Theological Moorings for Canonical Readings

My doctoral supervisor, David Hogg, was once asked in my Theological Method PhD seminar what his method is. I still love his response: “I look for patterns and weird stuff.” That is, his approach to reading Scripture consists largely of paying attention to what is repeated and what stands out as extraordinary, either in terms of actual events or their description or both. This interpretive method produces readings that sometimes (many times) vexes those who hold to the historical-critical method and its evangelical cousins.

What, then, are the *theological* rationales that give an interpreter the hermeneutical warrant to link certain biblical texts together in a typological chain? To put a finer historical point on it, why does Irenaeus, in his On the Apostolic Preaching, feel justified in linking the Virgin Birth to the untilled ground out of which Adam is made, or Eve’s creation out of Adam’s rib to the Church’s birth out of Christ’s pierced side? I want to suggest that there are least three theological reasons that readers feel justified in these types of patterned readings.

  1. Spirit-Inspired and Christ-Centered: Of course, a canonical method, however clearly or vaguely defined, finds its ultimate ground in confessing that Scripture is one Spirit-inspired book with one Christological point. Because Scripture is God’s revelation of himself to his people, its ultimate source is the Triune God. Its inspiration and purpose are therefore related to God’s economic activity of redemption, and specifically to his work of revealing himself to his people. Because God ultimately makes himself known in the person of Jesus Christ, we should expect that the Scriptures’ primary point is to show its readers the incarnate Son. This is bolstered by the fact that the Spirit who inspired the biblical text is a Son-centered Spirit; that is, the Spirit’s job is to testify to the Son, because the Son demonstrates to us the Father. For these pneumatological and Christological reasons, we should not find it strange when Christian interpreters insist that Scripture’s ultimate referent is the incarnate Christ.
  2. God’s Providence: Patterned readings – readings that pay attention to biblical repetition, either at a lexical or narrative level – are rooted in the fact that God has providentially ordered redemptive history to progressively  and repetitively intensify until it reaches its culmination in Christ. That is, God has so ordered the events from the first Adam to the Second Adam that they a) are repetitive at both the level of the event and the level of the author’s description of that event and b) intensify via this repetition to point forward to their eschatological fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus. This providential ordering is related to the previous point, in that God’s revelation of himself centers on the person of Jesus Christ, and therefore God’s providential ordering of redemptive history also points forward to that same Christ. We should therefore expect at both the literary and historical levels to find repetition from one biblical story to another.
  3. The Christological Center of Human History: Christ is not only the center of biblical history; he is also the center of human history, of the entirety of God’s economic activity in redemption and also in creation. Interpretations of the Bible that focus on seeing repeated patterns at the lexical and narrative levels find their ultimate foundation in God’s providence over all of human history, since that providential ordering centers on Jesus. This last point actually grounds the first two: because God’s economic activities of creation and redemption both center on the incarnate Son, he has ordered all of human history, and therefore all of redemptive history, and therefore his revelation of himself as part of that redemptive activity, to point to and find their culmination in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
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Earthy Signs of Israel’s Restoration

At the end of Hosea, God promises to restore Israel, and he declares his redemptive purposes using the earthy symbols of grain and vine:

They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow;
    they shall flourish like the grain;
they shall blossom like the vine;
    their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon (Hos. 14:7).

The following book, Joel, reverses this earthy restoration with a promise of YHWH’s judgment:

The fields are destroyed,
    the ground mourns,
because the grain is destroyed,
    the wine dries up,
    the oil languishes (Joel 1:10).

Notice that a third earthy element, oil, is added into the mix. We could also add here the sign of water; throughout the Old Testament, water is a sign of judgment in both its excess (e.g. Genesis 6) and its lack, as well as a sign of restoration (e.g. Ezek. 47:1-12). For Israel, then, the earthy signs that they are looking for, the signs that demonstrate that YHWH has renewed them through his Messiah and Spirit, are water, oil, grain, and vine (cf. also Deut. 7:13 for the initial promise of blessing via these elements). Israel’s redemption is pictured as a redemption of the Land, and particularly of those four elements.

