This is part 4, where we will look at the notion of “inclusive and expansive language” as it pertains to the doctrine of the Trinity.
Part ONE of the series, which will served as an overview and introduction to the ideological issues at hand, can be found HERE.
Part TWO, where we talk about the concept of liturgy itself, can be found HERE.
Part THREE of our series, which will trace the development of our Prayer Book, can be found HERE.
We also have a part 3.5, found HERE, which summarizes the third part and talks a bit about the ethos of Prayer Book revision in The Episcopal Church.
This is the ordinary sentence that opens our Sunday services. With these words we invoke God as Trinity, a complicated and central part of Christian belief where we hold that God is completely One, while also revealed to us through three personae.
That Christians take for granted this idea is reflected in such pop-cultural statements like famous words of Don McLean’s “American Pie:”
And the three men I admire most: The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
And they were singing
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
But in recent years this taken-for-grantedness has been challenged.
The feminist critique, in particular, has called on The Church to revisit some of its crucial language about God, calling us to consider whether or not a God defined in masculine terms continues to support the marginalization, abuse, and/or oppression of women throughout the world. In her introduction to the first volume of Enriching Our Worship (shortened here as EOW1), Phoebe Pettingell of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music writes:
“Since [the adoption of the 1789 Book of Common Prayer], our Church has continued to seek an authorized language of Common Prayer capable of expressing what we believe about God, as well as reflecting on our own corporate and individual relationship to the Godhead. In formulating our prayers to the Trinity, we come to know God more closely.” (EOW1, p. 7, emphasis mine)
She goes on to note that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church authorized EOW1 in response to the discomfort of “ears attuned to contemporary language and culture” with, among other things, exclusively masculine language for God (see p. 8 of EOW1).
At this point it will be helpful to note that the desire for non-gendered or even feminine language for God is not simply an exercise in, say, caving to the pressures of a secular society. The Bible itself is rife with non-gendered and feminine language for God—from the language around Wisdom (see the books of Proverbs and Wisdom of Solomon), to the various prophetic instances of God serving a mothering role to Israel (Hosea 11:3-4, Hosea 13:8, Isaia 42:14, Isaiah 49:15, Isaiah 66:13—not to mention the references in Psalm 123 and 131), and even including Jesus who speaks of Himself in terms of mothering (Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34), as well as using a woman searching for a lost coin as a metaphor for God (Luke 15:8-10). Saint Paul even goes on to say, in I Corinthians 1:30, that Jesus “became” God’s wisdom* for us (and, remember, God’s wisdom is always spoken of as feminine). And, of course, The Name, translated as I AM (rendered as “Lord” in many English Bibles), is a non-gendered name for God (see Exodus 3:14).
This is a short sampling of examples, but they are enough to show that even within the Bible itself, God is not exclusively depicted as “masculine.”
And so, we have seen a few attempts at offering an alternative for the traditional “trinitarian formulary” of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in non-gendered terms. As we did in the forum on Sunday, we’ll look at three options being used: Creator, Redeemer, and Sancifier; Lover, Beloved, and Love Over-flowing; Source, Well-spring, and Living Water. We will treat each of these on their own, where I’ll talk about what I think works and what doesn’t.
Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier**
This “formulary” appears in EOW1’s version of The Great Litany.*** It is also in common enough usage that The Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith felt the need to issue a statement about this (which says that the use of such alternative titles for the Trinitarian persons at baptism renders that baptism invalid).
While this has been around long enough for general distaste for it to exist (even Phoebe Pettingell’s introduction to EOW1 notes this), much of the language has entered into the wider liturgy (see note on the Great Litany below).
As for the origin of this, I have no idea. I’ve long heard that it comes from Saint Augustine of Hippo, but I’ve not been able to corroborate that in my (admittedly brief) research—unlike the next alternative, which does come from Saint Augustine, as you’ll see.
