Proverbs 8.1–4, 22–31
It used to be the conventional wisdom of New Testament scholars that predication of a divine nature to Jesus came about as a result of the impact of Hellenistic culture outside Israel and the ideas that culture had about the Divine. The assumption was that early Jews in tune with their monotheistic language would not use such language of anyone but Yahweh. The oneness of God ruled out speaking of multiple persons in the Godhead. — Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Christian Understandings of the Trinity, quoting Ben Witherington & Laura Ice, The Shadow of the Almighty
The reality that Second Testament and early church texts that speak of Jesus in relation to Woman Wisdom do not articulate a clear trinitarian self-understanding is not, in itself, an insurmountable problem. Across the early Jesus movement this is the same, as convictions about Christ and the Spirit are not clearly enunciated in a trinitarian doctrine. However, what is evidenced in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 is the claim that some early communities were experiencing the Spirit and the risen Christ, and understood these experiences in relation to Woman Wisdom. It was from the ground-bed of such experiences that later trinitarian theology arose. — Sally Douglas, Early Church Understandings of Jesus as the Female Divine
In today’s psalm, Psalm 8, we read
When I look up at your skies,
at what your fingers made—
the moon and the stars
that you set firmly in place—
what are human beings
that you think about them;
what are human beings
that you pay attention to them? Psalm 8.3–4 CEB
That’s the psalmist being awed by the night sky, but honestly he had very little idea of what the universe really is like. (Do you remember Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy among other things? Adams said something similar, in his own inimitable style)—
Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.
We live in an amazingly huge universe. The distance from Earth to the observable edge of the universe is 46 billion light years. What’s beyond the edge? We don’t know, there may be something, maybe more of the same. Or not.
We live in an amazingly old universe, some 13.8 billion years old. The earth we live on is 4.5 billion years old.
We live in an amazingly odd universe, where light may have the properties of either a particle or a wave, where there is dark energy which can only be inferred, and in which if you know how fast a particle is travelling you can’t know exactly where it is. Or something like that.
We live in a universe that I can’t comprehend. When I say it’s 13.8 billion years old, or its edge is 46 billion light years away, I really don’t get those numbers. I can probably visualise a few thousand at most, but I’m throwing those ‘billion’ numbers around without any understanding of how big they really are.
I can’t comprehend the universe, and I can’t comprehend God.
I can’t comprehend the universe, yet I believe in God.
Should that be like a confession, something from a twelve-step program? Hello, I’m Paul. I can’t comprehend the universe and I believe in God. It’s been six weeks since my last feeling of awe and wonder.
How may I know anything about the God who spoke this universe into being? How may I have any knowledge at all of the God who gave birth to such an odd and weird place?
So how can we know God? Through what God reveals to us. God has revealed God’s own self to us through this wonderful creation, through Jesus, and through the Spirit of Jesus.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Before Jesus was born, there were wise people of Israel who saw wisdom as a way to comprehend the eternal God. They said (Proverbs 9.10)
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…
Or perhaps more helpfully in the Good News Bible,
To be wise you must first have reverence for the Lord.
It’s crucial to realise that here, ‘wisdom’ is not only a quality or a value. In the first nine chapters of the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified and what’s more, as a female figure. ‘Woman Wisdom’ speaks here, and says
I will pour out my spirit on you. (Proverbs 1.23, WEB)
Which is exactly what God does on the Day of Pentecost. We also read,
Wisdom is supreme.
Yes, though it costs all your possessions,
get understanding. Proverbs 4.7, WEB
Can you hear that Wisdom is echoing some of Jesus’ kingdom parables, like the treasure hidden in a field—a man sells everything he has in order to have it. ‘Yes, though it costs all your possessions, get understanding.’
And Woman Wisdom was there at the creation of the world.
When he established the heavens, I was there.
When he set a circle on the surface of the deep…
then I was the craftsman by his side.
I was a delight day by day,
always rejoicing before him,
rejoicing in his whole world. Proverbs 8.27, 30–31a WEB
In later writings, Wisdom becomes more integrated into God. The Wisdom of Solomon is a Deuterocanonical book, part of the Catholic Bible today. It was written somewhere around the birth of Jesus. In 7.25–28 it says,
For [Wisdom] is a breath of the power of God,
and a clear effluence of the glory of the Almighty.
