Presbyterians and the Trinity: Let Us Phrase

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Times Staff Writer

When referring to the Trinity, most Christians are likely to say “Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.”

But leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) are suggesting some additional designations: “Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-giving Womb,” or perhaps “Overflowing Font, Living Water, Flowing River.”

Then there’s “Rock, Cornerstone and Temple” and “Rainbow of Promise, Ark of Salvation and Dove of Peace.”


The phrases are among 12 suggested but not mandatory wordings essentially endorsed this month by delegates to the church’s policy-making body to describe a “triune God,” the Christian doctrine of God in three persons.

The Rev. Mark Brewer, senior pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church, is among those in the 2.3-million-member denomination unhappy with the additions.

“You might as well put in Huey, Dewey and Louie,” he said.

“Any time you get together representatives of 2 1/2 million people, you get some really solid people and some really wacky people,” he said, referring to the delegates who attended the 217th General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala. Other assembly actions attracted larger notice, such as endorsing medical marijuana and giving local authorities the ability to ordain gays and lesbians living openly with same-sex partners.

But now, through blogs and discussions during and after services, word is spreading about the additions to the traditional Trinity.

Others include “Sun, Light and Burning Ray” and “Speaker, Word and Breath.” The wordings are meant to reflect particular aspects of worship, so a prayer noting God’s “wrath in the face of evil” might use “Fire That Consumes, Sword That Divides and Storm That Melts Mountains.” Some of the suggestions are familiar ones, such as “Creator, Savior, Sanctifier” and “Rock, Redeemer, Friend,” which other denominations already use.

Although the delegates did not officially adopt a report recommending the new designations, after extensive debate they voted 282 to 212 to “receive” the document. By not rejecting the report, the delegates essentially allowed individual churches to decide how to use the new phraseology.


Written by a diverse panel of working pastors and theologians, the report noted that the traditional language of the Trinity portrays God as male and implies men are superior to women.

“For this and other distortions of Trinitarian doctrine we repent,” the report said.

Daniel L. Migliore, a member of the committee that spent five years crafting the report, said critics miss the point.

“What we are speaking of is supplementary ways of referring to the triune God -- not replacements, not substitutes,” said Migliore, professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.

And the Rev. Rebecca Button Prichard, pastor of Tustin Presbyterian Church, who headed the panel that wrote “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing,” strongly defended it as theologically sound.

“What people are afraid is that they think we are taking ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ away from them,” she said. “We’re not. What we want to say is that no words can fully describe God. And so we want people to seek a variety of expression, so we can do justice to the greatness of God.”

The concept that the omniscience of God is beyond comprehension -- and, hence, human language -- dates to antiquity. In ancient Israel, Jews did not dare to invoke the name of God -- Yahweh -- who declared in the Decalogue, “You shall have no other gods before me.”


But critics of the new designations say the wordings are confusing and reflect a concession to touchy modern sensibilities.

“They’re attempting to be politically correct, and unnecessarily so,” said Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute in Charlotte, N.C.

Hanegraaff contends that the report is based on a false premise that Christianity is patriarchal, an assumption he called “an urban legend” being circulated with increasing frequency.

“Jesus Christ comes into a culture in which women are considered to be on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder ... and makes women his disciples,” he said.

“Women are the first to bear witness to the empty tomb, which is central in Christianity. The Bible says in Christ there is neither male nor female. We are one in Christ.”

Like many longtime Presbyterians, Sherie Zander, a Brentwood psychotherapist, has followed the General Assembly’s actions. She worries that the report on the Trinity will further divide her denomination, already polarized over issues such as the ordination of gays.


“It’s very odd and bizarre,” she said. When she first heard about the report last week from a friend who called her from Birmingham with “You’ve got to hear this,” she burst out laughing.

“It’s very clear that God refers to himself as the father,” she said. “Jesus, when he walked on the Earth, referred to himself as the son. All through Scripture, the Holy Spirit is referred to as the spirit. What would give any of us the right to change that?”

This is the 300th anniversary of American Presbyterianism. Presbyterians tend to be well-educated and middle- or upper-middle-class, and they place an emphasis on studying Scripture.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest of the three Presbyterian groups, has traditionally been part of mainstream Protestantism, though it has tended to take liberal stands in recent years.

The church, which like other mainline denominations is losing thousands of members a year, is encouraging its 11,000 congregations to employ the Trinity designations except in baptism, which will continue to use “Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.”

The report will be made widely available “for study and reflection,” and study materials will be prepared for dissemination in congregations.


The Rev. Jonathan Lovelady, senior pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Waynesboro, Va., said the panel made a noncontroversial matter into a controversy, adding that decisions like this encourage some churches to consider leaving the denomination.

“The report creates confusion for the name of God, by making a name equal with analogies and/or metaphors for God,” said Lovelady, a member of the General Assembly’s committee on theological issues. He sought to file a minority report against the recommendations, but it was rejected.

“Is Father, Son and Holy Spirit interchangeable with Rainbow, Ark and Dove, or Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-giving Womb?” Lovelady asked.

Bishop Steven Charleston, president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., where inclusive language has been used for three decades, said he respects what the Presbyterian Church is trying to do.

“When I saw the language that is being suggested here, I really understood it as a search that many Christian communities are undergoing now, to find more inclusive ways of referring to God,” he said.

The Rev. David M. Scholer, a professor of the New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said this is a difficult task.


“We don’t want to do things that perpetuate patriarchy,” said Scholer, an ordained American Baptist minister who supports inclusive language. “On the other hand, we don’t want to use terms that take away from awe and transcendence of God and what was accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.”

Bel Air’s Brewer also warned against over-familiar language.

A child calling parents “Father” and “Mother,” he said, is far different from calling them “Billy and Betty.”



The ideas come in threes

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is encouraging its members to use new wordings to reflect the Trinity, in addition to “Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.” A church report suggests how to phrase prayers, such as “The triune God is known to us as ‘Speaker, Word, and Breath.’ ”

The specific references to the Trinity in the report:

Sun, Light and Burning Ray

* Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-giving Womb

* Giver, Gift and Giving

* Rainbow of Promise, Ark of Salvation and Dove of Peace.

* Lover, Beloved and the Love, and Binds Together Lover and Beloved

* Overflowing Font, Living Water, Flowing River

* One From Whom, the One Through Whom, and the One in Whom We Offer Our Praise

* Rock, Cornerstone and Temple

* Fire That Consumes, Sword That Divides, and Storm That Melts Mountains

* Creator, Savior, Sanctifier

* Rock, Redeemer, Friend

* King of Glory, Prince of Peace, Spirit of Love

* One Who Was, the One Who Is and the One Who Is to Come

Source: “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing,” a report by a committee of the Presbyterian Church (USA)

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