John Owen

B. Childress
Jan 08 2010 08:00 A.M.

This truth will be farther manifested by the consideration of the insufficiency and vanity of anything else that may lay
claim or pretend to a title to wisdom.

There be two things in the world that do pass under this account:

  1. The one is learning or literature; skill and knowledge of arts, sciences, tongues, with the knowledge of the things
    that are past.
  2. Prudence and skill for the management of ourselves in reference to others, in civil affairs, for public good; which
    is much the fairest flower within the border of nature's garden.
Now, concerning both these, I shall briefly evince (a) that they are utterly insufficient for the compassing and obtaining
of those particular ends to which they are designed, and (
b) that both of them in conjunction, with their utmost
improvement, cannot reach the true general end of wisdom.  Both which considerations will set the crown, in the issue,
upon the head of Jesus Christ.


Begin we with the first of these, and that as to the first particular.  Learning itself, if it were all in one man, is not able to
compass the particular end to which it is designed; which writes 'vanity and vexation' upon the forehead thereof.

The particular end of literature (though not observed by many, men's eyes being fixed on false ends, which compels
them in the progress '
aberrare a scopo') is none other but to remove some part of that curse which is come upon us by
sin.  Learning is the product of the soul's struggling with the curse for sin.  Adam, at his first creation, was completely
furnished with all that knowledge (excepting only things not then in being, neither in themselves nor in any natural
causes, as that which we now call tongues, and those things that are the subject of story), as far as it lies in a needful
tendency to the utmost end of man, which we now press after.  There was no straitness, much less darkness, upon his
understanding, that should make him sweat for a way to improve, and make out those general conceptions of things
which he had.  For his knowledge of nature, it is manifest, from his imposition of suitable names on all the creatures (the
particular reasons of the most of which to us are lost); in which, from the approbation given of his nomination of things in
the Scripture, and the significance of what yet remains evident, it is most apparent it was done upon a clear
acquaintance with their natures.  Hence Plato could observe, that he was most wise that first imposed names on things;
yea, had more than human wisdom.  Were the wisest man living, yea, a general collection of all the wise men in the
world, to make an experiment of their skill and learning, in giving names to all living creatures, suitable to their natures
and expressive of their qualities, they would quickly perceive the loss they have incurred.  Adam was made perfect, for
the whole end of ruling the creatures and living to God, for which he was made; which, without the knowledge of the
nature of the one and the will of the other, he could not be.  All this being lost by sin, a multiplication of tongues also
being brought in, as a curse for an after rebellion, the whole design of learning is but to disentangle the soul from this
issue of sin.  Ignorance, darkness, and blindness, is come upon the understanding; acquaintance with the works of
God, spiritual and natural, is lost; strangeness of communication is given, by multiplication of tongues; tumultuating of
passions and affections, with innumerable darkening prejudices, are also come upon us.  To remove and take this away
- to disentangle the mind in its reasonings, to recover an acquaintance with the curse of division of tongues - is the aim
and tendency of literature.  This is the '
aliquid quo tendit';and he that has any other aim in it, 'Passim sequitur corvum
testaque lutoque.
'  Now, not to insist upon the vanity and vexation of spirit, with the innumerable evils wherewith this
enterprise is attended, this is that I only say, it is in itself no way sufficient for the attainment of its end, which writes
vanity upon its forehead with characters not to be obliterated.  To this purpose I desire to observe these two things:

  1. That the knowledge aimed at to be recovered was given to man in order to his walking with God, to that
    supernatural end to which he was appointed.  For after he was furnished with all his endowments, the law of life
    and death was given to him, that he might know wherefore he received them.  Therefore, knowledge in him was
    spiritualized and sanctified: even that knowledge which he had by nature, in respect of its principle and end, was
  2. That the loss of it is part of that curse which was inflicted on us for sin.  Whatever we come short in of the state of
    the first man in innocence, whether in loss of good or addition of evil, it is all of the curse for sin.  Besides, that
    blindness, ignorance, darkness, deadness, which is everywhere ascribed to us in the state of nature,. does fully
    comprise that also of which we speak.

On these two considerations it is most apparent that learning can no way of itself attain the end it aims at.


