Beside Him Like a Master Builder

Sunday 12 June 2022
Trinity Sunday, Peace With Justice Sunday

Rev. Dr. David D. M. King, OSL

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Today is the day in the church year that we call Trinity Sunday. It’s the day we celebrate the one God that we know in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer. It is a rather difficult doctrine. There is only one God, but in three persons. Three in one, and one in three.

The Athanasian Creed explains it this way: “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Spirit unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal…. The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped.”

I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty confusing. I had a professor in seminary who told us that the doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t supposed to be understood. She said trying to understanding the Trinity was like beating your head against a brick wall. It was useless and painful. The whole point, she said, is that it is supposed to be a mystery, beyond human comprehension.

The bible texts that are assigned today are supposed to help us to get a grasp on the Trinity. You’ll notice that both John and Romans mention all three persons of the Trinity and talk, at least in part, about their relationships to one another.

But what is that text from Proverbs doing in the readings? It talks about God, but it doesn’t talk about Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Instead, it talks about some sort of divine or semi-divine woman named Wisdom, sometimes better known by her Greek name: Sophia. What on earth does she have to do with the Holy Trinity? You might be surprised.

In Proverbs 8, Sophia speaks. She describes herself as the firstborn of all creation. She says that she was present for all of God’s acts of creation, and that she participated in those creative acts as a master builder. Throughout the Book of Proverbs, she is the Wisdom of God, the source of all knowledge. She is the one who maintains order in creation, and she is sent by God to make a home among the people of Israel.

In the time before Jesus, many Jewish groups focused on Sophia as an important part of their worship. She is mentioned repeatedly in later Jewish writings, like Ben Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. These Sophia traditions were very popular at the time of Jesus’s earthly ministry.

And Jesus seems to identify himself with the Sophia tradition at certain points in the gospels. In Luke 7, he says to the crowds, “John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘he has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’  Nevertheless, Wisdom, Sophia, is vindicated by all her children.” That is, I, Jesus, am vindicated by all my children. Jesus seems to identify himself as Sophia in this passage, and uses the feminine pronoun.

Paul too makes reference to Christ as Sophia. In 1 Corinthians 1, he writes, “We proclaim Christ crucified… the power of God and the Sophia of God.”

But by far the most influential piece of scripture relating Christ to Sophia is the Prologue of the Gospel of John. Remember how Sophia described herself in Proverbs 8, as the first of all creation, the master builder through whom all things were made, the one who pitched a tent among the people of Israel. Well listen to how the Gospel of John describes Jesus:

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being.”

That’s almost the same way that Sophia is described. And to make matters more interesting, just look at the word used to refer to Jesus in John’s Gospel. It’s usually translated as Word. The Greek is Logos. It means word, knowledge, wisdom, conversation. And the Greek word Sophia means wisdom, knowledge, conversation. These two words, Logos and Sophia, are virtually synonyms in Greek.

For Christians in the first few centuries AD, the figure of Sophia was a matter of great discussion. A certain group of heretics called the Gnostics seized upon her image and proclaimed her as a goddess. Now, even though the orthodox Christians rejected the Gnostics, they did not reject Sophia. Most of them identified Sophia with Logos and understood the scriptures to say that Sophia and Jesus were one and the same. They understood that great figure of Woman Wisdom, the firstborn of creation, to be another manifestation of the one they had come to know as the Christ.

Irenaus of Lyons, however, thought Sophia wasn’t the second person of the Trinity, but the third person of the Trinity. He writes, “God tells us, through the hand of Solomon, that Wisdom is the Spirit.” (Against Heresies 4.20.3)

Later, in the fourth century, there was a great debate in Christianity, called the Arian Controversy, over whether or not Jesus Christ was divine. Now, interestingly, both sides agreed that Christ and Sophia were the same person. One side argued that Sophia was not divine and so Christ could not be divine. The other side argued that Sophia was divine and so Christ must be divine. But they both agreed that Sophia was Christ and Christ was Sophia. The winning side wrote this, “[Christ] is the offspring from the Father’s substance,… he is the Sophia and Logos of the Father, in whom and through whom he creates and makes all things.” (Orations against the Arians 1:16)

And these early church fathers were not oblivious to the fact that Sophia was a female image and name of God. Marius Victorinus writes that Sophia is a name for all three persons of the Trinity, and that Jesus the Word is “both male and female.” He and many of his contemporaries accepted Sophia as fully divine and accepted the use of the name Sophia as a way to address God in prayer. Even Augustine, one of the most well know of all Christian theologians, affirmed that Sophia was the second person of the Trinity, one and the same as Christ Jesus, yet female. Origen talked about Christ and her beauty (Commentary on John 1.55). To make things even more interesting, Tertullian described Christ, the female Wisdom, being born from the womb of the Father (Against Praxeas 6-7). From the womb of the Father.

In today’s Protestant churches, we tend not to hear very much about Sophia. The Eastern Orthodox churches still revere her, and still identify her with Jesus. The Roman Catholic church has tended to identify Sophia more with Mary than with Jesus. So when the Protestant reformers rebelled against Rome, they threw out just about everything that was associated with Mary, including Sophia.

And it’s a bit of a shame. It has meant that most of the time, we think of God as completely and totally male. Which doesn’t make much sense, really. How could we think of God as only male, unless we thought that there was also a goddess out there that was his counterpart, a goddess that we choose not to worship? And we don’t believe that. So why do we so infrequently think of God as anything other than completely male?

The bible certainly doesn’t. Not only here in Proverbs, but in other places, God is portrayed with female rather than male imagery. God is repeatedly described as a woman in labor or as a nursing mother. Jesus describes God as a baker woman kneading yeast into a batch of dough. He describes God as a woman searching for a lost coin. And he describes himself as a mother hen protecting her chicks under her wings.

When we fail to remember these feminine images of God, including Sophia, we really miss something about God. If we remember these biblical images of God, then we have a fuller understanding of who God is. All three persons of the Trinity are described at times with masculine language, at times with feminine language, and sometimes in non-personal language: light, fire, wind, could, thunder. Every metaphor has it’s limits. There is no descriptor of God that can fully encapsulate who God is. God is always bigger than our preconceptions. God is always a bit beyond our understandings. Recovering some of our feminine images of God, found in the bible, can help our understanding to be more complete.

And it can make our understandings of each other more complete. If we take the witness of the Bible seriously, then we know that all human beings are made in the image of God. Which means that humans of all kinds are windows on the image of the divine. And that includes humans of all gender expressions. We, each of us, reflect God’s image. And all of us, in our diversity, are loved by God.