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New Testament Words and Verses
Prudence and Self-Control in the New Testament

We have spent a lot of time trying to understand words describing behavior that leads one to being tossed from the Kingdom of God (which I have variously referred to as being tossed from the table, bumped/banned from the banquet, or cast from the celebration). Then, our interest was in looking at terms that brought one into the fold of “sobriety” and “serious action” from the dissolute and debauched ways of the “works of the flesh.”  In this essay we will sink deeper into the NT language of prudence, understanding and self-control as we try to figure out what, from the perspective of these NT authors, is the life they are trying to encourage believers to practice.


                                                 A Missed Opportunity with συνετός


One of the most valuable words that could have helped our authors frame their understanding of the “Christian mind” is συνετός, which means “prudent, wise, understanding, discerning.” It is derived from the word σύνεσις, which LSJ defines as “faculty of quick comprehension, mother-wit, sagacity.” σύνεσις appears 7x in the NT.  That it should have been a basic go-to term for the early Christians can be seen when it is attributed to Jesus.  In Lk 2:47 we have it recorded how people are amazed at Jesus’ “understanding” (ἐπὶ τῇ συνέσει) and his answers. That is, as a twelve year-old youth, Jesus was already demonstrating noteworthy intellectual and perceptual understanding.  Yet, instead of finding a ready use in for the word in the rest of the NT, the word is actually perverted by Paul.  In I Cor. 1:19 Paul quotes Is. 29:14, where God says he will destroy the “wisdom” (σοφία) of the wise and the “understanding” (σύνεσις) of those with understanding (συνετός).  That is, the very thing that is highly-honored among the ancient Greeks and that was demonstrated by Jesus, is now trashed by the Apostle Paul.


The word never recovered from this kind of treatment. Jesus was quoted in one place as saying that the Gospel was hidden from these very “wise” and “prudent” people.  Prudence and wisdom, then, became not the characteristics most prized but an obstacle to one’s realization of the Kingdom of God (Matt. 11:25; Lk. 10:21).   There is one mention of a συνετός person in the NT who isn’t a Christian when he was introduced as συνετός (the Roman Sergius Paulus, Acts 13:7), but he eventually is converted.


After sustaining this blow either of rejection or of being ignored, συνετός/σύνεσις couldn’t recover. Col. 1:9 tries to redeem the word by talking about “spiritual understanding”, but one can tell that when one tries to spiritualize the concept it is tantamount to discarding it. It is lost in a verbal haze in Col. 2:2.  What is interesting, however, is that the Christians didn’t want to throw out the universe of concepts relating to wise or prudent behavior; they just didn’t know how to capture one of the most valuable terms.


                                                                          Moving to φρόνιμος


If the συνετός/σύνεσις axis wasn’t going to help (and σοφία, which I didn’t explore, doesn’t do much better), the early Christians had to turn elsewhere to explain their idea of wisdom—unless, of course, they wanted to make the case that only morons were invited to join the movement. φρόνιμος gets us started. It is an enormously rich word in Greek philosophy, usually translated “practical wisdom” or “prudence.”  A variety of other translations bring it into focus:  “in one’s right mind; showing presence of mind; sensible; possessing sagacity or discernment.” Its meaning dawned on me actually through a conversation with a friend who, truth be told, spends a lot of her time counseling people who aren’t thinking straight.  She asked for my take on how we ought to proceed on an issue I had studied at length and, after I explained it briefly, she said, “that’s the most sensible thing I have heard in a long time.” When something is clearly explained, it makes sense of things that are before one, it helpfully clarifies some aspect of the world, and it counsels a wise course for the future. That is “prudence” or “sound judgment.”  Such a person is demonstrating φρόνιμος.