What I think works:
When used in a fashion such as “Blessed be the undivided Trinity, who is Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier” I find that my understanding of the Trinity is enriched. This is because, as a whole, our Trinitarian God does the work of creation, redemption, and sanctification. Just speaking of creation, the Nicene Creed declares that the Father is is the “maker of heaven and earth” and “of all that is, seen and unseen.” The Creed goes on to say of Jesus that “through Him all things were made.” And scripture attests to the Spirit moving “over the face of the waters” (see Genesis 1:2).
Further, we know that the Father’s redemptive love is revealed to Israel (just look at the story of the Exodus), made fully manifest in Jesus (see John 3:16), and Saint Paul tells of the Spirit’s role in setting us “free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).
And, finally, the work of sanctification. Sanctification is the process of being made holy, which follows a command from the Father given to His people, Israel: “be holy because I am holy” (repeated throughout the book of Leviticus). The Father provides the means in which to be made holy, with His divine law (the Torah) and, more fully, in Jesus. God the Son tells us that He is “the way, the truth, and the life.” This language is evocative of the intended purposes of Torah, which provided the path that leads to God-like holiness. Jesus provides a better way to achieve that holiness, through emulation of His life and through the grace extended to us by His cross and subsequent resurrection. And the Spirit draws us toward that work, and fills us, unifying us into one body (see Ephesians 4:3).
So, again, the Trinitarian God does the work of creating, redeeming, and sanctifying.
How I think it doesn’t work:
This is where I introduce you to the heresy of modalism.
Modalism is the view that the One God appears to us in various modes. In more traditional language, at times God is (in the mode of) Father, or Son, or Spirit.
The rationale behind this belief is an attempt to reconcile the “Oneness” of God as revealed in the Hebrew scriptures with the three “persons” revealed through Jesus. Indeed, most of our heresies arise from attempts at reconciling these notions.
So, we get ourselves in trouble when we make Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer equivalent to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As we’ve already seen, all three of these actions are performed by all persons of the Trinity. The Father is not only a creator, etc.
Further, we lose the relational language of the Trinitarian persons. A Father “begets” a Son (to use the Nicene Creed’s language here). Does a Creator “beget” a Redeemer?
I think that this alternative leaves much to be desired, while also risking to place limitations on God (again, Fathers are more than creators and Sons are more than redeemers).
Lover, Beloved, and Love Over-flowing
This is an alternative that I’ve heard only a few times, most recently at the start of a homily given at one of the daily Eucharists at General Convention. It also has its origin in Saint Augustine of Hippo—from his vaunted De Trinitate.
What I think works:
In Eastern Christian theology is the concept of perichoresis, which is a thing that has also garnered a bunch of interest in the West—even, notably, among more liberal Christian communities. In short, perichoresis is often described as “the divine dance of the Trinity.”
Within the “life” of the Trinity (in theology called “the Economic Trinity”‡) is a constant procession of love. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit, the Son (in turn) loves the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit loves both the Father and the Son. These infinite processions between the three persons of the Trinity are vibrant and full of love, love emanating between and among each person. And that love, as it extends to us, sweeps us up into the dance and we participate in the life of God by both receiving Trinitarian love and giving our own love back to each person of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As with the above, the Trinity collectively offers love, receives love, and that love flows over into the world called into being by God.
How I think it doesn’t work:
There’s a famous image of the Trinity (the “Trinitarian Shield”):
Further, we find ourselves with the same questions surrounding Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier and whether or not that “formulary” is equivalent to the relational formulary of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Source, Well-spring, and Living Water
This alternative is not in wide use, but comes to me from an essay on the Trinity by David S. Cunningham (found in The Oxford Companion to Postmodern Theology). In his work, he advocates for this formulary as a more apt non-gendered option than the others.
What I think works:
As we’ve seen with the above options, there is much to be desired in terms of relational language. In other words, are the relationships between “creators and redeemers” or “lovers and beloved” equal to the relationships between fathers and sons?
