By Michael Carreker
I have had the opportunity recently to make an analysis of the latest attempt at inclusive language texts, now used experimentally throughout the Episcopal Church (in the diocese of Georgia on a volunteer basis). There is no pleasure in doing so.
When I first entered seminary at Sewanee in 1987, I was astounded at the experiment which was beginning simultaneously with my matriculation. I still possess a copy of the commentary which accompanied the appropriately styled “black book”. And each time I read it, I am horrified at the tone. Arrogant, subversive, and theologically prejudiced, that particular text remains in my mind a paradigm of what has developed into a monstrous parody of the Anglican Prayer Book tradition.
The experiment has continued ever since, through two General Conventions and numerous occasions in which the faithful, especially seminarians, have been subjected to the vain imaginings of the Standing Liturgical Commission of the Episcopal Church. Presently, the attempt at inclusive language liturgies has taken the politically calculated step of what are now called “Balanced Language” Texts. These are prescribed as experimental options to be inserted at whim into the already option-burdened 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The approach of presenting these texts as options is itself a political manoeuver, because the original intention of inclusive language texts was to replace the “inaccuracy and incompleteness of the language” used in Rite II (See the Commentary, published by the Standing Liturgical Commission, “One God, One Faith: One Prayer in Many Voices”, 1987).
In order to grasp the significance of these texts, one should consider three aspects: 1) the strategy and ideology behind them; 2) the ideology and what happens to the biblical language; and 3) the theology which intends to make these texts legitimate forms of worship.
1) Strategy and Ideology
I will never forget my instructor in Liturgics at Sewanee admonishing us not to allow our future congregations to become too attached to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer because, he said, the Episcopal Church would have a new prayer book within ten years. The political strategy which he advanced was that if the new texts did not pass initially within the time period defined by the canons, they would persist. What did not go through at one Convention would make it through the next. That was 1987. We’re just about on schedule.
The last General Convention passed a resolution which directed the Standing Liturgical Commission “to continue to study, develop and evaluate supplemental inclusive language texts as previously directed by the 68th and 69th General Conventions in consultation with the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops, among other consultants, and in consultation with the bishops, clergy, and laity of this church through a process which elicits their reactions and suggestions” and “that for the sake of perfecting such draft texts as the Standing Liturgical Commission shall develop, using this consultative process… Such use shall always be under the direction of the diocesan bishop or ecclesiastical authority” (A121s).
The intention is clear. Their mind is already made up in principle. Inclusive language is here to stay. This acceptance and determination is reflected in the current Supplemental Liturgical Materials provided by the same resolution of General Convention. In the “Preface” we read, “The subject and study of this book – the language of liturgy – are no longer new for the Episcopal Church. Since the development of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, sensitivity has grown to the power words and images have to shape our understanding and relationship with God. Along with this sensitivity has grown the commitment of the church to explore ways to make it possible for its worship to reflect this awareness and become as fully revelatory of the mystery of God and as balanced as possible in speaking of and for God’s people.” In other words, the original intention and rationale for inclusive language texts has not changed one bit. The political machinations have succeeded.
The Commentary of 1987 had laid the groundwork quite openly: “The general concern for more inclusive language in our worship arose during recent decades as a ‘grassroots’ movement that included various interest groups composed of those who strongly sensed ~e inaccuracy and incompleteness of the language used in worship: people from minority races and cultures, women and men committed to the feminist cause, older people, those with physical and mental handicaps, as well as those who saw the injustices and theological distortion in their exclusion, for example, liberation theologians.” These self-proclaimed interest groups have succeeded over the past six years in persuading the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies toward utter folly. At the next convention, our ecclesiastical leaders will again consider a resolution (approval of two conventions is necessary for passage) in which the very Constitution of the Episcopal Church (Article X, second paragraph) will be amended to “provide for limited use for other forms of worship on an experimental basis for such periods of time and upon such terms and conditions as the General Convention may provide.” If approved this time as it was at the last General Convention, the Constitution of our church will reflect the commitment of the Standing Liturgical Commission to experiment with forms of worship which need have nothing to do with the Book of Common Prayer. Will they indeed be Christian?