When Jesus comes, he comes as Israel’s Anointed – “Messiah” just means “anointed one.” He is anointed both at the beginning of his ministry in baptism and at the end of his ministry, just before his Passion, with oil (Matt. 26:6-13). In other words, Jesus embodies these restorative signs of Israel’s salvation, water and oil, in his Messianic anointing. With respect to the grain and vine, two elements crucial to Israel’s commemorative and formative Passover meal, Jesus embodies these as well, this time in the Last Supper. As he breaks the bread and takes the cup, identifying them as his body and blood, he is taking up the rich symbolism of Israel’s redemptive hope and culminating it in himself. There is now bread to eat, and there is now the fruit of the vine to drink – in Christ. We could also point to the “I AM” statements in John; Jesus is, among other things, Israel’s Bread, Light (associated with oil lamps), Living Water, and Vine.

Jesus, in other words, takes all these earthy symbols of Israel’s redemptive hope upon himself, and fulfills them. Jesus is the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes, including its hope of restored Land. By taking these earthy symbols on himself, Jesus is declaring that in him Israel, including the Land itself, is redeemed. All of Israel’s promises, including the Land promises, are fulfilled in the incarnate Son.

But neither Jesus nor the NT stop there with respect to these symbols. These earthy symbols are not only fulfilled in Jesus but also instituted as signs of his Kingdom. Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and King, but he does not isolate the presence of the Kingdom in his person. Instead, through pouring out his Spirit at Pentecost, Jesus spreads his Kingdom from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth via the proclamation of the gospel by his Church. And as his Spirit-filled Church expands, they bring with them signs of the Kingdom, namely the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. These two ordinances are instituted by Christ as signs of the Kingdom because they are signs of Israel’s redemption in him and therefore also signs of Israel’s restoration as YHWH’s people in Christ’s multi-ethnic church.

Jesus’ body and blood – Israel’s redeemed grain and vine – are proclaimed to us in the Supper, and therefore the Supper is a sign of Israel’s redemption. Jesus’ death and resurrection are proclaimed to us in baptism, and therefore our identification with Christ in our submergence into and reemergence out of the waters is a sign of Israel’s redemption. And as we anoint ministers, we anoint them (historically with oil) to minister the Word – the vehicle of Christ’s authority in his Church – to his people. The congregation sits under the kingship of the anointed Christ as anointed ministers proclaim his Scriptures. The Church’s symbols are therefore Israel’s symbols, and thus as the Church worships Christ they are doing so as the renewed and restored Israel, the Israel of God, because they are united to Israel’s Messiah who redeemed Israel in his own flesh.

Biblical Studies and Systematic Theology: An Allegory

This is anecdotal, and, for the purposes of this post, a bit hyperbolic, but in my experience there is still a divide within evangelical scholarship between biblical studies and systematic theology. To be sure, there are those who do these together and do it well, albeit from one or the other discipline, but, for many evangelical scholars, an academic version of Lessing’s ditch makes its disciplinary mark and it, like the original, cannot be crossed. Biblical studies is biblical studies, and theology is theology, and never the twain shall meet. Again, of course there are biblical scholars who believe all sorts of things about theology, and of course there are theologians who read the biblical text. But with respect to how these two disciplines mutually inform one another, the implied answer, at least from their praxis, seems to be that they don’t.

Here’s an example: I have witnessed, countless times, evangelicals trained in biblical studies exercise a hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to systematic categories, concepts, and terms. To my biblical studies friends, theology is something that should be kept at arm’s length, at least until we’re done exegeting. Dogmatics is also something that, to many biblical scholars, isn’t rooted in the Bible but instead in tradition, philosophy, and so forth.

I have also witnessed, namely through reading but also through listening to papers and to conversations among peers, systematic theologians theologize without exegeting the biblical text. Constructing dogmatics appears to be, for many, a task we can do without exegesis. Theologians look to philosophy, the hard sciences, the social sciences, logic, and history to “do theology,” but the biblical text is a footnote at best.

