What if we thought of Christ as Wisdom, God’s playmate who leads us into joyful dance?
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Dennis Ormseth
Reading for Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)
Holy Trinity Sunday in Year C
First Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8 (2)
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus’ promise of truth to come hardly forecasts the bitterly conflicted history of development of doctrine of the Trinity. As Robert Wilken writes, “how the trinitarian religion of the Bible, the liturgy, and the early creeds was to be expressed in light of the biblical teaching that God is one provoked a fervent and prolonged debate that occupied the church’s most gifted thinkers for two centuries” (Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, p.83). The readings appointed for this Sunday do both exhibit that religion as it came to expression in the writings of the New Testament, however, and provide significant markers for the debate that followed. The Gospel sets out the relationship between Jesus, his Father, and the Spirit of truth upon which the promise itself is grounded: communication between the three of them will lead to glorification of Jesus and reception of the whole truth of the Father among Jesus’ followers (John 16:12-15). Similarly, in the reading from Romans 5, the saving grace of “peace with God” comes to the hearts of those justified by faith, into whose hearts “God’s love has been poured . . through the Holy Spirit.” These readings represent a recital of the relationships within the Trinity set out in the readings last week for the Day of Pentecost.
The Old Testament readings, on the other hand, represent sources of conflict in the development of Trinitarian doctrine. A footnote in the NRSV reminds us that the heavens of the ancient world were populated by divine beings of diverse kinds and varying status, in Hebrew the elohim, or as commonly translated in English, “the divine beings or angels.” Their existence raised for the church the question framed later by the great historian of Christian doctrine, Adolf von Harnack: “Is the divine that has appeared on earth and reunited man with God identical with the supreme divine, which rules heaven and earth, or is it a demigod?” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971; p. 172). And the answer of the theologians of the church hung largely on the interpretation of our first reading from Proverbs 8.
What was at stake in the interpretation of Proverbs 8 is far more complicated than we can review here. We are concerned to show only how that debate brings into play (an apt metaphor, as we shall see) further development of the particular understanding of creation which the readings for the Day of Pentecost brought forward a week ago. Jaroslav Pelikan argues that while early on in the encounter with pagan thought, the “Spirit Christology” of the New Testament, which we encountered in those readings, sufficed to more precise definitions were needed. The concept of the Logos, together with the title of “the Son,” began to supersede in importance all earlier usages. Rather remarkably, however, Proverbs 8:22-31 figured even more significantly in this development than John 1-14 (Pelikan, p. 186). As Robert Wilken observes, because the New Testament identified Christ with Wisdom (e.g., 1: Cor. 1:24), references to the figure of Wisdom were deemed instructive concerning the existence of Christ prior to his incarnation. “Read in light of the Resurrection those passages from the Old Testament that depicted the activity of Wisdom helped Christian thinkers to fill out what it meant to call Christ God” (Wilken, p. 95). Faced with the challenge of the creation-negating movement of Marcion and other gnostics, theologians used Proverbs 8 to argue that Christ as Logos provided a correlation between the creation and redemption, as can be seen in our reading, where Wisdom says, “when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Proverbs 8:29-31).
In the subsequent conflict with the Arians, however, use of Proverbs 8 to explicate the divine in Jesus became highly problematic. The Arians used 8:22, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago” to argue that the Logos was subordinate to the Father, and accordingly not fully divine, being himself a creature; combined with the words of Hebrews 1:4, the passage could be seen to assign the Son of God to the “category of the angels, although, to be sure, he was preeminent among them” (Pelikan, p. 197). The Arians’ chief interest here was in preserving, in Pelikan’s words,
. . . an uncompromising view of divine transcendence. No action of God, neither the creation of the world nor the generation of the Logos, could be interpreted in such a way as to support the notion that “the Father had deprived himself of what he possesses in an ungenerated way within himself, for he is the source of everything.” God was “the monad and the principle of creation of all things,” and he did not share this with anyone, not even with the Logos. Any other conception of God would, according to Arius, make the Father “composite and divisible and mutable and a body” (Pelikan, p. 194).
