In the 4th century, one Old Testament text, Proverbs 8:22, became a heated point of contention during the Arian controversy. Interestingly enough, two of the factions involved in the debate—the pro-Arians and the pro-Nicene Church Fathers—introduced interpretations of the text that went against an almost universal understanding by the pre-Nicene Church Fathers who cited it. Though all three parties applied the passage to Jesus Christ, each did so differently. The pro-Arians believed the passage taught that the pre-existent Jesus was created ex nihilo (out of nothing) by God the Father. Some of the pro-Nicene Fathers believed that the passage was a reference to Jesus' human nature only, and had nothing to do with his pre-existence (for an early example of this interpretation see Athanasius', Expostio Fidei, circa 328 A.D. - NPNF - Second Series 4.85). Both of these interpretations ran contrary to the pre-Nicene Fathers who taught that the passage did in fact refer to Jesus' pre-existent causation by God the Father (to date, I have found only one explicit exception), while clearly rejecting the pro-Arian novelty that this causation was ex nihilo.
All three interpretations utilized the Septuagint version of Proverbs 8:22 which reads:
κύριος ἔκτισέν με ἀρχὴν ὁδῶν αὐτοῦ εἰς ἔργα αὐτοῦ
Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton's English translation (1851), reads as follows:
The Lord made [i.e. created] me the beginning of his ways for his works. (Brenton, The Septuagint With Apocrypha - Greek and English, Hendrickson Publishers 1986 reprint of the 1851 edition, page 795.)
Because the pro-Arians maintained that everything which exists, apart from God the Father Himself, came into being 'out of non-existence' (ἐξ ούκ ὄντων) by God's creative will, this meant for them that God's pre-existent Son (His Wisdom/Word) came into being out of nothing. It was Arius himself who introduced this theological novum (scholars have not been able to identify any Christian writer prior to him who taught that the Son was created ex nihilo). Concerning this teaching of Arius, the modern patristic scholar, R.P.C. Hanson wrote:
The part of Arius' doctrine which most shocked and disturbed his contemporaries was his statement that the Father made the son 'out of non-existence' (ἐξ ούκ ὄντων). (Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, 1988, p. 24.)
And a bit later:
Scholars have usually been completely at a loss to account for its ancestry, and those few who suggest that Arius derived it from one or another of the Middle Platonist philosophies have not explained that any philosopher who appears to derive some ultimate reality from non-existence in fact assumes that the creation 'from nothing' took place from already existing formless matter. It is likely that Arius, with his usual ruthless logic, decided that as God had created everything out of nothing (a doctrine which was well established in his day), and as the Son was created, so the Son must have been created out of nothing. (Ibid.)
What Arius and his followers failed to grasp is that when the Church Fathers who wrote prior to the Arian controversy applied the term "created" [Gr. κτίζω] to the pre-existent Son of God, they did so with the understanding that it was a synonym of "beget" [Gr. γεννάω]. In other words, in a Christological context, "created" meant "procreated". This understanding seems to fit quite well with Biblical terminology and themes (e.g. God as Father and Jesus as the Son of God, the only begotten of the Father, the only begotten Son, etc.), and is embedded in the broader context of the Proverbs 8.22 passage, for just three verses after Wisdom has been identified as being created/made [Gr. ἔκτισέν] by the Lord/Jehovah, we read that the same Lord/Jehovah "begets" [Gr. γεννᾷ] the same Wisdom.
With the above in place, it is now time to examine how the pre-Nicene Fathers made use of Proverbs 8:22. Two important points will emerge: first, the passage, with only one clear exception, is used with reference to the pre-existent Jesus (contra Athanasius and some other post-Nicene Fathers); and second, the surrounding context does not allow for the Arian sense. I will start with the Greek Fathers, all of which make use of the Septuagint version, and then the Latin Fathers, who also used the LXX, but, of course, translated into Latin.
