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The Trinity By Any Other Name?

Fr. John Breck

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Yesterday's local paper relegated the brutal war in Afghanistan and Iraq to page eight and didn't even mention that California is in imminent danger of breaking off at the San Andreas Fault and floating out into the Pacific. The lead article on page one read "Episcopalians 'regret' gay rift." This was conjoined with another piece, titled "Trinity by any other name just as holy, Presbyterians say."

This juxtaposition was hardly fair to the Presbyterians, since it seemed to place the two issues in the same dubious category, as though their struggle to "reclaim the Trinity" in their theology and worship stems from and raises problems equivalent to those that are creating turmoil in the Episcopal Church. In fact, they are entirely different matters. The latter turns on a fundamental moral question: the appropriateness of ordaining as bishops or other clerics those who are active homosexuals. The Presbyterians, on the other hand, while facing similar ethical issues with regard to the pastoral ministry, are engaged in a serious quest to reclaim "the doctrine of the Trinity in theology, worship, and life." 1.

The way the Associated Press article addressed this effort toward renewing Trinitarian faith among Presbyterians made it seem rather farcical. It pointed out that the church's national assembly tentatively approved a modification of the way traditional terminology, "Father, Son and Holy Spirit," is used in theological discourse and worship. In addition to those classic Names, parishes may now opt for metaphors such as "Mother, Child, Womb"; or "Rock, Redeemer, Friend." It was enough to make an Orthodox reader wince ("Glory to the Rock"? "O Heavenly Womb"?)

The documents cited here in the footnote nevertheless represent a serious and commendable effort to present traditional Trinitarian doctrine as it is rooted in Scripture and developed throughout Church history (particularly Augustine). The authors lament the fact that by eliminating masculine names for God in the interests of "inclusive" language, Presbyterians have come to use the single expression "God" to the exclusion of Trinitarian designations. This has led to what Charles Wiley calls a "functional Unitarianism." He goes on to show the inadequacy of other popular names for the Triune God, such as "Creator/Christ/Spirit," or "Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer." Then he proposes, in addition to the biblical designations "Father/Son/Spirit," other expressions that conform to three criteria (presented in the original statement, "The Trinity: God's Love Overflowing"): the terms must have an inner relationship; they must be personal or functional (the two should not be mixed); and the functional terms cannot replace personal terms, "but can amplify and enrich our understanding of God."

It is this last phrase that raises the most serious questions for Orthodox and others who treasure traditional Christian Faith. Although these images may be found scattered throughout the two Testaments, to what extent do designations such as "The One to Whom, the One by Whom, and the One in Whom we offer our praise"; or "Overflowing Font, Living Water, Flowing River"; or "Rock, Cornerstone and Temple"; or "The Fire that Consumes, the Hammer that Breaks, the Storm that Melts Mountains" really "amplify and enrich our understanding of God"?

Reading these texts gives the impression that they confuse two separate issues. On the one hand, there is a genuine concern to recover an authentic, traditional vision of God, provided by his self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ. This concern has led those responsible for the documents to synthesize in a very positive way traditional Trinitarian dogma, stressing the inner relationships of the three Persons (God ad intra) as well as their unique and undivided operation within history, the divine economy of salvation (God ad extra).

On the other hand, in order to adapt this traditional vision of the Trinity to modern forms of worship and integrate it into the church's mission activity, the authors feel it necessary to find metaphors and other figures that respond to what is basically a sociological and political issue: the perceived need to eliminate masculine names for the three Persons of the Godhead because of abuses that have, throughout the history of the Church, led to male domination and the subordination of women. Confusion between these two leaves the reader with the impression that the proposed new names or figures for the Trinity result more from a need for political correctness than from a concern for theological accuracy.

If Orthodox Christians continue to insist on the appropriateness of "Father/Son/Spirit" to designate the three divine Persons, and are reluctant to admit any other "Names," it is because of ecclesial experience as well as of scriptural revelation. Our life in the Church -- including, among other elements, personal prayer, liturgical celebration, participation in the sacraments, and ascetic struggle toward "holiness" or sanctification -- confirm what we know of God from the way he reveals himself to us in Scripture. God of course is "beyond gender." Nevertheless, in our experience he relates and reveals himself to us precisely as Father: the Father of his eternal Son, Jesus Christ, and the Father of us all, a Father who, through the revelatory work of the Son and the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit, transforms us into "children of God" (John 1:12-13, 18; Rom 8:12-17). Jesus is the incarnate Son of the Father, who assumes the fullness of our nature, dies and rises from death, in order to sanctify and glorify us: a truth and a reality that is sadly distorted by such inadequate figures as "Ray," "Cornerstone," or "Hammer that Breaks"(!). And the Spirit remains the Holy Spirit of God, who "proceeds from the Father" and is sent into the world by the Father and the Son to create, inspire, reveal and sanctify. As the divine Breath (ruah, pneuma -- yes, feminine in Syriac tradition), the Spirit "is everywhere present, filling all things"; Spirit is the divine Life-force who brings beauty and harmony to the creation, while leading us from futility to saving hope (Gen 1:2; Rom 8:18-25).

Interpreted and used properly, a great many biblical images can, without doubt, illumine our understanding of God's person and work. But to substitute those figures, those metaphors, for the personal Names that God himself has revealed to us leads inevitably to spiritually destructive heresy, a tragic distortion of the true image and identity of the Triune God, as he has made himself known to us throughout history and within our own life and experience. Moreover, the very idea that some Presbyterians ministers might "baptize" using those metaphors suggests that there exist between them and us basic and irreconcilable differences in our respective understandings of the nature and person of God.

This said, however, we should give thanks that certain Presbyterian theologians are working as they are toward recovering an authentic Trinitarian theology, grounded in Scripture and church tradition. Compared to what's going on elsewhere, their efforts should elicit our support and our prayer. In a recent Newsweek magazine (June 26, 2006), the openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson responds to a reporter's question, "How do you reconcile what the Bible says about homosexuality with your lifestyle?" The good bishop's reply: "The people who are taking the Bible literally [read 'seriously'] are absolutely outside of the Anglican tradition." Most Anglicans, of course, would disagree. But would most Episcopalians?

So it is within the churches today. While we need to denounce the self-serving hermeneutics of Bp. Robinson, we can nevertheless applaud the work of pastors and theologians everywhere who are struggling to restore to the life and worship of their communities a true understanding and appreciation of God, in the depths of his personal being and in his saving love for the world.


1. "The Trinity: God's Overflowing Love," statement of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), www.pcusa.org/theologyandworship. See as well the summary paper by Charles Wiley, "Reclaiming the Trinity," www.pcusa.org/today/believe/past/may05/trinity.htm, with the link to William E. Phipps, "The doctrine of the Trinity is not irrational."

Read the entire article on the Orthodox Church in America website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 10-Jul-06

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