Rufinus and Sophilla, on the Spirit, Wisdom, and the Trinity (Trinity Sunday Year C)

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.

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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.

Curiosity about the identity of Jesus, with the aid of the Holy Spirit and the biblical witness (for Trinity Sunday Year C)

This coming Sunday, we will be celebrating Trinity Sunday in worship, and hearing from biblical passages which our ancestors in the faith have assumed to provide some “biblical basis” for the Doctrine of The Trinity.

I’ve blogged before about my views on the Trinity (see “Do you believe in the Triune God?” – An Informed Faith (johntsquires.com) and The missional opportunity of Trinity Sunday – An Informed Faith (johntsquires.com)) … so this is lucky number three post about the three-in-one!!!

This year, I’ve been musing on the words of my colleague, the Rev. Dr Peter Walker (Principal of United Theological College in Sydney). Peter has contributed a fine set of commentaries and questions for the week leading up to this Sunday, for With Love to the World, a daily bible reading resource that I edit. In reflecting on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, Peter writes:

“The church has pursued its curiosity about the identity of Jesus, with the aid of the Holy Spirit and the biblical witness, for two-thousand years. John’s contribution is critical. With John’s help, the church has come to believe that the relationship of Jesus to the One who sent him is even deeper than what might be named as the sensitivity of a son or daughter to their father or mother. So, too, the relationship of the Spirit is more profoundly entwined to God than is captured by ‘Advocate’.”

I’m accepting of the notion that the way God relates to others—Jesus of Nazareth, the spirit of holiness, the woman of Wisdom (Prov 8, also offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday), and even to each and every human being—can’t be fully contained within one title or one phrase or even a single proposition. So we need multiple terms, multiple ways of envisaging how God relates to us, as well as to Jesus and Spirit, and shouldn’t be limited to just one way (or a small, finite set of ways) to describe that relationship.

Nevertheless, we have biblical passages that have been “used” throughout Christian history to provide the “building blocks” from scripture for the systems and doctrines that human beings have devised, over time, to explain and interpret the nature of God and the ways that God relates to us. So I think that it is incumbent upon us to deal with those scriptural passages in ways that are sensitive to the original intentions of the documents in which they appear, and cogniscent of the dangers of overwhelming these texts by placing upon them layer after layer of later speculative and systematising thoughts. 

I like the turn of phrase that Peter uses—our “curiosity about the identity of Jesus”—and have been thinking about how we might foster that curiosity, as we engage with the biblical texts that are offered—and perhaps, also, as we resist the path into an “easy acceptance” of what those who have gone before us have decided that these passages must mean.

I think Peter exemplifies very well this open attitude towards the biblical text, in dealing with John 16:12-15. He writes, “The phrase of Jesus in v.15a [“all that the Father has is mine”] is unconditional: all things of the Father, whatsoever, are also of the Son. The divine Word, born to flesh, is one with God. And the Spirit, whom Jesus says takes and declares ‘what is mine’ and therefore the Father’s (v.15), is also one with God. ‘Father’ is John’s preferred term for God, ‘son’ his preferred term for Jesus. This gendered, finite language is pushed to its limits, of course, in any attempt to describe the infinite glory of divine life.”

That last sentence identifies one of the critical issues relating to the notion of Trinity in our own times. The strongly-gendered language reflects the hegemony of patriarchal power in society, both at the time that the scriptural texts were being written, and in the centuries when “The Church Fathers” undertook the work of interpreting, collating, systematising, and theorising, in relation to the nature of God—to say nothing, of course, of the way that patriarchal dominance has continued into the 20th century, and has, in so many ways, resisted the challenges brought against it from the 1960s onwards into the 21st century. We need to recognise its limits and be willing to explore beyond those limits.

There is still work to be do to re-gender our language, both about God, and about us as human beings. There is work crying out to be done to deconstruct the patriarchal power structures of our times and, alongside that, to reconstruct an understanding of people, and of God, that is not limited, constrained, and diminished, by slavish adherence to language and concepts that held sway in past eras. If we really are in the post-Christendom era, as many now propose, then we need to be willing to enter into this process and to embrace the unexpected, challenging, and enlivening results that we will experience.