To put it simply: my biblical studies friends are often suspicious of systematicians, and my systematician friends often find exegetical work boring and useless.

Or, to put it allegorically, biblical studies and systematic theology are, in this view, like Jacob and Esau: they are family, twins, even, but different in stature, interests, and outcome. While they greet each other warmly on the outside, they do so under a cloud of suspicion on the inside (Genesis 32-33).

Rather than these two roads diverging so widely in the wood of Christian scholarship, though, it would be better if we did not put asunder what God has joined together. Frankly, this mutual suspicion between tasks is born not out of the superiority of one discipline or the other, but is instead a hangover from modernism. In seeking to cast aside every authority but the self, modernism separated exegesis from theology, interpretation from the church, hermeneutics from confession. This ought not to be so.

Biblical studies and systematic theology, rather than suspicious but related brothers, are instead more like covenanted friends. They push one another, edify one another, love one another, encourage one another, protect one another. Instead of Jacob and Esau, brothers in paternity but rivals in spirit, these tasks should be seen more like Jonathan and David: covenanted friends who seek to serve the one God together. Each has its strengths, but each needs the other to edify its work in places where its tools are insufficient in and of themselves.

Suspicion is a product of the spirit of the Enlightenment; mutual love is a product of the Spirit of God.

A Summarized Biblical Case for Eternal Generation

Some have asked that I summarize my earlier post defending eternal generation and arguing against ERAS, and do so by sticking primarily to exegetical and biblical theological arguments. I want to say at the outset that none of what I say below is without deep, deep roots in the historical tradition, nor is it my own ingenuity (not a shock to those that know me well). It is, rather, reliance on the history of interpretation without the footnotes. See my earlier post for those. I should also say that this will be relatively brief; all of the harder stuff has been covered for 1600 years. In any case, here it goes.

1. One God in Three Persons

We have to take a step back before jumping right in to eternal generation and/or eternal submission to see how we get to affirming the Trinity in the first place. The twin biblical affirmations that there is one God (Deut. 6:4) and that the Father, Son, and Spirit are each equally God because they share titles (Lord, God, Almighty, etc.), attributes (power, wisdom, etc.), and actions (creation, salvation) have to be reconciled. When we couple this with the radical distinction we see in Scripture between Creator and creature, there is no “mediatorial” option for Son and Spirit. Because they equally share in divine titles, actions, and attributes, and because there is no such category as a mediatorial being in the biblical worldview, the Bible demands acknowledging that these three are equally God while also acknowledging that there is only one God.

2. John 5:26 and “Life in Himself”

The question at this point, of course, is exactly how these three persons are distinct persons while also being one God. The testimony of Scripture is that they share equally in the essence of God – what makes God God is his essence, which is his authority, power, will, goodness, mercy, holiness, etc. So, for instance, Father and Son share equally in the creation and therefore in their authority over that creation (e.g. Col. 1:15-18). How, then, are they distinguished? Texts like John 5:26 give us a good start. The Father has life in itself, and gives the Son life in himself.

It is clear from the context that the Son is speaking of his equality with the Father in his divinity (namely in the actions of judging and raising the dead). Even if, though we want to say that he is expressing in this context how these characteristics work themselves out in his incarnate state, John 5:26 is set within the larger context of comparing the Father and the Son’s divinity. Further the phrase “life in itself” is hard to maneuver toward the incarnation. If this were referring to the incarnation, the text would be saying that the same kind of life the Father has, is now given to the Son in his becoming incarnate. How is that so? What exactly would it mean for the Father’s divine life to be the same as the Son’s incarnate life? It would make more sense, especially given the context, to say that the Father has life in himself – a characteristic that is only true of God – and has given the Son life in himself. The Father here communicates what it means to be God to the Son. 

