A few years ago I wrote an essay on “The Trivium in Biblical Perspective,” which shows the relationship between the classical model of education [grammar, logic and rhetoric], and the original biblical model [knowledge, understanding and wisdom]. This is an addendum to that essay.
Most everyone can see what’s floating on the surface; it’s plain and obvious. It might be beautiful or ugly, or it might be true or false, but there it is for all to see and to make initial judgments. That’s the nature of surface knowledge. Sometimes things are as they appear to be, but not always. For understanding we’ll have to look below the surface; dig deeper, peer behind the façade, and pull back the veneer. Understanding requires that we gather information that might not have been available at first. (Most people and things are more complicated than we first imagined). We need to know some history and philosophy along with motives and structure. What are the foundations like? What’s holding this together? How does it work? Can we count on it? Is it what it appears to be on the surface? These, and perhaps a thousand other questions, will need answers if we’re to draw sound conclusions about the person or thing under consideration. We need to confirm or deny our first impressions and this can only be done as we see how all the parts fit and function together. What makes this thing tick? Until we have done this―until we can accurately answer these kinds of questions―our knowledge remains superficial and unreliable.
Wisdom takes this to a deeper level. Having assembled considerable knowledge and applied sufficient understanding, now we’ll need to make decisions and applications. In order to do this well, we’ll have to weigh a broad range of considerations. Much is riding on whether we have the actual truth about a thing or only what appears to be the truth. Most résumés look good―check the references. There are more than a few failed engineering projects as well as failed businesses and failed relationships that are the result of these kinds of miscalculations. We’ve all learned many things the hard way. It’s much better to think longer, harder and deeper in order to be as sure as possible that we’re making wise choices and decisions. Some matters are weightier than others, and therefore the cost of getting it wrong varies. Getting it right or getting it wrong both carry real consequences (personally and corporately). Wisdom calls for inference and projections; it considers the past, present and future, remembering that few things (if any) are isolated (we do live in a universe). The political world is littered with innumerable examples of “unintended consequences,” (some of them were even well-intentioned”).
Sometimes we see the surface and presume that we have understanding and wisdom. Every two-year-old thinks he knows what he needs to know, and every teenager is certain that he does. Parents are simply obstacles. We have all acted on surface knowledge alone (sometimes we have no choice). Thankfully, surface knowledge is often sufficient since we don’t always have the time to dig deeper. On the other hand, we’ve also acted foolishly by being too hasty in our judgments. We all have regrets. If we keep on acting foolishly, the Bible would describe us as a “fool.” In the Book of Proverbs the man of wisdom is set over against the fool. The wise man knows how to dig deep and how to gather understanding; he’s not in a hurry. He looks to the past, and then looks to the future, before crossing the street today.