The strategy of the Standing Liturgical Commission is really quite clear for those who will read the rationale for the texts and the resolution they have proposed. It is their ideology, of course, that should be astonishing and repulsive to the faithful Christian who has been nurtured in the Anglican tradition. What is assumed is that the language of prayer which has come down to us through the centuries, and has been embedded in the Prayer Book has been, in their own words, inaccurate (i.e., inexact, incorrect, and erroneous), as well as incomplete (i.e., not fully formed, unfinished, and defective). We who thought we were worshipping the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, through the authoritative teaching of our only Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ, are told that his comfortable words are erroneous and defective because they do not conform to the vulgar opinions of the Standing Liturgical Commission! Our church, in their view, requires language for prayer which is accurate and complete – i.e., “balanced language”!
Finally, one often hears in response to any criticism of these texts (like this one, which is my participation in their process) that these are sincere people, dedicated members of the Episcopal Church. Well, fine. I do not for one second dispute their sincerity. It is their religious and theological mind and intention that I, as a priest of the Church of God, dispute in the name of Christ. We must be clear about this: what “balanced language” intends and means is heretical. Its ideology and strategy are designed to revise historical Christianity as Anglicans have understood and prayed it.
2) Ideology and what happens to the biblical language
What “balanced language” intends and means comes into clearer focus by virtue of what the revisionists actually do to the language of the Bible. Two examples, particularly concerned with the presuppositions of feminists, are taken from the latest Supplemental Liturgical Materials to demonstrate my point.
Among the opening sentences for Morning and Evening Prayer is this passage for Christmas Day from John’s gospel (1:14): “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” What is glaringly deficient about this attempt at “balanced language” is what is left out. St. John, in the theological depth which characterizes his gospel places the mystery of the Incarnation and our corresponding knowledge of the glory of that mystery all in one sentence. I quote the entire verse and mark what the revisionists delete in brackets: “[And] the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, [and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,] full of grace and truth.”
Why are the faithful made to suffer this deletion? There is no textual discrepancy whatsoever among the Greek manuscripts. In this verse, St. John gives us an amazing summary of the knowledge of our salvation. The glorious nature of the Father and his only begotten Son, is revealed in the Word made flesh. Through this mystery of the Incarnation we are comforted by the received knowledge of God’s grace and truth. It will not do to expunge the eternal origin of the Son from the Father as if the divine persons are accidental to grace and truth and to the Incarnation itself. Indeed, what St. John does here by expounding upon the divine Word as Son of the Father is to begin to articulate the altogether crucial doctrine of the Trinity. The Incarnation and the Trinity are doctrines revealed as requiring one another. But above all, what is revealed in this passage is the comfortable knowledge that the grace and truth of God are revealed in the Word made flesh, because he as the Son possesses the nature of the Father. Belief in this Word means that we become like him children of God. Surely, this profound comfort is what a sentence of Scripture for Christmas Day should convey.
The assumptions and intention of the revisionists should not escape our scrutiny. The reason they feel free to omit this part of John 1:14 is because, they think, the names of Father and Son “figure” God as male, and while male imagery as such should he taken metaphorically and not literally, the predominance of male as opposed to female metaphors in Scripture reflects a culture of male dominated language. Their solution is to include the idea of God as female wherever possible, and because that is not everywhere possible in the Biblical text, to eliminate the predominance of male references to God; hence, the deletion of “and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father.”
But what does it mean to say that the Scripture “figures” God as male? There are at least two questions here. First, do the biblical writers intend to figure God as male? And second, what is the assumption behind this inclusive ideology?
We might begin to think about the intention of the Biblical writers by recalling that it was the gnostic Manichaeans who tried to persuade Augustine against the Catholic faith by claiming Catholics believed God has hair and fingernails. From Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, Augustine learned that this was not, in fact, the Catholic view of the meaning of Scripture. (Confessions III, v).
