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.

“…we understand her to be the Word of God…”

A splendid variety of ideas so far – I’d like to pick up and ponder a couple of questions which Hannah provided.  Not to answer them, but simply to develop a couple of themes.  I’ll also be carrying on the Patristic note which April brought into our discussion.

Hannah noted the tradition of referring to the Spirit in feminine language, and speculated upon how using gendered terms for persons of the Trinity might connect with instinctive feelings about power.  If I’m reading her right, she implies that for some people using “she” for the Spirit will might inclusive and reflect the diversity in unity within the Trinity.  And, if I’m still understanding her, she implies that for others it might lead to subordinationist assumptions, given two historical accidents: the less developed theology of the Spirit in many Christian traditions, and the socially-conditioned view of women as inferior or secondary which is such a constant presence in our patriarchal societies.

I think she’s absolutely right in both cases, and I’d like to draw out a point which lies behind her suggestions: the contingency of speech and its dependence upon context and developing traditions.  As Hannah points out, “she” will have vastly different implications for different people, and its meanings will vary across time and cultures as well as across individuals.  Given the amount of time we spend scrutinising the context of past speech and writing, I wonder if it’s worth asking what context we’re imagining we speak in.  Would it be reasonable to speak of God differently in theological speculation than in communal worship?  In Biblical commentary and in personal prayer?  Might it be appropriate to be more kataphatic at some moments and apophatic at others?  There are many forms of speech – description, address, proclamation, performance, citation – which it might be helpful to consider as needing varying words.

It’s also possible to extend Hannah’s remarks by a reference to Origen, whom I was reading recently as part of my not very extensive pottering around the writings of the Fathers.  In De Principiis, Origen goes beyond referring to the third person of the Trinity with female pronouns, and cheerfully uses them of Christ.  the line I quoted for the title of this post comes from Of Christ, in the passage where Origen is concerned to identify the Word of God with divine Wisdom (and to insists on Wisdom’s hypostatic existence on the way.)  In identifying the two, he includes lines such as “we understand her to be the Word of God” and “on this account she is called the Word”.  I wonder how this connects with the issues of speech and context I sketched in the previous paragraph: does it seem controversial to put the pronoun “she” next to the second person of the Trinity?  If so, does that reflect a difference in situation, or a lack of thinking through our theological and Biblical commitments?

And I can’t quote that bit of Origen without remembering the heroine of Catherine Fox’s novel The Benefits of Passion, who finds herself frustrated by the way her tutor adds “or woman, of course, or woman” to the end of sentences to sound scrupulously inclusive, and expects one day to hear him declare “He was Incarnate of the Holy Spirit by the Virgin Mary, and was made man…or woman, of course.  Or woman.”

Gendering God

I’ve appreciated reading everyone’s thoughts on this subject. At risk of moving our conversation a little off its original course, the following are a few reflections on Hannah Malcolm’s remarks on ‘(re)gendering’ the Trinity, specifically addressing the issue of how gendered language is used in relation to God.

  1. There is a widespread assumption that sex and gender are accidental features of biblical names and imagery: ‘Father’ could be replaced by ‘Parent’ or switched for ‘Mother’ without loss or change of meaning. However, fathers and mothers have different forms of relationship to their children, irrespective of their personalities or traits. These different forms of relation arise from their sexual differences, but aren’t reducible to them. A mother bears her child in and feeds the child from her own body; there is a material bodily continuity between her and her offspring that characterizes their personal relation. A father, by contrast, does not have the same direct material connection to his offspring. He fathers children by an act of love by which they are conceived and gestated outside of his being. He is materially ‘other’ from his offspring and stands over against them in a way that a mother does not. Switching masculine pronouns and male imagery for feminine pronouns and female imagery can have unhelpful implications for our understanding of the Creator-creature distinction and relation. It is not accidental that biblical and cultural images for sovereignty and transcendence are overwhelmingly masculine. This most definitely doesn’t mean that feminine images shouldn’t be explored or developed (quite the opposite, in fact: carefully deployed feminine images and themes highlight that, despite the priority of transcendence, God’s relationship to his creation is also characterized by immanence of presence). Rather, it means that they must be governed by the logic of revelation and deployed with care and precision. We can’t merely project a God in our chosen image or use feminine and masculine imagery interchangeably.
  1. God’s particular personal identity—revealed in the Tetragrammaton (his personal proper name, YHWH)—is consistently referred to in grammatically masculine ways in Scripture (God isn’t a man or a male). This consistency of usage reflects the fact that God’s self-designation is not just another human metaphor or title for God, but functions as a self-revealed personal proper name. It doesn’t compare God to any human entity, but simply refers to him. The consistent use of masculine pronouns corresponds to the fixity in reference of a personal proper name in contrast to a cloud of metaphors. The consistent use of masculine pronouns relates, I believe, to the biblical precedent for such consistent usage and to the fact that such masculine personal pronouns are the most apt to express the transcendence of the One to whom we refer. It also has to do a resistance to relativizing God’s self-revelation as ‘Father, Son, and Spirit’ in Jesus Christ. We share in the Sonship of Christ in relation to his Father.
  1. Introducing feminine personal pronouns for the Spirit creates a discontinuity within the Trinity, risking pushing us in the direction of conceiving of God in terms of three distinct centres of self-consciousness. The likely use of masculine pronouns for the Spirit in places such as John 16:13 maintains the use of the same pronoun to refer to the one Triune God.
  1. With such caveats in place, however, it is important that we recognize that, within, the linguistic discipline established by the Tetragrammaton and the revelation of Father, Son, and Spirit in the gospel, there is considerable room for the exploration of feminine imagery and themes within the pneumatological form of naming identified by R. Kendall Soulen. While God is identified using masculine pronouns, any identification of God as male is constantly unsettled by biblical revelation, which frequently yet subtly brings feminine imagery into play. This makes clear that, although God can analogically and truly reveal himself in the language and reality of gender, God is beyond gender.
  1. Here it is appropriate to recognize the intense association of the Spirit with the feminine, as this is part of divine revelation. The Spirit and the Bride are associated in several ways (e.g. Revelation 22:17). Both descend from heaven to Christ. The Spirit’s association with love and the dove is also significant here. The Spirit forms communion, fills, gives life, the future, (re)generation, glory, groans within us with the birth pangs of new creation, is associated with conception in the womb of Mary, etc. all things that are associated with women in Scripture. The Spirit is the Spirit of Wisdom (personified as feminine in Proverbs 8 and elsewhere in Scripture), God’s Glory, and God’s immanent presence within his creation. Women represent dimensions of God’s divine activity (especially that of days 4-6) in ways that men cannot.

As such language functions in Scripture and most of the tradition, men and women are not interchangeable, but are different ‘genres’ of human persons, who symbolize and relate in manners peculiar to their gender. Many modern attempts to advance feminine language and imagery for God want to recover biblical and traditional examples of such language while rejecting the more established structural understanding of gender that informed them. Gendered language in such contexts is informed, I believe, not by a notion of gender as ‘hierarchy’, but by a notion of gender as mutually constitutive difference in relation and of such difference as symbolically meaningful.

The benefit of such an understanding is found, I believe, in: 1) its refusal to map human gender onto God, while appreciating the revelatory potential of gendered language in a theological context in an analogical manner; 2) its close attention to the biblical witness and to its ‘grammar’ of gendered language; 3) its refusal to reduce gender difference to indifference and interchangeability or to frame it in terms of hierarchy, privileging man over woman or vice versa. Rather, significance is given to the difference in relation itself, both men and women being valued for their peculiar symbolic and relational potential, a potential created by God and apt for expressing and reflecting his creative rule in the world.