Coming to terms with phronesis and sophia
Let me start out by being clear. I am no scholar of the ancient Greek dialects. I did try to learn the Biblical (Koina) Greek language in my Christian high-school. I believed I passed all the appropriate tests in that class in order to receive my language credits. I am a scholar of communication, a tradition that began in ancient Greece. I am a follower of Jesus whose instructions have been handed down to us primarily in Greek. Finally, I am the son of a pastor whose understanding of Greek is much better than most pastors. So, I know a little bit about ancient Greek languages. I know the differences between the Greek of Plato and the Greek of the Apostle Paul, but my Greek of either era is not good enough to make a real difference. True scholars will talk about how they can read the Greek of one or the other of these eras, but usually don’t consider themselves experts in both. I am an expert in neither. I and can fumble through a passage from scripture or from Aristotle with about the grace of a seal on land. It isn’t pretty but I get there, usually.
Still, when I read the New Testament or the old Greek rhetoricians, the vast majority of the time I do so in English translation. Those translations are put together by real experts, often by teams of experts, and they know what they’re doing whereas when I read things in Greek I am picking words out from context and etymology and turning regularly to a dictionary which is itself a translation. Besides, I am lazy and it is always easier to read in one’s mother tongue. I’ve been doing better since I got my android tablet where I can switch back and forth between the Greek and a bunch of English translations and commentaries with ease, but really, I mostly just read in English.
Still, once in a while I pick something up from the Greek that is important. I think that is something I’ve hit on here (which is why I am sharing it). I was recently looking at James 1:5 which says (in NAS translation) “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” What struck me was the Greek word for wisdom here. The word is "σοφία" (sophia). Now, this is a common word to be translated wisdom so I wasn’t shocked by what I saw, it just wasn’t what I had expected. I really had thought that the type of wisdom James was talking about was probably φρόνησις (phronesis).
There is a difference between the two that is really important to those of us who study rhetoric. Sophia is a type of “wisdom” that deals with ENDS whereas phronesis is the type of wisdom that deals with MEANS. Aristotle and Plato can be summarized in saying that Aristotle was searching for the phronesis, whereas Plato was searching for the sophia. Rhetoric is the phronesis of communication. Dialectic is the sophia. What is good and right and noble is sophia. What is the best way to get there is phronesis. Sophia is about differentiating the good from the bad in general. Phronesis is differentiating the good from the bad in a particular situation.
So it makes sense that I had expected wisdom in this context to be phronesis. James had been talking about how to endure the various trials that we encounter. So, I’d always taken it to mean that when we are in a particular trial, we should ask God for how to deal with it, and He’ll tell us. Furthermore, I think just about every preacher I’ve heard discussing this verse has talked about it in terms of phronesis, not sophia, although none ever discussed the Greek with me. Are you trying to decide whether to rent a house or an apartment? Well, ask God for wisdom. Are you trying to decide whether or not to marry a girl? Well, ask God for wisdom. I am not saying that asking God for wisdom in these matters is bad advice. It is good advice. James 1:5, however, is probably not the verse we can stand on for this. This verse would answer questions more like “is living in a house good or evil” or “is marriage, in general, good or evil?”
I was so sure that the wisdom for which we were supposed to ask was phronesis, that my first thought when reading it was sophia was that perhaps phronesis had died out of the Greek language by the time of the New Testament. I’d found that case before with other words. Eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία) Aristotle’s central concept in his Ethics, doesn’t even exist in scripture because the term had fallen into disuse. So, I thought maybe phronesis is not a word from Biblical Greek. A quick click through Strong’s concordance showed I was wrong. Phronesis and its derivatives are common in the New Testament and are often translated wisdom. Often, we are commanded to “be wise” and in such cases the word is almost always a derivative of phronesis. In the famous parable of the wise man building his house upon the rock and the foolish man building his house upon the sand, the type of wisdom is phronesis. The sophia of the situation, whether or not it is good and noble to build a house at all, is not discussed in that parable. The right place to build it is the discussion. The “wise” virgins who had oil when their husbands were on the way did not necessarily possess sophia, but phronesis.
So, I am sitting here looking at James 1:5 and I am led to ask myself a question. If this verse does not say that we should ask God for phronesis, where is the scriptural source for phronesis? Now, we know what the source is for “every good and perfect gift” and as I said earlier, asking God for phronesis is still not a bad idea. In fact, Paul prays for the Ephesians that they will receive phronesis (1:8); so it is something God doles out. But does God have a “normal” means of providing phronesis? Sophia seems to come through revelation, but is that the means for phronesis?
The answer might come from a portion of the Bible that we rarely think of having to do with “wisdom” at all. In Romans 8, Paul writes about two kinds of minds, the carnal mind and the spiritual mind. Now, there are different words that are translated “mind” in English from the Greek too, but this one is “φρόνημα” (phronéma), a word closely related to phronesis. It is like the part of the soul that contains, in some way, the phronesis. But apparently the fleshly phronéma is at war with the spiritual phronéma. So, we already have phronesis, and have no real need to ask for it, rather we need to decide which phronesis to act out. To act out the spiritual phronesis, the answer is not merely to pray for it as we pary for sophia. Rather there is a different type of prayer, not a simple request, that seems to unlock the spiritual phronéma and allow us to engage in spiritual phronesis:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind [phronéma] of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God”(Romans 8: 26 & 27 ESV)Aristotle said that phronesis is the most practical of all the virtues. In fact, the word is often translated “practical wisdom” in ancient Greek philosophy in order to differentiate it from sophia. Here’s the thing though, the type of prayer that on the surface seems the least practical is Biblically the way of releasing this kind of wisdom in our lives. We get the Holy Spirit’s phronéma by praying in the Spirit and allowing Him to translate to God the father. By giving over the words of our language to God and basically speaking what seems to our souls to be nonsense, God is able to cause His phronéma to work, imparting a his practical wisdom. It is paradoxical and strange, but I am thinking that is how it works. If you’re wondering if you should work, ask God and He will tell you. If you’re wondering which job to take, pray in the spirit and spiritual phronesis will be released in your life.