What Happens When You Don’t Have a Category for Wisdom or Nature

Introduction: Losing Our Religion

When Andy Kaufman wrestled women in the late 70s and early 80s it was a gag, it was outrageous because, until he did it, it was unthinkable. Why? Because there is such a thing as nature (i.e.., the way things are) and Kaufman was being provocative by doing something contrary to the nature things. The spirit of the age denies that there is such a thing as “nature.” American evangelicals, to the degree that they are a sub-set of the broader culture, also lack a sense that God created things a certain way. They also lack another category: wisdom and they lack both of these for the same reason: eschatology. The omission of these two categories of analysis is on full display this week in the Christianity Today blog for women, her•meneutics.

Wrestling is to Iowa what football is to Nebraska. Just as Nebraska boys grow up hoping one day to run out of the tunnel at Memorial Stadium before 85,0000 fans so little boys in Iowa grow up hoping to wrestle for the Hawkeyes (University of Iowa) or the Cyclones (Iowa State). And recently little girls have begun to have the same dreams in Iowa and one of them, Cassy Herkleman, was marching toward the state wrestling tournament by wrestling and defeating boys. One of those boys, however, refused to wrestle her. He forfeited the match and a struck a match at the same time. Commenting on this controversy, Caryn Rivadeneira argues,

When Joel refused to wrestle Cassy, he took an opportunity away from her. An opportunity for her to shine using her own God-given strength and ability. An opportunity to win or lose, fair and square.

She argues that, had Joel followed Jesus’ (egalitarian) example, Joel would have wrestled Cassy. There are two great problems with this analysis: it fails to account for nature and wisdom. These are categories with which American evangelicals are not terribly familiar (see below) so it is not surprising that she should have ignored them. She acknowledges that there are potential problems with boys wrestling girls but she fails to acknowledge that the problems are not merely potential, they are actual. There have been episodes where boys have wrestled girls, in a match, and boys have become sexually aroused. As unthinkable as that might be to our increasingly androgynous culture, boys are still boys and girls are still girls. Most of us are still heterosexual. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the potential problems with boys wrestling girls.

One of the reasons Americans as a lot have difficult time making such distinctions is that, since the early 19th century, we have been on a radically democratizing trajectory. This nation is being transformed from a representative republic to a democracy. There are still elements of the republican system (e.g., the electoral college) in place the but pressure to eliminate them is very strong and they will likely be eroded in time. As egalitarians Americans resist distinctions of any kind. In the 20th century that impulse moved beyond economic and class distinctions to the distinction between the sexes.

It’s true that, in earlier generations, the differences between the sexes were over-stated and fueled by male chauvinism as much as anything else. Females were regarded as inherently inferior. That was the product of Victorian assumptions more than science. Females are just as intelligent, capable, and willing to perform tasks that were once considered beyond them. The differences between males and females are not grounded in male superiority. The feminist reaction to male chauvinism has tended, however, to obliterate the differences altogether.

Anabaptist Domination

There is a second, religious, reason for this impulse. Since the early 19th century the trajectory of American religion but particularly American evangelicalism has been toward the Anabaptist radicals of the early 16th century. You can read about this in Always Reformed. One of the great impulses of the Anabaptists was, as it were, to bring down heaven to earth. They had what the theologians call an “over-realized eschatology.” They were constantly proclaiming the end of the world or that they were bringing about millennial glory. This is why the Second Helvetic Confession (1561/66) denounced them for seeking a “Jewish golden age” on the earth. Of course, more than a few Reformed folk in our time are seeking their own version of a “Jewish golden age” through the re-institution of the Mosaic law and not infrequently by teaching the Federal Vision doctrine of baptismal benefits. As a consequence of this over-realized eschatology, the early Anabaptists (and many American evangelicals like them) see nature as something to be overcome rather than renewed. This impulse is basically gnostic. It is suspicious of nature as such. The biblical and catholic Christian view is that creation is good (See Gen 1). Corruption was introduced by the fall but our Reformed writers said that, in redemption, grace renews nature it does not obliterate it.

