Reading Proverbs 8 Like the Early Church

by Matthew Y. Emerson

Last week I walked through some parameters for reading the Bible like the early church. In this post I want to provide an example of how those parameters work in practice. One of the key texts in early Trinitarian debates was Proverbs 8. For those who argued that the Son is equal to the Father, it was a key text in demonstrating the ontological unity and equality of the Son with the Father. This was particularly true of v. 25, one of the key texts from which the Fathers derived the doctrine of eternal generation. For those who did not believe that the Son was equal to the Father, this chapter was used in one of two ways:

First, its mention of Wisdom being “created” and “possessed” provided ample proof for the Son’s subordinate status. Alternatively, some anti-Nicene theologians denied the text spoke of the Son altogether, and thus denied the crucial Nicene Trinitarian doctrine of eternal generation. While we cannot here dig into all the details of the pro-Nicene exegesis of this text,[1] I do want to provide a few examples from it that indicate how the methodological commitments below informed their exegesis of this particular text.

1. Canonical Unity

Regarding Proverbs 8, reading the Bible as a canonical unity meant that, first of all, there is no option but to understand it as a reference to Christ. Paul’s identification of the Son (1 Cor. 1:24, 30) with God’s Wisdom leaves no doubt as to the referent in Prov. 8:22–31. What is required for exegesis of the passage is not, therefore, understanding Wisdom apart from Christology but in light of it. It is in that regard that the early church spent so much time pouring over vv. 22 and 25. Regarding the former, the canonical unity of the Scriptures, and particularly its narrative center on the incarnation of the Son, made all the difference. This verse cannot be a reference to the subordinate ontological status of the Son, created in time, since Christ is the Word through whom all things were made (cf. John 1:1; Col. 15, 16) and who became incarnate in time (Phil. 2:5–11). In other words, the biblical story tells us that the Son is fully God and takes on human flesh in time – he is not, in other words, a creature or something less than God. Any text that refers to his “creation,” as Prov. 8:22 does, must therefore be a reference to his incarnation.[2]

2. Creedal Unity

In the case of Proverbs 8, recognizing Scripture’s creedal unity means that the full equality of the Father and the Son, expressed in the Nicene term homoousios, has to be maintained in whatever we say about the doctrinal content of the passage. Regarding v. 22, this is explained via the incarnation. In v. 25, though, there is both equality between God and Wisdom with respect to their eternality and their creative activity. What, then, distinguishes them? According to this particular verse, it is that Wisdom is “brought forth.” It is from this passage, along with a few others (such as John 5:46 and the pattern of Father/Son language), that the Nicene theologians argued for the doctrine of eternal generation. While this doctrine has fallen out of favor in the last century or two, it was vital for the development of the doctrine of the Trinity.

3. Christological Unity

Because the early church believed that all of reality and all of Scripture was centered on Christ, they read particular texts related to creation and redemption as centered on Christ. When we read Proverbs 8, then, we should not be surprised that the Old Testament, including this portion of it, is all about Jesus, or that it describes Jesus (via the name “Wisdom”) as the pattern for God’s creation. It is through the Son, God’s Wisdom, that we see and know the Father.


[1] See my essay, “The Role of Proverbs 8: Eternal Generation and Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern,” pp. 44–66 in Fred Sanders and Scott Swain, eds., Retrieving Eternal Generation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2017).

[2] Note, though, that the Nicene theologians did not all explain this text in exactly the same way; see again “Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern.”