Calvin Theological Journal 19 (1984): 153-166.
Copyright © 1984 by Calvin Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
NATURE AND GRACE IN THE INTERPRETATION OF PROVERBS
by AL WOLTERS
A point which has often arrested the attention of interpreters of the
Song of the Valiant Woman, which concludes the book of Proverbs, is
the relationship of the body of the poem, with its catalogue of the
down-to-earth exploits of the lady portrayed, to verse 30b, which
describes her as "the woman who fears Yahweh." The poem as a whole
describes such mundane and this-worldly activities, and the theme of
yir’at YHWH is so emphatically religious, that their juxtaposition
within the same tightly-knit poetic structure has often evoked com-
ment in the history of interpretation.
The poles of the relationship in question are readily identified,
within the tradition of Christian theology, with the themes "nature"
“grace." On the one hand we have the "natural" realm, the arena of
ordinary and everyday earthly activities and concerns; on the other
hand we have the "spiritual" realm, the domain of religion and wor-
ship is no secret that the relationship between nature and grace has
historically been conceived in fundamentally different ways, and that
the differing paradigms for construing that relationship correlate with
profoundly divergent Christian attitudes to the perennial questions of
Christ and culture, church and world, faith and reason.1 It is perhaps
legitimate to speak in this connection of different Christian worldviews.
It will be the purpose of this essay to show how different world-
views, understood in the sense of traditional paradigms relating nature
grace, have influenced the history of the interpretation of Proverbs
31:10-31 from patristic times to the present. In this way I propose to
illustrate the more general point, too often neglected in biblical studies,
that one's basic stance on this fundamental religious issue is of decisive
significance in the exegesis and interpretation of the scriptures. On that
score there is no essential difference between early patristic and con-
temporary critical students of the Bible.
For present purposes I will distinguish four such worldviews, recog-
1See H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951) for
typology of such attitudes.
154 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
nizing, of course, that other classifications are possible and legitimate
as well.2 Roughly speaking, and at the risk of falling prey to all the
dangers of schematization, I propose to distinguish conceptions which
look upon grace as opposing, as completing, as flanking, and as restoring
In the first view, salvation is essentially incompatible with the ordi-
nary world of created human life and provides a radical alternative to it.
In the context of modem Western Christendom, we find this world
view strongly represented in the Anabaptist tradition. The second one
is that of classical Roman Catholicism, which speaks of a natural and a
super-natural ordo, related in such a way that the latter "perfects" the
former, and the former is oriented to the latter. The third view, often
associated with Lutheranism, sees nature and grace (at least in the
present dispensation) as two realms alongside each other with little
intrinsic connection between them. The fourth world view, finally,
resists every distinction of realms between nature and grace and insists
that grace throughout means re-creation, an internal healing and re-
newal of perverted nature. In the modem West this view. has been
strong in the Calvinistic tradition.3
To make a play on Latin prepositions, :we could say that these four
paradigms construe gratia as contra, as supra, as iuxta, or as intra
naturam. Each has been influential in the way in which the Song of
Proverbs 31 has been interpreted.
It should be noted that in describing the four worldviews a variety of
expressions is used to refer to their basic categories. On the one hand
we speak of "nature," "the secular," "the natural," "the created world,”
and so on, and on the other of "grace," "the religious," "the spiritual,”
"supra-nature," etc. These cannot be said to be strictly synonymous,
nor, indeed, equally legitimate,- but they are comparable as various
designations of the basic terms of the classical "nature-grace" problem
That problem, dealing with the reality of both the sin-perverted created
order and the salvation provided in Jesus Christ, is basic to all Christian
thought, though its terms are construed in fundamentally different
ways. It is this single trans-paradigmatic reality which makes the
2For example, Niebuhr, op. cit., distinguishes five paradigms. See also the fivefold
typology of my colleague James H. Olthuis, "Must the Church Become Secular?" in Out
Concern for the Church (Toronto: Wedge, 1970), p. 120.
3My analysis owes a great deal to the work of the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck
(1854-1921). See J. Veenhof "Nature and Grace in Bavinck," (tr. A. Wolters), academic
paper dis"tnbuted by
the Institute for Christian Studies,
(Amsterdam: Buijten en Schipperheijn, 1968).
