“The Image of the Triune God”

When we think of “the story of creation” told in the Bible, we might not think of this one, at first: the story of creation as told by and from the perspective of Divine Wisdom, or as some people say, Woman Wisdom. It’s found in Proverbs 8. It’s one of the lectionary readings for today, Trinity Sunday, and we may hear why as we listen to it. We’ll also hear echoes of the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, and also echoes of the beginning of the gospel of John. Let’s Listen for the Word of God for us in Robert Alter’s translation of Proverbs 8:1-4, and 22-31 …

Look, Wisdom calls out,
   and Discernment lifts her voice.
At the top of the heights, on the way,
    at the crossroads, she takes her stand,
by the gates, at the city’s entrance,
    at the approach to the portals, she shouts:
To you, men, I call out,
    and my voice to humankind.

The HOLY ONE created me at the outset of His way,
    the very first of His works of old.
In remote eons I was shaped,
    at the start of the first things of earth.
When there were no deeps I was spawned,
    when there were no wellsprings, water sources.
Before mountains were anchored,
    before hills I was spawned.
He had yet not made earth and open land,
    and the world’s first clods of soil.
When He founded the heavens, I was there,
    when He traced a circle on the face of the deep,
when He propped up the skies above,
    when He powered the springs of the deep,
when He set to the sea its limit,
    that the waters not flout His command,
    when He strengthened the earth’s foundations.
And I was by Him, an intimate,
    I was His delight day after day,
    playing before Him at all times,
playing in the world, His earth,
    and my delight with humankind.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, trans. Robert Alter

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This text presents a real feast of images to our minds eye – which ones capture our imaginations? For William Blake, it was the image of God – whom he pictures as the Ancient of Days, with a long white beard, massive compass in hand – literally drawing that circle on the face of the deep …

Someone more modern than William Blake, and more mathematically or astrophysically inclined might envision galaxies swirling around or some of those pictures from the Hubble space telescope … or might have thought of fractals and chaos theory, which is honestly not that far-fetched.

“Circles Apophysis Fractal Flame,” I, Jonathan Zander, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Images of those dark watery deeps, that we also hear about in Genesis 1, might have crossed our minds; we might have imagined this earth God is creating being “without form and empty,” and the spirit of God, or a wind from God, hovering or blowing or sweeping across the face of the waters.

We might have imagined this Wisdom figure that way, or maybe we heard Wisdom speaking in the accents of the Word, the one the gospel of John tells us was there, in the beginning, and who was with God and who was God …

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The beautiful poetry of this text creates an aura of mystery, but it feels like a beautiful one, and it seems so full of joy and delight, clearly, it is meant to feel personal, and inviting. We get the impression that we could learn something about God by looking more deeply into creation – into the created world, even into humanity. And certainly that we could learn something about God by getting to know Wisdom a little better, paying some attention to all Wisdom’s calling and yelling and “hey, people, c’mon, listen to me!!”

This might be a good example of what John Calvin has in mind when he says that creation is “the theatre of God’s glory,” and Scripture is like the spectacles that teach us how to understand creation – which means, in this case, how to see the creative activity of God in it.

Some people undoubtedly take this a little too far, though. Scripture isn’t a microscope.

Scholars, for instance, have been intensely curious about who, exactly, the figure of Wisdom in these poetic speeches in Proverbs IS and how, exactly, this Wisdom is related to God. Experts on the wisdom literature and theologians both have published many, many articles and chapters and books on this specific text from Proverbs, devoted to answering that question, and debating the different answers people have come up with.

Is the book of Proverbs telling us Wisdom is “part of” God? Or is Wisdom here more like “a quality of” God, or an attribute? Or is Wisdom really “the Spirit of” God? Should we really call Wisdom divine, or not quite? Just how does this text fit into the Christian doctrine of the Trinity … or does it … or is it working its way toward that … ? People take these theological questions very seriously.

And scholars’ curiosity about Wisdom here is intensified, and also frustrated, because there is a word in this text that no one knows, really, how to translate.

When Wisdom says, in verse 30, that during all this incredible creative activity, “I was with him, ____” amon, that must have meant something to the author of Proverbs; but 2500 or so years later literally no one alive knows, for certain, what that word means. Whether, as the translation we used this morning has it, the word that labels Wisdom in verse 30 means something like “an intimate,” “a beloved,” “a darling child.” Or whether it means what the NRSV says it means, “a master builder,” “a master craftsman.”

