Paths from Science towards God 11: Wisdom and Word – Images of Transcendence, Immanence and Incarnation

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 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 marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker (little child),
And I was daily his delight,
rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

Recent scholarship has revealed the Old Testament concept of ‘Wisdom’ to be particularly loaded with meaning. As is apparent in the above passage from Proverbs, Wisdom is tied to God’s act of creation, and is seen to have played a role in the creation of the Universe. It is ineffably linked to the ordering of the patterns of the world and has been viewed traditionally in Jewish thought as one of the ways in which God acts in the world. Yet Wisdom also exists within humanity, endowing humans with the understanding of the order and systems of the world – as described in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament – providing its readers with thoughtful instructions on living, based on the patterns observed in the world and in human society. Wisdom is thus intimately linked with God’s divine act of creation, yet is seen to permeate all of creation, including within humanity. The image is one of transcendence closely coupled with immanence.

The second image appears in the New Testament introduction to the Gospel of John. Logos – the Word – is understood by biblical scholars as a weaving together of two different concepts. The first is the Jewish idea of the Word of the Lord, as a representation of the will of God, comes from the context of Old Testament prophetic utterances as well as God’s act of creation; The second is the Logos of Stoic thought, representing the principle of rationality and reason present in humanity and the world. Also an image of transcendence and immanence…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

Scholars believe these two images are closely linked, especially in John’s gospel where the Word/Logos is seen to echo the Wisdom of the Old Testament. These images have both been used imaginatively and powerfully in the early church’s development of the theology of incarnation. In John’s gospel, this Word ‘became flesh’, and is embodied in the person of Jesus the Messiah. Paul refers to Jesus as the Wisdom of God. Jesus is thus also seen as the manifestation of the Wisdom of God in human form.

The doctrine of the incarnation of God in Christ began to emerge when the exalted Christ was spoken of in terms drawn from the Wisdom imagery of pre-Christian Judaism. ~ J. G. Dunn

It is widely agreed among New Testament scholars that there is a conflation in the Gospel of John between the idea of the ‘Word’, with its multiple meanings, and that of the divine ‘Wisdom’, with its rich fusion of meanings, in order to convey what Jesus the Christ had come to mean for his early witnesses and their successors. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God

These Jewish and early Christian imagery of a transcendent, immanent and incarnate God is compatible with panentheistic thought and our picture of the world as seen through science, according to Arthur Peacocke, while providing fresh insight into traditional trinitarian theology.

Indeed, our mode of exploration now takes the form not so much of discarding these classical formulations but rather reinhabiting them and giving them new nuances and reference. For Jews, Muslims and Christians, God is experienced as transcendent: as totally ‘other’; as the source and ground of all existing entities, structures and processes; as ineffable, whose nature is inherently inexpressible and beyond words. God is also experienced by them as immanent, closer to human beings than their own heartbeats, omnipresent in and to everything that is created. For Christian theists, God was also present in the historical Jesus of Nazareth, in whose teaching, life and self-abandoning death the character of God’s self-offering love was embodied and revealed. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God

I find this to be one of the most satisfying expressions of Christian Trinitarian theology I have ever come across.


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