15 August 2013

The true identity of Lady Wisdom is...?

by Dan Phillips

Anyone who deals seriously with Proverbs confronts the issue of the identification of the figure of Lady Wisdom, who confronts us most vividly and extensively in chapters 1, 8 and 9.

Who is she? Person, or personification? Church Fathers who wrote on the subject were united in seeing her as Jesus Christ. Due to the LXX translation of 8:22 as κύριος ἔκτισέν με ("the Lord created me"), this gave Arius a powerful weapon in arguing against the truth of the deity of Christ. Translational quibbles then absorbed those worthies, most of whom were not adept in Hebrew.

They weren't the last to identify her as Christ. In his marvelous text The Theology of the Older Testament, the late great J. Barton Payne argued extensively for the identification of this figure with Christ.  More recently, Lutheran scholar Andrew Steinmann argues for that position in his marvelous commentary on Proverbs.

Others demur. While Longmann develops the truth of Christ as the Wisdom of God at length, he concludes that the figure in Proverbs is a personification representing wisdom as Yahweh Himself. Waltke's lengthy discussion is very helpful; he draws a number of parallels between Wisdom and Christ, shows many aspects of Christ's superiority over Solomon and his wisdom, and concludes that Wisdom is a personification of the teachings of Proverbs.

And on it goes.

This is not a topic I treated at length in my book, but as I have been preaching through Proverbs, we meet Lady Wisdom in the second discourse (1:20-33). So the question looms, unavoidable, requiring final resolution.

How to approach her, sermonically? Just preach the whole section? Present the question? Allude to it? Skip it altogether? And of course, above all, how to understand (and preach about) Lady Wisdom?

If you like, you can see my answer for yourself.

Dan Phillips's signature


JAKitch said...

First, as to the identity issue, this is how I’ve wrestled with it in my commentary on Proverbs: “The chapter presents wisdom as active in creation (vv.22-31). Wisdom appears to predate creation (v.23). Yet, it is inappropriate to make this personification identical with the person of Christ. Christ, as the revelation of God’s nature, both embodied and revealed God’s wisdom (Matt. 11:19; 12:42; Luke 11:49; 1 Cor. 1:24, 30; Col. 1:15-20; 2:3). Thus, this personification of wisdom bears striking resemblance to our Savior. Yet, wisdom, despite the literary use of personification, is something God is, not a being in and of itself. That which is truly an attribute of God must itself be eternal, since God is a singular Being and no attribute stands alone, but is one with all God’s other attributes. … what is described is best understood as an attribute of Christ that was actively a part of His work before the world began. Indeed, wisdom confesses, ‘The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way.’ It would seem inappropriate for one member of the Trinity to speak of possessing another member of the Trinity (worse yet if the NIV’s translation be adopted: ‘The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works’!). However, if what is spoken of is an attribute of God, something that is true of Him, the language would be appropriate … Wisdom, as portrayed here, clearly predates all that is created. As such, she must be eternal, for she stands before the creation of time itself. She is eternal, however, not in some independent type of existence, but as one attribute of the eternal Godhead. Wisdom predates all we know in this world, and was fundamental to the creation of all we know (Prov. 3:19-20). How essential, then, to embrace God’s wisdom, if we desire to live in God’s world? How foolish to attempt to live in God’s world without pursuing at all costs His fundamental principle of creating this world? ‘O LORD, how many are Thy works! In wisdom Thou hast made them all’ (Ps. 104:24).” (Proverbs: A Mentor Commentary, pp.175, 189)

Second, as to how to preach Wisdom personified from Proverbs … we—thank God!—live and preach this side of the cross and empty tomb of Christ and are therefore never able to consider or proclaim Wisdom from some detached, merely philosophical, erudite posture. Wisdom is not theoretical, but personal, for it comes to us now in a Person, THE Person of our Lord Jesus Christ … a Person who calls, invites, woos and demands that we come to Him for He alone is and He alone possesses wisdom.

DJP said...

From this commentary.

Anonymous said...

The true identity of Lady Wisdom is...

...my wife.

Greg Gibson said...

Dan, it would be more helpful for us if you could give us a 1-minute answer instead of a 52-minute sermon.

Andrea said...

I, for one, really appreciated the 50 minute sermon version, as the identity of Lady Wisdom has been a subject of great interest to me for a long time.

Before I was seeking to know God on his own terms through scripture, in my heedless college days when I skipped church, neglected bible reading, and as a natural consequence strayed from what I would have called "my faith," the notion that Lady Wisdom of the Proverbs was (in some sense)Christ was presented to me in my extracurricular reading. This idea struck me as profound and powerful.

