Thursday, March 26, 2009

Late Reflections on Wisdom Literature

These reflections on last semesters Wisdom Literature course should have been posted back in the inter-semester break. But they weren't. And here they are now.

The wisdom literature module is taught by Dr Jamie Grant. It deals with themes and genres in the OT wisdom corpus, takes an overview of Proverbs and then a more detailed look at the book of Job. To round off, an assessed book review is thrown in - last semester this was of Jacque Ellul's (French Protestant Neo-Orthodox Techno-critical Philosopher) work on Ecclesiastes, Reason for Being (!). Sitting in the first lecture, I remember thinking: I'm not sure about interpretative principles for this corpus and I don't know much about wisdom as a genre. I think that just shows that the OT wisdom corpus is neglected, precisely because interpretation is far from straightforward. It just doesn't fit easily in OT theology (as Von Rad's omission in his OT Theology illustrates). So, what is wisdom? Bartholomew offers this pithy definition:
Wisdom in the OT is about how to negotiate life successfully in God's good but fallen world. Reading Proverbs with Integrity
Perhaps I'll post again on that...yes, perhaps some Goldsworthy and Brueggeman. But for now, here are a selection of the many highlights from this excellent course:
  • Wisdom and creation - wisdom is closely linked to creation theology. This is brought out in Bartholomew's definition above; wisdom affirms the doctrine of common grace, the goodness of God's revealed primordial intention for human life and society, and the continuing value of these despite the fall, especially with reference to the covenant people. If wisdom relates to the task of life, then this is not merely an activity for the fallen creation.
  • Wisdom and scripture - wisdom is to a degree empirical, dealing in observation. Wisdom statements are not to be interpreted as rules or laws, but rather generic norms. For example, reflection on the very first proverb 'A wise son makes his father glad, but a foolish son is a grief to his mother' makes the point - it is not universally true. Therefore the human component of scripture is very much to the fore and presents challenges to any hermeneutic that is not attuned to this.
  • Interpreting Proverbs - One of our major assessments dealt with this question. Some interpreters recommend that proverbs are paradigmatic; any situation can be informed by them as long as you pick the correct proverb or combination of proverbs. However, my view (after the course!) is that proverbs have a more significant role as pedagogical rather than epistemological statements. They require interaction as well as interpretation - the empiricism requires reconciliation with the foundational epistemology of Israel, found in the revelation of Yahweh. It is not enough to view the proverbs merely as a toolbox for God's people, pulling out pithy statements to effect guidance in a certain situation; proverbs are more than this - they require interaction, reflection, and become a training ground for the godly...

    The didactic function of collected proverbs was not to produce proverbial parrots, but students of wisdom who understood the purposes of Yahweh. In learning wisdom – how to apply the revelation of God in Christ to our topsy-turvy world – proverbs remind us that we do so not by mere rote application, but through having the 'mind of Christ'. Proverbs still function as a training ground for the Church, since Christ is the telos of Yahweh's revelation.

This module has been hugely instructive. Engaging with the wisdom literature has been hugely rewarding.