It was an a priori of the Arian position that God must at all costs be represented in such a way that he did not suffer the changes affecting a body. This meant that God in his transcendent being had to be kept aloof from any involvement with the world of becoming. His “unoriginated and unmitigated essence” transcended the real of created and changeable things so totally that there was not, and ontologically could not be, a direct point of contact between them. Such a total transcendence was necessary not only for the sake of the utter oneness of God, but also because of the fragility of creatures, who “could not endure to be made by the absolute hand of the Unoriginate” (Pelikan, p. 195).
God the creator was accordingly seen to be of an essentially different nature from this lessor divine, the angelic Logos, and the link between creation and redemption in the being of the Logos, so important to the faith, was severed.
In response, the orthodox teachers of the church rebutted the Arian interpretation of Proverbs 8:22 by arguing that the word “created,” as applied to Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22, had to be taken in the sense of “begotten,not made.” Indeed, this is how the relationship came to be defined in the creed promulgated at the council of Nicea in 325: Christ was to be confessed as begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the ousia of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, homoousios with the Father, through whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, who for the sake of us men [sic] and for the purpose of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man [sic], suffered and rose again on the third day (Pelikan, p. 201).
What particularly interests us here is that in making this argument, the theologians rescued for the church not only the teaching of the true divine in Christ, but also re-secured the linkage between creation and redemption. They contradicted the Arian teaching of the eternal and radical transcendence of God in relationship to the creation. Christ, they insisted, was of the same being as the creator of all things, even though he “came down and became incarnate, becoming man [sic], suffered and rose again on the third day.”
As they did this, moreover, they also rescued for the church the relevance for future believers of Proverbs 8:22-31. So it is that we can read the passage this Sunday not simply as exhibit A in an ancient and bitter controversy, but as instruction for the faithful about the relation and the activity of the triune God in creation. With William P. Brown, our guide in last week’s comment to the creational significance of Psalm 104 in relationship to the gift to the church of the Holy Spirit, to lead us again, we turn to the teaching about creation contained in the text. Like Psalm 104, Proverbs 8:22-31 is one of “seven pillars of creation” on the basis of which Brown builds a comprehensive view of the Bible’s teaching about creation. Indeed, there is striking consonance between these two “pillars:” the “joyful” and even “playful” God of the psalm would be entirely at home in the cosmic “playhouse” of Brown’s interpretation of Proverbs 8. While the sayings of Wisdom cover both “the ethical ideals that promote the communal good and the personal ideals that promote individual standing within the community,” with “reverence of the creator as its starting point,” the search for wisdom is particularly “oriented toward the created order.” Wisdom, observes Brown, is instrumental in the creation of the cosmos; it is reflected in creation’s integrity and intelligibility. The sages discerned order, beauty, and wonder within the natural world. For them, the wisdom by which God established creation, the wisdom reflected in nature, is the same wisdom found in the bustling marketplace, city gates, and street corners. In Proverbs, cosmic Wisdom makes her home in the day-to-day world of human intercourse (Brown, Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010; p. 163).
According to Wisdom, “Every step and facet of creation is graced by Wisdom’s joyful presence. She is ever-present physically ‘beside’ God before, during, and after creation. She is preeminently alive as much as she is uniquely engendered. Wisdom is life in principium” (Brown, p. 166). Strikingly, her role corresponds well with that of Leviathan in Psalm 104: she is always to be found at play.
Wisdom remains a player throughout, and her play serves double duty. Wisdom’s activity engages both God and the world in the mutuality of play, holding creator and creation together through the common bond of delight. She is no child left inside. Rather, she is let loose in creation to explore and play. Wisdom is
. . . “delight” of the world. . . Wisdom’s hymn is in itself a tangible testimony to her continued delight in creation and in God. She is God’s full partner in play, and creation is hers to enjoy. Wisdom is no mere instrument of God’s creative abilities; she is more than an attribute, divine or otherwise (cf. 3:19). Wisdom is fully alive, interdependent and interactive with God and the world. All the world was made for her, and her delight affirms it all (Brown, p. 166).