Ambrose was not alone. Anthropomorphic metaphor was well known in the ancient world as a literary form for communicating spiritual truth. One need only cite the allegorical commentary of Philo of Alexandria on the Pentateuch, or the way in which the Greek philosophers correctly understood Hesiod and Homer, to discover this.
We should also remember that anthropomorphism was not confined to metaphors about God. G. B. Caird reminds us that anthropomorphism also takes the form of personification in the pathetic fallacy (The Language And Imagery Of The Bible, Chapter Ten). Caird recalls the words of the Psalmist: “The waters saw thee, 0 God, the waters saw thee; they were afraid. . .” In order to balance the imagery we might quote the Psalmist again: “Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons and all deeps.” Similar to these is one of my favorite passages from the Iliad in which the horses of Achilles stand apart from the midst of battle and weep for their fallen charioteer, Patroklos.
Granted the broad kinds of metaphor used in the ancient world, one cannot claim the Biblical writers intended to “figure” God as male anymore than did Homer Patroklus’ horses, or the Palmist the great deep. As Caird tells us, God is portrayed in the Bible as having “head, face, eyes, eyelids, ears, nostrils, mouth, voice, arm, hand, palm, fingers, foot, heart, bosom, bowels”, but Isaiah also says God does not have a body of flesh; “Now the Egyptians are men and not God, and their horses flesh and not spirit.” Remember the name of God revealed to Moses, “I Am that I Am”.
“Inclusivists” assume there is an aspect of prejudice for a “male” metaphor as against a “female” metaphor in the Biblical writers. But given the clear opposition in the Old Testament of Yahweh to the nature religion of Baal, in which there is the dualism of the heavenly male god raining down his seed upon the earthly female goddess, this question is not simply answered on the side of feminists. Moreover, when St. John records the statement of Jesus that “God is Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth”, has he not already absolutely qualified any metaphorical sense that God the Father is male?
Is not the intention of the Biblical writers to show a relation of creatures to their Creator which is different from the natural but like it? The name of King implies a subject, Lord implies a servant, and Father a child. The advocates of balanced language would have us believe these images are burdened with bigotry and oppressive triumphalism. But the New Testament writers make it clear that God’s Kingdom is not of this world; Christ’s Lordship is not domination but supreme sacrifice; and divine Fatherhood is of a different nature and granted us only by spiritual adoption.
That these relations teach us something about God and ourselves is essential to the Biblical witness. But they really have nothing to do with figuring god as male in his very being, just as Homer does not mean to ask the question of whether horses grieve as human beings do, nor is the Psalmist concerned to speculate on the undulating emotions of salt water. Indeed, when Isaiah wishes to emphasize the faithfulness of God by portraying him as like a woman who cannot forsake her sucking child, in contradistinction to human mothers which may in fact do so, what is at emphasis is not any thought that God is female or male but that God’s compassion is greater than ours.
Important questions remain about Biblical language. Do the Biblical writers use only one form of language when speaking of God? Leonel Mitchell, a liturgical scholar who writes the theological “background” for the “balanced language” texts, maintains that all language about God is “necessarily metaphorical or analogical”, and the “more ‘real’ and ‘personal’ our notion of God is, the more anthropomorphic our language is likely to be.” These assertions deserve a careful response in our next part, but here we should comment that what stands out to the discerning reader is the peculiar hierarchy of metaphors the inclusivists employ. In the end the manner in which these metaphors are used reveals a tension and contradiction in the whole attempt.
If all our language of God is metaphorical, what is it that enables the revisionists to place one metaphor as equal to or better than another? Is it the same to think of God as a lion, as it is to think of him as the Good? Those who wish to set up an hierarchy determine, for instance, that “Word” is an acceptable metaphor because it is Biblical and neutral. “Father” and “Son” are not always acceptable, because they appear too frequently, and predominate to figure a male god. Because the Biblical writers neglect metaphors that figure God as female, feminine attributes, especially those of nurturing, are wherever possible included and enhanced. The names “Lord” and “King” are changed because they imply domination and arrogance.