That light which by it is discovered (which, the Lord knows, is very little, weak, obscure, imperfect, uncertain, conjectural,
for a great part only enabling men to quarrel with and oppose one another, to the reproach of reason, yet I say, that
which is attained by it) is not in the least measure by it spiritualized, or brought into the order of living to God, and with
God, wherein at first it lay.  This is wholly beyond its reach.  As to this end, the apostle assures us that the utmost issue
that men come to, is darkness and folly (Romans 1:21-22).  Who knows not the profound inquiries, the subtile
disputations, the acute reasonings, the admirable discoveries of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and others?  What, as to
the purpose in hand, did they attain by all their studies and endeavours?  Says the apostle - 'They became fools.'  He
that, by general consent, bears the crown of reputation for wisdom from them all, with whom to have lived was counted
an inestimable happiness, died like a fool, sacrificing a cock to Æsculapius.  And another [apostle assures us], that
Jesus Christ alone is 'the true Light,' that lights us (John 1:9).  And there is not any that has any true light, but what is
immediately from him.  After all the learning of men, if they have nothing else, they are still natural men, and perceive
not the things of God.  Their light is still but darkness; and how great is that darkness!  It is the Lord Jesus alone who is
anointed to open the eyes of the blind.  Men cannot spiritualize a notion, nor lay it in any order to the glorifying of God.  
After all their endeavours, they are still blind and dark, yea, darkness itself, knowing nothing as they should.  I know how
the men of these attainments apt to say, 'Are we blind also?' with great contempt of others; but God has blasted all their
pride: 'Where,' says he, 'is the wise?  Where is the scribe?' (I Corinthians 1:20).  I shall not add what Paul has farther
cautioned us, to the seeming condemning of philosophy as being fitted to make spoil of souls; nor what Tertullian with
some other of the ancients have spoken of it; being very confident that it was the abuse, and not the true use and
advantage of it, that they opposed.


The darkness and ignorance that it strives to remove, being come upon us as a curse, it is not in the least measure, as
it is a curse, able to remove it or take it away.  He that has attained to the greatest height of literature, yet if he has
nothing else - if he not have Christ - is as much under the curse of blindness, ignorance, stupidity, dullness, as the
poorest, silliest soul in the world.  The curse is only removed in him who was made a curse for us.  Everything that is
penal is taken away only by him on whom all our sins did meet in a way of punishment; yea, upon this account.  The
more abilities the mind is furnished with, the more it closes with the curse, and strengthens itself to act its enmity against
God.  All that it receives does not help it to set up high thoughts and imaginations against the Lord Christ.  So that this
knowledge comes short of what in particular it is designed to; and therefore cannot be that solid wisdom we are inquiring

There be sundry other things whereby it were easy to blur the countenance of this wisdom; and, from its intricacy,
difficulty, uncertainty, unsatisfactoriness - betraying its followers into that which they most profess to avoid, blindness
and folly - to write upon it 'vanity and vexation of spirit.'  I hope I shall not need to add anything to clear myself for not
giving a due esteem and respect to literature, my intention being only to cast it down at the feet of Jesus Christ, and to
set the crown upon his head.


Neither can the second part of the choicest wisdom out of Christ attain the peculiar end to which it is appointed; and that
is prudence in the management of civil affairs - that which no perishing thing is more glorious - nothing more useful for
the common good of human kind.  Now, the immediate end of this prudence is to keep the rational world in bounds and
order, to draw circles around the sons of men, and to keep them from passing their allotted bounds and limits, to the
mutual disturbance and destruction of each other.  All manner of trouble and disturbance arises from irregularity: one
man breaking in upon the rights, usages, interests, relations of another, sets this world at variance.  The sum and aim
of all wisdom below is, to cause all things to move in their proper sphere, whereby it would be impossible there should
be any more interfering than is in the celestial orbs, notwithstanding all their divers and various motions: to keep all to
their own allotments, within the compass of the lines that are fallen to them, is the special end of this wisdom.

