This past summer, I enjoyed using Dan Treier’s new commentary on Proverbs and Ecclesiastes for a Bible Study at my church (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, 2011). I recently asked him a few questions about the project, and am passing on his answers to you:
Hank: Where did your interest in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes begin?
Dan: I had a faithful junior high Sunday school teacher introduce me to Proverbs, I was blessed by Michael Card’s musical treatment of wisdom literature, and then in PhD study Willem Van Gemeren challenged me to think through a particular motif there regarding my project on theology as wisdom. I also found myself periodically defending Ecclesiastes’s value to my mother, but taking on this project forced me to take inchoate instincts and try to unfold them more deeply and coherently. As a practical matter, when Rusty Reno invited me into the BTCB series, Old Testament books were the ones left needing attention.
Hank: By my count, this was your ninth book-length project, what was it like writing a theological commentary compared to those other writing projects?
Dan: In one respect the task felt familiar, because I’ve been laboring to understand and teach the Scriptures for twenty or more years. But, in another respect, lots of personal factors complicated the process, and the project required professional growth in terms of hermeneutical self-discovery and courage in theological writing. The latter crucible made this the hardest project I’ve ever faced when it comes to actually completing what I started.
Hank: One of my favorite movie quotes claims, “It’s the questions that drive us.” What questions were driving you as you wrote the commentary? What unexpected answers did you find?
Dan: For Proverbs the driving question is how to incorporate its focus on moral formation into a robustly Christian theological framework. For Ecclesiastes the challenge is to read the Sage’s supposed secularity in appropriately positive, canonically enriching rather than just negatively deconstructive, terms, while accounting for the sheer multiplicity of voices in the text rather than prematurely silencing them. I suppose the more general question is how to relate the Old Testament to Christ without simply assuming that we know in advance what the texts have to say.
Hank: In your book Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice you describe the recovery of theological exegesis. In your commentary on Proverbs and Ecclesiastes you had to put theological exegesis into practice with some difficult texts. What was clarified for you about your own hermeneutics as a result of writing the commentary—I am especially interested in how a Lectio Divina type approach may have played into your exegesis?
Dan: I did not pursue Lectio Divina in a kind of formalized, procedural way, but I certainly prayed in and around my exegesis and read much of the Hebrew text aloud. I also tried, though not as successfully as I would like, to pursue memorization. Hermeneutically I’ve reflected on some lessons learned in an essay on spiritual exegesis delivered at a Regent College conference. A published version is forthcoming in Crux. The gist of what I would say here is that wisdom demands attention to appropriate reader responses and questions about churchly proclamation in the midst of, not just after, doing technical exegesis. In this way engagement with the text, rather than application of some hermeneutical theory, ought to be primary. I also learned to be more appreciative of aspects of so-called pre-critical exegesis while at the same time taking tradition seriously enough as a dialogue partner neither to treat it as monolithic nor to be unwilling to disagree at points.
Hank: I really appreciated the way you organized Proverbs 1–9 around the “two ways” theme. In the next section, I found your decision to organize much of the Proverb’s material around the seven “cardinal virtues” and the seven “capital sins” to be somewhat unique. In my experience, many evangelicals would be hard pressed to name these virtues and vices—what did you hope to accomplish by using these categories to present the material from chapters 10–31?
Dan: At a pragmatic level I needed a topical framework for reasons of sheer space and also technical (in)competence. At a theological level I am supportive of the recent recovery of interest in virtue. While a committed Protestant, I am not as nervous about appropriating classically catholic understandings of nature and grace–even from earlier in the Reformed tradition–as are some who are influenced by Karl Barth. These pre-understandings aside, the key question is whether the framework does adequate justice to the content of Proverbs as well as illuminating how to communicate that material. Even if the framework didn’t arise directly from exegeting Proverbs, I find it more likely that such a tried and true theological tradition would prove helpful than that we should start by creatively generating modern concepts.
Hank: What practical advice would you give to pastors and/or biblical studies professors who want to help their congregations/students become theological exegetes—perhaps especially focusing on how skill in “figural reading” might aid their reading of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes?
Dan: I don’t think we should try to apply some method to developing such reading skills. I think we should try instead to read the texts with fresh eyes and open hearts, prayerfully asking lots of questions about theological relationships to the material–from elsewhere in the biblical canon, from the classic credal consensus and confessional traditions, and from contemporary cultural contexts. If we ask good questions and listen well, then we may hear God speaking afresh in the Scriptures rather than merely confirming what we already think we know. At a practical level, the greatest dangers may lie in assuming we know what theological orthodoxies these texts must support, and in pragmatically moralizing from these texts to learn about successful living. I think rather that both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes point us to Christ, but indirectly and unexpectedly–via the delightful goodness of the earthly and social contexts for human life, but also the dangers that arise when humans try to refuse the divinely given limits of those contexts.
Hank: Any final thoughts?
Dan: Not to belabor the obvious, but most of us know very little of the Bible, especially in its concrete wording, compared to the church fathers or even our more recent theological ancestors. Rusty Reno and also my own experience in Bible quizzing have impressed this upon me, albeit in different ways. If congregants or students are biblically illiterate, they cannot read canonically. For that matter they can’t really embrace the classic credal tradition in its fullness or encounter contemporary contexts with scripturally rather than culturally formed habits of heart and mind. So I’m not as concerned about practical skills in the sense of technique or method as I am about the old-fashioned work of actually paying attention to learning the texts. If we become literate, the questions will come to mind, and so too will answers old and new.
Hank: Thanks for this last point. I don’t think our biblical illiteracy is as obvious to us as it would be to believers of previous generations. My grandfather was a steel worker, and his favorite hymn was about Beulah Land… which I thought was a joke, until I realized the song was based on the Hebrew in Isaiah 62:4. Lately I have been impressed by Augustine’s advice to readers in Christian Doctrine, he challenges readers that the first rule of canonical reading has to do with memorizing as much of the text as possible [2:9].
Thanks, Dan, for your labor on this commentary, it is a gift for the church. You have given me much to think about, and I am sure our blog’s readers will appreciate your thoughts as well