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A place to stand: Proverbs 8 and the construction of ecclesial space

  • Donald Collett (a1)

Recent debate over the question whether ’amôn in Proverbs 8:30 should be rendered in a passive or active sense is helpful for illuminating the nature of the interaction between theology and exegesis in biblical interpretation. This essay offers an assessment of this debate with a view towards clarifying its christological significance, arguing that the semantics and syntax of Proverbs 8:30, as well as the theological frame of reference established by verses 22–31, exert an ‘ontological pressure’ upon our understanding of divine identity in Proverbs 8. These considerations offer an alternative avenue of approach to the poem that honours the Old Testament's commitment to monotheism, while also allowing the Old Testament's own presentation to shape our understanding of the character of the Lord’s oneness.

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1 For the purposes of this essay, the ‘rule of faith’ is an exegetically authorised theological context for reading scripture, derived in the first instance from reading Israel's scriptures in light of the risen Christ. As an exegetically grounded theological judgement concerning the hypothesis of Israel's scriptures, it functions as a ‘rule’ for relating scripture to its theological subject matter. See the discussion in Seitz, Christopher, The Character of Christian Scripture: The Significance of a Two-Testament Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Press, 2011), pp. 191203 , esp. p. 195.

2 E.g. Bruce Waltke argues that ‘reading Proverbs on its own terms leads to the conclusion that Solomon identifies Woman Wisdom with his teachings, not with a hypostasis (i.e., a concrete, heavenly being who represents or stands for God and is independent from him)’. Presumably aware that the early church fathers defined ‘hypostasis’ in a way that differs from his own construal of that term, Waltke tends to be dismissive of patristic readings of Proverbs 8, arguing that ‘a grammatical-historical exegesis of Proverbs 8 does not support patristic exegesis’. Waltke, Bruce, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1–15 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 127–8.

3 Behr, John, The Way to Nicaea: The Formation of Christian Theology, vol. 1 (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001), p. 19.

4 Seitz, Christopher, ‘Of Mortal Appearance: Earthly Jesus and Isaiah as a Type of Christian Scripture’, in Figured Out: Typology and Providence in Christian Scripture (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 103 .

5 See Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition 100–600 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), pp. 191210 , esp. p. 194.

6 Burney, C. F., ‘Christ as the APXH of Creation’, Journal of Theological Studies 27 (1926), pp. 160–77. Burney's essay suggests that the Hebrew term rêshîth in Gen 1:1 and Prov 8:22, along with the Hebrew verb qānāh in Prov 8:22, exercised an ontological pressure upon Paul's christological confession in Col. 1:15–18. Along with Richard Bauckham's analysis of the theological function of ‘Word’ and ‘Wisdom’ in the Second Temple wisdom literature (see n. 9 below), his arguments tend to undercut Waltke's claim that ‘Paul . . . does not build his high Christology on Proverbs 8 or on Jewish Wisdom literature’ (Waltke, Book of Proverbs, p. 130).

7 This essay follows the convention of most English versions by glossing the tetragrammaton as Lord. Whatever its problems, this may be said to have a certain precedent in the Hebrew practice of vocalising the tetragrammaton as adonai, as well as the LXX practice of translating the tetragrammaton as kyrios. Cf. the discussion in Christopher R. Seitz, ‘Handing Over the Name: Christian Reflections on the Divine Name YHWH’, in Figured Out, pp. 131–44.

8 The phrase is that of Seitz, Christopher. See his essay ‘The Trinity in the Old Testament’, in The Oxford Handbook on the Trinity (Oxford: OUP, 2011), pp. 2840 .

9 On this see Bauckham, Richard, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 1998), reprinted in Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament's Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 1–17. Bauckham argues that, in Second Temple literature, Wisdom is ‘not someone else’ in the sense of being a second deity, but intrinsic to Lord’s identity (pp. 16–17). See further the discussion of the ‘New Religionsgeschichtliche Schule’ by Bucur, Bogdan in ‘Justyn Martyr's Exegesis of Biblical Theophanies’, Theological Studies 75/1 (2014), pp. 3451 , esp. p. 47, n. 49.

