Distinguishing Knowledge from Wisdom and Understanding

052113In this post I am trying to continue our celebration of the lost “Octave” of Pentecost. Today I want to consider three gifts of the Holy Spirit.

As you may recall, there are seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Counsel, Piety, Fortitude and Fear of the Lord. Most Catholics cannot define them well in any sort of articulate way. This is due to poor catechesis but also to the fact that modern English has tended to use several of these terms interchangeably, almost as synonyms, though they are distinct theologically.

There are also secular usages of these terms that have no correspondence to how we mean them theologically. To indicate intellectual understanding of something, a person in modern English may say, “I know” or they may say “I understand.” To most modern Anglophones this is a distinction without a difference. To speak of someone as being of great intelligence, a contemporary English speaker might say, “He has great understanding” or “He is a wise man” or yet again, “He is possessed of great knowledge.” Here too most would not think of these as dramatically different sentences. There are shades of meaning in calling a man wise versus smart or knowledgeable but most modern speakers are losing what those shades of difference actually are.

For all these reasons (poor catechesis, secular misuse and evolving language) Catholics have a hard time distinguishing between Knowledge, Wisdom and Understanding.

Let’s try to repair some of the damage.

First, some distinctions:

  1. We are discussing here the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. As such they are given to the baptized and strengthened in confirmed. They exist only in the Christian per se. A man may be said to be knowledgeable in the repair of a car or in the stock market, but we are not referring to the Gift of Knowledge given by the Holy Spirit in this case, only to worldly knowledge. A woman may be said to be wise in the ways of the world. But again, we are not referring to the Gift of Wisdom given by the Holy Spirit when we speak in this way. A man may be said to understand Spanish, but we are not speaking of the Gift of Understanding given by the Holy Spirit when we speak in this way. Hence, there are worldly counterparts to these words which do not conform to the theological meaning of these realities.
  2. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are supernatural and thus they transcend the ordinary powers of the soul or the human person in general. They are infused by God and no soul could ever acquire them on its own. In these senses they are different from the virtues which can be acquired naturally and can be moved or actuated by man himself. In the case of the Gifts, God is the unique mover and cause. Man is only the instrumental cause. Thus the acts which proceed from the gifts are materially human but formally divine just as the melody an artist plays on the harp is materially from the harp but formally from the musician who plays it. That the soul reacts or responds preserves freedom and merit but the soul merely seconds the divine action and can not take the initiative.
  3. Wisdom and knowledge are distinguished according to their objects. Wisdom pertains to God and the things of God. Knowledge pertains to created things and how they relate to our final end.
  4. Understanding too, meant here as the Gift of Understanding has a rather specific focus: It penetrates revealed truth to grasp its fullest meaning. Hence one may understand Spanish, but we are not referring to the Gift of Understanding in speaking this way. To grasp the purpose, meaning and implications of the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ would be a more proper usage of this word in terms of the Gift of Understanding.
  5. I will also add that there is not a little controversy even among theologians and different schools of thought in Catholic tradition as to some of the specifics listed here. Some modern theologians for example do not fully concur with the Thomistic synthesis presented here and argue that certain insights are lost by a 12th Century context. All well and good, and readers are free to add what they might like, even multiply and subtract but PLEASE don’t divide. I find the Thomistic synthesis most careful and helpful, but that does not mean that other insights are of no benefit.

OK, How about some Definitions. Incidentally, these definitions are gleaned from the Summa and also substantially from Fr. Antonio Royo Marin O.P. in his Book, The Great Unknown, The Holy Ghost and His Gifts

1. The Gift of Knowledge is a supernatural habit infused by God through which the human intellect, under the illuminating action of the Holy Spirit, judges rightly concerning created things as ordained to the supernatural end.

Notice that it is a habit. That is, it does not come and go. But like all habits, it can and does grow in depth and breadth. Grace builds on nature, and as one matures and gains experience, the Gift can and does make use of these human qualities. Because the gift is supernatural it is not a matter of human or philosophical knowledge deduced by natural reason. In other words you can’t simply go to school to get this gift. However, it is not unrelated to human development which school can provide. But this is not its origin. There are plenty of learned and humanly smart people who do not manifest the Gift of Knowledge. This can be due to a lack of faith or to resistance caused by weak faith and sin.

By the Gift of Knowledge the human intellect apprehends and judges created things by a certain divine instinct. The individual does not proceed by laborious reasoning but judges rightly concerning all created things by a kind of superior gift that gives an intuitive impulse. I have underlined “created things” because this essentially distinguishes knowledge from wisdom (which pertains to Divine, rather than created things).