3. Proverbs 8 and the Father’s Begotten Wisdom

Proverbs 8:22-31 is notoriously difficult, especially for modern readers. But when we think canonically, it becomes a bit clearer. Christ is clearly identified as the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24) and, synonymously, the Word or Logos of God (John 1:1-13). He is the one through whom the Father creates (Col. 1:15-18). For Prov. 8:22-31 to be speaking of anyone but the Son, therefore, would make little sense of this New Testament usage. Further, for the Father in Proverbs 8 to have some wisdom other than the Son would make little sense, either. We thus have to deal with Proverbs 8:22-31 that makes sense of how God can “birth” his Wisdom before time began and therefore before he actually creates anything. Now, with John 5 and Proverbs 8, we have two texts that give us “generating” language to speak of the relationship between Father and Son.

4. Names: Father, Son, and Spirit

Perhaps even more importantly than individual texts is the pattern of texts we see throughout Scripture, a pattern that consistently names these three as Father, Son, and Spirit. This points not only to their triunity but to the way that triunity exists, namely through a Father-Son-Spirit relationship. Now here we have to make a choice. What does it mean for their to be a Father-Son relationship? And this really is the rub. Does it mean, as the tradition has consistently argued, that the Father begets, or generates the Son? Certainly this is true of the analogy the language is using, human fatherhood and sonship. A son is typically a son through receiving his human essence via the father’s generation. But, on the other hand, another characteristic of many father/son relationships is that of authority and submission (so, today’s ERAS camp). So, how do we choose between the two? While I could give you the historical logic here (which, btw, did not include ERAS as an option), I’ll stick with my biblical guns and go to a particular text.

5. Phil. 2:5-11 and the “Form of God”/Form of a Servant” Pattern

Phil. 2:5-11 gives us explicit language with which to deal with not only passages that seemingly subordinate the Son, but also with how to adjudicate what Father/Son means by ruling out the ERAS option. This passage begins by noting that Jesus, prior to his incarnation, was “in the form of God.” This is not saying the Son was some sort of demigod, or lesser than God, but that he was in his essence, his form, truly God. Prior to his economic work of salvation as most fully seen in his incarnation, the Son is to be spoken of as in the “form of God.” But when he becomes incarnate, he takes on the “form of a servant.” Notice here that the point at which the Son becomes a servant – becomes submissive -to the Father, is at the incarnation.

Now, we have to of course deal with the eternal decree and, perhaps, the pactum salutis, but if we think of these as conditional, and not necessary, actions in God’s life – in other words, God didn’t have to save us and so his choice to do so is not fundamental to his eternal nature – then it is clear that the submission of the Son belongs to God’s life in the economy of salvation, his action of redemption, and not prior to it. There is no submission of the Son prior to his work of redemption. Therefore when we see texts that talk of Christ’s (or, in 1 Cor. 15:28’s unique case, the Son’s) submission (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:3), Paul in Phil. 2:5-11 gives us the exegetical key. These passages are not, according to the “form of God”/”form of a servant” pattern in Phil. 2:5-11, speaking of the Son’s eternal life with the Father but of his submission to the Father in the economy of salvation.

There are of course more issues that need to be discussed here. I’m not trying to cover them all; Luke and I have attempted some of that in the many posts we’ve written over the last three weeks. But that’s about as succinct a summary I can give for the biblical case for eternal generation (and against ERAS).

Historical Theology and Biblical Evidence in the Trinity Debate

I don’t intend for this post to be long, just want to make a quick point about the relationship between historical theology and biblical evidence when we talk about the differing views of the Trinity.

I’ve seen some comments on social media and blogs that go something like this: “While I can appreciate historical points of view, what I really care about is what the Bible says.” In this scenario, historical theology is placed second to our own biblical exegesis. As a Protestant evangelical, I certainly understand and agree with the sola scriptura emphasis that lies behind these kinds of comments, but I think this is a false dichotomy.

