Celia Deane-Drummond – « Nature, Sophia and Spirit: Interpreting Creation and New Creation Under the Sign of the Wisdom of the Cross and Resurrection »

Celia Deane-Drummond

« Nature, Sophia and Spirit: Interpreting Creation and New Creation Under the Sign of the Wisdom of the Cross and Resurrection »

Concilium 2018-5. Ökologie und Theologie der Natur
Concilium 2018-5. Ecology and Theology
Concilium 2018-5. Ecología y teología de la naturaleza
Concilium 2018-5. Écologie et théologie de la nature
Concilium 2018-5. Ecologia e teologia della natura
Concilium 2018-5.

Linda Hogan, João Vila-Chã, Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator

The global and media-driven Western culture is much more conscious of living in a world that is full of suffering, vulnerability and death. The influence of Neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology is not far behind; the idea of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ has left its mark on the social landscape. Contemporary Neo-Darwinianism has provided explanations for behaviors associated with violence and all manner of social injustices. Given that, many theologians may either avoid dealing with evolutionary biology and the ecological sciences or resort to forms of romanticism that refuse to face up to natural suffering. The purpose of this article is to show how in the midst of such a cultural context it can still make sense to speak in the theological language of Sophia, Wisdom, both creaturely and Divine. When read through New Testament lenses, Sophiology1 points to a new creation that provides a basis of joy filled hope rather than a false optimism that overlooks present troubles.

1. Nature

Facing honestly what ecologists tell us about what is happening to the world we live in can be depressing reading. In the nineteenth century Charles Darwin described the evolutionary process as ‘clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horribly cruel’.2 How can predation, parasitism, indifference and waste square with belief in a loving Creator who has created the world as good? Belief in divine Providence is shaken still further by a twenty-first century paradigm originating in geological science, The Anthropocene, which proposes that human influence impacts the earth’s crust and all its processes irreversibly and indelibly.3  For the first time in human history, there is a striking rupture in the Earth System. The distinction between the human and nonhuman collapses and ironically nature is no longer under the control of human agency, even while more Promethean tendencies continue to insist on asserting that control.4 The language of planetary boundaries shows that climate change is just one of the boundaries that are being breached, along with biodiversity loss, nitrification, ozone depletion and so on. The degree of loss experienced by multiple extinctions of other species as an indirect or direct result of human activities compounds a sense of vulnerability in a way that can seem overwhelming. In the twentieth century Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis proved popular, which in summary form is the belief that the Earth System has a stable climate because of the multiple activities of different life forms on earth, the biosphere. Influential theologians, including Leonardo Boff, found in Gaia inspiration for a renewed affirmation of ecotheology that stressed the importance of interconnectedness of life forms.5 Yet Gaia is far more ambivalent; microbes are at the top of a hierarchy, responsible for generating sufficient oxygen for aerobic life. Humans in this view are parasitic on the planet. A positive reading of the Anthropocene is even harder, not least because considering the natural world as other than human, on which much secular environmental ethics rests its case, no longer seems viable.6 Eco-modernists take an alternative hubristic strategy and celebrate the creative technological power of humans in the midst of the Anthropocene.

I suggest that there are theological risks in giving too great a weight to scientific accounts when considering the meaning of creation. Nature, the world described by science, is distinct from creation, the world articulated theologically as the outcome of the creativity and will of a Creator God. Christopher Southgate elides creation and nature, interpreting disvalues in the natural world as the only way in which God could have created, given standard Neo-Darwinian biology. He comes to the conclusion that divine Glory is caught up with suffering in the natural world as a necessary part of the process of evolutionary becoming.7 Eco-feminist scholars can fall into the same trap. Heather Eaton, for example, believes that in an evolutionary world it is no longer possible to think of a new creation without committing to an objectionable dualistic understanding of the way the world is.8

Most scientists are drawn to study the natural world as a lifetime project not because of the pain and suffering that they recognize as an integral part of its processes, but because of its intrinsic beauty and ability to elicit profound wonder and perhaps awe. Poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins understood that the natural world in which we live is capable of bringing spiritual insights and a sense of closeness to God through a form of nature mysticism. He used the term inscape to describe the ‘thisness’ of the natural world. He saw inscape as a mediating category between the particularities of the natural world and his own Ignatian spiritual tradition.9 He used the term instress to describe the impact of inscape on our sense of what is the case. That inner existential shift or ecological conversionis important for ecotheology if it is to have a positive bearing on human action towards the natural world.