10 The other two are found in Prov 1:20–33 and 9:1–6.

11 Lenzi, Alan, ‘Proverbs 8:22–31: Three Perspectives on its Composition’, Journal of Biblical Literature 125/4 (2006), p. 694; cf. Weeks, Stuart, ‘The Context and Meaning of Proverbs 8:30a’, Journal of Biblical Literature 125/3 (2006), p. 436 .

12 Weeks, ‘Context and Meaning’, p. 434, emphasis added; cf. Fox, Michael, ‘’Āmôn Again’, Journal of Biblical Literature 115 (1996), p. 700 .

13 Lenzi, ‘Proverbs 8:22–31’, pp. 705–7.

14 Weeks, ‘Context and Meaning’, p. 434.

15 E.g. Otto Plöger takes the Hebrew root in a passive sense as ‘be firm’, arguing that its grammatical form is that of an infinitive absolute functioning adverbially. See Fox, ‘’Āmôn Again’, p. 700.

16 Aquila's reading of the Hebrew may reflect an instance of ’al-tiqrê wherein the vowel letter waw was not read as cholem but shureq (‘al-tiqrê means ‘do not read’ X but Y), thereby creating a deliberate alternate reading. The possibility also exists that Aquila based his substitution on a known or textually attested variant reading.

17 For objections to this rendering, see Michael Fox, ‘’Āmôn Again’, p. 701.

18 Longman III, Tremper, Proverbs (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), p. 196; cf. also his How to Read Proverbs (Downer's Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), p. 105.

19 Longman, How to Read Proverbs, p. 104. The issue whether the language of 8:22–31 has ontologically descriptive significance should not be confused with the misguided attempt to define the nature of the Godhead by wrongly assuming a one-to-one relationship between grammatical and sexual gender. For a helpful discussion, see Seitz, Christopher, ‘Reader Competence and the Offense of Biblical Language: The Limitations of So-Called Inclusive Language’, in Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 292–9.

20 Longman, How to Read Proverbs, p. 33; cf. also pp. 56, 74, and 104. Longman's Baker commentary adopts the same view (Longman, Proverbs, p. 196).

21 Longman, How to Read Proverbs, p. 104. On pp. 109–10, the link between this understanding of Wisdom in Proverbs and Longman's concern to preserve monotheism is strongly stated.

22 Longman, Proverbs, p. 196.

23 Longman, How to Read Proverbs, pp. 104–5. Longman's Baker commentary renders qānāh as ‘begot’ rather than ‘formed’ (see Longman, Proverbs, p. 195).

24 Longman, How to Read Proverbs, p. 105. The early church was also aware of ‘the proverbial character of the material’, and thus may be said to have had a sense of the importance of genre as well. See Young, Frances, ‘Proverbs 8 in Interpretation (2): Wisdom Personified’, in Ford, D. and Stanton, G. (eds), Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 102–15; quote from p. 111. Interestingly, this awareness did not foster the conclusion that Wisdom is simply the literary personification of an attribute of the Lord.

25 Weeks, ‘Context and Meaning’, p. 434, n. 6.

26 Longman appears to be aware of this problem and suggests that ’amôn in 8:30 has a double-referentiality to both the Lord and Woman Wisdom. This double-referentiality, however, is simply the counterpart to his claim that Woman Wisdom is the simply the literary personification of an attribute of the Lord, and thus indistinguishable from the Lord himself (Longman, Proverbs, p. 196).

27 Lenzi, ‘Proverbs 8:22–31’, pp. 687–714.

28 Ibid., p. 696.

29 Ibid., p. 698.

30 Ibid., p. 705.

31 Cf. 1:20–1. Both ancient and modern commentators register the observation that the agency of Wisdom in Prov 8 is framed in prophetic as well as creational categories.

32 Lenzi offers his own take on this question by drawing upon the allusions to Exod 3:14 and Isa 48:16 in Prov 8:27–30a (Lenzi, ‘Proverbs 8:22–31’, pp. 711–14).

