Proverbs 31

Question from BC, Singapore

How do you interpret Proverbs chapter 31, verses10-31 – The Epilogue on The Wife with Noble Character? Does it mean that if a mother/a wife who does not possess the knowledge and wisdom cannot be able to be a wife with noble character? It’s a demanding role. Does it mean if I have the fear of the Lord, then is the beginning of my knowledge? How do you interpret ‘knowledge’? Are there any relevant expectations for a husband/father?

The book of Proverbs belongs to a particular genre of writing called ‘Wisdom literature’. Other examples in the Bible include Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and some of the books found in the Apocrypha. These books are all quite confusing and their origins are usually obscure. One thing that can be said, though, is that this section in question is probably not meant to be a prescriptive list to be lived up to. It is someone musing on what makes a perfect wife and mother, concluding with the assertion that Godliness is the most important thing.

‘Wisdom’ in the wisdom literature, and the Bible generally, is not about human knowledge. It is about where you place your trust. Thus the person who says there is no God is a “fool” (Psalm 14) and Jesus refers to the man who builds storehouses for his crops and entrusts his future to his own plans, not taking God into account, as equally foolish (Luke chapter 12, verse 16-21). The key verse in the passage in Proverbs is verse 30: “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” The other attributes of the ‘noble wife’ – caring for her family, working hard, being productive, planning ahead, caring for the needy – all stem from her commitment to God.

In terms of expectation for a husband or father, the Bible was written in a culture where women were regarded as possessions and the man was firmly the head of the household, also ruling over the children. Into this culture Paul instructs Christian men to treat their wives with dignity and respect. The most relevant passage is Ephesians chapter 5, verse 22 – chapter 6, verse 9. In this passage, Paul tell wives, children and slaves to obey and submit to their husbands, fathers and masters. The irony is, of course that wives, children and slaves had no option, legally and culturally, but to submit.

The real sting in this passage falls on those who have power: the husbands, fathers and slave-owners. They have to love their wives as much as they love themselves, to ‘not exasperate’ their children and to treat their slaves with as much respect as their slaves have to treat them. This teaching has lost its radical edge in the modern world where everybody’s rights are enshrined in law, but what Paul is really getting at is challenging for men (and anyone in power) and just as the ‘noble wife’ in Proverbs accomplishes everything because she ‘fears the Lord’, Paul firmly locates the ability to live up to this ideal by emulating the example of Christ and being empowered by him.

Thanks for your question, BC.

Too human to be God?

Question from DN, United Kingdom

In Luke chapter 7, verse 9 it says that “Jesus was amazed.” How can Jesus be “amazed”? Jesus as God should know stuff about people and therefore not be surprised by them.

This is quite a complicated question to answer and has been since the earliest days of Christian theology. One of the big problems facing many early theologians was how to reconcile the assertion that the fullness of God was in Christ (to use Paul’s description in Colossians chapter 1, verse 19 and account for the ‘high’ Christology encountered in the first few verses of John’s gospel) with the obvious human-ness found in the gospel accounts. These thinkers wanted to avoid the idea that Jesus was only ‘pretending’ to be human (a heresy called docetism) and yet struggled with the idea that Jesus as God incarnate did not know some things, or felt physical pain and wept from the emotional pain of bereavement.

One solution is the ‘two-natures Christology’. This was the preferred formulation to arise from the huge doctrinal debates of the fourth and fifth centuries. By saying that Christ was both fully God and fully human, theologians could attribute the supernatural things to Christ’s divine nature, while the awkward bits could be assigned to his humanity. The central criticism of this approach, recognising that it still forms the basis of orthodox doctrine concerning the Incarnation, is that it splits Jesus down the middle and while it explains why he could be supernatural one minute and all-too-human the next, it does not adequately explain why he acted one way in one situation and a different way a few minutes later.

Another option, and one that has come into vogue in recent years, is ‘kenotic’ theology. This is based on the passage in Philippians chapter 2, where Paul describes Christ as ‘becoming nothing’ or ‘emptying himself’ (the Greek word is ‘kenosis’). This idea effectively explains why Jesus is so human, because the divine nature is somehow swapped for true humanity. The explanation within kenotic theology for the supernatural things Jesus did involves seeing Jesus as a ‘true human’ (in fact, the only real human being unmarred by sin since the prehistoric fall of man). As the ‘archetype’ of true humanity, Jesus is therefore in touch with God in a way that other human beings are not. Therefore it is only natural that God can work through him in supernatural ways. Those who follow him and are set free from sin are similarly ‘put in touch’ with God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks for your question, DN.

Playing games with God

Question from CB, United Kingdom

Many sporting teams declare allegiance to Jesus and employ ordained staff to minister to their needs. Is it Biblical and/or ethical to pray for victory over another team in sporting contests? I ask this knowing that as a fan of Shrewsbury Town your only hope, at times, must be of supernatural intervention.

For those regular visitors to freelance theology from overseas, it is worth explaining that Shrewsbury Town are a soccer team currently residing in the fourth tier of the English league and this year finishing quite near the bottom of the division. Jon the freelance theologian spent a proportion of his childhood in Shrewsbury and supports the ‘mighty Shrews’, hence the way this question is phrased.

The question about whether it’s ethical or Biblical to pray for divine help is a good one. In many ways it is no different to the prayer of an earnest believer that they will get a job or promotion at the expense of other candidates, or that their project will find success. There are of course numerous Biblical examples of people committing their plans to God and receiving blessing as a result. In some ways, however, sport is frivolous and even the most die-hard enthusiast will be forced to admit that whatever sport is being played is ‘only a game’. Socially the rise in organised sports is a sign of indulgent affluence and increased leisure time and it could be argued (in fact it has been) that involvement in sport detracts from more important things and wastes the limited amount of time any believer has available to achieve something of eternal significance.

Having said that, sociologists have often commented on the way organised sport takes the place of tribal warfare in civilised societies. It can also be argued that some sports recreate primitive tribal religion – with the chosen few totemistically representing the tribe and warring against evil forces, represented by the ‘other’ (the outsider; those who do not belong to the tribe). The communality and shared ecstatic experience are also of interest to the student of religion as the emotions and experience bear similarity to charismatic religious experience. Sport therefore meets an emotional need in the same way that religion can, even though it does not provide the philosophical or moral insights provided by more advanced religions. The morality of sport is often to win at any cost. Playing ‘fair’ is regarded as important, but many fans will turn a blind eye to their own player’s indiscretions, while any perceived injustice in favour of the opposition will be greeted by accusations of cheating.

Christians will often be drawn towards sports because, in a way, they are usually naturally inclined towards religious activity. The question of whether you can bear allegiance to a football team and bear allegiance to Christ is one worth asking. The hate-filled chants that echo around European soccer grounds emphatically do not tally with Christ’s ethical teaching about how we should regard our enemies. The arena of sport does provide Christians with an opportunity to talk to people who are already selflessly engaged in something bigger than themselves, with some sort of religious experience (even if they are not aware that it is such an experience), so it can prove fertile ground for discussions about the meaning of life, belief, hope and faith. A non-Christian Shrewsbury Town fan will understand more about the concept of hope than an ardent materialist who never thinks beyond their own situation.

Praying for victory is perhaps unethical (although the good news for supporters of lowly teams is that the God of the Bible firmly favours the underdog). Praying for the safety of the players, that the match officials and referees will have a good game and that the best team will win leads to no ethical issues. Praying that the best team will turn out to be your team? You have to decide whether you can pray that with a clear conscience.

Thanks for your question, CB.