Justin Martyr -
"I shall give you another testimony, my friends," said I, "from the Scriptures, that God begat before all creatures a Beginning,' [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos ; and on another occasion He calls Himself Captain, when He appeared in human form to Joshua the son of Nave (Nun). For He can be called by all those names, since He ministers to the Father's will, and since He was begotten of the Father by an act of will ; just as we see happening among ourselves : for when we give out some word, we beget the word ; yet not by abscission, so as to lessen the word [which remains] in us, when we give it out : and just as we see also happening in the case of a fire, which is not lessened when it has kindled [another] , but remains the same ; and that which has been kindled by it likewise appears to exist by itself, not diminishing that from which it was kindled. The Word of Wisdom, who is Himself this God begotten of the Father of all things, and Word, and Wisdom, and Power, and the Glory of the Begetter, will bear evidence to me, when He speaks by Solomon the following : 'If I shall declare to you what happens daily, I shall call to mind events from everlasting, and review them. The Lord made me the beginning of His ways for His works [Prov. 8.22: Κύριος ἔκτισέ με ἀρχὴν ὁδῶν αὐτοῦ εἰς ἔργα αὐτοῦ - PG 6.616.83]. From everlasting He established me in the beginning, before He had made the earth, and before He had made the deeps, before the springs of the waters had issued forth, before the mountains had been established. Before all the hills He begets me.' [Prov. 8.25b: γεννᾷ με - PG 6.616.83] (Dialogue with Trypho, 61 - ANF 1.237, 238.)
"And now I shall again recite the words which I have spoken in proof of this point. When Scripture says, 'The Lord rained fire from the Lord out of heaven,' the prophetic word indicates that there were two in number : One upon the earth, who, it says, descended to behold the cry of Sodom ; Another in heaven, who also is Lord of the Lord on earth, as He is Father and God ; the cause of His power and of His being Lord and God. Again, when the Scripture records that God said in the beginning, 'Behold, Adam has become like one of Us,' this phrase, 'like one of Us,' is also indicative of number ; and the words do not admit of a figurative meaning, as the sophists endeavour to affix on them, who are able neither to tell nor to understand the truth. And it is written in the book of Wisdom : 'If I should tell you daily events, I would be mindful to enumerate them from the beginning. The Lord created me the beginning of His ways for His works. [Prov. 8.22: Κύριος ἔκτισέ με ἀρχὴν ὁδῶν αὐτοῦ εἰς ἔργα αὐτοῦ - PG 6.777.56]. From everlasting He established me in the beginning, before He formed the earth, and before He made the depths, and before the springs of waters came forth, before the mountains were settled ; He begets me [Prov. 8.25b: γεννᾷ με - PG 6.777.56] before all the hills.'" When I repeated these words, I added : "You perceive, my hearers, if you bestow attention, that the Scripture has declared that this Offspring was begotten by the Father before all things created ; and that that which is begotten is numerically distinct from that which begets, any one will admit." (Dialogue with Trypho, 129 - ANF 1.264.)
I have also largely demonstrated, that the Word, namely the Son, was always with the Father ; and that Wisdom also, which is the Spirit, was present with Him, anterior to all creation. He declares by Solomon : "God by Wisdom founded the earth, and by understanding hath He established the heaven. By His knowledge the depths burst forth, and the clouds dropped down the dew." And again: "The Lord created [Lat. creavit - PG 7/1.1033.58] me the beginning of His ways in His work : He set me up from everlasting, in the beginning, before He made the earth, before He established the depths, and before the fountains of waters gushed forth ; before the mountains were made strong, and before all the hills, He brought me forth [Lat. genuit - PG 7/1.1033.58]. "And again : "When He prepared the heaven, I was with Him, and when He established the fountains of the deep ; when He made the foundations of the earth strong, I was with Him preparing [them]. I was He in whom He rejoiced, and throughout all time I was daily glad before His face, when He rejoiced at the completion of the world, and was delighted in the sons of men." (Against Heresies, 4.20.3 - ANF 1.488.)
[NOTE: The above passage is the only exception I have found to the almost universal application of Prov. 8:22 to the pre-existent Jesus. Also, though Irenaeus originally wrote in Greek, the Greek for this section is not extant, and has been preserved in Latin.]
