I continue to consider Kendall Soulen’s book, Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity.
If Jewish-Christian relations raise a question about using Father, Son and Spirit as divine names, so do the spread of Christianity to non-Western cultures and the emancipation of women.
Historically, the church arose out of Judaism and spread in a culture under the influence of Greek and Roman thought. Soon Christians tried to explain God in language that departed from biblical categories in favor of platonic, stoic or folk categories. Soulen cites a number of examples. These Trinitarian triads, for instance, come from just the Church Father, Tertullian: Root-Tree-Fruit, Sun-Ray-Apex, and Fountain-River-Stream.
So is it ok for African and Asian Christians to name God in ways that make sense in their cultures? Christian tradition developed in a largely Hellenistic culture. But can African and Asian cultures now make their own contributions to naming God? This is apparently particularly an issue in the way some from these cultures want to understand the Spirit.
But the biggest issue, at least for worship language in North America, is how to accommodate some new concerns of women about the naming of the Trinity. The traditional use of gendered language in the Father and Son part of the Trinitarian formula drew feminist criticism. Defenders of the traditional language deny that it asserts male superiority. Everyone knows God has no gender. We use Father and Son, rather than Mother and Child, because it is scriptural language and, especially, because Jesus made a big deal of addressing God as Father.
Soulen says that, even though both sides understand that Father and Son are ambiguous terms, it has still come down to a polarized, either-or, argument within the church. Traditionalists say that, even though the language is ambiguous, Father and Son are still the most appropriate terms. What Soulen calls Progressives, on the other hand, think that substitute terms, like Creator and Redeemer, are just as appropriate.
Soulen celebrates the three reasons for asking these questions. It is a good thing that Jews and Christians are renewing their relations. It is a good thing that Asian and African cultures are contributing. It is a good thing that women are welcomed and affirmed within the church.
Soulen makes a proposal for faithfully naming God in an age when all these issues have arisen. I’ll look at his proposal in my next post.