By a Clerical Member of the Prayer Book Society of Canada
The Trinity Season begins with a celebration of the most profoundly important Christian Revelation: that God is a Holy Trinity of three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and yet one pure and undivided God.
We could not have come to understand this of God by our own intellectual powers – indeed we can barely begin to understand what it means after it has been revealed to us. Instead, the truth of the Trinity must be made known to us by God’s Word and then accepted as true by the gift of faith in his revelation.
The traditional understanding of the Trinity seems to be very much in question in many parts of the Christian Church these days. Some symptoms of this movement include shifts in the way we refer to the Trinity – the traditional formula “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” being replaced more and more with “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier”, collects which move away from calling God “Father”, and, perhaps most on Anglican minds these days, the publication of a new hymn book which uses inclusive language. Most of us have not seen the new book in its entirety, but we have seen snippets here and there that indicate several of the changes and innovations found in it. Among other things, this new book strives to incorporate more gender inclusive language in the Church’s hymns.
This is all well and good when that language concerns human beings, but not, I am convinced, when it concerns God. We are told that such changes are good and necessary because they will make the Church services more appealing to modern people and cause our churches to grow. We all want our congregations to increase, but do we want that at the cost of what we believe to be true ?
Two things need to be remembered. First, there is no proof that such a shift in language will draw anyone into the church. Second, when considering such a shift in the language of our worship, we must be perfectly clear about what its effect will be, especially its effect on how we understand God and the Holy Scriptures.
Even though I was an early Sunday School drop-out, I do remember well one of the lessons I learned there. In studying the story of Peter’s denials of Christ, our teacher reminded us of the consequences of speaking before thinking. That is a very good lesson to learn. Language is extremely important, and we must think before we speak. We must also think before we do not speak. That is, we must think carefully about what we are choosing not to say before we cut it from the common language of the Church’s worship. In the name of inclusive language, the Church is running the risk of losing its traditional understanding of God as a Trinity. Let me explain.
One of the main words under attack these days is the word “Father”. There are those who claim that speaking of God this way is merely the product of a patriarchal society and not the revealed truth of God. As a result, it is very common to hear the word “Father” avoided in the prayers of Christians today, both in extemporaneous prayers, and in the collects of modern books of worship. Prayers which used to begin with “Almighty God, our Heavenly Father” now begin simply with adjectives attached to the word “God”: loving God, covenant God, eternal God, holy God, living God, and so on.
Now, I am the first to admit there is nothing wrong with using such adjectives or terms in prayer to describe God so long as they describe the truth of God as revealed in Scripture. The problem with such a shift is its conscious attempt to steer away from describing God as Father. Not all descriptions the Bible uses concerning God are of equal weight.
The main image we are given in the Scriptures, both in the Old and New Testaments, is of God as our Father, and we have no authority to drop this image, this language, at the whim of our present society. Functional titles such as “Creator”, and descriptive terms such as “loving” may express truth about God, but they cannot replace the language of relationship, of a personal God, which the Bible is so intent on revealing.
God the Father is not simply our Creator, he is our Father – a Father who loves us so much that he gave his only begotten Son to die that we might enjoy eternal life with him. He is our Heavenly Father who loves us beyond measure, with whom we are able to speak and be spoken to through prayer, and who will give to our inheritance all the riches of his Kingdom through his Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
Another common shift is to shy away from using the word “Son” to describe Jesus. There are those who argue that the word “child” is more inclusive and ought to be used. This one is harder to refute since it is perfectly valid to speak of Jesus as the child of God, as long as we understand the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God. If that is what we mean, and what we must mean, then, why avoid the word “Son”?
Jesus is, after all, male; he is the Son of God. Further, his being called the “Son of God” connects him to all the references of the coming Messiah promised in the Old Testament which are so important to an understanding of who Jesus is and what his coming means for us; he is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Son of Man. If we are honest, it seems to me that the intention behind this particular shift in language has nothing much to do with Jesus or a deeper appreciation of who he is. Rather, the impetus behind the change has to do with human beings, and a conscious attempt to make the language of the Bible and of worship sound more inclusive of us. It seems to me to be a futile exercise to try and make the unique relationship between the first and second persons of the Holy Trinity sound more as if it includes us when it cannot.
Jesus alone is the “only Begotten Son of the Father”. He alone is God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father. That is precisely what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God: it means that he is God, that he is divine. We are not. True, we are brought to participate in that relationship by our adoption as the sons and daughters of God in Christ, but it is not all at the same thing as being a son in the same way Jesus is the Son. We are creatures of God, not one with him and begotten of him. We are not inherently part of that unique relationship, so there is no need to call Jesus “Child” to make something which can never include us sound inclusive.
What have I been trying to say ? Simply this: if we are not careful about our use of language in worship, we run the risk of losing a great deal. Changes in language which seem just to modern human ears can bring with them subtle changes in teaching which will have a profound effect in the Church as we hand it on to future generations. We must consider all these things carefully before we make such changes.
And, as Trinity Sunday reminds us, we must strive never to lose sight of the truth of God as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Those terms are not ours; they are God’s, and we must keep them. Because God is both Father and Son, we are able to be taken into that relationship and become the adopted sons and daughters of God. Because God is Spirit, he is able to dwell within our hearts so that we may be drawn into a personal relationship with him, become his obedient sons and daughters, and be formed into his people, his Church. The way of Christ is not a way we humans have hewn through the wilderness, it is a way which God himself has prepared for us. God is the Father who makes the path, Jesus the very path itself and the Spirit who guides us along the path.
Our whole life as Christians is a participation in the life, purpose and activity of God Himself – Father, Son and Holy Spirit to whom belongs all praise, honour, glory and thanksgiving now and forever more.