You see, I was a second generation feminist, leaning to the left politically and theologically. The idea that the divine was in some sense feminine resonated with me, and I fancied that by my reading of some obscure liberal commentator I had uncovered some great secret that the orthodox church had hushed up in its eagerness to dominate women.

Of course it went without saying that the whole purpose for insisting on Biblical inerrancy was to dominate women and minorities.

Since I have come to know and love the God of the Old and New Testaments, that ridiculous view and many others have been overturned in the light of divine truth.

But I confess that the idea of Lady Wisdom as the pre-incarnate Christ continued to intrigue and puzzle me. Not, I hope, because I still wished to remake God in my own image, but because there are in fact a few feminine images used in scripture to depict God in some way, such as the hen wishing to gather her chicks under her wings.

And, after all, Genesis 1 says that male and female were both created "in God's image." It could not be so if gender was an essential part of the image of God.

But as I became more and more convinced that complimentarian gender roles were taught emphatically and repeatedly in scripture (one of many major reversals I had to make) and as it became ever more plain that the Bible consistently uses male pronouns to refer to the persons of the Godhead for a reason, I became a bit confused and troubled about it.

Did Paul's reference to Christ as "the Wisdom of God" have more than a coincidental connection with the book of Proverbs? Could Lady Wisdom also be the Logos of John 1? And even if so, what did that mean on a practical level?

Anyway, your sermon cleared things up for me immensely. As an English Major, I should really have noticed that the literary device of personification made much more sense in the context of a book of Proverbs. The fact that other languages give gender to just about every noun imaginable
should also have occurred to me. And in retrospect, I wonder why I never asked myself "If Wisdom is an actual person, then who is Woman Folly that appears as her foil in chapter 9?"

The more serious difficulty, of course, is that wisdom, being a "possession" and "brought forth as the first of His works" could not be the Eternal Son.

It was kind of you to share (and expand here) the history of this idea, as it makes me feel less of an idiot to know that the Church Fathers had erred similarly.

But best of all was the expanding of the comparisons and contrasts of Christ with the personified wisdom. The fact that she points the way to Christ, although she clearly is not Christ, now makes much better sense to me.

Thank you for going through Proverbs this thoroughly.

DJP said...

Andrea, thanks for taking the time to listen, and for that testimony. Loved reading it!

It's hard to get any kind of a gender-agenda from Proverbs. Yes, the temptress, Folly, and the horrod wife are all female. So is Lady Wisdom (at the book's start) and the Woman of Excellence (at the end).

Plus, how are most of the bad examples portrayed — the fool, the sluggard, the drunk, the chucklehead, the bore, the bad child, and on and on?


The point is wisdom and folly, truth and error. Not gender.

Kerry James Allen said...

All I know is, every time we see video of a guy doing something really stupid and destructive to himself or others, my "Lady Wisdom" says, "Notice the gender."


Andrea said...

The problem with your typical Proverbs reader is that he or she can find almost any agenda that he or she looks for in the Proverbs. All it takes is selective reading and creative reinterpretation. I know this from sad personal experience.

For example, I looked at the Proverbs 31 woman in days gone by and said to myself: "obviously those 'family values' people have never read Proverbs, or they'd realize that God's ideal woman is career-oriented, not just a home-maker!"

Here I hang my head in shame. I Don't even know where to start critiquing my old ignorance. Some of that was improved by becoming a wife and mother myself, but mostly it needed the Holy Spirit to convict and teach me better.

And of course, it makes a big difference to read it in the light of the rest of scripture, with the Spirit's help. I started reading a chapter for each day of the month in 2007, and began to really appreciate the book more and more.

But even then, it was easy enough to get confused, because of misunderstanding the genre, apparent contradictions, repetition of the same ideas, and my own linguistic limitations. Since I know very little Hebrew, I am certain the fine points of wording and culture are completely lost on me.

The Kitchen commentary that you recommended was very helpful in that regard. I have not yet read your book on the subject, but now having heard your first few sermons on Proverbs it is on the top of my wish list.

Meanwhile, after I have fully digested my pastor's sermon for the week, I look forward to listening for your latest, in which the fear of YHWH is bound to be referenced, and the gospel and practical applications are far deeper than what I had found by my own study.

Danny Wright said...

Just downloaded the sermon on my phone. I have always thought of lady wisdom as the Holy Spirit? Is that off?

DJP said...

Thanks, Dan.

Yes, I think it is. Let me know what you think when you finish listening, if you don't mind.