A Non-exclusive Scriptural Reasoning on Christian Wisdom from a Chinese Perspective

Jason Lam
Institute of Sino-Christian Studies, Hong Kong

When Christian Wisdom meets Chinese

In his Confessions when Augustine was asked ?what then is time??, he answered ?If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to a questioner, I do not know.? [i] There are not many words which may appropriately replace the position of ?time? in the Augustinian idiom. But ?wisdom? is surely one of those. And in fact Augustine?s answer is full of wisdom. But what then is wisdom? How could we discern it?

Wisdom, like time, can hardly be explained and is at once experienced by all human beings, regardless of their regions, nations and religions. The Christian tradition, of course, has its own view on wisdom. In the Hebrew Bible hokhmah is associated with skills such as metalwork, carpentry and weaving in the Exodus community (Exod. 35-36). The meaning can be extended to include the ability of diviners and magicians of Egypt (Gen. 41:8; Exod. 7:11), that of Daniel to interpret dreams (Dan. 2:27), and even cleverness and cunning in general (Proverbs). The sages in the Hebrew tradition concern and teach about the order of creation and moral actions through discerning everyday experiences. A striking feature of the wisdom literature (Proverbs, Jobs and Ecclesiastes) is the absence of typical Israelite elements like the promises to the patriarchs, the Exodus experience and the Sinai covenant. Thus it is true to say that ?wisdom is an international heritage in which Israel had a share?. [ii]

Undoubtedly wisdom is a universal category. Analyses by people from different nations and regions are expected to reflect a certain degree of similarity. But where then lies the uniqueness of Christian wisdom? Undoubtedly, it lies in the one who is even greater than Solomon (Mt. 12:42) ? Jesus the teacher of wisdom and the incarnated wisdom. Peter K. H. Lee, a veteran in religious dialogue in the Chinese academia, furnished an interesting article ?Jesus Christ as Divine Wisdom?, [iii] in which he articulated possible points of contact between Christianity and the three prominent Chinese religions through focusing on Jesus? words and deeds. Although the nature of this work is introductory, it calls forth further thought of Christian wisdom in the Chinese context.

Firstly, Lee thinks that the rabbi Jesus is undoubtedly an outstanding teacher of wisdom in the eyes of Confucians. One of the many characteristics of Jesus? teaching is his use of parables. Audiences are not astonished by some abstract theories, but on the contrary his choice of materials like sowing seeds and shepherding flocks is so down-to-earth that the masses can comprehend. Nevertheless, the implication of these stories is at once practical and apparently inexhaustible in different dimensions. In addition, Confucians would be interested to know that Jesus the storyteller is a wandering wisdom teacher rejected by upper-class people, like Confucius. Wisdom teachings of ethical concerns by both of them have also been distilled by intellectuals over time, to the point of becoming some sort of universal principle related to ?Heaven? and the human. Therefore Lee thinks that it would not be a surprise if some Chinese people are willing to sell all that they have to buy the message of the kingdom (Mt. 13:44-45).

If those who transmitted the wisdom teachings of Jesus and Confucius turned them into abstract discourses for the educated, was this a violation of their original intention? Thus Lee suggested that Daoists would read Jesus? teachings in another perspective. They would be more attracted by Jesus? sayings like ?unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.? (Mt. 18:2-4) This kind of paradoxical teaching is commonly found in Daode Jing . Just take one example from chapter 45:

Great support seems deficient,

Employed it will not collapse;

Great buoyancy seems empty,

Utilized it will not be exhausted.

Great honesty seems corrupt,

Great skills seem incompetent,

Great orations seem inarticulate.

It is known that during the late Ming dynasty when the Jesuits came to China, one major obstacle in their mission was persuading the Chinese intellectuals to accept that the Jesus whom they worshipped was a criminal crucified by the authorities. But the Daoist way of reading may to some degree ease the pain of transmitting the historical fact. Paul?s assertion ?For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles? (1 Cor. 1:22-23) may find audiences among Chinese in this way of reading.