It is a false dichotomy not because historical theology or historic interpretation is equal to Scripture – it’s not! – but because the hermeneutical warrants given by the 4th century pro-Nicenes for not only homoousion but also for eternal generation and eternal procession are absolutely crucial for our confession that YHWH is one God in three persons. In other words, you cannot get to Nicene Trinitarianism as expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and further clarified at Chalcedon without the biblical interpretations given by the 4th and 5th century pro-Nicnene theologians. And, again, you cannot get to Trinitarianism per se, i.e. the confession of homoousion, of one God in three persons, without eternal generation and procession, and you cannot get to those lynchpins of Nicene Trinitarianism without the historical interpretive warrants given by Athanasius, Hilary, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, etc.

So when we talk about Basil’s or Augustine’s or Cyril’s or Nazianzen‘s view of a particular text, it is not merely an historical exercise that has little to do with biblical warrant. Rather, we are attempting to show that the biblical warrant given in the 4th and 5th centuries for Nicene Trinitarianism is crucial to the confession of Nicene Trinitarianism.

The Son’s Light and Biblical Understanding

I don’t think it’s any secret that I subscribe to an Augustinian understanding of how we approach and comprehend Holy Scripture’s message to God’s people. Commonly known as “faith seeking understanding” (from the Latin fides quarens intellectum), this view says that we come to the Bible and understand its message not as blank slates, without presuppositions and with complete objectivity, but in faith. Those who read Scripture with the eyes of faith in Christ Jesus most fully comprehend what it is saying. Or, to put a finer point on it, only those who read in faith can fully understand its message.

When I espouse this epistemological approach to comprehending Scripture, I am usually asked the same question: “But what about unbelieving biblical scholars/readers from whom I (or we in the discipline) gain knowledge about the Bible’s message?” While I understand the impetus behind that question, I also think it arises from a misunderstanding about the Bible’s ultimate purpose. The Bible, as an historical document, has a series of messages written by specific people at a specific time and for a specific audience – it is in one sense, therefore, for information. But the Bible is not just for information; it is for transformation as well. Again, this aspect has an historical aspect to it, one that is particular to each book contained within the biblical canon, but the Bible’s ultimate transformative purpose, as a covenant document inspired by God the Holy Spirit, is to point to the consummate revelation of the Triune God, Jesus Christ, the incarnate person of God the Son, so that we might know him and be transformed into his image, and, through this transformative knowledge, know and love God the Father. In other words, the ultimate purpose of the one Bible, in all of its diverse parts, is to help us know God and love him. Only those who have confessed Christ as Lord by the power of his Spirit to the glory of his Father can do that.

Along these lines, I have just finished Matthew R. Crawford’s fine monograph, Cyril of Alexandria’s Trinitarian Theology of Scripture (Oxford: OUP, 2015; I’d recommend that you drop what you’re doing and read it now – it’s brilliant). In it Crawford notes (see esp. pp. 184-205) that Cyril also held to this view of biblical interpretation, and dealt with the question of how both believers and unbelievers can in some sense understand the Bible. According to Crawford, Cyril used John 1 and John 9, both instances in which Jesus is referred to as light, to distinguish between two types of illumination. The first, what Crawford calls “creative illumination,” is given to all humanity and is a function of all of creation’s participation in God, and particularly in the Son’s wisdom. (“Participation” here is not salvific, but only intended to communicate that anything that exists only exists because it is created and therefore participating in the one life-giving essence, the Triune God.) The Son is Light, and all of creation as creation necessarily lives in that light. They may reject the light, but that does not vanquish, extinguish, or turn off the light. Crawford glosses Cyril’s thoughts on this type of illumination by referring to it as “generic rationality.” As image-bearing creatures, human beings are capable of basic reasoning, and therefore of understanding Scripture in its historical sense.  In other words, because human beings can reason logically and utilize the tools of historical research, the whole Bible is to one degree understandable to all people.

