Monday, November 05, 2007

The Trinity and God Language



In The United Methodist Church, as well as in main-line denominations, there have been deliberate attempts to ignore and change traditional masculine language regarding God. Primarily, these actions have been justified by arguments that patriarchal terms to describe God are inadequate, sexist, and no longer necessary. These advocates reason that the New Testament authors used masculine names for God because of their patriarchal bias. Their language choice was culturally conditioned and cannot be applied universally. The result: denominational literature that refuses to use personal (male) pronouns in reference to God, official seminary policies that forbid masculine references to God, bishops who ordain clergy in the name of the Father and Mother, and a push to exchange traditional Trinitarian language with the names Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

There are very specific reasons, from my perspective, to be careful in the language we use to describe God. While all language is inadequate in describing God, this does not mean that all God language is equal in describing God. Some God language is better than others. Here are some of my reasons why I believe traditional God language is the best we have in describing God. I am not asking that you agree with me, but if this is an issue for you (a desire to retain and use traditional Trinitarian language) you need to think through your reasons for it. Here are some of my initial responses.

I. The Theological Importance of the Names: Immanent vs. Economic Trinity

Historic Christianity teaches that there is one God in three co-equal persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. However, the Father is distinguishable from the Son, and the Son is distinguishable from the Spirit. The Son is sent by the Father and the Holy Spirit fulfills and consummates the mission of the Son Each divine person has all that properly belongs to the divine nature: eternality, omnipotence, wisdom, goodness, holiness, and love. The persons of the Trinity can be distinguished, but not separated. Their distinction is not in nature, for they share one divine nature without separation into parts; rather, their distinction is in relationship with one another: the Father begets the Son and the Father with the Son (West) or the Father through the Son (East) breathes the Holy Spirit.

The Trinitarian name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has specific meaning unique to God. It is language about God that is most suitable for God’s revelation as Trinity. To see this more clearly we must make a differentiation between the “immanent” and “economic” Trinity. The immanent Trinity refers to God's inner relationships, apart from creation, as God is in the inner Trinitarian relationship: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Immanent Trinitarian language is prominent in the Gospel of John. The economic Trinity refers to God in relationship to creation. God relates to the created order as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer/Sanctifier.

The problem or limitations with the functional Trinitarian language (the language with which many wish to replace the traditional name), although it is Biblical and rich in imagery, it cannot describe God as God is apart from the created order. It can not tell us anything of God as God really is. It is functional language, not ontological. It tells us what God does in the created order, but it says nothing about God’s being. It cannot tell us anything about God before the act of creation. Also, economic language can be used to describe any one member of the Trinity, and it is not exclusive to any one Person; They all create, They all redeem, and They all sustain/sanctify. In contrast, the traditional essential name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, better describes the richness of God; the love of God existed before creation as an essential part of the Trinity; God the Father loves the Son and Spirit; The Son loves the Spirit and the Father; the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. And out of this love and as an expression of this love, God creates.

II. The Theological Importance of the Names: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

The use of Biblical masculine language for the first two Persons of the Trinity communicates clearly the relationships among the Godhead and distinguishes them in a community of love with the Holy Spirit. They do not imply that God is a man, for God transcends gender. Even the language Father and Son has limitations in what it conveys about God, but it is the best language we have.

The first Person of the Trinity is called “Father,” because He is Father of the Son. According to Gregory of Nyssa, “Father” denotes three important facts: The Father alone is unbegotten, He is one who exists in a relationship with another, and He is the One who is the initiator of generation. This means the Father begets life rather than conceives life. Biologically, the egg (mother) is a receiver; the sperm is the actor. Likewise, the Father initiates or begets the Son. Again this does not mean that God is male, but that He possesses this initiatory measure, most closely akin to the human father characteristic.

As a result, you cannot change God language without paying the ontological price.
Traditional Biblical language for the Trinity reveals something of God’s being. To change this language would be to distort God’s revelation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

III. The Theological Importance of Pronouns in Reference to God.

In order to avoid masculine (or feminine) references to God, many main-line denominations, including The United Methodist Church, encourage or demand gender-neutral language for God. As a part of this agenda, there has been the systematic elimination of personal pronouns (He, His, Him) in talking about God. In many Boards of Ordained Ministry, candidates are chastised, rejected, or called to explain their use of personal masculine pronouns for God. There are problems with this on at least two levels.

First, as Christians, we believe in the personal nature of God. God has created each of us for a personal relationship with Him. In the English language, the best way we can express God’s personhood is through the use of personal pronouns. To avoid the use of personal pronouns, is to undermine the personal nature of God. God becomes a distant, objective, sterile Entity in the English language without their use.

Second, masculine pronouns and language has been a means of protecting key ideas of God’s self-revelation. When there have been attempts to use feminine language for anything more than similes (God is like a mother hen), the Christian faith has fallen into pantheistic or panentheistic problems. We cannot change the language about God without paying the ontological price – making God something God is not!

While this discussion is hardly exhaustive, this begins to address some of my concerns in dismissing traditional God language.


At 10:25 AM, Blogger James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for this very interesting post. I found myself wondering whether you didn't fall into the sort of literalism your introduction warned about. For instance, what is the significance of the Father as 'initiator' of the Son? How does this relate to other classic formulations of the Christian faith? Who is the mother in this scenario?! :)

I certainly agree that sometimes there is such an effort to avoid gendered pronouns in theological and also in everyday discourse that meaning and fluency are lost. But I also sympathize with the very obvious point being made, that (in spite of the language you yourself use) God (even the Father) is not literally male, and presumably has no literal sperm.