The assumption which enables this hierarchy finally amounts to this: It appears to the revisionists themselves that metaphorical language about God is the verbal expression of religious experience, which is categorized into male and female modes, and then subdivided into various interest groups (as the Commentary of 1987 lists them: minority races and cultures, older people, those with mental and physical handicaps, liberation theologians). But upon examination of their texts one discovers that experiential metaphors are not really of equal value, because they often reflect an historically conditioned male prejudice. This means that not only are the highest categories those of male and female, but also those as experienced properly by feminists alone. When the primary categories of male and female, thus understood, are applied to the writings of Holy Scripture, the male is seen to predominate over the female, and therefore must be balanced. This balanced language, imposed upon the Biblical texts, is what should constitute prayer. And such prayer, shaping belief, becomes in the words of Leonel Mitchell, “primary theology”.
It is remarkable how wonderfully circular this rationale is. It goes something like this. “I am a feminist and I experience God as nurturing mother along with other attributes; therefore, hoth the Biblical text, which is a mere composite of metaphorical expression, and liturgical prayer should reflect and articulate my experience. Once my experience has been given this objective form of prayer, I recognize it as theology. Those who pray this liturgy with me will share my experience and acquire my theology.” As an example of this circularity it is useful to recall the Commentary of 1987 which says: “The time may come when, by using the images of this rite in prayer, another generation may well reform and renew the perceptions and images of God sufficiently to actually call God “Mother” without hurting and alienating many faithful people” (the first attempt of 1987 to which this quote refers is now revised in Eucharistic Prayer 2 of the Supplemental Liturgical Materials -1991).
Balanced language means that the religious experience and the “primary theology” of contemporary feminists, and their interest groups, are the measure of Biblical revelation and Christian history. We object, because their assumptions are false. It is not the Biblical writers that are concerned to portray God as male, nor are they negligent to portray God as female. Rather, it is the ideology of feminist experience that establishes the criteria and seeks to enclose the Christian religion within the ultimate dual categories of male and female. For this ideology the Standing Liturgical Commission, and the entire supporting apparatus of the General Convention, considers editing the language of Scripture, and our tradition of Common Prayer.
The prejudice of feminist ideology and “primary theology”, in its disregard for the authority of the Bible and its hatred for Christian history, comes into view most clearly in its abuse of the tradition. As a balanced solution to patriarchal evils we find the proposed Doxology: “Praise to the holy and undivided Trinity, one God: as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.” There is no mention of the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit, nor even of a “Mother” goddess. The rationale for this we are told is that this doxology “focuses on the unity of the Triune God” and is similar to the doxology of Byzantine Vespers. But the issue really is not that this doxology focuses on unity, but that it is also “gender free”.
By itself this may seem innocuous. But when taken together with the theological assumptions of inclusivists the only possible response is “How dare they!” To take from the glorious tradition of the Eastern Church a doxology, which presupposes and holds Biblical revelation inviolable, and is part and parcel of the splendid theological mind of that faithful Christian heritage, and to present it as appropriate to their “primary theology” is sophistry of the first order.
That this doxology could not have arisen in the history of the Christian Church without the Trinitarian formula of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is obvious to the casual thinker. But then it is precisely the original formula of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit that the inclusivists seek to eradicate from the mind of the Church.
This blatant contradiction becomes ever more heinous when one recognizes that the Orthodox tradition of the Byzantine Church considered the names of the Blessed Trinity, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, so far beyond the grasp of human knowing as to be properly determinative of all theological reason. In other words, all the names of God had to do ultimately with these three. (Dionysus the Areopagite in The Divine Names and Maximus the Confessor in his Commentary on the Our Father teach this very thing.) When the Orthodox say the word “Trinity”, they are referring to the supereminence of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The reason the revisionists can abuse the Orthodox tradition in this way is because they are not concerned to learn from it but only to manipulate it toward their own ends.
