|Wisdom, Prudence, and Knowledge
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
8 Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
2 On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3 beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4 “To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.
22 The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
26 when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
Pentecost Sunday, which celebrates the sending of the Spirit, is followed by Trinity Sunday. Now that we have the Spirit on board, we can attend to the question of the Trinity as a whole. That is, how do we fit all the pieces together as one God in three persons, blessed Trinity? As a Trinitarian, who understands the challenges presented by the doctrine, I’ve wrestled with the question. I even have a book due out any minute that explores the idea in conversation with my own denominational tradition that is by intention non-creedal. That fact—being non-creedal—always makes for an interesting Trinity Sunday.
The lectionary invites preachers to consider a variety of biblical texts for any given Sunday, including readings from the Hebrew Bible. The question for us this week is whether we can find allusions to the Trinity in the Hebrew Bible. We must do this while recognizing that Judaism, like Islam, is a strictly monotheistic tradition. The ancient church, using such devices as the allegorical method, found those allusions, but I’m not sure a Jewish reader would always agree. Nevertheless, Proverbs 8, which celebrates Holy Wisdom, is the chosen first reading for Trinity Sunday in year C. So, what should we make of this witness? What direction might we go with the passage on Trinity Sunday?
As we consider the question, I confess to being a Trinitarian who believes that a faithful reading of Scripture reveals a Trinitarian vision of God’s nature. Nevertheless, we must be careful with how we handle texts like this. While Proverbs 8 speaks of Wisdom in elevated terms, using female descriptors, which lends itself to broadening our conception of God’s nature (moving beyond the traditional masculine vision), this particular text poses a distinct challenge. That is because, while it speaks of Wisdom calling us to pay attention to its witness, it also speaks of Wisdom as the first act of God’s creation not as being divine in any recognizable way (vs. 22). The doctrine of the Trinity, on the other hand, insists that the three persons of the Godhead (three hypostases in one substance) are eternal and uncreated. That goes for the Logos as well as Wisdom (Sophia), but the witness here is that Wisdom is the first act of creation. So, we should be wary about using this passage to inform our Trinitarian visions, even if this passage does lend itself to considering the female dimension within God’s nature. Indeed, as Liza Anderson notes, Arius used Proverbs 8:22 in reference to the Logos to affirm his premise that Christ is a created being. She writes:
Given that subsequent ecumenical councils commit us to a belief that the Spirit is likewise uncreated, a simple identification of the biblical figure of Wisdom with any of the three Trinitarian Persons seems impossible to sustain. There are still all kinds of interesting things to do with that feminine personification of Wisdom; the Russian tradition of sophiology as expressed by Bulgakov and others offers examples. But there is no easy way to conflate it with the Holy Spirit that doesn’t simply result in subordinating the Spirit to the Father and the Son. [Liza Anderson, “Translating the Trinity,” Covenant (March 28, 2019).]
While the passage is suggestive, and the idea of the divine nature of Wisdom is present at points in canonical Scripture and in non-canonical texts, with this warning from a historian of the early church, it might be best if we don’t delve too deeply into conversations that take more space than I have in this essay. So, perhaps we should consider other ways of reading this passage that might prove spiritually beneficial.
The reading begins with a depiction of Woman Wisdom as a street preacher, calling out to all who will listen, to follow her lead. This picture of Wisdom standing at the gates calling out to any who will listen comes after the author of this part of the book of Proverbs (chapters 1-9) describes both the allure and the dangers offered by the strange or loose woman (Proverbs 7). This opening section of Proverbs (chapters 1-9) depicts a father sharing wisdom with his son (a perfect Father’s Day allusion?). The key to this bit of wisdom is the contrast between the loose woman who represents folly and the righteous creation of God who offers the boy Wisdom.
With the reading prefaced by the picture of Woman Wisdom standing at the gates of the city beckoning all who will hear to follow her, we come to verse 22. We might start by affirming the premise of verse 22, that Wisdom is the first act of God’s creation. The writer of this poem lifts up Wisdom’s role in the creative process. She was there from the beginning, before anything took form, from the sea to the sky to the land. But what was the role she played?
Cameron Howard suggests that “Wisdom was God’s joyful companion,” a vision revealed in the fine two verses of the passage we have before us. Joy is the operative word here regarding Wisdom, so we might consider that, as Howard suggests, “to walk in the straight and righteous paths of Wisdom, then, is to connect with this same primal joy” [Connections, pg. 3-4]. This idea that Wisdom is God’s companion as God engages in the work of creation emerges from an alternative reading of verse 30. The NRSV speaks of Wisdom being the “master worker.” However, it is also possible to read this as “child.” If we read it as “master worker” or architect, then how should we understand the reference to God taking daily delight in Wisdom? Is it in terms of the work being done or something else? If we go with “child,” then Wisdom is that companion with whom God shares the joy of creation? Whatever the case, God takes delight in what is created, as does Wisdom. Indeed, Wisdom rejoices in the inhabited world and in the human race itself. All of this goes back to the pronouncement in Genesis 1 that the creation is good.
So the message of the day is really one of joy. Let’s rejoice in the beauty of creation, including human life. It is good and blessed. Such joy should lead us to a commitment to care for creation. As Leanne Van Dyke suggests, “A Christian vision that looks out onto our world with the eyes of Wisdom constantly sees opportunities for participating in God’s own intentions and plans. God is not a Creator gone missing. God is intimately related to each and every creature” [Connections, p 5]. Such a vision, one that motivates us to social engagement, brings with it a sense of joy. Again, Van Dyke writes: The church certainly better fulfill its mission to communicate the gospel to a jaded world with winsome cheer and joyful delight rather than judgment and blame” [Connections, p. 6]. It is true that prophets are known to talk turkey about things in the world, and that is sometimes needed, but a constant harangue doesn’t get us far. Joy, on the other hand, it has more to offer.
Trinity Sunday highlights God in God’s fullness, however we have come to understand that fullness. In celebrating God’s fullness, we acknowledge God’s role as Creator. Knowing that God takes delight in the creation, of which Holy Wisdom is both the first act and the partner, we can sing boldly: “All creatures of our God and king, lift up your voice and with us sing; Alleluia, Alleluia!”
Image attribution: Master of the Cité des Dames, active 1400-1415. Wisdom, Prudence, and Knowledge, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56953 [retrieved June 10, 2019]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Othea%27s_Epistle_(Queen%27s_Manuscript)_02.jpg.