that allows for experimentation and thought experiments, and also allows for failure that does not necessarily result in premature death. Wherever religious lifeforms have gone through the prior underlying filter of natural selection, many historical developments are possible. Such pluralism points to the difficulty of proposing a general “explanation” of religion. In my view, Shmuel N. Eisenstadt has offered one of the best attempts to characterize the general contours of Axial civilizations by referring to the combination of new cultural orientations and institutional formations based in the rupture of social orders. Axial visions include:

  • a broadening of horizons, opening up for universal perspectives;
  • an ontological distinction between mundane and transcendental orders; and, not least,
  • a normative subordination of the mundane under the transcending perspective.[8]

This characterization has the advantage of seeing the Axial Age as emerging from historical constellations that facilitated a new cluster of attitudes towards society and the wider reality during the Axial period—marked by Confucius in China, Buddha and Shankara in India, Isaiah and Jeremiah in Israel, and the Pre-Socratic philosophers and Plato in Greece—as a new level of philosophical and theological reflection came up relatively simultaneously in different human civilizations. Several aspects of Axial mentality also found in the New Testament wisdom traditions should be mentioned. First, we find a universal mentality not confined to ethnic groups and inherited traditions, thus transcending the frequent “us-them” dynamics of human co-existence. Second, we see the emergence of strong views of transcendence based on a mind-first view, common to both monotheistic and Buddhist traditions. Third, we find a critical view of the hitherto unquestioned authority of kings and despots.

Philosophy and Wisdom Theology

In the Axial Age, philosophy came into being alongside prophetic traditions, often coupled to wisdom motifs. If philosophy means “the love of wisdom” or “the aspiration for wisdom,” as the etymology says, wisdom theology correspondingly presupposes that religious life is not confined to the telling and retelling of myths. Rather, wisdom theology is a reasonable manner of “thinking the divine,” as the etymology of theology suggests. In this manner, both Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology presuppose that God, or the divine, is in itself mental (logikos), full of thinking. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus argued that it is wise (sophon) to agree with the logos of all reality, and that logos is “the one and only thing that is wise” (hen to sophon mounon) (Fragment B 50 and 32). Thus, the wisdom of philosophy has one source only, the divine logos itself. Later, in Aristotle we find the emphasis that human sophia is a skill or craft that comes with practice, “the perfection of an art” (aretæ technæs, Eth. Nich 1141 a 12).[9] Here the practical aspects of wisdom come to the fore.

This emphasis on the divine logos is continued in the Gospel of John, and followed up by later Christian wisdom theology. Thomas Aquinas, for example, likewise points out that all human wisdom comes from one source only, that is, the Wisdom of God.[10] But the sense that wisdom is not to be possessed in full, but only acquired piecemeal through living, is a particularly important insight, also well expressed in the skeptical strand of Jewish wisdom theology. In the Jesus-tradition, the Wisdom of God runs against commonsense perceptions of me-versus-you, or us-versus-them. But exactly as contrarian, the divine Wisdom is the ultimate source of human wisdom through offering resources for human reorientation in a world that is neither fully transparent nor fully opaque.[11]

Philosophical and religious traditions of wisdom, of whatever provenance, aim to orient human beings in a complex world. But in contrast to a purely scientific interest, the primary goal of both philosophy and wisdom theology is not to explain the structures of the world by looking backwards in time, but rather to elucidate aspects of the world that are of practical importance for people that have to make decisions about how to proceed in their lives. As put by the Norwegian philosopher of religion Jan-Olav Henriksen, “orientation makes people aware of what is more worthy of attention than something else, and so on. It creates the background against which something appears as more significant than other things. It situates them in a world, makes them familiar with it, and provides direction and suggests what should be given attention.”[12]

Here we are close to the proverbial strand of wisdom theology. It should be added, however, that many traditions of wisdom (the prophetic and the skeptical strand) are critical of too-mundane and complacent conceptions of reality, and are also very attentive to cognitive features as expressed in the transcendent yet all-penetrating influence of the divine wisdom (the metaphysical strand). Wisdom theology should not be confined to dealing with practicalities only, but is part of a broader spectrum of religious commitment, finding the impetus for a critical (and self-critical) view of reality while re-utilizing resources of divine wisdom not always spelled out on the streets of everyday life. Here the prophetic appeal of wisdom goes along with cognitive assumptions about who God really is, and what is the will of God. As the divine says, via the prophet Isaiah:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
or are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts (55:98–9).

