The Third Authority

Israel’s wisdom tradition offers a third source of revelation.

Whenever I have read the Old Testament, I have sailed hastily through the Book of Proverbs. It didn’t seem to offer much beyond strange musings about Lady Wisdom and then a chaotic collection of proverbs. Nothing tied together for me. I decided it was not worth much of my study time.

Pemberton

Then I read the newly published book, A Life that Is Good: The Message of Proverbs in a World Wanting Wisdom by Biblical scholar Glenn Pemberton (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018). He turned my attitude about Proverbs around 180 degrees. For one, he illuminates some of the repeated themes that weave through the book, themes that deal with living the good life as understood by ancient Israel’s sages.

Israel’s wisdom traditions were not primarily speculations about God, but reflections on what it means to live the good life. The good life is understood as more than a moral life. It is also a life that is healthy, stable, and successful. It is much more concerned with what we today would say are secular matters than religious, although the sages always see the good life grounded in a fundamental fear or reverence for God (see Proverbs 1:7and 9:10).

The source of their reflections is not the revealed word of God in Israel’s scriptures, but insights gained from observations of daily life and experience. Israel’s sages are also highly sensitive to wisdom coming from cultures and peoples outside of Israel. For example, scholars have noted that one section of the Book of Proverbs (22:17-24:22 ) draws extensively from the Instruction of Amenemope, a literary work of wisdom sayings from ancient 13thcentury B.C. Egypt.*

Three Sources of Authority

Pemberton offers one insight that was particularly striking to me. He says that in ancient Israel three sources of authority were recognized when talking about God and life with God. They held equal positions in Israel’s theological discussions.

The first source was what we might label the written word of God, contained in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. The Torah told the origin stories that constituted Israel’s identity. They also held the laws and regulations that governed Israelite behavior and worship.

The authorized interpreters of Torah in ancient Israel were the priests. They had responsibility for teaching Torah to Israelites. By the time of Jesus the scribes had largely supplanted the priests in this role, while the priests concentrated on ritual.

The important matter is to note that when an ancient Israelite asked how he or she should behave, the priest would point to the revealed Torah for answers.

The second source was what we might label the oral word of God. It was the word of God that came through dreams, visions, inspirations, or even the direct voice of God. It was the special province of Israel’s prophets.

Pemberton describes the prophets as resembling prosecuting attorneys. They were primarily concerned with challenging Israel for its failures in keeping God’s covenant, especially in fulfilling the two great commandments to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Their favored way of delivering their word was through oral sermons, oracles, and enacted parables.

The third source was what we might label the observed word of God. This was received through a careful study of God’s creation and especially the ways human beings lived in that creation. It was the special province of Israel’s sages.

Pemberton says that this wisdom coming from the sages was also regarded as part of God’s revealed word. “They accept these insights [coming from their observation] as normative and God-given, just as the prophet regards a vision and a priest regards Torah to be God’s message.” [Pemberton, page 9]

What this means is that theological discussion in Israel appeals to three and equal sources of authority: the written word of God, the oral word of God, and the observed word of God. The three supported, counter-balanced, and supplemented each other.

Attestation of the Three Authorities in Scripture

As evidence for this, Pemberton appeals to three passages in the Old and New Testaments. The first comes from Jeremiah. The prophet has offended the public with his largely negative message that Jerusalem will indeed fall to the Babylonians. In reaction some of the populace plots to silence him. He will not be missed, they say:

“Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah—for instruction shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, let us bring charges against him, and let us not heed any of his words.” [Jeremiah 18:18]

What Pemberton notes in this passage is the combination of priests, wise men, and prophets as sources of God’s word. None is given priority over the other.

This same linkage comes in a passage in the prophet Ezekiel. It likewise denounces the complacency of the Judahites as they face disaster before the Babylonians. Says Ezekiel:

Disaster comes upon disaster,

                        rumor follows rumor;

they shall keep seeking a vision from the prophet;

instruction shall perish from the priest,

                        and counsel from the elders. [Ezekiel 7:26]

Here again we see priest, prophet, and sage as equal sources for guidance from God.

Lest we think this is a purely Old Testament perspective, Pemberton then quotes Jesus in his denunciation of the hypocrisy of Pharisees, saying:

Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth….[Matthew 23:34-35]**

Commenting on this tri-fold division in Israel’s mindset, Pemberton concludes: “The prophets, priests, and sages of Israel all served the same God. The Lord simply used them to provide a more robust theology, a fuller picture of the life of faith, and a sharper image of the God who is larger than any one portrait.” [Pemberton, page 14]

A Christian Application?

Pemberton goes on, however, to suggest that this three-fold source of authority may also provide a fruitful pattern for theological thinking among Christians. Who among persons or groups today most resemble each of the three ancient interpreters? For successors to the priests, he suggests pastors and preachers who look to Scripture for God’s word and guidance.

As for successors to the prophets, it becomes a bit trickier. Most Christians today do not generally trust persons who claim to see God or hear God speak directly to them. Rather he suggests we see the prophets’ successors as those who speak out on the prophets’ chief concerns which center on faithfulness to God and justice issues in society.

Lastly as successors to the sages, he suggests we might turn to counselors, therapists, and scientists who rely primarily upon personal experience, careful observation, and accumulated knowledge for their insights.