The Anabaptist and modern evangelical tendency, however, is to think that grace (redemption) obliterates nature. Many of us were taught as evangelicals that if we enjoyed something before we came to faith that grace would remove that interest. So it has been said that if you enjoyed baseball before coming to faith, as a Christian you would no longer enjoy baseball. Such a view fundamentally misunderstands the relations between nature (creation) and grace (redemption).

Rivadeneira’s appeal to our Lord’s example regarding females is wrongheaded. He did not ignore the differences between males and females. Yes, he regarded the humanity of both males and females because, as the eternally begotten Word (Gen 1:1-3; John 1:1-3) he was present at creation and the agent of it. Joel’s refusal to wrestle Cassy was faithful to our Lord’s example. By refusing to wrestle a female, Joel was not denying Cassy’s humanity. He was affirming it. He was affirming obvious realities; he was affirming that God had made her distinctly different from him. He was honoring her and respecting God-given difference. The modern impulse, born partly of pagan Unitarianism, has been to flatten out all distinctions. Cornelius Van Til (1885-1987) taught us, among many things, that we must always account for the “one” (that which unifies) and the “many” (that which distinguishes). Males and females have a great deal in common. We are both image bearers. In Christ there is no male and female, i.e., both sexes have equal standing before God. Nevertheless, God is not only redeemer but he is also Creator and as there is not just salvation and grace but there is also nature. For all the faults of the Victorian period, at least they were able to acknowledge that these differences exist. Yes, they over-stated them with the flourish only Victorians could generate but Vive la différence!

How Wisdom Helps

The case is that of a boy who refuses, on religious grounds, to wrestle a girl. A writer for the Christianity Today blog for women argues that the boy was wrong and disobedient to Jesus’ example. I reply: that’s gross anachronistic. Jesus was not a feminist. Yes, he subverted social expectations but he didn’t assume what the CT blogger assumes about nature (which I explain in part 1).

Yesterday we looked briefly at the category of “nature” as a way of analyzing this problem. Evangelicals do not tend to invoke this category because it does not really exist for them. They tend to subscribe the early Anabaptist view of grace and nature where grace overwhelms rather than renews nature in salvation. We are not here discussing cultural or cosmic transformation. Nature or creation is a thoroughly biblical category. After all Scripture begins with “In the beginning” which starts with creation. Tragically, in evangelical and fundamentalist circles, the very word or idea of “creation” has become synonymous with “creationism.” I fear that, in their defense of “creationism” many fundamentalist, evangelical, and even Reformed Christians have lost the category of creation (nature). See the chapter on this in Recovering the Reformed Confession

There is another biblical category that will help us analyze this problem and work through it: wisdom. This is not a term one hears frequently in revivalist, transformationalist, theonomic, or fundamentalist circles. There’s a reason for that. It does not fit their paradigm (the grid through which they see the world).