Wisdom Motifs in the Teachings of Jesus: The Multiple Attestation Principle

It is a historical fact that Jewish wisdom motifs are present in the Jesus tradition both within the synoptic gospels (particularly in the speeches) and in the Gospel of John. What is more controversial is whether these wisdom motifs can be traced back to what scholars call “the historical Jesus.” Was Jesus first and foremost an apocalyptic prophet proclaiming that the end of the world is near, so that the wisdom motifs should be subordinate to the apocalyptic ones? This was the view of New Testament scholarship of the late nineteenth and mid-late twentieth century, epitomized in the German scholarship of Rudolf Bultmann and his students; here the theory of a so-called consequent eschatology prevailed. Or, rather, are Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and other members of the “Jesus Seminar” correct in observing that the teachings of Jesus express a “sapiential eschatology” rather than a near-future or far-future “apocalyptic eschatology”? In this case, the wisdom traditions would deserve the upper hand in relation to the apocalyptic elements of the Jesus tradition. In this line of Jesus-scholarship only a very few scholars argue that Jesus’s ministry and teaching should be viewed as derived from the expectation of a soon-to-come disaster.[13] Several reasons can be given for this change in perspective on the character of Jesus as a whole. Old Testament studies have shown how the Jewish prophets (especially Jeremiah) were deeply influenced by wisdom traditions, just as the apocalyptic traditions are. The sharp distinction between the prophetic-apocalyptic traditions that are tied to the anticipation of a turn of history, and wisdom traditions thought to be timeless, cannot be maintained in the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus. Wisdom theology and apocalyptic traditions go hand in hand.

Moreover, in recent decades theories of metaphor have led to a re-emphasis on the rhetorical features of the ministry of Jesus—features that go well beyond the parables. Thus, it cannot be assumed that the words of Jesus are to be understood in a simple referential manner; from first to last his teaching had the form of a prophetic address, not leaving time for going into an explanatory mode concerning past and future events.[14] It is in my view highly unlikely that the overall point of Jesus’ parables is to announce the end of this world. The story of the ten bridesmaids (editorially placed in the synoptic apocalypse) is about the bridesmaids waiting for the groom—not about the glorious coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 25:1–13). Bridesmaids have to be prepared for the day and the hour which they do not know; here and now, the groom is already in their midst (Matthew 9:15). The example stories, like the well-known story of the Good Samaritan, also have their own clear meaning, completely independent of an expectation of the end and purpose of all times. The same is obviously true for the proverb-like formulations that are characteristic of much of the dialogue in the synoptic gospels. Through provocative exaggeration Jesus compels his listeners to rediscover their sense of proportion: again, why do you see splinter in your brother’s eye, but not the beam in your own? Wisdom requires the ability to change perspective, seeing oneself from the standpoint of the other.

The most important historical argument for interpreting Jesus in light of the wisdom traditions is that they saturate quite different layers of the tradition. Earlier, Jesus scholars often argued for the criterion of difference: what is most likely to go back to the historical Jesus is what is distinctively different from Jewish, Greek and Christian traditions. A more commonly used criterion for historians (and archeologists) is the criterion of multiple independent attestation. On this latter score, wisdom theology turns out to be present within quite different traditions of the gospel traditions, whereas the unequivocal apocalyptic expressions are confined to a few highly edited passages in the synoptic Gospels.[15] Such chapters might well have been collected due to the interest of the first disciples, shocked by the message of resurrection, in hypothesizing about the near-end of the world—an uncomfortable view only for later generations of Christians.

Neither the minimalist historical criterion of difference, nor the broader criterion of multiple attestation, speak in favor of Jesus’s ministry as derived from a futuristic expectation of the end of history. Only this much seems to be (relatively) certain: Jesus was convinced (just as was John the Baptist) that the present world order where Satan ruled was dying, and that this would soon come to light. The pertinent question was: who rules the world, God or Satan? The coming of the kingdom of God, however, could take various forms: “The specific content could be quite open or even vague, for example, with or without an armed revolt, with or without a messiah, with or without a cosmic destruction.”[16] Thus Jesus was able to use the apocalyptic world of ideas for the purpose of wisdom teaching. As aptly formulated by Ben Witherington: “What seems to be the case is that Jesus usually sapientialized whatever he said, often expressing prophetic or apocalyptic ideas in some sort of Wisdom form of speech.”[17]

Historical Reconstruction and Phenomenological Interpretation

Viewed from a very general perspective, Jesus may be termed a wisdom teacher. If one emphasizes his appeal to basic intuitions (instead of esoteric knowledge) and to personal integrity (instead of learned skills), he might well be classified as a man of wisdom alongside men like Laozi, Buddha, or the Greek philosophical Cynics.[18] Such characterization is helpful insofar as it situates Jesus within the Axial-Age mentality. The price to be paid, however, is that such a characterization is so expansive that it loses precision.

