Mary and the Old Testament's Wisdom in Matthias Scheeben's "Mariology" August 18, 2018 17:09

We continue our series on Matthias Scheeben's Mariology by guest contributor Andrew Kuiper. This is the second of four posts.

Mary, Seat of Wisdom

Scheeben treats at length the subject of Mary in the Old Testament. Guided by the Church’s liturgy and exegetical tradition, he looks to the Sapiential books, focusing primarily on Proverbs 8, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 24, and Wisdom 7. Here, he ambitiously draws forth new images and analogies while soberly remaining well within the bounds of Scriptural, patristic, and scholastic thought.

The Scriptures’ “Wisdom” (Heb: Chokhmah, Gk: Sophia, Lat: Sapientia) is a figure, a character, an archetype. The theological tradition has treated her as a literary personification of multiple actually-existent realities, of which Scheeben attends especially to three: a divine Person; a cosmological reality; and Mary. He does not conflate these distinct realities but finds in each deep significance, worthy of consideration according to their representation by scriptural Wisdom.

Wisdom representing a divine Person. Following the Church fathers (especially St. Athanasius) Scheeben maintains that the figure and attributes of Wisdom are to be applied above all to the second and third persons of the Trinity. However, this is not for him an exhaustive interpretation; we should not exclude other meanings with which these sapiential passages are pregnant.

Wisdom representing a cosmological reality. Not only are the fathers comfortable with the ambiguous application of feminine Wisdom both to Christ and to the Holy Spirit; Wisdom is not even consistently interpreted as representing any of the divine Persons. This is the case especially for ante-Nicene fathers like St. Hippolytus. More free to speculate on these passages without the pressure of Arianism, this minority report of the Christian theological tradition sees Wisdom also as the ‘daughter of God’ the first of His works and creatures ad extra, designated as a help-meet in the formation of Creation and occupying a point analogically “between” God and the world. Scheeben writes:

Toward the world, Wisdom acts as a heavenly principle of life and light poured over [that world] by God and from God. In this way the position of Wisdom in relation to God as ‘daughter’ and to the world as ‘mother’ is elucidated in the most beautiful manner. (33–34)

Without at all wishing to disturb the fundamental Christian affirmation of creation from nothing (creatio ex nihilo), of the distinction between the uncreated God and the created world, and of the economy of salvation, Scheeben appears to suggest that scriptural Wisdom can signify, in some sense, a figure or reality within the hierarchy of (created) Being somewhat reminiscent of the Neoplatonic world-soul. Scheeben himself wishes to avoid Arian positions and so, in considering this ante-Nicene view, he carefully points out that this royal ‘daughter of God’ can in no way have a status equal to the only-begotten Son of God. Rather, Wisdom (whatever she may represent) must not only be under the direction of God generally but also under that of the Logos in particular. As creaturely and subordinate to the Logos, Wisdom’s place in the world is similar to that of the soul and spirit in the human being. It is just as with the soul as the principium of the human body or the human spirit a (creaturely) ‘spark of divinity’; these specifications do not detract from the God’s transcendent primacy, nor from His necessary and intrinsic role in every cause, at every level of existence.

Wisdom representing Mary. Of course, Scheeben considers the liturgy’s application of these texts to the mother of God to be a ‘formal testimony that the Church considers Mary an image of Wisdom personified.’ Mary is thus not uncreated Wisdom (chiefly God the Son); nor is Mary some incarnation of a fundamental principle of the cosmos. Rather, in her human spiritual life and her place in the economy of salvation, Mary concretely fulfills the feminine figure of Wisdom; by her conformity to God the Son, in the Holy Spirit, Mary gives personal manifestation to Scripture’s archetypal figure, to creation’s deep principles, and to life of the Trinity as received by a creaturely person. Not carelessly did the Church allow Wisdom, the ‘queen of all things and mother of life and light’ to be applied to a young woman from Nazareth. Scheeben says that “i[t] may properly be accepted that the application of these texts to Mary as a sensus consequens has been the intention of the Holy Ghost” all along (23).

In support of this claim, Scheeben traces a golden thread of images from Genesis, the Song of Songs, and the Sapiential books, all leading in a subtle way to the New Testament figure of Mary as Wisdom. In this he follows a path similar to that trodden by St. Louis de Montfort, but Scheeben focuses in particular on the luminous cloud or Shekinah that dwelt as the visible glory of God among the Israelites. By making the Shekinah an explicit part of his reading of the Sapiential books, Scheeben is able to emphasize how the same language of fertility, illumination, and divine indwelling can function on multiple levels simultaneously.

Recent scholarship by Arthur Green and others can be seen as a vindication of Scheeben’s intuition that the Shekinah is a particularly significant Marian type. Though previously it had been a matter for rabbinic treatment, the medieval Jewish tradition of the Shekinah as something distinct from God Himself and as a peculiarly feminine entity seems to have evolved in response to the revival of high Marian exegesis among 12th century Catholics, particularly the Cistercians. That is, the bridal imagery of the Song of Songs, when applied to Mary, reinvigorated the Jewish understanding of the Shekinah.[1] Scheeben (and St. Bernard of Clairvaux before him) takes this nebulous account of a romance between God and the Shekinah and applies it more precisely within the Christian nuptial framework of Mary as the Bride of Christ. Scheeben would surely have us remember that Mary is the prototype for all believers and along with Origen, St. Gregory the Great, Rupert of Deutz, and St. Bernard himself, we should read the Song of Songs as revealing the Church herself as our mode of participating in this transformative marriage between God and humanity.

--Andrew Kuiper

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[1] Arthur Green, “Shekhinah, the Virgin Mary, and the Song of Songs: Reflections on a Kabbalistic Symbol in its Historical Context,” Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Association for Jewish Studies, 2002.