Notice that the Gift is especially oriented to created things insofar as they pertain to our ultimate end. Now created things tend either toward our supernatural end or away from it, and the Gift of Knowledge helps us to judge rightly in this respect.

Looked at another way, the Gift of Knowledge helps us to apply the teachings of our faith to the living of daily life, the proper usage of material creation, knowing the proper utility and value of things as well as their dangers and misuses. By it we are able to determine well what conforms to faith and what does not. We are able to make use of creation in a proper way with necessary detachment and proper appreciation for what is truly good.

2. The Gift of Wisdom is a supernatural habit, inseparable from charity, by which we judge rightly concerning God and divine things under the special instinct of the Holy Spirit who makes us taste these things by a certain intuition and sympathy. In other words The truths of God begin to resonate with us and we begin to instinctively love what God loves, will what God wills. What he is and wills makes great sense to us. His teachings clarify and make sense.

We see things increasingly from God’s point of view through this supernatural gift. The thinking of the world increasingly seems as folly and appreciation of God’s Wisdom magnifies. More and more thorough this gift the human person desires to be in union only with God and His ways. By this gift the world is defeated and its folly clearly perceived.

Our love of neighbor is also perfected by it since the Gift of Wisdom helps us to see and thus love others more and more as God sees and loves them.

Since this is a gift, it cannot be learned or acquired. But, as with the Gift of Knowledge, one’s study of Scripture and Tradition can help dispose one for the growth of the Gift which can and does make use of what is humanly supplied. Grace builds on nature and perfects it.

3. The Gift of Understanding is a supernatural habit, infused by God with sanctifying Grace, by which the human intellect, under the illuminating action of the Holy Spirit, is made apt for a penetrating intuition of revealed truths, and even of natural truths so far as they are related to the supernatural end. It enables the believer to penetrate into the depths of revealed truth and deduce later by discursive thinking the conclusions implicit conclusions contained in these truths.

It discloses the hidden meaning of Sacred Scripture. It reveals to us the spiritual realities that are under sensible realities and so that the smallest religious ceremonies carry tremendous significance.

It makes us see causes through their effects simply and intuitively. This gives a profound appreciation for God’s providence.

This song says, “Take My Life and Let it Be Consecrated Lord to Thee.” It goes on to consecrate the whole person to Christ, including the intellect and will. As such it is an invitation for the Seven Gifts to come fully alive.

