Hermeneutics and the Eternal Generation of the Son

In two weeks I’ll be presenting a paper with the same title as this blog post at the Southeast Regional meeting of ETS in Birmingham, AL. I’m also presenting the same paper at the ETS Far West Regional meeting in LA in April. I’ve never presented the same paper at two different conferences, so it will be interesting to get feedback in Birmingham and then tweak (rewrite?) the paper for the April conference. I was only planning on presenting in LA, but I’ll take any excuse to go to Sweet Home Alabama and get some good BBQ.

Here’s a paragraph from my introduction explaining my aim and thesis:

This paper seeks to explore and compare the hermeneutical presuppositions and methods of, on the one hand, early Christian interpreters who saw the doctrine of eternal generation taught in Proverbs 8 and, on the other hand, modern interpreters[1] who do not see the doctrine here. What makes the difference in interpretation? It is surely not exegetical rigor – both the pre-modern and modern interpreters have rigorously explored the text with every available interpretive tool.[2] And in the not uncommon case that one assumes modern exegesis is more rigorous and scientific than pre-modern interpretation, it should be noted here that modern commentators cannot come to an agreement on the passage’s meaning, either as a whole or in determining what specific verbs mean (e.g. qana, v. 25). This is in spite of a general commitment to a method (historical-critical, or its close cousin, historical-grammatical for evangelicals) and a conclusion – the passage does not teach eternal generation.[3] In other words, the issue has to lie elsewhere, and I propose here that the difference between those who affirm eternal generation, both in Proverbs 8 and elsewhere, and those who deny it is their theological and hermeneutical foundations. This paper will compare and contrast the aforementioned interpreters’ approaches in order to demonstrate that this is indeed the case.


[1] In using the term “modern” I mean post-Enlightenment, which includes both modern and postmodern readers. While the latter tend to eschew the objectivism and scientific positivism with which moderns approach the text, postmodern readers still tend to retreat to modernistic exegetical methods in their interpretation.

[2] Thus this paper is not an exegetical defense of eternal generation from Proverbs 8, but rather an argument that those who see the doctrine taught here have legitimate theological and interpretive rationales for doing so.

[3] One notable exception is Richard M. Davidson, “Proverbs 8 and the Place of Christ in the Trinity,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 17.1 (2006): 33–54, but even here it should be noted that he does not use the language of eternal generation but only hypostatization. His focus is more on the incarnation language in the passage than on the relationships between the persons of the immanent Trinity. See also Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., “Wisdom and Creation,” JBL 104.1 (1985): 3–11.

Athanasius and Proverbs 8

Right now I’m researching the hermeneutical foundations for the patristic and medieval use of Proverbs 8 to support the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. One of the essays I’ve been working through for the last few days is Luise Abramowski’s “Das Theologische Hauptwerk Des Athanasius.”[1] My German is below poor, so I hope I’m understanding Abramowski correctly, but what I take the article to be saying is that a number of hermeneutical principles worked together to allow Athanasius to understand Proverbs 8:22-31 as teaching eternal generation.

  1. John 1:14, 16, etc. necessitate seeing Jesus as the divine embodiment of wisdom. In other words, Athanasius begins with the assumption that Jesus as the Logos is enfleshed Wisdom, and therefore that Wisdom must not be a creature (as the Logos is not a creature).
  2. This means that Proverbs 8:22-31 cannot refer to Wisdom as a creature.
  3. The genre of Proverbs, as paroimia, should be understood as either “Sprichwort” (Latin, proverbium; “proverb”) or “Gleichnis” (“likeness,” “allegory,” “parable”). In other words, the tentative nature of the language and message of Proverbs should give the reader pause before proceeding with any definitive interpretation, even of individual words.
  4. Regarding ktizein, there are verbal parallels that suggest it can mean something other than ontological creation (e.g. Prov. 9:1).
  5. It is important for Athanasius to identify the “person” speaking in each verse, and especially between the pre-incarnate Logos and the incarnate Christ (e.g. v. 22 vs. v. 25).
  6. Related to this last point, Athanasius found it highly important to understand individual passages in light of their placement in and reference to the biblical storyline, especially as it relates to the Word becoming flesh.

All of this led Athanasius to reject Arian subordinationism from this passage and turn to eternal generation as the alternative interpretive solution. I’m not sure what I’ll do with that yet, but I do find it interesting that, at least in my opinion, Athanasius seems to be operating with some fairly standard interpretive principles: pay attention to genre and context, pay attention to the biblical narrative, and pay attention to textual details and parallels. The one principle that I think gets people nervous nowadays is that Athanasius starts with the assumption that the NT (e.g. Hebrews 1) interprets Proverbs 8 as it was originally intended. Modern interpreters tend to prefer to isolate Proverbs 8 (or any OT passage) from its reception history, and especially NT reception. I’ll refrain from commenting on that, for now at least.


[1] Luise Abramowski, “Das Theologische Hauptwerk Des Athanasius: Die Drei Bücher Gegen Die Arianer (Ctr. Arianos I-III),” Communio Viatorum 42.1 (2000): 5-23.

