Few recent controversies have been as explosive as the one raging around the invocation of Sophia in worship, especially at the ecumenical Re-Imagining conference held last year in Minneapolis. Before that conference caused such a stir, few Christians realized the Christian heritage of that word: sophia is the Greek word for wisdom. The New Testament uses it when speaking, for instance, of the wisdom of God (Rom. 11:33; 1 Cor. 1:24; Eph. 3:10). However, other religious systems around that time had a goddess named Sophia, so the word can also express pagan notions.
Nevertheless, it also plays an important role in Scripture. In the Old Testament, Wisdom (chokma in Hebrew, sophia in the Greek Old Testament) is often celebrated, and most lavishly in Proverbs 1-9. Wisdom is there personified in female form. She is praised in exalted terms: "all the things you may desire cannot compare with her" (3:15), for "she is a tree of life" (3:18), and her "fruit is better than gold" (8:19). Wisdom cries out in the streets, especially encouraging the "simple" and "scoffers" to gain deeper understanding (1:20-23; 8:1-6). Nonetheless, most people reject her (1:24-27).
Wisdom also has a cosmic role: "I have been established from everlasting," she sings, "from the beginning, before there was ever an earth" (8:23). When God created, "I was beside him as a master craftsman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him" (8:30). Yet despite these lofty functions, Wisdom in Proverbs does not seem to be an actual divine being, but rather a personification of one of Yahweh's attributes.
This Wisdom imagery expands in later Hebrew literature, most of it now found in the Apocrypha. Since Protestants have not accepted these writings as canonical, they are often unaware of how great an impact some of it had on the New Testament. But notice the apocryphal book Wisdom, which declares that Sophia "pervades and penetrates all things. / For she is a breath of the power of God, / a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty. … / a reflection of eternal light, / a spotless mirror of the working of God, / And an image of his goodness" (Wisdom 7:25-26).
Now compare this with Hebrews 1:3, which calls Jesus, God's Son, "the brightness of his glory / and the express image of his person, / and upholding all things through the word of his power." Almost all biblical scholars agree that in formulating this description, the writer of Hebrews was significantly influenced by the former passage.
Hebrew Wisdom imagery also helped shape John's concept of Christ as the Word (logos). Like Wisdom, the Word was with God from the beginning (John 1:1-2; Prov. 8:22-23; Wisdom 6:22; Sirach 24:9). Both manifest God's glory (John 1:14; Wisdom 7:25) and bestow light and life (John 1:4-5, 9; Wisdom 7:26; Prov. 3:18). Like Wisdom, the Word descended from heaven to bestow God's truth (John 1:14, 17-18; Sirach 24:8-11; Baruch 3:37; Wisdom 9:9-10), but was not generally received (John 1:11; Prov. 1:24-27; 1 Enoch 42). These themes appear not only in John's prologue (1:1-18), but also throughout his gospel.
Wisdom imagery also lies behind Colossians 1:15-17. This text, Hebrews 1:2-3, and John 1:1-18 are probably the three most extensive New Testament affirmations of Christ's deity. Many evangelical commentaries illuminate these passages' indebtedness to Wisdom terminology (see, for instance, the relevant volumes in the "New International Commentary on the New Testament" [Eerdmans] and the "Word Biblical Commentary").
Moreover, most participants in the Christological controversies of the early Christian centuries, which formed the classical confessions of Christ's deity, understood Wisdom in Proverbs 8 to refer to Christ. Jaroslav Pelikan, dean of current church historians, maintains that in this process "the basis for the fullest statement of … the divine in Christ as Logos was provided not by … John 1:1-14 but by Proverbs 8:22-31."
If Sophia/Wisdom imagery occurs in such basic texts, it should not surprise us to find it elsewhere. Paul, in fact, calls Christ "the Wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:24; cf. 1:30). Matthew seems to indicate that Jesus regarded himself as Wisdom. Consider, for example, Jesus' well-known words "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Matt. 11:28-29).
This seems similar to Sophia's call in Sirach 51:26-27: "Draw near to me, you who are untaught … why are your souls very thirsty? … Put your neck under the yoke, and let your souls receive instruction. … See with your eyes that I have labored little and have found for myself much rest."
Moreover, Luke reports that the "Wisdom of God" said, "I will send them prophets and apostles … " (Luke 11:49); yet, in the parallel passage in Matthew, Jesus himself says, "I will send you prophets … " (Matt. 23:34).
