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The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Year C (2019)

The Mystery of the Trinity 


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Now, I have to confess to you as I turn back to Proverbs 8:22 and following, that I was a little disgruntled in preparing this video because the Church selected Proverbs 8 as the Old Testament reading. Now, why would I be disgruntled? Well, the reason is, if you know anything about the history of the doctrine of the Trinity, you’ll know that Proverbs 8:22 and following (the text we’re going to read today), was the passage that Arius himself, the great arch heretic, the priest of Egypt, who denied the eternal nature of the Son, this was the passage in the Old Testament that he went to. This was the go-to passage for the Arian heretics in arguing that the Son was created, and that there was a time when he did not exist. So with that in mind, I want you to read the passage with me and then I’ll walk you through it and show what it means and what it doesn’t mean. Now I’m reading the Revised Standard Version translation here, and there’s a translation issue, so be aware that I’m just going to read the text and then I’ll unpack it.

Proverbs 8, just to put it in context, is about the wisdom of God. And Proverbs is one of these books that scholars call the wisdom literature in the Old Testament. Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, The Wisdom of Solomon, the Book of Sirach, these books belong to a particular literary genre, in that they are wisdom literature. They focus on growing in wisdom, growing in understanding. They’re one of the easiest parts of the Old Testament to read because they’re universal, in a sense of their significance and application. But in Proverbs 8, the book personifies the wisdom of God and describes the role that the wisdom of God had in the creation of the world. So let’s read it together and then we’ll see how Arius interpreted it, and we’ll see how a Catholic would interpret it, in light of the trinity:

The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I [I, meaning Wisdom] 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 with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth; before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. 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 workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men.

Who’s speaking here? Well, the person speaking is “wisdom”. In Hebrew, hochmah. In Greek, that gets translated as sōphia. So like “philosophy”, “philo” “sofia”, is “friendship with wisdom”. Everybody says it’s “love of wisdom”, it’s actually “friendship with wisdom”. So, you can see here, if you know the book of Genesis, this sounds like the account of creation, God marking off the Heavens and the Earth, dividing the sky from the land and the waters. So this is the creation of the world which we usually think of as something that just God does, alone. But here, Proverbs is revealing that as God is creating the world, there’s another agent of creation, who is working (so-to-speak) alongside him, and that is hochmah (wisdom, sōphia), the wisdom of God, through whom the world is made. Now, who is this person? Well, if you know from the New Testament, for example, 1 Corinthians 1:24, St. Paul tells us that Christ is the wisdom of God, he uses the exact same term here to describe Christ. So since ancient times, this text has been read as a reference to Christ. That Christ was present at the beginning of creation, and that the world did not come into being through the Father alone, but the Father and the Son operated together in bringing the universe into being. So that’s a very ancient interpretation of this text, it goes all the way back to St. Paul (for example), saying that Christ is the wisdom of God. So when you see wisdom personified in the Old Testament, who is it referring to? Who is this other divine agent? Well, ancient Church Fathers would say, it’s the Son. It’s Christ, the wisdom of God. However, if you look at that first verse, Arius, the arch heretic, the heretic from the 4th Century that I mentioned at the beginning of the video, interpreted it differently. Although the New American Bible says “The Lord possessed me” at the beginning of his work, the Revised Standard Version says “The Lord created me”. Now those are very different verbs, right? Did the Lord possess wisdom at the beginning of creation? Or did he create wisdom at the beginning of creation? Well, in order to clarify this I’m going to have to do some Hebrew and Greek, so just bear with me for two seconds. I’ll try to make this as clear as possible.