Peter concludes his comments on John 16: “Through Word and Spirit, divine life has and is unfolding among us and throughout the world while still enfolded, all the while, in the Creator. How fortunate we are to have the Spirit of truth as our guide as we seek to bear faithful witness to the wonder and work of God.” That might be the best gift that we have from our focus, this Sunday, on the Trinity: a deep and abiding awareness that our perception of “the divine life” is growing, deepening, expanding, transforming, as we faithfully undertake our witness to God, insofar as we know God, in our lives. 

We don’t have to rest content with the “God as Father” language, nor even with “Jesus as Son” (although his maleness is not in dispute). We don’t have to limit ourselves to the ten, or twelve, or 42, or however-many names of God we can discern within the Bible; nor do we have to limit our understanding of “the person and work of Jesus” to eight key Christological titles and seven main theories of the atonement (or whatever numbers we find to be relevant).

Our explorations can canvass both the various scriptural passages and the ongoing patristic and medieval and reformed and enlightenment and contemporary formulations of God as three-in-one and more … and canvass them in ways that uses them, not as limitations on what is approved or orthodox, but rather, as springboards to wider, creative, exploratory thinking.

So may that be our experience this Sunday, when “Trinity” swims into view in our worship services and bible readings.

*****

See also

50 Years of NAIDOC WEEK 5 (1998–2006)

John Howard came to power in 1996, after 13 years of Labor dominance under Hawke and Keating. We have already noted that the themes chosen for NAIDOC WEEK in the early Howard years, 1996 and 1997, were both incisive comments about our public life.

See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/03/50-years-of-naidoc-week-4-1991-1997/

The themes that followed in the Howard years continued this stance of naming key issues from an indigenous perspective.

1998: Bringing Them Home

1999: Respect

2000: Building Pride in Our Communities

2001: Treaty—Let’s Get It Right

2002: Recognition, Rights and Reform

2003: Our Children Our Future

2004: Self-determination—Our Community—Our Future—Our Responsibility

2005: Our Future Begins with Solidarity

2006: Respect the Past—Believe in the Future

In his overview of indigenous affairs during the period of the Howard Government, Dr John Gardiner-Garden notes a cluster of immediate changes made by the incoming Howard government—changing terminology, withdrawing support from established initiatives, applying economic markers to the outcomes desired, amending the Native Title Act, and reducing funding to ATSIC (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission). See https://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/bn/1011/indigenousaffairs2#_Toc295218057

Over the ensuing decade, Gardiner-Garden notes that “perceived inactions on reconciliation and in responding to the rhetoric of the new One Nation Party placed a strain on relations with the Indigenous community”, and records a series of decisions and actions which provided ongoing concern within Aboriginal communities: the ultimate demise of ATSIC, the attempt to establish a Special Auditor “to make a determination on whether a prospective grantee was ‘not fit and proper’ to receive public money”, a contentious Ten Point Plan to deal with the Wik decision, alterations to the Native Title Act which were seen as racially discriminatory, a Racial Hatred Act (1996) which fell short of many provisions that had been requested, and finally the Northern Territory Emergency Response, more widely known as The Intervention.

This latter event was applied to 73 Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory, and involved withholding 50% of welfare payments from Indigenous welfare recipients—-bans on alcohol and pornography—-increased police presence in Aboriginal communities—-compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children—-and the power for government to take possession of Aboriginal land and property.

The Intervention was a highly controversial policy, with many Aboriginal leaders speaking out against it.

There was some support within the Australian Indigenous community as well as beyond it. Australians Together report that “two of Australia’s most influential Indigenous academics and leaders, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton, supported several of the more controversial aspects of the Intervention.”

See https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/the-wound/the-intervention/#Interventionreference1a

The Intervention, however, is viewed by most Aboriginal people as yet another instance of white colonial supremacy over blacks. It is perhaps appropriate, then, for this blog to go live on 10 June, which was the day that the infamous Myall Creek Massacre took place, in 1838. This event has come to be a symbol of all that has been wrong about the way that the invading British colonisers treated the indigenous peoples who had been the continuous inhabitants of the land “since time immemorial”.

Creative Spirits describes the 1838 event as follows: “12 heavily armed colonists rounded up and brutally kill 28 Aboriginal people from a group of 40 or 50 people gathered at Henry Dangar’s Station, at Myall Creek near Inverell (NSW). The massacre was believed to be a payback for the killing of several hut keepers and two shepherds. But most of those killed were women and children and good relations existed between the Aboriginal people and European occupants of the station. Seven stockmen are eventually hanged for murder. This outrages the colonial press and parts of the public who cannot understand why anyone should hang for murdering Aboriginal people.”

