« Prev Chapter XVII. The Wisdom That is from Above. Next »

203

CHAPTER XVII.
THE WISDOM THAT IS FROM ABOVE.

"But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without variance, without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for them that make peace."—St. James iii. 17, 18.

AT the beginning of his Epistle St. James exhorts those of his readers who feel their lack of wisdom to pray for it. It is one of those good and perfect gifts from above, which come down from the Father of lights, who "giveth to all liberally, and upbraideth not" (i. 5, 17). He now, after having sketched its opposite, states, in a few clear, pregnant words, what the characteristics of this heavenly gift of wisdom are. In both passages he probably had in his mind, and wished to suggest to the minds of his readers, well-known utterances on the same subject in the Books of Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus, and Wisdom.

"My son, if thou cry after discernment, and lift up thy voice for understanding; if thou seek her as silver, and search for her as for hid treasures; then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord giveth wisdom; out of His mouth cometh knowledge and understanding" (Prov. ii. 3-6).

Again, the magnificent "Praise of Wisdom" in the twenty-fourth chapter of Ecclesiasticus, in which Wisdom 204 is made to tell her own glories, opens thus: "I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a cloud;" and it continues, "Then the Creator of all things gave me a commandment, and He that created me caused my tabernacle to rest, and said, Let thy dwelling be in Jacob, and thine inheritance in Israel. Before time was, from the beginning, He created me, and until times cease I shall in nowise fail" (vv. 3, 8, 9).

And in the similar passage in the Book of Wisdom, in which the praise of Wisdom is put into the mouth of Solomon, he says, "Wisdom, which is the worker of all things, taught me.... She is the breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation from the glory of the Almighty: therefore doth no defiled thing fall into her. For she is the effulgence (ἀπαύγασμα: Heb. i. 3) of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of His goodness. And being one, she can do all things; and remaining in herself, she maketh all things new; and in all generations entering into holy souls, she maketh them friends of God, and prophets. For God loveth nothing but him that dwelleth with wisdom" (vii. 22, 25-28).

Three thoughts are conspicuous in these passages. Wisdom originates with God. It is consequently pure and glorious. God bestows it upon His people. These thoughts reappear in St. James, and to them he adds another, which scarcely appears in the earlier writers. Wisdom is "peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy, and good fruits." In Proverbs we do indeed read that "all her paths are peace" (iii. 17); but the thought is not followed up. It does not seem to occur to the son of Sirach; and not one of the twenty-one epithets which the writer of Wisdom piles 205 up in praise of this heavenly gift (vii. 22, 23) touches upon its peaceable and placable nature. It was left to the Gospel to teach, both by the example of Christ and by the words of His Apostles, how inevitably the Divine wisdom produces, in those who possess it, gentleness, self-repression, and peace.

"But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated." The "first" and the "then" may be seriously misunderstood. St. James does not mean that the heavenly wisdom cannot be peaceable and gentle until all its surroundings have been made pure from everything that would oppose or contradict it; in other words, that the wise and understanding Christian will first free himself from the society of all whom he believes to be in error, and then, but not till then, will he be peaceable and gentle. That is, so long as folly and falsehood remain, they must be denounced, and made either to recant or to retire; for only when they have disappeared will wisdom show itself easy to be entreated. Purity, i.e. freedom from all that would dim the brightness of truth, must precede peace, and there can be no peace until it is obtained.

This interpretation contradicts the context, and makes St. James teach the opposite of what he says very plainly in the sentences which precede, and in those which follow, the words which we are considering. It tries to enlist him on the side of partisanship and persecution, at the very moment when he is pleading most earnestly against them. He is stating a logical, and not a chronological order, when he declares that true wisdom is "first pure, then peaceable." In its inmost being it is pure; among its very various external manifestations are the six or seven beneficent 206 qualities which follow the "then." If there were no one to be gentle to, no one coming to entreat, no one needing mercy, the wisdom from above would still be pure; therefore this quality comes first.

When the author of the Book of Wisdom says that wisdom is "a pure emanation from the glory of God: therefore can no defiled thing fall into her" (vii. 25), he is thinking of a pure stream, into which no foul ditch is able to empty its polluting contents, or of a pure ray of light, which does not admit of mixture with anything that would colour or darken it. He does not use the word for pure which we have here (ἁγνός), but one which signifies "unmixed," and hence "unsullied" (εἰλικρινής), and which occurs Phil. i. 10 and 2 Pet. iii. 1. The word used here by St. James is akin to "holy" (ἅγιος), and primarily signifies what is associated with religious awe (ἅγος), and hence "hallowed," especially by sacrifice. From this it became narrowed in meaning to what is free from the pollution of unchastity or bloodshed. As a Biblical word it sometimes has this narrow meaning; but generally it implies freedom from all stain of sin, and therefore is not far removed in meaning from "holy." But it is worth noting that whereas Christ and good men are spoken of as both pure and holy, yet God is called holy, but never pure. Divine holiness cannot be assailed by any polluting influence. Human holiness, even that of Christ, can be so assailed, and in resisting the assault it remains "pure."