Moreover, to claim that this doxology focuses on the divine unity is a subterfuge for the highest abstraction of feminist theology, in which the primary metaphors of male and female modes pass into a divine androgynous unity. To think of God as an androgynous unity becomes nothing more than the abstract summation of metaphorical attributes, gleaned from the contradictory experiences of individuals. In the end, the notion of God as an abstract unity of all metaphorical attributes is nothing more than a reflection of the autonomous disposition of feminist ideology which wishes to deny all natural limitation and definition.
Ironically, for this position, the dignity of male and female, as complementary sexes of one human nature made in the image of God, is ultimately nullified, because what distinguishes man qua man is not sexual distinction (animals have these also) but the spiritual reality of knowing and loving the divine being. The abstraction of balanced language, therefore, tends tragically to self-hatred and to the denaturing of women and men. Extremely radical feminists have recognized this logical dead-end, and therefore seek to do away with any notion of transcendence whatsoever.
What this liturgy offers those who pray it is a doxology without doctrine. Its intention to revise Christianity, especially as Anglicans have understood it, is heretical. Not only does it deny the received truth of the doctrines of the Trinity and of the Incarnation, it withholds these from the very life of prayer.
The laity of our church should consider this a great scandal. We do not come to church in order to “empower” our peculiar experience and ideology. If we have any true self-knowledge, we know “there is no health in us.” We come to church to make sense of our lives, to order our selves through the authority of God’s commandments, to rest in the comfortable words of the Saviour, and to grow in charity. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
3) We must consider now the theology which intends to make these texts legitimate forms of worship
When the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was passed by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, proponents for the new book claimed its liturgy did not modify the theology of the church. Since then we have discovered this claim was misleading. Indeed, Louis Weil has admitted as much, and has written to provide a theological foundation for the 1979 BCP (“The Gospel in Anglicanism” in The Study of Anglicanism).
With the current attempt at “Balanced Language”, it is undeniable that we are witnessing a radical revision in theology which can be seen both in method and in principle and is clearly a departure from the Christian religion.
i) The Method
The presupposition that what inclusive language does is simply translate the thought of the gospel into terms and language which our culture can comprehend is patently false, because its method belies and contradicts it. The theological “Background” for the Supplemental Liturgical Materials claims first of all that “Change is still the only constant factor in our history” and that the “ongoing change in the English language” affects the way we pray. This presupposition deserves a response.
That change is part of our lives is a truism. But to say that change is the “only constant factor” in human history, personal or collective, is the old reductio ad absurdum of historical relativism. It implies that we are trapped by an irreversible motion of change and subject to a fate beyond our reason and control. Given this assumption one must interpret history by virtue of his present experience, which is by definition of equal value to any other, personal or collective, now or in the past. The danger of such a position is obviously an arrogant sell-preoccupied tyranny.
Moreover, this presupposition is inherently illogical. If change is “still the only constant factor”, it too can change, even into stability. On the other hand, if change is itself incapable of change, it has the nature of an eternal idea, and our capacity to think about that implies we have knowledge of something permanent. The truth is; change is a factor in our history, both personal and collective, but it is neither absolutely constant, nor is it the only factor.
Alister McGrath has reminded us that the decisive flaw of historical relativism is that it denies the rational freedom by which all periods of history, even our own, may be judged. And yet we cannot flee into an abstract rationalism which denies historical influence and development (The Genesis of Doctrine, Chapter Four). In the end, neither reason nor history exists alone. They are both “constant factors” related to one another in human experience. Plato thought that time is the moving image of eternity, reflecting an eternal rational structure. In Christ, the Word made flesh, we have seen time and eternity in their union and distinction. For Christians, change is not the “only constant factor”, for God himself “with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” acts in history.
The prayer book tradition must be seen in this context as an inheritance of the Church’s wisdom, what she has come to know through redeemed reason and Christian history. In the prayer book tradition the Church’s wisdom is evident in the profound synthesis of Biblical texts, theological reason, and religious poetry, woven into a coherent pattern of prayer. Common prayer is not determined simply by one period of the Church’s life, certainly not our own. Nor is it mere dogmatic theology. It is the revelation of the Bible, the summary knowledge of the Creeds, and the prayers of the saints, given a unity that is both historical and rational, religious and spiritual, empirical and mystical. The Book of Common Prayer cannot be reduced to an abstraction about relevant language in constant change, because it is not simply an historically determined book. It is the form and content of what it teaches and prays, the union of eternal truth and the redemption of time. It is a divinely inspired way to live into the Incarnation of the Word of God.