The basic point of this biblical overview should be clear: the central New Testament texts that affirm the deity of Jesus Christ draw on language about Wisdom/Sophia. Now, if the New Testament authors could employ Sophia imagery to describe the God revealed in Christ, contemporary Christians can surely make some valid use of it in worshiping this same God.
But alas!-the issue of how we can use Wisdom language in worship, as the current furor attests, is far from simple. For although Sophia terminology was applied to Jesus in ancient times, it also designated non-Christian deities. How, then, in our world, where Sophia language is unfamiliar and open to misuse, might the church employ it? Let me suggest several guiding principles.
The first, fundamental principle of Christian worship must be that worship can be addressed only to the One, Trinitarian God. Worship of any other god or goddess is idolatry (1 Cor. 8:5-6).
A second worship principle, however, is that experience of this Trinitarian God is varied. As Creator of everything that is, and as Bestower of a many-sided, far-reaching redemption, the Christian God is known and praised through a wide range of creatures and activities. For this reason, Christian worship has ascribed a great variety of adjectives and names to God.
Consider, for instance, the beloved hymn "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise." I find 18 adjectives or names for God in its first two stanzas. Some-such as the mysterious "unresting, unhasting, and silent as light"-do not appear to be literal equivalents of biblical words. The poet's creativity played a role in forming them. Yet they surely evoke awe of the biblical God.
"Wisdom" is among those titles often ascribed to Christ. Consider, for example, the moving imagery of an English text associated with Bach's exalted music: "Jesu, Joy of man's desiring / Holy Wisdom, Love most bright; / Drawn by Thee, our hearts aspiring / Soar to Uncreated Light."
As with many other titles, Wisdom can sometimes be applied to Jesus without specifying who is meant. For instance, each stanza of the familiar "O come, O come, Emmanuel" begins by invoking a different name: Emmanuel, Rod of Jesse, Dayspring, Key of David, Wisdom, and Desire of Nations. Since it is clear who is being addressed, the words Jesus and Christ do not-and need not-appear in this hymn.
According to our second principle of worship, then, there is no reason why Sophia could not function as a divine title, or a source of imagery, enriching Christian awareness of God. Yet any such use must be consistent with our first principle: It should be clear that such worship is being directed to the Triune God alone.
Since Sophia is presently unfamiliar to most Christians, and is troubling to some, this title and its associated imagery is best used in conjunction with others that clearly refer to Christ or God. Sophia seems more likely to arouse objections when this name is invoked alone, allowing the impression that a different deity is being addressed.
Although Christian worship should engage the emotions and senses and does not always need to be filtered through the rational mind, it should always be consistent with Christian teaching. Thus, when new themes are being introduced, some instruction is helpful. Moreover, when novel or questionable practices emerge, it is appropriate to ask whether they accord with the church's beliefs.
A POLEMICAL CLAMOR
I am glad that questions are being raised about events like Re-Imagining because some features accompanying the current Sophia emphasis are questionable in light of Scripture. For instance, while the Bible indeed teaches that God is "immanent," or present in some sense everywhere (Jer. 23:24; Eph. 1:23), the biblical God is also "transcendent," or vastly superior to and different from everything else; similarly, while Jesus Christ is like us in being fully human, Christ is quite unlike us in being fully divine.
Much current Sophia worship, however, is so focused on an immanent divine presence, and seems to regard Jesus as so little different from us, that one can often ask whether anything other than the depths of nature or the human self is being invoked, and hence divinized. When numerous such expressions emerge at a conference funded and attended by several denominations, church members can appropriately question them.
I am not entirely happy, however, with how this questioning has occurred. We live in a society where people's awareness, shaped by the news and entertainment media, is dominated by conflict. Only disagreements seem to get attention. This atmosphere demands that individuals align themselves quickly with one of the warring camps in every dispute, and live thenceforth in dread of the demonic designs of the other.
In an atmosphere in which everything seems "black or white," we may overlook the fact that new worship forms involve creativity, and hence risk. Some may place all who attend such events under suspicion, leaving the impression that all participants must have agreed with every public statement. This may frighten those attracted by the biblical Sophia either into silence, or into the arms of the pagan Sophia's more extreme advocates.
To be sure, a line exists between truth and falsehood, and stand for truth we must. But even if we assess the effects of Re-Imagining very negatively, biblical Christians do not need to conform to the polemical pattern of our age. In the current controversy, we need to see more of the patient, humble attitude that recognizes the danger of being too "simple" or a "scoffer," and heeds the call to "cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding … seek [Wisdom] as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures" (Prov. 2:3-4).
Thomas Finger is professor of systematic and spiritual theology at Eastern ennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, Virginia.
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