The Nicene Creed is quite assertive in its “processional” language. Both the Son and the Spirit proceed from The Father‡‡. So the relational dynamic between the Trinitarian persons is central to the doctrine. And this option attempts to preserve that relational dynamic.
When I see this, I think of the number of springs that exist in Central Florida, where I grew up. Rock Springs, at Kelly Park in Apopka particularly comes to mind. The actual spring itself—the source—is hidden, an actual mystery (here, recalling Jesus’ words of the Father, that no one has seen Him). But you can see the well-spring itself flowing out of a collection of rocks, hence the name (which makes me think of the story of Moses striking the rock in the wilderness). This flows out of the rocks into a fairly deep natural pool, and then off into a stream, good for snorkeling and tubing (if you can stand the 68°F water!).
Using that example, I understand the relationships between the three images (it feels weird to call them persons here—another thing we’ll talk about below). The Source begets the Well-Spring, from which flows the Living Water. Applying the doctrine perichoresis mentioned above, we see how our live is lived in the flow of that Living Water, which is given to us as a gift from both the Source and the Well-spring (or, a gift from the Source by way of the Well-Spring).
In some ways this is similar to something I mentioned in a Trinity Sunday sermon a ways back, where I spoke of Mind, Thought, and Utterance as a way to (possibly) understand the Trinity. Again, this preserves the relational dynamic of the Trinity, avoids the potential heresies of other options, while also addressing the gender concerns of our society.
How I think it doesn’t work:
Genesis tells us that humans, whether female or male, are created in the image of God. Does that mean we are rivers?
The constant flow of love between and among the three persons of the Trinity is meant, partly, to teach us about our own inter-personal relationships. We are called by God to imitate God and that imitation misses something when we lose the personal aspects of the Trinitarian persons.
And this brings me to a summary of all three of these options and where they all fall short: they are not the words of Jesus.
Christian theology is founded on the principle that Jesus is the decisive and supreme revelation of God. He is God incarnate, made flesh. As I’ve mentioned in earlier entries in this series, God is sovereign, which means that God gets to do what God wants because God is God. And what God chose to do of His own agency and freedom was to reveal Himself through the man Jesus, who in turn spoke of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit—even as He referred to Himself as God the Son.
We did not invent this language. The language of the Trinity was a gift given to us. And it is our responsibility to receive that gift and to meditate on the richness of God in God’s choice in what has been given.
The Father-ness and Son-ness of God is just as crucial to understanding and knowing God as is God’s Spirit-ness. We do not get to invent God. In fact, doing so is the heart of idolatry. Rather, we receive God. We are always receptive of God. That’s the nature of the sacraments, a key piece of what they are trying to teach us.
At the same time, God is revealed also in non-gendered and even feminine language, as we’ve already seen. Further, it is not outside of our theology to name God (see Hagar’s story). This is where the category of “expansive” is important.
In Austin, at the General Convention, a delegate took the floor to point out what she perceived as a discrepancy in the proposed inclusive and expansive language rite II liturgy.
At the revised reading of the Gospel, the deacon says “The Holy Gospel of our Savior Jesus Christ according to ________.” The people respond with “Glory to you, Lord Christ.”
Notice that one says “Savior” and the other says “Lord.” In our current service, “Lord” is used both times.
The delegate lamented that having both terms was, to her mind, not “inclusive or expansive.” I’ll get to the issues surrounding the term “Lord” in a later part of this series, because it is a worthwhile discussion. For now, I want to keep focused on the general notions of what we mean when we say “inclusive and expansive language. Because, in the most literal sense, including both “Lord” and “Savior” is quite inclusive and expansive.
“Inclusive” is a bit of a buzzword these days and tends to refer to moves to make people of various walks of life feel welcome and part of the life the Church. And, so the thinking goes, we alter our language to accommodate and, well, include said individuals. Our language ought to reflect our inclusive nature.