That we are not atheists, therefore, seeing that we acknowledge one God, uncreated, eternal, invisible, impassible, incomprehensible, illimitable, who is apprehended by the understanding only and the reason, who is encompassed by light, and beauty, and spirit, and power ineffable, by whom the universe has been created through His Logos, and set in order, and is kept in being — I have sufficiently demonstrated. [I say "His Logos"], for we acknowledge also a Son of God. Nor let any one think it ridiculous that God should have a Son. For though the poets, in their fictions, represent the gods as no better than men, our mode of thinking is not the same as theirs, concerning either God the Father or the Son. But the Son of God is the Logos of the Father in idea and in operation ; for after the pattern of Him and by Him were all things made, the Father and the Son being one. And, the Son being in the Father and the Father in the Son, in oneness and power of spirit, the understanding and reason (νοῦς καὶ λόγος) of the Father is the Son of God. But if, in your surpassing intelligence, it occurs to you to inquire what is meant by the Son, I will state briefly that He is the first product of the Father, not as having been brought into existence [i.e. not ἐξ ούκ ὄντων] (for from the beginning, God, who is the eternal mind [νοῦς], had the Logos in Himself, being from eternity instinct with Logos [λογικός] ; but inasmuch as He came forth to be the idea and energizing power of all material things, which lay like a nature without attributes, and an inactive earth, the grosser particles being mixed up with the lighter. The prophetic Spirit also agrees with our statements. "The Lord," it says, "made me, the beginning of His ways to His works." [Prov. 8:22: Κύριος γὰρ, φησὶν, ἔκτισέ με ἀρχὴν ὁδῶν αὐτοῦ εἰς ἔργα αὐτοῦ - PG 6.909.70.] (A Plea for the Christians, 10.3 - ANF 2.133.)
Clement of Alexandria -
Why repeat to you the mysteries of wisdom, and sayings from the writings of the son of the Hebrews, the master of wisdom ? "The Lord created me the beginning of His ways, in order to His works." [Prov. 8:22: Κύριος ἔκτισέ με ἀρχὴν ὁδῶν αὐτοῦ εἰς ἔργα αὐτοῦ -PG 8.192.54] And, "The LORD giveth wisdom, and from His face proceed knowledge and understanding." "How long wilt thou lie in bed, O sluggard ; and when wilt thou be aroused from sleep?" "but if thou show thyself no sluggard, as a fountain thy harvest shall come," the "Word of the Father, the benign light, the Lord that bringeth light, faith to all, and salvation." For "the Lord who created the earth by His power," as Jeremiah says, "has raised up the world by His wisdom ; " for wisdom, which is His word, raises us up to the truth, who have fallen prostrate before idols, and is itself the first resurrection from our fall. (Exhortation to the Heathen, ch. 8 - ANF 2.194, 195.)
In the first place, we must note that the nature of that deity which is in Christ in respect of His being the only-begotten Son of God is one thing, and that human nature which He assumed in these last times for the purposes of the dispensation (of grace) is another. And therefore we have first to ascertain what the only-begotten Son of God is, seeing He is called by many different names, according to the circumstances and views of individuals. For He is termed Wisdom, according to the expression of Solomon : " The Lord created me —the beginning of His ways, and among His works, before He made any other thing; [Prov. 8:22: Dominus creavit me initium viarum suarum, et in opera sua antequam aliquid faceret, ante saecula fundavit me. - PG 11.130.8] He founded me before the ages. In the beginning, before He formed the earth, before He brought forth the fountains of waters, before the mountains were made strong, before all the hills. He brought me forth." [Lat. generat - PG 11.130.8] He is also styled First-born, as the apostle has declared : " who is the first-born of every creature." The first-born, however, is not by nature a different person from the Wisdom, but one and the same. (De Principiis, 1.2.1 - ANF 4.245, 246.)
[NOTE: De Principiis was originally written in Greek, but the Greek for this section is not extant. However, the LXX version of Prov. 8:22 has been preserved in Greek in Origen's Hexpla, and reads: Κύριος ἔκτισέ με ἀρχὴν ὁδῶν αὐτοῦ εἰς ἔργα αὐτοῦ - PG 16/2.1337-1338.]
