Book Reviews

Book Review: A Hermeneutic of Wisdom (J. de Waal Dryden)

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A Hermeneutic of wisdom waal dryden

What is the Bible meant to do? Lead us to salvation? Tell us about God? Help us enter into gates of glory? What is it intended to do to us? Transform us? I’m reading through Kings right now in my devotional time, and reading about how Adonijah wants to take over David’s reign does not seem very transformative to me, and yet J. de Waal Dryden makes the very argument that the narratives of Scriptures (specifically the NT in this book) transform readers into virtuous, wise people.

An Issue of Genre

As Dryden writes in his preface, “The central thesis of this book is at once commonsensical and controversial: the Bible is a wisdom text” (xvi). That includes more than the few OT wisdom books, but all of the Bible is wisdom. The Gospels, for instance, are written in a specific way (a certain genre) so that the ancient reader automatically knew that what they were reading was a wisdom text.

To use Dryden’s example of genre, think of this: almost everyone sends and receives text messages. When you receive a text and open your phone to read it, you automatically know what you won’t get—you won’t be getting a presidential speech, financial reports, or chapters from a book to edit. You might receive these as a file in an email, but texts are “good for short bursts of personal communication” and “bad for quarterly reports” (98). You didn’t need to be taught that. You intuitively understand the different between your newspapers political opinion page, sports page, comics, and police reports (I hope, at least).

The NT Gospels and epistles reflect certain genres of their time, both which formed virtue over vice in their readers leading to wise and righteous living. We are not only to believe the right doctrine. Our lives are to be changed. In fact, the Parable of the Sower teaches that theology and ethics function together (37). Hearing the word = “hearing, accepting, and doing” (62).

In the first chapter of section one, Dryden looks at knowing and reading. He compares reading strategies of modernism (historical-critical approaches) with post-modernism (e.g., reader-response criticism). Though both are true, Dryden brings in Augustine’s theory that faith leads to “deeper understanding” because it “creates a fertile place for understanding to flourish” (13).  Wisdom engages the whole person, the mind and how one morally lives. He finishes with a test case on John 3, comparing his approach with those of modernism and postmodernism.

In his second and third chapters, Dryden compares theology with ethics and law with gospel.  Wisdom seeks to shape both our knowledge and our affections for God. His formula (given in the introduction) is that the Bible teaches Right Actions, Reasons, and Motivations (Right ARM). It teaches us how to make the right actions, for the right reasons, with the right motivations. Theology is never given for its own sake or merely to fill our minds, but to promote wisdom. Ethical instructions do the same, they just promote wisdom from a different angle (47). He ends chapter two with a test case from Philippians 2.

But aren’t ethical commands “law”? Now that the gospel has come to us by God’s grace, surely we can’t expect people to do good works? Dryden disregards that myth. The gospel reveals God’s righteous character and his righteous actions, which we should aim to imitate by looking at Christ, our savior and exemplar. God “manifest[s] his righteousness in the new community, justified and empowered to embody the mercy and justice of God” (70). He compares antinomianism (all demands are “law”) with authenticity (commands tell me to do something I don’t want to do, and so doing it is not authentic) and legalism (I obey to have more of God’s approval and grace) with moralism (because I obey, I am better than you). Dryden uses John 15 as a test case to show that abiding produces obedience which produces more abiding.

Section two has two chapters devoted to the theory and practice of reading the Gospels for wisdom, and two chapters for the epistles. These were by far the best chapters, with the practical chapter on the Gospels being my favorite. One important facet of fictional books that is true of the Bible is how “readers sympathize with their needs [that of the characters] and so, guided by the author’s characterization, identify with the character as a vehicle” (123). This is important because, as Dryden points out, “Vast portions of biblical narratives teach us next to nothing explicitly about God” (122, emphasis mine). Think of the book of Esther. While we could imply teachings about God, God isn’t even explicitly mentioned in the book (there’s a lot more that could be said here about Esther, so I’ll stop now).

Irony is used in Mark and John to create a sense of trust with the author. The author is letting us know certain things that the characters don’t know. We know Jesus is from the Father (John 1), but the Jewish leaders don’t understand it (John 6.38-42). The disciples in Mark claim to follow Jesus, yet they constantly misunderstand Jesus and argue over who is the best, leading the reader to feel like a 13th disciple, one who does understand Jesus and one who is not afraid but has faith in Christ. Much more could be said here, but these chapters were immensely helpful and eye-opening.

The Conclusion summarizes the whole book, which ends with an appendix  titled “Wisdom and ‘Wisdom Literature,'” where Dryden differentiates between the few books in the genre of Wisdom literature and the whole Bible (including the OT) being a genre of wisdom.

Recommended?

This is a very good book. Albeit it much of the is very academic, with topics such as modernism, postmodernism, speech act theory, and epistemology being covered. Some places are certainly easier to read (I mean, I did make my way through), but not all of the cookies are on the bottom shelf. I would love to see a more user-friendly version of this that could be placed in the hands of laypeople, one which dials back on technical language and gives even more biblical examples (especially in the OT). I very much enjoyed this book, and recommend it to teachers, professors, and pastors. Teaching these concepts to students and churchgoers is invaluable. If tried, readers of the Bible would pay more attention to the text as they try to understand the Right ARM of different characters.

Lagniappe

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Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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