A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Trinity by Any Other Name?

The Presbyterian Church USA recently voted in their General Assembly to receive a policy report on gender inclusive language for the doctrine of the Trinity (full story). Receiving the report is not the same as approving it, but it does allow for PCUSA churches to introduce "experimental liturgies" into worship. While the report affirms the traditional trinitarian language of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit," it provides for other options as well, such as "Mother, Child, and Womb," and "Rock, Redeemer, and Friend."

It is not my habit to criticize other denominations as my own UMC has plenty of interesting things going on for which there are no rational explanations, but since the doctrine of the Trinity is the Christian doctrine of God, all Christians have a stake in the discussion.

Allow me to make a few observations:

First, I very much affirm inclusive language in reference to human beings. At the dawn of the twenty-first century there is no longer sufficient reason to refer to "mankind," when instead we should be using terms like "humankind" or "humanity." I understand that at one time "mankind" was a term inclusive of men and women, but many young Gen Xers and millennials no longer understand the term in an inclusive way. Thus it is best to jettison it and use words that truly reflect the inclusiveness we affirm.

Second, I also affirm the rich variety of images available in speaking of God. The Bible itself uses many different images including feminine imagery for God (remember Jesus and the hens gathering the chicks under her wing?). Since God is ultimately beyond human comprehension and understanding, employing such varied metaphors and analogies assist us in grasping, in an incomplete way to be sure, the depth of God and his (oops!) nature.

Third, inclusive language, however, should not be the overriding consideration in reference to our language about God. If there is anything that we can learn from postmodernism it is that langauge and its substance cannot be separated. There is a context that gives meaning to the traditional trinitarian formulation. At the heart of the debate at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD was the person of Jesus and how he was related to God the Father. The church has called the first member of the Trinity "Father" not primarily as a term for creator (thus "creator" is an unacceptable substitute) but because "he" is the father of Jesus Christ. Likewise the term "Son" is an affirmation of his relationship to the Father. These terms are not therefore functional, as in the false trinitarian formulation of Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, but are instead relational.

Modern trinitarian inclusiveness has centered the discussion on the function of each member of the godhead apart from the persons of the godhead. The bishops of Nicea would not have known such a distinction. The overriding question they dealt with was "If we say 'thus and so' about the person of Jesus, what will it mean for his work and for our salvation?" Those who believe that "Mother, Child, and Womb," provide an adequate alternative to traditional trinitarian language have substituted the sentimentality of inclusive sensitivity for the substance of language and meaning in reference to doctrinal debate. Tom Wright correctly notes that modern notions of inclusiveness are too broad and too shallow. When one changes the words, one changes the meaning. "Rock, Redeemer, and Friend" is no more of a trinitarian formulation than "Larry, Curly, and Moe." Without Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there is no Trinity.

Fourth, it is impossible to escape gender specific language. Thus the issue is not whether our language will be gender specific, but whether our language will be sexist. Those who in the past have used the traditional trinitarian formulation to keep women from being ordained, for example, are misappropriating the language for their own sexist agendas. They are just as guilty of misusing gender specific language as those who misuse inclusive language in an attempt to employ it as an adequate substitute for traditional terminology. It is rather silly that many have often used the term "God" as a substitute for "Father," when the word "God" is also a masculine term (an antonym of "goddess"). By the way, anyone who actually believes that masculine terminology for God means that God is literally male with all the accompanying anatomy needs a remedial lesson in theology.

Fifth, St. Augustine reminds us that talking about God is very dangerous business; for if we employ the wrong language about God, we speak of something less than God. When this happens we commit idolatry. So much modern discussion of God-talk is quite careless precisely because it is so focused on inclusiveness as the overiding consideration. While there is a rich variety of terminology in our God-talk, we cannot call God by any name that will assuage our modern sensibilities. The language of doctrine provides grammatical constraint, that is it provides boundaries, parameters for how we may speak of God without becoming idol worshipers. It is possible to speak of God in a way that we no longer stand within the Christian tradition. That is why we must affirm and insist upon the traditional formulation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the way to speak of Trinity. Without the essential nature of such language the grammar of doctrine and its substance have been changed; and so has our doctrine of the triune God.

Shakespeare may have been right that a rose by any other name still smells as sweet, but the Trinity by any name other than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit does not exist. Talking about God is very dangerous business, but because of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ, it is also necessary. Thus it is essential that we get our language-- our God-talk-- right.


Anonymous said...

Nicely put!

Allan R. Bevere said...

Thanks, Jonathan.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Allan. Well defined response to an ill defined shot at doctrine.

Allan R. Bevere said...

I appreciate the comment, Marilyn.

byron smith said...

Talking about God is very dangerous business, but because of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ, it is also necessary. Thus it is essential that we get our language-- our God-talk-- right.

In what way is it essential? Does salvation depend upon our trinitarian theology? I understand that if God is other than Father, Son and Spirit that we are speaking of something other than Christianity, but I am raising the issue of our theological knowledge, not the object of that knowledge. Is it possible to get God wrong and still, ultimately, be right? Or is it necessary to affirm with, e.g. the Athanasian Creed, that 'One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully'?

We are justified by faith, but how much cognitive content does that faith include?

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your comments. Salvation certainly depends upon a trinitarian God. It was Athanasius who correctly put forth that Jesus must be divine in order to be our Savior for only God can save.

I doubt that we can get God wrong and still be right, but while justifying faith is not purely cognitive (there is much more) cognition is a critical part of the faith package.

Ultimately how all this plays out in reference to our salvation as we doubt and question is something that only God can judge; what I am simply affirming is the essential nature of traditional trinitarian language and that all the inclusive alternatives fall short.

Thanks again for your insight.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks Allan. You make some good distinctions here. And set this issue in a more informed atmosphere, I believe. Helpful.