134 The Battle for the Trinity


  We are, by nature, word-shaped and word-shaping creatures.  Consequently, we define and debate the meaning of words.  “What is the good of words,” asked G.K. Chesterton, “if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over?  Why do we choose one word or than another if there isn’t any difference between them?  If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn’t there be a quarrel about a word?  If you’re not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about?  Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears?  The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only things worth fighting about” (The Ball and the Cross {NY:  John Lane Co., 1910}, p. 96). 

            Above all, words regarding the Trinity are worth fighting about!  As one of the giants of 20th century theologians, Emile Brunner, said:  “We are not concerned with the God of thought, but with the God who makes His Name known.  But He makes His Name know as the Name of the Father; He makes this Name of the Father known through the Son; and He makes the Son known as the Son of the Father, and the Father as Father of the Son through the Holy Spirit.  These three names constitute the actual content of the New Testament message” (The Christian Doctrine of God, trans. Olive Wyon {Philadelphia:  Westminister Press, 1974}, p. 206).  No doctrine has been more essential–or more disputed–for 2000 years, for on it the Christian faith stands or falls. 

          As we enter the 21st century, one of the strongest challenges to traditional trintarianism is feminist theology, and probably the best assessment of that threat is found in Donald Bloesch’s The Battle for the Trinity:  The Debate over Inclusive God-Language  (Ann Arbor:  Servant Publications, c. 1986).  In her foreword to the book, the distinguished biblical scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier noted that feminist theology–much of which she contends is a return to “Baalism”–had impacted “the liturgy and worship of the church, its governing bodies, its witness, its doctrine, and its sacred literature” (p. xi).  She believes that “several feminist theologians are in the process of laying the foundations for a new faith and a new church that are, at best, only loosely related to apostolic Christianity” (p. xi).  Anticipating Achtemeier’s concern for Baalism, the great Jewish biblical scholar and philosopher Martin Buber noted that ancient Israel’s prophets forever struggled against the pagan religions of Canaan that featured mother goddesses in “which the inherent dynamism of nature is worshipped as the force which procreates life, and always more life.”  Such worship contradicted the way of Jahweh, and such female deities, Buber said, threatened both “the purity of the faith” and “the humanity of women”  (p. 40).  

While Elizabeth Achtemeier sympathized with some of the pain responsible for the feminist movement, she refuses to justify its theology and warns that some of its most significant proponents seek to replace the Christian God with “a god or goddess” of their own making.  Consequently, she wonders why Christian scholars have “neither admitted any responsibility for current feminist misinterpretations of the Bible nor mobilized any effort to correct those misinterpretations.  On the contrary, many educators seem simply to accept feminists’ positions without questioning the fundamental theological issues involved” (p. xiii). 

            Donald Bloesh–Achtemeir notes–had the courage and conviction to question such issues in The Battle for the Trinity.   Re-reading his treatise 20 years after it was written, reflecting upon developments during intervening years, one is struck by the prescience of his insights.  He listed some of the changes then proposed for mainline churches.  For example, a “United Church of Christ document says that we should ‘avoid use of masculine-based language applied to the Trinity as in ‘Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.'”  We are also instructed to avoid the use of masculine pronouns and adjectives in reference to God, such as he or his.  We are even asked to abandon masculine role names for God including “Lord,” “King,” “Father,” “Master,” and “Son” (p. 2).   

“At a United Methodist General Conference in Baltimore in May of 1984, Methodists were urged to begin finding new ways of referring to deity, such as alternating male and female pronouns or using genderless terms” (p. 2).  Inclusive language reformers especially targeted biblical translations.  Thus Princeton Theological Seminary’s Bruce Metzger, one of the world’s greatest scholars, the chairman of the RSV translation committee, disavowed such tinkering with the wording of the New Revised Standard Version, declaring:  “The changes introduced in language relating to the Deity are tantamount to rewriting the Bible.  As a Christian, and as a scholar, I find this altogether unacceptable” (p. 4).  The illustrative list need not be extended, for a visit to most any mainline church–or a reading of various contemporary scholars–will document the success of the terminological turn.  The recent controversy over quite modest moves to embrace “inclusive language” in the Revised New International Version, indicates that the issue is now moving from mainline to evangelical circles. 