In the above explication Lee has briefly articulated two possible ways of bridging Christianity with Confucianism and Daoism. The paths are so far constructed on the basis of Jesus? words and deeds ? these two taken together eventually lead to the Christian confession of Jesus? identity as the divine wisdom incarnate. A distinctive trajectory is sketched in the Gospel of John?s prologue and the identity and uniqueness of Jesus is thus established. For some, an exclusive claim follows. Lee is aware that the concept of incarnation was developed from the Hebrew wisdom tradition and was essential to the development of wisdom/logos Christology. Among prominent Chinese religions Buddhism is probably the one which includes the most discussions of wisdom. For example, Prajna Paramita, developed from the Four Noble Truths, is a delicate wisdom discourse. But Lee is frank in admitting that even the Buddhist tradition would find incarnated wisdom a concept incommensurable to their thinking when pressed to the end. [iv] So, is the climax and uniqueness of Christian wisdom in the end not compatible with the Chinese mind? Or putting in another way: is Christian wisdom exclusive of other ways of religious thinking?

Where does the crucial issue lie?

Having studied in Britain for several years, I am aware that there was once a controversial debate related to the book The Myth of God Incarnate in that country thirty years ago. [v] I mentioned this because in light of the above discussion the issue raised has not gone old. On the contrary, it is from the writing of a Chinese theologian that incarnate wisdom (in its strictest definition) is still considered an obstacle for the Chinese mind. However, in face of so many issues of religious pluralism (conflicts) today, it seems that developing a hospitable way of interpreting Christianity to live in peace with other religions is one urgent duty of theologians. But must it cost the Christian uniqueness and identity?

Thirty years ago a wide range of important issues lying behind the topic of incarnation were already articulated ? its logical coherency, relation to other doctrines, scriptural evidence, the development of creeds, doctrines and tradition, cultural conditioning, and so on. All are related to sophisticated discussions which we cannot even list completely in this limited space, not to say solving them. But being a Chinese I just want to raise a simple question: if there is a religious doctrine which is not commeasurable with my traditional religio-cultural concepts, then must it be not acceptable to me? The answer is probably ?not necessarily? even if it claims ?only one man Jesus can actually be God to humankind?. It is simply because ?whether any one man can actually be God? may not be a matter of concern in my religio-cultural context. The problem appears only if one claims ?since we have encountered that man, we are superior to you.? To put it in another way: does a claim of uniqueness (due to the formulation of incarnation) necessarily lead to a ?superior? value judgment?

The answer seems to be ?no?. But it is also known that the question will become complicated if we dig deeper because incarnation is intertwined with the issue of ?finality?. The term needs to be taken literally with the concern for ?the end time?, which means that how the eschaton is to be perceived is involved in the discussion; and that is culturally conditioned. Therefore on the one hand there are solutions trying to provide some ?fast tracks? by renouncing the uniqueness of incarnation. Since the conventional Christian view is culturally conditioned, modern people living in an age of religious pluralism have no need to take it seriously as many may not be interested in this concept. There exist on the other hand, of course, those who hold closely to the traditional dogmatic position. To them altering any conventional meaning of incarnation may become a threat to the Christian identity, since it is related to the one who revealed God. Therefore moderate approaches to theology (Christology) have emerged. Spirit Christology is one common choice. [vi] It has the advantage of strong scriptural ground and is capable of explaining most features of incarnation. However, doubts still persist for those who cling to the uniqueness of ?the? incarnation. The uniqueness and universality of the logos/wisdom incarnated seem irreconcilable.

I am not particularly conservative in doctrinal discussion, but ?culturally conditioned? does not look to me a good reason for rejecting any traditional claims. Anyone at any time is ?culturally conditioned? and thus anything can simply be deprived of its significance by this reason, regardless of its nature as a Christian dogma or a Chinese ritual. But the argument about ?culturally conditioned? reminds us of an important fact. The personification or hypostatization of wisdom/logos is not a post-Easter construction, but a concept that already existed in the Hebrew wisdom tradition. From the Christian perspective, we know very well the significance of the personification of wisdom in Prov. 8, in which wisdom is mentioned as an instrument of creation related to God in the very beginning. Thus it is generally agreed in contemporary scholarship that the concept of the pre-existent Son is taken over from this line of thought. In addition, we should pay more attention to the tendency toward identifying wisdom, logos and spirit in the postexilic period. For example, The Wisdom of Solomon reads:

O God of my ancestors and Lord of mercy,

who have made all things by your word,

and by your wisdom have formed humankind

to have dominion over the creatures you have made. (9:1-2)