See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/australian-aboriginal-history-timeline/massacres

The Myall Creek Massacre Memorial

A pivotal event took place in 1997, when Prime Minister Howard addressed the Australian Reconciliation Convention, a forum for Australians to discuss Indigenous issues. The conference drew widespread participation, but was overshadowed by the controversy that Howard generated in his opening address on 27 May 1997.

Howard said: In facing the realities of the past, […] we must not join those who would portray Australia’s history since 1788 as little more than a disgraceful record of imperialism […] such an approach will be repudiated by the overwhelming majority of Australians who are proud of what this country has achieved although inevitably acknowledging the blemishes in its past history.

The reference to “blemishes” in Australia history was an incendiary remark. Indigenous delegates who were listening to the lecture stood up and turned their backs on the Prime Minister.

Delegates at the 1997 Reconciliation Convention,
upset by the speech of Prime Minister John Howard,
stand and turn their backs to him

It was a shameful moment, a deliberate aggravation by the elected leader of the First Peoples present. The 1997 theme, Gurindji, Mabo, Wik—Three Strikes for Justice—Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, offered a striking rejoinder to the mean-spirited assessment of the Prime Minister (see previous post).

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In 1998, the theme for NAIDOC WEEK was equally striking. It was a direct reference to the landmark report on the stolen generations which had been issued in April 1997 by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The report was entitled Bringing Them Home, and that exact phrase was used for the NAIDOC WEEK theme in 1998: Bringing Them Home.

Sir Ronald Wilson, former High Court justice and the President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission at that time, had led the National Inquiry along with Mick Dodson, the Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner. They heard testimony directly from 535 people and read a further 600 submissions that had been made. Wilson stated that they encountered “hundreds of stories of personal devastation, pain and loss. It was a life-changing experience.”

The report, entitled Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, estimated that “between 1910 and 1970, up to 100,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and put in white foster homes”. The commissioners found that this was in breach of international law, and called for a national compensation fund to be established. They also recommended a national “sorry day”; the first one was held in 1998 and this has remained an annual fixture of growing significance to Aboriginal Australians.

Creative Spirits offers an excellent overview of the issues associated with the Aboriginal people who had formed what became known as “the stolen generations”; see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/stolen-generations/a-guide-to-australias-stolen-generations

They also have a comprehensive cataloguing of the impacts that being removed from your family home as a child can have on such children, running throughout their lives and on into subsequent generations; see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/stolen-generations/stolen-generations-effects-and-consequences

The response of the Howard Government to this report was jarring: Howard refused to make a public apology to “the stolen generations”. Apologies were made by the governments of South Australia (May 1997), Western Australia (May 1997), the Australian Capital Territory (June 1997), New South Wales (June 1997), Tasmania (August 1997), Victoria (September 1997), Queensland (May 1999), and the Northern Territory (October 2001), as well as a number of local governments and churches across the country.

The texts of the above apologies can be found at https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/bringing-them-home-apologies-state-and-territory-parliaments-2008

The Howard Government did not offer a formal apology; instead, they brought a motion to the Parliament in 1999 which expressed “deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations”, noting “the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices”.

The government described this intentional, systemic, multi-generational mistreatment of Indigenous Australians as the “

“most blemished chapter” in Australian history. The understatement of this language (“regret” rather than “sorry” or “apology”; “blemish” rather than “systemic injustice”, for instance) reflected the conservative white preference for minimising—or perhaps removing from sight—the story of Aboriginal people in recent centuries.

Subsequent NAIDOC WEEK themes would speak back to this inadequate and insulting governmental response.

*****

In 1999, the theme was Respect: Show Some, Earn Some. This was a plea to provide what many Aboriginal people had felt had been missing over the decades: respect.

In 2000, the theme was Building Pride in Our Communities. This connected back with earlier themes in which community had been a motif. It also offered an encouragement to Aboriginal people, to be proud of who they are and what they have to offer.

2000 was the year when hundreds of thousands of people “walked for reconciliation”, a strong statement of the popular support that existed for clear action in the way that Aboriginal and Islander people are treated. The most memorable walk was across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 28 May 2000, when a quarter of a million people (250,000 people) walked across the bridge.