At the same time, “inclusive” can refer to the number of linguistic allusions and metaphors employed. And in this case, including as much language about God helps us in expanding our understanding of God.† Indeed, this is at the heart of what is meant by “inclusive and expansive language” for God. And as such, I think that there is a place for some (emphasis on some) of the alternative Trinitarian language.
I think there’s been an implicit notion throughout this whole discussion and that implicit notion is that none of the alternatives are comprehensible without Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as their root. Aside from these being the names given to us by Jesus Himself, all of our Trinitarian understanding hinges on the traditional formulary. And so, whether we say “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer;” or “Lover, Beloved, and Love Over-flowing;” or even “Source, Well-spring, and Living Water” we need Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as part of our language in order to give shape and meaning to these alternatives. Because they are elucidations on our familiar language.
And so, I think we can use this language, so long as it is used alongside what is more familiar and traditional. Also, such usage is going to require intentional Christian theological formation.
This gets back to one of the initial issues that we face in regards to Prayer Book revision: trust. In short, many of us (and I’m speaking largely personally here) do not trust that those doing the work of revision have any of this in mind. That they are, echoing the complaints of the delegate I mentioned above, confusing “inclusive and expansive language” for “replacement language.”
Resolution A068, which outlines the conversation around prayer book revision, states that “revision utilize the riches of Holy Scripture and our Church’s liturgical, cultural, racial, generational, linguistic, gender, physical ability, class and ethnic diversity in order to share common worship.” This is a very generous statement and is something that does not permit simple replacement. Rather it calls on us to hold our long-standing traditional language for God alongside both neglected scriptural language, as well as new language that is revealed to us.
In other words, to be truly inclusive and expansive, we can’t forget God’s revelation as Son and Father. Nor can we refuse to sing of Christ our Mother as Dame Julian of Norwich did, or consider the power of God telling us of the ways in Israel was born and nursed at God’s breast.
Blessed be the God who has been revealed to us. Blessed be the Word made human who walked among us. Blessed be the undivided Trinity who creates, redeems, and sustains us. Blessed be the Source, Well-spring, and Living Water at work, bringing about God’s reign.
Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!
(For part FIVE, click HERE)
*The Greek word we translate as “became” here is the same word used to describe “The Word becoming flesh” in John’s gospel. So, in other words, Jesus incarnates God’s wisdom.
** In the forum I was working off of memory and spoke of this one as “Creator, Sanctifier, Sustainer.” So, if you attended the class and are confused here, please accept my apologies.
*** It’s not an overt thing, like “Blessed be God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.” But the language is clear. It reads (I added the Cs and Ps to denote Celebrant and People for clarity):
C Holy God, Creator of Heaven and earth,
P Have mercy on us.
C Holy and Mighty, Redeemer of the world,
P Have mercy on us.
C Holy Immortal One, Sanctifier of the faithful,
P Have mercy on us.
C Holy, blessed and glorious Trinity, One God,
P Have mercy on us. (See EOW1, p. 46)
Further, such language—particularly exchanging “Father” for “Creator”—is common all over the various liturgies of the EOW series.
‡ This does not refer to “economics” as we understand the term today (as referring to money). Historically, “economy” is a word that refers to the functions and relationships of multiple things—how a group of something works. One might recall “Home Economics” as a class in school, which was about teaching the skills of managing a household. In theology, the Economic Trinity is the meditation and study on the dynamics of the three persons of the Trinity.
‡‡ I’ll address the filioque elsewhere.
† Often, “inclusive language” is short-hand for avoiding using gendered language in general. This is a challenge for English since English is a language that, for most of its life, has allowed the masculine to pull double-duty as the gender-neutral. But, following the feminist critique, such a notion has helped make women into an “other.” In terms of our Prayer Book, this is best experienced in places where we pray for others, where we find an italicized “he” serving as the normal placeholder for any gender. We’ll turn to this topic in another installment in this series.