2. Sophia

Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, Augustine of Hippo, Hugh of St. Victor, Bonaventure, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas are among the patristic and medieval scholars who extolled the sacramental beauty of the natural world.10 All these scholars understood beauty in creation to be an outward expression of the wisdom and goodness of the divine Creator. In addition, they understood orderliness in the natural world as a physical manifestation of wisdom as well as beauty. One of the most extensive elaborations of these ideas is in Augustinian monk Hugh of St Victor (1096-1141) who marveled at the ‘arrangement, motion, appearance and quality’ of creatures, finding in them ‘the marvelous light of the wisdom of God’.11 The biblical inspiration came mostly from Hebrew scripture, especially the Psalms and the wisdom literature.

            A rather more complicated understanding of the role of wisdom in creation is elaborated in the Sophiology of Russian Orthodox priest, Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944).  For him, Sophia encompassed every theological doctrine from beginning to end.12 Bulgakov is interesting as he wrote in a way that understood the challenges of Neo-Darwinian thought, yet was equally determined to present a robust theological understanding that did not simply bend to its epistemological claims. For Bulgakov Divine Sophia as it exists in the three persons of the Trinity is distinct from creaturely Sophia expressed in created world. While Platonic thought it not far behind, that distinction is important in order to preserve the goodness of God in the face of creaturely evil and suffering. Bulgakov did not dwell on the negative aspects integral to contingent beings, but understood that suffering and evil were inevitably present and worked in an opposing manner to creaturely Sophia akin to the nothingness or Nihil at the beginning of the first creative act, creatio ex nihilo. He named this negative hovering at the dawn of creation and following, the dark side of fallen Sophia.13 Given that this is an absence of the good, it can be thought of in philosophical terms as a privation of the good.

            Tracing the movement of how wisdom has come to be understood from the wisdom literature to the New Testament begins as Lady Wisdom personified, then united with the Jewish Torah; and finally, especially in the Gospel of John, associated with Christ.14 The prologue to the Gospel of John has some remarkable parallels with the way wisdom is described in earlier Hebrew texts. The ideas of Sophia being one who is (1) present as the first of God’s creations, (2) the pre-existent cooperator with God in the task of creation, (3) close to God, (4) giver of light and life, (5) divider of those who listen, (6) rejected and (7) anticipatory of the ministries similar to that of Jesus, are all parallel to the way John speaks about Logos in the prologue.15 A significant difference is, nonetheless, that the divine actually became flesh in the Logos in a way not characteristic of Sophia. One reason why Logos is used may be because of discordance when the feminine term Sophia is used to refer to the man Jesus. Given that there are no earlier traditions of Logos that speak in this way, it is reasonable to suppose that Jesus is Sophia incarnate, just as the Torah had also become a material expression of Sophia.16

            Neils Gregersen has explored a cosmologically focused Christology, especially the prologue of John’s Gospel, as a deep incarnation.17 Elisabeth Johnson argues for the ecological significance of deep incarnation, stressing ministerial aspects of Jesus and what she terms deep resurrection in order to counter the theological difficulties associated with universal concepts.18 My own view is that paying attention to the Hebrew context in which the Johannine Jesus is portrayed in the Prologue, including Hebrew wisdom, Chokmah, provides a way to stress lived particularity as a complement to universality.19 How, more precisely, might the wisdom of God be expressed in and through the work of creation?

3. Spirit

Irenaeus was one of the earliest scholars to associate Sophia with the work of the Spirit of God as well as that manifested through the Word made flesh in Christology. For him the Spirit and the Word were like the ‘two hands of God’, both working in order that creation could reach its potential for flourishing.20 Bulgakov, however, made the boldest strides in associating Sophia with the work of the Holy Spirit, especially in The Comforter21 Bulgakov gives the Holy Spirit its proper place in the Godhead by stressing the tri-unity of the three hypostases of the Trinity, rather than assuming a single unity of one nature that he finds in the Cappadocians.22 Bulgakov’s alignment of the Logos and Holy Spirit in parallel with an anthropological understanding of a male principle of thought and a female principle of reception, creative accomplishment and beauty, echoed in the wedding of Christ and the Church is somewhat troublingly essentialist.23  Bulgakov wants to find a way to affirm God the Father as Creator of the world, while understanding that creation as a Trinitarian event. He achieves that through understanding Sophia as hypostasized in all three persons of the Trinity, and it is the revelation of the Second and Third persons in Sophia that they participate in the creation of the world. The will of the Father speaks into creation through the Logos/Word of Sophia, while the spirit’s participation is in the hypostasis of reality, is in life, beauty and glory.24 Sometimes Bulgakov speaks of the Holy Spirit as acting in creation; other times he uses the more qualified spirit of God. He addresses the specific relationship between them by a complex speculation regarding the concealment of the hypostases of the Son and Spirit in the hypostasis of the Father where creation can be understood as existing in the Divine Sophia. Yet, given the distinction between God and creation, the manifestation of Divine Sophia in the created world appears as creaturely Sophia. The Holy Spirit in Bulgakov’s thought is that which clothes creation in beauty and glory, anticipated in the transfigured earth of paradise.25 The dynamics of life has a correspondence with the life of the Holy Spirit acting in the creaturely Sophia, a panentheism where the life of the Spirit of God is indwelling in the world while not being identical with it.