See https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/walk-for-reconciliation

*****

For the centenary of Australia as a nation, the theme for 2001 was Treaty—Let’s Get It Right. This was another strong statement to government and public intransigence in the face of a growing recognition that the situation of Indigenous peoples was damaged by injustice upon injustice.

The history of seeking a treaty reveals stalled attempts, negative responses, and inaction by various governments. In 1979, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank, ‘Nugget’ Coombs, had convened a number of prominent non-Aboriginal Australians, working towards the implementation of a Treaty with Aboriginal peoples.

In 1981, the Fraser Government responded by rejecting the notion that a Treaty was needed. Treaties, it was said, are concluded between separate sovereign nations; the Aboriginal people were not a nation with which a treaty could be concluded.

In 1983, the National Aboriginal Conference proposed that, rather than a single national treaty, each individual Aboriginal nation might negotiate its own treaty or agreement. By 1987, the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, had signalled a willingness to produce some form of agreement for the Bicentenary of 1988. The Barunga Statement was presented to him in June 1988, but no action ensued.

By 1991, a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation had been formed. In 1996, iconic rock band Yothu Yindi released their single, Treaty, which peaked at number 11 on the Australian charts and number 6 internationally. But no action followed. By the end of the decade, Prime Minister Howard had definitively rejected any notion of a treaty, because “it implies that we are two nations; and we are not, we are one nation”. Thus, the 2001 theme of Treaty—Let’s Get It Right was a clear political statement.

For the history of discussions and proposals relating to a treaty, see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/selfdetermination/treaty-timeline-events-from-1835-to-today?page=2

On what is involved in such a treaty, see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/selfdetermination/what-is-a-treaty

*****

In the following years, the NAIDOC WEEK themes referenced familiar motifs.

For 2002, the theme continued the explicit political plea of 2001, with the triple alliteration of Recognition, Rights and Reform. In 2003, the theme of Our Children Our Future looked back to earlier themes.

In 2004, the theme had four parts: Self-determination—Our Community—Our Future—Our Responsibility. The poster had a striking indigenous image set within a pair of cupped brown hands.

The 2005 theme, Our Future Begins with Solidarity, reinforced once more the importance of working together, both within the Aboriginal community as a whole, and also with white allies in the wider Australian society.

*****

Perhaps the theme for 2006, Respect the Past—Believe in the Future, was chosen with an eye to the prevailing “black armband” view of history that had been actively prosecuted in the so-called “history wars” during the Howard years.

The “black armband view of history” had been first suggested by historian Geoffrey Blainey in a public lecture he gave in 1993. A series of polemic interactions from historians and commentators ensued over the next decade, fuelled by comments made by John Howard in a 1996 lecture, soon after he had been elected Prime Minister.

Mr Howard asserted that “the ‘black armband’ view of our history reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.”

Howard continued, “I believe that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement and that we have achieved much more as a nation of which we can be proud than of which we should be ashamed. In saying that I do not exclude or ignore specific aspects of our past where we are rightly held to account. Injustices were done in Australia and no-one should obscure or minimise them. … But … our priority should … [be] to commit to a practical program of action that will remove the enduring legacies of disadvantage.”

The transcript of the lecture is at https://web.archive.org/web/20110727080235/http://www.menzieslecture.org/1996.html

This Prime-Ministerial advocacy added fuel to the fire raging in the debate. It was countered by the patient work of Henry Reynolds in advocating honesty in the public discourse about “The Frontier Wars”, a term which has come into popular usage to describe the series of aggressive engagements and terrible massacres that took place from early in the years of British colonisation, through into the 20th century.

Respect the Past—Believe in the Future was a fine and suitable theme to highlight in 2006. The theme for the following year built on this with its reference to Looking Forward, Looking Blak.

The Paraclete as a “replacement Jesus” and the Doctrine of the Trinity (John 16; Trinity Sunday, Year C)

This coming Sunday is designated as Trinity Sunday. It’s an unusual occurrence, for two reasons. First, it’s the only time in the Christian calendar that a Sunday is named for a doctrine, rather than for a biblical story. And second, it is unusual in that it presents problems for the shapers of the lectionary, since (in my view) the Doctrine of the Trinity is not actually proclaimed in the biblical texts.

Yes, there are passages that canvass some aspects of the Doctrine—how the Son relates to the Father, what is the essential character of God, how the Spirit was experienced and understood, and how Son and Spirit might relate. But there is no biblical passage which articulates the full scope of the Doctrine of the Trinity: God is three, God is one, Father, Son, and Spirit, consubstantial, co-eternal, while unending ages run (as it were).

