Two Fathers And More

The problem with taking things literally is that one can easily back into a difficult corner. Amy relates a Christianity Today editorial that takes a few more swings at the CRS Trinity.

The best part of the opinion is that it identifies the importance of naming. Though God has self-identified in multiple ways through the Scriptures and history, there’s no doubt the formula of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is the most dominant.

But let’s not obscure the argument by getting carried away with the desire to bury the modern alternates.

CT’s anonymous editor is right in saying that one can find instances of creating, redeeming, and sanctifying in all three persons of the Trinity. It might be said that perhaps those functions are identified with the Persons “consistently and starkly.”

From the CT editorial:

Almost all the recent alternatives to the Trinitarian formula undercut the personal significance of God’s name by replacing it with words of function. As many have noted, “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier” encourages modalism, the heretical teaching that God’s threeness is more about his modes of operation, or our perception of him, rather than something intrinsic to the divine essence.

I have to point out that despite the divine naming of “Father” and “Son,” these are functions also. An even stronger point against the waving of the heresy banner is the context in which CRS is used, a clear substitution for a baptismal or blessing formula with virtually none of the context changed. If CRS is switching language, then it’s no different from a translation from the Great Commission’s biblical Greek or even Jesus’ original language.

If feminists were to begin a theological examination that departed from the Christian understanding of God, then we could say there’s more than a change in language. Then “Creator” would be more than feminish for “Father.”

Consider that “Father” is a bit expansive in the Roman tradition, as we’ll sing this Sunday:

Come, Holy Spirit, come!
And from Thy celestial home
Shed a ray of light divine!

Come Father of the poor!
Come source of all our store!
Come within our bosoms shine!

Carte blanche to change to any old “language” whenever the Spirit moves us? No. But I’d be cautious about waving that heresy banner too much. In effect, “heresy” just gets redefined as “religious stuff I don’t like.” We don’t want to go there either.

More from CT:

To create an alternative according to our cultural sensibilities is at best parody and at worst idolatry, even if it is constructed from the good metaphors God has given us. Most idols, after all, are created from God’s good gifts.

Let’s not overstate the case. At best, it’s an effort to make the limitations of language work in the face of the perception of institutional sin. It might be misguided, but I can appreciate the attempt. Charity would demand Christians temper needed correction with an appropriate dose of appreciation.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Liturgy, spirituality, The Blogosphere. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Two Fathers And More

  1. Liam says:

    A caution: Son is not a function vis-a-vis *us*. So that counterargument fails insofar as it goes. The problem with CRS as a naming convention for the Trinity is that it is anti-progressive – it reduces intrinsic ontological relationship to extrinsic function. It’s very modern American industrial society HR-speak – very unfeminist. Is CRS necessarily heretical? Heaven’s no. But I just see no enduringly good grounds to recommend it for the purposes to which it is commonly put. And I think we should be cultivating enduringly good things, not merely tolerating things that are not necessarily heretical, the latter approach being a kind of minimalism that is at odds with a Vatican II approach to liturgy.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Todd,

    I think that I’d disagree with you here, my friend. It seems to me that there are very important theological issues at stake.

    Although you correctly recommend charity, we shouldn’t lose sight of the real importance of the matter.

    Very briefly, why can’t we replace “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” with another formula?

    I think that there are at least seven reasons:

    1. We can speak of different metaphors for God, including feminine ones (and rather arresting ones, as in “Veni, Sancte Spiritus”). They are very, very useful in our devotional lives. But Father, Son and Holy Spirit isn’t a metaphor – it is God’s proper name. We are baptized “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). As the Christianity Today editorial says, drawing on Robert Jenson, we don’t first think of the triune God and then look for words to address this God. God has revealed himself as triune through these particular names, which refer specifically to him and communicate his character. Thus, Jesus addressed the Father as Abba, not with a long list of desperate metaphors.

    2. The terms Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer/Sanctifier can’t function as proper names. They merely place God into a category of objects that create, redeem, and sustain/sanctify. As Robert Jenson has also noted, all supposed deities supposedly did these sorts of things.

    3. The terms Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer/Sanctifier can’t properly describe who God is. In a manner of speaking, God was not always (or necessarily) Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer/Sanctifier – he became these things through his free decision.

    4. As you note, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer/Sanctifier are functions. Thus, the formula seems to suggest that there is one Godhead with three distinct functions or missions. This is Sabellianism. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit don’t represent functions, because God is inseparable from being eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is who God is.

    5. As you also note, it is improper to suggest that only one person of the Trinity creates, redeems, or sanctifies. But I think that you underestimate the danger of splitting the Creator from the Redeemer. Does this mean that the Redeemer and the Sustainer/Sanctifier are themselves created? Does this mean that the Creator (who is apparently not the Redeemer) is, as Geoffrey Wainwright writes, woefully “responsible for creation in its disordered condition”?

    6. The Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier formula would also render some Christian baptisms unrecognizable to other Trinitarian Christians. This poses an ecumenical disaster, which should be avoided at just about any cost.

    7. The change away from the language of “Father” is usually based on the assumption that it means that God is masculine. It seems based on a more primary misperception, then. Focus on a change of language here takes away from energy that could be more productively used to fight sexism elsewhere.

    Thanks as always for your blog hospitality. Again, you’re absolutely right to recommend charity, but theology really does matter. Otherwise, we’ll be lost to authoritarianism and superstition. As Liam might say, that’s a progressive argument.

    Take care,

  3. Todd says:

    Thanks to you both for adding some helpful commentary.

    I’m equally cautious about altering words and in the attempt altering our theology in the process. I hope I meant to communicate I can appreciate the exploration behind finding a new language for the Trinity. Is it a kind of heresy by accident? Perhaps that’s a potential end result. Playing with the formula is more dangerous stuff than I’d want to endorse.

    #4 is the kind of argument I wanted to read weeks ago.

    #7 I agree with, but I also know that some people feel fairly desperate these days.

  4. Liam says:

    A note on the subjective need hinted at by “desperate”: the subjective needs are in deep conflict and wash each other out, as it were. For every person who finds “Father” oppressively masculine or associated with a violent or abusive image in his or her head, I can often find someone who was abused by a mortal father and who desperately needs the Fatherhood of God to be expressed frequently as a healing image of fatherhood. Having experienced the battle of oppressions in two previous communities of mine, I can say that they end up neutralizing each other as dispositive forces in this debate. So we are left with what the more objective criteria of the Church itself.

  5. While I was going to make a more extensive comment regarding this topic, Todd, it would appear that Neil has (as usual) done a much better job than I have.

    From an Eastern perspective, though, it would appear that those who are attempting to rename the Holy and Lifegiving Trinity are simply reinventing the wheel. And it was the Gnostics who invented that particular wheel. The Orthodox believe that that was a particularly bad move, and one which it would be better if we did not try to repeat.

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