Old Testament 102: Biblical Theology and Wisdom

When it comes to the question of a Biblical Theology of the Old Testament (an idea that underpins it and holds it all together) the wisdom literature is a bit of an elephant in the room. Most Old Testament theologies focus on themes like “covenant” or “promise” and tie the Old Testament to the new by dealing with the unfolding of the story of God’s dealing with his people and his creation, finding some form of fulfillment in Jesus. It’s a noble, and useful aim. Provided you don’t lump for one, at the expense of all the other themes that are also there, and also valid. Why can’t all our Old Testament theologies be friends?

Eichrodt pioneered the “covenant,” and Dumbrell picked that idea up and ran with it. Von Rad (the most awesome name in theology) preferred to focus his sights on “salvation history,” Kaiser proposed “promise,” which doesn’t seem that much different from “covenant” because it isn’t. He sees wisdom as “life under the promise” – but Scobie (who has a few bobs each way on a unifying idea in his “The Ways of Our God“) suggests this connection between wisdom and the rest of the Bible is tenuous…

A useful piece from the Reformed Theological Review by Lindsay Wilson called “The Place of Wisdom in Old Testament Theology” summarises the situation nicely. Here’s an overview of the article.

Kaiser put forward two questions that need to be answered in order for a big idea to be considered valid:

1. Was this idea and purpose in the minds of the Old Testament writers?
2. Can this view be embraced by the whole Old Testament without artificially overloading this point, or ignoring large blocks of material?

Since the 20th century and Von Rad and Eichrodt’s work, scholars have decided that no single idea can describe the Old Testament adequately.

Goldingay suggests there are three ways to approach to the diversity of the Old Testament.

1. Diverse theologies can be explained by various historical contexts (e.g the idea of what it means to be the “people of God” changes based on Israel’s political circumstances).
2. One strand of theology should be used to evaluate and critique the others (Deuteronomic or Deutero-Isaiah should be the dominant view, others should be compared and contrasted).
3. The strands should be brought together, Goldingay calls this a “unifying or contsructing approach” – in a manner that does justice to the theological diversity.

Goldingay describes the different approaches like this:

“One suggests that different viewpoints are appropriate to different contexts, another that they reflect different levels of insight, and a third that they are all expressions of one underlying theology.” – Goldingay, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament, 1987

Wilson analyses these approaches…

The first approach helps to explain some of the diversity of the Old Testament – clearly Adam in Eden requires different commands and hopes to Abraham, and Abraham to David, and David to those in exile.

The second is the most open to objection – it can involve people reading the Old Testament through a lens of their own creation, not something borne out by the Old Testament itself (eg the “history of religions” approach that tries to describe the emergence of Jewish monotheism from ANE polytheism).

The third is both promising and vexing – one must decide what to include in the mix to form a key cluster of ideas held in complex unity.

Wilson now considers how the wisdom literature might be approached in relation to Biblical Theology.

Solomonic Enlightenment
Von Rad championedthe idea that there was a period under Solomon and David that allowed the unfettered development of the wisdom movement. Brueggemann agrees. Because Israel had arrived at its peak – the wise in Israel could turn from questions of faith to questions of how to live.

Brueggemann suggests the “salvation history” approach concentrates on traps man might fall into and God’s subsequent actions to deliver him.

“Scripture has been integrated primarily around the theme of redemption which tends to suggest the gracious, powerful role of God and the despair and helplessness of man… As a result the countertheme of creation has been generally neglected.”

Suggestions for how wisdom fits commonly turn to the idea that it’s about “the order in and goodness of creation,” this works with the idea that different social situations produce different theological approaches, and a different theological focus.

Wilson outlines two approaches for finding integration between wisdom literature and the rest of the Old Testament… finding salvation history elements in the wisdom books, and finding wisdom elements in non-wisdom books. A similar approach to that discussed in Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom.

Finding Salvation-History in the Wisdom Literature

He suggests the “Fear of the Lord” is one such link (as identified by Goldsworthy) but then suggests that the wisdom literature is more diverse than just “the fear of the Lord”…

“While Goldsworthy concedes that wisdom is a complement to, not a sub-set of, salvation history, he comes close to reading wisdom down to life under the covenant. Thus he concludes that “wisdom is a theology of the redeemed man living in the world under God’s rule”.”

Wilson says the second problem here is that such an approach “fails to show how the wisdom literature and salvation history elements are integrated… it establishes a point of contact, but says little about the interplay between the two strands.”

Finding Wisdom in the Rest of the OT

A bunch of scholars have suggested a “wisdom school” might have been influential in the writing or shaping of other texts. This is hotly disputed. James Crenshaw has suggested the methodology used in some of these studies is a bit rubbish. Wilson examines a couple of case studies that Crenshaw has critiqued, and while he agrees with Crenshaw that the stories (Esther and the Joseph Narrative) are not “wisdom” exclusively, he disagrees because he says wisdom may form part of the picture.

Wilson says:

“In the light of what we have seen so far, we are able to draw at least two conclusions. Firstly, Wisdom material and influence is a significant part of the Old Testament corpus. Any proposed analysis of Old Testament theology must do justice to Wisdom themes. Secondly, we must be wary of those who see wisdom as alien to the normative theology in the Old Testament.”

Wisdom is woven into the fabric of the Old Testament. We’ll see where Wilson takes his piece in the next post.

2 thoughts on “Old Testament 102: Biblical Theology and Wisdom”

  1. This journal article was pretty helpful. He seems like he knows his stuff (I think that’s code for “I agree with almost everything he said”).

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