NATURE AND GRACE IN PROVERBS 31:10--31 155
divergent categories of the various worldview paradigms comparable
I. GRATIA CONTRA NATURAM
The first perspective looks upon "the fear of the Lord" mentioned in
as basically incompatible with such everyday earthly activities as
spinning and weaving, planting and trading, as are listed in the body
of the poem. The religious and the secular simply cannot be mixed in
this way. Consequently, to retain the integrity of the Song, either the
one pole of the relationship must be spiritualized, or the other one
must be secularized.
The first alternative is that followed, with very few exceptions, in
patristic and medieval exegesis. The domestic activities of the Valiant
Woman are spiritualized by making her an allegory of some other,
more clearly spiritual, reality. For roughly a thousand years there was a
widespread consensus on this point. Whereas the Jews generally took
the poem to refer to the Torah,4 Christians generally read it as a
description of the church. To be sure, a few Christian exegetes pro-
"posed alternative allegories (the woman as wisdoms or scripture6 or
the Virgin Mary7), but from Origen to the Reformation (and longer in
Catholic circles) the allegorical interpretation held virtually undisputed
sway. This' was very largely due to the authority of Augustine, who
devoted his Sermo 37 to the Song,8 and of his followers Gregory the
Great9 and the Venerable Bede,l0 reinforced in the thirteenth century
4Alexander Altman, “Allegorical Interpretation," s.v. “Bible," Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol.
4: “Rabbinic aggadah and Midrash employed the allegorical method in an uninhibited
homiletic rather than in a systematic manner. ...The only exceptions are the allegorical
interpretations of Proverbs 31:1a-31 (the 'woman of valor' being understood as the Torah)
and of the Song of Songs" (cols. 895-96).
5E.g., Adam of Perseigne (twelfth century), Mariale, in Migne, Patrologia Latina 211, col.
6So Nicholas of Lyra under the influence of Rashi (see note 13).
7E.g., Julien de Vezelay (twelfth century); see his Sermons, Sources Chretiennes
192-193 (Paris: Editions du Ced, 1972), vol. I, p. 90.
8Augustinus, Sermones de Vetere Testamento, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, vol.
41 (Tumhout: Brepols, 1961), pp. 446-73.
9Gregory has no commentary on Proverbs, but the allegorical interpretation of the
song of Proverbs 31 is found scattered throughout his writings; see for example his
Registrum Epistolarum 5. 12 and Homiliae in Hiezechihelem Prophetam 2. 18.
10Beda Venerabilis, Super parabolas Salomonis allegorica expositio in Migne, Patrologia
Latina 91, cols. 937-1040; cf., 1039-52. Beda's commentary on the Song is also printed
under the name of Hrabanus Maurus in Migne, PL 111, cols. 780-93.
156 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
by a separate book-length commentary on the Song from the hand of
Two points should be noted about this allegorical consensus. First a
new spiritual meaning is given only to the "natural" activities of the
Valiant Woman (for example the treatment of flax in verse 13 refers to
the mortification of the flesh, the planting of a Vineyard in verse 16
symbolizes church-planting on the mission field, and so on12), but no
new sense is required for verse 30 since this already has a spiritual
Second, we must not suppose that this allegorical interpretation was
taken to be merely one of the traditional four senses of this scriptural
passage, existing alongside an equally legitimate literal interpretation
The remarkable thing is that even those medieval exegetes who
stressed the literal sense (such as Rashi, Albertus Magnus, and Nich-
olas of Lyra) nevertheless interpreted the Valiant Woman as Scripture
or the church. As Nicholas of Lyra explains and approves, they held
that the figurative meaning here constitutes the literal sense:
In the last part of this book is placed the praise of the valiant woman
It is commonly interpreted by our teachers to refer to the church
which is metaphorically called the valiant woman, and her husband
Christ, whereas her sons and daughters are called the Christian
people of both sexes, the way it says in Judges 9: The trees went to
the bramble bush, etc. The literal sense does not refer to the physical
trees, but to Abimelech and the Shechemites who anointed him
king over them.13
Like the parable of the trees told by Jotham, the literal meaning of the
11Liber de Muliere Forti, in Alberti Magni Opera Omnia, ed. A.
Borgnet, vol. 18 (
Vives, 1893), pp. 1-242.
