The Book of Wisdom: Divine Intelligence or AI?

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This is the fifth part of Dr. Noll’s series, “Reading and Enjoying the Apocrypha.”


Many Anglicans greet the season of Advent with the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the second verse of which says:

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O Come, thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

It is therefore appropriate that during the Advent season and even into Christmastide, the First Lessons assigned in the Prayer Book lectionary come from these two books of the Apocrypha: Ecclesiasticus (December 1-15) and Wisdom (December 15-31). The longer titles of these complementary books, respectively, are The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach and The Wisdom of Solomon. Having looked at Sirach previously, I shall focus on the latter book in this piece.

Why Solomon? In Scripture, King Solomon is the patron of Israel’s wisdom tradition. The young king prays:

And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David, my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in…. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” And it pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this….  And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore. (1 Kings 3:7,9-10; 4:29)

Solomon’s name and fame, which moved the Queen of Sheba to visit him with “hard questions” (1 Kings 10:1-11), are attached to the biblical books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. The book of Wisdom in the Apocrypha draws on this same tradition, and one can say that the spirit of Solomon speaks in this book.

Both Sirach and Wisdom were written (or translated) nearly a thousand years after King Solomon’s day for Jews in the Diaspora (Egypt). Later Rabbinic Judaism turned away from these wisdom writings to the Law (Torah) as the source of Jewish identity. Meanwhile, the Christian Church valued and preserved them as witnesses to Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The lectionary (BCP page 762) suggests that you read entire chapters of Wisdom daily. Let me suggest a way of patterning your readings:

  • December 16-20 – The Righteousness of Wisdom (Wisdom 1-5)
  • December 22-24 – The Love and Light of Wisdom (Wisdom 6-8)
  • December 29-31 – The Spirit and Mission of Wisdom (Wisdom 9-11)

The Righteousness of Wisdom (chapters 1-5)

The book of Wisdom opens with King Solomon exhorting his peers: “Love righteousness, you rulers of the earth, think of the Lord with uprightness and seek him with sincerity of heart” (Wisd 1:1). Whereas for Pharisaic Judaism, external obedience to the Law is the beginning of wisdom, Wisdom begins with the interior life: “a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit…: For wisdom is a kindly spirit but will not free a blasphemer for guilt of his words” (1:5-6). The Greek word translated “kindly” comes from the root we know as “philanthropy” or “loving mankind.” The good news from Wisdom is that the righteousness of wisdom is universally available, not to Jews alone, “for the spirit of the Lord has filled the whole world” (1:7).

In chapters 2-5, this good news, however, is tempered by a fundamental division of mankind into two parties, the godly and the ungodly: “God created mankind for incorruption and made him in the image of his own character, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it” (2:23-24).

The unanswered and perennial question of whether membership in these parties is freely chosen or predestined is left open here, whereas for St. Paul, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (cf. Romans 1-3). The wisdom of the Apocrypha fails to recognize the universal perversity of mankind, which leads to the “folly” of the Cross of Christ, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

The Love and Light of Wisdom (chapters 6-8)

In chapter 6, Solomon again takes up his message to the kings and judges of the earth. One might say that he is addressing imaginatively the Philosopher King of Athens and the Messianic Ruler of Jerusalem. His message to them is, “The beginning of wisdom is the sincerest desire for instruction” (6:17).

In these chapters, Wisdom is likened to a woman: “Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her and is found by those who seek her” (6:12). This is not a new image. The Old Testament also speaks intimately of Lady Wisdom, who “formed me first of all his works … and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man” (Proverbs 8:22,30-31).

In Wisdom chapters 7 and 8, Solomon recounts his own love affair with wisdom, concluding that “she is a breath of the power of God, a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty… a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” (7:25-26).

The Epistle to the Hebrews opens with similar language for the Son of God, who is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). In working through the doctrine of the Trinity, the Church came to proclaim that the Son was not merely an emanation of God but a Person of the Godhead, very God of very God, begotten not made. Once again, “Wisdom from on high” surpasses that of Solomon in Scripture or Apocrypha.

The lectionary readings from Wisdom so far bring us to Christmas Eve. The most profound Christian image of God’s wisdom is light: “God is light, and in him, there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). In his magisterial summary of the Incarnation, St. John writes: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9). And that light burst forth from a tiny cradle in Bethlehem. The poet Richard Crashaw put it this way:

Gloomy night embraced the place
Where the noble infant lay:
The babe looked up, and showed His face;
In spite of darkness it was day.
It was Thy day, sweet, and did rise,
Not from the East, but from Thy eyes.

Welcome, Lord Jesus, the Light of the world!

The Spirit and Mission of Wisdom (chapters 9-11)

The final three readings of the year return to the Book of Wisdom. In chapter 9, Solomon invokes Lady Wisdom in prayer and asks God:

Send her forth from your holy heavens, and from the throne of your glory send her that she may be with me and toil and that I may learn what is pleasing to you… Who has learned counsel unless you have given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from high? (9:10,17)

Solomon then proceeds to recount the history of God’s gracious guidance of His people. This history of Israel is somewhat like Sirach’s praise of famous men, but in this case, it is the spirit of wisdom directing affairs. Chapter 10 begins with Adam and his sons (verses 1-3), then moves to Noah, who was rescued “by a paltry piece of wood” (verse 4), Abraham and Isaac (verse 5), Lot (verses 6-9), Jacob (verses 10-12), and Joseph, who was a paragon of wisdom (verses 13-14). Finally, he comes to Moses and the Exodus (verses 15-21).

