One of the challenges that people of faith face when attempting to talk about their experience of the divine is how to articulate their experience of God when the experience transcends traditional language for talking about God. This is the challenge that the early followers of Jesus faced as they attempted to use scripture to describe the experience of Jesus and his identity in relation to the God of Israel. One of the ways of talking about the identity of Jesus that would emerge as one of the important pieces of the early church’s discussion of what we call Christology (literally words about Christ but attempting to discuss the identity of Christ) was the idea of Christ being the wisdom of God.
The Wisdom of God in the Scriptures
In the Hebrew Scriptures and Apocrypha
Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures is personified in Proverbs 8-9 and is placed alongside the LORD the God of Israel in the act of creation:
The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding in water. Before the mountain had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth—when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race. Proverbs 8: 22-31
In Proverbs, the character of wisdom is a woman (and both the Hebrew Chokmah and the Greek Sophia which we translate as wisdom are grammatically feminine). Wisdom is portrayed as a ‘first creation’ of God and while a valued partner to God this personification of wisdom is not considered an equal to the creator, but rather a treasured servant who delights in the word of the LORD in creating the heavens and the earth. This woman Wisdom is prevalent in the book of Proverbs and then also appears in the Apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach:
She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well. I loved her and sought her from my youth; I desired to take her for my bride, and became enamored of her beauty. She glorifies her noble birth by living with God, and the Lord of all loves her. For she is an initiate in the knowledge of God, and an associate in his works. Wisdom 8: 1-4
Wisdom was created before all other things, and prudent understanding from eternity. The root of wisdom — to whom has it been revealed? Her subtleties — who knows them? 8 There is but one who is wise, greatly to be feared, seated upon his throne — the Lord. 9 It is he who created her; he saw her and took her measure; he poured her out upon all his works, Sirach 8: 4-9
The Wisdom of God in the New Testament
As the early followers of Jesus began to attempt to describe the identity of Jesus, they used the character of divine wisdom who was present in creation as a way of attempting to discuss the cosmic character of who Jesus was. The best know example is Colossians 1: 15-20
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. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
The linking of Jesus and Wisdom is also behind much of Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 1-2 and Matthew 11: 17 and its parallel in Luke 7: 35.
Wisdom and Logos
Philo of Alexandria, 20 BCE- 50 CE, a Jewish writer and thinker is credited with translating the Hebrew concept of divine Wisdom into the masculine idea of Logos (Word), a popular idea in Greek philosophy of the time. Logos and its linkage to the divine Wisdom’s part in creation stands behind the language of John 1:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. John 1: 1-4
Wisdom/Logos Divine Christology and the Early Church’s Struggle Over Christ’s Identity
As the early church encountered a philosophical culture of the Hellenistic (Greek speaking) world there was a desire to continue to refine how Jesus and the God of Israel (and eventually the Spirit of God) were related. As Christology was refined at the early church councils like Nicaea (CE 325) (where much of the Nicene creed is formulated particularly the language around Jesus the Son, final form is reached at the council of Constantinople in CE 381) and Chalcedon (CE 451) which demarcated the orthodox views of the early church that Christ was (in contrast to the followers of Arian) fully divine and not a ‘creature’ of God the Father and that Christ has a fully human and fully divine nature (in contrast to the ‘monophysites’ in 451) emerge out of this Greek philosophical world where the early church leaders worked. While these positions are using the best wisdom and language of the church in the fourth and fifth century and pull on the language of the scriptures it is also important not to impose on the writers of the New Testament these more philosophical views. The New Testament was written to answer the question of Christ’s identity to a predominantly Hebrew way of thinking which is more comfortable with linking Christ with the God of Israel without precisely determining the nature of that relationship.