The story is well-rehearsed inside the Old Testament guild: the story, that is, of the (re?)discovery of the biblical wisdom literature.
The recent introduction to Old Testament wisdom literature by O’Dowd and Bartholomew (InterVarsity, 2011) opens by observing how, with few exceptions, the church interpreted much of the books and motifs of the wisdom writings allegorically for the first 1500 years of its life (20). The eating and drinking of Ecclesiastes? Clearly not extolling the simple, material goods of human life— but the sacraments! The “valiant woman” of Proverbs 31? Surely not an endorsement of an industrious, earthy, familial life, but a subtle account of virtue and the soul’s ascent. Another text I have been reading this summer by Jean Leclercq on monastic theology shows just how obsessed the medieval religious were with the Song of Songs – interpreted, of course, in anything except for its straightforward, literal sense of sexual love. This all changed with the Reformation, when, for a welter of historical reasons, biblical scholarship renewed its attention to the literal sense. However, because soteriological issues were front and center in disputes of the day, and perhaps also because of theological tensions over faith/works, the profile of wisdom theology (immanent, oriented towards the good human life, considered holistically, and the seamless pattern of the social and natural world) failed to emerge in its full extent and angularity.
I was also challenged recently by something Walter Brueggemann wrote (a response to Richard Middleton’s work in the 1994 issue of Harvard Theological Review, 87.3; his OT theology repeats the sentiment). Essentially, Brueggemann explains how the very influential dialectical theology of the early and mid-20th century continued to treat wisdom theology as peripheral: to be absorbed into and arranged under the rubric of redemptive history and/or christology. He writes of this period:
I regard this period of scholarship and its governing assumptions not as a lapse, as some are wont to do, but as producing a body of work that we must continue to take seriously. Nonetheless, such an extreme “over-againstness” in understanding Israel's distinctiveness, which led to a heavy accent on history, was a context-driven enterprise from which we can learn, but to which we do not need to continue to subscribe. Thus neither embrace nor dismissal seems to me a proper response, but rather serious listening and learning (283).
By contrast, as Leo Perdue documents in his textbook on wisdom literature, more recent ventures in Old Testament theology have argued for creation theology and its corollary, wisdom (or vice versa, whichever), as the fundamental horizon of Old Testament thinking. Terrence Fretheim has spilled lots of ink demonstrating that, regardless how late the Genesis tradition(s) were joined to the Exodus ones, canonically, their importance cannot be overestimated. Exegetically, his conclusions fall in line with those of H.-H. Schmid: “history is understood as the fulfillment of creation and the production of the order of creation” (qtd in Perdue, 27). In all these rehearsals of the history of Old Testament scholarship, Barth holds kind of a tarnished place of honor: thanks for giving the word of God back, no thanks for subordinating creation and wisdom to history (in his case, the particular history of Jesus Christ).
So: of course I am curious what historical factors have catalyzed the rather recent rediscovery of creation as a preeminent theme in Old Testament theology. I don’t doubt that the ecological crisis counts highly amongst them (and rightly?). But many questions remain for me: what theological thinking ought to be done downstream of both Barth and the cottage industry of Old Testament theologies that make wisdom and creation their Leitmotif? I am vaguely aware that the first section of David Kelsey’s sprawling recent theological anthropology draws rather more substantially on wisdom theology than many systematicians to date. Oliver O’Donovan, of course, also gives ample room to wisdom literature, but this may have less to do with the trends of critical biblical scholarship (about which he is rather severely cautious) than simply with philosophical felicity. But how much should it count as a fatal flaw for Barth if his theological proposal fails to address an important body of writings within the Christian canon? Isn’t this rather significant, particularly for one to whom exegesis was so crucial? Is Brueggemann’s posture really the best? i.e., a sympathetic but contextualized appreciation for the insights of the dialectical moment (I don’t know what he thinks they are, exactly) – and a shift to a radically different theological center? Are there other theologians out there I don’t know about who have nimbly absorbed the recent research of the exegetes into a program more ruggedly true to Barth’s insistence on the radical exclusivity of Christ as God’s self-revelation? Or is this a project waiting to happen? Or perhaps deemed unnecessary or moribund from the outset?