Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Presbyterians and the Trinity

Given that I attend a Presbyterian church, I don't know why it took me almost a year to hear about the Presbyterian position paper on the Trinity. It's not bad, all things considered, and it's actually not as bad as much of the fuss would indicate. Even so, it included the following odd little paragraph:

In praising the triune God we use biblical language, both classic –

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,

and surprising –

Mother, Child, and Womb.

We may use words that speaks of the inner relations of the Godhead –

Lover, Beloved, Love,

and those that speak of the loving activity of the Three among us –

Creator, Savior, Sanctifier,

Rock, Redeemer, Friend,

King of Glory, Prince of Peace, Spirit of Love.

Although the paper was formally "received and commended", my pastor tells me that's just a bureaucratic way of burying the thing quietly. Still, I thought I'd add my own (rather belated) voice to the chorus of complaints.

I fully agree with the idea that human language is inadequate to describe the Trinity, or indeed, any aspect of God. It's a profoundly orthodox concept to acknowledge that "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" is a metaphorical and not a literal description of the Godhead. And in playful contexts, like poetry, or even some theological settings, I wouldn't be entirely averse to "trying out" other kinds of metaphorical language, for the shock value, if nothing else. (Paul Jewett did this in interesting ways in his chapter on the divine attributes, in the first volume of his systematic theology.)

But there are real problems with advocating language like "Mother, Child and Womb" or "Rock, Redeemer, Friend" as Trinitarian formulas for use in settings of public worship. These problems include:

  • When people in the church hear substitutions like this, i.e., when the language we use for God becomes interchangeable and insubstantial, it implies that God Himself is interchangeable and insubstantial. Now of course, I'm not suggesting that we should have an approved list of metaphors and a disapproved list. People understand the difference (even if they can't express it) between descriptions/adjectives/attributes on the one hand, and names/titles/identities on the other. It's more permissible (and indeed, much more common) to play with the first; and it's more dangerous to mess with the second. In our search for words to describe and celebrate what God has done, Christians have delighted to call God "the rock of my salvation" or "the stone the builder rejected", and we take comfort that God watches over us "like a hen watches over her chicks": these are descriptions of what God does. But it's another thing entirely to replace "Father" with "Rock" or "Mother" in a cherished, ancient and tested formula: the creeds try to tell us who God is. The very stability of these creedal formulas over the centuries points to a living God who is real and personal and there; and who is not merely an abstract concept. The Gospel does not need to change to speak to our modern world; indeed, it speaks to our ever-changing world precisely because it does not change.

  • I fully get that God is not gendered in any physical sense, but I still think it's a mistake to use feminine language for God in settings of public worship. Your average Christian isn't going to understand the difference between calling God "Mother", and Goddess worship of the flavor that Wiccans advocate. Even though there are occasional overlaps between Christian and Wiccan or pagan conceptions of God (and I think those points of contact are worth exploiting for evangelistic purposes), the Christian understanding of God remains dramatically different from Wiccan conceptions: and in our pluralistic, syncretistic society, any language we use for God needs to highlight, rather than gloss over, those distinctions. Obviously, both "making" and "begetting" are metaphors: but you can't change "God created the heavens and the earth" into "the Goddess gave birth to the world" without changing Christianity out for a different religion altogether.

  • It is true that all God language is metaphorical; but some metaphors are better or more central than other metaphors. The Bible regularly addresses us as God's children; occasionally as His bride; rarely as His friend. Similarly, God appears regularly to us as Father; occasionally as a rock; periodically as a lion; rarely as a chicken. The reason is because the "Father/Child" metaphor is a much better, much more central, much deeper and richer metaphor to mine for meaning, than the others. We ignore it at our peril.

  • One of the key tenets of Christianity is that we are addressed by a God who speaks: who seeks us out, who reveals Himself to us, who is, indeed, the Hound of Heaven. If we are free to exchange the language of God's self-revelation for anything else that happens to suit us better, that implies a very different sort of religion. (The language of "Mother" and "womb" can only be described as this sort of substitution.) Indeed, it is very nearly Pelagian in its implication that we are searching for God, rather than that God is searching for us. When we are seen searching for words, it implies that we are searching for God: but when we humbly receive the words we have been offered, it implies not just that we have found God, but much more importantly, that He has found us.

Just some initial thoughts.

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