12See J. Obersteiner, "Die Erklarung von Proverbia 31, 10-31, durch Beda den Ehrwür-
digen und Bruno von Asti," Theologisch-Praktische Quartalschrift 102 (1954):1-12.
13Biblia latina cum postillis Nicolai de Lyra (1481), on Provo 31:10:" In ultima parte huius libri
ponitur commendatio fortis mulieris. Et exponitur communiter a doctoribus nostris de
ecclesia, quae metaphorice dicitur fortis mulier, et sponsus eius Christus; filii autem et
filiae populus Christianus in utroque sexu. Et dicunt quod iste est sensus litteralis, sicut
Iudicum IX dicitur: Ierunt ligna ad rhamnum, etc. Sensus litteralis non est de lingis
materialibus, sed de Abimelech, et Sichimitis eum super se regem inungentibus." See
also the influential Postilla super totam Bibliam of the thirteenth-century Hugo of St. Cher
could be expounded literally [ad litteram] in some way, according to the text in Ecclesiastes
7 [vs. 28]: 'one man among a thousand have I found; but a woman among all those have I
not found;' yet, since the commentators make no mention of a literal exposition (and we
have no wish to assume the office of prophet [vaticinari] at this point), we shall proceed
with a mystical [i.e., allegorical] interpretation."
NATURE AND GRACE IN PROVERBS 31:10-31 157
Song of Proverbs 31, in this view, is clearly allegorical.
If an exegete shrinks back from spiritualizing the secular activities of
the Valiant Woman, and yet sees them as essentially incongruous as
works of "the woman who fears the Lord," he has the other option of
reversing the process, that is, of "secularizing" the sacred, in order to
bring it into line with the "worldly" tenor of the poem as a whole.
Generally speaking, this is the approach taken by modem critical
scholars. Adducing the Septuagint translation of verse 30 in support of
their view, they argue that the original redaction of the Song spoke not
of a "woman who fears the Lord," but simply of an "intelligent
woman." Originally, in other words, the poem was "a secular song,"14
but the emendation of a "pious scribe" made it acceptable as part of the
To my knowledge, this hypothesis of a scribal pia fraus was first put
forward by C. H. Toy in 1902,15 and it has been widely accepted since.16
It is reflected also in a number of recent versions of the Bible, notably
the first edition of the Jerusalem Bible;7 which translates not the
Masoretic Hebrew text, but the postulated Vorlage.
Again, there are two observations that are in order here. First, it will
not do to claim that the scholars who advocate this text-critical recon-
struction are themselves committed to a gratia contra naturam perspec-
tive. They may very well be agnostic on the issue. Instead they impute
such a perspective to ancient
text. Such an imputation, in turn, may well be influenced by experience
of the traditional worldview here under consideration.
Second, it should be noted that the use to which the Septuagint is put
in this case is quite dubious. A number of scholars have pointed out
that the Septuagint can plausibly be taken to reflect the Masoretic text at
14Curt Kuhl, Die Entstehung des Alten Testaments, 2d ed. (BemIMunich: Franke, 1960), p.
270, on Proverbs: "A secular song (31,10-31) forms the conclusion of the whole. .." (Kuhl's
15Crawford H. Toy, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Proverbs, Interna-
tional Critical Commentary (New York: Scribner, 1902 [c. 1899]), pp. 548-50.
16Cf. W. O.
Spruche Salomos, Handbuch zum Alten
1937), p. 84; M. B. Crook, "The
Marriageable Maiden of
Eastern Studies 13 (1954):137; R. B. Y. Scott, Proverbs-Ecclesiastes, The Anchor Bible (New
5 (1969):96-99; R. N. Whybray,
The Book of Proverbs (
Press, 1972), p. 186.
17The Masoretic reading is restored in the second (French) edition: La Bible de Jerusalem
(Paris: Editions du CerE, 1980). The English version follows the first edition.
158 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
this point.18 Moreover, quite apart from this, it is questionable whether
a different Hebrew Vorlage for the Septuagint should necessarily be
taken as evidence of a more authentic text.19 Decisions on such ques-
tions are notoriously subjective and not immune from the influence of
(imputed) worldview. ,
We see, then, how strong has been the influence of the paradigm
which sees grace and nature as essentially in conflict with one another.
