Trinitarian Language and Gender

I have received several emails in recent weeks asking if the traditional Trinitarian language of God as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” carries with it any tacit understanding that God is, biologically speaking, male. The short answer is “No,” “Nyet,” “Nada,” “Nei.,” There has never been a serious theological discussion in the church about the “gender” of the godhead. When the fourth Lateran council met in 1215 A.D. they did clarify this point, not because of any Christian debate on the issue, but because of false Islamic charges based on a statement found in Surah 5:116 of the Qur’an. The Scripture teaches that “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and therefore God is not a biological creature.

The modern attacks on Trinitarian language is not so much a serious theological discussion as it is a mirror reflecting our own cultural malaise. First, let’s talk about Trinitarian language. When the Scripture declares that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, these are eternal designations about his character and nature (not biology). The point is to demonstrate, among other things, the personal and relational nature of God, the intimate relationships within the Trinity, and the divine foundation of family which is designed to reflect the Trinity. The language we use for the Trinity is tied to God’s own self-revelation and self-disclosure of himself. The language of “Our Father” comes from the lips of Jesus himself who invites us to join him in the privilege of crying, “abba, Father.” To move to more gender neutral “functional” language such as “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier” shifts the language to attributes of deity rather than the eternal nature of the godhead. Creation, Redemption and Sanctification refers to “works” or “functions” of the Godhead, rather than the eternal relationships which are independent of human creation or God’s redemptive response to the Fall which takes place within the framework of human history.

Second, in the incarnation God did become a biological male in Jesus Christ. He was fully God and fully man. However, the incarnation has always been understood as God’s redemptive action on behalf of the entire human race, rather than a biologically exclusionary act because he was a male instead of a female. There has been the occasional dissent from this view, as seen, for example, in the Shakers, the 18th century restorationist sect. They believed that since God became a man in Jesus Christ, the full redemption of the world would not be complete until he also became a woman. They believed that this happened with “Mother Ann” who they believed was the second incarnation of God and, as a female incarnation, would prepare the church for the final eschaton. However, Christians have long regarded such views as a fundamental misunderstanding of the holistic nature of the incarnation which envisions the church as the bride of Christ, rather than a single earthly “bride” as the Shakers believed was embodied by Mother Ann.

Precisely because Jesus represents male and female, he could not be both at the same time without losing the embodiment of both. Jesus’ representation of both genders is even reflected in the female imagery in the New Testament which portrays Christ as like unto a hen gathering her chicks. Augustine drives this point home when he says, “lest either sex should imagine it was being ignored by the creator, he took to himself a male and was born of a female.” ( Augustine, True Religion, “What was Achieved by the Incarnation of the Word” 16, 30.)

In conclusion, the church should continue to embrace traditional Trinitarian language as revealed in Scripture, and resist moving to generic “God only” liturgies. This commitment has little to do with the need for greater gender inclusivity and sensitivity in our language about the church which has, on the whole, been helpful.

The concern is that we not relinquish language specific to God’s revelation of himself. To drop all references to gender when referring to God because of a concern that it might affirm that God is a biological male not only defies centuries of Christian understanding of that language, but it ends up reducing our liturgies to sub-Christian affirmations because they could so easily become either Islamic or Hindu affirmations, or, even more troubling, language and phrases which rob God of his divine personhood and his personal relation with humanity.