The following dialogue was written by my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, and myself, and was presented at the Tuggeranong Uniting Church in the ACT on Trinity Sunday, 12 June 2022.
The dialogue does not come from the time of the Bible, when Christians were a tiny minority group; but a little later, in the mature years of the Holy Roman Empire, when Christianity had become the state religion across the western world.
The character who opens the dialogue is Rufinus, who was present at the council of Nicea in the year 325, when the first formal declaration of the doctrine of the trinity was made by a council of bishops. Rufinus was one of the scribes at the council, taking notes for the eminent historian, Eusebius of Caesarea.
Rufinus is full of enthusiasm for what has taken place at Nicea. He is anxious to address you on the topic. But he is quickly joined by a mysterious and rather shadowy character, who questions the whole foundations of the Nicaean decision on this topic. She is a devotee of Sophia, or Lady Wisdom, who is described in Proverbs 8 (the Hebrew Scripture reading for Trinity Sunday) and other texts from the “wisdom literature”. We subsequently learn that this character is named Sophilla.
JOHN: What do we mean when we speak of the Trinity? This is a good question, and one frequently asked by Christians.
The first thing to say is that Christianity is unique. We believe that God is One; but we also hold that the one God has three distinct “persons”: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This unique threefold God of Christian belief is referred to as the Trinity (from Latin trinitas, “three”).
It is true that the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible. However, we believe that some of the texts of the bible point to this doctrine. Yetwhile this concept is rather scarce in the biblical texts, there is no reason we should doubt the words of the early church fathers, where it appears often.
We should consider the early councils of the church—and especially the one held at Nicaea under the patronage of our great emperor, Constantine—to be authoritative. In these councils, doctrine is formally and correctly defined by the doctors and fathers of the church.
The Nicene Creed declares Jesus to be: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” That is the trinity in essence. It is elegant in its simplicity!
ELIZ: Now just a minute. This is not as beautifully simple as you claim,at all. There are lots of reasons for questioning this doctrine of the Trinity. For example, as you said, the word ‘trinity’ is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. And think about it – it simply doesn’t make philosophical sense. It isn’t taught in the scripture of the Jewish people, the Old Testament. These were the scriptures of Jesus, and he never mentioned such a thing. Whoever heard of such strangeness as this ‘one in three’ business?
Further, the idea of trinity is not compatible with monotheism. In fact, this is really why it was invented. The church fathers needed to explain away why they were worshipping two gods—God the Father, the supreme God; and Jesus, also regarded as a God. This would be polytheism. Sothey threw in the holy spirit for good measure, and came up with this notion of the “three in one”.
JOHN: Well, you may be right about the word ‘trinity’ not being biblical, but I have to point out that the concept is found indirectly in various statements in the Bible. The three figures of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are associated in such great New Testament passages as the Great Commission: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19).
It is also found in the benediction of the apostle Paul: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Corinthians 13:14). So there: it’s in the Bible!
ELIZ: Well, if we are going to claim that the holy spirit is divine, we must acknowledge, then, that the spirit is a female. She is sent by God, to increase human understanding, to bring change and renewal, and to announce the will of God.
JOHN: She???!!!! What do you mean, she? The holy spirit, the blessed third person of the trinity, is male. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Three persons in one being. Of course the spirit is male. How could it be otherwise? All three persons are male. And come to think of it, just who are you anyway, to be putting forth such ridiculous ideas?
ELIZ: I thought you would never ask. I am Sophilla, handmaiden to Wisdom, and one of the keepers of the feminine tradition. Wisdom has been described in many and various ways—as an aspect of God, as a divine entity existing in her own right, even as something approaching a feminine deity. All of these have some truth to them.
Wisdom’s primary function is, of course, to be a mediating force between God and the world. Wisdom is very old; as it says in the book of Proverbs: The Lord created [Wisdom] at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old (Proverbs 8:22). Wisdom also functions as a vehicle of God’s self-revelation, granting knowledge of God to those who pursue her.
JOHN: I am sorry, this is getting out of hand here. What you are talking about is the function of Jesus. These are the things Jesus does. Let us consider these verses which come early in the letter to the Colossians: He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. This makes it very clear.
ELIZ: All that this makes clear is that the New Testament writers usurped Wisdom’s function and gave it to Jesus. The name of Wisdom was used by you men at the early Church gathering at Nicaea to try and explain how a ‘three persons in one’ related to the created world. You just conveniently forgot that Wisdom is female.
JOHN: My dear Sophilla, the spirit, as part of the trinity, is masculine. The parakletos, the comforter, the spirit, is of masculine gender. This is female bias gone mad!