With respect to the interpretation of the Song of Proverbs 31, both the
consensus of the patristic and medieval church, and that of a good deal
of modem critical scholarship, seem to have been decisively affected by
this dualistic worldview.
II. GRATIA SUPRA NATURAM
In the second world view, "nature" is no longer an exclusively nega-
tive category. Though still depreciated with respect to Hsupra-nature,"
it is now given a legitimate, if subordinate, place. Its legitimacy derives
from its being a preliminary to the spiritual, which therefore con-
stitutes its fulfillment or culmination. This is the paradigm of the duplex
ordo of official Roman Catholic teaching.
Antoine Augustin Calmet, a Benedictine exegete of the eighteenth
century, gives clear expression to this perspective when he writes in his
commentary on verse 30:
To this point Solomon had hardly praised anything in his mother
but virtues which, though rare, did not transcend the natural order. He
established, as virtually exclusive evidence of her praiseworthy
qualities, the diligence, alertness, discipline, and efficient admin-
istration of the famous lady; here, however, he teaches that all these
qualities, indeed even her very beauty and her charms, are worth-
less and of no avail unless the fear of God, piety and true Wisdom are
added to them (my emphases).20
J. Becker, Gottesfurcht im
Alten Testament (
1965), p. 212; J. Haspecker,
Jesus Sirach (
1967), p. 93, n. 15.
19See Ernst Wiirthwein, The Text of
the Old Testament (
Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), p. 64.
20Augustinus Calmet, Commentarius Literalis in Omnes Libras Veteris Testamenti, Latinis
literis traditus a Joanne Dominico Mansi (WlfCeburgi: Rienner, 1792), vol. 6, p. 759:
“Hactenus Salomon vix aliud in matre sua laudaverat quam virtutes, raras illas quidem,
sed quae naturalem ordinem non superarent. Argumentum laudum suarum ferme
unicum constituit industriam, vigilantiam, disciplinam, oeconomiam illustris foeminae:
roc autem docet hasce omnes laudes, quin et pulchritudinem ipsam et lepores, nisi Dei
timor, pietas, et vera Sapientia accedant, inanes esse et nihil. ...”
NATURE AND GRACE IN PROVERBS 31:10-31 159
Particularly telling here is the idea that the fear of the Lord must "be
added" (accedere) in order to give value to the naturalis ordo. The spir-
itual is a kind of adjunct which elevates the status of the natural.
In the twentieth century this perspective comes through clearly in a
popular book written by Michael von Faulhaber, a German cardinal
trained in Old Testament studies. Commenting on Proverbs 31:30, he
The pearl of womenhas not forgotten the one thing needful amid all
the Martha-cares of her busy life, but by her fear of God she has set
the crown on all her life's work.21
Here the "fear of God" and "her life's work," correlated with "the one
thing needful" and "Martha-cares" (an allusion to the story in Luke
-42), are clearly distinguished, and the former is conceived as
crown in relation to the latter, a fitting image of the hierarchical subor-
dination of the natural order.
Because this world view makes such a clear distinction between the
natural and the spiritual, it also lends itself to a combination with the
critical view of the text mentioned under Section I above. We find such
a combination, for example, in the article on Proverbs in the New
Catholic Encyclopedia by W. G. Heidt:
Apart from 31:30b, which could possibly be a later scribal modifica-
tion, the virtues attributed to the ideal wife are wholly in the natural
order: she seemingly has no other purpose than laboring for hus-
band and household. However, these passages may be a final exam-
ple of how secular compositions were taken over by the wisdom
editors and spiritualized by being immersed in the wisdom context,
which oriented all human endeavor toward God. Verse 30b, then,
would be an authentic expression of the sacred author's mind and
It is especially expressions like "the natural order," "secular composi-
tions," "spiritualized," and "sacred author," which reveal the structure
of a nature/supra-nature framework, here ingeniously interwoven
with a conjecture of redaction criticism. The "scribal modification," in
this view, does not bring about the spiritualization (as in Paradigm 1) but
expresses a spiritualization which has already taken place by being
"immersed in the wisdom context." The insertion of the poem into the
spiritual order, therefore, is here more gradual and does not involve
outright falsification. Grace is the culmination of nature.
21Michael von Faulhaber, The Women of the Bible (Westminster, MD: Newman, 1938), p.
22New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-HilI, 1967), vol. 11, p. 916.