That’s quite understandable, since the full expression of this Doctrine took a number of centuries to develop, after the period in which the texts of the New Testament were written. If the latest NT text comes from the end of the first century, the earliest form of the Doctrine of the Trinity is found in the Apostles’ Creed, adopted by the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, and a more fulsome and complex form is to be found in the Nicene Creed, adopted by the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE.

So we should not expect the lectionary to provide any texts which set out the Doctrine of the Trinity. What we do find, however, is that certain texts are offered, in which some, or all, of the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit—are in view.

In fact, two texts name all three persons in a quasi-formulaic way: the benediction at the close of 2 Corinthians 13, and final words of Jesus in Matthew 28. Indeed, these two passages are set for Trinity Sunday in the first of the three years of the lectionary, Year A. Associated with these two passages is a text that expounds something of the nature of one of these persons, God the Creator, in Genesis 1.

In Year B, two texts are offered which focus somewhat on the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit: Romans 8, where Paul wrestles with the role of the Sprit, and John 3, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, which includes reference to the Spirit. The Hebrew Scripture offering in Year C draws from the wonderful depiction of Wisdom in Proverbs 8; while the epistle in Year C, from Romans 5, appears to be included because it manages to refer to each of the three person of the Trinity within the space of five verses.

The Gospel offered in Year C (the current year) is just a short section (John 16:12–15) from the last chapter in the lengthy “farewell discourses” of Jesus (chs. 14–16), which John reports as being given to the disciples at the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers (from 13:1 onwards). It contains the fourth of four brief references in these “farewell discourses” to the Spirit, identified as “the Spirit of truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13), the parakletos (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7) and “the Holy Spirit” (14:26).

These passages are considered to provide some biblical material for the Doctrine of the Trinity relating specifically to the third person, the Holy Spirit. In particular, I am interested in how the Spirit is defined in relation to the other two persons of the Trinity.

There are three ways in which the Spirit is defined in relation to Jesus. First, the Spirit is identified as a parakletos—a word with multiple translation options. It could mean one who advocates for, one who provides counsel, one who offers help, or one who gives comfort.

See https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/07/the-paraclete-in-john-15-exploring-the-array-of-translation-options/

Whatever option we take in translating this word, it is striking that Jesus says that the main role of the Spirit (at least as we encounter the explanation in this gospel) is to be “another parakletos” (14:16). The implication is that Jesus himself has been a parakletos—an implication that is confirmed when we read the statement in 1 John, that “we have a parakletos with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1–2).

This first statement about the Spirit thus places the Spirit in the position that Jesus had whilst living in human form amongst the people of Israel. The Spirit is the present manifestation of the role that Jesus of Nazareth had all those centuries ago. The Spirit is, in effect, a “replacement Jesus”.

Indeed, this is strengthened by the affirmation that this figure will “abide with you … and be in you”, precisely the same terminology used of Jesus in the earlier parable of the vine (“abide in me and I abide in you”, 15:4) and in the final prayer that Jesus prays before his arrest (“may [they] be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one”, 17:22–23]). The reality of the presence of the Spirit is the same as the reality of the presence of Jesus when he was with the disciples.

This idea is confirmed by the second statement about the parakletos, who is the one “whom the Father will send in my name” (14:26), the one “whom I will send to you from the Father” (15:26). Indeed, Jesus makes it clear that “if I do not go away, the parakletos will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7). This seems to suggest that the Spirit is unable to take up the role assigned to it until Jesus has departed from his followers—the Spirit is a “replacement Jesus”.

Indeed, at an earlier point in the narrative, on “the last day of the festival, the great day” (7:37; the festival referred to was Booths, 7:2), Jesus was speaking about the Spirit, and portraying the “rivers of living water” that the Spirit would give, as something still to come. The narrator informs us that he was speaking “about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (7:37–39).

This, of course, is directly contradicted by the many references in Hebrew Scripture to the activity of the Spirit in Israel (Gen 1:1–2; Job 33:4; Ps 104:30; Isa 42:5, 44:3, 48:16, 59:21, 61:1, 63:11–14; Num 11:16–17; Deut 34:9; 1 Sam 10:6, 19:23–24; Ezek 37:1; Joel 2:28–29). Nevertheless, the definitive arrangement of things that is held to quite firmly in the book of signs, is that the Spirit comes only after Jesus has returned to the Father.