To say this is not to resist prayer book modifications, but to maintain they be undertaken in continuity with the wisdom of the Church. And this is where the real theological issue comes into view. The revisionists’ ideology presumes that all language about God is derived from the experiences of changing history, and that ours will be necessarily different from those who go before and after us. Even the words of Scripture are revisable. But this presumption is historicist, arbitrary, and a sham. Not only does it mean that the prayer book must he re-written for each new generation in order to correspond to its peculiar experience, but it also presumes upon the nature of reality and experience itself.
What I mean is this: the idea of experience they espouse is confined to a conception of the human being restricted to the insight and emotions of individuals. They assume that reality is only as they experience it. The archetypal example of this experience is their claim that the name of God the Father is a mere biblical image, and that Jesus called God Father because of a “distinctive insight into Jesus’ own relationship with God”.
This idea of experience cannot tolerate divinely revealed truth, or a divinely made reason that is capable of knowing truth and is common to all people in all ages. The tyranny of individual experience must theoretically preclude the notion of providence weaving essential truth and historical existence into a seamless cloth. It will not participate in something revealed “in the fullness of time”.
The method of “Balanced Language” then is this: theology is couched in the language of metaphor and analogy because it is understood through the arbitrary notion of historical relativism and personal experience. But to recognize this is not enough. Christians must recognize what their own theological method is and has been. And this should be understood through the perspective of language about God.
Is it true, as Leonel Mitchell says, that “the language in which we speak of God is necessarily metaphorical and analogical”? Yes and No.
Yes. It is true and obvious to the casual thinker, that our language about God is not identical to the way in which God thinks himself. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” If our language were so then we would be nothing less than the eternal Word. Our thinking is finite, which is to say, that it is by nature limited within time and space, and subject to contingency. When we turn to the Bible we discover many forms of finite language including metonymy, synecdoche, simile, parable, proverb, myth, history, and proposition. These different forms have been understood at different periods of the Church’s life through the various modes of allegory, anagogy, analogy, typology, tropology and philosophical theology, and lately through positive higher literary criticism. All of these we might call metaphorical if by that we mean language about God which is not tantamount to God’s self-knowledge. But if by metaphor we mean that our language about God is merely the projection of our experience into the heavens, we are gravely mistaken, and in this sense the revisionists are dead wrong.
A definition of metaphor from Caird is helpful: “A metaphor is the transference of a term from one referent with which it naturally belongs to a second referent, in order that the second may be illuminated by comparison with the first or by being seen as the first”. (Language And Imagery, Chapter Three). The origin of the comparison pertains to nature. It is the original nature which is the reality to which other things are referred and compared metaphorically.
When it comes to theological language, language about God, our comparison often ends not with our images, but with God’s revelation of himself, so that if indeed all language about God is understood metaphorically, the natural origin and primary referent of comparison does not and cannot remain with us. The method universally understood throughout the Church has been to measure our metaphors about God, in whatever literary form they may appear, by God’s self-revelation.
For example, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that it is not the same to say that God is a lion as it is to say that God is the Good. It is the lion’s nature to exercise great strength in the particular sphere and splendor of his creatureliness. To call God a lion is to picture him in his absolute power over all creation. But to say God is the Good, is not to attribute to him what is merely the stuff of our experience, but to know and name (not exhaustively but truly) what is proper to God’s very nature (Summa Theologiae 1.13.6 Respondeo). And so all created goods are referred and compared to that Good which is the very being of God and the source and origin of all created goods. For Thomas, such names of God as the Good and the Wise are those we use for naming creatures, after the manner of human knowing which begins with creatures, but they are understood finally and properly only of the divine nature, and these along with all the names of God must be measured by the Scripture.
