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Feminist Theology Examined
Sophia and the Bible

by John Oswalt


The recent proceedings at the "Re-Imagining" Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, have been a cause of great concern throughout the mainline denominations. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the gathering was the worship and adoration paid to Sophia. In their desire to educate the attendees the propagators of this form of worship have put forward several theologically unsound concepts. At their roots, these propositions are a reflection of feminist theology, and as such, deserve our critical investigation.

Unfortunately, the feminist theological view cannot be called a valid interpretation of biblical intent, because it refuses at the outset to let the Bible say what it will from within its own self-understanding. The feminist interpretation focuses not so much on what the biblical text says, but upon what it might have said if certain things included in the text were not in the text, and if certain things which are not in the text were in it.

The new teachings about Sophia are not the result of scholarly and objective look at Christian doctrine. They are an attempt by persons who have rejected the biblical teachings about Christ to remain within the "Christian" Church. Susan Cady, a UM minister and co-author of Wisdom's Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration, asked herself a very interesting question as she celebrated communion one day. She asked: "What am I doing? Celebrating the experience of some man? What does He have to do with me?" Later that same week Cady wrote about a vision of Sophia, peering through the window of a door and calling to her, "What are you afraid of anyway? Do you think I care about your old theology? Do you think I care what name you name me?" When you are dealing with this kind of rationale, argumentation is of little use.

The feminist outlook makes a very selective use of biblical evidence to support its case that there is a warrant for the Christian worship of a goddess called "Sophia." Furthermore, a good deal of the argumentation consists of conjectures about what the Bible might have said about the goddess if certain conjectured developments had taken place. In other words, we very frequently find a conjecture resting upon conjectures which rest upon still others.

It has been asserted that the personalization of wisdom is a prominent feature of the "Old Testament." In fact, the only place in the entire Old Testament where wisdom is personified is in three passages in the early chapters of Proverbs, where the personalization is heavily qualified by the context. The chief support for the theory is actually drawn from the apocryphal books of Baruch, Sirach, and Eccleasiasticus, which the Jewish community never accorded canonical authority. Yet many feminist scholars have chosen to gloss over this very important fact. They then proceed to use the phraseology "Old Testament" to include the Apocrypha, with the result being that uninformed audiences are misled into believing that the canonical Old Testament contains a significant number of these instances of personalization. This is not responsible use of data.

When it comes to the actual biblical statements, feminist scholars show a distressing tendency to assign meaning without paying adequate attention to context, whether within the passage or around it. This is especially true with regard to the Proverbs passages. For instance, hokma, "wisdom," is regularly treated as a synonym of "understanding" and "discretion." It is perfectly clear in this context that these latter two words are not proper nouns and that therefore "wisdom" is not either. This setting tells us that, far from declaring that the Jews believed in the existence of a goddess named Hokma, the passages are personalizing an abstract concept for the purposes of impact. Attention to these and other clues within the Proverbs passages themselves makes it abundantly clear that the literary device of personification is being used and that no statement about divine personages is intended.

This contention is further strengthened by a study of chapters 1-8 of Proverbs in the light of chapter 31 and the entire book. Such a study shows that the purpose of the book is to attribute wisdom to the kind of a wife who if clung to faithfully, will build up her husband; and folly to an adulteress who promises everything, asking nothing while actually taking everything and giving nothing. Far from speaking about a Hebrew goddess who can give credence to the agenda of 20th Century western feminism, these chapters are urging us to cling to the accumulated principles for living which the book contains just as one would cling to a spouse who will do nothing but good for her mate.

These scholars completely ignore this contextual shaping of the materials and thus produce an interpretation which is totally at odds with the book; or, if the contextual shaping is finally addressed (as in the previous paragraph), they swiftly categorize that understanding with a hotly pejorative "sexist" label. They then undertake a convoluted consideration of the possible social context of wisdom literature to explain how this unfortunate condition could have come to exist. But their own research concludes that it is impossible to determine why the supposed goddess might appear in such a setting. It hardly warrants mentioning that if feminists had paid adequate attention to the context in the first place, the hypothetical goddess would never have appeared and would need no explanation.

Furthermore, there is a tendency among these scholars to read much more into a statement than plain sense will bear. Several cases in point appear in Proverbs 8. In books such as Wisdom's Feast, it is suggested that this chapter points to an Israelite belief in a female consort of God who sexually creates the world with him. But a straight-forward reading of the text says none of this. What it says is that wisdom was the first of God's creations, and was with him as he created the rest of the world, delighting in all he did. Wisdom is a creation, not a divine being. Wisdom does not create, but only accompanies the transcendent God as he creates. As for the idea of "playing" or "delighting in" connoting sexual activity, there is nothing in the context to suggest such a concept. God delights in wisdom and wisdom delights in what he has made, especially human beings.

If feminists have read into the chapter what is not there, then what is the chapter's point? The chapter is, in fact, saying that the wisdom teachings--the principles for appropriate and effective living that follow in the book--are not simply a human, utilitarian collection. By means of imagery, a common feature of wisdom writing, the chapter is insisting that the wisdom principles of the Bible are inherent in creation itself. In fact, these principles were built right into creation by God. That is why it is so important to live by them, and that is why they will be such a blessing to the person who does live by them. There is no goddess here.