The language of sending is used frequently in the fourth Gospel, in describing the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Father is regularly described as the one who sent the Son (3:34; 4:34; 5:23, 30; 6:29, 39, 44, 57; 7:16, 18, 28–29, 33; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; etc). In the final prayer of Jesus, the Father is “him who sent me” (17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25). Amongst the final words of the risen Jesus, we hear Jesus say again, “as the Father has sent me” (20:21).

So, when Jesus refers to the parakletos as the one “whom the Father will send in my name” (14:26), he is reinforcing the notion that the Spirit is the “replacement Jesus”. This is further strengthened by the affirmation that the parakletos will “teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (14:26). The language of teaching also recalls a key function of Jesus, who “went up into the temple and began to teach” (7:14), who “sat down and began to teach” the people in the temple (8:2), who characterises his ministry as “I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together” (18:20).

Further, Jesus describes the role of the parakletos as “he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:15). Jesus has already declared that “my teaching is not mine but his who sent me” (7:16) and “the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me” (14:24); now he passes that divinely-given material on to the parakletos, clearly stating that “he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:14–15). The teaching function that the parakletos performs is to replicate the teaching role that Jesus has already enacted.

The content of the teaching provided by the parakletos is also evocative of the teaching that Jesus has provided. The parakletos will teach “about sin and righteousness and judgment” (16:8, expanded in 16:9–11). In relation to sin, what Jesus does as “the lamb of God” is to “take away the sin of the world” (1:29); he provides freedom from the slavery of sin (8:34–36), and the final commission that he gives his disciples (who are sent just as he has been sent) is to decree that they have the authority of grant forgiveness of sins (20:23).

Likewise, in relation to judgement, Jesus has stated, “as I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (5:30), and again, “even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me” (8:16)—although later, Jesus asserts that “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge” (12:47–48).

Thus, as the parakletos teaches about sin, and about judgement, the teachings of Jesus on these matters are repeated. (On the matter of righteousness—apart from a single reference to God as “righteous Father”, 17:25—this Gospel is silent.) Again, we see that the parakletos is a “replacement Jesus”.

Finally, the distinctive term used in this Gospel to describe the Spirit, “the Spirit of truth”, also reinforces this way of viewing the relationship between the Son and the Spirit. The Johannine Jesus is “the Word became flesh” who “lived among us … full of grace and truth” (1:14). It is through Jesus Christ that “grace and truth came” (1:17). Jesus describes himself to the leaders in Jerusalem as “a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God” (8:40), and to the Roman Governor, Pilate, he declares, “for this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (18:37).

So Jesus tells his followers that “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (8:31–32), and even affirms unreservedly that “I am the truth” (14:6). Again, the language applied to the Spirit links in with key terminology that describes Jesus and his role. The Spirit of truth now teaches “the truth that will make you free”, that the one who is the truth had taught.

Finally, it is noteworthy that nowhere in the book of signs is there any direct statement about the relationship between Father and Sprit. Although Jesus states that “God is spirit” (4:24), the relationship is always, apparently, mediated through the Son: the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the parakletos; the Son teaches what the Father provides, the parakletos continues the teaching of Jesus; the Father incarnates the Word “in truth”, the Son teaches and is “the truth”, so the Spirit is named as “the Spirit of truth”.

In summary, the relationship between Son and Spirit reads to me as a quite hierarchical style of relationship—not at all a relationship of equals who abide in each other, who are of the same nature and share the same substance with one another, who exist co-eternally and inherit co-equally. Indeed, in the relationship between Father and Spirit/Parakletos, there is no direct link, as there is in the classic Doctrine of the Trinity; all is mediated through the Son, as we have seen. The fourth Gospel offers a different, distinctive—we might even say, unorthodox—theology of Father, Son, and Spirit/Parakletos.

The Trinity is a complex idea, a doctrine with many subsets and dimensions and component parts. Although there are passages in scripture which many say point to this doctrine, nevertheless gaining a full understanding of this doctrine really means entering into the world of metaphysics, philosophy, and linguistics of a later age.

All of this is beyond the capacity of the lectionary to provide, nor can it be done in a relatively brief reflection time within a Sunday worship service—and it runs the risk of charging away from the world of ideas in which the biblical texts were written, and opening up the danger of imposing later ideas, anachronistically, onto those texts.

