It is common today to assume that theological arguments regarding the nature of the Trinity are of interest only in abstruse academic circles. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The Holy Trinity - one God in three Persons - is at the core of our belief and faith as Christians. The Trinity is not some abstraction to be philosophically debated by scholars. It is the source and meaning of our lives. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, salvation is union with God leading to our deification, what is called theosis. In other words, salvation is our relationship with God. And how we understand God as Trinity drastically affects how we relate to God as Trinity. I would like to share with you my thoughts regarding an important Trinitarian question - the use of gender language for God, or how we express our understanding of God through human relationships and names.
There are three areas that are relevant to the issue of gendered language for the Godhead. Those three areas are (1) the level of being at which a characteristic exists, (2) the distinction between the theological or inner activity of the Trinity and its economic or external activity in creation, and (3) the importance of personal relationships in understanding the Trinity. The question of gender in the Persons of the Trinity is complicated and emotional. Unfortunately, attempts to flee from one type of heresy, that of ascribing actual gender to God, have sometimes led to new heresies or misunderstandings of the persons of the Godhead. One example of this is the use of new genderless Trinitarian names, which is advocated in some circles. Typically, proponents suggest replacing the traditional names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with the names Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier (or Sustainer). At first blush, there seems to be nothing wrong with these names for the persons of the Trinity, although they are not the names given in the New Testament and in the ongoing life of the Church. That is a problem in itself, both in terms of the importance of the continuous faith and worship tradition within Christianity and in terms of our fidelity to God's revelation. St. Gregory of Nyssa dealt with a similar controversy in the late fourth century. The Arians and their theological comrades-in-arms, the Eunomians, wanted to use different names for God. But Gregory categorically rejected any substitution for the divinely revealed names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It is important to note that Gregory's opposition to other names for the Trinity is not based simply on God's revelation and Church tradition, important as those are, but on the truth and substance of what those names reveal and how they bring us toward communion with God. And, in fact, a closer examination of the new names proposed for God reveals a deep problem in how we understand God's revelation to us of His manner of being. The major problem with the names Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier is that these names refer to activities of God, activities that are common to all three Persons of the Trinity. The Father does not create the world by Himself, but together with the Son and Spirit. Likewise, the Son does not redeem humanity by Himself, but the process of redemption is shared by the Father and Spirit, who participate intimately in Christ's incarnation and resurrection. And, finally, of course, regarding the Holy Spirit's action in and sanctification of creation, one need only refer back again to John 15:26: Jesus Christ sends the Holy Spirit from the Father into the world. We must understand that all three Persons of the Trinity participate in every divine action, although each participates in His own unique manner. A confusion is wrought between the properties or characteristics of the shared divine nature and those properties that are unique to each Person of the Trinity. All three Persons create, redeem, and sanctify creation; each does so in a unique manner. A related problem is the distinction between the inner and outer life of the Trinity. The names Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier refer to actions of the Trinity toward creation and especially toward humanity; they do not refer to what the Trinity actually is in its essence. This means our going beyond simply relating to God's economic activity, in other words, God's activity toward us, and becoming aware of what God is in and of Himself.
The false, and even dangerous, methodology is that of extrapolating from humanity back to divinity. In other words, what some do is to look at humanity, which is created in the image of God, and to assume that certain characteristics of human nature (in this case gender) must then reflect God's own nature. This is what I call anthropological theology. What this does is to create God in our image instead of the other way around, and in so doing to commit the ultimate heresy, that of worshipping ourselves, the created, rather than God, the Creator. We are challenged and called to come to know God as He truly is, not as we, either rationally or emotionally, may want Him to be. The Eastern Church Fathers, by contrast, consistently advocate what I call theological anthropology. That is, they examine first what God is, and then those aspects of God that exist in some form in humanity are considered to be part of His image in us. For the Greek Fathers, the three most important aspects of God's image in humanity are reason, free will, and dominion over creation. These are what separate us from the rest of the animal world, and - because they reflect the omniscience, omnipotence, and complete freedom of God Himself - these are aspects of human nature that require great responsibility and wisdom to be used correctly. To return to my earlier question, then, are the names used for God, especially Father and Son, somehow meant to imply gender in the Godhead? For the Eastern Church Fathers, both Greek and Syriac, the answer is a categorical no; God's image resides equally in men and women, because gender is definitely not part of that image. One of the striking differences between Eastern and Western theology in this area is that, unlike the theologians of the West, who made the male the norm for both humanity and divinity, the Fathers of the East considered sexual differentiation itself to be outside the norm.
What Gregory understands is that there is a crucial difference between the essence of being, particularly divine being, and the images and metaphors used on the human level to attempt to describe that being, and especially to describe actions and activity. An Orthodox theologian, Susan Ashbrook Harvey, has remarked that "[t]o understand divine activity as expressive of divine essence is, then, to understand that gender may somehow be an attribute of the essence without being equivalent to it."1 Thus, Gregory is not averse to using names, titles, and attributes for God that have a gendered connotation. But he realizes the limitations of names that apply on the human level to either male or female alone. Therefore, since we consider certain qualities to be gender-determined in humanity, words for the Trinity referring to both sexes, female as well as male, are used by the ancient writers of the Christian East. Yes, the use of female imagery for God (Father and Son as well as Holy Spirit) is neither a new feminist phenomenon nor solely the province of Western medieval female mystics such as Julian of Norwich. Such writing was not unusual for male theologians and spiritual writers in the Eastern Christian Church in the first few centuries. Let me give you a few examples. Feminine imagery is especially prevalent for the Holy Spirit in Syriac Christian literature. Part of the reason for this is that in Syriac, as in other Semitic languages, the word for spirit, ruha (ruah in Hebrew), is grammatically feminine in gender.
