June 21, 2006

PCUSA on the Trinity

Update (6/22/06, 9:17 PM): A fascinating post at Siris discusses the use of 'Mother' and 'Womb' langauge in the tradition of orthodox trinitarian theology. The considerations Brandon brings up are such that the PCUSA statement makes less rather than more sense because of them.

GetReligion reported yesteday on the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly's vote to 'receive' (but not 'approve') a paper suggesting liturgical use of new trinitarian language. Alternate formulations mentioned in the paper include "Rock, Redeemer, Friend;" "Lover, Beloved, Love;" "Creator, Savior, Sanctifier;" and "King of Glory, Prince of Peace, Spirit of Love," but the formulation everyone is talking about (with some puzzlement) is "Mother, Child, Womb." It should be noted that the "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" formulation isn't going anywhere, and will continue to be the only formulation used for baptisms (presumably due to Matthew 28:19).

How should we react to this report? XYBA of Once More Into the Breach predicts, "Next they'll include Moe, Larry and Curly," and many theological conservatives seem to share his concern that at some level PCUSA is just making things up here, and there's no telling what they might make up next.

I think, however, that this is an overreaction. It is true that the explicit trinitarian formulation of Matthew 28:19 uses the "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," but explicit trinitarian formulations are rare in Scripture. "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" also enjoys a priveleged place in Church tradition (especially of note is the Nicene Creed), but under the measure it would continue to enjoy a priveleged place in the PCUSA. Furthermore, the formulations "Rock, Redeemer, Friend;" "Creator, Savior, Sanctifier;" and "King of Glory, Prince of Peace, Spirit of Love" are all very Biblical titles for the Persons of the Trinity. I, for one, can't understand why any Bible-believing Christian would object to the use of these in addition to the "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" formulation, since they are indeed all titles God applies to himself. This is not an abandonment of Scripture. The formulation "Lover, Beloved, Love" is not explicit in Scripture as the others are, but it is something we begin to see in Christianity even as early as the Patristic writings, and is a helpful and Biblically grounded way of thinking about the issue. I think, however, that there are two good reasons for Evangelicals to be concerned by this change:

  1. The formulation "Mother, Child, Womb" is obvious nonsense. Where on earth did they get that?!

  2. The Gaurdian article cited by GetReligion says, "One reason is that language limited to the Father and Son 'has been used to support the idea that God is male and that men are superior to women,'' the panel said. To which I respond: (a) the use of masculine language to talk about God, which the Bible does far more often than it uses feminine language (although feminine language is used occasionally) in no way undermines the fundamental equality of genders in Christ (Galatians 3:28), nor does the any inequality in the order of the present world (whether such inequality is God-ordained or not) undermine this truth about our spiritual state. (b) The abuse of a doctrine by a select few people does not render the doctrine false. These things having been said, let it be noted that if our picture of God has become one-sided in a way that is misleading to people we should certainly try, as the PCUSA paper says, to "fresh ways to speak of the mystery of the triune God." However, as the PCUSA clearly also recognizes, the unique place of the "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" formulation mustn't be interfered with by the introduction of other Biblically grounded ways of speaking.

Posted by kpearce at June 21, 2006 05:49 PM
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Also, orthodox Trinitarian theology insists that the Son and Spirit are equal to the Father, which undermines the whole argument that using masculine terminology for the Father makes men superior to women. The analogy between husbands and wives and Father and Son in I Cor 11, then, must not allow for the wife and husband to be unequal.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at June 22, 2006 09:34 PM

Jeremy - That's an excellent point. I hadn't thought of that. Apparently the authors of the paper hadn't either...

Posted by: Kenny at June 22, 2006 09:40 PM

Given the reasons for suggesting these alternate designations for the Trinity, one can only conclude that they will be used INSTEAD of the titles Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not simply in addition to them. I doubt that PCUSA churches were previously forbidden to use any alternative references to the Trinity in their liturgy. So what is the point of suggesting their use now? While it may not completely halt the use of the traditional terminology, the purpose is clearly to avoid referring to God in masculine terms.

Posted by: Joel at July 10, 2006 11:20 AM
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