Therefore nothing defiled can find entrance into her.
For she is a reflection of everlasting light,
an unspotted mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.
Woman Wisdom is ‘a reflection of everlasting light, an unspotted mirror of the working of God’. This is very close to what the New Testament says of Christ. For example, in Hebrews:
He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being… Hebrews 1.3a
I wonder if you’re starting to get it? Jesus Christ is Woman Wisdom in the flesh. The one who was there in the beginning, through whom the world was made, God’s delight.
Some scholars have tried in recent years to rescue Wisdom as a common title for Jesus. The Apostle Paul was happy to use it; for him, the Jesus the crucified One ‘is the power of God and the wisdom of God’. And Jesus not only embodies the creative Wisdom of God, he transforms its meaning. Now, forever, it is the wisdom of the cross that is the true wisdom. This is the wisdom of remaining a truly human being even in the face of death.
John’s Gospel begins
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.… All things were made through him. Without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and the life was the light of [all people].
Now in the Book of Sirach, written about a hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Woman Wisdom says
I am the word spoken by the Most High…
‘Wisdom’ is the Word spoken by God. When John says ‘In the beginning was the Word’, this is Wisdom language. John probably uses the term ‘Word’ because it was more familiar to his readers.
So when John writes (v.14) ‘the Word became flesh’, we can also read it as ‘Wisdom became flesh’.
Woman Wisdom becomes human in the male flesh of Jesus. There are those who get quite hot under the collar about this kind of thing. But it shouldn’t. It’s there in the bible, and it didn’t bother the earliest Christians one bit.
So, where have we gone today?
The universe is hard to comprehend, and—as you might expect in such an odd place—the God from whom the universe came to be is also hard to comprehend, ‘in light inaccessible hid from our eyes’ as an old hymn says.
The teachers of ancient Israel drew closer to God through wisdom, because their wisdom grew from their reverence of God. They personified wisdom in feminine terms, as ‘Woman Wisdom’.
The early Christian movement experienced Woman Wisdom in Jesus: in his whole life and teaching, in his death on the cross, but most of all in his resurrection on the third day and in the gift of his Spirit.
I’ve done something today I’ve never done before. I’ve preached a sermon on a Trinity Sunday without yet mentioning the Trinity. What we’ve been doing is looking at the Trinity in embryo.
The doctrine of the Trinity grew over time, and reached the form we know in the fourth century. It was shaped by the language of that time and place.
It comes out of the church’s experience. What experience? The church soon discovered that Jesus had changed their understanding of God forever. They couldn’t think of God without thinking of Jesus. Neither could they think of God without thinking of the Spirit—the Spirit of the risen crucified Jesus poured out upon them. This, really, is the heart of the Trinity: we can’t even recognise God except as reflected in the face of Jesus Christ.
They gained this new insight through experience; maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…’ There are truths we have to come to, to grow into. The doctrine of the Trinity was in an embryonic form for quite a while.
The church needed to grow into it. We also need to grow in faith, together, communally. I say ‘communally’ because the ‘you’ in ‘the Spirit will guide you into all the truth’ is a plural you. The Spirit of Jesus will guide youse, ya’ll, into all the truth.
So we need to practise listening to the Spirit in and through one another. That’s not easy for us to do in a time that values, or rather overvalues, the individual and their particular viewpoint.
So, where am I, after all that?
I still can’t comprehend the universe, and I still can’t comprehend God. No one can.
Yet comprehending God and knowing God are different things. I can know a human person, but never fully comprehend them. So I have discovered that, however imperfectly, I can know God through the Wisdom-Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. And I can know God through the Spirit of Jesus poured out upon all of us. I can know God without having to comprehend God.
And that, my friends, is more than enough.
Preached at West End Uniting Church, Trinity Sunday 16 June 2019; thanks are due to Sally Douglas for her work Early Church Understandings of Jesus as the Female Divine: the Scandal of the Scandal of Particularity.