In the passage before us "pure" must certainly not be limited to mean simply "chaste." The word "sensual," applied to the wisdom from below, does not mean unchaste, but living wholly in the world of sense; and the purity of the heavenly wisdom does not consist 207 merely in victory over temptations of the flesh, but in freedom from worldly and low motives. Its aim is that truth should become known and prevail, and it condescends to no ignoble arts in prosecuting this aim. Contradiction does not ruffle it, and hostility does not provoke it to retaliate, because its motives are thoroughly disinterested and pure. Thus, its peaceable and placable qualities flow out of its purity. It is "first pure, then peaceable." It is because the man who is inspired with it has no ulterior selfish ends to serve that he is gentle, sympathetic, and considerate towards those who oppose him. He strives, not for victory over his opponents, but for truth both for himself and for them; and he knows what it costs to arrive at truth. We have a noble illustration of this temper in some of the opening passages of St. Augustine's treatise against the so-called Fundamental Letter of Manichæus. He begins thus:—

"My prayer to the one true God Almighty, of whom, and through whom, and in whom are all things, has been and is, that in refuting and disproving the heresy of you Manichæans, to which you adhere perchance more through thoughtlessness than evil intent, He would give me a mind composed and tranquil, and aiming rather at your amendment than your discomfiture.... It has been our business, therefore, to prefer and choose the better part, that we might have an opportunity for your amendment, not in contention, and strife, and persecutions, but in gentle consolation, affectionate exhortation, and quiet discussion; as it is written, The Lord's servant must not strive, but be gentle towards all, teachable, forbearing, in meekness correcting them that oppose themselves....

"Let those rage against you who know not with what toil truth is found, and how difficult it is to avoid 208 errors.... Let those rage against you who know not with how great difficulty the eye of the inner man is made whole, so that it can behold its Sun.... Let those rage against you who know not with what sighs and groans it is made possible, in however small a degree, to comprehend God. Finally, let those rage against you who have never been deceived by such an error as that whereby they see you deceived....

"Let neither of us say that he has already found the truth. Let us seek it as if it were unknown to us both. For it can be sought for with zeal and unanimity only if there be no rash assumption that it has been found and is known."

And to the same effect, although in a different key, a critical writer of our own day has remarked that "by an intellect which is habitually filled with the wisdom which is from heaven, in all its length and breadth, 'objections' against religion are perceived at once to proceed from imperfect apprehension. Such an intellect cannot rage against those who give words to such objections. It sees that the objectors do but intimate the partial character of their own knowledge."7272   Mark Pattison, Essays: Life of Bishop Warburton, vol. ii., pp. 163, 164 (Oxford: 1889).

It will be observed that while the writer just quoted speaks about the intellect, St. James speaks about the heart. The difference is not accidental, and it is significant of a difference in the point of view. The modern view of wisdom is that it is a matter which mainly consists in the strengthening and enrichment of the intellectual powers. Increase of capacity for acquiring and retaining knowledge; increase in the possession of knowledge: this is what is meant by growth in wisdom. And by knowledge is meant acquaintance with the 209 nature and history of man, and with the nature and history of the universe. All this is the sphere of the intellect rather than of the heart. The purification and development of the moral powers, if not absolutely excluded from the scope of wisdom, is commonly left in the background and almost out of sight. What St. James says here is fully admitted: the highest wisdom keeps a man from the bitterness of party spirit. But why? Because his superior intelligence and information tell him that the opposition of those who dissent from him is the result of ignorance, which requires, not insult and abuse, but instruction. St. James does not dissent from this view, but he adds to it. There are further and higher reasons why the truly wise man does not rail at others, or try to browbeat and silence them. Because, while he abhors folly, he loves the fool, and would win him over from his foolish ways; because he desires not only to impart knowledge, but to increase virtue; and because he knows that strife means confusion, and that gentleness is the parent of peace. Christians are charged to be "wise as serpents, but harmless as doves."

