In 1993—some of you may remember this; some of you might have been participants—the World Council of Churches assembled a global conference, here in Minneapolis, around the theme of theological “re-imagining.”
One part of the conference was given to “reimagining God,” with a focus on the recovery of Sophia. That’s the Greek word for Wisdom, understood as a divine feminine person alongside God the “Father.” There were scripture readings about divine Wisdom, reflections on the wonders of the universe and the holiness of women’s lives, and prayers and hymns were offered to Sophia (just as we pray and sing hymns to the Spirit on Pentecost). Thousands of women took part, and many of them found the liturgy profoundly empowering.
The backlash was fierce. Male preachers got in the pulpit the next Sunday and warned their congregations that the conference was heretical. Male priests wrote letters to the newspapers decrying the “idolatry” and “blasphemy” performed there. One woman who had helped organize the conference was fired from her position as a denominational official.
I mention the conference, and the heated controversy it sparked, because it’s Trinity Sunday. We may not be very familiar with the biblical figure of divine Wisdom; but what makes her story especially relevant this morning is that there was a time when Wisdom was a member of the Trinity.
I’m sorry if parts of this sound like a lecture in the history of doctrine—but in part, that’s what I want to achieve today. Mark Twain is said to have quipped, “People who love sausage and respect laws should never watch either being made.” To which I would add a third unsettling product: doctrine. If you are invested in Christian doctrine, especially the doctrine of the Trinity, you may find the paper trail of how it developed over time rather unappetizing.
Wisdom—Hokmah in Hebrew; Sophia in Greek—is the largely unsung hero of the biblical story.
- There’s Yahweh Sebaoth, the “Lord of hosts,” the warrior god of Exodus, who miraculously laid waste to Egypt and drowned Pharaoh’s army to deliver his people and bring them to a promised land. He achieves his purposes through combat; he demands loyalty.
- There’s Yahweh Melek, God as king in Zion, who rules the nations from the Messiah’s throne in Jerusalem. He achieves justice through monarchic power; he demands obedience.
- And then there’s Hokmah, Sophia, this elusive, powerful, winsome female presence drifting through parts of the Bible. She doesn’t ask for loyalty or obedience so much as she seeks understanding.
In some Bibles, you can’t even see her. Some translators won’t give her voice: They lowercase the word wisdom so it’s just an abstraction, so it just means social smarts.
But Wisdom is, unmistakably, a divine person, and unmistakably female. The book of Proverbs rails against seductive women who lead men astray, into doing stupid things (as if they need the help!), but then, in chaps. 8 and 9, Wisdom raises up her voice in the marketplace, as flirtatiously and enticingly as the most seductive of women. “Come out of the street,” she calls to men: “Come in to my house. I’ve laid out some wonderful food and wine. Let’s spend some time together. Get to know me: You’ll be glad you did!”
Surprisingly, she’s almost swallowed up even in the so-called “wisdom literature.” Solomon gets all the attention as the supremely wise king; he’s implausibly given credit for all the wisdom writings. That’s unfair. The historical writings of the Bible depict Solomon as an arrogant tyrant. The Torah (in Deuteronomy 17) warns Israel against such a king: A tyrant will multiply wives, amass wealth to himself, abuse your sons and daughters, wreck your nation. And that’s just what Solomon does: He rules with such arrogant cruelty that half his kingdom secedes at his death. If that’s wisdom, we might wish for less of it.
We don’t hear from Wisdom again until later, in writings from our Apocrypha like the Wisdom of Solomon (from which we heard this morning) and the Wisdom of Ben Sira. She’s become even more splendid, more radiant. Again, she is divine, present with God at the very beginning of creation; God delights in her intelligence and charm. It is her playful creativity that designs the incredibly complex, beautiful, life-giving world in which we live: Through her all things were made. She is the source of human intelligence and reason: the light that enlightens everyone coming into the world.
In Ben Sira, she is sent forth from heaven like Noah’s dove from the ark, to search over the surface of the earth to find a place to make her home; she comes to rest at last in Israel.
In the Wisdom of Solomon, she accompanies Israel throughout their history; at every moment of their story, she is there to instruct, to guide, to protect, to nurture. It is she who delivers the people from slavery, she who guides them wisely through the wilderness; it is she who speaks through the prophets.