160 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
III. GRATIA IUXTA NATURAM
Whereas the first paradigm has been most influential in the history
of interpreting the Song of the Valiant Woman, and the second has had
the greatest institutional authority, the third has perhaps had the
smallest impact, at least is published commentaries. Moreover, it is
closely akin to the second worldview in that it gives a separate and
legitimate province to both the natural and the spiritual and could
therefore (for some purposes) be classed with it.
I devote a distinct section to it here for two reasons: because as
worldview it does have a distinctive structure which marks it off from
the classical Roman Catholic view (notably the absence of hierarchical
subordination), and because Luther has supplied us with a particularly
striking quote which gives apt expression to this kind of two-realm
It must be remembered that it was probably Luther, or else (under his
influence) Melanchthon,23 who first broke the spell of the allegorical
interpretation of the Song of the Valiant Woman. This must undoubt-
edly be understood in the context of the overall revalidation of natural
life in the Reformation and particularly of Luther's doctrine of Beruf or
vocation. This is clearly evident in Melanchthon's commentaries on the
Luther did, however, maintain a clear duality between a natural
realm and a spiritual realm. This comes out plainly in a note which he
jotted down in the margin of his translation of Proverbs 31:30:
That is to say, a woman can live with a man honourably and piously
and can with a good conscience be a housewife, but she must also
in addition and next. to this, fear God, have faith and pray.25
23See his Nova Scholia in Proverbia Salomonis (1529), reprinted in Melanchthons Werke in
Auswahl, vol. 4 (Giitersloh: Mohn, 1963), ed. P. F. Barton, p.;463, as well as his Explicatio
Salomonis (1555), found in
ed. C. G. Bretschneider, vol. 14 (Halle: Schwetschke, 1847), col. 86 (“But this whole
passage must be understood simply, without allegory, as the mirror of an honorable
24The Nova Scholia (1529) twice speak of woman's vocatio in commenting on the Song
and the later Explicatio (1555) similarly states that in it Uthe chief virtues and duties of her
calling are listed" (col. 86).
25Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Die Deutsche Bibel, Band 10 (Weimer:
1957), p. 103: “Das ist, Eine
wonen, und mit gutem gewissen Hausfraw sein, Sol aber dariiber und dameben Gott
fürchten, glauben und beten." This handwritten note was first printed in the second 1543
edition of Luther's Bible translation. For its earlier history, see op. cit., Band 4, pp. xxxiii
NATURE AND GRACE IN PROVERBS 31:10-31 161
The Song's reference to the fear of the Lord, in other words, reminds us
that while it is perfectly legitimate to be engaged in the worldly realm,
there is another realm as well, distinct from the former and next to it
(darneben) where the fear of the Lord, faith, and prayer have their place.
Nature is not subordinate to grace, but neither does it have any intrinsic
connection with it.
The same perspective is reflected in Melanchthon's Explicatio Prover-
biorum Salomonis of 1555 in which the Song is analyzed in terms of two
kinds of virtues: those' summarized in verse 30 (related to the first table
of the Decalogue) and those listed in the body of the poem (related to
the second table). The two kinds, once distinguished, are simply listed
in juxtaposition to each other.
The third part [of the chapter] is a song about the virtues of an
honorable mother of a household. Now as for all people the Deca-
logue must be the rule of life, so let the virtues in this panegyric be
referred severally to the Decalogue. And the saying in this passage:
(The woman who fears God shall be praised,' belongs to the first
By fear, however, we must understand all true worship, the true
acknowledgement of God, fear, faith, prayer, love of God, and other
associated virtues. ...
Next are listed the remaining virtues: chastity in marriage, love for
her husband without crankiness, diligence in all the tasks about the
house, thriftiness, frugality. ...26
In Melanchthon's view the virtues enjoined by the first table of the
Decalogue seem to be relatively detachable from those commanded in
The second table.
IV GRATIA INTRA NATURAM
The fourth wordview is distinct from the first three in that it rejects
any division of nature and grace into separate realms. In this view the
spiritual penetrates into the natural, transforming it from within. Be-
cause of this, it has a more positive view of nature (the good creation)
than any of the others since grace is here seen to serve its restoration.
