How Is “the Fear of the Lord” the Beginning of Knowledge?

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.

Proverbs 1:7a (ESV)

NebulaThough the German philosopher Immanuel Kant was no Christian, he was right on the mark when he said that as “supreme being” God “is an ideal without a flaw, a concept which completes and crowns the whole of human knowledge.” Even a skeptic like Kant had to admit the truth: only an eternal and transcendent Creator God can explain the richness and diversity of human knowledge. Without God, the world ultimately cannot make sense.

The Bible makes a radical claim about the nature of ultimate reality. It asserts that apart from the acknowledgement of its Divine origin, the universe remains an unsolvable puzzle. As theologian Carl Henry has put it, “All merely human affirmations about God curl into a question mark.” Solomon—an impressive philosopher in his own right—boiled the issue down to the following proposition: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7a). This reverent recognition of the Creator (note: “fear” in this passage does not equal fright) provides the necessary foundation for education (Eccles. 12:13; Ps. 2:11; Isa. 11:2-3).

Attentive readers will note that the “fear of the Lord” is not just the starting point for spiritual axioms. The proverb states that it is the beginning of all knowledge. The Hebrew word used for knowledge here covers the entire scope of human inquiry. Presupposing the God of the biblical type offers the only sensible way to begin uncovering the true and unified meaning of things. (Certainly, such scientific patriarchs as Kepler, Newton, Pasteur, and Mendel understood this.) Paul explained why: “For by him [i.e., Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible [e.g., planets, plants, animals, material things] and invisible [e.g., numbers, laws, aesthetic and economic principles].” Reinforcing the point, he concluded that “in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 1:16; 2:3).

All, of course, means all. “All” is an audacious word for the apostle to use and Solomon to imply. The claim, however, does not mean that pagans never get anything right. After all, Solomon admired the king of Tyre’s expertise with architecture and construction (2 Chron. 2:3). Paul appreciated the writings of the Greek philosopher-poets (Acts 17:28). Non-believers will continue to make singular advances in their individual modes of expertise whether that be in mathematics, medicine, or other disciplines. But until they come to terms with the transcendent Ruler, they will never understand the “uni” in the word “universe.”

Only the biblical account of the creation of every aspect of existence, fall into sin and disorder, and redemption through the gospel of Jesus Christ provides a satisfactory “big picture.” Critics of Christianity say that God’s people are anti-intellectual. Quite to the contrary, the church is the only earthly institution poised to pose the toughest question of all: how does one explain the beautiful but baffling complexity of the world without reference to God—the “ideal without a flaw”? The answer to that question must be as bold as the Bible’s claim about knowledge itself.