Those are really different things, I think we would agree. Either one could fit in this context. Whichever one we think it is, it’s going to influence the image we have in our mind’s eye of what’s going on in this text. It would really help if we could compare some other places Biblical authors used the word, to see what it means there … but this is the only place this word occurs in the Hebrew Bible. So whether Wisdom calls herself “an intimate” or “a master architect” or kind of both or maybe even something we haven’t thought of yet, is a mystery right in this text itself.

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This seems to be a mystery we can live with. Calvin reminded people that Scripture, which he called “the school of the Holy Spirit, in which … nothing useful and necessary to be known has been omitted,” ALSO included “nothing … but what it is of importance to know.” (Calvin, Institutes, 3.21.3) – that is, in a sense, and to put it in contemporary terms, Scripture is like the quick-start manual for our cell phones, that tells us just enough to get them up and running, assuming we’ll learn more about them as we go.

Scripture doesn’t even include everything there is to know about the heavens and the earth, spelled out in precise detail. Even less does it tell us everything there is to know about God.

Calvin said that, as a matter of fact, in his introduction to his discussion of the Christian doctrine of predestination – but he could have said it about the doctrine of the Trinity.

Because one of the things the Christian doctrine of the Trinity does for us, really well, is to remind us that we do not know everything there is to know about God; and certainly that we cannot reduce God to a simple, logical formula, accompanied by a clearly-labeled diagram, or a nice, clear explanation that would work in a children’s message. There is a lot more to learn about God than we can get into a quick-start guide, or even, most likely, into our limited human minds.

Not that we don’t try to do that sometimes. But when it comes to the Trinity, I’m afraid we do so at our peril. Someone – I don’t remember who it was – said that all the heresies are, at their root, Trinitarian ones.

(The best infographic of the doctrine of the Trinity ever. Thanks, Theologygrams)

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The image that pops into my head when these theological questions come up, honestly, is an image of my daughter, waving her hands over her shoes.

My daughter joined our family when she was about 18 months old. So, she was already very alert and talkative, and she liked to do things for herself, as much as possible, as toddlers like to do. And one thing she did pretty often at the beginning was, she would bend down and wave her hands over her shoes.

This really puzzled me… until I finally realized … she was trying to tie her shoes! Or rather – she was trying to do what she thought we were doing, when we tied our shoes, which to her apparently looked like waving our hands, and then saying “OK, let’s go …” Because, after all, she was 18 months old, and she still had A LOT to learn about what really, precisely, tying her shoes was all about.

And when it comes to knowing about God, we are a lot like that little girl waving her hands over her shoes. We have a lot to learn.

Because after all, God exceeds and transcends all the limitations that affect us – God made the time, and space, and materiality that literally define what we know from our experience – so God is not limited by those things. And we can’t really begin to imagine what that means, literally. The best we can do is wave at it, by saying “God is beyond our comprehension,” or “God is a Mystery.”

Some of the very best information we have about God – the information we have in Scripture – Calvin (again) described as God “lisping” “with us as nurses are wont to do with little children” (Calvin, Institutes, 1.13.1) – he was especially talking about places in scripture where God is described as having hands and feet, for instance, or … like here … where God’s Wisdom is presented as speaking to us as a teacher … but the principle is a general one, that God gives us revelation in an age-appropriate, or human-appropriate, way.

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That kind of talk, talk about “not knowing” or “not being certain,” or even, about “only knowing things in a simplified way,” that kind of talk can make us a little nervous. Because we’d like to be more definite than that; we’d like to know the image of God we have in our minds is correct. Because we can imagine a lot of things about God, and many of them are downright terrifying.

And as anyone knows who has ever sat in a classroom, afraid to raise their hand, and praying the teacher won’t call on them, because they might not know the answer, or worse, give the wrong answer – being afraid does not help us learn.

This is why Wisdom in our text tries to encourage us; and why Calvin describes that School of the Holy Spirit as not leaving out anything we really need to know.

And it’s why Jesus tells the disciples “be not afraid.”

Which brings us to the main thing the Council of Nicea, the original authors of the church’s language about the Trinity, agreed that we really needed to know about the Triune God, which is … that in Jesus we have actually met God, that Triune One. We have met God, in Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ who is, as Paul said, the image of the invisible God – that very same incomprehensible Triune God; and who is, as John said, the Word of God, that mysterious One Triune One. And, we have met God in the Holy Spirit, who is the loving, enlightening presence of that very same Triune One, now with us, reminding us of who Jesus was, and is.

