Recently someone complained about the way we name God in the liturgy. I thought I’d share that conversation just in case one of our readers worries about similar things.

The basis of the complaint, as far as I can tell, was an underlying objection to the use of masculine language. The formula, “Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer” seems like a more inclusive way of naming God, at least from the plaintiff’s perspective.

I don’t want to enter into a debate about whether we should or should not strive for more inclusive language in the liturgy. I take it as a given that we want what we say about God to be serious and true. I postulate the standard I embraced at Duke: it’s a good thing to avoid the suggestion that God has a gender in the sense we mean when we tell stories of Zeus or Jupiter, for then our words would not be serious and true.

I want instead to focus narrowly on the question raised about using a formula like “Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer” as a substitute for the traditional trinitarian name of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” On the surface it seems like it doesn’t matter. But there is a good reason that most theologians I know resist that particular way of avoiding the suggestion that God has the male gender.


The problem is that the formula deploys functions or attributes to name God. The point about not using function titles to name God is that God is not a functionary. God is One whom we know only in a personal way. God is personal. Which is to say God is one with whom we live a history and we know only through history. To name God merely as Creator is like naming Mom as Cook, Chauffeur, Nurse, etc. The Mom we know is far more than any attributes we could use to describe her. No one who loves Mom would name her based on her utility to us. No one who loves God should name God based on God’s utility to us. Rather, we use language that denotes the reality of a profound, ongoing relationship. We don’t objectify Mom and we don’t objectify God. Faith is relational.

The essential point is to protect our truth-telling commitment to naming God as One with whom we have a personal relationship, a history, and as One whom we know only through that history. Just as any good Mom is known to us through the infinite things we share in life – the loving, caring history of our mutual participation in each other – so, too, is God known to us through our mutual history, our mutual indwelling. God is not a function or an attribute, but One we know always as Person.

Humans know many gods, but the Church consists of those who tell the story of a particular God, distinct from Zeus, Baal, Thor, and “the god in the rock over there.” We can’t narrate the richness of this theodrama of which we are a part without telling you about our personal experience of the God we know in the deepest places of our soul.

The Christian naming of God using the Trinitarian formula begins with Jesus. Christians know God as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who, when he referred to God, named him as “Father,” which is why we name Jesus, “Son.” As Robert Jenson notes, “Spirit” is the enabling future of Christian community. “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is the most compact telling of our story with God that is possible, for the name encapsulates the totality of human history and our future with God.

It is true that God is the One who creates, sustains, and redeems. And it is appropriate to name God, as my bishop frequently does, as “God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, whom we know as our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer.” But without the prior naming of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit our language could refer to any god – an allusion to a god who is merely creator, sustainer, and redeemer could name any and all human gods. It does not specify the distinct One whom we know through Jesus – it does not point to our history. And thus it is just another name for “the god of ultimate vagueness” (as Stanley Hauerwas famously dubbed that god).

That’s why we name God as we do in the liturgy.

One Response

  1. Daniel Hixon

    “No one who loves God should name God based on God’s utility to us.”

    As a United Methodist pastor, I run into this urge (to replace the classic Trinitarian name of God) from time to time. One thing that I try to point out, which you get at well with that quote, is that there is a qualitative difference in Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer on the one hand, and the classic revealed name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
    Laying aside the other major problem of precision, I think it is hugely important for us to note that Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer all describe God in relationship to mankind. He is the Creator of us, the Redeemer of us, the Sustainer of us. This naming is functional and man-referential. On the other hand, Father, Son, and Spirit describes the relationship of the Persons/Relations of God within the life of the Godhead. The Father is Father of the Son; the Son is Son of the Father, the Spirit is the Spirit of Love between the Father and the Son. The classic name describes the inner life of God in all eternity – this naming is relational and God-referential.


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