Who has learned your counsel

unless you have given wisdom

and sent your spirit from on high? (9:17)

Therefore, when we turn to the New Testament, it is not surprising that Jesus is also depicted as the one inspired by the Spirit apart from the incarnation account. Lk. 4:16-21 is the most obvious example when it quotes Isa. 61:1-2 ?The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me?? The narratives of Jesus? baptism, being tempted in the wilderness, and healing and exorcism in the Synoptic Gospels are of this kind. And even the Gospel of John retains the picture of Jesus? anointment in river Jordan (1:32-33; 3:34), showing that Jesus is inspired by the Spirit. Therefore we can find that some early apostolic fathers identified the pre-existent Christ with the Spirit. Examples could be found in the two letters by Clement of Rome, the epistle of Barnabas, the epistle of Hermas, and so on. It is one reason why Spirit Christology is an approach often appropriated by scholars for the topic until today.

Nevertheless, Paul did not directly identify the pre-existent Christ with the Spirit in his letters, and John had carefully differentiated the two types of discourses. Thus in the New Testament, it is easy to find direct correspondence between Christ and logos or wisdom, but the relationship with the Spirit is not identical somehow. [vii] Therefore in the second century, although in the works of Tatian, Ignatius of Antioch and Lactantius logos and spirit seem to be interchangeable, Justin Martyr and Athenagoras could clearly distinguish the two, and their works became milestones in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Seen in this way, if we confuse the two ways of perceiving Jesus ? being the wisdom/logos incarnated and inspired by the Spirit ? then the uniqueness or identity of Christianity may really be threatened, because the Trinitarian framework for knowing the Christian God will be blurred. In the eyes of a Chinese this is not a way to be welcomed because it makes Christianity not quite an interesting ?other?. The genuine characteristic of its concept of God is wiped away.

In light of the above discussion, the key to reconciling the universality and uniqueness of the Christian wisdom does not lie in how the pre-existent logos/wisdom or Spirit can be manifested in the human Jesus, since either way can give a good explanation. Rather, the true focus should be put on whether the universality of the logos/wisdom can be retained after ?the? incarnation without confusing it directly with the immanence of the Spirit. Needless to say, dealing with this direction is a huge task. Therefore the following explication is unavoidably sketchy. In it, I am trying to offer a non-exclusive scriptural reasoning of the post-incarnated wisdom from the perspective of a Chinese Christian.

The divine economy revisited

It is easy to talk about the general experience of the Spirit in different religions and cultures, but it is not quite possible to transform that of the earthly Jesus into a universal form, since the incarnated logos/wisdom is not omnipresent. But the resurrected Christ can be; and the role of the resurrection in the divine economy is often underestimated if not ignored in developing the discussion. Perhaps the ascension ? a doctrine which is neglected too readily in modern theology ? deserves more consideration. If incarnation is a concretization of the universal logos/wisdom, then ascension is the contrary ? the dissolution of the previous concretization. And the direct question brought forth is: where is the logos/wisdom which had once become human being after the ascension? The standard answer is exalted ?at the right hand of the Father? according to the Bible and the creeds. For modern people this kind of discourse is usually categorized as ?mythological? if not unintelligible, but we must consider seriously the theological implications.

There are two major works performed by the exalted Christ mentioned in the New Testament: intercession for believers (Rom. 8:34; Heb.) and judgment (Acts 10:42; 1 Cor. 5:10). It is noteworthy that these are also carried out by the Spirit in the heart of the believers (Rom. 8:26; John 16:8). Thus a natural inference is that these works are cooperated by the exalted Christ and the Spirit in the divine economy after ascension. [viii] The beginning of this divine cooperation can be found during the Pentecost, when Peter quoted the prophecy of Joel in his speech (Acts 2:17-21; Joel 2:28-32). In the past the Spirit descended only on individual persons for a short period of time. Its persistent presence upon all flesh was only expected. But it truly happened at that time ? just after the trajectory of incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of logos/ wisdom (Acts 2:22-32). Therefore Peter ended his speech with:

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witness. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear? Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:32-26)

Seen in this way, the economy of the Son as incarnated logos/wisdom in this world is a necessary process for the universal work of the Spirit since Pentecost. The incarnation of the logos/wisdom is only the beginning of a long process, resurrection and ascension seem to be the climax, but they all belong to the preparation stages for the possibility of a new cooperation with the Spirit in the divine economy.

