What’s in a Name?

Jesus asked his disciples: Whom do people say that I am?

His disciples answered Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elijah, or another of the old prophets.

And Jesus asked again: But whom do you say that I am?

Peter answered: Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably, each interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple.

And Jesus answering, said: Excuse me?

There’s an old term for God which we don’t refer to much these days. It’s the Godhead. Godhead is so much more than a name. It’s a description which hints at the essential nature of the deity. That essential nature hints at the communal rather than the solitary. God is a nickname by which we refer to the Godhead. We have every right to think the Trinity is confusing. But it’s actually very simple.

First a little history. The most expansive articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity was officially accepted at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The doctrine of the Trinity was and remains protective rather than explanatory in nature. The doctrine of the Trinity requires us to tolerate mystery -as in- knowing – but not knowing how we know.

The 4th-century Nicene doctrine of the Trinity is the culmination of three centuries of theological speculation on what begins for the first Christians as a lived everyday experience.

As Jews the first Christians experienced the historical God of their ancestors who brought them up out of the land of Egyptian slavery; who gave them the Torah through Moses; the God with whom they had lived – falling in and out of relationship over centuries of ups and downs.

Yet, as the followers of Jesus, they also had a new experience of God – God with a human face. While living among them, Jesus had taught them a new way of seeing God – God revealed through the intimacy of human relationship – God revealed in a loving look, a casual smile, a kind or not so kind word of instruction from a human voice, a physical touch of a healing God.

After Jesus left them –-they were surprised by a completely unexpected experience of God as indwelling spirit –the Spirit of the risen Christ – now inhabiting deep within them, filling the spaces between them, and enveloping the whole world around them.

By the 4th-century, Christianity had developed from an obscure Jewish sect to become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Religious zeal and political lobbying now ran in the same channel – a phenomenon we today are not unacquainted with. Factional partisanship fanned intense theological disagreements between competing episcopal camps – inevitably spilling out into running street battles between the unruly mobs of their supporters. For a chilling perspective on the death and violence that accompanied the conciliar debates, John Philip Jenkins’ Jesus Wars is a must read.

At issue were attempts to define the nature of the internal relationships within the Godhead. The Emperor Constantine the Great, fearing civil war called the bishops to convene in Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 where he forced them to codify something that earlier generations of Christians had simply lived as an everyday awareness.

At Nicaea, using Aristotelian philosophical concepts of persons and con-substance it was decided once and for all – at least at the official level – that the essence of the Godhead comprised three persons all sharing the one substance. One God in three persons, three persons but only one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To put it in today’s language – three discernable identities emanating from and united within a single relationship. If you think relationship the wrong term here let me go on.

Tradition is a slippery thing. It passes from one generation to another, each subsequent generation receiving the legacy of its forebears. Yet, if tradition is received unchanged – it dies. For Tradition to remain a living force – each generation must reinterpret what is received – so that it speaks to the lives actually lived by Christians facing new challenges and seeking to apply timeless truths in new contexts.  

As I wrote in E-News this past week, you can’t be in a relationship by yourself. There is no such thing as a community of one.  We identify ourselves in reference to others with whom we live in relationship. Today we recognize that individual identity filters through our perception of the way others see us. We catch a glimpse of ourselves in the face of the other – looking back at us.

Andrei Rublev’s famous 14th-century depiction of the Trinity offers a pictorial metaphor of three identical persons – each lovingly gazing upon one another. We see here three identical figures gazing upon each other with a strong mutual love. That there are three attests to the communal nature of relationship within the Godhead. That they are identical attests to their single shared nature. But it’s their mutual gaze that strikes us. It’s as if each figure catches a glimpse of themselves in the reflected gaze of the other two.

We not only see the figures gazing at each other, but we also catch a glimpse of ourselves in the relationship to them for as we gaze at them they are also gazing back at us. We are communal and relational, because God is communal and relational – after all in whose image we were created.

All well and good you might say but can we really continue to talk about God in the gendered terms of Father and Son, with the Holy Spirit not obviously gendered until referred to as he, which is odd because in the Hebrew ruach is feminine and carries the pronoun she.

Patriarchal Tradition – linguistically ascribed masculine identities to the relational elements within the Godhead. Whereas in our own time the drive for linguistic inclusivity is a response to evolving conceptions of gender relations exposing the Tradition’s male gender bias. Not throwing the baby out with the bathwater is a warning we should hear, however.

We hear the gender bias issue being resolved by referring to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simply as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. This may overcome the gendered issue but the problem here is that these terms refer to functions within the Godhead not to relationships. It’s important to remember that the point of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not gender but relationship.

A better solution is to refer to the members of the Trinity – as I do frequently -Lover, Beloved, and Love-Sharer. These terms preserve the essential relational – can’t have one without the other- nature within the Godhead.  

It is the relational quality within the community of God that commends itself so powerfully to us – living increasingly in a world where relationality, its presence or absence, is the measure of meaning and an indicator of quality of life.

If only the Nicene Fathers had had the benefit of an Irish poetic sensitivity:

Three folds of the cloth, yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints in the finger, but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snowflakes, and ice, all in water their origin share,
Three Persons in God: to one God alone we make our prayer.                                
Celtic Prayer to the Trinity.

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