The little passage from the Gospel of John that we encounter in the lectionary this coming Sunday actually points us in quite another direction!

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50 years of NAIDOC WEEK 4 (1991–1997)

Today, 3 June, we remember the day in 1992 that the legal case brought by Eddie (Koiki) Mabo was decided by the Australian High Court. The court effectively recognised the existence of Native Title rights and rejected the concept of terra nullius, which claimed Australia was a land belonging to no-one prior to British occupation. The judgement opened the way for the passing of the Native Title Act in 1993.

See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/native-title

This decision of the High Court was one of the highlights in the area of indigenous affairs during the period that Paul Keating led the federal government. The Mabo case was decided just six months after Keating had become Prime Minister (in December 1991).

The other highlight was the powerful speech that Keating delivered a year later, in December 1992, which is known as the Redfern Speech. In this speech, Keating acknowledged the role played in destroying the culture of the First Peoples by those who invaded and colonised the continent in the early decades of British settlement.

Paul Keating delivers the Redfern Speech in December 1992

“The problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians”, he declared. “It was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice.”

See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/paul-keatings-redfern-speech

It was a searing recognition of the multitude of ways in which white Australian society had impacted the long-established cultures of the First Peoples; a recognition of the complicity of white Australia in the devastation of black Australians. It was a clear step beyond anything articulated in public in previous years.

In assessing the period when the Keating Government was in power, Dr John Gardiner-Garden began by referencing Keating’s Redfern speech of December 1992, as well as “his government’s decision to set up a national inquiry into the separation of Indigenous children”. Keating “sought to encourage recognition of past injustices. In his government’s native title and land fund legislation and proposed ‘Social Justice Package’ he sought to advance the process of making amends for the disregard of Indigenous common law rights which the 1992 Mabo judgement had found to have occurred.”

See https://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/bn/1011/indigenousaffairs2#_Toc295218057

During the years that the Keating Government was in power, the following themes were chosen for each year of NAIDOC WEEK:

1991: Community is Unity—Our Future Depends On Us

1992: Maintain the Dreaming—Our Culture is Our Heritage

1993: Aboriginal Nations—Owners of the Land Since Time Began—Community is Unity

1994: Families Are the Basis of Our Existence—Maintain the Link

1995: Justice Not Tolerance

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In 1991, the focus on community in the theme, Community is Unity—Our Future Depends On Us, echoed the earlier themes that referred to community: talking together in the 1983 theme, Let’s talk—we have something to say; seeking understanding in the 1985 theme, Understanding: it takes the two of us; and working towards peace in the 1986 theme, Peace, not for you, not for me, but for all of us. The theme also had a future orientation, expressing hope for what might lie ahead for Aboriginal people: Our Future Depends On Us. That “us” clearly included white and black together, working in common in community.

The 1992 theme, Maintain the Dreaming—Our Culture is Our Heritage, looked back just a couple of years, to the 1990 theme, Don’t Destroy, Learn and Enjoy our Cultural Heritage, and to the 1988 theme, Recognise and Share the Survival of the Oldest Culture in the World. It also referenced the 1978 theme, Cultural Revival is Survival. All four years focussed attention on the long-exisiting culture that was maintained and passed on by indigenous peoples around the continent.

In addition, the 1992 theme included a reference to Dreaming; this is a term, somewhat contentious amongst First Nations people, which has nevertheless seen widespread acceptance and adoption in the wider Australian society. It is generally understood to be a way to refer to the collection of stories that form the foundational mythology of Aboriginal peoples.

Reconciliation Australia, on its website shareourpride.org.au, states that “it is impossible to find words that adequately capture this core element of who we are but it’s something you feel when you sit with us on our country and hear our stories with an open mind and heart.”

The website affirms that “Dreaming is more than a mythical past; it prescribes our connection as Aboriginal people with the spiritual essence of everything around us and beyond us. Dreaming stories are not in the past, they are outside of time – always present and giving meaning to all aspects of life.”

See https://www.shareourpride.org.au/sections/our-culture/index.html

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The 1993 theme, Aboriginal Nations—Owners of the Land Since Time Began—Community is Unity, incorporated three distinct phrases. The final phrase looked back by incorporating one phrase of the 1991 theme, Community is Unity. However, the full theme included a clear reference to the struggle that had culminated in the 1992 Mabo decision. It identified Aboriginal people as Owners of the Land Since Time Began. This was the principle underlying the High Court’s Mabo decision, and which then enabled the development of the Native Title Act of that year (1993).

