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Editor's Note: It was recently reported that two Australian priests have been baptizing hundreds of children incorrectly, using feminist-inspired language in the baptismal formula:
"Two days ago, Archbishop John Bathersby of Brisbane stated that children baptized at the South Brisbane church using non-traditional words — ‘creator, liberator and sustainer’ instead of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" — would have to be re-baptized."

One of the priests, Fr. Kennedy, has stated: "It’s fundamentalism to argue that the actual words are all-important. That's the trouble with the Church; under the present Pope you’re not allowed to have different opinions."

But what Fr. Kennedy doesn’t seem to understand is that words are important and that the use of certain words in the Church, especially in the ministry of the sacraments, is not about "opinion," but rich theological and doctrinal truths.

In the following essay, "Father, Son, and Spirit–So What’s In A Name?" (excerpted from The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God, edited by Helen Hull Hitchcock), Deborah Belonick demonstrates that referring to God as "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" is not rooted in hatred of women or narrowmindedness, but in the very nature of the Triune God.

Father, Son, and Spirit–So What’s In A Name?

by Deborah Belonick

The last few years have seen vast changes in many churches in liturgical rites and educational instruction in regard to proper language for God. The United Church of Christ, to give just one example, has published "Inclusive Language Guidelines" urging members to "avoid the use of masculine role names for God, such as ‘Lord, King, Father, Master, and Son"’, and instead to "use nonexclusive role names, such as ‘God, Creator, Sustainer, Mother/ Father’. Or use non-sex-specific words relating to the qualities of God, such as ‘Spirit, Holy One, Eternal One, Rock"’. Feminist theologians chide those using the traditional terms as being sexist, ignorant of feminine images for God in Scripture, or unaware of the "oppressive patriarchal structure" which "invented" these terms for God.

A study of history proves that questioning language for God is not a new pursuit. We must not think that we in the twentieth century are the only ones who ever wrestled with the traditional doxology for God: "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit". The ways that the issue has been raised, and the ways Christians in the past have responded to it, have much to teach us today as we seek to respond to accusations by feminist theologians that patriarchalism and human imagination are responsible for the traditional trinitarian terms for God.

Specifically, Christians of the fourth century have much to teach us. The fourth century was the period of the all-consuming questions: Who and what is Jesus Christ? His humanity, divinity person, and nature were the topics of great debates, which examined his relationship to humanity, as well as to the other members of the Trinity. During these fourth-century debates, the traditional doxology for God–"Father, Son, and Holy Spirit"–was also challenged and debated.

A study of the Christian controversies of the fourth century leads to two important conclusions. First, the terms "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" have a precise theological meaning which is not communicated by any other terms for God. Second, the traditional doxology did not emerge as a reflection of patriarchal culture.


On the first point, two fourth-century theologians who were embroiled in controversies over the proper terms for God, Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa, are especially worthwhile for our study.

Athanasius was defending the traditional trinitarian names against the Arians, a group which preferred to call the First Person of the Trinity "Creator" rather than "Father". Arians claimed that Jesus Christ was not the Son of God but merely a superior creature; therefore, "Father" was a fleshly, foolish, improper term for God. In reply to the Arians, Athanasius tried to explain the importance of the biblical divine names, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit".

Using a term such as "Creator", said Athanasius, makes God dependent on creatures for his existence. If creation did not exist, he asked, would this Creator-God cease to be? If creation had never existed, what would be the proper term for God?

In addition, Athanasius argued, the word "Creator" could be used to describe any of the members of the Trinity. It would be wrong to refer to the Father alone as Creator because the Bible states:

"In the beginning God created the heavens and earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters" (Gen 1:1-2).

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made" (Jn 1:1-3).

According to Scripture, the Trinity acts in concert. They all create; they all save (Jn 5:21; Acts 2:24; Rom 1:4); they all sanctify (Eph 5:26; 1 Th 5:23).

Athanasius argued that the names of God had to describe more than God’s action toward creation. There are, as it were, two different sets of names which may be used for God, explained Athanasius. One set (Creator, Savior, Sanctifier) refers to God’s deeds or acts, that is, to his will and counsel. The other set (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) refers to God’s own essence and being. Athanasius insisted that these two sets should be formally and consistently distinguished.