Book Notice: Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address

A book to keep your eye on if you are interested in theological interpretation is Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address (Eerdmans) edited by Craig G. Bartholomew and David J.H. Beldman. In the Preface Bartholomew and Beldman lament that the Old Testament is for the most part unknown by the majority Christians and that there are far too few books to assist Christians to feast upon it as Christian Scripture. Their response to the famine is this edited volume with the goal of listening for God’s address through the Old Testament:

At the heart of the hermeneutic advocated in this book is the belief that our love for the Old Testament and our desire for God will come together only when we make the goal of our interpretation to listen for God’s address. If Scripture is God’s Word, then any other goal is inadequate.

Hearing the Old Testament boasts an impressive collection of contributors beginning with Bartholomew’s opening chapter, “Listening for God’s Address: A Mere Trinitarian Hermeneutic for the Old Testament.” Part II of the volume concerns methods in interpretation and is appropriately named, “Learning to Listen.” Essays from Part III are involve listening to the different sections of the Old Testament.  Part IV concludes the volume with, “Hearing and Preaching the Old Testament.”

What stands out about this volume is the careful editorial process. Contributors to Part II, “Learning to Listen” first read Bartholomew’s chapter on Hermeneutics and then were invited to interact either positively or negatively with his essay. Contributors to Part III were asked to write their chapters after reading Bartholomew’s chapter and the chapter’s on “Learning to Listen.” Part IV was then written in light of the Parts I-III. This type of editorial planning should bring a certain type of cohesion that normally lacks in an edited volume. I only hope that future volumes may follow suit.

The List of chapters and authors:

  1. Listening for God’s Address: A Mere Trinitarian Hermeneutic for the Old Testament by Craig G. Bartholomew
  2. History of Old Testament Interpretation by Al Wolters
  3. Philosophy and Old Testament Interpretation by Bartholomew
  4. Literary Approaches and Old Testament Interpretation by David J.H. Beldman
  5. History and Old Testament Interpretation by Tremper Longman III
  6. Biblical Theology and Old Testament Interpretation by Mark J. Boda
  7. Canon and Old Testament Interpretation by Stephen G. Dempster
  8. Mission and Old Testament Interpretation by Christopher J.H. Wright
  9. Ethics and Old Testament Interpretation by M. Daniel Carroll R.
  10. Hearing the Pentateuch by Gordon J. Wenham
  11. Hearing the Historical Books by Iain Provan
  12. Hearing the Psalter by J. Clinton McCann Jr.
  13. Hearing the Old Testament Wisdom Literature by Bartholomew
  14. Hearing the Major Prophets by Richard Schultz
  15. Hearing the Minor Prophets by Heath Thomas
  16. Hearing and Preaching the Old Testament by Aubrey Spears

Proverbs, Wisdom, and the Land

Let me begin by saying that I’m not a Proverbs scholar, and so what I’m about to say probably has already been said many times. But I thought I’d bring it up anyway.

I’m reading through Proverbs both for devotional purposes and because I’m currently teaching a class on the Latter Prophets and Writings. I’m through chapter 11 at this point, and I continue to notice language about wisdom as it relates to the land and exile, all couched in eschatological terms.

Positively, Prov. 3:1-4, 6:20-23, all seem to refer to 7:1-5 the promises of Deuteronomy (and especially ch. 6) concerning the wisdom of obeying the commandments of the Law and the corresponding result of long life and living in the land. They also, though, appear to reference the new covenant, as each of these sections not only promises long life and dwelling in the land through obedience but obedience through the giving of God’s spirit.

Negatively 2:20-22, and especially v. 22 (“cut off from the land”) implies exile for the foolish (or wicked), and this exile is related to following the adulteress in 2:16-19. This section immediately precedes 3:1-4 and warnings against the adulteress are found in the other two positive promises of 6:20-23 and 7:1-, thus linking those sections with exile as well as the new covenant.

Exile further appears to be in view in 1:24-27, as the promise of God to laugh at the calamity of foolish Israel sounds like the prophets and Lamentations. Lady Folly and her call to adultery is also reminiscent of the prophets and especially their language of idolatry and the resulting exile.

What I’m concluding from this, at least for now, is that the instruction in Proverbs is not just about wise living, but wisdom through the eschatological promises of God to pour out his Spirit (e.g. 1:23) in the new covenant. Historical Israel is used as a negative example of idolatry and adultery (cf. also 10:30), resulting in exile, while future Israel and the land are used as promises and figurative imagery.

I also think that there is quite a bit of creation language here – Prov. 8 is obvious, of course, but I’m really thinking more about the ability to discern good and evil, the resulting blessings and cursings, and the use of “tree of life” (3:18; 11:30). These are also put in an escahtological light by reminding the reader not only of what happened originally to Adam and Israel through these allusions but also what will happen in eternity (e.g. 11:4, 6-10, 19-21, 23).

Thoughts?