Now this Son was begotten of the Father's will, for he is the 'image of the invisible God' and the 'efflulgence of his glory and impress of his substance', 'the firstborn of all creation', a thing created, wisdom. For wisdom itself says: 'God created me in the beginning of his ways for his works'. [Prov. 8:22: ὁ θεὸς ἔκτισέ με ἀρχὴν ὁδῶν αὐτοῦ εἰς ἔργα αὐτοῦ - GCS 22.349.] If he is an 'image of the invisible God', he is an invisible image; and I would dare add that as he is a likeness of the Father there is no time he did not exist. (Origen on First Principles - Being Koetschau's Text of DePrincipiis Translated Into English, by G. W. Butterworth, 1973, 4.4.1, pp. 314, 315.)
(101) And in relation to this, we will be able to understand what is meant by the beginnning of creation, and what Wisdom says in Proverbs: "For God,'" she says. "created me the beginning of his ways for his works." [Prov. 8:22: Ὁ Θεὸς γὰρ, φησὶν, ἔκτισέ με ἀρχὴν ὁδῶν αὐτοῦ εἰς ἔργα αὐτοῦ - PG 14.53.75] It is possible, of course, for this also to be referred to our first meaning, i.e. that pertaining to a way, because it is said, "God created me the beginning of his ways." [Prov. 8:22: Ὁ Θεὸς ἔκτισέ με ἀρχὴν ὁδῶν αὐτοῦ εἰς ἔργα αὐτοῦ - PG 14.53.75]
(102) But someone will say with good reason that the God of all things is clearly a beginning too, proposing that the Father is the beginning of the son, and the creator, is the beginning of the things created and, in general, God is the beginning of the things which exist. And by understanding the Son to be the Word, he will justify his view by the statement, "In the beginning was the Word," because what is said to be in the Father is in the beginning. (Commentary on the Gospel According to John - Books 1-10, CUA Press, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 80, trans. Ronald E. Heine, pp. 54, 55.)
(111) But it is as the beginning that Christ is creator, according to which he is wisdom. Therefore as wisdom he is called the beginning. For wisdom says in Solomon, "God created me the beginning of his ways for his works," [Prov. 8:22: Ὁ Θεὸς ἔκτισέ με ἀρχὴν ὁδῶν αὐτοῦ εἰς ἔργα αὐτοῦ - PG 14.56.80] that "the Word might be in the beginning," in wisdom. It is wisdom which is understood, on the one hand, taken in relation to the structure of the contemplation and thoughts of all things, but it is the Word which is received, taken in to the communication of the things which have been contemplated to spiritual beings. (Commentary on the Gospel According to John - Books 1-10, CUA Press, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 80, trans. Ronald E. Heine, pp. 56. 57.)
(221) But if there are letters of God, as there are, which the saints read and say they have read what is written in the tablets of heaven, those letters are the thoughts about the Son of God wich are broken up into alpha and the letters that follow to omega, that heavenly matters might be read through them.
(222) And again the same one is beginning and end, but he is not the same insofar as the aspects are concerned. For he is the beginning insofar as he is wisdom, as we have learned in Proverbs. Therefore it has been written, "God created me the beginning of his ways for his works." [Prov. 8:22: Ὁ Θεὸς ἔκτισέ με ἀρχὴν ὁδῶν αὐτοῦ εἰς ἔργα αὐτοῦ - PG 14.84.36.] (Commentary on the Gospel According to John - Books 1-10, CUA Press, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 80, trans. Ronald E. Heine, p. 77.)
(289) Our proposal was to see clearly "In the beginning was the Word." As for "beginning," it has been demostrated according to the testimonies of Proverbs (see Prov. 8:22) that Wisdom is spoken of and that the notion of wisdom precedes the word that annouces it. So it must be understood that the Word always exists in the beginning, that is, in Wisdom. Since he is in Wisdom, which is called "beginning," he is not hindered from being "with God" and he is God, and he is not simply "with God," but, being "in the beginning" in Wisdom, he is "with God." ("Commentary on John, Book 1", in Joseph W. Trigg, Origen, 1998, p. 149.)
