Proverbs 1:7 and Christian Thinking
hat comes first, your reason or your will? Does your will tell your reason to manufacture arguments supporting its desires, or does your reason tell your will what to want? This is an age-old debate with wide-ranging implications. If thinking is primary (a position called “intellectualism”), then education may be the solution to the world’s ills—does that sound familiar? If the will is king (“voluntarism”), then sticks and carrots are the best approach. That knot cannot be untangled in this brief space, only sliced. And this is the way the Bible does the slicing: man is not a collection of competing faculties at all; instead he is a unitary being. God does not call on my will to obey (Heb. 13:17); He calls on me to obey. He does not command my reason to consider (2 Tim. 2:7) or even my emotions to rejoice (1 Thess. 5:16); He commands me to do these things. One of the distinctive teachings of the Bible is that this body-soul unity called man is always bent in one direction or another, either toward God or away from Him. Jonathan Edwards called that bent the “affections.” The faculties of reason, emotion, and will all follow that bent. The key verse of Proverbs—commentator Bruce Waltke calls it “the book’s theological and epistemological foundation”1—is one of the most important verses pointing to this truth. Proverbs 1:7 reads, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” This is a powerful statement of epistemology, how we know what we know. It tells us that all right knowledge starts with a basic affection: the fear of the Lord. It might be tempting to call fear simply an emotion, but Waltke is right to say that the fear of the Lord “involves both rational and non-rational aspects at the same time.”2 David highlights the rational element in the fear of the Lord when he implies that it can be taught: “I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Ps. 34:11). He proceeds to remind his listeners of the contrasting ends of the righteous and wicked. The former will be saved, the latter slain (v. 21). This twosided fact is apparently a datum people should maintain in all their moral reasoning. And Proverbs 1:7 itself includes the rational. There is cognitive content to the fear Solomon calls for. Knowledge starts with the fear of the Lord. And who is the Lord? It requires reason to answer that question. But there is also a non-rational (not irrational) element in the fear of the Lord. Fear (yirah) is, of course, the common Hebrew word for dread of a possible future occurrence—the standard-issue, universal human experience of emotional fear (cf. Deut. 2:25). C. S. Lewis pictured it well when he narrated the first time the Pevensie children ever heard of Aslan: “Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he— quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” Mark L. Ward Jr., PhD, writes Bible textbooks and works on the Biblical Worldview Team at BJU Press. He is a long-time member of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina.
“That you will dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Rightly dividing the Word of Truth” (2 Tim. 2:15)
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”3 Mrs. Beaver’s statement is the Proverbs 1:7 of Narnia: only a fool does not fear Aslan, the Son of the Emperor Across the Sea (cf. Deut. 5:24–29). But Lucy’s fear and Edmund’s were not emotionally the same: fear can have different qualities. Believers are not meant to have the craven fear seen, for example, in the wicked slave in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:24–27)—that is the kind of fear that a “perfect love” casts out (1 John 4:18). But it is after reminding believers that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” that Paul speaks of “the fear of the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:10, 11). There is a proper fear even Christians—who need fear no condemnation (Rom. 8:1)—should have of God’s holy judgment. Jim Berg packs it together remarkably well, saying that “the fear of the Lord is the awe and reverence left over when the frightening vulnerability before the greatness of God is mixed with the joy of security upon experiencing the goodness of God.”4 And this brings us back to the debate between intellectualism and voluntarism. Clearly, reason is not the primary human faculty if something non-rational— the fear of the Lord—comes before it. And yet neither is will the leader (in this verse, at least); something more basic, encompassing the whole person, starts us on the path to right living as described in Proverbs. This explains why so many people who are so much smarter than you and I come to such wrong conclusions with the facts. They’ve missed the first principle; their hearts point in the wrong direction. Age-old debates take more than a page to untangle, but hopefully this much is clear: Proverbs 1:7 must take its place among other important verses—John 14:15; Romans 1:18–22; 2:14, 15—that help us dig deep into the inner workings of God’s highest earthly creation. ____________________ 1
Waltke, Bruce. The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 1:1–15:29, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 180–81.
. S. Lewis. The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: C HarperCollins, 2004), 146.
reated for His Glory: God’s Purpose for Redeeming Your Life C (Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 2002), 216. FrontLine Pastor’s Insert • September/October 2012