How Isn’t Proverbs 8 About the Son?

I read an interesting article by Anthony Selvaggio over at Reformation21 entitled, “D oes Proverbs Speak of Jesus?” Selvaggio is the author of a book on Proverbs that has yet to be released, and in his article he summarizes the homework he did to determine in what way the book of Proverbs does legitimately reveal Christ in a way that takes the text of the book seriously. One section of his article deals with what he calls “The Ontological Jesus.” I would like to reproduce some of what he writes here and attempt to answer a question that was raised in my mind by what he wrote about it. 

Selvaggio writes the following under the heading “Proverbs and the Ontological Jesus“:

A second connection between Jesus and Proverbs is that Jesus is, in a sense, wisdom itself.  That is, he is, ontologically speaking, the embodiment and personification of wisdom as the second person of the Trinity.  Some scholars suggest that Proverbs contains a direct allusion to this ontological reality.
 
Although this issue is hotly debated, some scholars contend that Proverbs 8 contains a direct allusion to Jesus because it personifies wisdom and references wisdom’s role in the work of creation, “I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,” (NIV Proverbs 8:27-28).  Many scholars also see a connection between this text and the prologue of John’s Gospel (John 1:1-4, 10) and the prologue of the epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 1:1-2), both of which depict Jesus as being intimately involved as the architect of the original creation event.  
   
While at first this connection between Jesus and Proverbs may seem quite compelling, we should be very cautious in making a direct link between the personified wisdom of Proverbs 8 and Jesus because the wisdom of Proverbs 8 declares the following, “The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old;” (Proverbs 8:22).  This text seems to imply that wisdom being spoken of here is part of the creation and, of course, Jesus is not a created being and to believe such is to embrace the ancient heresy of Arianism.  In fact, Arius and his followers used this very text to support their heretical views.  Therefore, I believe it is best to avoid drawing a direct connection between the wisdom referred to in Proverbs 8 and Jesus. [2]   

However, while Proverbs 8 is not a direct link to Jesus as ontological wisdom, the New Testament provides us with other legitimate grounds for establishing such a connection.  The New Testament explicitly teaches that Jesus is the wisdom of God.  This type of ontological connection is unequivocally made by texts like 1 Corinthians 1:30, which declares that Jesus is “wisdom from God,” and Colossians 2:3, which states that in Christ are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (see also Colossians 1:15-17 and Matthew 11:19).  As Tremper Longman notes, the apostle Paul teaches us that Jesus is “the very incarnation of wisdom.” [3]

On the surface it seems untenable to avoid using the Proverbs 8 passage on wisdom personified simply because Arius used it to deny the eternality of the Son. If the Evangelists so clearly show Christ walking in wisdom and the Pauline epistles proclaim Christ as the very incarnation of wisdom, then it would certainly be compelling to see Solomon’s personification of wisdom to refer to Jesus Christ himself. I confess that when considering the issue in this way it seems if you are going to allow the one, you would have to allow the other, even though Solomon’s personification of wisdom testifies that he was God’s first creation.

Were such an interpretation truly intended by the text, then the burden would seem to shift to finding some distinct sense in which it could be said that Christ was God’s first creation without contradicting the biblical doctrine of the eternal pre-existence of God the Son. However, just as it is not true that, as Arius and his followers sang, “there was a time when he was not,” it also untrue that “there was a time when he was not wise.” It would be just as absurd to say that a previously unwise God first created wisdom and then created the universe by means of it, as it would be absurd to say there is a sense in which God the Son was God’s first creation without contradicting his eternal pre-existence. Thinking through this question in this way makes it clear to me that neither of these absurdities were the intention of the author, and neither was it Solomon’s intention to allude to the coming Messiah in his personification of wisdom in Proverbs 8.

 The bottom line for me is the fact that when Solomon personified wisdom in Proverbs, there is no evidence that he was intending to portray the long-promised seed of Abraham and ultimate Son of David. But Jesus as “the incarnation of wisdom” can still be pointed to from the Old Testament book of Proverbs since he certainly lived in perfect accord with the proverbs, and the New Testament explicitly equates wisdom with Jesus in a manner that makes it more than a mere attribute of the divine Son of God.

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11 responses

  1. Great thoughts here, John. I agree with you. Along these lines, I just hunted down, and read again, my friend Nathan Pitchford’s thoughts on Proverbs. If you have some time, i’d encourage you to ponder his article over at Reformation Theology: “Wisdom and the Whore in Proverbs 1-9“.

    He makes a convincing case for understanding Wisdom as referring chiefly to Christ.

    God wrote all of Scripture using human authors. And while Solomon, may not have known this was referring to the Messiah directly, God the Spirit did.

    Blessings in Christ,

    Bob

  2. Are you sure you agree with me? I was intending to agree with Selvaggio that Solomon’s personification isn’t a reference to Christ on the basis of the fact that it would be absurd to say there is a way in which Christ was the first of God’s created things without contradicting the truth of his eternal pre-existence. If Solomon’s personification is a reference to Christ, then Arius was right, IMO.

    I will check out Pitchford’s article, thanks for the link.