[NOTE: For a reason(s) unknown me, Origen, in all his Prov. 8:22 citations in his Commentary on John, and the De Principiis 4.4.1 passage, has substituted "Lord" (Κύριος) with "The God" (Ὁ Θεὸς).]
Eusebius of Caesarea -
And the first to teach us this is Job, saying: 'But whence was wisdom found? And what is the place of understanding? Man knoweth not the way thereof, nor yet was it found among men, ... but we have heard the fame thereof. The Lord established the way thereof, and He knoweth the place thereof.'
And David also somewhere in the Psalms, addressing Wisdom by another name, says: 'By the word of the LORD were the heavens established': for in this manner he celebrated the Word of God the Organizer of all things. Moreover, his son Solomon also speaks as follows in the person of Wisdom herself, saying: 'I Wisdom made counsel my dwelling, and knowledge and understanding I called unto me. By me kings reign, and rulers decree justice.' And again:
'The LORD created me as the beginning of His ways unto His works [Prov. 8:22: Κύριος ἔκτισέ με ἀρχὴν ὁδῶν αὐτοῦ εἰς ἔργα αὐτοῦ - PG 21.541.75.], from everlasting He founded me, in the beginning or ever He made the earth, and before the depths were made, . . . before the mountains were settled, and before all hills He begat me [Prov. 8.25b: γεννᾷ με - PG 21.541.75]; . . . when He was preparing the heaven I was beside Him; . . . and as He was making safe the fountains beneath the heaven, . . . I was with Him arranging. I it was in whom He daily delighted, and I was rejoicing before Him in every season when He was rejoicing in having completed the habitable world.' (Preparation of the Gospel - Part 1, 7.12, trans. Edwin Hamilton Gifford, Baker 1981 reprint, pp. 320, 321.)
IN regard then to the First Cause of all things let this be our admitted form of agreement. But now consider what is said concerning the Second Cause, whom the Hebrew oracles teach to be the Word of God, and God of God, even as we Christians also have ourselves been taught to speak of the Deity.
First then Moses expressly speaks of two divine Lords in the passage where he says, 'Then the LORD rained from the LORD fire and brimstone upon the city of the ungodly ': where he applied to both the like combination of Hebrew letters in the usual way; and this combination is the mention of God expressed in the four letters, which is with them unutterable.
In accordance with him David also, another Prophet as well as king of the Hebrews, says, 'The LORD said unto my Lord, sit Thou on My right hand,' indicating the Most High God by the first LORD, and the second to Him by the second title. For to what other is it right to suppose that the right hand of the Unbegotten God is conceded, than to Him alone of whom we are speaking?
This is He whom the same prophet in other places more clearly distinguishes as the Word of the Father, supposing Him whose deity we are considering to be the Creator of the universe, in the passage where he says, 'By the Word of the LORD were the heavens made firm.'
He introduces the same Person also as a Saviour of those who need His care, saying, 'He sent His Word and healed them.'
And Solomon, David's son and successor, presenting the same thought by a different name, instead of the 'Word' called Him Wisdom, making the following statement as in her person:
'I Wisdom made prudence my dwelling, and called to my aid knowledge and understanding.' Then afterwards he adds, 'The LORD formed [i.e. created] me as the beginning of His ways with a view to His works [Prov. 8:22: Κύριος ἔκτισέ με ἀρχὴν ὁδῶν αὐτοῦ εἰς ἔργα αὐτοῦ - PG 21.884.76.]: from everlasting He established me, in the beginning before He made the earth, . . . before the mountains were settled, and before all hills He begat me [Prov. 8.25b: γεννᾷ με - PG 21.884.76]. . . . When He was preparing the heaven, I was beside Him."(Preparation of the Gospel - Part 2, 11.14, trans. Edwin Hamilton Gifford, Baker 1981 reprint, pp. 531, 532.)