If the cross is a self-negating element to the uniqueness of incarnation, then resurrection could be taken as the negation to this self-negation. [ix] But the result is not merely the pre-existent logos before incarnation, as the resurrected body is not the same as before ? such that it can ascend to ?the right hand of God?. The consequence of this process is the sending of the Spirit. The question in focus now becomes: what is the essential feature in the cooperation of the logos/wisdom and the Spirit after ascension, such that the role of the logos/wisdom is not diminished in the shade of the presence of the Spirit?

James D. G. Dunn has articulated a valuable point for our reference. [x] There is a subtle difference between the resurrection of Christ and that of all people at the eschaton in Paul?s expression. That who raised Jesus from the dead is the Spirit. But when it dwells in the human mortal bodies, it ?gives life? ( ?????????? ) (Rom. 8:11) instead of raises them up. It is interesting that in 1 Cor. 15:45 the first Adam is a ?living being? (???&#951? ????? ), but the last Adam is not a ?living spirit? but a ?life-giving spirit? ( ????? ????????&#957). In fact, the New Testament describes the Spirit as ?the Spirit of Jesus? after ascension (Acts 16:7; Rom. 8:9; Gal.4:6; Phil. 1:19; 1 Pet. 1:11). That cosmic power from the divine origin inspired Jesus but also came through the exalted Jesus to humankind after the Christ event. Crucifixion, resurrection and ascension are important stages to transform the incarnated/inspired and resurrected Jesus into the Lord of the Spirit. Therefore the divine wisdom/logos is still present after ascension through the cooperation with the Spirit. The whole process must be seen complementarily from both spirit Christology and incarnation Christology. It may be true that Spirit Christology alone may produce the explanation given above. But if the account of incarnation is ignored, then the logos/wisdom of God may become superfluous and the Christian faith is in danger of being reduced to binitarianism or modalism.

According to this interpretation, the Spirit was stamped with Christ after ascension, and the Christ event became a basis for discerning divine revelation in the Christian faith. This criterion of judgment is also valid for discerning spirits since the Spirit is the spirit of Christ. In other words, the sending of the Spirit through the Son is of epistemological significance for the Christian community in the discernment of divine revelation, [xi] rather than an ontological limiting criterion of the presence of the logos/wisdom after ascension. However, although a community outside the Christian church may retain a possibility of being immersed in the presence of the Spirit of the post-incarnated Christ, it still has a fundamental difference. It has not encountered the incarnated wisdom/logos and thus cannot recognize the divine economy articulated by the Christian tradition. Does it mean that they are inferior? By no means. On the contrary the Christian recognition points paradoxically to a special kind of ?virtue? rather than a reason for boasting oneself. Immediately after Paul affirmed that Christians received a spirit of adoption and cried ?Abba! Father!?, he pointed out that the way to be glorified with Christ is to suffer with him (Rom. 8:17). [xii] The concrete way of manifesting the suffering of Christ is his cross, which is also the link between incarnation and the economy of the logos/wisdom and Spirit after ascension. No one can ever identify with Christ apart from following his way of the cross. Neither did the Spirit of Jesus provide any fast track. Only if we are crucified with Christ, then may he lives in us through the Spirit (Gal. 2:19-20). Self-negation becomes the final word and key of recognizing the presence of Christian wisdom.

The virtue of mutual respect and nourishment

Turning to the topic of ?virtue? brought about by the Spirit of wisdom, the Pauline and Johannine teaching on the discernment of spirits (esp. 1 Cor. 12; 1 John) may intrigue discussion in view of religious pluralism. This kind of teaching is a succession of the Hebrew prophetic tradition (Deut. 13:1-5; 1 Kings 22:19-23). [xiii] Since Jesus is recognized as the climax of the inspiration of the prophetic spirit, the Spirit is affirmed as Jesus? Spirit. Thus hereafter the judging criterion of the spirit is related to Jesus. One major kind of discernment mentioned in the New Testament is from the fruit which a person bears. Gal. 5:22-23 includes a standard list of ?virtues?; the passage of 1 Cor. 13 on love is a development from the discussion of prophecy; according to the Johannine writings the presence and inspiration of the Spirit is closely linked to ?walking in the truth? (1 John 3:19-24), and calls forth mutual love in believers such that others may recognize their identity of the disciples of Jesus (John 13:34-35). These phenomena of ?virtue? are obviously the work of both Christ and Spirit. But although the ultimate standard is still related to the likeness of Jesus, other religions may not feel offended. This is because the discernment is mainly according to the ?virtues? manifested in the believers. Jesus has manifested the humanity par excellence as a perfect example. The same kind of inspiration by the Spirit of the post-incarnated wisdom may be repeated in other people though to different degrees.