A little later, closer to the time of Jesus, the story takes a dark turn in 1 Enoch (one of the most popular books among the Dead Sea Scrolls). Hokmah seeks a sheltering place, but she finds only parched ground—so much of humanity rejects her in its folly and warfare. She returns to heaven. But she waits there, and in the future, she will inspire a Son of Man on earth, and those who accept his teaching will be enlightened by her and become true children of God.
If this language sounds familiar, it’s because it’s picked up in the New Testament.
The clearest retelling of the story of Wisdom is at the beginning of the Gospel of John. There she is, in the beginning with God, intimately present with God, herself divine. Through her, all things were made. She enlightens everyone who comes into the world. She came to her own people, and was rejected; but those individuals who receive her become the children of God.
—But now, of course, Wisdom has become the Word: the feminine Greek noun Sophia has been replaced with the masculine Greek noun Logos. It’s a sort of theological sex change, and for the most part, the church has never looked back.
Although Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel about baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that’s strange; nowhere else in the Gospel does he speak of three persons or of being one of them.
In fact, we don’t find anyone talking about a divine “Trinity” or “Triad” until a hundred years after Jesus’ death; and then, they don’t talk about the Trinity the way we do. A theologian named Theophilus of Antioch writes, “We believe in a Triad: of God the creator, Word, and Wisdom.” Ktistés, Logos, and Sophia.
That was a natural move. For decades, whenever Christians got into arguments with Jews or others who insisted “there’s only one God in heaven,” Christians would pull out their Old Testaments—Jewish scripture—and read out all the wonderful things said about Wisdom. “See?” they would say: “She’s there in heaven with God; she’s divine; she’s present at creation. A second person in heaven.”
But another Christian, Irenaeus of Lyons, declared that whenever scripture speaks of Wisdom, Christians should read “Spirit” instead. Not God, Word, and Wisdom, but Father, Son, and Spirit. That’s an important moment for a couple of reasons.
- First, in Greek, Irenaeus is insisting on a gender change. Instead of the feminine noun Sophia, he says, we should use the neuter noun Pneuma, Spirit. In Latin translation, the gender transition is even more dramatic: Sapientia becomes Spiritus, a masculine noun. After Irenaeus, we never find a reference to a grammatically feminine member of the Trinity again.
- Second, by odd coincidence, Irenaeus was the first theologian on record who was adamantly opposed to the ordination of women. That’s how he knew which churches were heretical: Any church that ordained women was heretical, because orthodox churches by definition didn’t. 
What we might call a campaign of theological mansplaining was complete by the time of the Nicene Creed in the fourth century. Here the Spirit—grammatically neuter in Greek—was given a masculine pronoun: He has spoken through the prophets.
So Wisdom was removed from heaven, erased from the Trinity, and with her, any semblance of a feminine presence in our conventional language for God—until impulses like the 1993 WCC conference began to recover her legacy. We have just celebrated Pentecost; today we honor the Trinity. But there is no Feast of Holy Wisdom in the Church calendar.
The memories of Wisdom and Spirit as feminine are nevertheless irreducible.
In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul describes creation as a woman in labor, convulsed with the effort to bring a new world into being. And Paul says that the Spirit causes us to groan along with that labor: We are made part of that creative struggle to bring forth a new reality characterized by justice and peace.
The real sermon today may be in what we can share with one another about that struggle.
I was in the Capitol Rotunda a few weeks ago, with several hundred protesters. There were clergy—I saw Ashley there—and public school teachers; janitors and home care providers; immigrants and immigrant advocates; activists from Black Lives Matter and LGBT groups; Native Americans, and members of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian congregations.
All of us were protesting the budget bills that had been sent to the governor because—at the last minute, late at night, out of public view—Republican legislators had inserted policy measures that they knew would never have stood on their own. Bills that would do injury to immigrants, strip teachers and other workers of their labor rights, deprive communities of say regarding living wages and the environment, and give more tax breaks to the already wealthy.
