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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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lxxv. σοφία, φρόνησις, γνῶσις, ἐπίγνωσις.

Σοφία, φρόνησις, and γνῶσις occur together, Dan. 1:4, 17. They are all ascribed to God (φρόνησις not in the N. T., for Ephes. 1:8 is not in point); σοφία and γνῶσις, Rom. 9:33; φρόνησις and σοφία, Prov. 3:19; Jer. 10:12. There have been various attempts to divide to each its own proper sphere of meaning. These, not always running in exactly the same lines, have this in common, that in all σοφία is recognized as expressing the highest and noblest; being, as Clement of Alexandria has it (Poedag. ii. 2), θείων καὶ ἀνθρωπίνων πραγμάτων ἐπιστήμη; adding, however, elsewhere, as the Stoics had done before him, καὶ τῶν τούτων αἰτίων (Strom. i. 5. 30).1 Augustine distinguishes between it and γνῶσις as follows (De Div. Quoest. ii. qu. 2): ‘Haec ita discerni solent, ut sapientia [σοφία] pertineat ad intellectum aeternorum, scientia [γνῶσις] vero ad ea quae sensibus corporis experimur;’ and for a much fuller discussion to the same effect see De Trin. xii. 22–24; xiv. 3.

Very much the same distinction has been drawn between σοφία and φρόνησις: as by Philo, who defining φρόνησις as the mean between craftiness and folly, μέση πανουργίας καὶ μωρίας φρόνησις (Quod Deus Imm. 35), gives elsewhere this distinction between it and σοφία (De Proem. et Poen. 14): σοφία μὲν γὰρ πρὸς θεραπείαν Θεοῦ, φρόνησις δὲ πρὸς ἀνθρωπίνου βίου διοίκησιν. This was indeed the familiar and recognized distinction, as witness the words of Cicero (De Off. ii. 43): ‘Princeps omnium virtutum est illa sapientia quam σοφίαν Graeci vocant. Prudentiam enim, quam Graeci φρόνησιν dicunt, aliam quandam intelligimus, quae est rerum expetendarum, fugiendarumque scientia; illa autem sapientia, quam principem dixi, rerum est divinarum atque humanarum scientia’ (cf. Tusc. iv. 26; Seneca, Ep. 85). In all this he is following in the steps of Aristotle, who is careful above all to bring out the practical character of φρόνησις, and to put it in sharp contrast with σύνεσις, which, as in as many words he teaches, is the critical faculty. One acts, the other judges. This is his account of φρόνησις (Ethic. Nic. vi. 5. 4): ἓξις ἀληθὴς μετὰ λόγου πρακτικὴ περὶ τὰ ἀνθρώπῳ ἀγαθὰ καὶ κακά: and again (Rhet. i. 9): ἔστιν ἀρετὴ διανοίας, καθ᾽ ἣν εὐ βουλεύεσθαι δύνανται περὶ ἀγαθῶν καὶ κακῶν τῶν εἰρημένων εἰς εὐδαιμονίαν. Not otherwise Aristo the Peripatetic (see Plutarch, De Virt. Mor. 2): ἡ ἀρετὴ ποιητέα ἐπισκοποῦσα καὶ μὴ ποιητέα κέκληται φρόνησις: and see too ch. 5, where he has some excellent words, discriminating between these. It is plain from the references and quotations just made that the Christian Fathers have drawn their distinctions here from the schools of heathen philosophy, with only such widening and deepening of meaning as must necessarily follow when the ethical and philosophical terms of a lower are assumed into the service of a higher; thus compare Zeller, Philos. d. Griechen, iii. 1. 222.

We may affirm with confidence that σοφία is never in Scripture ascribed to other than God or good men, except in an ironical sense, and with the express addition, or sub-audition, of τοῦ κόσμου τούτου (1 Cor. 1:20), τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου (1 Cor. 2:6), or some such words (2 Cor. 1:12); nor are any of the children of this world called σοφοί except with this tacit or expressed irony (Luke 10:21); being never more than the φάσκοντες εἶναι σοφοί of Rom. 1:22. For, indeed, if σοφία includes the striving after the best ends as well as the using of the best means, is mental excellence in its highest and fullest sense (cf. Aristotle, Ethic. Nic. vi. 7. 3), there can be no wisdom disjoined from goodness, even as Plato had said long ago (Menex. 19): πᾶσα ἐπιστήμη χωριζομένη δικαιοσύνης καὶ τῆς ἄλλης ἀρετῆς, πανουργία οὐ σοφία φαίνεται: to which Ecclus. 19:20, 22, offers a fine parallel. So, too, the Socrates of Xenophon (Mem. iii. 9) refuses to separate, or even by a definition to distinguish, σοφία from σωφροσυνη, from δικαιοσύνη, or indeed from any other virtue. It will follow that the true antithesis to σοφός is rather ἀνόητος (Rom. 1:14) than ἀσύνετος; for, while the ἀσύνετος need not be more than intellectually deficient, in the ἀνόητος there is always a moral fault lying behind the intellectual; the νοῦς, the highest knowing power in man, the organ by which divine things are apprehended and known, being the ultimate seat of the error (Luke 24:25, ὦ ἀνόητοι καὶ βραδεῖς τῇ καρδίᾳ: Gal. 3:1, 3; 1 Tim. 6:9; Tit. 3:3). Ἄνοια (Luke 6:11; 2 Tim. 3:9) is ever the foolishness which is akin to and derived from wickedness, even as σοφία is the wisdom which is akin to goodness, or rather is goodness itself contemplated from one particular point of view; as indeed the wisdom which only the good can possess. Ammon, a modern German rationalist, gives not badly a definition of the σοφός or ‘sapiens’; i.e. ‘cognitione optimi, et adminiculorum ad id efficiendum idoneorum instructus.’

