By E.S. Kempson
Prayer forms us more deeply than we know. Words wriggle into our psyches, in ways beyond our control. But for some people of deep faith, the words have become poisoned bread. What if the second indelible word of the Our Father was also used to name your life’s villain, the man who stole your innocence or fractured your adult life? It could have been a priest, one’s biological father, or someone else in loco parentis, as anyone reading the news should know.
My friend Richard Mammana has written powerfully about one such experience, of a choirmaster who instilled in him “thousands of lines of psalms and hymns by heart” but also fondled and broke choristers’ ribs while clerics turned a blind eye.
Of the hundred-odd alumni I met in the choir, I do not know a single adult today who was not abused in some way: emotionally, physically, sexually, by the separation from his parents and friends, by the distortion of his self-understanding through a system in which the beatings only ceased when one’s voice changed.
To this day, Richard says, “There is never, never, quiet in my mind; there is always, always, even when I am not speaking out loud, a song—and this is a wounding again even though it is a gift.” The power of language is not straightforward; the same words can both nourish and sicken.
At the recent General Convention, the Episcopal Church made strides in recognizing the nature of such experiences, most notably during the Listening Session for Pastoral Response to #MeToo. A Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision was formed to devise trial possibilities for liturgical renewal, reform, and expansion. There is little doubt that well-known and time-worn Christian language will be reconsidered. The phrase Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is no exception, its status as the traditional English Trinitarian formula notwithstanding.
Many worshipers have already opted for Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer as a replacement, preferring to have a non-masculine triadic description of God and not name the Trinitarian persons at all, rather than to name the Trinity with words also used for men. But these aren’t the only options.
It is possible to remove the poison without tossing out the bread of life, and pray with, to, and within the Trinity using biblical language and yet without words that have masculine and patriarchal overtones in common English usage. Pray, I suggest, in the name of the one God: Abba, Christ, and Holy Spirit.
This new English Trinitarian phrase has ancient biblical warrant. It can answer many concerns: both of those who worry that connotations of Father and Son have become at best misleading and at worst actively damaging; and of those who fear that dropping Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will compromise the Trinitarian heart of our faith, introduce heretical tendencies, and divide us from other Christians across the world and through time. Anyone who finds it a challenge to address God as Father or Son, for whatever reason, may use the phrase Abba, Christ, and Holy Spirit and be safe in the knowledge that it is an orthodox Trinitarian formula. Those, such as myself, who do not find Father or Son misleading or damaging may continue in their way — alongside those who do and so say only Abba and Christ. Anglicanism has a long history of this sort of generous orthodoxy.
Let me provide some brief notes about each proposed term.
This is the easy one; it can stay as it is. Holy Spirit has no masculine or patriarchal overtones in English. It has biblical warrant as an English translation of the Greek (ἅγιον πνεῦμα) — which occurs in multiple biblical Trinitarian formulas (e.g., 2 Cor. 13:14; Matt. 28:19). It also indisputably refers to the third person of the Trinity in biblical passages that led to Trinitarian language in the first place (e.g., Luke 1:35, 3:21-22).
One might point out that even our saying Holy Spirit instead of the traditional Holy Ghost is evidence that it is possible to shift the words of the Trinitarian formula because of changes in the culturally associated meaning of the words without also losing the theological import of the phrase.
The English word Son has persistent masculine connotations because it is used in everyday language to speak about a person’s male child. Regardless of whether one considers these associations significant or a stumbling block, Christ clearly does not pose the same challenge. It is not constantly used in non-theological language for a masculine person. Christ only refers to one human being: Jesus.
It is also a legitimate translation of Χριστός, which is used in a number of Trinitarian formulas (e.g., 2 Cor. 13:14; 1 Pet. 1:1-2). It has obvious warrant as an orthodox designation for the second person of the Trinity, since it is the divine Son who is incarnate in Christ, neither the Spirit nor the Father.
Some may quibble that Son and Christ are not entirely equivalent, pointing out that Son could be used to signify the un-incarnate Word but that Christ, as God incarnate, cannot. This may be so, but within worship, the context we are considering, Christ remains a legitimate alternative. No one worships an un-incarnate Son. From our post-resurrection position, the Incarnation is never undone and we only know the Son through the Incarnation. For theological writers who wish to refer to the un-incarnate second Trinitarian person, Word will serve (John 1:1).
Jesus prays to God as Abba (Mark 14:36) and Paul tells us early Christians did so too (Rom. 8:15, Gal. 4:6). It clearly names the first person of the Trinity since Jesus’ prayers were one instigation of Trinitarian doctrine in the first place. Abba transliterates the Greek Αββα, which itself transliterates the Aramaic אבא,which meant father. It is biblical and Trinitarian. But can Abba avoid the critiques of those dissatisfied with father language?