It is noteworthy that though Peter Lee in the above-mentioned article cannot find a comparable concept to incarnation in Buddhism, he directs us to the Chinese Buddhist notion ? xian shen shuo fa ?. It literally means that a sage immersed deeply in the Buddhist tradition proclaims the truth of Dharma in the first-person as the truth is being present in him. Jesus was inspired by the Spirit as described in the Gospels such that his teaching and responses astonished Pharisees and teachers. This looks very close to the Chinese Buddhist understanding of the way of manifestation of the truth. Phenomena of this kind may occur in different religious traditions if we do not exclude the possibility of the universal work of the post-incarnated wisdom. In other words Christianity does not monopolize the divine truth.

Although the concept of incarnation may appear unique, other religions immersed in the same spirit of wisdom may also have developed ideas equally unique. Mutual enrichment could be achieved if we humble ourselves to admit that we are yet perfect and willing to learn from others. A recent example worth to be mentioned is the 2006 Edward Cadbury Lectures delivered by Prof. Lai Pan-chiu. His topic is on ?Experiments in Mahayana Christian Theology?. Part of his eight speeches is a delicate explication of the human nature of Christ through the appropriation of The Discourses on the Awakening of Faith in Mahayana . The Barthian idea of harmatiology and soteriology, and the Chalcedonian formula of the two natures of Christ, are examined through correlating to Tath?gatagarbha thought and the relationship of Tien-tai and Hua-yan Buddhism. It is not possible to repeat his sophisticated analysis here, [xiv] but this attempt shows the possibility that the wisdom of other religions may be appropriated to illumine the difficult teaching of Christianity. The truth is one, illumined by the Spirit of wisdom. This is the reason we should do theology and scriptural reasoning hospitable to others.

When the issue of religious pluralism is to be addressed, over-openness in theological reconstruction is occasionally seen, such that the uniqueness and identity of Christianity is endangered. In the eyes of a Chinese this is not necessary and even not welcome. In conclusion, only if the uniqueness of Christian wisdom is emphasized can Christians bring about a discussion hospitable to others by contributing themselves and without distorting themselves. A genuine wisdom reading of Christianity and other religions can be developed for mutual nourishment. David Ford is undoubtedly a practitioner of this virtue of mutual respect in his scriptural reasoning with other religious believers. The spirit is felt by and influences those around him. I pay tribute to his work.


[i] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions , trans. F. J. Sheed (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), 11.14.

[ii] . Ronald Murphy, ?Wisdom in the OT?, in Anchor Bible Dictionary , 922.

[iii] . Peter K. H. Lee, ?Jesus Christ as Divine Wisdom?, in Dancing with the Dragon and the Phoenix (HK: Logos & Pneuma, 2004), 94-111.

[iv] . But Lee is not saying that incarnation is not acceptable to the Chinese, but incarnated wisdom a strange concept.

[v] . John Hick ed., The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM, 1977); also Michael Goulder ed., Incarnation and Myth: the Debate Continued (London: SCM, 1979).

[vi] . E.g. Geoffrey W. H. Lampe?s 1976 Bampton Lectures God as Spirit (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977) became a very good case study for the discussion in that period.

[vii] Cf. James D. G. Dunn, The Christ and the Spirit Vol.2 – Pneumatology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 336-337, 341.

[viii] Cf. Dunn, 338-341.

[ix] I am inspired by the approach taken by Paul Tillich in Systematic Theology Vol.2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 161-162, though he underestimated the importance of ascension.

[x] ? Dunn, 155f.

[xi] ? Cf. David H. Kelsey, The Fabric of Paul Tillich?s Theology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 168.

[xii] ? Cf. Dunn, 350-351.

[xiii] ? Ibid., 348-349.

[xiv] The lectures are not yet published, but I am grateful to Prof. Lai for generously allowing me to read his manuscripts.