Probing beneath the new language, Bloesh explained the theological developments responsible for it.   This is what makes his treatise one of the best available.   Despite its modern expressions, an ancient tendency infuses feminism–the effort to shift from a Trinitarian to Unitarian understanding of God, to envision Him as an immanent (virtually pantheistic) Power rather than a transcendent Person.  Such becomes clear when reading the American women (e.g. Mary Daly; Rosemary Reuther; Nancy Hardesty; Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza) and men (e.g. Paul Jewett; Robin Scroggs; John Cobb), who have supported and contributed to feminist thought.  Among these thinkers, the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann (a major architect of “liberation theology”) has been especially influential, for he envisioned God as “bisexual,” contending the Shekinah denotes a “feminine principle within the Godhead” (p. 6).  Even earlier, Paul Tillich, who deeply influenced great numbers of 20th century theologians, espoused what he called an “‘ecstatic naturalism,'” and portrayed God “‘as Spirit or Spiritual Presence, and Spirit, it seems, is conceived basically as feminine rather than masculine'” (p. 7).  

While some feminists seek simply to do theology in a “different voice,” many more use it as a weapon, taking up arms as partisans, waging political battles against the Church and her traditions, seeking to establish a new religious regime.  Somewhat representative of the latter is Harvard University Divinity School Professor Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, who boldly inveighs “‘against the so-called objectivity and neutrality of academic theology.'” She espouses a theology that “‘always serves certain interests'” and pledges “‘allegiance'” to a “‘partisan'” theology that becomes “‘incarnational and Christian'” by championing the cause “‘of the outcast and oppressed'” (p. 84).  (Her baneful influence has been recently evaluated by Eamonn Keane in A Generation Betrayed:  Deconstructing Catholic Education In the English-Speaking World .) 

Consequently–and most importantly–says Bloesch, “The debate in the church today is not primarily over women’s rights but over the doctrine of God.   Do we affirm a God who coexists as a fellowship within himself, that is, who is Trinitarian, or a God who is the impersonal or suprapersonal ground and source of all existence?  Do we believe in a God who acts in history, or in a God who simply resides within nature?  . . . .  Do we believe in a God who created the world out of nothing or in a God whose infinite fecundity gave rise to a world that is inseparable from his own being?” (p. 11).  Bloesh believes that the new feminist gospel is a resurgent Gnosticism, a refurbished Neoplatonic mysticism, that allows one to portray God in accord with one’s own desires rather than taking Him as revealed in Scripture and Christ.   Our God-talk either reveals to us truths concerning Him, or it’s nothing but man-made symbols ever groping for more satisfactory images of Him. 

After a probing discussion of what “symbol” means, Bloesch concludes that “Symbols may be either metaphors or analogies, and these are not the same.  I agree with Thomas [Aquinas] and [Karl] Barth that analogical knowledge is real knowledge, whereas metaphorical knowledge is only intuitve awareness or tacit knowledge” (p. 21).  Many biblical words are obviously metaphors–thus God is a Rock, in the same sense that my wife is my anchor.  Other words are analogies–God is Father or Lord, in the same sense that Roberta is my soul-mate.  A true analogy is not figurative but real.  So, as Hendrikus Berkhof said:  “‘When certain concepts are ascribed to God, they are thus not used figuratively but in their first and most original sense.  God is not ‘as it were’ a Father; he is the Father from whom all fatherhood on earth is derived” (p. 25).  Importantly, we must “understand that is not we who name God, but it is God who names himself by showing us who he is'” (p. 25).  So when we refer to God as “Father” we are using a symbol appropriate to Him.  “Such words as Father, Son, and Lord, when applied to God, are analogies,” Bloesh says, “but they are analogies sui generis.  They are derived not from the experience of human fatherhood or sonship or lordship, but from God’s act of revealing himself as Father, Son, and Lord.  They are therefore more accurately described as catalogies than analogies insofar as they come from above” (p. 35).