  1. The Revivalist has no need of the category of “wisdom” because, in his view, the grace has more or less wiped out nature. In this his view of wisdom is quite like that of the transformationalist and the theonomist. Indeed, many in the revivalist tradition, particularly those affected by the 19th-century religious enthusiasm, are positively suspicious of categories such as “nature” or “wisdom.” The revivalist is on a quest for illegitimate religious experience (QIRE). The QIRE can take many forms but they all have in common a disdain for “means” (media) or instruments or agents. In its most exquisite form the QIRE seeks a sort of merger of our being and God’s. Wisdom seems puny in that light.
  2. The Fundamentalist is on a quest for illegitimate religious certainty (QIRC). He wants to know what cannot be known and in extreme, but not uncommon, cases what God knows, the way he knows it. He has this in common with the QIRE, which often seeks, e.g., to know God’s secret will, his providence, before it happens. He also knows exactly how old the earth is and this despite the fact that God’s Word does not say nor does it intend to say. He knows exactly what Bible translation we should use. The faith of the fundamentalist, as used here, depends really on his certainty. Disturb it and his faith begins to teeter. Wisdom holds little interest for those who have such a firm grasp on the esoteric, the exotic, or that which is hidden from mere mortals.
  3. The Transformationalist knows a priori (before he knows anything, even the particular facts of the case or the teaching of Scripture) that there must be a distinctly Christian way to bake bread. When challenged he cannot tell you exactly what is distinctly Christian about “Christian” baking but he knows it has to be so. If one presses him repeatedly he will likely become very upset and begin yelling about “dualism!” Like Abraham Kuyper’s or Cornelius Van Til’s doctrine of Gemeente Gratie (common grace)? Call me crazy, but distinguishing between special and “common” grace is a dualism, is it not? From them we learned the Christians and non-Christians interpret the significance of baking differently but they bake bread the same way. They both live under the same providential government. Our transformationalist friends have no time for “wisdom” because their system is airtight. Wisdom is can lead to ambiguity, as we will see.
  4. Our Theonomist friends do not have time for wisdom for many of the same reasons that our transformational and fundamentalist brothers do not. Indeed, some have argued plausibly that theonomy is just “right wing transformationalism.” They have a similar eschatology and a shared a priori. They know how the film is going to come out even before they get to the evidence. Unlike the transformationalism, however, theonomists tend to reject common grace altogether. For example, see Gary North’s thorough rejection of Van Til’s eschatology (doctrine of last things and the relation between heaven and earth) and his doctrine of common grace. Theonomists can have no place for “wisdom” as a category because they know that, even though God’s Word says that the entire Mosaic economy “expired” (WCF 19), that it was “old,” “infererior” etc (see this essay on the relations between the old and new covenants) that such adjectives and even the explicit teaching of Hebrews 7, for example, cannot (a priori) mean what it seems to say, that the Mosaic civil law is no longer in force nor was it ever intended to be applied by anyone else than national Israel. “Wisdom” does not work for them as a way of analyzing issues because it involves too much ambiguity. They prefer rabbinical treatments of the Mosaic civil code such as the massive, two-volume Institutes of Biblical Law. It never seems to bother them that the earlier Reformed writers never thought to write such works, despite their literary productivity (e.g., they wrote hundred, if not thousands, of biblical commentaries) because, even in their theocractic stage (16th-17th centuries) they never sought to apply the civil law to post-Israelite society in the way the theonomists have.

Nevertheless, Scripture persists. There is an entire section of Holy Scripture devoted to teaching us what wisdom is, how to get it, and how to use it: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. Here are some resources to introduce the category of wisdom and to the Wisdom literature in Scripture. See also this book by my colleague John Fesko.

Wisdom helps us to navigate this problem because wisdom, in Scripture, asks us to think about and to reckon with reality, i.e., things as they are constituted by God, as they really are. Sinners are, in one way or another, always deluded. We lie to ourselves and to others. We distort reality in order to pursue our own agenda. Christ, the Wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24) has demonstrated what it means to see ourselves and the world as they really are, to tell the truth, and to act wisely: obedience, suffering, and death. Wisdom is also about self-denial. In Proverbs for example, we are taught that the young man becomes sexually involved with murderers (ch 1) or adultery (ch 2) because he believes a lie and exchange that lie for the truth, for reality. The lying murderers say that they can kill a man and steal his goods and no one will be the wiser and the murderers will profit with no negative consequences. That’s a lie. The adulteress seduces by suggesting that a man’s wife does not really love him or consider him as highly as she ought, as highly as the adulteress promises to do. Once adultery is engaged, however, everything changes. It takes wisdom to see the nature of the murderer or the adulterer and of the acts themselves and of their consequence.

This is why wisdom is not purely theoretical. It is won through often painful and regrettable experience. How does wisdom help us to decide the case of a boy wrestling a girl? Wisdom, godly experience that has vindicated the truth of God’s Word, that has a firm, clear grasp on the nature of things knows that males and females were not created to box or wrestle each other. When males and females wrestle naturally, informally it is really sexual foreplay. To try to transform that behavior into a competitive sport is foolish. This is why it is repulsive to see females boxing or become male-looking body builders. Androgyny is contrary to the nature of things. I cannot spell out the differences in a family column but husbands and wives know about these differences. Men and women respond to the same stimuli differently. They process it differently. They relate to other people differently. This is not all merely the result of nurture. Nature is not a mere social construct arbitrarily imposed. Recent studies have shown the little girls and boys, before they can reasonably thought to have been socialized will relate differently to the same set of toys. As Newseek or Time declared some years ago: Men and women are different.

This does not mean that women cannot serve in the military in any capacity (contra those fundamentalists who would keep them from any military service) but it does mean that they are not intended for combat. Females do not have the same bio-chemical constitution as males. Men naturally compete physically. They are made to do so. Females compete in other ways. Men are not constituted to relate to one another the way females relate to each other. We are intuitively concerned about female prisoners of war in way that we are not about male prisoners of war. Events in recent military conflicts have confirmed this. Military trainers have established two sets of standards: one for males and another for females but there are not two types of combat. Just days ago special forces boarded a ship and killed two Somali pirates, one of them in “close quarter, hand-to-hand” combat. Yes, there are males who could not have done this but are there any females? Would any reasonable person send a female down a dark passage way for the purpose of entering into a knife fight with a man determined to kill her? Really? Of course not. No reasonable person, not bent on destroying the very idea of nature, would endorse such a course. Our reactions to these situations are hard-wired into us and not merely the product of socialization.

The young man who would not wrestle a young woman competitively may not have articulated perfectly his discomfort with entering into a strenuous, combative, physical contest with a female. That is not surprising. Without even realizing why, virtually everyone in our culture is now predisposed to deny any fundamental, natural, essential differences between males and females. Therefore he lacked the categories by which to articulate his discomfort but that dis-ease was perfectly natural. It was the product of wisdom. Those who would deny natural differences see this as another frontier, but wisdom says differently. Wisdom knows that God created males and females differently, with distinct and complementary perceptions of the world, with distinct and complementary interests, with a distinct but complementary physiology and distinct but complementary psychology.

Cassy wants to show that she is capable, that she is strong, that she is not inferior. That is admirable. Females are strong! If you doubt me, go into the labor and delivery room and watch a woman give birth. I do not know a male who could do it. Women are endowed by their Creator with remarkable resilience. Having carried a child to term, sometimes at great physical cost to themselves, they struggle through delivery and are often ready, within a few hours begin caring for the infant. The Victorians often forced females to weaker than they really are. In our culture it is probably a good idea for females to learn the art of self-defense. They probably should learn to use a firearm.

Distinction, however, is not subordination. To distinguish between males and females is not to subordinate females by nature. It does not make them inferior. To refuse to acknowledge differences and to turn females into males (or the reverse) is what denies their humanity. In contrast, wisdom teaches us that females not only nurture but they want and need nurture in turn in a way that males do not—not that males do not want any nurture! Heterosexual, competitive wrestling (or boxing for that matter) is exactly opposite of what creation and wisdom want. Males were created to care for, protect, and nurture females. To the degree females have been forced to do that for themselves in our culture is an indicator of how foolish and blind we have become. Females now feel obligated to demonstrate how masculine they are in order to demonstrate their worth and significance and males increasingly seem to think they have demonstrate how feminized they can be in order to prove their worth. In our late modern, post-Victorian reaction to nature, we have turned reality on its head and traded wisdom for foolishness.

This way of thinking will not persuade those who have no interest in facts. Yes, there are no brute (uninterpreted) facts but that does not mean that there are no facts. Our revivalist, fundamentalist, theonomic, and transformational friends do not seem to have much room for wisdom but that it is such an important part of Scripture should give them (and us) pause. It should make us reconsider whether we really are addressing these issues the way Scripture itself does or the way Scripture would have us do in light of nature and wisdom.

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