St. Augustine teaches the same thing when he distinguishes the many forms of human language with which the Scripture “suits itself to babes… through which, as by nourishment, our understanding might rise gradually to things divine and transcendent” (De Trinitate, I). But Scripture, says Augustine, also rarely employs those propositions (again not exhaustive but true) which are said properly of God because they are not found in any creature, such as that which was told to Moses: “I Am that I Am”, and that which David says: “Thou shalt change them, and they shall be changed; but thou art the same.”
When we approach the doctrine of the Trinity, Thomas follows Augustine closely. Augustine claims that our structure for naming things in the terms of genus and species which is appropriate to some names of God, as the Good and the Wise, cannot apply to the Trinity. (De Trinitate, VIII). The doctrine of the Trinity is first of all revealed and then considered thoughtfully in the life of the Church. This prompts Thomas, in the midst of his theological exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity, to claim God the Father is called Father and God the Son is called Son proprie et non metaphorice because the Son as the divine Verbum subsists eternally in the divine nature and has as its principle the Father. According to Thomas, because a word does not subsist forever in human nature but comes and goes, the conception of the Word is properly said of the divine nature, and paternity is naturally of God the Father, and we might say, only metaphorically of us! (Summa Theologiae 1.33.2 Respondeo, ad 3). The Aristotelian distinction still holds true. Our language of God is neither univocal nor equivocal but analogous. The point at issue is the principle of the analogy.
So we come to the crux of the matter. The confidence of the early Church Fathers, in the West and East, to name God, stems from the revelation of God in the Scriptures, and particularly in Christ. Gregory of Nazianzus will not hear of those who attempt to name God by mere metaphorical ejaculation: “It is very shameful, and not only shameful, but very foolish, to take from things below a guess at things above, and from a fluctuating nature at the things that are unchanging, and as Isaiah says, to seek the Living among the dead.” (The Fifth Theological Oration). When Gregory of Nyssa attempts to understand the doctrine of the Trinity, he first clarifies the inadequacy of customary naming (logic) as it is found in Scripture and Tradition, not to deny these, but to elucidate them. Nevertheless, when he seeks to unravel the doctrine through his own logic by speaking of the relations of the divine persons as Cause and Caused, he defines his meaning by the Scriptural names of the Father and his Only Begotten Son (Quod Non Tres Dei).
Clearly, the method of the Fathers is to receive the revelation of the Scripture and to meditate upon its meaning. Theirs is no crude literalism which pictures God the Father as male. Rather the early Fathers are concerned to understand the profound depths of revelation. St. Augustine, for instance, concludes his long treatise on the Trinity by thinking of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as the divine memory, intellect, and will, the principle of all personality. Still, Augustine’s metaphysical speculations do not permit him to alter the biblical revelation. For him, rather, the Bible is the ground and measure for spiritual understanding. For most of the history of Christian theology it is incorrect to say “the more ‘real’ and ‘personal’ our notion of God is, the more anthropomorphic our language is likely to be.” Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, indeed the vast majority of the Christian tradition East and West could discern the difference and so can we, both in theology and in the language of prayer.
ii) The Principle
At the heart of “Balanced Language” is a presupposition which is decidedly anti-Christian. It is the idea that the revelation of the Bible and Christian history have through the prejudice of the Biblical writers obscured a genuine experience of God which is now at last come to light with feminism. But the real and appalling prejudice is in fact with the revisionists who presume to deny two forms of spiritual freedom, namely that of God and of man.
Above all else, the Christian must remember that the religion of Christ is grounded in the freedom of God. It is his being alone which enjoys the absolute liberty of spirit. God lacks nothing. His perfect wisdom is equal to his power and his wisdom and his power to his love. This is the freedom, so far beyond the realm of human knowing, that is in Christ. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” Jesus says explicitly and quite to the exclusion of any other claims: “All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him”.
The sine qua non of Christian knowledge and the enduring practice of faith, especially in our life of common prayer, is that God is free to speak to us, and out of his love has spoken definitively in his Son. Neither our sin nor our mistaken ideology nor our finite experience can preclude the liberty of the divine spirit to reveal himself as the primary end of all spiritual desire. “The hour cometh and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him”.