4. New Creation

Has Bulgakov’s speculative theology strayed rather too far from the kind of Sophiology embedded in the New Testament? The closest we might get in the New Testament to considering a hymn to wisdom is that which is grounded in a meditation on Christ in Colossians 1.  What is significant in this passage is that the phrase ‘through the blood of the cross’ is introduced into the wisdom hymn in a way that reminds readers of the critical significance of the particular and salvific cross of Christ, the wisdom of the cross of 1 Cor. 1.18.  That crucified wisdom is a deliberate check on over-speculative forms of theology and a refusal to rely purely on secular habits of mind. There have also been attempts by philosophers such as Holmes Rolston III to introduce the idea of cruciform nature, that is, close identification of the cross with the suffering and diminishment in the natural world.26 It is easy to see the attraction of such speculation, given a keen awareness among biologists of the inevitability of pain and suffering and the difficulties in coming to a satisfying philosophical theodicy. But this is not, it seems to me, the wisdom of the cross, for such a view when combined with the necessity of suffering and pain in evolutionary and ecological relationships seems to amount to an endorsement of that suffering, rather than a protest against it.

            It is the light of the resurrection that points to hope for a renewed earth and many ecotheologians draw on passages such as Romans 8.18-23 in order to try and understand the relationship between the expectation that human suffering and sin will be overcome and the groaning of all creation. Suffering in creation seems to be futile (8.20), rather than having any instrumental usefulness. An ecological reading of this passage is that in spite of such groaning, just like a mother who is in pain yet gives birth, there is hope for redemption of the earth and its eventual glorification27. Sigurd Bergmann was among those who have used this text in order to weave together an ecological reading of the liberation of natural world with liberation theology and the thought of Gregory of Nazianzus.28 Gregory’s understanding of the Spirit’s inhabitation of creation is similar to that in Bulgakov, though not developed as a Sophiology. Sociality, movement, suffering and Spirit inform Gregory’s theological project, but the importance of sociality and interconnectedness implies a form of wisdom theology, even if it is not explicitly expressed in these terms.

Conclusions: New Directions

The main argument of this article has been that the situation in the twenty first century is going to be one of increasing vulnerability of both humans and other creatures.  The scientific context is one where nature is becoming more likely to be viewed as a threat rather than a solace. It is important to take account of what the science is saying, while not being too swallowed up in its claims for epistemic authority. Theological reflection that faces such fears and understands God present in the midst of uncertainty is vitally important in order to generate the courage needed to act responsibly. Sophia, Wisdom, Chokmah, provides an important way to connect God, as Divine Sophia, with the creaturely world. Wisdom can also enable an honest approach to suffering and loss through an appreciation of deep incarnation, the wisdom of the cross, and, in more speculative mode, shadow Sophia. The beauty and wisdom of creation is still visible for those with the eyes to see. Wisdom is an all embracing theological category in as much as it is part of ancient Christian doctrine, is present in the natural world through a close understanding of science, and offers a means through which a new creation can be envisaged. Wisdom is also present in other cultures and there are important new horizons to be explored in ecotheology, not least a deeper appreciation of the wisdom of indigenous traditions and marginalized groups. More systematic questions include a rigorous understanding of the relationship between a sophianic understanding of the spirit in the creaturely realm and the Holy Spirit, how far kenotic understandings of the Holy Spirit as Divine Sophia are justified and the relationships between present and future hope. Finding some way to bring theological light to bear on evil and suffering in the natural world and in human lives is going to continue to be important. A vision of hope grounded in the resurrection also needs to come to terms with what that resurrection means in a culture that has largely given up its belief in supernatural forces. Further, given the extensive resources on wisdom in the Christian tradition, philosophical literature and given new developments in biblical ecological hermeneutics, what are the resources that are going to be the most fruitful in working towards a deeper understanding of the specific place of Sophia in systematic and ethical reflection? How far can there be an adequate retrieval from those traditions where metaphysical presuppositions are very different from our own? Should theology witness to a radically different social imaginary? There is no straightforward or easy answer to these questions and it is my hope that the search for wisdom in relation to such topics will never cease. For once we think we have found it, we have almost certainly missed the mark.


