Praising the Triune God: Beyond Gender?

by Ruth E. Duck

>Ruth C. Duck is assistant professor of worship at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and author of Gender and the Name of God: The Trinitarian Baptismal Formula.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 19-26, 1993, pp. 553-556. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


If we were to empty the term “Father” of human experience, we might as well call God some nonsense term and fill it with any meaning we choose.


Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism.

Edited by Alvin F. Kimel, Jr. Eerdmans, 337 pp., $21.95 paperback.

The 18 authors in this collection ask whether the feminist revision of Christian language changes classical Christian doctrines (especially the Trinity) beyond recognition. The answers vary. Robert W. Jenson says that feminists who want alternative names to "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" are "enemies of the church" and strongly implies that they are heretics. Janet Martin Soskice allows for alternative ways of naming while suggesting that "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" be used as well. Geoffrey Wainwright allows for alternatives, but insists that churches use "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" at key points of Christian worship such as baptisms, eucharistic prayers, creeds and ordinations. In one of the most irenic articles of the book, Thomas Hopko, a Greek Orthodox priest and professor, speaks confessionally of the importance of traditional triune naming for Orthodox churches, without condemning some variation in naming God.

The spectrum of views is sometimes startling: Elizabeth Achtemeier denounces women for divinizing the human when they use female language for God, whereas Hopko holds that deification of the human is a positive outcome of relationship with the triune God. But almost all the authors are reserved about feminist theology. Feminist theology is viewed at best as a strong spice to be used sparingly; at worst, as a poison to the faith.

Is Speaking the Christian God an example of backlash against the feminist movement? Is it inspired by the desire to fortify the bastions of male supremacy? I suspect backlash when angry polemic is joined with distortions and spurious arguments. At least three of the authors cite Jewish or pagan feminists to build up their argument that Christian feminist theology is post-Christian; this is hardly responsible scholarship. Some authors, such as Blanche A. Jenson, are responsible in their methodology, fairly representing the thinking of specific feminists they question. Other authors caricature Christian feminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, quoting them out of context without regard for the overall direction of their thought.

Some authors, especially Thomas Torrance, use masculine language for God and humanity so constantly that it is hard to believe that they are willing to give any ground in response to feminist claims for justice. Two of the authors even argue that using feminine pronouns for the divine introduces gender in a way that masculine pronouns do not—which surely reflects the assumption that maleness is normative. It is telling that Letty Russell, whose thought is solidly trinitarian and feminist, is mentioned only three times in passing in this lengthy book, and only one author considers Patricia Wilson-Kastner’s careful work in Faith, Feminism and the Christ. The contributors avoid evidence that does not support their thesis that feminism is dangerous to the church. Only four of the authors are women, and one of them (Elizabeth A. Morelli) does not discuss the Trinity at all. Either there is a male bias in selection of authors, or women theologians who think feminism endangers Christian faith are rare. It seems evident that in Speaking the Christian God backlash is at play to some degree among some authors.

At its best, however, the book challenges Christian feminists to exercise care in the task of language revision. If, as I hope, feminist and inclusive approaches to faith and worship are here to stay, then reflection and refinement are needed. Twenty years have passed since the first inclusive-language worship resources were published; most North American denominational hymnals or books of worship make some attempt at language revision. A sufficient body of material exists to merit reflection and critique as churches continue to inch their way toward more inclusive language. Provisional solutions (such as "Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer" for "Father, Son, Spirit") must be questioned and replaced or augmented by better alternatives. It is right to ask, as do the authors of Speaking the Christian God, whether the faith we are passing on to the next generation is in continuity with the faith of the past, even as it is continually reformed. If we avoid the difficult questions this book raises, we risk undermining our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But who is Jesus Christ? The question that provoked trinitarian thought in the first place is certainly the most important question to address in relation to this book.

Is Jesus Christ mainly to be remembered as the one who commanded his disciples to call God "Father"? One would certainly get that impression from reading this book. One author after another, in more or less sophisticated ways, advances the argument that because Jesus called God "Father," Christians must always call God "Father," at least when doing something important like baptizing or gathering around the table of the risen Christ.

Under closer scrutiny, the argument that we must call God "Father" because Jesus did is open to question. If we are not compelled in every prayer to ask for daily bread, why must every prayer begin with "Our Father"? How do we know Jesus never called God "Mother"? (He does just that in some reliable early Christian sources.) Why can we more easily call God "a mighty fortress" than a "mother eagle," when both images are based in scripture? Why, in considering Jesus’ parables, do we so often identify God with the prodigal father but rarely with the woman searching for the lost coin? Long traditions of calling God "Father," together with cultural biases that value maleness more than femaleness, are at work.

This brings us to the question of scripture interpretation. Alvin F. Kimel cites Matthew 28 as evidence that Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize in the name of "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Some of the best early manuscripts read "baptizing in my name." Why doesn’t Kimel, in his very scholarly article, admit this evidence? The authors often cite scripture, but, as in this case, do not make their hermeneutic explicit, seeming to apply a very literalistic method without much benefit from biblical scholarship. (Kimel also betrays ignorance of contemporary liturgical scholarship when he uses the term "command," harking back to Reformation understandings of the sacraments as "ordinances" we must obey rather than gifts for which we give thanks.)

