The Trinity and God Language
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.