I was impressed that organizers could get so many people together, from so many places, so quickly. I understood they could do that because they’d done a lot of the organizing work already, and people knew and understood the issues.
I was also moved to be in a mass of people—most of whom I’d never met, most of whom didn’t look like me—who were breathing the same protest, blending our voices into one, all in the hope that a different world was possible, and necessary, now.
I think that is, in part, the work of Wisdom in our world. I think it is what the apostle Paul was talking about. It is in our efforts together for a better world, our breathing-with the breath of God, that our participation in the life of the divine takes place, and the renewal of creation becomes possible.
Obviously, there are myriad expressions of the life of Wisdom among us, and I invite your discernment, individually and with others, what this means for us today. My prayer is that we walk ever more mindfully “in the ways of Wisdom” and that Wisdom again lift up her voice, through us.
 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Re-Imagining_(Christian_feminist_conference); Nancy J. Berneking and Pamela Carter Joern, eds., Remembering and Re-Imagining (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1995); Neil and Holly Elliott, “Why Suppose Christ Wanted No Women in Clergy?” (in response to criticisms of the conference), Star Tribune, January 1995.
 The attribution is disputed and the wording varies considerably; the quotation has no clear source and has also been attributed to Otto von Bismarck.
 I rely on W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1994), and J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 5th ed. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2000). Convenient source material is available in W. H. C. Frend and J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius (London: SPCK, 1984).
 It is telling that one of the 20th century’s foremost biblical scholars, Gerhard von Rad, wrote his two-volume Old Testament Theology (ET London: Oliver and Reed, 1962) without discussing Wisdom; he subsequently added a volume treating Wisdom as distinct from Israel’s “theology,” Wisdom in Israel (ET London: SCM, 1972).
 Of course, the Hebrew Hokmah is grammatically feminine, in a language in which all nouns have grammatical gender. But Proverbs gives Wisdom a decidedly female “personality,” mimicking the flirtatious calls of the “dangerous” or “strange woman” (ishah zonah), in a move the Greek rhetoricians called prosōpopoieia.
 There is such similarity between Moses’ warning in Deuteronomy and the story of Solomon’s fateful monarchy that scholars believe Deuteronomy was finalized some time after Solomon’s reign.
 In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus quotes Wisdom in the figure of a mother bird who wishes to shelter Jerusalem beneath her wings; in 1 Corinthians, Paul provides the equation “Christ is our wisdom.” Scholars find behind the language of Colossians 3 the Jewish tradition of exalting Wisdom as a heavenly person.
 Just as scholars debate whether the Hebrew Hokmah is meant to be understood as an actual divine person or merely the rhetorical personification of an abstraction, so scholars debate whether the Johannine writer meant to change the gender of Wisdom to conform the heavenly person to (the male) Jesus or was influenced by Hellenistic philosophy (Neoplatonic and Stoic speculation on the heavenly logos) or (perhaps more likely) biblical references to the “word of God” speaking to and through the prophets. Interestingly, when the Hebrew Bible reads that “God said . . .,” the Aramaic Targums routinely insert “the word of God said,” using the (grammatically feminine) noun Memra.
 See the sources in n. 3. Usually these debates centered around Christian claims for Christ as a divine being; in the third century, we begin to see the same debates centering on the Spirit.
 Adversus Haereses 4.7.4 and passim.
 Scholars debate whether Irenaeus wanted to suppress feminine imagery for God—which may not have been offensive to him if he understood “Wisdom” language to be metaphorical and only “accidentally” (that is, grammatically) feminine—or meant to normalize all scriptural prooftexts around what was then standard liturgical language of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” In my view, Irenaeus’s heated antipathy to Christian circles that allowed women to teach or preach suggests that more was at stake for him than liturgical standardization.
 The Greek reads “he [hos] has spoken” where we would expect “it [ho],” following the grammatically neuter pneuma (“Spirit”). Text in Enchiridion Symbolorum, ed. Henricus (Heinrich) Danziger (Berlin: Herder, 1937).
 See Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992). To the objection that Wisdom remains “only a metaphor,” late-20th-century theologians would have replied, “what language of God isn’t metaphorical?” See Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982); Gordon D. Kaufman, An Essay in Theological Method (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1979).