Like God’s joy in Psalm 104, Wisdom’s delight “makes possible the world’s flourishing.” She “informs humanity’s role and place in the world . . . . Her position in the world sets the context and catalyst for those who desire to grow in wisdom . . . . And so all the world’s a stage for Wisdom’s play” (Brown, p. 167). “Playing in the streets, playing in the cosmos: such is Wisdom’s vocation. Born of wonder, Wisdom’s play shapes and sustains the just community, her beloved community. Wisdom’s homage to God and to creation highlights the inhabitable and, hence, political (from polis, “city”) nature of the cosmos, a world full of fully-living agents, all thriving and playing together (Brown, p. 168)
In Browns view the cosmos is a playhouse to be enjoyed by Wisdom. This teaching about creation, he thinks, ought to find resonance with the best thinking outside the church. “The psalmist trembles before the vastness of the universe,” he notes, referring to Psalm 8:1-3. And “like the ancients, many scientists admit to being struck by an overwhelming sense of wonder—even ‘sacredness’—about nature and the cosmos.” “The need to engage science and biblical faith” he rightly insists, “has never been more urgent.” We desperately need a new way in the world that is both empirically and biblically credible.” Specifically, with respect to Wisdom’s hymn in Proverbs 8, he has in view the physical theory of quantum mechanics. “Wisdom’s all-encompassing play,” he observes, “interconnects all creation, dynamically so” in much the same way as “quantum entanglement” of quantum theory does.” “More fundamental,” he adds, “Wisdom’s ‘play’ resonates with the quirkiness of the subatomic level of reality, where uncertainty is the name of the game. Wisdom’s’ subatomic dance is more improvisational than choreographed” and “amid these two contrastive levels, of play and stability, a certain ‘historical’ primacy is evident.” Just so, “in the beginning was playful Wisdom, just as one could say about the birth of the cosmos” (Brown, p. 170). It follows that we live in an open universe, characterized not only by genetic adaptation but ever more powerfully by intelligent learning, which with its capacity for “multiple representations of the world” is able to resolve social conflict and foster cultural innovation (Brown, p. 173). What the biblical concept of wisdom adds to this is “religious and moral valuation:” Wisdom seeks both the common good and the common God; it fosters reverence of the creator of all and cultivates “justice, righteousness, and equity.” (1:3). Wisdom is as fully emotive as she is cognitive. It is by her that kings rule and children play (Prov. 8:15-16, 30-31) (Brown, pp. 173-74).
As we saw in the readings for the Day of Pentecost, we are called to engage in the reorientation that the Spirit promotes in the worship of the Christian community. As in the case of God and Leviathan in Psalm 104, Brown concludes,
Play requires partnership, and Wisdom has two partners: God and creation. Her world is more relational than referential. Who else, in addition to the “offspring of adam,” occupies creation for the sake of Wisdom’s delight? Frolicking coneys, roaring lions, breaching whales, and flapping ostriches? They, too, inhabit creation, and thus have a right to play. And then there is God, with whom Wisdom shares a particularly intimate relationship. As God’s partner is play, she is “beside” the creator of all as she is beside herself in joy. (Brown, p. 176).
What if the church, following the lead of the ancient church’s theologians and under the guidance of the Spirit, were to begin to think of its Christ as Wisdom, God’s playmate, who leads us into joyful dance? What would happen if in our worship we celebrated with him/her the establishment of righteousness in a world that is an absolute delight to God, a world that God cannot get enough of, and cannot let go of? Here is Brown’s proposal:
God so loved the world that God gave daughter Wisdom, so that everyone who plays with her may gain enlightened life. Proverbs boldly claims that human beings exist not for themselves but for Wisdom, specifically for her play and enrichment. Yet, reciprocally, Wisdom’s play nurtures and enriches all conscious life. Her play is mutually edifying, and there are no losers, except those who refuse her invitation or simply quit, much to their impoverishment. Wisdom’s play, moreover, is no otherworldly, mystical exercise. Both Proverbs and Psalms declare God creating the world in and by wisdom (Ps 104:24; Prov. 3:19). However, more than creation’s intelligibility, more than its orderliness is meant, as science so powerfully demonstrates. Creation in wisdom reflects its joie de vivre, a vitality reflected in its interactive, self-regulatory, life-sustaining processes.
Creation according to Proverbs is made for Wisdom’s play, and to play is to discover and cherish creation made in wisdom. It is what scientists do best in their quest to understand the wonders of creation. It is what people of faith do best in their quest to cherish and care for creation. (Brown, p. 237).
For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288