            Upholding the Church’s traditional language preserves her confidence in God the Father, Creator of all that is.  Fathers bring into being beings apart from themselves.  In a sense, they are separate from and transcend the creative process.  Mothers, of course, bring into being beings conceived within their wombs.  Consequently, “Goddess spirituality is a perennial temptation in the life of the church, but it must be firmly rejected, for it challenges the basic intuitions of faith–that God is Lord and King of all creation, that the world was created by divine fiat rather than formed from the being of God as an emanation of God, that God utterly transcends sexuality.  Whenever biblical theism is threatened by philosophical monism, whether this takes the form of pantheism or panentheism, theologians must be vigilant in reaffirming the biblical principle of the infinite qualitative difference between God and the world . . . and the absolute sovereignty of God over his creation” (41).

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            Mary A. Kassian writes as an Evangelical woman initially attracted to the feminist position but ultimately disillusioned by its radical and ultimately non-Christian implications.  In her work, The Feminist Gospel:  The Movement to Unite Feminism with the Church (Wheaton:  Crossway Books, c. 1992), she provides an overview of feminist thought and a distinctly evangelical response.  She notes, for example, that “The major thesis [i.e. the equality of the sexes, as asserted by Margaret Mead] proposed by Christian feminists in the early 1960’s was identical to the thesis of secular feminism” (p. 31).  They sought liberation through “a castrating of language and images that reflect and perpetuate the structures of a sexist world.”  By “cutting away the phallocentric value system imposed by patriarchy,” Mary Daly said, they could design a better world in their own image (p. 70).   Whereas traditional Christians tried to glorify God and serve Him, feminists “shifted the emphasis:  God’s purpose was to assist humans to realize liberation, wholeness, and utopia for themselves” (p.  95).  Embracing feminism freed women from the “hisstory” that ignored them.  They could declare their own truth–write “herstory.”  Accordingly everything can be questioned, there are no absolutes, meaning is socially constructed, and allegedly “natural” realities or ethical standards need not be heeded

            The process began incrementally, slowly and subtly so as to elicit a minimum of opposition.  First it was suggested that inclusive language for human beings be changed.  Thus the generic “man” was anathematized.  “Mankind” was replaced by “humankind.”   A committee chairman must be called a “chair.”  Victorious in changing terms regarding fellow humans, the inclusivists then shifted to loftier terrain and proposed that pronouns referring to God could be changed without seriously changing one’s understanding of God.  You could, in fact, simply use the word God incessantly, abolishing the need for pronouns.  Gaining ground, they then “began to take greater liberties with interpretive hermeneutic methods, using women’s experience as the norm” (171).  So Letty “Russell concluded that experience equals authority.  She stated that ‘the Bible has authority in my life because it makes sense of my experience and speaks to me about the meaning and purpose of my humanity in Jesus Christ.'”  Accordingly, the biblical “text only has authority as I agree with it and interpret it to my experience'” (171). 

            Such women then felt free to re-vision and re-write reality in accord with their own experiences.  Re-casting reality in accord with themselves, they felt free to re-name God as well.  Hinting at things to come, a popular musician, Helen Reddy, accepting a Grammy Award for her 1972 song, “I Am Strong, I am Invincible, I Am Woman,” said:  “I’d like to thank God because She made everything possible” (p. 135).    Such re-naming efforts, Kassian found, “logically led to an erosion of God’s independent personality.  God became a ‘force.'”  This was manifestly clear when an erstwhile “evangelical feminist,” Virginia Mollenkott, moved from calling God ‘He/She’ to ‘He/She/It'” (p. 145).  Or, one might add, “Whatever”!

            Ultimately Kassian concluded that “Feminism and Christianity are like thick oil and water:  their very natures dictate that they cannot be mixed” (p. 217).  She fully agrees with Virginia Mollenkott that “The language issue is anything but trivial” (p. 237).  But because that’s true she rejects Mollenkott’s conclusions.  Indeed, Kassian says:  “It is important to understand that it is not we who name God, but it is God who names Himself by showing us who He is.  In the book of Exodus, God calls Himself “I am who I am” (Exod. 3:14).  He also reveals Himself as Lord and Master (Adonai), Self-existent One (Jehovah Yahweh), God Most High (El Elyon), and the Everlasting God (El Olam).  In the New Testament Jesus Christ is revealed as Lord (Kyrios) and Son, and the first person of the Trinity is called Father and Abba (dear Father).  The names of god are God’s self-designation of His person and being.  Such names do not tell us who God is exhaustively, but they are informative symbols having a basis in revelation itself” (p. 243). 