The Scriptural view of wisdom does not contradict the modern one, but it is taken from the other side. In it the education of the moral and spiritual powers is the main thing, while intellectual advancement is in the background or out of sight. There is nothing in the teaching of Christ or his Apostles that is hostile to intellectual progress; but neither by His example, nor by the directions which His disciples received or delivered, do we find that culture was regarded as part of, or necessary to, or even a very desirable companion for, the Gospel. Neither Christ nor any one of His immediate followers came forward as a great promoter 210 of intellectual pursuits. Why is this? It would perhaps be a sound and sufficient answer to say, that valuable as such work would have been, there was much more serious and important work to be done. To convert men from sin to righteousness was far more urgent than to improve their minds. But there is more to be said than this. That perverse generation had to "turn, and become as little children," before it could enter into the kingdom of heaven. To develop a man's intellectual powers is not always the best way to make him "humble himself as a little child." Increase of knowledge may make a Newton feel like a child picking up pebbles on the shore of truth, but it is apt to make "the natural man" less childlike. But for no one, whether catechumen, or convert, or mature Christian, can the cultivation of his intellect be as pressing a duty as the cultivation of his heart. "To speak with the tongues of men and of angels," and to "know all mysteries and all knowledge," is as nothing in comparison with love. And it is in some measure possible to see why this is so. Man's moral nature certainly suffered, and ruinously suffered, at the Fall. It is not so certain that his intellectual nature suffered also. If it did suffer, it suffered through the moral nature, because depravation of the heart depraved the brain. In neither case would there be any necessity for the Gospel to pay special attention to the regeneration of the intellect. If man's intellect was unscathed by his fall from innocence, it could continue its natural development, and go on from strength to strength towards perfection. If, however, the loss of innocence has entailed a loss of mental capacity, then the wound inflicted on the intellectual nature through the moral nature must be healed in the same way. First purify 211 the heart and regenerate the will, and then the recovery of the intellect will follow in due course.7373   See Jellett's Thoughts on the Christian Life, p. 49 (Dublin: 1884). It is easy to reach the intellect through the heart, and this is what the wisdom that is from above aims at doing. If we begin with the intellect, we shall very likely end there; and in that case the man is not raised from his degradation, but equipped with additional powers of mischief. "Into a soul that deviseth evil, wisdom will not enter, nor yet dwell in a body that is sunk in sin" (Wisdom i. 4).

"Full of mercy and good fruits." The wisdom from above is not only peaceable, reasonable, and conciliatory, when under provocation or criticism, it is also eager to take the initiative in doing all the good in its power to those whom it can reach or influence. Thus it goes hand in hand with that pure and undefiled religion which visits "the fatherless and widows in their affliction" (i. 27). Just as St. James has no sympathy with a faith which does not clothe the naked and feed the hungry, and offer of its best to God (ii. 15, 16, 21), nor with a tongue which blesses God and curses men (ii. 9), so he has no belief in the heavenly character of a wisdom which holds itself aloof in calm superiority to all cavil and complaint, with a condescending air of passionless impartiality. The intellectual miser, who gloats over the treasures of his own accumulated knowledge, and smiles with lofty indifference upon the criticisms and squabbles of the imperfectly instructed, has no share in the wisdom that is from above. He is peaceful and moderate, not out of love and sympathy, but because his time is too precious to be wasted in barren controversy, and because he is too proud to 212 place himself on a level with those who would dispute with him. No selfish arrogance of this kind has any place in the character of the truly wise. His wisdom not only enlightens his intellect, but warms his heart and strengthens his will. He believes that "the wise man alone is king," and that "the wise man alone is happy," yet not because he has the crown of knowledge and abundance of intellectual enjoyment, but because he "fulfils the royal law, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (ii. 8), and because happiness is to be found in promoting the happiness of others.

"Without variance, without hypocrisy." These are the last two of the goodly qualities which St. James gives as marks of the heavenly wisdom. Similarity in sound, which cannot well be preserved in English, has evidently had something to do with their selection (ἀδιάκριτος, ἀνυπόκριτος). The first of the two has perplexed translators, and the English versions give us considerable choice: "without variance," "without wrangling," "without partiality," "without doubtfulness," "without judging." Purvey has for the two epithets "deeming without feigning," following the Sixtine edition of the Vulgate, which has judicans sine simulatione, instead of non judicans, sine simulatione. The word occurs nowhere else either in the Old or in the New Testament; but it is cognate with a word which St. James uses twice at the beginning of this Epistle (διακρινόμενος: i. 6), and which is there rendered "doubting" or "wavering." Of the various possible meanings of the word before us we may therefore prefer "without doubtfulness." The wisdom from above is unwavering, steadfast, single-minded. Thus Ignatius charges the Magnesians (xv.) to "possess an unventuring spirit" (ἀδιάκριτον πνεῦμα), and tells the 213 Trallians (i.) that he has "learned that they have a mind unblameable and unwavering in patience" (ἀδιάκριτον ἐν ὑπομονῇ). And Clement of Alexandria (Pæd. II. iii., p. 190) speaks of "unwavering faith" (ἀδιακρίτῳ πίστει), and a few lines farther on he reminds his readers, in words that suit our present subject, that "wisdom is not bought with earthly coin, nor is sold in the market, but in heaven." If he had said that wisdom is not sold in the market, but given from heaven, he would have made the contrast both more pointed and more true.

"The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for them that make peace." The Greek may mean either "for them that make peace," or "by them that make peace;" and we need not attempt to decide. In either case it is the peacemakers who sow the seed whose fruit is righteousness, and the peacemakers who reap this fruit. The whole process begins, progresses, and ends in peace.

It is evident that the heavenly wisdom is pre-eminently a practical wisdom. It is not purely or mainly intellectual; it is not speculative; it is not lost in contemplation. Its object is to increase holiness rather than knowledge, and happiness rather than information. Its atmosphere is not controversy and debate, but gentleness and peace. It is full, not of sublime theories or daring hypotheses, but of mercy and good fruits. It can be confident without wrangling, and reserved without hypocrisy. It is the twin sister of that heavenly love which "envieth not, vaunteth not itself, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh no account of evil."


« Prev Chapter XVII. The Wisdom That is from Above. Next »



| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |