Wisdom Christology in the Gospel of John: The Prologue
Having grown up in traditional Black churches, I have learned that being Reformed is more than simply assenting to a number of important doctrines (e.g. the doctrine of grace, the regulative principle of worship, covenant theology, etc.). By sitting under Reformed preaching and probing the mind of godly men, I have come to discover that the mode of Christian spirituality as expressed within the Reformed tradition is quite different than my own upbringing. In particular, I believe that wisdom theology has profoundly shaped the thinking of many of the fathers of the Reformed faith (especially John Calvin) and the temper of Reformed piety in general.
Calvin's greatest appreciation of biblical wisdom theology is discovered in his commentaries on the Johannine literature--in which Old Testament wisdom concepts are put into Christian form and developed into the Logos theology of the early church. According to Calvin's commentary on the Gospel of John, the Apostle calls the Son "the Word" because "He is the eternal wisdom and will of God, and secondly because He is the express image of His purpose." Throughout the remainder of his commentary on the prologue of John, the word "Wisdom" is used as a synonym of "Word". This is a crucial insight because (as Calvin understands it) when the apostle John was speaking about the Word, he had in mind the divine Wisdom.
In the first book of the Institutes where Calvin is developing his doctrine of the incarnation, Calvin calls attention to the logos theology of the prologue to the Gospel of John. Calvin states:
"Word' means the everlasting Wisdom, residing with God, from which both all oracles and prophesies go forth. For, as Peter testifies, the ancient prophets spoke by the Spirit of Christ just as must as the apostles did [1 Peter 1:10-11; 2 Peter 1:21], and all who thereafter ministered the heavenly doctrine... And Moses clearly teaches this in the creation of the universe, setting forth this Word as intermediary. For why does he expressly tell us that God in his individual acts of creation spoke, Let this or that be done [Genesis 1] unless so that the unsearchable glory of God may shine forth in his image?... And indeed, sane and modest men do not find obscure Solomon's statement, where he introduces wisdom as having been begotten of God before time [Ecclesiasticus 24:14], and presiding over the creation of things and all God's works [Proverbs 8:22]... But John spoke most clearly of all when He declared that that Word, God from the beginning with God, was at the same time the cause of all things, together with God the Father [John 1:1-3]. For John at once attributes to the Word a solid and abiding essence, and ascribes something uniquely His own, and clearly shows how God, by speaking, was Creator of the universe. Therefore, inasmuch as all divinely uttered revelations are correctly designated by the term 'Word of God,' so this substantial Word is properly placed at the highest level, as the wellspring of all oracles. Unchangeable, the Word abides everlastingly one and the same with God, and is God himself." Institutes of Christian Religion, I, xiii, 7.
In this excerpt, Calvin explicitly states that "Word" basically means Wisdom. What is even more interesting is that he draws this idea out of two very important passages of the wisdom literature - Proverbs 8 and Ecclesiasticus 24. At this point in the Institutes, the wisdom theology is primarily of interest to Calvin because it helps him understand John's Christology. According to Calvin, understanding Christ as the Wisdom of God aids in understanding how the Father has a priority to the Son while simultaneously being co-eternal with the Son (since there was never a time when God was without wisdom).
However, the chief point that Calvin emphasizes in his exposition of the prologue of John is that the Word of God is the source of life and light. It is the Word - the divine Wisdom of Proverbs 8 - who was with God from the beginning, whom the Gospel of John proclaims to be incarnate in the flesh of Jesus. This Jesus, as the only begotten Son of the Father, is Savior of the world. He is the divine Wisdom who empowers, enlightens, and animates those who receive Him by faith. Christ is the divine Wisdom who imparts wisdom; because of His Word - the Word of grace and truth - believers are brought from darkness to light. From Calvin's commentary on the prologue to the Gospel of John, we gather that Calvin understands in that crucial passage the main wisdom themes of the fourth Gospel.
A question that arises is how does this approach to the gospel of John affect one's view of Christian spirituality and discipleship? Because wisdom theology is characterized by its emphasis on the Word as divine wisdom, this sapiential approach to piety places a high value on teaching and preaching in the life of devotion. The Judaism in which Jesus was brought up gave a tremendous amount of time to the study of the sacred text, the scholarly exposition of the Scriptures, and the hearing of sermons which applied this scholarly work to the life of the community. The "School of Wisdom" produced a scholarly bent to piety and practiced a very devout type of scholarship. The same was true of the early Christian church. Studying Scripture, memorizing it, meditating on it, and interpreting it were regarded as the most sacred of tasks and the most essential devotional disciplines. Therefore, the study of Scripture was understood as worship in its most profound sense. Calvin's view of Christian faith and life is particularly clear in his commentary on the prologue to the Gospel of John when he says:
"For the knowledge of God is the door by which we enter into the enjoyment of all blessings. Since, therefore, God reveals Himself to us by Christ alone, it follows that we should seek all things from Christ. This doctrinal sequence should be carefully observed. Nothing seems more obvious than that we each take what God offers us according to the measure of our faith. But only a few realize that the vessel of faith and of the knowledge of God has to be brought to draw with."
From this passage it should be clear how important the knowledge of the truth is to our salvation. This saving knowledge, received by faith, is very different than being saved by mere knowledge. For Calvin (consistent with the Wisdom School), the divine Wisdom is a rich and comprehensive wisdom. The divine Wisdom is filled with every blessing, with power and vitality, and with all the holiness and righteousness for which we hunger and thirst. According to wisdom theology, as we find it in the Gospel of John and as we find it in Calvin, the imparting of the divine Wisdom - in all its power, all its illumination, and all its vitality - is of the essence of God's saving work in Christ.
This approach to religious devotion had a profound influence on Calvin and other 16th century Reformers. In many ways, it encapsulates the mode of religious devotion that characterizes the Reformed faith.