In the Old Testament, God’s spirit is one of His attributes and intermediaries, along with His glory, presence, angels, and prophets. The Book of Wisdom identifies God’s spirit centrally as His wisdom. In the New Testament, just hours before His death, Jesus reveals the full identity of the Holy Spirit:

“But when the Advocate (the Paraclete) comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (John 15:26)

Once again, the Church Fathers wrestled through the biblical texts and ended up confessing the Third Person of the Triune God, “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.” This is the Spirit breathed out on the Apostles by the Risen Lord and sent down upon them at Pentecost as tongues of fire. The Spirit of mission takes the Gospel to the ends of the earth unto this day.

Wisdom and Artificial Intelligence

Let me begin this section by acknowledging the potential usefulness of Artificial Intelligence (AI), alongside other marvels of empirical science and technology. However, while it is true that the Creator is the source of ALL knowledge, these marvels are not what the Bible calls wisdom. To confuse the two is dangerous and potentially idolatrous.

Of Monkeys and Deep Blue

As an example, the infinite monkey theorem suggests that a monkey sitting at a typewriter keyboard and hitting random keys will, given an infinite amount of time, type the works of William Shakespeare. This is mathematically proven. However, what the theorem does not answer is: would the monkey recognize Hamlet when he had typed it or even realize he was typing at all?

For another example, will a supercomputer always beat a human at chess, as when “Deep Blue” defeated Gary Kasparov in 1997? It seems almost certain the day is coming, and now is, when the computer wins 100% of the time. But once again, I ask, does Deep Blue know that it is winning or even playing chess?

Do the monkey or Deep Blue know that they exist? The monkey has an instinctive knowledge of its existence. This is an advantage over Deep Blue, which has no self-consciousness at all because it lacks a soul. Deep Blue’s intelligence is artificial and man-made; it is not natural and God-given. Artificial Intelligence is nothing more than monkeys tapping on a supercomputer at 1,102 petaflops (the current speed record, but keep checking for updates).

What is Intelligence?

Here is my essential theory: physical things cannot generate intelligent beings. Therefore, the Big Bang cannot comprehend its origin or the laws governing the universe’s subsequent expansion. The artifacts of paleontologists are mute without the theory of evolution. That theory, in turn, cannot recognize the beauty and harmony of the forms of life that emerged over time. Animal instinct cannot generate human consciousness. The brain cannot generate the mind. The body cannot generate the soul. Physics cannot generate metaphysics—the domain of philosophy, theology, and humane letters (e.g., Shakespeare). The what and the how cannot birth the who and the why.

The word “intelligence” in common parlance is often considered measurable, as in an “IQ.” But if we ask, “What is intelligence itself?” we find ourselves in another realm. Only intelligent beings can ask questions at all! The common rhetoric is misleading and dangerous. It assumes that scientific quantification is all there is, but if this is so, we are quantifying a void. When AI creators pass from digits to “emergent consciousness,” they move from science to science fiction.

Being Human

In his visionary depiction of the current age, C.S. Lewis described in his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength a think-tank named N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Coordinated Experiments), which claimed a revolutionary scientific breakthrough by attaching the decapitated head of a notorious criminal to a complex machine that channeled new knowledge. At the end of the novel, it turns out that this monstrosity actually channels spirit power in a devastating judgment by the “eldila” of the universe.

Scripture teaches us that other intelligent beings exist in the created world, e.g., angels and devils. But even these intelligences are surpassed by man in the image of God, mortal man, sinful man. Lewis, one of the foremost modern advocates of the old metaphysics, wrote this “On Being Human”:

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence
Behold the Forms of nature. They discern
Unerringly the Archetypes, all the verities
Which mortals lack or indirectly learn….

Yet here, within this tiny, charmed interior,
This parlour of the brain, their Maker shares
With living men some secrets in a privacy
Forever ours, not theirs.

The Intelligence of God

This brings us back to the Book of Wisdom. Wisdom is, as it were, the intelligence of God Himself. It is also the unique potential implanted by God in human nature made in His image. In loving wisdom, man seeks God’s wisdom. However, God, by His grace, sends her forth on mission.

Above all, we know this unique Wisdom because the Word became flesh at Christmas, and through Him, God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, crying Abba Father!—a name spoken not by angels but by the Son of God Himself!


This article completes Dr. Noll’s commentary on those books in the Apocrypha found in the Lectionary of the 2019 Book of Common Prayer. He hopes to write further occasional articles on other Apocryphal books in the coming year. Need a copy of the Apocrypha? Check out the ESV Bible with Apocrypha from Anglican House Publishers.


Image adapted from Solomon and Lady Wisdom by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld, 1860. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Author

Stephen Noll

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry.

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