Let’s start with the Greek. Although Proverbs wasn’t written originally in Greek, it was being read in Greek at the time of Trinitarian debates in the 4th Century. Most ancient Christian writers, like Athanasius and Arius, were reading the Old Testament in Greek. It was a translation called The Septuagint. And in The Septuagint, Proverbs 8 there actually does say, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his works”. The Greek verb there is ktizō and it means “to create”. So you can see why Arius, reading this passage would say, aha, if this refers to the Son, through whom the world was made, well then that must mean he was created. He was a creature. And if he was created, then by definition it means that there was a time when the Son didn’t exist, because all creatures (including angels) have a beginning point in time. And so they got into a large debate about that and many of the fathers, like St. Athanasius, said “well in context though, the word ‘create’ here seems to mean some different things. Like if you look there (it’s later on, verse 25) it says "I was brought forth” and it seems as if all creation itself is coming into being through wisdom, so how can wisdom itself be a creature? So there’s a large debate about that. And that’s all very important, but what’s fascinating for me is that if you go back to the original Hebrew of Proverbs 8, “create” is not a good translation of the original Hebrew term. Remember, Proverbs was written in Hebrew. So in Hebrew, it says (literally), “The Lord” (that’s the name for God, “YHWH”, the Lord) qanah (he qanah’d me at the beginning of his works). And the Hebrew word qanah literally means “to get” or “begot” or “beget”. And you might say, “Well how do you know that, Dr. Pitre?” Well it’s easy, just look at the first time it’s used in the book of Genesis. If you go back to Genesis 4:1, you actually know this already even if you don’t know Hebrew. In Genesis 4:1, it says Adam knew Eve, his wife. She conceived and bore Cain, saying ‘I have qanah’, I have “gotten” a man with the help of the Lord. So Cain’s name in Hebrew is from the Hebrew word qanah. Hear the similarity? Cain, qanah? Which literally means “to get”, or “beget”. “I’ve gotten a Lord from man.”

So the Hebrew word for create is bara’. You can hear it is a very different word. Bara’, qanah, they’re not the same word. “Create” is used in Genesis 1, you know this one too: “In the beginning, God created (bara’) the Heavens and the Earth.” So it’s two very different verbs. One’s used for the creation out of nothing in Genesis 1, the other one is used when Eve talks about having begotten a son, namely Cain. So if you go back to Proverbs, what’s fascinating is, in its original Hebrew language, there isn’t really a problem like there is in the Greek translation of whether wisdom is created or uncreated, because the word “create” isn’t used there, it’s the word qanah. “The Lord begot me” or “got me” at the beginning of his work. Now, there’s still some mystery there as to exactly what that means. But it’s really important because it shows you a biblical foundation for the language of the Church in its Faith in describing the mystery of the Trinity. So, fast forward now to the creed, think about it for just a second. Think about the Gospel of John and think about the creed. What do we say about Jesus? The Gospel of John says that he is the only begotten son (monogenēs). It never calls him the “created” Son. And secondly, in the creed, the Church takes that language and says about the Son:
“we believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God, begotten of the Father from all ages (so notice, “begotten from all ages”, so he’s eternally begotten), God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten (that’s the Catholic faith), not made (that’s the Arian heresy).
So why do we say that every Sunday? Because we’re confessing one thing and rejecting something else. So if he was made (or created), then there was a time when he didn’t exist and he’s just a creature, which means he’s not true God. But if he’s begotten from all eternity, before all ages, what does that mean? That means he is eternally being begotten of the Father. In other words, he’s eternally (so-to-speak) “coming from the Father as a Son”. So the Father is always Father and the Son is always Son, and they’re both true God because they’re both eternal, divine persons. That’s what we’re confessing in the creed. So, on further reflection, I actually love that the Church picks Proverbs 8 for the 1st reading for this Feast of the Trinity, because it gives us an opportunity to explain who Jesus is as the eternal wisdom, as the eternal Son, who is eternally begotten of the Father, that never began. Although in our experience a son is begotten in time (he has a beginning), in the triune God, that “begetting” takes place from all eternity. Now, can we wrap our brain around that? No, because we can’t wrap our brain around eternity. But we can confess the truth of it, that there was never a time when he was not...

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