But φρόνησις, being a right use and application of the φρήν, is a middle term. It may be akin to σοφία (Prov. 10:23),—they are interchangeably used by Plato (Symp. 202 a),—but it may also be akin to πανουργία (Job 5:13; Wisd. 17:7). It skilfully adapts its means to the attainment of the ends which it desires; but whether the ends themselves which are proposed are good, of this it affirms nothing. On the different kinds of φρόνησις, and the very different senses in which φρόνησις is employed, see Basil the Great, Hom. in Princ. Prov. § 6. It is true that as often as φρόνησις occurs in the N. T. (ἐν φρονήσει δικαίων, Luke 1:17; σοφίᾳ καὶ φρονήσει, Ephes. 1:8), it is used of a laudable prudence, but for all this φρόνησις is not wisdom, nor the φρόνιμος the wise; and Augustine (De Gen. ad Lit. xi. 2) has perfect right when he objects to the ‘sapientissimus,’ with which his Latin Version had rendered φρονιμώτατος at Gen. 3:1, saying, ‘Abusione nominis sapientia dicitur in malo;’ cf. Con. Guad. i. 5. And the same objection, as has been often urged, holds good against the “wise as serpents” (Matt. 10:16), “wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8), of our own Version.1

On the distinction between σοφία and γνῶσις Bengel has the following note (Gnomon, in 1 Cor. 12:8): ‘Illud certum, quod, ubi Deo ascribuntur, in solis objectis differunt; vid. Rom. 11:33. Ubi fidelibus tribuuntur, sapientia [σοφία] magis in longum, latum, profundum et altum penetrat, quam cognitio [γνῶσις]. Cognitio est quasi visus; sapientia visus cum sapore; cognitio, rerum agendarum; sapientia, rerum aeternarum; quare etiam sapientia non dicitur abroganda, 1 Cor 13:8.’

Of ἐπίγνωσις, as compared with γνῶσις, it will be sufficient to say that ἐπί must be regarded as intensive, giving to the compound word a greater strength than the simple possessed; thus ἐπιποθέω (2 Cor. 5:2), ἐπιμελέομαι: and, by the same rule, if γνῶσις is ‘cognitio,’ ‘kenntniss,’ ἐπίγνωσις is ‘major exactiorque cognitio’ (Grotius), ‘erkenntniss,’ a deeper and more intimate knowledge and acquaintance. This we take to be its meaning, and not ‘recognition,’ in the Platonic sense of reminiscence, as distinguished from cognition, if we might use that word; which Jerome (on Ephes. 4:13), with some moderns, has affirmed. St. Paul, it will be remembered, exchanges the γινώσκω, which expresses his present and fragmentary knowledge, for ἐπ ιγνώσομαι, when he would express his future intuitive and perfect knowledge (1 Cor 13:12). It is difficult to see how this should have been preserved in the English Version; our Translators have made no attempt to preserve it; Bengel does so by aid of ‘nosco’ and ‘pernoscam,’ and Culverwell (Spiritual Optics, p. 180) has the following note: ‘Ἐπίγνωσις and γνῶσις differ. Ἐπίγνωσις is ἡ μετὰ τὴν πρώτην γνῶσιν τοῦ πράγματος παντελὴς κατὰ δύναμιν κατανόησις. It is bringing me better acquainted with a thing I knew before; a more exact viewing of an object that I saw before afar off. That little portion of knowledge which we had here shall be much improved, our eye shall be raised to see the same things more strongly and clearly.’ All the uses of ἐπίγνωσις which St. Paul makes, justify and bear out this distinction (Rom. 1:28; 3:20; 10:2; Ephes. 4:13; Phil. 1:9; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Tim. 2:25; cf. Heb. 10:26); this same intensive use of ἐπίγνωσις is borne out by other similar passages in the N. T. (2 Pet. 1:2, 8; 2:20) and in the Septuagint (Prov. 2:5; Hos. 4:1; 6:6); and is recognized by the Greek Fathers; thus Chrysostom on Col. 1:9: ἔγνωτε, ἀλλά δεῖ τι καὶ ἐπιγνῶναι. On the whole subject of this § see Lightfoot on Col. 1:9.


1 On the relation of φιλοσοφία (τῆς τῶν ὄντων ἀεὶ ἐπιστήμης ὄρεξις, Plato, Def. 414; ὄρεξις τῆς θείας σοφίας, Id., quoted by Diogenes Laertius, iii. 63; ἐπιτήδευσις σοφίας, Philo, De Cong. Erud. Grat. xiv.; ‘studium virtutis, sed per ipsam virtutem,’ Seneca, Ep. 89. 7) to σοφία see Clement of Alexandria, Strom. i. 5. The word first appears in Herodotus, i. 50; for a sketch of its history, see Ueberweg, Hist. of Phil. p. 1.

2 The Old Italic runs perhaps into the opposite extreme, rendering φρόνιμοι here by ‘astuti’; which, however, had not in the later Latin at all so evil a subaudition as it had in the classical; so Augustine (Ep. 167. 6) assures us.

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G1108,G1922,G4678,G5428.]

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