The second option is to understand the life and work of Jesus in light of the specific Jewish Chokmâh traditions and their partial fusion with Hellenistic Sophia-thought in the centuries leading up to the birth of Jesus. This is the perspective traditionally preferred in historical-critical scholarship. Hereby a higher level of precision is achieved. Moreover, this approach makes it possible to overlap the historian’s characterization of Jesus, interpreted in the context of his time, and some of the later theological interpretations of Jesus, such as the distinctive presence of the divine Wisdom in him.

Where does this leave a contemporary explication of a potential Wisdom Christology? Not very far, I fear, for the establishment of historical links between Jewish wisdom traditions and the distinctive wisdom activity of Jesus does not, by itself, add weight to the contemporary significance of any such traditions. Yet here, I will argue, the phenomenological approach may prove helpful. While historians (as is their duty) primarily use texts as stepping-stones for the historical reconstruction of a past world (in our case, the Jesus figure behind the text), the interest of a phenomenological interpretation of the Jesus tradition lies in explicating the typical ways Jesus approached other people and coped with the wider concerns of reality. In phenomenology, the interest centers on the Jesus-figure in and of the texts themselves, insofar as the biblical texts are read as texts for elucidating the human condition.

It is important for theological reflections on the significance of Jesus that the Jesus traditions in fact do deal with real-life situations that are not bound to the very specific historical conditions around the year 30 CE. Rather, they relate to issues with which all human beings have to cope: to eat or be hungry, to live together or alone, to be in the social center or on the periphery, to hope or to fear, to have faith or not to have faith. Thus, while the historian swings back and forth between the world of the text and the world behind the text, the phenomenological interpretation swings back and forth between the semantic world of the texts and the practical world in front of the text, in everyday life.[19] 

Wisdom Christology using the Resources of Thought Experiments

In this move between historical texts of the past and the elementary concerns of human beings, the theologian shares an interest with the phenomenologist. What historians and phenomenologists bracket (and for methodological reasons must bracket) are the kind of questions any believer or potential believer today throws into the spotlight: what if Jesus was sent by God’s own Wisdom? What if his life and destiny were the Wisdom of God in person? What significance does it have if God’s personified Wisdom died on the cross and was resurrected from the dead?

Raising such thought experiments, and subsequently elaborating on the coherence and logic of Christian beliefs, is part of the field of systematic theology. Yet only religious decisions or long-term commitments can answer such questions, positively or negatively. Only indirectly can contemporary academic theology follow the movement of faith from Jesus to Christ, that is, in the form of a thought experiment. This takes place by unfolding a Christology along certain lines of thought (here the idea of Jesus as the Wisdom of God embodied and personified) and by drawing out the consequences of these lines of thought for an interpretation of the human existence in general.

The historical base of such a Wisdom Christology will be better warranted if it is in continuity with the historian’s portrayal of the historical Jesus—and it will be weakened if it is stark opposition to historical reconstructions of the Jesus figure. Likewise, the universal perspective of such wisdom Christology will be strengthened if the interpretation of Jesus’s life and work is phenomenologically understandable, and it will be weakened if Jesus’s ministry turns out to be esoteric, without discernable links to everyday experience.

Therefore, discussing the relationship between historical-Jesus scholarship and contemporary christological interpretations cannot do without a more comprehensive understanding of the interpersonal field in which Jesus acted and spoke, and in which he was both passively and actively involved. Just as creation theology is not simply a theological extrapolation of scientific models about cosmological beginnings, so Christology is not simply an extrapolation of historical-Jesus scholarship. Yet just as no creation theology can be credible without taking scientific descriptions of the world into account, so a contemporary Wisdom Christology needs to take historical as well as evolutionary scholarship seriously.[20]

In this manner, the phenomenological interpretation of the Jesus tradition comes in between the historical-Jesus scholarship and more “metaphysical” interpretations of Christology. For, as I have said, a phenomenological approach interprets Jesus’s ministry and actions as exemplifying specific attitudes towards the plethora of shortcomings and opportunities of human existence, in the past as well as today. Such inter-human attitudes show up in the semantic universe of the gospels (including the conceptions that Jesus may have used in his ministry). At the same time, such religious semantics involves what we might call a pragmatics of faith. Terms such as “the kingdom of God,” “the neighbor,” and so on, are not purely descriptive, but also embody prescriptive views of preferred human attitudes towards others. Here a new set of thought experiments come up: if I (or anyone) were to live in accordance with the wisdom teaching of the Jesus tradition, what would this mean in practical life today, in relation to the economy, ecology, the treatment of friends and foes, and other aspects of our world?

