The Trinity: Dancing Together

By Ruth C. Duck

At the crux of the issue is the naming of God as “Father.” This sometimes-beloved metaphor, used by itself, implies that God is only and essentially male. Thus I propose to complement “Father” by other metaphors from scripture and Christian experience.

One option would be to speak of God as “parent,” as the Latin text of the hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” does. In some cases, “parent” could serve as a non-gendered word that says more or less the same thing as “Father.” At the same time, “parent” is an abstraction, not a name children speak. Thus, at times the first partner of the Trinity might be called “Mother”; or we could follow the example of Julian of Norwich and call Christ and Spirit “Mother” as well. As biblical scholar Johanna van Wijk-Box has shown in Reimagining God, the Hebrew Scriptures employ a broad range of maternal metaphors and similes to describe God: God gives birth and writes in labor (Deuteronomy 32:18), remembers her children (Isaiah 49:14-15), and teaches them to walk. Jesus also likens himself to a mother hen.

Today several hymn text writers speak of God using maternal imagery. In my hymn Womb of Life and Source of Being (© 1992, G.J.A. Publications), I call the first person of the Trinity “Mother” (and later “Father”), Christ “Word in flesh, our brother Jesus,” and the “Brooding Spirit” our “holy Partner.” Calling God “Mother” is one way to expand our language, though not the only way.

Another possibility, which Gail Ramshaw advocates in God Beyond Gender, is to build on the name revealed to Moses when he met God in the burning bush: “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” (Exodus 3). The name YHWH, which many biblical translations indicate as Lord and which Jews consider too sacred to pronounce, also likely grows from the verb meaning “to be.” Thus, names that point to the dynamic and holy being of God as fitting for Christian worship: Eternal One, Living God, Holy One. And so we might call one another to worship: “Praise the Living One! Praise the risen Christ who is with us always! Praise the Spirit, mysterious Giver of Life!”

Metaphors from nature may also be helpful. One early way to describe the Trinity (based on Tertullian, a third-century North African church leader) was to use the root, branch, and fruit of a plant to describe the unity and distinction of the Trinitarian partners. Psalm 36 calls God the “fountain of life”; in John 7, Jesus speaks of giving “living water,” which the evangelist interprets to mean the gift of the Spirit. And so we might pray in the name of “God the fountain of life, Christ the wellspring of new life, giver of the Holy Spirit, living water.”

The wording “Source, Word, and Spirit” increasingly appears as a shorthand phrase to name the Trinity. When theologians try to describe the meaning to which “Father” points, they speak of the unoriginate origin or the primordial matrix of life. The name “Source” expresses these meaning without posing the problems of “Creator,” which describes the divine-human relationship, but could contradict the Christological insight that Jesus Christ is begotten, not created. “Word” is a good way, rooted in early church tradition, to speak of the second partner of the Trinity, who is both the self-communication of the Father/Mother and the “Word made flesh who lived among us.” “Spirit” poses no challenge to gender- inclusive trinitarian language. Letty Russell has suggested the following wording for us in worship: “God the Source of life, Word of truth, Spirit of love.”

From “I am” to “Source, Word, and Spirit,” there are many ways to name the divine triune mystery who is beyond all words. The task of continuing Trinitarian faith traditions while complementing masculine God-language is awesome, because it is God of whom we speak. The greatest cause for confidence as we proceed is to remember that the doctrine of the Trinity centers on divine love poured out into the life of the world. The mystery of divine love, which goes beyond our words, weaves through the human search for words of praise.

Ruth C. Duck is an Associate Professor of Worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Chicago, USA. Portions of this article quote Praising God: The Trinity in Christian Worship by Ruth Duck and Patricia Weilson-Kastner (Westminster/Knox, 1999), and also appeared in The Living Pulpit, April-June 1999.

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