26Opera, ed. Bretschneider, vol. 14, cols. 85--86: NTertia pars carmen est de virtutibus
honestaeMatrisfamilias. Ut autem singulis hominibus vitae regula esse debet Decalogus,
ita in hac laudatione distribuantur virtutes in Decalogum, et ad primam tabulam pertinet
dictum hoc loco, Mulier timens Deum, laudabitur.
intelligatur torus verus cultus, vera
dilectio Dei, et aliae coniunctae virtutes. ...
Deinde recitantur caeterae virtutes. Castitas coniugalis, amor erga maritum sine
morositate sedulitas in omnibus laboribus oeconomicis, Parsimonia, Frugalitas. ...”
162 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Applied to the Song of Proverbs 31, this paradigm fosters an interpre-
tation which looks upon the fear of the Lord as integral to the poem
as a whole. Religion is not restricted to verse 30, but pervades the whole.
Historically, this interpretation has often been associated with inter-
preters of the Calvinist tradition. A good example is the note on the Song
which is given by J. F. Ostervald, a Swiss Reformed theologian of the
It must not be supposed that what is said in this chapter relates only
to the maxims and duties of running a household. It is religion
which enjoins on women these very duties, and the qualities which
Solomon praises in the persons of this sex are those which recom-
mend them in God’s eyes.27
In other words, the good management of a household is itself a
religious duty by which women please God.
The same point is made by Abraham Kuyper, the leader of Dutch
Neocalvinism, in his discussion of the Song:
In the beautiful song in which Lemuel drew for his son the picture of
the virtuous woman, there is almost no mention of the quiet, inner
virtues of this woman. To be sure, it does say that she “feareth the
Lord,” but this too is understood of the outside, not the inside. A
woman who demonstrates in her home management that she does not
pursue vanity but fears the Lord, she shall be praised.28
Here the woman’s household activities are seen, not as something
opposed to, or even distinct from, her fear of the Lord, but rather as its
The exegetes of this tradition are quite conscious of bringing a
distinct perspective to bear on the interpretation of the Song, especially
as regards the value and status of “natural” life. The English Puritan
Thomas Cartwright, for example, in his influential seventeenth-cen-
tury commentary on the book of Proverbs, after pointing out that the
27See La Sainte Bible . . . avec Les I’.Thuveaux Argumens et les Nouvelles R~flexions . par J.
F. Ostervald (
qui est dit dans ce Chapitre, ne sojent que des maximes et des devoirs d’Oeconomie. La
Religion impose aux femmes ces m~mes devoirs; et les qualitez que Salomon loue dans
les personnes de ce Sexe, sont celles qui les rendent recommandables devant Dieu.”
28A. Kuyper, Als gi] in uw huis zit (Amsterdam: Hoeveker en Wormser, 1899), p. 66: “In
den schoonen zang toch, waarin Lemuel voor zijn zoon het beeld der deugdelijke
huisvrouw uitteekende, staat over de stille zielsdeugden van deze vrouw bijna niets. Er
staat wel ‘dat ze den Heere vreest,’ maar ook dit wordt niet van den binnenkant, maar
van den buitenkant genomen. Fen vrouw die in haar huishouding toont, niet de ijdelheid
na te jagen, maar den Heere te vreezen, zal geprezen worden”
NATURE AND GRACE IN PROVERBS 31:10-31 163
Valiant Woman is pictured at 31:19 as personally engaged in the lowly
task of spinning, adds the comment:
This passage must be given careful attention in order to establish us
more firmly in the common duties of this life as duties pleasing to
God, against the Anabaptists, who judge them to be too lowly to be
engaged in by Christians, and against the Papists, who, although
they do not condemn this kind of work, nevertheless, in that they
exalt so highly the works of their own devising belonging to their
innovations, which have never been approved by the Holy Spirit,
slacken the hands of godly women.29
The polemic against the Anabaptists and the Roman Catholics is here
directed at their depreciation of the communia huius vitae officia, that is,
the everyday tasks of natural life, such as the humble work of spinning
thread. Cartwright clearly distinguishes the radical perspective of the
Anabaptists (Paradigm 1) from the more moderate one of the Roman
Catholics (Paradigm 2). He does not mention the third worldview,
probably because in the Reformation Lutherans and Calvinists made
common cause against what they perceived as the downgrading of the
intrinsic creational goodness of natural life on the part of Anabaptist
and Catholic writers.
