"The object of all good literature is to purge the soul of its petty troubles." ~ P.G. Wodehouse

Monday, May 20, 2013

Wycliffe Centre for Scripture and Theology

The Wycliffe Centre for Scripture and Theology spring colloquium was Friday on the topic of "Proverbs 8 and the Christian Theological Reading of the Scripture." Four papers were given by Michael Kolarcik of Regis College, Christopher Seitz of Wycliffe, Donald Collett of Trinity School for Ministry in Mass, and Ephraim Radner of Wycliffe.

Theological interpretation is the main focus of these colloquia and it is the sort of look at these texts (Prov 8 specifically) that make a historical-critical biblical studies person (like myself) slightly squeamish at moments. However, much of the time these discussions provide a challenge to think theologically about the text and a reminder to consider or an introduction to the history of interpretation about the text. In that vein, Kolarcik offered a more comfortable and persuasive (to me) contextual setting for understanding wisdom in Proverbs 8 within the larger context of Prov 1-9 (and more helpfully Wisdom of Solomon 6-10 and Sirach 24). He pointed out that within Proverbs 8 God is the one who creates, but wisdom is present during the creation. God is the subject of the verbs throughout 8:22-31.

Seitz noted the way in which the early church made extensive use of the OT for theological argumentation and that Proverbs 8 served as "the dead center of the playing field" of the Christological discussions that took place between the Arians and Athanasius. Was the Son begotten or made? Prov 8:22ff. offered arguments for both. As Kolarcik highlighted, Prov 8 has become in contemporary theology a entry into creation theology, but for the Church in the fourth century debates Prov 8 was key to Christology. It was mentioned more than once during the day that Athanasius has an almost 60 page discussion of Prov 8 in relation to this discussion.

Collett, using Tremper Longman's commentary on Proverbs as a dialogue partner, argued that the view that wisdom is a personified attribute of God does not completely do justice to the text of Proverbs 8. Collett does not find that saying Proverbs' genre is poetry and so therefore the language of Prov 8 is figurative is entirely convincing. Collett contends that wisdom in Proverbs 8 is a "theological ontology". For him, Proverbs 8 indicates that wisdom has some sort of being, which he indicated raises questions for monotheism.

Radner made an argument for a "juxtapositional reading" or "juxtapositional exegesis" of Scripture. He pointed out how Athanasius (in his 60 pages on Prov 8) stacked multiple texts without explaining why they were evidence for an eternal pre-existence of the Son. The line of Athanasius' argument is that only God creates. Thus, the creating wisdom in Proverbs 8 can only be the Son of God. Radner noted the tension in wisdom as God's essence or an attribute and as Creator or creature. This Radner into an interesting discussion of the antimony of Scripture, in which he highlighted the place Proverbs 8 has played in the lectionary (Trinity Sunday where it has obvious trinitarian implications for readers and hearers!). Radner's concluding point is that similar to Athanasius and lectionary readings Scripture needs to be read in this juxtapositional way.

Overall, it was a really interesting day. I would say that I realized all the more how much I approach biblical studies from a historical-critical perspective. I would say, especially with the evidence that Kolarcik provided, that Proverbs 8 has little or nothing to do with the second person of the Trinity. Radner indicated this as much by saying that from the authorial view of Scripture Prov 8 is not about the Son. As Collett pointed out, seeing wisdom as an attribute does not solve all the problems, but personification of an attribute in a poetic genre in an Ancient Near East setting may not need to meet all of our thoughts on how this should work.

So, if the author of Proverbs (Solomon or God? or ???) did not intend the Son with the term "wisdom" and yet many apostolic fathers from the third and fourth centuries saw the Son if Prov 8, what is or should be guiding our interpretation of Scripture? I find it extremely interesting that Prov 8 functioned so prominently in these Christological discussions, but if we want to argue about Jesus' role in creation would not Colossians 1 or John 1 provide better evidence? For the fathers, the language of "begotten" in Prov 8 is important, but John 1:18; 3:16? I remain unconvinced of the link between wisdom (sophia) and the word (logos) in John's Gospel (see my forthcoming dictionary article in DJG 2nd ed. "Logos"). I realize I am traveling against the stream here, but I don't see it.

The history of interpretation is important and helps to place us in our own contexts and alerts us and challenges us with views that we would not otherwise noticed. Nicene orthodoxy on the second person of the Trinity represents Scripture well. I am just not convinced that Prov 8 is about Christology or that it should be used in theological discussions of the Trinity.

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