The New Testament

The feminist treatment of the New Testament is similar. Scattered passages are read in ways which neither their espoused world view nor their contextual shaping will permit. Then, when these scholars are asked why even with this kind of radical surgery there are still so few passages to support their case, they answer that the other statements (which do not exist) were suppressed. This is not responsible use of the text nor of the rules of evidence.

A reading of Paul's half dozen references to wisdom in their contextual settings makes it clear that for him God's wisdom is God's determination to save the world by means of the death and resurrection of his son. Thus, Jesus is the embodiment of that wisdom, and it is an offense to the Jews and folly to the Greeks. There is no female figure either implicit or explicit here. Even more to the point, the independent female deity which these scholars have constructed is not here.

The case is somewhat different in the book of John. Here the general similarity in language with some of the apocryphal wisdom literature does suggest that John has appropriated some of the descriptions of personalized wisdom to talk about Jesus. But what does that say? Not nearly what feminist scholars claim for it. First of all, this connection of Jesus to wisdom is far from being the organizing principle of the book.

Secondly, they do not understand the program of the Gospel of John. Quite clearly, the evangelist is saying that all the fragmentary philosophies which were current in the religious culture of the period between the Old and New Testaments have found their goal and their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. What none of those philosophies could do in saving the world, he has done! For their incompleteness he gives completeness. All that is right and true about them is to be found in him, and it is by comparison with him that what is right and true about them emerges. Thus, John is far from identifying Jesus with the hypothetical wisdom goddess in an effort to garner some of her supposed fame for his messiah candidate, Jesus. Rather, John was saying to those Jews of his day who were viewing wisdom as their own equivalent to Greek philosophy, that what they were actually looking for was Jesus. John is not identifying Jesus with the supposedly glorious Sophia; he is incorporating wisdom into Jesus! According to John, it was Jesus for whom the Jews were groping in their increasingly elaborate images of wisdom during the intertestamental period.

It might be surprising that Sophia proponents give so little attention to the book of James, which is the one book in the New Testament that could be called a wisdom book. Their inattention is explainable, however, because the wisdom discussed in James is so clearly connected to principles for living that there is no room for the hypothetical goddess.

The Early Church

The treatment of early Church history by feminist scholars shows the same kinds of errors which characterize their biblical exegesis. Particularly distressing are the drawing of large conclusions from small amounts of evidence and the use of hypotheses as though they are facts. We are told by some proponents of Sophia worship that their practices were very important in the early church, yet almost no evidence is given in early Christian documents to support the assertion, and what is given is highly ambiguous. It is then argued that Sophia worship was lost because it became associated with Gnosticism in the Christological controversies and became a casualty when gnostic theology was defeated.

First of all, we know almost nothing directly about Gnosticism; what we do know is largely by implication from the writings of its opponents, and those implications are subject to multiple interpretations. Second, it does not follow that the supposed Sophia worship was part of Gnosticism merely because we believe the gnostics sponsored salvation by means of intellectual accomplishment. Third, to say that what does not now exist--that is, evidence that any Christians ever believed in a goddess of wisdom--does not exist because it was rewritten and ultimately written out, is to beg the question in a most serious way. But even if all the above could actually be shown to be matters of fact, which they cannot, since those who gave Christian theology its distinctive shape would have declared Sophia worship heretical, how can we now lift it up as a worthy choice for Christian belief?

Conclusion

In their reaction against what they see as the sins of Western Christendom, feminist scholars have chosen a way which, throughout its long history, has produced the very opposite effects of those they hope for. What they have chosen is the way of paganism, in which the gods are simply an expression of this world. This is the world view of all the great world religions except Judaism, Christianity, Islam--all three of which have been shaped by the Old Testament. The feminist world view, known as continuity, holds out the hope that we can be one with "Mother" earth and, in so doing, overcome the tragic limitations which life seems to impose upon us. But it is all a mirage. Continuity and the religions it spawns are a false hope. Where in those religions are women treated as persons? Where in those religions are the poor seen as possessing rights? Where in them is oppression attacked? Where in them is wholeness of persons and communities and nations and the world seen as a goal? It is only finally in the Christian faith that these understandings are to be found. To be sure, we Christians have often fallen far short living up to them, and it is very probably because of many of us men. But if so, the way back is not to destroy the faith. Insofar as feminist spirituality denies the biblical world view and adopts an alien one--to that extent it separates itself from anything rightly called Christian and sells itself into prostitution to a way that has never produced anything but bondage. If Sophia is God, we all, men and women alike, are lost. If God, the transcendent God of the Bible, is the dispenser of a wisdom far above that of human imagination, there is hope for us all.

Dr. John Oswalt is the chair of the Biblical Studies Division and Beeson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is a noted Old Testament scholar in the area of Ancient Near Eastern cultures, literature, and language. Dr. Oswalt is also a contributing editor to Good News.


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