Proverbs 8:23, the Eternal Generation of the Son and the History of Reformed Exegesis

The debate that raged last year concerning intertrinitarian relations fueled my desire to go back and revisit Richard Muller's volume on The Triunity of God in his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (a volume that I cannot commend strongly enough). In doing so, I happened across a brief yet important section in which Muller gives a survey of the history of the exegesis of certain passages of Scripture that deal specifically with the eternal generation the Son. Most interesting of all is Muller's treatment of Proverbs 8:23--a passage in which we hear the Wisdom of God saying, "I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was." The question about the identity of the Wisdom of God in Proverbs 8 has been of no small significance in the history of theology. Is this merely a metaphorical personification of an attribute of God? Or, is it referring specifically to one of the Persons of the Godhead? These questions, of course, must be answered in light of the insistence of those, who--while rejecting historic orthodox Christianity--have heretically intimated that this verse speaks of the creation of the Son of God?

In the brief section in which he gives consideration to these questions, Muller concludes that the Reformed exegesis of Proverbs 8:23 proves that this passage "does indeed refer to the second person of the Trinity 'under the name of Wisdom' and that the text does in fact indicate that the divine wisdom is 'begotten from everlasting.'" He then proceeds to explain the reasoning process of the Reformed when he writes:

"Solomon clearly intended to refer to the wisdom of God--although the text does not specify the phrase, the meaning ought to be obvious. This wisdom, moreover, was with God 'in the beginning of his way, before his works of old' (Prov. 8:22), which is affirmed in much the same way of Christ as divine Word in John 1:1. What is said of Wisdom in Proverbs 8, moreover, cannot be said of anyone other than the second person of the Trinity--and Christ is called the wisdom of God 'in Scripture, not only in the expression of ὁ Λόγος, but ῥητῶς [specifically], 1 Cor. 1:30,' and is so called 'absolutely and simply' in Matthew 11:19. The whole chapter in Proverbs, moreover, clearly speaks of wisdom as a 'person.' As for the Hebrew word olam, the Reformed argument is precisely the same as presented with reference to Micah 5:2: the word can and should be rendered as 'eternal' or 'from everlasting'--particularly so in Proverbs 8:23, where 'everlasting, from the beginning' is explained by the phrase in the preceding verse 'the Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old' and by the entire remaining passage (vv. 24-29), where clearly this wisdom is said to exist before the creation itself."1

Muller sets the Reformed exegesis of Proverbs 8:23 as over against the teaching of The Racovian Catechism--a Socinian document that attempts to deny the eternal generation of the Son from Proverbs 8:23. Muller repeatedly draws on John Owen's Vindiciæ Evangelicæ, where Owen states, in no uncertain terms, that Proverbs 8 explicitly teaches the eternal generation of the Son of God:

"Our argument hence is: 'Christ, the second person of the Trinity, is spoken of, Prov. 8:23, under the name of Wisdom; now, it is said expressly there of Wisdom that it was ' begotten from everlasting:' and therefore the eternal generation of Christ is hence confirmed.' Our reasons are:--(1.) Because the things here spoken of can be applied to no other. (2.) Because the very same things are affirmed of Christ, John 1:1. (3.) Because Christ is the Wisdom of God, and so called in the Scripture, not only in the expression of ὁ Λόγος, but ῥητῶς, 1 Cor. 1:30. (4.) That by Wisdom Solomon in- tended the Wisdom of God, and that that word may be supplied, is most evident from what is spoken of it. Let the place be read. (5.) Christ is called not only the "Wisdom of God," but also Wisdom absolutely and simply; and that not only Prov. 1:20, but Matt. 11:19.2

Further on in his treatment of the Deity of the Son, Muller shows that Calvin also taught that Proverbs 8 was speaking of the eternal generation of the Son. In Institutes 1.13.7 Calvin wrote:

"The Word was truly God...I know prattlers would easily evade this, by saying that Word is used for order or command; but the apostles are better expositors, when they tell us that the worlds were created by the Son, and that he sustains all things by his mighty word (Heb. 1:2). For we here see that word is used for the nod or command of the Son, who is himself the eternal and essential Word of the Father. And no man of sane mind can have any doubt as to Solomon's meaning, when he introduces Wisdom as begotten by God, and presiding at the creation of the world, and all other divine operations (Prov. 8:22)."3

All of this reminded me of what Jonathan Edwards suggested regarding Christ as the Wisdom of God in Proverbs 8. In his somewhat controversial Unpublished Essay on the Trinity, Edwards drew similar exegetical conclusions as Owen:

"Christ is called 'the wisdom of God.' If we are taught in the Scripture that Christ is the same with God's wisdom or knowledge, then it teaches us that He is the same with God's perfect and eternal idea. They are the same as we have already observed and I suppose none will deny. But Christ is said to be the wisdom of God (I Cor. 1:24, Luke 11:49, compare with Matt. 23:34); and how much doth Christ speak in Proverbs under the name of Wisdom especially in the 8th chapter."4

While much debate has surrounded the precise exegetical conclusions of Proverbs 8:23, of this much we can be sure: the Scriptures unequivocally teach the eternal generation and deity of the Son and the orthodox have always affirmed it to be as one of the most foundational and essential of all Christian doctrine.

1. Richard A. Muller (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy;  Volume 4: The Triunity of God (pp. 286-287). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

2. John Owen, Vindiciæ Evangelicæ, p. 244.

3. John Calvin (1997). Institutes of the Christian Religion. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

4. Jonathan Edwards Unpublished Essay on the Trinity.