Christology thus builds on the trajectory of a hermeneutical interpretation of Jesus’s ministry and work offered by a phenomenological interpretation. Unlike the phenomenological interpretation, however, theology addresses the metaphysical and theological presupposition that—if the confession of Jesus as Christ is true—is part of the ministry of Jesus, and is to be explicated accordingly. Theological interpretation thus investigates what it entails to interpret the story of Jesus in the light of God, as a revelation of God’s nature and will. Observe here, however, that even the theological concept of revelation is phenomenological in orientation: something particular (Jesus) may be a manifestation of something universal (God’s all-penetrating yet invisible Wisdom) to somebody, the hearers and listeners, who can use this revelation for elucidating the conditions of life and orientating their own actions within this phenomenologically describable life. Thus, the theological interpretation of Jesus differs from the historical approach in that it does not primarily aim at an understanding of Jesus’s social or ideological-historic background (Jesus behind the text), though the latter remains important for theology. More importantly for theology, however, is the shared interest with the phenomenological approach in the distinctive attitudes to the social and natural realm, attitudes exemplified in the gospel (the Jesus in the text).

In so doing, however, theology remains indebted to a metaphysical orientation that is universal in scope because of the simple fact that Christian theology is not only interested in the past, but in the world in front of the text as well as in the transhistorical presence of the divine Wisdom, embodied in Jesus of Nazareth but not confined to him. In this sense, theology assumes a wide-screen view even on very practical life affairs, a “metaphysical” orientation on practical questions widely shared within the human species.[21]

Another fundamental difference between historical-Jesus scholarship and theology is that the interest of Christology not only lies in the “historical Jesus” (that is, the picture of Jesus reconstructed by historians), but in the figure of Jesus including his effect on his companion travelers and later sharers of commitment and lifestyle. Since Jesus initiated an atmosphere of faith, hope, and activity among his hearers, the interpretation of Jesus as God’s own Wisdom in person cannot separate Jesus’s historical personhood from this later reception. Therefore, the later layers of the Jesus tradition—those that unequivocally reveal the influence of the Easter confession of the early Christian communities—also have the utmost relevance for Christology. Insofar as Jesus was the Christ, the “person” of Jesus is permeating all history and cannot be separated from his followers. Christology cannot be separated from soteriology. In this sense, Christology has to address a wider spectrum than the pre-Easter traditions about the content of Jesus’s ministry, work, and fate. There can be no Wisdom Christology without a corresponding interest in the wisdom traditions outside the Christian canon. For, as phrased in the later Pauline tradition, “the wisdom of God is multi-colored” (polypoikilos, Ephesians 3:11).

NIELS HENRIK GREGERSEN is Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Copenhagen. His work focuses on two research fields: (1) how to develop a constructive Christian theology in the context of secularized and multi-religious Western societies; and (2) how to bring about a mutual interaction between science and religion that also allows religious reflection to be an active player. Within systematic theology, he specializes in the theology of creation and Christology; within the field of science and religion, he specializes in the philosophy of evolutionary biology and the sciences of complexity. Gregersen has served as the leader of the Danish Science-Theology Forum (1992-2003) and as Vice-President of the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology (ESSSAT), responsible for its publication program (1998-2002). He is a founding member and Trustee of the International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR). He was the Founder and Chairperson of Løgstrup Archives at Aarhus University (1993-2000), and chairperson for the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France (2003-10). From 2008-13 he was co-Director of the Centre for Naturalism & Christian Semantics. Recent publications include Reformation Theology for a Post-secular Age (with Trygve Wyller and Bengt Kristenson Uggla, 2017); Naturalism and Beyond: Religious Naturalism and Its Alternatives (with Mikael Stenmark, 2016); Den generøse ortodoksi: Konflikt og kontinuitet i kristendommen (2015, 2016); and Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology (2014).