Now, it will be a very easy task, to demonstrate that all civil prudence whatever (besides the vexation of its attainment,
and loss being attained) is no way able to compass this end.  The present condition of affairs throughout the world, as
also that of former ages, will abundantly testify it; but I shall farther discover the vanity of it for this end in some few


Through the righteous judgment of God lopping off the top flowers of the pride of men, it frequently comes to pass that
those who are furnished with the greatest abilities of this kind do lay them out to a direct contrary end to that which is
their natural tendency and aim.  From whom, for the most part, are all the commotions in the world - the breaking up of
bounds, setting the whole frame of nature on fire?  Is it not from such men as these.  Were not men so wise, the world,
perhaps, would be more quiet, when the end of wisdom is to keep it in quietness.  This seems to be a curse that God
has spread upon the wisdom of the world, in the most in whom it is, that it shall be employed in direct opposition to its
proper end.


That God has made this a constant path towards the advancement of His own glory, even to leaven the wisdom and the
counsels of the wisest of the sons of men with folly and madness, that they shall, in the depth of their policy, advise
things for the compassing of the ends they do propose as unsuitable as anything that could proceed out of the mouth of
a child or a fool, and as directly tending to their own disappointment and ruin as anything that could be invented against
them.  'He destroys the wisdom of the wise, and brings to nothing the understanding of the prudent' (I Corinthians 1:
19).  This he largely describes (Isaiah 19:11-14).  Drunkenness and staggering is the issue of all their wisdom; and that
upon this account - the Lord gives them the spirit of giddiness (so also Job 5:12-14).  They meet with darkness in the
day-time; when all things seem clear about them, and a man would wonder how men should miss their way, then will
God make it darkness to such as these (Psalm 33:10).  Hence God, as it were, sets them at work, and undertakes their
disappointment, 'Go about your counsels,' says the Lord, 'and I will take order that it shall come to nought' (Isaiah 8:9-
10).  And when men are deep at their plots and contrivances, God is said to have them in derision, to laugh them to
scorn, seeing the poor worms industriously working out their own ruin (Psalm 2:3-4).  Never was this made more clear
than in the days in which we live.  Scarcely have any wise men been brought to destruction, but it has evidently been
through their own folly; neither has the wisest counsel of most been one jot better than madness.


That this wisdom, which should tend to universal quietness, has almost constantly given universal disquietness to
themselves in whom it has been most eminent.  'In much wisdom is much grief' (Ecclesiastes 1:18).  And in the issue,
some of them have made away with themselves, as Ahithophel; and the most of them have been violently dispatched by
others.  There is, indeed, no end of the folly of this wisdom.  The great men of the world carry away the reputation of it;
really it is found in few of them.  They are, for the most part, common events, to which they contribute not the least mite,
which are ascribed to their care, vigilance, and foresight.  Mean men, that have learned to adore what is above them,
reverence the meetings and conferences of those who are in greatness and esteem.  Their weakness and folly is little
known.  Where this wisdom has been most eminent, it has dwelt so close upon the borders of atheism, been attended
with such falseness and injustice, that it has made its possessors wicked and infamous.

I shall not need to give any more instances to manifest the insufficiency of this wisdom for the attaining of its own
peculiar and immediate end.  This is the vanity of anything whatever - that it comes short of the mark it is directed to.  It
is far, then, from being true and solid wisdom, seeing on the forehead thereof you may read 'Disappointment.'

And this is the first reason why true wisdom cannot consist in either of these - because they come short even of the
particular and immediate ends they aim at.


Both these in conjunction, with their utmost improvement, are not able to reach the true general end of wisdom.  This
assertion also falls under an easy demonstration, and it were a facile thing to discover their disability and
unsuitableness for the true end of wisdom; but it is so professedly done by him who had the largest portion of any of the
sons of men (Solomon in his Preacher), that I shall not any farther insist upon it.

To draw, then, to a close: if true and solid wisdom is not in the least to be found amongst these, if the pearl be not hid in
this field, if these two are but vanity and disappointment, it cannot but be to no purpose to seek for it in anything else
below, these being amongst them incomparably the most excellent; and therefore, with one accord, let us set the crown
of this wisdom on the head of the Lord Jesus.

Let the reader, then, in a few words, take a view of the tendency of this whole digression.  To draw our hearts to the
more cheerful entertainment of and delight in the Lord Jesus, is the aim thereof.  If all wisdom be laid up in him, and by
an interest in him only to be attained - if all things beside him and without him that lay claim thereto are folly and vanity -
let them that would be wise learn where to repose their souls.


COMMUNION WITH GOD, by John Owen, Copyright 2007, Christian Focus Publications.