Camp Meeting 2.0–God the Father

Alexander Carpenter has some comments regarding God the Father at Spectrum blog, as part of the “Blogging the 28″/Camp Meeting 2.0 series. You may make comments over there.

Some years ago I wrote a review of a wonderful volume edited by Alvin F. Kimel, Jr., Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1992. Here it is again. [Other essential reading on this topic would include Robert W. Jenson, The Triune Identity: God According to the Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982) and Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ (New York: Crossroad, 1986).]

The thesis and the polemical intent of Kimel’s book are clear from the title: Feminism is a challenge to the traditional Christian understanding of the Holy Trinity, especially in its proposals for how we ought to speak of God. Some might be surprised by this, as in some circles it has become a given that theological language should be “sensitive” to the concerns of feminism. What was controversial twenty years ago is now, in most mainline seminaries, commonplace. The authors in the present volume offer no new criticisms; they are largely the same voices that have been saying the same things for the past twenty years. What is significant is that they are here brought together– Anglican, Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox, Methodist, evangelical–in hopes that, like the Whos on Horton’s dustspeck in the classic Dr. Seuss children’s book, combining their voices might make their message heard.

The importance of the book lies in the ecumenical breadth of the contributers. These are not fundamentalist obscurantists, but include respected theologians of diverse backgrounds, united in their common conviction that feminist concerns over theological language are not just a sensitive alternative within Christian theology, but represent a cut at the root of the Christian understanding of God, humanity, creation, and the gospel. The authors approach the subject from a variety of perspectives, including Biblical theology, systematic theology, philosophy, linguistics, and liturgics.

One of the most important authors in the volume is Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson. Having had a number of courses from him at Gettysburg Seminary, I would have recognized the various authors’ indebtedness to him even without their footnotes. Jenson’s ideas provide the backbone of the book. The triune name, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” he argues, is not a string of metaphors that may be changed to suit prevailing theological winds, but constitute the divinely revealed proper name of God. As such, it identifies the Christian God as distinct among the “putative gods” (a typical Jensonianism) of humanity. The God we worship is none other than the specific man Jesus of Nazareth, the transcendence he addressed as “Father,” and their spirit as the spirit of the believing community. We call God “Father” because that was the form of address used by Jesus. He is not our Father through creation, but through our adoption through baptism, which gives us the right to address him as Jesus did. Alternative names such as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier” do not, in fact, replace the triune name, and for two main reasons. First, they do nothing to identify which specific god is being named, for “all putative gods” claim to create, and to redeem, and to sanctify. Second, this option represents nothing more than a revival of Sabellianism, or modalism. The classical Trinitarian understanding is that omnia opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa–all the outwardly directed works of the Trinity are indivisible, that is, are the work of the Trinity as a whole. It is not the Father alone who is Creator, etc., but the Father creates through the Son and in the Spirit. The triune name, rather than being a string of metaphors for the various operations of God toward humanity, is descriptive of who God is in himself; that is, the triune name rehearses the story of the gospel, the uniqe history of what and who God is in Jesus of Nazareth. These Jensonian themes recur fuguelike throughout the book.

Behind these theses may be seen Jenson’s (and many of the other authors’) indebtedness to Karl Barth, specifically to Barth’s insistence that there is no knowledge of God apart from the man Jesus, and that all human attempts to create language for God apart from this revelation amount to idolatry. But Barth himself is but one whose ideas represent one of the most faithful recent attempts to recapture the insights of the great Cappadocians, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Basil of Caesarea, who articulated the classical formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Feminist theologians appeal to the Eastern apophatic tradition (God is beyond all names, and negates all affirmations) as legitimating the application of new names to God, and cite pseudo-Dionysius, in particular, as an authoritative precedent. Because no name really is appropriate, the feminists argue, we can use any names that appeal to us. On this point I think “Apophatic Theology and the Naming of God in Eastern Orthodox Tradition,” by the Orthodox theologian Thomas Hopko, is essential reading. Hopko makes clear that the apophatic tradition applies to God’s being, or ousia, and never to the trinitarian hypostases of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (p. 160-161). To negate the triune name by appeal to the Dionysian tradition is illegitimate.

What appears most to offend the representatives of feminist thought cited herein is the idea that God became uniquely incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. It is the same offense of the cross that was folly to the Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews in the time of St. Paul. As in the case of Carter Heyward, they would rather reinterpret the incarnation as a metaphor for all human relationships, or, as for Sallie McFague, as a metaphor for a panentheistic understanding of the world, in which the earth becomes God’s body, a sacrament, God’s presence to us. Jesus the Jew becomes merely “the divine child” or “lover.” The particularity demonstrated by the confession that God became this man is offensive to an understanding of creation as one with its mother creator, to a cyclical mthology in which time has no real meaning, to a monistic cosmology in which we have only to recognize our own divinity. Feminist thought thus represents not a new discovery overthrowing male oppression, but a return to the Canaanite, Babylonian, Hellenistic, and Gnostic ideas against which the Jewish and Christian confessions of God were formulated. One might not be going too far in suggesting that feminist thought here betrays a methodological anti-Semitism.

A basic feminist assumption that has rarely been challenged is the notion that there is an experience of God and of reality that is unique to women. This surfaces in the argument that Trinitarianism betrays a male worldview and is but one more example of male oppression of women, and that if women had been in charge, the Church would have had a different understanding of God. Elizabeth Morelli, professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount, rejects that epistemological argument. She concludes, “Insofar as we understand our access to God to be the very ground or core of the human spirit, then we cannot attribute to woman qua woman a specific conscious access to God. To do so would be to assert that woman is not quite human, or that there are two distinct human natures.” (236)

The scandal of Christianity is that while God indeed is vastly removed from us, and all our attempts to name him are inadequate, God has himself bridged the distance by becoming one of us in Jesus Christ, a Palestinian Jew who was born, lived, suffered, and died on a cross, and was raised the third day. God now cannot be properly named or glorified apart from this revelation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Avoiding the name is not simply semantics, as Christianity knows no “God in general.” The feminist critics, in their zeal, have abandoned the God of Hebrew and Christian faith, who works in history, for the god/desses of Canaanite nature worship, Greek philosophy, and Advaitic Hinduism. And, for each of the authors in this volume, the Christian proclamation is nullified, rather than enriched, by this exchange.