The authors are most helpful when they focus not on proof texts from Jesus’ teaching but on our relationship of praise and devotion to the God incarnate in Jesus Christ. As theologians such as Karl Rahner and Catherine LaCugna have observed, the Trinity becomes meaningful as a teaching of the church when it is understood as a confession of the living, ongoing history of God with us. When understood as reflection on Christian faith and history, trinitarian confession is not a relic from the past but a central aspect of Christian identity. The phrase "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" points to the reality of God with us. Although other terms may be used to witness to this reality, revelation has a threefold structure. The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that Christians have come to know God through the Holy One made known to Israel; through the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and through the Spirit who creates and renews the church and the world. Without affirming what the Trinity has affirmed, Christianity loses its identity and its history. For God (who is one) has really come to us as the Holy One of Israel, as Jesus Christ and as Spirit.

Precisely because God really has come to us, rather than remaining aloof from human life, we can be bold to witness in words that express and nurture contemporary faith. Jesus is not only a teacher who lived long ago, leaving commands behind him. Jesus Christ is the one around whom Christians gather Sunday after Sunday in churches everywhere. Though often neglected in liturgy and hymns (and eclipsed in this volume by the Father-Son dyad), the Spirit also continues to work to liberate and transform all people and all creation. And so, shaped by and grateful for the witness of scripture but free to speak our own words of praise, we can use varied metaphors to speak of God. Because the Trinity is a living reality that embraces us, and no mere abstract doctrine, we are not bound by the liturgical formulations of the past. We are free and responsible to offer God praise with the best language we know.

The nature of the language that Christians use to speak to and about the triune God is, of course, a key issue in the debate. Christian feminists often suggest that language for God is by nature metaphorical (not literal or unchangeable). It draws on images and terms from human experience to describe God, who is both like and unlike any human experience. Authors such as Achtemeier and Wainwright agree that terms like "Father" or "Lord" are metaphors, but consider them revealed and irreplaceable metaphors. Achtemeier also argues that feminine images for God in scripture are similes; they only compare God to a female person, whereas scriptural metaphors actually identify God as King and Father. Thus masculine metaphors, unlike feminine similes, are authoritative for Christian worship. Other authors consider "Father" language about God to be analogical, not metaphorical; God can be called "Father" based on likeness to human fatherhood, though the likeness may be incomplete. Still others would prefer to speak of "Father" as a revealed name for God and encourage Christians not to confuse their experiences of human fathers with their experience of God. In these various ways authors support their claim that God must be called "Father" and never "Mother."

The crucial reality that these authors generally avoid is the human process of learning and comprehending. Some of the authors insist that we should not understand "Father" as a literally male term or that we should bracket all our experiences of fathers when speaking of God as Father. Yet in actual fact, children tend to understand terms rather literally until around ten years of age. In the years when understanding of and relationship to God is being formed, children will think literally on the basis of concrete experience and imagine that God is literally male. This can be difficult to unlearn in later life.

Further, metaphors create meaning by associating one experience with another. If we were to empty the term "Father" of human experience, it could not create meaning at all, and we might as well call God some nonsense term and fill it with any meaning we choose. Third, family life in the U.S. is in crisis. In this cultural context it is dangerous to use parental metaphors for God incessantly, while ignoring the degree to which parent-child relationships are problematic. Significant numbers of people are able to receive the grace and challenge of the gospel only when they hear God addressed in terms other than "Father" or even "Mother." It is only wishful thinking to argue that people ought not to associate such terms with their own experiences of parent-child relationships.

Whether "Father" is a metaphor, simile, analogy or name, the term cannot create meaning without some degree of association with human father-child relationships. Constant liturgical use of masculine language for God cannot help giving the impression that God is more male than female, no matter what theologians believe we ought to experience. If we are interested in leading people to a living relationship with the triune God, we cannot avoid the difficult question of whether the language we use actually helps us do that. These authors often ask us to avoid messy questions about how human experience affects the way we hear the language of praise, prayer and proclamation. We dare avoid these questions only if we are more interested in protecting tradition than in nurturing living faith.

The authors are right, however, to point to the danger of projecting our own image on God. If we create our own language for God, are we not in danger of creating God in our own image? If we do not use terms from scripture and tradition, are we not in danger of conceiving a God who only comforts and does not challenge us? A domesticated God who is like us without also standing in contrast to our unloving and unjust ways is surely an idol.

It is fascinating to note that both Christian feminists and their detractors accuse each other of idolatry. Christian feminists often argue that the exclusively masculine God of tradition is an idolatrous projection of male patriarchs, and that those who refuse to revise tradition are fleeing from the prophetic claims to justice. In turn, Garrett Green, Thomas Torrance and other writers in this volume accuse feminists of wanting to project their own image on God. These claims and counterclaims point to the need for a sense of our own limits in speaking of God, whether we are defending or challenging tradition. At times the debate about religious language seems like a pitched battle between political camps of the left and the right. Mutual respect, shared power, dialogue and patience with the process are needed. Yet unless we are all drawn toward something larger than ourselves—toward the One who calls us toward praise, love, community and justice—we will be preoccupied by petty battles and claims and counterclaims. Ultimately, the purpose of trinitarian thought and language is to move us toward lives of praising God and fulfilling God’s purposes for us.