This last suggestion raises an important question for most Protestants. With our fundamentally Protestant conviction that all authority for theology rests in the Bible and in the Bible alone, Pemberton asks, how will we respond when modern-day sages show up at our doors? “Would we toss them aside as secular and irrelevant advocates of situational ethics? Or would we welcome them to the table? I regret to inform you that Proverbs will not let this question go unanswered.” [Pemberton, pages 13-14, italics his]

I will admit this is a question that I have seldom thought about before. Yet I can see that how we respond will indeed have a deep impact on how we do our theological thinking and preaching.

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* It is also worth noting that another piece of Old Testament wisdom literature is the Book of Job. It tells the story of a righteous man living in Uz. He is not an Israelite. Yet the issue under discussion in the book–why do the righteous suffer?–is one of the most troubling and profound not only in Jewish thought, but also in all human experience.

** As I read these passages I was reminded of the canonical structure of the Hebrew Bible. It is divided into three portions:

  • The Torah: The five books of Moses
  • The Nevi’im: The prophets (consisting of the historical books and the classic prophets),
  • The Ketubim: The writings where we find Israel’s literary works of wisdom (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes) along with the Psalms and other assorted writings of the Hebrew Bible.

 

Our Ego and God’s Kingdom

Spiritual growth involves a surprising paradox.

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St. Martin’s Cross at Iona Abbey

As I read through some of the popular modern writers on the spiritual life (for example, Richard Rohr), I encounter a paradox that has baffled me.

These writers like to talk about the two stages in the spiritual life. In the first stage, normally associated with our youth and young adult years, our challenge is to develop a strong identity and a strong ego. This is very important, they say. We need a strong identity and ego in order to assume our proper place in life in our world.

But in the second half of our spiritual life, we are called upon to surrender if not our identity, then especially our ego. The second half of life is about letting go, letting go of everything we have worked so hard to acquire: our social achievements, our well polished skills, our professional competence, our wisdom and knowledge, and ultimately of our very body in death. This is necessary to rise to the fulfillment of our spiritual destiny.

As I said, I have found myself baffled by this paradox. If developing a strong ego is so important, then why is it imperative to surrender that ego in the second stage of life? Is that saying that these writers are engaged in a contradiction? In the end is our ego not as important to acquire as these writers say? How can I make sense of such talk?

I’ve wrestled with these questions for some time. Here’s how I came to a personal resolution for myself.

The Importance of the Ego

I think daily life as well as modern psychology both demonstrate the importance of young people developing a strong personal identity. Without such a strong identity, young people will prove unable to stand resolute when the gales of life, such as social and work pressure blow against them.

Along with that identity, young people need to develop their God-given talents and acquire the skills and knowledge they need to hold down jobs and invest themselves in service to the world. Education and training are of fundamental importance.

I argue that all of this is part of developing a strong ego. So what’s the problem with a strong ego? There is no problem with a strong ego per se. What becomes the problem is the ends to which we put that ego, with its talents, hard-won skills and knowledge. Do we use them all simply to advance our own well-being and self-aggrandizement?  If so, then we adopt a basic stance of ego-centrism in facing the world. Our lives are all about me and my well-being.

Or do we place our talents, our skills, and knowledge in service to a purpose beyond just our own well-being and self-aggrandizement? Do we marshal our identity into service to something that exceeds our own person? If we do not, then our egocentrism does indeed become an obstacle to growth, both in the spiritual life as well as in healthy human relationships.

That purpose that goes beyond our own welfare and enrichment may take many forms. It can be a devotion to a family, a business, a community, or a social or political cause. It can be a religious vocation. It often takes the form of patriotism or some form of nationalism. It is why when we become involved in a cause greater than ourselves, we can feel that our lives are more expansive, more meaningful.

Jesus’ Counsel

All this can be very good, but I think Jesus suggests that it does not go far enough. In all of these cases, devotion to a greater cause than ourselves can be corrupted into another form of egocentrism, as we try to impose our own vision and desires upon the cause we serve.

Jesus offers an alternative in his Sermon on the Mount when he preaches:

…strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [the necessities of life, like food and raiment] will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. [Matthew 6:33-34]

It does not seem to me that in this counsel Jesus is denying the importance of a strong ego, especially those talents, skills, and knowledge that we bring to our daily living. But he is directing us to put those assets to work in a cause greater than our own self-survival and enhancement. Place your life in service to God’s kingdom, says Jesus.

If we are serious in following his counsel, we will find that truly seeking the Kingdom of God constantly challenges our own conceptions and desires as to what serving the kingdom of God is. God defines the kingdom, not us, and what the kingdom needs. If we truly seek the kingdom of God first, we will constantly be challenged to subordinate our own ego needs and demands to that spiritual reality. And that will often be experienced as a form of death.

Yet the paradox is that as we consent to that kind of death of the ego, we find that our service brings the very enhancement of life that our ego so ardently desires and presumes it is giving up when it consents to its death.

Here it seems to me lies the resolution to the contradiction that I said has so baffled me.

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Author’s Note:  I think we can attribute the popularity of this vision of the two halves of the spiritual life to two important writers of the early 20thcentury. They are the psychiatrist Carl Jungand the scientist/theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Both writers have had a profound influence on conceptions of the spiritual life that we find reflected in popular writings today.