5 Replies to “Distinguishing Knowledge from Wisdom and Understanding”

  1. To receive the gifts we must first be receptive. This may seem like a mere willingness but, there’s more that what can be included in the concept of merely. It also includes a greater willingness to change – as in a willingness to let go of, or at least temporarily set aside, pre-conceived notions. We are told (in John 8:32) that the truth shall set us free however, the thought of discomforts in the process can make us fearful. Such things as a letting go of pre-conceived notions, which our lives have come to depend upon like a drug, in order to have a better worldly life through better notions – a fear of (more?) verbal violence by manipulators who succumb to their fear of truth and don’t want someone else’s search for truth to bring them face to face with their fears. Many things that could lead us to abuse the fear by hiding from that which we fear (truth) rather than using the fear constructively by proceeding with appropriate caution.
    Knowledge, as expressed here, seems to be about facts. It is a fact that; if one were to hold a lit match to gasoline then that gasoline will burst into flame and, holding a lit match to water will cause the match flame to go out, if it gets too close to the water. However, where’s the understanding? Further research has shown that the gasoline contains carbon and hydrogen molecules that combine with oxygen to release heat and to form new compounds. Why is a match needed? Further research reveals that the carbon and hydrogen must be released from the gasoline by adding energy – namely the heat of the match. Then, the burning of the gasoline will add more energy which will, in turn, release more carbon and hydrogen and the fire becomes self perpetuating. This is now understanding in a worldly way.
    Wisdom can lead us toward even more understanding as we discover that the energy released by the burning of released atoms yields more heat than is absorbed in getting the carbon and hydrogen out of it requires. If this energy difference were reversed the gasoline fire would go out on its own. I’ve observed something like this when setting fire to steel wool. It tentatively seems to me that wisdom is how; or is involved in how; one constructively uses facts and understanding.
    Three different things that exist on different, ascending, levels.
    My comments here may be a tad over-generalized in an effort to be somewhat brief and to get to the point which I feel I have to make.
    So, the meanings get somewhat confused by a “careless”usage. Or, is this usage as careless as it seems. Well, back to an unhealthy manifestation of fear of intangeable things (such as, but not limited to, truth) an induced confusion can block, or at least inhibit, the constructive nature of communication – especially if it appears to be a natural confusion. Sort of like the metaphor, “elbow joggling” where the world’s best, totally human, carpenter can’t succeed in driving a single nail straight if someone stands behind and joggles their elbow. The comparisons to which this “elbow joggling” may be applied can be claimed to have been disproved if the perpetrator of the “elbow joggling” is able to convince the observers that their action is not induced but, rather, natural.
    Now, we come to what I call artificial randomness, as opposed to natural randomness. Most natural things that appear random will, under the scrutiny of gathering facts and then studying those facts and, thereby, gaining knowledge and wisdom, will reveal their orderliness as our understanding progresses through a process.
    What I call artificial randomness only appears random because the presentation of the facts is distorted and the manner of distortion keeps getting changed to prevent discovery of the distortion. The artifice involved does not create a true randomness but, rather, a shifting illusion of it by the ongoing insertion of outside influences that are not part of the nature of that which is being examined. Done with skilful concealment of the outside nature of the insertion it can trick people into believing in a randomness of things which are not truly there.
    I will state that there do seem to be some genuine random things, such as pi or π which is about the ratio between the radius and the circumference of a circle. Here’s two places to see it calculated to a million places without a pattern ever emerging. http://141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399375105820974944592.com/ http://www.joyofpi.com/pi.html I won’t presume that the “joyofpi” stated in one title will be as exciting to most readers as I find it to be.
    So, why all this when I’m supposed to be expressing about The Holy Spirit? Well, His gifts can be frightening when we consider the painful (mostly emotionally) incidents in the past, such clashes in the past with abusers of authourity, and the like, and feel a desire to shy away from, put off indefinately, go into denial about our great need to become receptive to His help. We can then retreat into; and pretend that we don’t see; the artificial randomness that discouragers offer as they fuzz the boundaries at the interface so as to create an illusionary overlap.
    Most of my life there have been people who discourage me from going in a straight line toward truth however, they weren’t the true villains. I was a villain to myself as I employed their artifice to avoid my own fears about the spiritual truths which we turned aside from in the garden. My own power could not overcome my fears, and my desire to feed on the fears of others, to avoid the beneficial discomfort or facing truth. But, when I asked God for help I found that He, who has all power, led me to a process of great discovery.
    As a construction worker I was willing to experience the discomfort of extremes of hot, cold, wet, dry weather in order to contribute but, only when I turned to God, did this willingness expand enough to accept this gift. How often I prayed that He would give me all truth all at once and, only later, did I realize that this was in the hope that it would drive me mad to the point of destruction. It seems that He was much wiser and more benevolent at these times. I thank Him for that.
    A brief aside here where the scientific items of facts, hypothises (roughly; less than theories) and theories seem to be a bit distorted by laws of science – such as Newton’s laws of motion. However, these are facts which Newton, with his great intellect, took to such a new level that, while they were still facts, yet they were beyond the level of what is known about most facts. Since Newton was a man of great faith it does not surprise me, especially when I consider the great intellects of Solomon and Daniel.
    Someone recently suggested to me that Daniel may have been a composite character and, my first reaction was to brush it aside as I bordered on judging the, possibly unknown, source of this suggestion. I wondered if there were some who were trying to trick me into thinking that God couldn’t have created such a wonderous individual who went into scientific experiment, political advising and cross-examination in law court and more.
    Then, I reminded myself to get the facts. Through research what I read, as near as I can tell, the Book of Daniel used Hebrew at some times and Aramaic at others. For the practical and worldly he used one language and for the deeply spiritual he used another. Aquaintances who were raised to be bi-lingual in French and English tell me that French is much easier when expressing emotion, especially romance while English is better for other expression. Relatives who have been raised to be bi-lingual in Ukrainian and English tell me that Ukrainian is better for discussing pin point accuracy and that English would be better for expressing still other things. I’ve often seen my father and uncles switch to Ukrainian to clarify a point about something to do with machines then, switch back to English (probably to keep others from feeling excluded) once the point was clarified.
    God bless.
    I know virtually nothing about Hebrew and Aramaic but, can well imagine that each would have differing properties of clear expression.

  2. I understand how knowledge and wisdom are different from each other, but I am not clear on how understanding is different from knowledge and/or wisdom. Beautiful video.

    1. Understating differs from knowledge based on experience.

      A ladder will get you onto the roof. Unless you put it on wet grass. Then you will learn to understand how gravity interacted with wet grass and a ladder.

      If you survive… you have wisdom and understating.

  3. There is in fact a Trinity.




    The latter being the operational function.

    All were granted to man, to be used at will. There are necessary consequences involved with the misuse of any. This is as it must be.

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