Indeed, as soon as He perceived It to be necessary for His creation of the world, He immediately creates It, and generates It in Himself. "The Lord," says the Scripture, "possessed me, the beginning of His ways for the creation of His works [Prov. 8:22: Dominus, inquit, condidit me initium viarum suarum in opera sua - PL 2.213]. Before the worlds He founded me; before He made the earth, before the mountains were settled in their places; moreover, before the hills He generated me, and prior to the depths was I begotten." Let Hermogenes then confess that the very Wisdom of God is declared to be born and created, for the especial reason that we should not suppose that there is any other being than God alone who is unbegotten and uncreated. For if that, which from its being inherent in the Lord was of Him and in Him, was yet not without a beginning, — I mean His wisdom, which was then born and created, when in the thought of God It began to assume motion for the arrangement of His creative works, — how much more impossible is it that anything should have been without a beginning which was extrinsic to the Lord! But if this same Wisdom is the Word of God, in the capacity of Wisdom, and (as being He) without whom nothing was made, just as also (nothing) was set in order without Wisdom, how can it be that anything, except the Father, should be older, and on this account indeed nobler, than the Son of God, the only-begotten and first-begotten Word? (Against Hermogenes, ch. 18 – ANF 3.487.)
Listen therefore to Wisdom herself, constituted in the character of a Second Person: “At the first the Lord created me as the beginning of His ways [Prov. 8:22: Primo, Dominus creavit me initium viarum in opera sua - PL 2.161], with a view to His own works, before He made the earth, before the mountains were settled; moreover, before all the hills did He beget me;” that is to say, He created and generated me in His own intelligence. (Against Praxeas, ch. 6 – ANF 3.601.)
[NOTE: In the Against Hermogenes passage, Tertullian translates the LXX term, ἔκτισέ, as condidit; however, in the Against Praxeas passage, he uses creavit.]
I. That Christ is the First-born, and that He is the Wisdom of God, by whom all things were made.
In Solomon in the Proverbs : "The Lord established me in the beginning of His ways, into His works [Prov. 8:22: Dominus candidit me in initio viarum suarum , in opera sua ante sæcula fundavit me. - PL 4.696]: before the world He founded me. In the beginning, before He made the earth, and before He appointed the abysses, before the fountains of waters gushed forth, before the mountains were settled, before all the hills, the Lord begot me. (The Treatises of Cyprian, 12.2 - ANF 5.515.)
God, therefore, the contriver and founder of all things, as we have said in the second book, before He commenced this excellent work of the world, begat a pure and incorruptible Spirit, whom He called His Son. And although He had afterwards created by Himself innumerable other beings, whom we call angels, this first-begotten, however, was the only one whom He considered worthy of being called by the divine name, as being powerful in His Father's excellence and majesty...
Assuredly He is the very Son of God, who by that most wise King Solomon, full of divine inspiration, spake these things which we have added : "God founded me in the beginning of His ways, in His work before the ages. [Prov. 8:22: Deus candidit me in initio viarum suarum , in opera sua ante secula. - PL 7.462] He set me up in the beginning, before He made the earth, and before He established the depths, before the fountains of waters came forth : the Lord begat me before all the hills ; He made the regions, and the uninhabitable" boundaries under the heaven. When He prepared the heaven, I was by Him : and when He separated His own seat, when He made the strong clouds above the winds, and when He strengthened the mountains, and placed them under heaven ; when He laid the strong foundations of the earth, I was with Him arranging all things. I was He in whom He delighted : I was daily delighted, when He rejoiced, the world being completed." (The Divine Institutes, 4.6 - ANF 7.105.)
So ends my survey of the early Church Fathers use of Proverbs 8:22. I am convinced the objective reader will discern that their interpretation of the passage is quite different than that of the pro-Arian and pro-Nicene parties. Whether or not their interpretation is the best understanding of the passage is another question I am leaving 'open' at this time...
Grace and peace,
ANF = Ante-Nicene Fathers (American Edition), edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson
GCS = Die Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten Jahrhunderte, edited by Christoph Markschies
NPNF = A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace
PL = J. P. Migne's, Patrologia Latina