It would be a great mistake, however, to suppose that the type of
worldview reflected in the interpretation of the Song of the Valiant
Woman is simply a reflex of an exegete's ecclesiastical affiliation. To be
sure, this does largely seem to be the case in the time of the Reforma-
tion and the three centuries which followed it, but there is no such neat
correlation between worldview and confessional tradition in the last
hundred years or so. Increasingly, traditional paradigms relating
nature and grace are transdenominational, no doubt under the influ-
ence of the rise of critical scholarship and the ecumenical movement.
This is not to say, however, that the basic worldview paradigms no
longer playa decisive role; instead they show up in less predictable
Linked to this weakening in the correlation of worldview and eccle-
communion is another trend that can be observed in the last
century of interpretation of Proverbs 31:10-31. Although, as we have
29Thomas Cartwright, Commentarii succincti et dilucidi in Proverbia Salomon is (Amster-
dam: Laurentius, 1638), col. 1318: "Hic locus observandus est ad nos in communibus
hujus vitae officiis, tanquam Deo gratis confirmandum, contra Anabaptistas, qui abjec-
esse statuunt, quam ut christiani se in lis exerceant, et Pontificios, qui, tametsi
opera non damnent, dum tamen commentitia suarum novarum opera nus-
a Spiritu Sancto probata tantopere efferunt, manus piarum foeminarum re-
164 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
seen, Paradigms 1 and 2 are still very much alive in scholarly interpreta-
tion, and though Paradigm 3 is probably still operative in many devo-
tional commentaries, there does seem to be a movement away from
these on the part of the majority of biblical scholars.
This is evidenced by a kind of ecumenical convergence toward
Paradigm 4 in modern interpretations of Proverbs 31:10-31. This grow-
ing consensus finds expression in two interrelated themes which have
been repatedly emphasized by exegetes of the Song since the late
nineteenth century. The first theme is that all the Valiant Woman's
actions are rooted in (or even constitute) her fear of the Lord; the
second is that she represents the concrete embodiment of that wisdom
whose beginning is the fear of the Lord.
As an example of the first theme we can quote Franz Delitzsch, the
great Lutheran exegete of the nineteenth century. In his commentary
on the Song he writes:
the poet. ..refers back all these virtues and accomplishments of
hers to the fear of God as to their root.30
This is an emphasis which we find repeated in such Old Testament
scholars as Hermann Schultz,31 A. B. Ehrlich,32 B. Gemser,33 W. H.
Gispen, 34 and M. A. Klopfenstein,35 as well as in devotional commen-
30Franz Oelitzsch, Das Salomonische Spruchbuch (Leipzig: Oorffling und Franke, 1873),
p. 527: "der Dichter fiihrt aIle diese ihre Tugenden und Leistungen auf die Gottesfurcht
als ihre Wurzel zuruck."
31Hermann Schultz, Alttestamentliche Theologie, Die Offenbarungsreligion auf ihrer
vorchristlichen Entwickelungsstufe, 4th ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1889),
p. 196: "Prov. 31:10-31 shows us the exemplary housewife, and looks upon such a faithful,
fulfillment of duty as fear of the Lord (30)." This statement is made under the general
heading "The root of all morality is fear of the Lord." ; ..
Ehrlich, Randglossen zur
Hebräischen Bibel, fünfter Band (
1912), p. 179: "Our heroine's fear of the Lord consists chiefly in the fact that she frees her
husband from all the cares of life."
33B. Gemser, De Spreuken van Saloma, tekst en uitleg, 2 vols. (Groningen/Den Haag:
Wolters, 1929-31), vol. 2, p. 50: ". ..he looks upon the fear of the Lord as the foundation
and summary of all virtues" (on 31:30). --'
34W. H. Gispen, De Spreuken van Saloma, Korte Verklaring, 2 vols. (Kampen: Kok,
1952-54), vol. 2, p. 350: "Also the pluckiness [flinkheid] celebrated in this poem is rooted in
the fear of the Lord" (on 31:30).
35M. A. Klopfenstein, Die Lüge nach dem Alten Testament (Zurich: Gorthel£ 1964), p.174:
". ..not her charm and beauty, but her fear of the Lord, from which all the acclaimed
must spring as from their root, if they are to be true virtues" (on
36See the Stuttgarter Jubiläumsbibel (Stuttgart: Württembergische Bibelanstalt, 1953)
onProv. 31:30: "Such a woman, whose domestic excellence and virtue is rooted in the fear of
the Lord. ..."