In Athanasius’ view, we should use the terms "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" when speaking about the existence of God as three persons in a community of love, when speaking about the relationships among members of the Trinity without regard to their acts toward creation. God’s "being", Athanasius reasoned, has priority over God’s action and will: "God is much more than just ‘Creator’. When we call God ‘Father’, we mean something higher than his relation to creatures" (Against the Arians).


Gregory of Nyssa faced similar problems when dealing with a sect known as the Eunomians, who believed that Christ was unlike God the Father by nature and instead was a "created energy". For this reason, Eunomians refused to call God "Father". In response, Gregory sought to explain the character of the Holy Trinity, and the Church’s insistence on the traditional terms, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit".

First, said Gregory there was no more adequate theologian than the Lord himself, who without compulsion or mistake designated the Godhead "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" (See Mt 28:19).

Further, Gregory said, these names are not indications that God is a male or a man; for God transcends human gender. Rather, these names imply relationships among the Persons of the Trinity and distinguish them as separate Persons who exist in a community of love. The names lead us to contemplate the correct relationships among the three Persons; they are clues to the inner life of the Trinity.

Gregory wrote: "While there are many other names by which the Deity is indicated in the historical books of the Bible, in the prophets, and in the law, our master Christ passes by all these and commits to us these titles as better able to bring us to the faith about the Self-Existent, declaring that it suffices for us to cling to the titles ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ in order to attain to the apprehension of him who is absolutely Existent" (Against Eunomius, Book 2).

Gregory states that it is with the terms "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" that men can enter into the depths of God’s life, somewhat equipped to understand the inner relationships and Persons of the Trinity.


Of particular interest in our own day is Gregory’s explanation of the term "Father", which is under scrutiny by feminist theologians as a harmful metaphor that resulted from a patriarchal church structure and culture.

The name "Father", said Gregory, leads us to contemplate (1) a Being who is the source and cause of all and (2) the fact that this Being has a relationship with another person–one can only be "Father" if there is a child involved. Thus, the human term "Father" leads one naturally to think of another member of the Trinity, to contemplate more than is suggested by a term such as "Creator" or "Maker". By calling God "Father", Gregory notes, one understands that there exists with God a Child from all eternity, a second Person who rules with him, is equal and eternal with him.

"Father" also connotes the initiator of a generation, the one who begets life rather than conceiving it. and bringing it to fruition in birth. This is the mode of existence, the way of origin and being, of the First Person of the Trinity. He acts in trinitarian life in a mode of existence akin to that of a father in the earthly realm. Before time, within the mystery of the Holy Trinity, God generated another Person, the Son, as human fathers generate seed.

Nowhere does Gregory, suggest that this "Father" is a male creature: "It is clear that this metaphor contains a deeper meaning than the obvious one", he notes. The deeper meaning, is found in a passage of Paul to the Ephesians:

"For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family (patria, fatherhood) in heaven and on earth receives its true name" (Eph 3:14-15). This passage implies that God is the one, true, divine Father, whose generative function human fathers imitate in a creaturely imperfect way. When God generates a Child, the generation is eternal and transcends time and space, unlike human fathers, who imitate this generative function but arc bound in time space, and creaturely "passions," as Gregory notes (Against Eunomius, Book 4).

All the patristic writers insist that God is not male, but God possesses a generative characteristic, for which the best analogy in the human realm is that of a human father generating seed. Hence, the word "Father" for God is the human word most adequate to describe the First Person of the Holy Trinity, who possesses this unique characteristic.

The divine Father is as different from earthly fathers as the divine is from the human. Nevertheless, it is fatherhood and not motherhood which describes his mode of life, his relationship to the Second Person of the Trinity, and even his personal characteristics. The First Person of the Trinity does not just act like a father (though he sometimes acts like a mother!). Rather, he possesses divine fatherhood in a perfect way. That God’s fatherhood transcends and is the perfection of human fatherhood is part of the meaning of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 23:9: "And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven."

Clement of Alexandria, another fourth-century Christian teacher, expressed this idea most aptly: "God is himself love, and because of his love, he pursued us. [In the eternal generation of the Son] the ineffable nature of God is father; in his sympathy with us he is mother" (How Will the Rich Be Saved?).

Read Part Two of "Father, Son, and Spirit—So What's In a Name?" here.


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