The term φρόνιμος appears 14x in the NT. It is contrasted with μωρός (“fool”) in its four appearances in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25). Jesus commended the “shrewd” steward (φρόνιμος) for his actions in getting debtors to repay his master (Lk. 16:8). But Paul manages to trash the term twice in Romans (11:25; 12:16), where he cautions people not to be “wise” (φρόνιμος) in their own eyes.  He also uses the word in an ironic and not commendable way in II Cor. 11:19. Yet, Jesus commends a φρόνιμος person if he builds his house upon the rock, rather than upon the sand (Matt. 7:24).  Thus, even though the word is just waiting to be plucked up and used well by the early Christians, they somehow cannot bring themselves to embrace the term. Perhaps they felt they were of such low status in the first generation of the movement that they simply couldn’t embrace the language of the ‘upper classes” as they defined themselves.  Yet, they couldn’t just say, “We stand for ignorance and foolish behavior. Ya’all come!”  So they had to have some words to capture the positive sense of prudence. φρόνιμος was only partially helpful [We also have a few appearances of φρόνησις in the NT, but they aid us not at all]. Let’s look at the vocabulary centering around σωφροσύνη to see if it does the trick.


                                                  σωφροσύνη and Its Related Terms


When we enter into the world of the word σωφροσύνη, we are dealing with “soundness of mind” or “self-control” or “sobriety.” At least six terms beckon:


σωφροσύνη—soundness of mind, self-control.  This is the really big, go-to term in Greek philosophy, but it only appears 3x in the NT.  Paul uses the term in his defense in Acts 26:25, probably to show his “reasonableness” before Festus, and then it appears twice in I Tim. 2 (9, 15).  The first reference has to do with how women should be adorned in a church, with modesty and discretion, with σωφροσύνη expressing the latter idea. Verse 15 has it combined with “holiness.”  Thus, this central Greek term never really functioned very fully or helpfully in the NT.


σώφρων— of sound mind, self-controlled.  The word appears 4x in the NT. One of the appearances is in Titus 1:8, where it is listed as one of six characteristics for a bishop.  Here is the list:  φιλόξενον φιλάγαθον σώφρονα δίκαιον ὅσιον ἐγκρατῆ, or “hospitable; loving  what (or who) is good; of sound mind, just, pious, self-disciplined.”  Note that there may be very little difference between σώφρων and ἐγκρατῆ.  The latter is a NT hapax. I have already mentioned that σώφρων also appears in I Tim. 3:2 with a bevy of friends:  νηφάλιον σώφρονα κόσμιον φιλόξενον διδακτικόν, or “sober, self-controlled/sound mind, orderly, hospitable, teachable.”  “Hospitable, as we see, also occurred in Titus 1:8. Finally, it appears in Titus 2:5, as a characteristic appropriate for a woman.


σωφρόνως—of sound mind, sensibly.  NT hapax in Titus 2:12.  It appears in an interesting combination of living “sensibly” and “righteously” and “piously”  (σωφρόνως καὶ δικαίως καὶ εὐσεβῶς).


σωφρονίζω—teach self-control; recall a person to senses; chasten.  This NT hapax appears in the passage (Titus 2:4) where older women are  told to “teach younger women self-control” in several areas.


σωφρονέω—to be in one’s right mind; to be of sound judgment.  This 6x-appearing verb twice captures the “return of the mind” of a demon-possessed person after he is healed by Jesus. It describes the notion of being put back into one’s “right mind” (Mk. 5:15; Lk. 8:35). It once appears in I Pet (4:7) in hendiadys with νήφω.  It only appears once in the Pastoral Epistles (Titus 2:6) where the young men are told to be like this.


σωφρονισμός— self-discipline.  Another NT hapax (II Tim. 1:6) where this is one of the characteristics of the spirit God has given to believers.  They have a spirit of “power and love and σωφρονισμός.”  It is variously translated here as “self-discipline” or “self-control” or “sound mind” or “sound judgment.”


It might be helpful, before our essay on the fruit of the Spirit, to list all the positive things that ought to shape the Christian character.  In listing these we see that the authors aren’t interested in laying out a theory of behavior or a hierarchy of moral terms; they seem to take terms that are lying around and use them for their interest, though without landing on any that are of central importance.


So, we have the six relating to σώφρων, which emphasizes soundness in mind and judgment.  Then there is φρόνιμος and its related words, that stress the importance of wisdom or prudence.  I have said that there appears to be some ambiguity about the importance of σοφός and συνετός and their related words because of how God seems to confound some kinds of wisdom and understanding.  But these are balanced out by a positive reference to κόσμιος, meaning “well-ordered” and words clustering around σεμνός, which I have rendered as “serious.” Finally, the words clustering around the concept of soberness/sobriety (νήφω) complete our story.  Other words are there, but these are the basic ones.

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