ELIZ: I would remind you that the holy spirit was alive and active in the Old Testament, and the ruach, which is one of her names, is most definitely feminine gender in the language of Hebrew. The ruach elohim is literally the Spirit of God who descends on kings and prophets alike, anointing them for the role of leadership of the people. And the ruach is female!
Further, we find in the Hebrew scriptures the presence of two other figures: the Shekinah, also known as the glory of God, who always indicates God’s “presence”; and the bat kol, “the Daughter of the Voice,” which is how any proclamation made by God is described. Both of them are female characters. Every action of God in the ancient writings is feminine. What have you to say to that?
JOHN: What are you talking about, with bat kols and Shekinahs? These are not words I have heard; we did not discuss these at Nicea.
ELIZ: Let me spell it out for you then. The Hebrew word ruach means “spirit”, just as the Latin word spiritus means “spirit”; but in Hebrew, ruach is a feminine noun, while in Latin, spiritus is a masculine noun. The Holy Spirit changed its sex somewhere in the last few centuries!
Rabbi Hillel, who was a contemporary of Jesus, understood that the Hebrew understanding of Wisdom and Spirit was the same as the Greek understanding of the Logos, and therefore she was feminine. It was Paul and John who first claimed that the Word or Logos was Christ, and therefore masculine.
In the Eastern Church, the Spirit was always considered to have a feminine nature. She was the life-bearer of the faith. But instead of recognizing this feminine aspect of the divine, you have tried to satisfy women throughout the world by presenting them with models of martyrs and virgins, thereby setting a standard that no normal female can aspire to. You tried to turn Wisdom into the mother of Jesus, rather than seeing her as true divinity.
JOHN: You still haven’t explained what you mean by bat kol.
ELIZ: The bat kol, the ‘daughter of the voice’, was the voice of God that proclaimed God’s will and intention, God’s judgments and his promises, the warnings and commands of God to various people, sometimes even to all of Israel. Jewish tradition always spoke of the bat kol. And every time, she is a woman!
But later Christian writers have taken the bat kol and made her masculine! The ruach, the spirit of God, who descended from the heavens was changed into the pneuma, or spiritus, and made masculine. The qualities of Wisdom and the Shekinah were grafted onto Jesus – again the feminine became masculine. And the bat kol, the voice of God and the means of communication between God and the people, morphed into a male.
So you could say that all three ‘persons’ of this newly invented trinity were in fact, originally female. And did I mention that the bat kol is represented in Jewish tradition by the symbol of the dove?
Returning now to the 21st century: This view of the Trinity that we have presented today is not meant to discredit the traditional doctrine. On the contrary; what we hope to have done is to open up new possibilities for further exploration of the idea of the divine attributes and the different aspects of God. The trinity can be a stimulus for such exploration in our thinking about God, and how we experience God’s presence in our lives.
One important consequence of what we have noted today, is that instead of keeping this feminine aspect of the divine, early Christian male leaders have tried to satisfy women throughout the world by presenting them with models of martyrs and virgins, thereby setting a standard that the vast majority of females cannot aspire to.
Wisdom fast lost her independence and feisty nature, and the meek, obedient woman, characterized by the mother of Jesus, was held up as the model to which all women should strive to be.
It should be no surprise, then, that Christian faith is seen by some as being at odds with women who identify as feminist. Women are looking for new ways to know themselves and to connect with God.
So the Wisdom of scripture, who offers wise counsel, who offers an authentic feminine experience and interpretation of the divine, has grown more relevant to feminist Christian life. She reflects real women’s real experiences of community in the world, and the characteristics of justice, grace and love that can be said to be the preservers of community, a role most often occupied by women.
Unlike the virgin martyrs of early Christianity, Wisdom is a cosmic figure delighting in the dance of creation, a master craftswoman and teacher of justice. She is a leader of her people and accompanies them on their way through history. In a most unladylike way, she raises her voice in public places and calls everyone who would hear her. She transgresses boundaries, celebrates life, and nourishes those who will become her friends. Her cosmic house is without walls and her table is set for all.
Wisdom offers us a radical example, a subversive model, and a disturbing presence. She is not confined to a building, but is out there in the public space, meeting people where they are, and offering a spirituality of roads and journeys, of public places and open borders, of nourishment and celebration, of justice and equality – rather than a spirituality of categories, doctrines, systems and boxes that have come to categorise the Christian church. Instead of an enclosed gathering, she offers a space where social and spiritual change can take place.
It is a spirituality that offers connection and integration, rather than the separation and differentiation that has characterised patriarchal Christianity for centuries. As such, Wisdom spirituality has the potential to transform the church into a life-giving force in our community.
I trust we will continue to encounter Wisdom, and learn from her, again and again in the coming years.