33 For a similar line of argument made on the basis of Paul's reading of Isa 45 in Phil 2, see Yeago, David, ‘The New Testament and Nicene Dogma’, Pro Ecclesia 3 (1994), pp. 152–64.

34 While I do not find the ‘attribute reading’ persuasive, it does have the merit of avoiding a purely literary or historical reading of Wisdom's identity in Prov 8.

35 Cf. Gen 1:2.

36 Murphy, Roland, Proverbs (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), pp. 52–3.

37 Weeks, ‘Context and Meaning’, p. 438, n. 19.

38 Eine beredte Anspielung. The phrase derives from Arndt Meinhold. See Lenzi, ‘Proverbs 8:22–31’, p. 711, n. 90; cf. Murphy, Proverbs, pp. 52–3.

39 Lenzi argues that the triple occurrence of ‘water words’ in 8:24, 27 and 28, as well as the birth imagery in 8:22–5, operates with an eye towards establishing a polemical relationship with the Enuma Elish and Ea, the Mesopotamian god of water and wisdom (Lenzi, ‘Proverbs 8:22–31’, p. 700).

40 The Hebrew of 8:30 frames the ongoing or ‘daily’ rejoicing of Wisdom in comprehensive terms as the ‘all’ of time.

41 Weeks, ‘Context and Meaning’, p. 437.

42 Ibid., p. 441.

43 Ibid., pp. 437ff.

44 See Soskice, Janet, Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985); cf. also Howell, Brian C., In the Eyes of God: A Metaphorical Approach to Biblical Anthropomorphic Language (Cambridge: James Clark Publishing, 2014).

45 On allegory as other-speaking, see Copeland, Rita and Struck, Peter T. (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Allegory (Cambridge: CUP, 2010), p. 2; cf. also Heidegger, Martin, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Hofstader, Albert (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 19: ‘The work makes public something other than itself; it manifests something other; it is an allegory. In the work of art something other is brought together with the thing that is made.’

46 The ontological status of interpretive categories or metaphors in Israel's scriptures, e.g. Word, Wisdom, Beginning and Begetting, are crucial to the New Testament's exegetical witness to Christ. See Christopher Seitz, ‘The Trinity in the Old Testament’, pp. 28–40.

47 Intertextual models for constructing a theological account of biblical language generally fail to do justice to the text-res model at work in the early church, which is arguably better suited to addressing the problems inherent in hermeneutical accounts that construe biblical language in self-referential terms (i.e. as a self-contained system of meaning). See Childs, Brevard, ‘Critique of Recent Intertextual Canonical Interpretation’, Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 115 (2003), pp. 173–84, esp. his remarks on pp. 182–3; cf. also the helpful summary of Childs’ concerns in Driver, Daniel R., Brevard Childs: Biblical Theologian for the Church's One Bible (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), pp. 152–9.

48 See e.g. the discussion of Irvine, Martin, The Making of Textual Culture: ‘Grammatica’ and Literary Theory 350–1100 (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), pp. 244–7. Irvine suggests a text-text model, rather than a text-res model, for understanding the nature of language as ‘other-speaking’.

49 Longman, How to Read Proverbs, p. 104.

50 Ibid., p. 110.

51 Divine speech in the Old Testament is its own kind of incarnational reality, sharing in the theological logic and form of the incarnation, yet distinct from it. Cf. the comments of de Lubac, Henri, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), p. 389: ‘In the literal meaning of Scripture, the Logos is thus not, properly speaking, incarnated as he is in the humanity of Jesus, and this is what allows us still to speak of comparison: he is, nevertheless, already truly incorporated there; he himself dwells there, not just some idea of him, and this is what authorizes us to speak already of his coming, of his hidden presence.’

52 Seitz, ‘The Trinity in the Old Testament’, pp. 30–1.

53 Young, ‘Proverbs 8 in Interpretation’, p. 103.

54 Ibid., p. 104.

55 This essay is a revised version of a paper read at the May 2013 meeting of the Wycliffe Centre for Scripture and Theology, Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.

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Scottish Journal of Theology
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