NATURE AND GRACE IN PROVERBS 31:10-31 165
The second theme is that of the Valiant Woman as the personification
of Wisdom-not in an allegorical sense, but in the sense of an earthly
embodiment of what it means 10 be wise. We find this interpretation
expressed, for example, in the commentary of G. Currie Martin, who
writes that the Song was probably added to Proverbs because “it
embodied some of the ideals of practical wisdom that had been already
inculcated. 1137 This theme is echoed in a number of subsequent com-
mentators of various confessional allegiances. These include A. Mac-
Laren,38 A. Barucq,39 B. Lang,40 P. E. Bonnard,41 and H. Schüngel-
The two themes we have discussed come together in a summary
statement by Helmer Ringgren in his commentary on the Song. Hav-
ing pointed out how highly the poet prizes the value of a good house-
wife, he writes:
This comports well with the general theme of Proverbs, for wisdom
.in the broad sense of the word is precisely all that enables a person to
succeed in life. The excellent housewife, too, stands as an example of
such wisdom. And just as wisdom and fear of the Lord were one in
the eyes of the collectors of Proverbs, so also the virtues of the good
housewife have their roots in her fear of the Lord.43
In this view, the “fear of the Lord” of verse 30 is both the root of the
Valiant Woman's actions and the "beginning" of the wisdom which
37G. Currie Martin, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, The New Century Bible
(New York/Edinburgh: H. Frowde, 1908), p. 12.
38Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, vol. 3: II Kings-Ecclesiastes (Grand
Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1942), p. 294.
39Andre Barucq, "Proverbes, Livre des," in Dictionnaire de fa Bible, Supplement, Tome
huitieme (Paris: Letouzey et Ane, 1972), cols. 1466 and 1468.
40Bemard Lang, Anweisungen gegen die Torheit, Sprichwörter-Jesus Sirach (
Verlag, 1973), pp. 52-53.
41P. E. Bonnard, "De la Sagesse personnifiée dans r Ancien Testament ala Sagesse en
dans Ie Nouveau," in M.
Gilbert, ed., La Sagesse de l' Ancien
Duculot, 1979), pp. 127-128.
42Helen Schüngel-Straumann, "Die wahle Frau," in Christ in der Gegenwart 33
43Helmer Ringgren, Sprüche, Das Alte Testament Deutsch, 16/1 (Göttingen: Van- "
denhoeck und Ruprecht, 1962), p. U1: "Das passt gut zum allgemeinen Thema der
Spriiche, denn Weisheit im weiteren Sinne des wortes ist eben alles was den Menschen
Zum Erfolg im Leben befähigt. Als ein Beispiel solcher Weisheit steht auch die tiichtige
Hausfrau da. Und ebenso wie Weisheit und Gottesfurcht den Sammlem der Spriiche
eins sind, so haben auch die Tugenden del guten Hausfrau ihre Wurzeln in ihrer
166 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
they exemplify. In other words, her praiseworthy deeds in home and
community flow from her religious confession and allow no opposition
or dichotomy between the secular and the sacred, between nature and
I conclude by observing that the main thesis, the influence of world-
view on (the history of) exegesis, can be effectively illustrated in the
case of Proverbs 31:10-31. I do not claim that worldview is
decisive in questions of interpretation, nor that other factors do not
a crucial role. But at least in the selected test case-and
elsewhere--the dimension of worldview, understood in sense
defined in this essay, is shown to be a significant determinative factor in
biblical interpretation. This is of interest not only to the historian of.
exegesis, but also to the practicing exegete who accepts the Bible's
claims to authority. For my thesis leads to the conclusion that biblical
interpretation can only be properly done if it is informed by a world-
view which is itself biblical, and so provides a legitimate two-way link
between biblical studies and systematic theology.
44Cf. also Barucq, or. cit., col. 1467: "The vignette which h.e en~aves.at the b~ttom of
the page is intended as an idealized projection of the blossoming [épanouissement] into the
everyday of a life grounded in a Yahwist wisdom.". If we delete the words “a life
grounded in," this formulation is freed from all suspicion of a lingering nature-grace
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Calvin Theological Seminary
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