Review: Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature edited by David G. Firth and Lindsay Wilson (Part 1)

(Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy of this book!)

The following is the first part of a review in three parts. These three parts follow the divisions provided in the book. My comments are interspersed throughout the summary, especially when various content more directly applies to apologetics.

Firth, David G. and Lindsay Wilson. Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2016. pp. 232. $20.53.

Craig G. Bartholomew writes on “Old Testament Wisdom Today” in Part 1 of Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature edited by David G. Firth and Lindsay Wilson. Bartholomew views work in Old Testament wisdom literature in virtue of a “series of turns” (4). He takes his readers through these turns starting with historical criticism, then the literary turn, postmodern turn, and finally the theological turn. Old Testament wisdom literature continues to receive a great deal of attention even though this was not always the case. The attention given to Old Testament wisdom literature highlights the responsibility of Christians. Bartholomew explains, “Wisdom is about navigating life individually and corporately amidst its many challenges. If there is something special about Old Testament wisdom, namely that it is inspired and fully trustworthy, as Christians believe, then we have a major responsibility to handle it well, and to make its resources available to academy, church, and world today” (3).

Historical criticism of the Old Testament is relatively new, “Modern study of wisdom literature is only about 100 years old” (8). More promising is the literary approach to Old Testament study, especially given its capacity for bringing greater depth of understanding to wisdom literature through an emphasis on genre and structure (13-28). Less promising is a postmodernist approach to Old Testament wisdom literature, even though its effects are felt in “the bewildering variety of readings it has spawned” (28). Postmodernism virtually ignores historical criticism with its modernist moorings in an effort to read the text as its interpreters desire to read the text (28). However, one should not miss the “philosophical presuppositions of postmodernism. Coming at the end of the most brutal century in history postmodernism has savaged modernity without actually moving beyond modernity” (28).

Perhaps the most promising approach to interpreting Old Testament wisdom literature is placing it in dialogue with systematic theology (30). A number of beneficial areas of study are subsumed under theological interpretation of Scripture. By way of example, Bartholomew focuses on ethics.

In my opinion an ethical hermeneutic offers tremendous possibilities for Old Testament wisdom. As I have noted elsewhere, for example, if Qohelet does reach resolution of his quest for meaning, then retrospectively all the areas of created life he has attended to come into renewed focus. As is well known his search for meaning ranges across the different spheres of life and thus there is in Ecclesiastes an immense resource of largely untapped ethical data. The same is true of Proverbs. Job has always been connected with suffering and theodicy and remains a fertile source for such reflection. (30-31)

These observations come about through the pairing of wisdom literature with theological concerns. The same can be said for pastoral insights in wisdom literature.

Both Job and Ecclesiastes are important sources for pastoral theology today, and much work remains to be done in mining them in this regard with the same rigour scholars bring to structural and other forms of analysis. In my view, a biblical hermeneutic is inadequate if its goal is not to hear God’s address today through his Word. If this is correct, serious attention needs to be given to how to preach Old Testament wisdom today, a complex topic much neglected (31).

As a philosopher, I am especially thankful for Bartholomew’s concluding reflection on the philosophical thrust of wisdom literature. While he does not privilege philosophy as an academic discipline above others receiving attention in Old Testament wisdom literature (and I am not implying that he should), he does devote an entire section of his chapter to discussing it, and rightfully so. Bartholomew explains, “Old Testament wisdom is wonderfully comprehensive in its scope and lends itself to engagement with a range of academic and practical disciplines. An area where signs of this engagement are present is amidst the renaissance of Christian philosophy” (31). He quotes from well-known philosopher Peter Kreeft, who identifies Ecclesiastes, Job, and Song of Songs as the “three most profound books of philosophy” that he has ever read, and credits Ecclesiastes with leading to his becoming a philosopher (31).

Ecclesiastes, which I have preached through three times now, is undoubtedly deeply philosophical in nature. The reflections of the Qoheleth (Solomon), the wisest of men, pair well with love of wisdom. Of course, as Christians, we recognize “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Christ. (Col 2:3) Not only Ecclesiastes, but Job, is subject to philosophical analysis, given its focus on the plight of human suffering and evil. Bartholomew notes some professional philosophers who have not missed the philosophical import of the book of Job.

In his classic, Warranted Christian Belief, Alvin Plantinga deals with Job in his treatment of theodicy as a potential defeater for Christian faith. Eleonore Stump has attended to Job in her studies of second-person approaches to suffering and also deals with Job extensively in her Wandering in Darkness. Fingarette concludes his Mapping Responsibility with a chapter on Job. Nemo focuses on Job in his Job and the Excess of Evil (32).

Who better to address the problem of evil and suffering than Job of Uz, who experienced them on a grand scale? What better book to consult for a look into God’s admittedly mysterious, yet obviously divine view of the very real facts of evil and suffering in the world? Attention to philosophical implications of Old Testament wisdom texts spawns interdisciplinary work. Bartholomew has had some part in this work.

In analytic philosophy an exciting development over the last twenty-five years has been a recovery of interest in the question of the meaning of life. Joshua W. Seachris, in his edited reader Exploring the Meaning of Life: An Anthology and Guide, includes the text of Ecclesiastes as a chapter, and in a book project published as God and Meaning, Seachris and Goetz included Ecclesiastes on the agenda and invited Tremper Longman and myself to contribute chapters. One hopes that we will see a great expansion of such interdisciplinary work (32).

Apologetics, the discipline with which this website is mainly concerned, would fall most obviously under Bartholomew’s fourth category of theological interpretation of Old Testament wisdom literature. However, the very definition of wisdom brings us to consider the type of apologetics we might promote. Bartholomew writes, “as we noted under our definition of wisdom, Proverbs, and in different ways Job and Ecclesiastes, are relentless in refusing to allow us to ignore God as the author of wisdom” (30). God is the author and hence source of wisdom, and insofar as wisdom pertains to epistemology at all, God must be taken for its center.

Bartholomew closes with a summary of how he approached the topic of Old Testament wisdom literature in his chapter, restates his rather exciting prospects for the future of work in this area, and warns, “The postmodern turn is, in my opinion, running out of steam and a danger is that we will relapse into historical criticism and virulent forms of secular readings” (32). We would be wise to heed his warning, and focus on how we might incorporate Old Testament wisdom literature in our theology, philosophy, apologetic, and most importantly, practice.


One Comment

Peter Ochoa

As an encouragement, I appreciate this website very much. I count myself in the presuppositionalist, Van Til camp and you guys are one of the only current resources that exists to promote that Biblical perspective.

I understand there are a couple others and evidentialism has helpful points but we need resources like you guys.

Also as a request, do you have any links to your preaching through Ecclesiastes?

God bless,

Peter


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