[1] The “Axial Age” extends from approximately the 8th to the 3rd century BCE.
[2] Expressed in terms of the proposal of “deep incarnation,” Jesus embodied the wide material world of creation as well as the full spectrum of human existence, from growth and flourishing to decay and despair. See Niels Henrik Gregersen, ed., Incarnation: On the Scope and Depths of Christology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015); in this volume, systematic theologians (including Celia Deane-Drummond, Denis Edwards, Dirk Evers, Elizabeth A. Johnson, Jürgen Moltmann, Christopher Southgate, and myself) explore facets of deep incarnation in more detail.
[3] Martin Hengel, “Jesus als messianischer Lehrer der Weisheit und die Anfänge der Christologie,” in Sagesse et Religion: Colleque de Strasbourg, edited by Edmond Jacob (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1979), 147–88. This was fundamental for the rediscovery of the New Testament wisdom traditions. Hengel’s article informed subsequent historical scholarship as well as systematic theology. See, for example, Gottfried Schimanowski, Weisheit und Messias: Die jüdischen Voraussetzungen der urchristlichen Präexistenzchristologie (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr-Siebeck, 1985) and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology (New York: Continuum Press 1994), 139–62.
[4] Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religion (New York: Basic Books, 2001); Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (London: Penguin, 2006). For a critical review of the discussion, see Aku Visala, Naturalism, Theism and the Cognitive Study of Religion: Religion Explained? (London: Routledge, 2016).
[5] Boyer, Religion Explained, 51, 56.
[6] On my own view, see Niels Henrik Gregersen, “The Naturalness of Religious Imagination and the Idea of Revelation,” Ars Disputandi 3.1 (2003): 261­–87. See also the discussion in J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, Alone in the World? Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 261–70.
[7] Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011). See also Niels Henrik Gregersen, “Religion and Axiality: Theological Reflections on Robert N. Bellah’s Axial Age Hypothesis,” Scottish Journal of Theology 70.1 (2017): 61–73.
[8] Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, “The Axial Conundrum between Transcendental Visions and Vicissitudes of their Institutionalizations: Constructive and Destructive Possibilities,” in The Axial Age and its Consequences, edited by Robert N. Bellah and Hans Joas (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012), 277–93.
[9] Günter Figal, Martin Hailer, and Heribert Wahl, “Wisdom,” Religion Past and Present (Leiden: Brill, 2013): 505.
[10] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-1, 1.6.
[11] As rightly pointed out by Ingolf A. Dalferth: “Ziel des Philosophierens ist nicht, Gewissheiten zu zerstören, sondern angesichts fragwürdig gewordener Gewissheiten durch Einsicht in the Wahrheit der eigenen Situation zur Weisheit in der Gestaltung des eigenen Lebens zu befähigen. Weder ist alles gewiss noch nichts sicher. Weder stehen wir völlig im Dunkeln, noch ist alles klar und hell” (Die Wirklichkeit des Möglichen: Hermeneutische Religionsphilosophie [Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2003], 54.)
[12] Jan-Olav Henriksen, “Everyday Religion as Orientation and Transformation: A Challenge to Theology,” Nordic Journal of Religion and Society 29.1 (2016): 38.
[13] Marcus Borg, “Reflections on a Discipline: A North American Perspective,” in Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research, edited by Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 20–21. Borg argues for an understanding of the eschatology of Jesus as sapiential rather than apocalyptic. Similarly, see John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992). Crossan writes: “The sapiential Kingdom … is a style of life for now rather than a hope for life in the future” (292).
[14] See Mark 13:22.
[15] See Mark 13; Matthew 24–25; Luke 21.
[16] Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 287.
[17] Ben Witherington III, Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 201.
[18] See Marcus Borg, Conflict, Holiness & Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (New York: E. Mellen Press, 1984), 237ff.
[19] I here use distinctions borrowed from Paul Ricœur, “Phénomenologie de la religion,” in Lectures 3: Aux frontiers de la philosophie, edited by Olivier Mongin (Paris: Seuil, 1994): 263­–71.
[20] A good example of the latter is Celia Deane-Drummond, Christ and Evolution: Wonder and Wisdom (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009).
[21] One the role of “metaphysicality” in specific human capacities, see Agustín Fuentes, “Evolutionary Perspectives and Transdisciplinary Intersections: A Roadmap to Generative Areas of Overlap in Discussing Human Nature,” Theology and Science 11.2 (2013): 106–29. See also Daniël P. Veldsman, “The Place of Metaphysics in the Science-Religion Debate,” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 73.3 (2017).



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