Before the trinitarian and christological debates in the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians sang praise in language that was quite fluid while also at least implicitly trinitarian. Liturgical use of "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and the Holy Ghost," and "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" became more rigid and formulaic in various regions as a result of theological debates. Use of formulas has been required to demonstrate orthodoxy of belief and validity of sacraments. Thus when we think of trinitarian language in worship, such formulas come immediately to mind.

But if the real task of trinitarian language is to open us to the reality of the God made known in Jesus Christ through the Spirit, we may need to go deeper than formulas to find the language of witness, thanksgiving and praise. Consider Charles Wesley’s text "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling." The hymn is addressed to Jesus, who is named as "pure, unbounded love"; the singer prays, "Breathe, 0 breathe thy loving Spirit into every troubled breast." Then love divine is addressed as "Almighty" (the first person of the Trinity) and asked to come to deliver us and to "let us all thy life receive." The hymn ends with the prayer that God (Christ/Spirit/Almighty) will finish the new creation in us that we may take our place in heaven, "lost in wonder, love, and praise." This text may do more to witness to trinitarian faith than a stereotyped doxology does, though hymnal indexes rarely list it among hymns about the Trinity. The hymn expresses a living and transformative relationship with the triune God; it is fully doxological and directed toward lives that glorify God. Wesley’s hymn is grounded in salvation history. It makes no use of traditional masculine language, yet it witnesses powerfully to the triune God.

As this hymn shows, trinitarian faith has been expressed in a variety of ways. Most authors in Speaking the Christian God allow for some variation in imagery for the Trinity, so long as the language of "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" remains central. Indeed, many of the hymnals, worship books and feminist theologians that the authors criticize make room for some naming of God as "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" so long as masculine imagery is not overly dominant. Thus one could ask the authors exactly how often and at what points the Trinity must be called "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" without compromising the faith; one could also ask feminists how often and in what contexts one could invoke that naming without supporting male dominance. I believe that the best solution is to balance traditional masculine naming with feminine and nongendered naming, without reserving certain places for masculine language. I assume that this involves a gradual process of education, dialogue and critique in local parishes.

Speaking the Christian God may be of some use to local church pastors and worship leaders who address these questions week by week and evaluate alternative trinitarian naming. For example, Stephen M. Smith reviews some alternative eucharistic texts for the Episcopal Church, texts that speak of God giving birth to creation. His concern that this implies that creation is one substance with God is worth considering. Worship leaders may also want to ponder Wainwright’s critique of "Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer" as a common replacement for the traditional trinitarian formula. Wainwright argues that this revised formula risks confusing the persons of the Trinity, since all persons of the Trinity participate in creating, redeeming and sustaining. He also points out that using the formula "Creator, Christ, and Spirit" risks the misunderstanding that Christ and Spirit are creatures (since the traditional formula functioned to speak of the interrelations of the persons as well as their relation to creation). I would add that "Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer" could hardly be called an evocative metaphorical statement.

Such arguments could help worship leaders to consider whether the language of worship is adequately grounded in the revelation of God as Holy One, Christ, and Spirit. Unfortunately, the authors in this collection almost always turn to "Father, Son, and Spirit" as the only faithful way to name the divine; they do not suggest alternatives that they would accept, even as a complement to traditional naming. They help with the critique but not with the enrichment of contemporary feminist and inclusive naming of the divine.

How can we find words for praise and commitment to the triune God to complement "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit"? Scripture is a rich resource. It offers phrasing such as "the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit" (2 Cor. 13:13, abridged). It also offers a depth of understanding of God as Source, Christ, and Spirit that few churches have plumbed; each church tends to emphasize scripture witness to one person of the Trinity and minimize the rest.

Tradition is also an important source. For example, Jean Janzen draws upon the teaching of Julian of Norwich in a hymn addressed to "Mothering God/Mothering Christ/Mothering Spirit." Drawing on the same source, New York’s Riverside Church baptizes "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of us all." And we must look not only to the past, but also to contemporary experiences of faith to find words to praise the God of Jesus Christ. For this, I recommend the poets, whose task is always to find new words to praise the One whose steadfast love endures forever. Hymn writers such as Janzen, Carl Daw, Sylvia Dunstan, Shirley Erena Murray, Thomas Troeger and Brian Wren express trinitarian praise in imaginative, varied and faithful ways. These writers, whose work appears in denominational hymnals or single-author collections, provide models for complementing the well-worn phrase "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" in our worship and thanksgiving.

I believe that the churches must complement traditional naming of God with feminine and nongendered language. In this way they will witness more clearly to the gospel and withdraw support from the injustice of sexism. Faithfulness to the gospel and continuity with Christian tradition are also at stake, so critiques such as the ones voiced in Speaking the Christian God deserve consideration. So long as readers are alert to the dangers of backlash and methodological distortion, they may find it a useful articulation of questions yet to be adequately answered.