Sunday, August 19, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (20)

We now find ourselves with an interesting and hotly contested portion of Proverbs to consider.

Unitarians argue that it describes for us the origin of God’s Son, the Logos, or the Christ. Their conclusion is that the Son is not, therefore, equal to God, but rather his greatest creation. Likewise, Jesus Christ is said to be not uniquely God’s Son, but only one son among many.

And here I didn’t think there was all that much in Proverbs to “hotly contest” until we get to chapter 31 ...

9. Wisdom’s Call [Part 2] (Proverbs 8:22-31)

The Text in Question

Let’s just have a look at the text in full:
“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth, before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. When he established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.”
Now bear in mind that throughout chapter 8, as in chapter 1, Wisdom is already personified as a woman (“her voice”, “she takes her stand”, and so on), not as a man. So in context, the “me” in “the Lord possessed me” is Wisdom, as in foresight, discernment and the practical application of information. To get the Lord Jesus in there is going to require some creativity.

Me, Myself and I

The passage can be read straightforwardly, plugging in the word “wisdom” for “me” and “I”, without any major theological difficulty arising. It’s a bit poetic, but that’s something we expect from Solomon. Did the Lord possess wisdom at the beginning of his work? Was wisdom a feature of God’s creative efforts? Did it delight him to see the wonders he was assembling throughout the days of creation, and to note the marvelous way in which each act through which he brought the ecosystem and all its subsystems into being was perfectly built upon the last, and made the next act possible? We affirm yes, yes and most assuredly. God saw that it was good. No problems there. (If you’re interested in pursuing that angle further, I make the case here and here that the specific sort of goodness God had in view was directly related to the wisdom he had employed in setting the scene for his plan of salvation, as opposed to taking pleasure in mere aesthetics.)

No, plugging in the word “wisdom” works just fine. The theological problems only arise if we insist on plugging in the word “Christ” instead of “me” and “I”. Then we’ve definitely got issues. For instance, Unitarians insist Proverbs 8 teaches a diminished Christ because the word qanah (“possessed” in the phrase “The Lord possessed me”) can also be translated “created”, leaving us with a Unitarian interpretation that reads something like “The Lord created the Son.”

But Unitarians are not alone in locating Christ in Proverbs 8. I’ve heard it quoted in worship services: “I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight.” The worshiper goes on to apply Solomon’s statement to Christ, and takes pleasure in recounting the Father’s appreciation of the Son in creation, which, beyond any doubt, there was much of.

The question is whether that’s really what Solomon is discussing here.

Poetic Language Applied

Worshipers swipe this passage regularly, quite likely because they are associating it with splendid New Testament statements like, “All things were made through him [the Logos, or “Word”], and without him was not any thing made that was made,” or “But of the Son he says … ‘You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands,’ ” or “By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” Words like these leave us in no doubt that the apostles and inspired authors of the New Testament agreed about the participation of the Logos in creation. We might even argue that he bore primary responsibility for it.

Because the NT is so frank about the Son’s involvement in creation, we can see how Solomon’s words in Proverbs might easily be enthusiastically appropriated to give voice to the delight of the Father in the Son’s creative prowess and infinite discernment. For the most part they fit, and they are certainly an exalted way to speak of Jesus, if for some reason we feel we have exhausted the eloquent claims for him made in John, Hebrews, Colossians, Ephesians or Corinthians.

And truly, when caught up in worship, few men stop to consider that making a brief allusion to semi-obscure Old Testament turns of phrase may leave the door ajar for dodgy Christology.

Propping Up the Unitarian Argument

Further, this Unitarian take on Proverbs 8 is usually propped up by pointing out that Paul refers to Christ as the “wisdom [sophia] of God”. The conclusion drawn by Bryan Huie and others is this: “The Father is the source of all life, and Messiah was the first being created. God then established the rest of the creation through him and for him.”

Now, while I disagree with their conclusions, it is certainly possible to argue the Unitarian position from other passages. Deuteronomy, Malachi and John 1 (provided you are willing to fiddle the Greek a bit) come to mind as examples. But since these passages are not our subject today, I’ll resist turning a short post on Proverbs into a full defense of Trinitarianism.

In any case, let me just point out that arguing for Unitarianism from Proverbs 8 is a bit of a non-starter.

A Bit of a Non-Starter

Firstly, throughout the book of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as a woman. Now, sure, that’s simply figurative language, but it’s a figure sustained across nine chapters in a total of 68 verses. To suddenly switch to identifying Wisdom with the Logos for ten verses in the middle of this at very least bruises the metaphor, and it is not the least bit necessary. (Incidentally, the phrase “like a master workman” is not Solomon suddenly flipping the sex of Wisdom, it is merely a simile; when Paul said he was “gentle … like a nursing mother”, he was not making some kind of backhanded comment about his own masculinity.)

Secondly, the fact that two things have a number of features in common and even happened to show up in the same place at the same time does not mean they are identical. Yes, Christ was with God in the beginning. Yes, the heavens are the work of his hands. Wisdom was also present with God in the beginning; all that he made displays her attributes. And yes, we can further add that Christ is not only personally wise beyond our imaginations, but in his incarnation, he uniquely manifested the wisdom of God to mankind. He is indeed “the wisdom of God” made flesh and revealed to us, and thus the sorts of behaviors called wise in Proverbs are frequently on display in the life of Christ. But the Son of God displays more than just wisdom, as we all know; the same verse that calls him “the wisdom of God” calls him “the power of God” too.

The Case for a Diminished Christ

As I mentioned earlier, it is partly because qanah can be translated “created” that Unitarians diminish the person of Christ. But they are skating on awfully thin ice there. Even a quick survey shows only a tiny handful of qanah’s OT uses can bear that meaning without making nonsense of the text. (David did not “create” Ornan’s threshing floor, for instance. It was already there.) Thus, by misapplying figurative language and by advancing claims for which they have no solid linguistic evidence, the Unitarians attempt to load Proverbs 8 with theological freight it was never intended to bear.

Moreover, there is no compelling reason to do so when plugging the word “wisdom” into our passage makes perfect sense of it.

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