You also run together pantheism and panentheism as though there were no distinction between the two. Yet while one is generally considered a viewpoint that is not Christian, the other is becoming almost mainstream in many theological schools in many mainstream Christian denominations. Perhaps you'd care to explain your objections to panentheism in further detail.

Thanks again for a thought-provoking post!

At 5:07 PM, Blogger Keith Drury said...

Thanks for your comments here on this topic... I wish we had the time for this verbally at last week's colloquium ;-)

At 3:52 AM, Blogger Chris Bounds said...


Thanks for your comments and critique. You have pointed out one (of many) weakness(es) that exists with my argument. My position could very easily fall into the literalism I warn against.

I must admit, I am sympathtic to Karl Rahner's axiom "The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity." However, I do try to qualify this axiom from some of its more contemporary interpretations. Nevertheless, with Rahner, I believe the revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit truly is divine self-revelation. I believe that other Trinitarian language or new Trinitarian language would eventually undermine or take away what this language points toward in the divine life. In other words, I do believe changing the Trinitarian formula will change our apprehesion and our understanding of God. Perhaps, it would be helpful to trace historically how tampering with this language has impacted theology and worship or begin to think how changing God language would do this.

I do believe there is a great distinction between pantheism and panentheism. As a United Methodist, I am very familiar with the panentheism of John Cobb. I am also familiar with and have appreciation for Jurgen Moltmann's Trinitarian panentheism. While I may have some sympathies with panentheism, particuarly as articulated by Moltmann, I do not hold to it and reject it. I hold to a historically orthodox position here. Perhaps in a future post, I will discuss my objections to panentheism, specifically as articulated by Moltmann.

Again, thank you for your comments.

At 5:29 AM, Blogger Mike Cline said...

Could it be that the perspective we need to take on God-language depends on the tradition we are trying to live within and influence?

In the UMC tradition and other mainlines, I think one could make a case that the "personal nature" of God with each individual believer has been downplayed historically (at least most recently) in favor of a larger view of God concerned with social justice and equality of all humanity. In this scenario, to further change the language of the Trinity to being even less personal would be to push the tradition further away from the personal relationship God desires.

On the other hand, many smaller non-mainline churches have always used "it's a personal relationship with Jesus" as their mantra to push theological perspectives to the fringe. These denominations hardly have the time to consider the metaphorical nature of God-language. After all, there are souls God wants to reunite himself with. We can't get caught up in all this language. Just say it how the "Bible says it."

For these churches, perhaps it would be good to have this discussion and push the envelope more towards gender neutrality, if not for anything more than the thinking and discussion that would have to take place. It would enlarge their view of God and revelation.

Agree or disagree?

At 9:26 AM, Blogger Eric Roemer said...

Dr. Bounds,

This really is a great post and brings to light an issue that I personally have be much afraid no one else thought was much of an issue at all. I believe that everything you said is very true. There is only negative pay off to make this shift in terminology… this shift if perception.

I am terrified that these contemporary trends, puffed up with self-assurance boarding on arrogance, are leading us farther and farther away from the traditions that our fathers (and mothers to be P.C.) did so carefully and with such patience, prayerful perfect over so many generation as safeguards to God’s people and Christ’s bride. The Church’s history has laid such a firm foundation for this road that is leading us into the future of completing the work left for us in building God’s kingdom… but so many are more pre-occupied with building new roads than finishing the journey that has been set out for us… but I am only 25 years old so what do I know about the importance of tradition.

Paul said, “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth…”

With so much left to be done, I have to believe that it stills, ontologically speaking, grieves the heart of God that a sleeping giant like the UM church, as well as many others, that have the resources in place to really make a significant difference for the kingdom, find themselves so entangled in these distractions. Rather than do the things we already know we should be doing, we choose to rehash those things that have already be established. “… Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity…”

Wouldn’t it be great to see the church living out it’s full potential.

At 12:15 PM, Blogger Elizabeth Glass-Turner said...

In the God-language issue, I have also read a lot of material that avoids personal pronouns by constructing sentences like, "God's nature determines God's actions." While I sympathize with those who've grown up picturing God as male and attempting to escape that anthropomorphism, I do think that ultimately it is vital to the essence of the Christian faith that we stick with personal pronouns.

At 7:55 PM, Blogger B. COKER, SR. said...


At 10:46 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

David, Really? No hints? How about when Paul said there were those that were PERFECT and those that weren't PERFECT. The very word perfect throws it off, but due diligence shows that is speaking of maturity. Paul said as spiritually mature as Jesus the Christ was. I don't know about you, but I'm not there yet. But Paul said we are to be there by GOD's changing of our lives.

The meat and the milk, there is another reference to two levels of maturity in sanctification.

On level is by Grace God perceives you as Holy, atonement.
The other level is God has changed your heart and mind and you are made holy.

Most likely you think it's impossible because you can't make that much of a change. And if it were up to you that would be correct. But, it says HE will make the change, so do you find Him a liar or incapable? It's gotta be one of the two if you are right and it isn't there...

At 2:58 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism, the Trinity, and panentheism, please check out my website at It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

* The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

For more details, please see:

Samuel Stuart Maynes


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