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.

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?