When I attended a gathering in Pasadena five years ago to discuss the doctrine of the Trinity, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Charles Wiley and others from the Office of Theology and Worship were holding a series of forums around the country in response to an action of the 2000 General Assembly that a group be constituted to study the doctrine of the Trinity in the theology, life and worship of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I was intrigued by the idea that the Assembly had called for a theological discussion. Before the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity and before “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,” the Trinity Task Force (now a “Work Group”) was the first time a theological committee had been formed at the GA level since reunion in 1983.
As a result of that meeting and a lunch with Charles Wiley, I have spent the last five years of my life reading, studying, discussing, listening, writing, editing and moderating–all in hopes of helping our church think more fully and faithfully about the doctrine of the Trinity. I have been joined on this journey by a group of excellent theologians all of whom share a deep desire to think, explore, reflect, discover, rediscover, renew, and share theological insights about the Triune God whom we worship as Christians and as Presbyterians.
Each of us felt called to this task for the theological challenge it presented. Though the motions and mandates that called us into being had some interest in theological language, none of us ever saw language as the primary focus of our work. Yet theology is “God-talk” and our task is, at least in part, finding ways to express what we have come to know and believe about the One God, the Three-in-One God who made us and loves us. In our study of the Bible and the prayers and writings of the faithful throughout the ages, we found “Overflowing Love” to be an expansive, biblical metaphor for our God. In all our discussions we found ourselves dancing between tried and true idioms for the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), unsung biblical images (Grace, Love, Communion; Speaker, Word and Breath), and less-known traditional forms (Augustine’s Lover, Beloved, Love).
We have been gratified by the discussions that have taken place in the larger church. We have received many, many affirming responses and many thoughtful critiques. I believe that our written reflection (“The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing” http://www.pcusa.org/theologyandworship/issues/trinityfinal.pdf ) offers a faithful theological study that can help the whole church renew its doctrine, worship, and practice of the Trinitarian faith. We realize it will take some effort to work through the paper we have written.
As you can imagine, sharp criticisms have been leveled against the report, mostly coming from what I call the “always” and the “never” folk. Whatever disagreement we have aroused still seems to center on the one idiom: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The “always” folk feel that “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is the only way we can faithfully speak about the Triune God. This is God’s proper name, given by Jesus in the Great Commission. Because Jesus called God “Father,” we are to use this form of address exclusively or primarily. Gerrit Dawson, writing for the Layman, puts forth this critique:
Specifically, the paper fails to affirm that the Father-Son relationship is at the heart of God’s revelation of himself to us. The reason for such a deep theological lacuna is the paper’s aversion to recognizing the Father and the Son at all. …Frankly, I don’t mind most of the metaphors suggested because they are Biblical. But they are not primary, and they only have integrity if tethered, not just in a titular way, but in a dynamic, constant interaction with what is revealed as essential: Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Gerrit Dawson, Layman Online).
Anyone who reads the paper will see that we do recognize the crucial relationship expressed in the words of the Great Commission, the early creeds, and the liturgy of the church as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” We affirm the foundational nature of this idiom (p. 4, lines 195-6) and we claim it as a root (p. 11, lines 533-4) and an anchor for all our theological reflection.
Faced with the alternatives of never confessing God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and only confessing God as Father, Son and, Holy Spirit, we see a third way more consistent with the scriptures and theological and liturgical tradition. The language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, rooted in scripture and creed, remains an indispensable anchor for our efforts to speak faithfully of God. (p. 7, lines 329ff.)
Our desire is to expand the church’s Trinitarian vocabulary in a way that is biblical, confessional and relational.
To the “always” folk, we say this: “We are not seeking to do away with the fatherhood of God or the sonship of Jesus Christ. In fact, we affirm this relationship throughout the paper as an ‘anchor,’ a ‘foundation,’ ‘a root,’ that gives rise in a crucial way to all our Trinitarian thinking. However, we do not believe that ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ is God’s proper name; in fact, we have tried not to name God. We believe that to be faithful in our worship, our theology and our practice there must be more than one way to give voice to our belief in the Triune God.”
There are others in our church who believe we should never call God “Father.” Some of these folk want to move away from the Father, Son and Holy Spirit idiom altogether. The “never” folk see this idiom as exclusively masculine and hierarchical. Those who would avoid this form altogether believe that it has too often been used to encourage and sanction patriarchy, sexism, and even abuse in the church and in human relations.
Those who have read the paper will see that we also question the ways this familiar idiom has been used within the church. This is precisely why we see it as so crucial to rediscover, to renew, to expand our Trinitarian theology–because we have limited our thinking and relied on “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” exclusively. We believe that no single idiom or triad can say everything that could be said or needs to be said about the mystery of this One in Three God. Each triad or set of images we have put forth is rooted in Scripture, in the prayers of the faithful, and in our Reformed heritage. No one is perfect. Together they move us toward a fuller expression of our faith in the Triune God. We agree with Calvin on this:
If all that can be said or imagined about love were brought together into one, yet it would be surpassed by the greatness of the love of God. By no metaphor, therefore, can God’s incomparable goodness be described” (Commentary on Isaiah 46:3).
To the “never” folk, we say this: “We are not seeking to do away with any faithful, biblical imagery that can expand our vocabulary of praise and thanksgiving. We recognize the ways that classic theology, including the doctrine of the Trinity have served to oppress God’s children and sanction violence and abuse. We are calling on believers to open up rather than to restrict our knowledge and understanding of God. Our theological opening seeks to be moored in Scripture and rooted in our Reformed traditions.”
We believe we have put forth a theological reflection that is faithful, biblical, and expansive. We are not surprised that there would be some disagreement about a reflection such as ours; in fact, the whole point of such a work is to engage in theological dialogue. I believe I speak for the whole work group when I say that we have tried to reflect theologically on behalf of the whole church and we have sought always to be faithful in this task.
Rebecca B. Prichard, Ph.D., is pastor of Tustin (Calif.) Church and moderator of the Trinity Work Group.