Objections usually focus on either denotation (what father explicitly means) or connotation (ideas and feelings implicitly evoked by father) and find them problematic when applied to God. It certainly bears repeating that, in traditional Christian doctrine, the words Father and Son have different meanings when applied to the first and second persons of the Trinity than they do applied to male parents and children (as helpfully pointed out here, here, and in the course of other arguments). This knowledge goes far in restoring the denotation of traditional language, but it is impossible to remove the connotations as long as father and son are constantly used in daily life for human beings. If you’ve ever flinched when you hear a stranger called by an ex’s name, you know how ungovernable these associations are — especially when the emotional connection is strong. The superficial sound matters even if the meaning is not a problem.
For many people, these lingering associations pose no obstacle. Nevertheless, for people with visceral, graphic, and unforgettable harmful associations, they can be inescapable, rendering them an impediment to truly knowing and experiencing God. Because Abba is not used in English for human persons or institutions, it lacks the connotations of father — and it will always, unless we start using Abba in everyday language to mean dad. (If you are worried about it sounding like a particular pop band, well, that’s another problem.)
Jesus appears to have anticipated this problem of using basic words with earthly meanings to name God; after all, he advised “call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven” (Matt. 23:9). Those calling God Abba, which is the word Jesus would have spoken, would piously reserve that name only for God in heaven, not for fathers on earth. Where, then, would the denotation of Abba come from, if not from English father-language? From scriptural accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the life of the Church past and present. If Abba is taken to indicate the first person of the Trinity, to whom Jesus prays, who sends forth the Holy Spirit, and whose only begotten child is the Word made flesh in Christ, then a stumbling block is removed for those who are seeking. They may love God more dearly and follow God more nearly, as we are all grafted into Christ’s body, as children of God and co-heirs within Christ.
For all these reasons, anyone who wishes to have a Trinitarian formula without the words Father and Son, without heretical tendencies, and that is indisputably biblically warranted, use this: Abba, Christ, and Holy Spirit. It even comes with a liturgical bonus: this phrase has the same rhythm as the traditional language, preserving the current poetic cadence of the services and prayers. In many ways, adding Abba, Christ, and Holy Spirit to our already existing Trinitarian formulas — as an additional formulation, not a replacement — is not terribly radical. It is simply the most recent effort to address a permanent challenge faced by Christians for almost two millennia: How do we speak the God we’ve come to know in Christ when our language always fall short? When we do not worship in the ancient languages of Scripture and Christ, which words do we use to best express the divine truth?
E.S. Kempson is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, with previous degrees in theology and religion from Oxford, Yale, and UVA. She is also a licensed lay preacher in the Church of England and serves on the PCC of St. Bene’t’s, Cambridge.
I’m not completely opposed to alternative language for occasional usage in referring to the Trinity. After all, God exceeds our understanding and the ability of our language to completely describe. But I find myself wondering why so much concern is directed at oppressive “masculine and patriarchal overtones.” Are we to completely overlook the very real possibility that the damaging figure in some peoples’ lives is not the father but the mother? Women are just as capable of being hurtful and psychologically warping as men; “Mommy Dearest” is all too real to far too many people. While in no way does… Read more »
There are no female pronouns or referent in any of the three formulae discussed in the article, so I’m not sure that your experiences require any adjustment. That’s fine, of course, but pastorally, what do we do for those for whom “Father” presents a stumbling block, based on their experiences. “Abba” is scriptural, and personal, but may not have the connotations of pain that “father” has for some (fortunately, I am not among them), but surely it’s our duty to try to, without diluting the faith, not interpose obstacles.
[…] Prayer forms us more deeply than we know. Words wriggle into our psyches, in ways beyond our control… […]
All our hearts cry out “for people with visceral, graphic, and unforgettable harmful associations” with negative masculinity engendered by some fathers and sons. Abba heal them, rescue them, protect them. I am also saddened with the increasing stigma associated with the masculine gender whereby many good fathers and good sons are tarred with the same brush as those who practice violence. The same types of stigma used by those who would oppress on the basis of race, belief, ability and gender identity. Without the example of Yahweh and Jesus, we would have no measure of what it means to be… Read more »
We certainly need to be engaging in the kind of work E. S. Kempson has admirably undertaken here. If we are to be biblical, then we need to accept that God has many names, and our liturgy has not even begun to approximate the bible’s fecundity. I’m not convinced that the Fatherhood of God has run its course (especially given its New Testament centrality), but I certainly don’t have objections to exploring alternatives. But I wonder if Kempson’s proposal is a full-fledged alternative. I concur that, reflecting on each title and its referent individually, these are perfectly adequate titles. And… Read more »