How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sophia?

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Jem. Some quick remarks in response, followed by some reflections on Sophiology:

  1. The sort of figure that Wisdom represents is a matter of considerable debate. Is Wisdom an actual entity or a sort of personification (prosopopoeia)? This could be compared to the question of the ontological status of the woman of Revelation 12. If it is an actual entity, is it personal or quasi-personal? Is it a divine entity or being? Is it a hypostatization of an attribute of God? Is it one of the persons of the Trinity? If it is a personification, what reality justifies the personification? I think that it is important that we take these questions seriously, rather than short-circuiting such study to a straightforward identification of Wisdom with the Second Person of the Trinity.
  1. The identification of the figure of Wisdom with the Second Person of the Trinity is a widespread position, well within the boundaries of orthodoxy, albeit definitely not a complete consensus (Irenaeus, for instance, identifies Wisdom with the Spirit—Against Heresies, 4.20.3). However, such identification does not legitimize the interchangeability of pronouns or conflation of representations (Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s Sophia-christology runs into problems here, I think), not without considerable further argumentation. One could argue, for instance, that the Apostle Paul is the mother labouring in birth in Galatians 4:19 or the nursing mother in 1 Thessalonians 1:7. Even if one could imagine extensive speech-in-character (prosopopoeia) of such a figure, it wouldn’t be appropriate to start using masculine and feminine pronouns interchangeably of Paul as a result.
  1. Imagery has its own logic and grammar, perhaps gendered imagery especially. Scripture personifies Israel in various ways: as a son, as a bride/daughter, as a mother, as an animal, etc. It can be tempting for modern readers to believe that this justifies an à la carte approach to biblical imagery. However, each element of imagery is part of a broader picture and each family of imagery meshes together in a larger symbolic network: you can’t appropriate imagery piecemeal or abstract them from the larger network without tearing the larger fabric. Once again, a crucial aspect of this is that male and female consistently stand for different things, because men and women are fundamentally different in their symbolic potential in Scripture: gendering isn’t a matter of indifference.
  1. The image of Wisdom (Sophia) in Proverbs and elsewhere needs to be understood in terms of the broader picture within she occurs. The entire book of Proverbs is about the relationship between the royal son and wisdom, framed in terms of the quest for a good wife. The book juxtaposes the way of folly, of the foolish woman who leads to destruction, with Lady Wisdom and the noble wife, who should be desired and sought. The book ends with the portrait of the noble wife, Lady Wisdom as royal consort. The prince’s relationship with Wisdom is presented as erotic in character, comparable to the relationship between a man and wife (a theme even more pronounced in Wisdom 8:2ff.). The work of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 is framed by the creational initiative of YHWH, the transcendent God, who is presented as grammatically masculine.

So, what is to be done with Sophia? Wisdom appears to be a sort of mediating figure, an immanent principle of divine operation or divine Person, present and active within the creation. Wisdom is that by which God created and that through which humanity seeks God. Wisdom is represented as a woman to be sought by the royal son. Wisdom is presented as the immanent agent of God’s great works and presence (e.g. Wisdom 1011). Themes associated with Wisdom are explored in 1 Corinthians, for instance, where Paul possibly alludes to such things as Wisdom of Solomon’s account of Wisdom’s role in the Exodus and speaks of Christ in terms of the wisdom (Wisdom?) of God (1:24, 30).

Although identifying Christ as/with Wisdom is attractive, I believe it is mistaken. I believe Wisdom is far more appropriately associated with the Holy Spirit (e.g. Isaiah 11:2; Acts 6:3, 10; 1 Corinthians 2; Wisdom 1:6; 7:7, 22; 9:17), not least on account of the way that they are described. Of course, Christ is anointed with the Spirit without measure, and the Holy Spirit is his Spirit, so a close relationship between Christ and Wisdom is to be expected. Christ is the royal Son who receives Wisdom. In the feminine figure of the Church, formed in union with the Son by the Spirit/Wisdom, I suspect that we see a fuller flowering of the nuptial themes of the wisdom literature. In the union between Christ and his bride in the Holy Spirit, the book of Proverbs arrives at a greater fulfilment.

Approached carefully within such a broader biblical framework, I believe that there is plenty of latitude for and much to be gained from exploring the imagery of Wisdom, not least its gendered dimensions.

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