This article considers the present day fragile state of the natural world according to natural science, and weaves that into conversation with theological notions of Wisdom, Sophia, understood in ancient and contemporary writing as mediating between Divine Sophia and creaturely Sophia or Hebrew Chokmah. Divine Sophia as characteristic of all three persons of the Trinity opens up a way of considering the future of creation and interpreting the hope in a way that takes as its starting point the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the Wisdom of God.


Celia Deane-Drummond is Professor in Theology and Director of the Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing at the University of Notre Dame, IN, USA She served as Chair of the European Forum for the Study of Religion and Environment from 2011-2018. A selection of her more recent books include Religion in the Anthropocene, edited with Sigurd Bergmann and Markus Vogt (2017), A Primer in Ecotheology: Theology for a Fragile Earth (2017) and Theology and Ecology Across the Disciplines: On Care for Our Common Home, edited with Rebecca Artinian Kaiser (2018).  Celia will be the inaugural Director of the Laudato Si’ Institute, Campion Hall, Oxford University from July 2019.


University of Notre dame, Department of Theology, 130 Malloy Hall, Notre Dame, IN 46556


  1. Sophiology can be defined as a systematic way of conceptualizing language about wisdom as Sophia in philosophical terms which, when Sophia is presented theologically, becomes a way of doing theology as well. So, theology is language about God, and Sophiology is language about Wisdom. When God is understood in ontological terms as Sophia, as in the work of Sergius Bulgakov, there is no distinction between theology and Sophiology.
  2. Charles Darwin, Letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker, cited in Gavin de Beer, Reflections of a Darwinian. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1962, p. 43.
  3. Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, ‘The “Anthropocene”’, Global Change Newsletter 41 (2000), pp. 17-18.
  4. Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017.
  5. Leonardo Boff, ‘Earth as Gaia: An Ethical and Spiritual Challenge’, Concilium 3 (2009): pp. 24-32.
  6. Maria Antonaccio, ‘De-Moralizing and Re-Moralizing the Anthropocene’, in Celia Deane-Drummond, Sigurd Bergmann and Markus Vogt, eds. Religion in the Anthropocene. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2017.
  7. Christopher Southgate, ‘Divine Glory in a Darwinian World’, Zygon 49.4 (December 2014): pp. 784-807.
  8. Heather Eaton, ‘An Earth-Centric Theological Framing for Planetary Solidarity’, in Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Hilda Koster, eds. Planetary Solidarity: Global Women’s Voices on Christian Doctrine and Climate Justice. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.
  9. Compare James Finn Cotter, Inscape: The Christology and Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1972 and Bernadette Ward, World as Word: Philosophical Theology in Gerard Manley Hopkins. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2001.
  10. As reviewed in Jame Schaefer, Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic and Medieval Concepts (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2009).
  11. Hugh of St Victor, ‘Three Days of Invisible Light’, translated by Ronald J. Teske, cited in Schaefer, Theological Foundations, ibid, p. 97, note 61.
  12. Discussed in Celia Deane-Drummond, Creation through Wisdom: Theology and the New Biology. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2000, pp. 84-92.
  13. He seems to believe in a cosmic fall of creation following the first sin of Adam. While I agree that the origin of sin is important to consider, I am less convinced by a cosmic fall. For fallen Sophia see Sergius Bulgakov, The Comforter, trans. Boris Jokim. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004. pp. 192-209.
  14. Deane-Drummond, Creation Through Wisdom, op. cit., pp. 134-6. 
  15. Martin Scott, Sophia and the Johannine Jesus, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Supplement Series, 71. Sheffield: JSOT/Sheffield Academic Press, 1992. Pp. 94-100.
  16. Ibid, p. 105.
  17. Niels Gregersen, ed. Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015. 
  18. Elisabeth Johnson ‘Jesus and the Cosmos: Soundings in Deep Christology’. In Gregersen, ibid., pp. 133-156.
  19. Celia Deane-Drummond, ‘The Wisdom of Fools? A Theodramatic Interpretation of Deep Incarnation’. In Gregersen, ibid, pp. 177-202.
  20. See Deane-Drummond, Creation Through Wisdom, op. cit. pp. 124-7.
  21. In English translation, 2004. Bulgakov, The Comforter, Op. cit.
  22. Ibid., p. 32.
  23. Ibid., p. 186.
  24. Ibid, p. 193.
  25. Ibid., p. 193.
  26. Holmes Rolston III, ‘Does Nature Need to be Redeemed’, Zygon, 29.2 (1994): pp. 205-229.
  27. See David Horrell, The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical  Ecological Biblical Theology. London: Routledge, 2015.
  28. Sigurd Bergmann, Creation Set Free: The Spirit as Liberator of Nature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).