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So it’s true that we don’t know everything there is to know about God, it’s true we have a lot to learn about God, but that doesn’t mean we need to worry. We do know something. We do know, as Calvin said, what “is of importance to know.”

Because humanity has met God, in the person of Jesus Christ, and we know the God we have met in the person of Jesus Christ is the same one God who created the heavens and the earth, and all that is in it, including us, in God’s image. And our doctrine of the Trinity insists on that.

Jesus, a lot like Scripture, may not reveal to us all there is to know about God; but Jesus reveals what it’s most important for us to know about God: that God loves us, and redeems us, and wants us to feel safe enough around God to be able to learn more … even if we’re going to need eternal life to really get to know God, enough to enjoy God forever. Jesus tells us that life-giving friendship with God is possible, real, and free. That we can have that communion now, and always, through the Holy Spirit. That the Holy Spirit will lead us deeper and deeper into the Truth of the Life and the Love that God is.

All that is something essential for us to know about God that we know from Jesus. And I feel confident saying, about the doctrine of the Trinity, that it is our best effort at summing that up so that Christians can all agree on it.

Much like toddlers learning that there’s a lot more to tying our shoes than waving our hands, we still have a lot to learn about what it really means, concretely, day by day, in real life, in the 21st century, to be faithful to that God who is Love, whom we have met in Jesus Christ. But we know we can learn that, or at least can begin to learn that, because we know we can feel secure in God’s love while we’re learning all that.

And for now, on this Trinity Sunday, that’s plenty to know.

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“The shield of the Trinity”

Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker; “The Ancient of Days,” William Blake, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain; “Circles Apophysis Fractal Flame,” I, Jonathan Zander, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “The Perichoresis of Trinitarian Confusion,” Theologygrams; “The shield of the Trinity,” public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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painting open book chalice

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6 responses to ““The Image of the Triune God””

  1. Hi Heather – I don’t own Alter’s translation. But I take every opportunity to compare it with mine. How different they are. He misses the purchase and the libation in this text. I have illustrated it with the music – see this post. He puts a line return in verse 23. There are no pausal accents in this verse. The music is astonishing – a simple descent from the third to the tonic. g f# revia ,e – there are only two verses in Scripture that have this form of accentuation (the other is Psalms 76:5 Light-giving you are more excellent than mountains of prey).

    I love the shoe laces story. I have been writing letters to my children. I think you have figured out what to say to yours. I am still baffled by the troubles we all have to deal with.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Bob! I’m sorry it took so long for me to send you a note back – thanks for these comments, very much. Your grasp of these musicological (if that’s the right word …?) details continues to awe me. I would push back a little on the “purchase” … in that context, I think it’s tricky, eh! Also, theological. Way back, once, I had to translate this text, and I made it out to be “got” … I was rather proud of that, though I say it myself. Indeed … our children. I’m not sure I’ve figured out what to say to mine, but I have told her this story, which I cherish. Best wishes to you!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the reply. No problem with time :). Yes purchase is theological! My non-overlapping glosses for this root qnh are purchase, (72 times) livestock (61) calamus (32) buy (30) acquire (24) acquisition (14) bought (14) Qenah (a place – 5 times) acquisitiveness (1). It is half and half an economic domain except or animal / plant / location. (My letters probably reveal more of my limited theology than even my translation – Here is a preliminary copy in epub format – open in books on an Iphone if you have one or with any epub reader – I use calibre – for fun reading.)

        Here’s a bit of my letter on Glory – a dimension outside of space-time – just prior to the start… (I think you will recognize the dependence on Proverbs 8:

        Was there conversation – even if silent, within this God?

        ‘Let our glory be present into this potential in our hands’.

        And one fluctuation answers, ‘Let it indeed’.

        And the other says, ‘But what will we let loose?’

        And the other says, the communication being mediated by spirit, ‘Wisdom will find a way to its origin’.

        And the mediator responds, ‘Let such a pouring out come to birth. She will stand and call continuously, upright, without guile or deviousness.’

        And the original fluctuation agrees, ‘We will be in the whole effort. I buy this beginning of my way. Let it be.’

        (stenagmois .at. gmail dot com or @drmacdonald on Twitter)

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  2. PS. re the music – I have converted all the accents to a database so it is easy for me to look up the similar verses. Publicizing the music is the task assigned to me these past 12 years. It’s a long learning curve but very rewarding.

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