But there is another type of rationality according to Cyril, a pneumatic, or spiritual rationality, that is only afforded to those who have confessed Christ and been renewed by his Spirit. It is this “redemptive illumination” (Crawford’s term) that allows readers to not only comprehend the details of individual passages and books but to see read them in light of their divine intention. By the help of the inspiring and now illuminating Spirit the Scriptures show readers Christ, and thereby they transform them into his image and make known to them the Father. There is, in other words, a creative illumination that is common to all humanity by virtue of their participation in the Son’s Light, and there is a redemptive illumination that is only given to those who have confessed Christ and received his Spirit. When we read the Bible, therefore, those who read it with us, believing and unbelieving, can come alongside and assist us in our understanding of its historical sense. But only those who confess that Jesus is Lord and receive his Spirit through repentance and faith can see him, know him, be made like him, and through him know and love the Father, when reading his Spirit-inspired Word.

Forgotten Saturday

I am knee deep in research for my LATC paper in January on the relationship between the burial of Jesus and eschatology. The day between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, or Holy Saturday, was until recently, in my experience and thought, relatively unimportant. Mark Davis’ words capture my, and perhaps many Christians’, view of this middle day.

. . . even when the burial remains in a church’s reading as part of the Passion Sunday or Good Friday lection, it is overlooked in lieu of the crucifixion itself, or of the hints of the resurrection found in the elaborate detail of guards and the Chief Priest’s anticipations of foul play with Jesus’ body by the disciples. After all, touching though it is, one is tempted to see Joseph’s burial of Jesus as just a necessary moment along the way from the cross to the empty tomb, as opposed to having meaning in itself (Int 60.1 [2006]: 76, emphasis mine).

My own opinion, though, is that there is much redemptive activity, theo-drama (to borrow a phrase from von Balthasar and Vanhoozer), going on. It may be behind the scenes and invisible to our fallible physical eyes, but I’m increasingly convinced that it is not arbitrary that Jesus spent three days (rather than 3 hours or 3 minutes or even no time at all) in the tomb.

There have been a number of options put forth throughout church history, and many are probably most familiar with the idea of the harrowing of hell. In this view Christ descends to the supposed limbo of the just (righteous Jews and pagans who lived before Christ) to release them into heaven, or maybe purgatory. Von Balthasar innovated on this traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and said Christ descended, in Catholic cosmology, to the very depths of hell, where his whole person experienced the full wrath of God, separating him from the Father and the Spirit.  I find this traditional Roman Catholic doctrine to be a late medieval development and relying on unbiblical positions regarding covenantal continuity, justification, and cosmology, and von Balthasar’s innovation seems to me to be a Trinitarian impossibility.

Both of these positions, however erroneous they may be (and I find them both to be biblically unjustifiable), do still bring out an important part of Christ’s work, namely his defeat of death and Hades. Christians historically have confessed that this is the purpose of Christ’s time in the tomb on Holy Saturday. Luther captures what I think is the more biblical position on this matter when he says in his Sermon at Torgau (1533) that Christ descended to Hades and ” . . . destroyed the power of hell and stripped the devil of all his might.” Christ in his death – not only in his crucifixion but in his burial – defeated death, Hades (the place of the dead), and the devil. This is part of the meaning of Holy Saturday. We of course cannot separate the cross from the resurrection, and we also ought not to separate Holy Saturday from Good Friday and Easter Sunday. They are each part of the one work of Christ, which stretches from his life, death, burial, and resurrection to his ascension and sending of the Spirit and ultimately to his return. Each piece accomplishes the unified but still distinct parts of redemption. While Christ’s crucifixion vicariously substitutes and his resurrection inaugurates the new creation, his burial is the defeat of death and Hades. While he is sealed in the tomb he is binding the strong man.

 

Quote of the Day

Right now I’m doing some research on the nature of wisdom in Solomon’s judgment over the case of the two women claiming the same baby. I came across this great quote from Richard Briggs:

Complaints against the supposition that this is a paradigm of wise judgment have come thick and fast from various quarters, including the rabbis, some feminist critics, and most memorably, Mark Twain. We shall take our cue from Mark Twain, if only because he is generally more fun than most scholars (83).

Richard Briggs, The Virtuous Reader, Baker Academic 2010.

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.