Method in Douglas Sean O’Donnell, The Beginning and End of Wisdom
My last review of this light and engaging book examined the book’s sermons. I also want to highlight the importance of being alert to our own methods and the power they have to shape what we preach.
O’Donnell’s method is perhaps most clearly revealed in the way he makes us of scholarly works. He cites many of the most renowned wisdom scholars like Gerhard von Rad, James Crenshaw, Bruce Waltke, Michael Fox, and Leo Perdue. Without exception, these scholars characterize biblical wisdom as knowledge of the harmony, order, and structure built into the creation. Yet O’Donnell does not mention the link between wisdom and creation nor with the creation order. Nor does he mention two of the most profound wisdom texts: Proverbs 3:18-20 where wisdom provides a path back to tree of life and the lost garden, and the longest poem in Proverbs 8:1-36 where Woman Wisdom testifies to the origin of her expertise: she saw the world made. Creation, that center of ancient wisdom theology, does not really appear in his book.
But why? And what does appear instead? O’Donnell’s Reformed focus is shaped by a theology of salvation and the glory of God which seems to send him looking for three themes: salvation, moral guidance, and metaphysical concepts about God, like omnipotence and sovereignty (pp. 137 and 209 n.3). While these are all central, biblical themes, I’m not convinced they are at the heart of the wisdom literature. None of these biblical books mentions the covenants or Israel’s history of salvation. Their primary context is creation – its breadth, its order, and its inner operations.
How might a method of a fuller theology look different than what we find in O’Donnell’s book? First, take O’Donnell’s focus on morality. What if, as many argue, ethics has its roots in a theology of creation? Wisdom, in this case, would be more than just doing good, but actions that are good because they seek out the justice, order, and hierarchies of the moral world God has created. This greater depth is important. A law professor I know often reminds me that few legal issues are solved by applying individual laws. Most situations fall somewhere between two or more laws and the job of the lawyer or judge is to discern the best application. That’s wisdom: the comprehensive moral viewpoint that sees the system as a whole and finds justice in each new situation. God fit this thing together and that should give every one of us confidence that wisdom can guide us in the countless decisions we make in our homes, neighborhoods, churches, and jobs – moral or not.
Second, the wisdom-creation focus also goes further than O’Donnell in affirming the goodness of the created world and the whole of human life. In other words, as I observed in my earlier review, wisdom affirms the enormous range of human callings to make something out of this world, just as we find in the valiant woman in Proverbs 31 who excels at farming, textiles, trading, wine making, parenting, and social justice. If there is an order to creation then there is an order or harmony within each of these callings. Wisdom, focused on God’s final design for the world, is the way to access that order.
Finally, tying wisdom to the created order also opens new windows into the meaning of Jesus’ work and ministry. O’Donnell chooses not to address the long poem in Proverbs 8 where Woman Wisdom sees the process of creation, and for this reason he has no reason to mention that the New Testament writers put Jesus in the place of this woman “in the beginning” (John 1 and Hebrews 1). Only for these NT authors, the Creator has become the Creature in order to restore all of the order, beauty and wholeness that have been lost in the fall. In so tying Jesus to wisdom, Hebrews and John announce good news for us and for everything else too: parks, cities, schools, families, gardens, the arts, medicine and so on.
O’Donnell’s path through these books gives us a wise and Sovereign God, a generous Savior, and a call to faith that results in righteous living. The wisdom literature is no easy genre and, in a day when a vacuous “spirituality” is increasingly in fashion, his emphasis is very much appreciated. My own approach, guided less by the doctrines of the Reformed tradition, pursues the close theological link in these books between creation (stuff) and wisdom. On this path we meet God as our Creator and the Savior of creation. God’s salvation work in Jesus – the Creator who took on flesh – banishes the sin of death and restores all things to their fullness in the power of his fleshly resurrection. Creatures are not just forgiven, but, as wisdom scholar Al Wolters has said, “Creation (is) Regained.” I would hope that the church will come away enriched by both methods of study and both ways of preaching this excellent literature.