  3. Sorry, I guess I was misunderstanding you here. The first line after the quote is a little confusing. Untenable to not use Prov 8 for Christ due to the Arain comparison. I’d agree with that. The second to last paragraph, seems to be saying that Solomon is not making a specific point about Wisdom’s creation, because Wisdom would have really existed all along, as there was never a point in time when God wasn’t wise. I thought you were saying since Solomon wasn’t even talking about wisdom in such a specific theological way, then if it refers to Christ it isn’t specifically making a theological point about his creatureliness. Even the title of your post makes it seem like you’re saying, there’s no way Prov 8 can’t refer to Christ.

    Upon closer inspection, however, the last paragraph seems to be where you part ways and conclude that the Arius comparison point is too strong to ignore.

    Nathan’s article compares the “created” statements with the statements in the NT about Christ being the “first of the creation” and being “begotten”. Proverbs is a poem, first and foremost. And in a poem, with a personified Wisdom, if you say she was created first, you are stressing her preeminence and importance. This is how Colossians treats Christ when using the phrase “firstborn over all creation”.

    Anyway, I should have paid closer attention to this. But I do think Nathan’s article merits a read. Of course a 1-1 equal comparison or analogy isn’t going to work, but Christ being the Theme of all Scripture, leads us to understand Proverbs in light of Christ and the Gospel.

    Let me know what you think of Nathan’s argument.

    Blessings brother,

    Bob

  4. I like it, I like it, I like it you two!

    Glad you have thawd out John and great to see you respond Bob!

    🙂

    I always assumed there we were speaking of Wisdom as female gender. Learn something when learning from learned men!

  5. Bob,

    You may be able to tell I am simply thinking through this for myself and haven’t consulted any commentators, so the thought process is a little rough. Thanks for wading through it, though. After I put these thoughts into words, then took more time to think about how it is that the reference to God’s “bringing forth” wisdom before the rest of his creation, the possibility that it means that wisdom was “first” in the sense of “chief” occurred to me. But being untrained in Hebrew, I was unsure whether such an idea was a legitimate option. If there is a sound basis for interpreting the passage in that sense, then I’ll be willing to accept that.

    As for the title of the post, I’m purposely wording it in a way that intends to communicate the idea that the personification of wisdom is a reference to Christ is compelling to me, but for that tricky part about the creation of wisdom. I remain a work in progress on this topic.

  6. Michael,

    Long time no comment! The feminine portrayal of wisdom is not as much of a problem for me as is the prior creation of wisdom.

    Learning from those more learned than I, folks like Bob, is the reason I blog in the first place. I don’t claim the moniker Captain Headknowledge because I’m oozing with it myself, but that I have an insatiable appetite to learn more of it.

  7. Okay, now I’ve consulted some commentaries from StudyLight.org. John Gill, Geneva Bible notes, even Scofield, among others, clearly and immediately present Solomon’s personification of wisdom as, in Scofield’s concise words, “a distinct adumbration (vague foreshadowing) of Christ.” Jamieson, Fausset and Brown’s critical commentary doesn’t connect it to Christ in any way.

    Could it be that the distinction of Solomon’s personification of wisdom from the revelation of Christ is the product of modern reductionistic and critical hermeneutics, which lives to disparage spiritual application as subversive of sound exegesis?

    John Gill noted, and the ESV’s footnote concurs, that in Proverbs 8:22, the Hebrew word Qanah, translated “possessed” in NASB and ESV, was translated “created” in the Greek Septuagint, and that this is where Arius devised his error regarding the creation of Christ. So, in other words, a faulty translation leads to the heresy, not the interpretation of Christ in the passage. Henceforth, I will confidently hold that Christ is revealed in Solomon’s personification of wisdom, and is not merely parallel to him in that he is portrayed in the New Testament as wise and indeed wisdom itself.

    Another reason for this newfound boldness to go with this interpretation lies in the fact of how the apostles often spiritually apply Old Testament passages to Christ as their fulfillment. For example, Joseph taking the baby Jesus down to Egypt, that he may, as God’s Son be called out of Egypt, fulfilling the Exodus itself (Hosea 11:1; Matt. 2:15), is indicative of how a text we today would often deny has any explicit connection with Jesus upon initial exegesis. Yet it is texts such as this one, that the Holy Spirit inspired to proclaim Christ in both the Old and New Testaments. Let us not be critical for criticism’s sake. The sake of proclaiming the Person and Redemptive Work of Christ is far more important.

  8. So, Bob, you were right the first time–you do agree with me!
    🙂

  9. John,

    Glad to see you change. I have to look into the textual considerations you mentioned closer. I wonder if this is another place the KJV depends on the Septuagint???

    On another note, the Wisdom thing is not isolated just to chapter 8. Nathan’s article traces the first nine chapters, and shows many other statements about Wisdom that pertain typically to Christ.

    I’m with you on the rationalistic, modern change in interpretation which tries to avoid spiritual applications and things. That’s a big danger, I believe.

    Blessings, brother. And I learn from you more often than not, you must know!

    Bob

  10. Bob,

    KJV Proverbs 8:22-23 “The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.” No problem with translation so I suppose the Septuagint was not used here.

    Joe

  11. Thanks, Joe. I should have checked first. (The KJV does sometimes use the Septugatint, but not in this case.)

    I think the issue re: wisdom is the confusion over the teaching that she was brought forth before anything else was created. Of course the NT applies the same language to Christ and it does not have to be understood in an Arian way.

    Thanks,

    Bob

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