            Still more:  “God has a name, ‘I AM who I AM’ (Exod. 3:14).  The name of God is important.  The  symbols of faith that compose the Biblical witness–in the form of God’s own name–have been elected by God as means of revelation and salvation.  To challenge or change the name of God as God has revealed it is a denial of God.  It is a denial of who God is.  It is by God’s name that we know Him, it is by His name that we are saved, and it is by His name that we are identified.   Feminism’s attempt to rename God is a blasphemy that comes out of the very depths of Hell.  We have no right to name God.  The only right we have, as created beings, is to submit to addressing God in the manner He has revealed as appropriate.  It is not we who name God, it is God who names Himself” (p. 244). 


            Another recent critique of feminist theology, from a Roman Catholic and European perspective, is Manfred Hauke’s God or Goddess?  Feminist Theology:  What Is It?  Where Does It Lead?  (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1995).  To explain some of the latent assumptions of feminism, Hauke takes us back to the Utopians of the 19th century, Saint-Simonist socialists, who referred to God “as both Father and Mother, as ‘Mapah'” (p. 21).  They further imagined that in the beginning “there was a mixed male and female being” (p. 21), and reasoned that there is no rigid difference between the sexes, postulating an androgynous ideal still embraced by radical feminists.  Consequently, modern thinkers, such as Simon de Beauvoir, assert:  “‘One does not arrive in the world as a woman, but one becomes a woman.  No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the form that the female human being takes on in the womb of society'” (p. 29).   This androgynous assumption concerning male and female leads “Christian feminists” to insist that God is likewise androgynous.  So “Father” must be instantly coupled with “Mother” to fully name God.

These utopian socialist roots of the feminist movement are clear in the work of Rosemary Reuther, one of the highly regarded theologians, who praised the work on the family by Friedrich Engels, calling it “the fundamental text for consistent feminists” (p. 50).  She also spoke (perhaps influenced by Betty Friedan’s Stalinist views) highly of Russia’s Communist revolution “and praised the China of Mao Tse-Tung” (p. 50).  The revolution Reuther envisions, of course, is theological and ecclesiological, but the same Marxist antipathy to all forms of hierarchy is clear.  Whereas Mao overturned traditional Chinese society, she seeks to destroy the “hegemony” of the patriarchal Church and replace it with a kinder, gentler version.  To do so, one must destroy the “one-sidedly masculine symbols like ‘Father,’ ‘Lord’, and ‘King’.  Only then will the ‘male Church’ disappear.  Alongside the ‘our Father’, some then place an ‘our Mother’; ‘Jesus Christ’ is supplemented by ‘Jesa Christa’; while the third Person appears as the ‘Holy Spiritess'” (p. 49).

            More radical than Reuther, more deeply rooted in Marxism, Mary Daly, long a professor at Boston College, wrote the influential Beyond God the Father and rejected all hierarchical structures.  Neither God, nor any man, would stand above her.  (After successfully refusing, for 20 years, to admit men to her classes, Daly was recently dismissed from BC as a result of a lawsuit brought against her for such discrimination!)  “For Daly, God’s Incarnation as a male human being is the decisive reason for rejecting Christianity.  ‘Christ-worship’, Daly says, ‘is idol-worship'” (p. 193).    Equally radical, if not more so, is Jurgen Moltmann’s wife, Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel, who tries to blend Israel’s Yahweh with a Cananite fertility goddess, Astarte–encouraging the worship “Yahweh/Astarte.”  To Moltmann-Wendel, a loving God, acting like a mother, “would ‘unconditionally’ accept even the immoral person.”  Rather than worry about or confess our sins, we can simply affirm that:   “‘I am good.  I am whole.  I am beautiful'” (p.  169).

            Having rather exhaustively studied the works of the most prominent modern feminists, Hauke concludes that they have clearly departed from the Christian faith.  He shares the view of Elke Axmacher, a theological professor at Berlin University, who says:   “A feminist approach to language about God has as much chance of success as an atheist approach to belief in God” (p. 60).  To the extent that the Church tolerates it, he warns, a new religion will develop.

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