mother daughter spirit?

I am about to upload an essay onto my website (when my husband reminds me how I do that kind of thing) and I thought I would give you a little preview here. the essay is on the predominantly male language of the Trinity, and some of you might remember that this subject stimulated some interesting comments on these posts (1, 2, 3, 4) a few months ago.

Ought we to continue to name the Trinity as Father, Son and Spirit? Demonstrate an awareness of different strands of this debate in your answer.

For most Christians today this question is a non-question. There is no perceived reason to desist in naming God as Father, Son and Spirit. To even begin to explore this question is, for some, to venture into the territory of radical feminism and as such, they say, it has nothing to say to the ‘ordinary Christian’. And in many ways I can see their point. Why change, or even consider changing, something which is so rooted in Scripture and Tradition that to question it is to question the very foundations of faith? What conceivable point would we have for shaking these foundations? Does it really matter?

Why is it that people, women and men, are offended by the masculine language of God; God the Father and God the Son particularly? Is it because we are so offended by exclusivist language nowadays that we are automatically offended by exclusively male metaphors or names? I suggest this is not the case, the majority of people I know are not offended by exclusivist language, it simply does not occur to them to be offended. The idea of God as father is more likely to be problematic for those whose relationship with their father makes calling God ‘father’ difficult, or, to give another example, calling God ‘father’ might be difficult if people assume the legitimisation of the subjugation of women, because of the hierarchy perceived in the Trinity, the head being the Father. It is not merely the language that is offensive but the problem of disordered human relationships that make the idea of God as Father troublesome.

Of course there is disorder in all relationship, this is our context - the consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience was disorder in relationship: between human beings themselves and then with creatures, creation and God. And this disorder was perpetuated and made worse by Abel in the killing of his brother, with the deep consequence of further rupturing of human relationships - with their ‘brothers’ and with their God. So, we might say that to name God by any human relationship is problematic and that it is questionable to say that simply by using inclusive language of God we will remove the problem. However, ignoring the problem does not remove the consequences of solely masculine language either. We must move towards a better understanding of the nature of language particularly in relation to God.

It is universally recognised that language is limited for the things we would have it say, we see this particularly in the job of translation, where the word being translated does not have a direct equivalent in the language it is being translated into, we have to choose a word which might not give the exact meaning. When it comes to naming or describing God, this problem is manifold. By definition, any word that is describing God loses some of its meaning to us because it is God who it is describing. To say that God is good is wholly different than to say that I am good. To call God ‘father’ is saying something different than what it means to call our biological fathers ‘father’. We are much more able to say what that word does not mean, than what it does mean. To call God ‘Father Son Spirit’ does not mean that God is involved in the business of procreation, or that God is a man (or two men and a disembodied ghost), or that there is a ‘grand-father’. These are the difficulties of language about God.

But of course it goes beyond this; it is true that our relationships are disordered because this is our context, but they are also disordered because of how we imagine God. Our relationships are the outcome of who we believe God to be and if we retain a sub-biblical notion that God is male, because of a particular rendering of the masculine language in the Bible, then our relationships with each other, particularly between male and female will be distorted from their true nature. Not only this, but to perpetuate this notion of God’s maleness is nothing short of idolatry[1]. We make God in our image - or rather in men’s image - and worship that idol. Therefore it is of the utmost importance to explore the significance of this language and the alternatives to it.

[1] Frye R, Language for God, page 21

I'll upload the full essay in the next day or so.


dave williams said...


I'm interested in your comment that "God is good is wholly different than to say that I am good. To call God ‘father’ is saying something different than what it means to call our biological fathers ‘father’."

I guess it is the word "wholly" -I think it's CS Lewis in The Problem of Pain (all books merge into one this time of year) who comments about our tendency to say this -and yet actually it is a risky path to go down. If God's goodness is wholly different to ours, if God's fatherhood is wholly different to ours then what does it mean for him to be good or indeed for us? The lines of communication are broken and there is little point calling his goodness good.

Isn't it exactly because we know what a Father is and what good is that the terms resonate with us? To be sure we know that we fail and our views are incomplete. But it is exactly to the nature of fatherhood here -even amongst wicked men that Jesus turns to when he talks about goodness.

I wonder as well if theology isn't a few years behind the curve in terms of its rush to over state the limits of language when maybe those in the world of literature are beginning to pull back from Derrida and Barthes. Sure, language is a tricky business and open to pitfalls and abuse. But it isn't the problem with language that makes translation difficult, it is my functionalism, minimalism and impatience that demands a translation of a one for one thought within exactly the same number of words -rather than a willingness to tease out meaning

jody said...

and there, Dave, is the flexible nature of language which puts us in a problem. 'wholly', yes perhaps an overstatement, but I think that it is tempered in the rest of the essay, engaging with the strands of debate with regards to what the language means.

Certainly there is a corollary with the word and the human usage, but, as I said, I think that what we don't mean by the words outweighs what we can categorically say that we do mean by the words.

I think that language is an incredibly tricky thing and whilst I agree that we can overstate the problem with language and understate the problem with us (our functionalism etc), but in the end we choose one word over another (chastisement/punishment, scapegoat/azazel) and that has repurcussions for our interpretation and for thinking.

Dave Williams said...


I look forward to reading the uploaded essay. But at the moment I would tend to go with the what we do mean outweighing what we don't mean. Actually when we talk about what we don't mean by fatherhood, often revolves around what we also know to be bad examples of fatherhood.

We are starting to get into the issue that I think Lewis rightly hit upon that the question at stake is not "What does this word mean" but actually what is God's character. Is he knowable? Does God communicate with us? If God essentially communicates through words, then if language causes too many difficulties then where do we end up. He has chosen to reveal himself as "good" and as "father" what then does that mean?

This is at the heart of the question about what being Evangelical is about isn't it. One thing happening at the moment is the "affirmation" of Scriptures authority being offered in one hand whilst the other hand takes it away by denying Perspicuity.

I'll be interested to see whether your essay calms my concerns over that