Also, some of the verbs used to denote the action of the Spirit have feminine connotations, especially the verb rahhef, "to hover," which is used particularly to describe "a mother bird hovering over her nestlings." Early Church manuals from the Middle East will thus compare the deaconess to the Holy Spirit.2 But it is most prominent in Syriac Christian poetry. A good example is the Odes of Solomon, a collection of forty-two hymns dating apparently to the second century. In one ode, the Holy Spirit is compared to a dove enfolding the believer in its wings as in a mother's womb.3 In another ode, the Spirit is both refuge and birthgiver.
The Odes of Solomon are even more explicit. In Ode 19, feminine imagery is used not only for the Holy Spirit but, far more prominently, also for God the Father.
What is truly remarkable about this ode is that, aside from the Holy Spirit, two persons are shown with paradoxical gender imagery. God the Father is referred to as having breasts and as breast-feeding, and the Virgin Mary is described as giving birth "like a man." This imagery is not simply emotional or spiritual in nature. It is also deeply theological and dogmatic. God the Father is the source for the person and entire divine nature of the Son, as the Theotokos is the source of Christ's entire human nature. As Verna Harrison has shown in her article "The Fatherhood of God in Orthodox Theology," early Christian thought resonates with the analogy between God the Father and the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary, both of whom transcend traditional human notions of gender regarding conception and childbirth.4
Gregory and the other Eastern fathers remind us that the term Father for God may be the most appropriate name for God, yet it is still limited from the divine perspective and cannot be understood in normal human terms. As the Orthodox theologian Emmanuel Clapsis has remarked, "the image of God as Father does not confine the being of God within the limits of this human image, but iconoclastically bursts that image and compels us to learn anew from him the truth about his fatherhood."5 In fact, in one of his theological orations, Gregory actually belittles those who understand God's fatherhood in a human manner.
From a human point of view, God's fatherhood encompasses both human fatherhood and human motherhood, at the same time transcending both. God the Father both begets and gives birth to the eternal Son. This is why his fatherhood is not compared to human fatherhood but rather to the supernatural motherhood of the Virgin Mary. By conceiving without a man, and as the unique source of Jesus Christ's human nature, the Theotokos becomes the closest human model to God the Father. The name Father was especially important for the early Christians because, due to the ancient world's limited and often inaccurate understanding of anatomy, biology, and medicine, they believed that a human father, through his sperm, provided the entire genetic material for a human fetus; this is the source of frequent imagery comparing a mother's womb to a fertile field in which the seed is implanted. Nevertheless, the early Christians understood the dangers of making human nature the model for the divine and were careful to balance the masculine connotations of the name Father with feminine imagery appropriate to God's actions and attributes.
But what about the second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, who became incarnate as a male human being? After all, most of the Fathers of the Church understand humanity's being created in the image of God not primarily in terms of the Trinity as a whole, although that anthropology is also present, but primarily in terms of Jesus Christ. Some modern theologians and church leaders interpret this to mean that men are somehow more in Christ's image than are women. In an article published in MacLeans magazine, a Rev. Anthony Kennedy asserted, "A woman can't represent Christ. Men and women are totally different - that's not my fault - and Jesus chose men for his disciples."6 But again, as with God the Father, the Greek Fathers are careful not to make gender important to God, even to the person of Jesus Christ. They specifically assert that man and woman are equally created in the image of Christ. This is of absolute importance with respect to the salvation of women as well as men. It had early become an axiom in Eastern Christian theology that what Christ did not assume or take on, he did not save. If his maleness was important in some ontological sense - in other words, in terms of his very being - then female humanity would not be saved because he had only assumed male humanity in his incarnation. Therefore, most of the Greek Fathers do not deal with Christ's masculinity at all. One of the few who does treat this question is St. Theodore of Studios, an abbot and theologian living in Constantinople in the early ninth century. In his third antirrhetic or treatise against the iconoclasts, he maintains the importance of Christ's maleness, but not for the reasons most people would think.7 For Theodore, Christ's maleness is important because, since humanity only exists as male and female, it proves the completeness of the human incarnation of the Son of God. In other words, if the Son of God were truly to be human in every way, then he had to have all the attributes of humanity, including gender. Yet Theodore seems to deny that the Son of God had to become male by nature as opposed to female, since he declares that "[m]aleness and femaleness are sought only in the forms of bodies, since none of the differences which characterize the sexes can be recognized in bodiless beings."8 In fact, the only importance he attaches to Christ's maleness per se is that it is a fulfillment of the messianic prophesy in Isaiah 8:3: "And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son." Theodore therefore refutes the opinions of those who believe that Christ's maleness has some intrinsic value or importance and that men somehow image Christ in a way inaccessible to women.
The true answer is not to find other names equally limited in their ability to articulate the One who is beyond all limits, but rather to understand the limitations of even the divinely revealed names in order to prevent our taking literally any idea of gender in the Godhead.