I continue reading Kendall Soulen’s book on The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity.
Soulen discusses two theologians who sharpen the issues about the Trinity as a way of naming God, Robert Jenson and Elizabeth Johnson. They both wrote books about the challenge feminism raises for the naming of God as Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Jenson wrote The Triune Identity: God according to the Gospel. Jenson is one of the few American theologians who thinks in a way similar to Wolfhart Pannenberg, whom I discussed in a series of posts.
According to Jenson, God revealed himself to Israel as Yahweh, the God who rescued Israel from Egypt. Christians worship this same God as the one who raised Jesus from the dead. Jenson fully recognizes that for Israel Yahweh is God’s proper name. However, he follows the trend of Luther and Barth to give God a name change with the coming of the Christian era. Because of the use of “Lord” and other substitutes for God’s name Judaism had created a vacuum which a new name for God would fill.
The new name for God was not just a personal name, but a summary of the gospel. Father, Son and Holy Spirit describe who God is as he acts in the world. Thus Jenson opposes those who think Father, Son and Holy Spirit best be set aside in the interest of inclusive language. He doesn’t think it is blasphemy or anything to sometimes use other language, but Father, Son and Holy Spirit is primary. It is God’s proper name, made known in Christ.
Elizabeth Johnson has written She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. She does not say that Father, Son and Holy Spirit can never serve to name God for Christians. But she thinks that in order for women to flourish in the church, the “patriarchal” name needs to be rethought. Jesus own use of Abba or Father had no patriarchal meaning, but its use in a church that often excluded and oppressed women promoted the idea that men have a superior ability to mediate the divine mystery.
So she makes a radical proposal. The Hebrew Bible’s wisdom literature began to use the feminine idea of Wisdom or Sophia to name God. Thus, for the old Trinitarian formula, she proposes instead “Spirit-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, and Mother-Sophia.” To affirm the unity of God, she goes back to the conversation of Moses with God. God told Moses to say that “I Am” has sent you. She understands Yahweh not as a proper name so much as a description of God. St. Thomas Aquinas and others have used this to speak of God as He Who Is. In other words, the name identifies God with being itself. In the light of the naming of God as Sophia, Johnson changes He Who Is to She Who Is. She Who Is works as an entirely appropriate way to name God.
Soulen finds both of these authors helpful in some ways. But he is going to make his own proposal, so he points out problems with each of them. Since Soulen opposes the idea that Christianity and the Church have replaced Judaism and Israel as the people of God, it is no surprise that he has a problem with Jenson’s idea that the name of God has been replaced. The Hebrew Bible’s proper name for God is still the name of God for Soulen.
In regard to Johnson, Soulen is not happy that she downplays Yahweh as a proper name. Being or He/She Who Is is not really a name.
In a way, Soulen is making the same criticism of both authors. Jenson wants a name that describes God’s acting in history, in the gospel. Johnson wants a name that describes God’s eternal mystery as Sophia and Being. But Kendall Soulen thinks the name cannot be reduced to a description of God’s action or being. It is not a description. It is a personal and proper name.