Furthermore, the 1993 theme included a clear declaration that Aboriginal people had not simply been “one nation” before British invasion and settlement commenced in 1788; the reference to the plural, Aboriginal Nations, was highly strategic. It had been the custom in the 19th and 20th centuries for Aboriginal people to be described and treated as a single cultural and historical unit.

By contrast, today, two decades into the 21st century, the claim made by the 1993 theme is widely accepted and commonly spoken. British settlers have dispossessed people from well over 250 different nations right across the continent and its associated islands. The clearest example of this recognition is the map published by the government agency AIATSIS (the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies).

On a website explaining this map, AIATSIS explains that it “attempts to represent the language, social or nation groups of Aboriginal Australia. It shows only the general locations of larger groupings of people which may include clans, dialects or individual languages in a group.”

The map presents a clear lesson in a graphic manner: there were many, many nations across the continent prior to 1788.

See https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/map-indigenous-australia

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The NAIDOC WEEK themes of the next two years continued to articulate core beliefs within Aboriginal culture. The 1994 theme, Families Are the Basis of Our Existence—Maintain the Link, alluded to the 1979 theme, What about our kids?, and would provide a prophetic looking-forward to the key findings of the Bringing Them Home report issued just a few years later, in 1997.

The 1995 theme, Justice Not Tolerance, was a plea to move beyond ideas of merely tolerating indigenous people, and adopt the principles of justice that would see them treated equitably, with wrongs righted and reparations made for past errors.

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In March 1996, John Howard’s Liberal Party, in coalition with the National Party, was elected, and formed a government that lasted for the next 11 years. The 1996 and 1997 themes for NAIDOC WEEK continued to provide sharp insights into what was needed in Australian society, even with a more conservative government at the helm. In 1996, the theme was Survive—Revive—Come Alive.

In 1997, the theme was equally pointed, as it,celebrated the 30th anniversary of the 1967 referendum,

Dr John Gardiner-Garden notes the many retrograde steps taken by the new Howard Government: they “dropped the terms ‘social justice’ and ‘self-determination’, withdrew support from many of the initiatives and institutions for which these terms were the raison-d’etre and declared its new priorities to be ‘accountability’, ‘improving outcomes in key areas’ and ‘promoting economic independence’.”

He furthered noted that “Government actions such as creating a Special Auditor, reducing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) funding, amending the Native Title Act and perceived inactions on reconciliation and in responding to the rhetoric of the new One Nation Party placed a strain on relations with the Indigenous community.”

See https://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/bn/1011/indigenousaffairs2#_Toc295218057

The three events referenced in the 1997 theme, Gurindji, Mabo, and Wik, were pivotal moments in the advancement of Aboriginal claims in the 20th century.

The Gurindji Strike of 1966 was led by Vincent Lingiari. A protest against the Wave Hill station managers resulted in the return of some traditional lands to the Gurindji people under a lease arrangement in 1975, and later led to the granting of inalienable freehold title to this area in 1984.

In the Mabo decision of the High Court, handed down on 3 June 1992, the court recognised the land rights of the Meriam people. They were the traditional owners of some islands in the Torres Strait. Marked on the map as the Murray Islands, the Torres Strait Islanders called these islands Mer, Dauer and Waier). The case is significant because it rejected the view that at the time of colonisation, Australia was terra nullius, or land belonging to no one.

The case had initially been brought in 1982 by five indigenous people. Because Eddie Koiki Mabo was the first plaintiff in the case, it became known as the Mabo Case. In its judgement, the High Court acknowledged that “Indigenous peoples had lived in Australia for thousands of years and enjoyed rights to their land according to their own laws and customs.” See https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/mabo-case

On Eddie Mabo, see https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/eddie-koiki-mabo#toc-the-mabo-case

The Wik judgement of 1996 built on the basis of the Mabo decision. The case related to the right to hold native title in an area where there were pastoral,leases in place. By a majority of 4–3, the High Court agreed that the pastoral leases did not extinguish the native title of the Wik and Tahyorre people of Cape York.

Sadly, the remembering of these three key events during the early years of the retrogressive Howard government, strikes a note of pathos. These advances were not built on by the Howard government. In the ensuing decade, due to the intransigence of the government, things would actually go backwards.

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