Certainly, the most profound unity of the whole Bible is this very freedom with which God speaks. With delight we remember this passage of the psalmist: “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made…” With fear and trembling we recall the admonition of Jeremiah: “Hear O earth: behold, I will bring evil upon this people, even the fruits of their thoughts, because they have not hearkened unto my words…” With humble comfort we hold firm the words of our Saviour: “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
What inclusive language does by rejecting revelation in principle is to usurp the freedom of God and deny the equality of his wisdom and power and charity. Sadly and ironically, such a presumption is the final nail in the coffin of human experience. For out of the divine freedom, and from nowhere else, comes the freedom of human creation and redemption.
“Balanced Language” therefore also subverts the freedom of redeemed humanity. It was blessed St. Augustine who understood so profoundly that the Christian faith begins with the God who speaks, and that man was created in the divine image to understand and enjoy God’s word. For Augustine, man’s creation in the image of God meant that the human being, before the fall, was capable of hearing the divine speech and discerning the life of spirit. The image itself is neither material nor bodily, nor is it the complementary natures of male and female so perfectly fitted to the created order. It is the peculiar capacity of man and his supremacy over the other animals to hear and enjoy the Word, to discern rational beauty and possess the Good self-consciously.
Of course, Augustine also knew that the created image was marred by sin, and that ever since it has been the labour of mankind to strive against itself, mistaken in the loves of this world. And so, when the divine charity, in the person of Jesus, made the way for man to participate forever in his Exemplar, the true nature of divine freedom was once again heard and discerned. In Christ the capacity of man’s freedom was enabled to know the truth and love the Good. “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him”.
The issue of “Balanced Language” comes down to this: Was and is the mind of Jesus free? If not, he cannot be our Way to God.
If his is not the liberty of the “I Am” born of the Virgin Mary, then he would be unable to free us – his wisdom would be conjecture; his power inadequate, his charity cruel. But if the mind of Jesus is free, as he claims and as Christians have experienced and confessed for centuries, then we have known, and our forefathers have known, that God is free, and by the grace of the God-man we rejoice in the glorious liberty of the children of God.
St. Paul assures us of this freedom in a passage often misunderstood. In Galatians, Paul teaches: “For ye are all the children (literally sons) of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” Christians are sons because they have put on Christ, which means that by faith in Christ, Christians enter into the spiritual relation of the Son with the Father. This is why in Christ there is neither male nor female, because these distinctions, while created and redeemed and full of dignity, are not essential to the liberty of spirit. “And because ye are sons, God hath sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.”
At the very heart of our faith, we recognize how profound the relations of the Blessed Trinity are and why they compel our contemplation and participation. But we enter into them by grace, and we dare not presume to change their names.
There are other theological questions we cannot approach in this article, such as how the names of the Trinity may be understood to reveal the divine activity, and how we should think the unity of male and female as man. Our argument has been to show that “Balanced Language” is both in method and principle opposed to the Christian faith.
One final word. The history of the Book of Common Prayer is the glory of the Anglican tradition. Its genius is in the essential shape and recollection of the mind of Christ as we have come to know and love him as he is revealed in the Bible, and as the church Catholic has known and sought him in prayer throughout the centuries. “Balanced Language” is a monstrous parody of our heritage. It is heretical inasmuch as it denies the very principle of Christian salvation. “Balanced language” can be considered a moment within the history of prayer book development – but only as what common prayer cannot be.
At St. John’s we continue to pray through our distinctive tradition in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. From this we will not be dissuaded. The current process of liturgical revision in the Episcopal Church, as evidenced by “Balanced Language” cannot tolerate the Biblical and historical Christian faith. And for this reason, this ideology and political process must be firmly opposed. But the Hook of Common Prayer as form and content of the whole Christian faith shall survive, no matter what becomes of the present Episcopal church. We have experienced for ourselves the spiritual substance of the common prayer tradition. It is nothing less than the work of the Spirit, and “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” both of mind and heart.