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Translating the Trinity

This is one of several articles on liturgical revision in the Episcopal Church. Others may be found here. Further articles on trinitarian theology may be found here

By Elizabeth Anderson

In the time since last summer’s General Convention, there has been considerable discussion of Resolution A068, which called for developing new liturgies that use “inclusive and expansive language and imagery for humanity and divinity.” Far less attention has been paid to Resolution A070, which called for new translations of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer into Spanish, French, and Haitian Creole. It has long been recognized that the existing translations are wooden and artificially literal, presenting a word-for-word rendering of the English text without giving deeper (to say nothing of poetic) attention to the far more difficult task of translating the sense of the liturgies into other languages.

However, the mandates of these resolutions are in many ways intimately connected. What would it mean to see the work of A068 as an exercise of translation, committed to rendering the sense of the prayer book in a new idiom, which need not be limited to a literal correspondence?

We too often seem to forget in our liturgical debates that even the most central aspects of our liturgical life, such as the Scriptures and the Creeds, were not revealed to us in English, and that therefore much of our prayer is already an exercise in translation. The question of how we name the persons of the Trinity in particular involves a number of linguistic issues to which it may be helpful for us all to be more attentive. While on the surface it might be easy to assume that words such as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have fixed meanings that are identical across languages, times, and cultures, the truth is that all words have a semantic range of meaning, and such semantic ranges may expand or contract or migrate over time and across different languages.

It would surely be a poor kind of orthodoxy that would insist reflexively only upon the persistent use of a particular word while paying no attention to the ways in which the meaning of that word may have shifted across the centuries. Therefore, fidelity to the tradition that we have received demands that we be open to a fearless consideration of the ways in which our language has changed over time, and that we reflect on whether the words we use still adequately convey the meaning that we intend by them.

God the Father

Many of our debates about expansive language for God have centered on the historic Christian practice of using the term Father for the first Person of the Trinity, particularly in the Creeds, the baptismal formula, and the Lord’s Prayer. This is a practice with very deep roots, grounded in the Scriptures and in the prayers of Jesus. Therefore, it is very easy for our debates to play out according to a simple binary, in which the traditional practice of addressing God as Father is seen as the more ancient and more orthodox, whereas attempts to find other kinds of language for the first Person of the Trinity (both female and non-gendered) are framed as a kind of innovative capitulation to the preoccupations of modernity.

However, there are traditional reasons for a concern about whether the term Father still adequately conveys the fullness of the intended meaning. Specifically, changing understandings of medicine and the nature of paternity have shifted the semantic range of the term in some surprising and potentially theologically problematic ways, with the result that naming God as Father for a modern speaker of English seems to be (at best) vastly more deficient now and (at worst) potentially heretical.

The semantic range of Father has historically encompassed a number of things, including authority and governance, providence and protection, the active power of creation (a creation that is by will rather than by emanation or generation), and a loving intimacy of relationship. In general, however, when I read the Church Fathers, they primarily tend to stress two different reasons for why we call God Father:

1. The word shows the intimacy of our relationship with God, and our loving dependence upon God as upon a parent. This aspect of the meaning has remained largely constant across the centuries and cultures — certainly subject to distortion from our imperfect experiences of human fatherhood, subject to all kinds of psychological longings and projections — but nevertheless still expressing a real truth about God, and one that remains as true today as it ever was.

2. But this relational and emotional truth was usually set alongside another meaning that father conveys: that God is the single source, origin, and font of all life and existence, in a way that (for writers in antiquity) a mother simply is not. The prevailing medical beliefs of the time often held that the father was the sole source and sole active participant in creating life, which offered human beings a mirror of the relationship between God and creation. This, of course, is not part of what father means to us anymore, because we know that this is simply not how reproductive biology works.

At its worst, our continuing use of Father language could be taken to suggest that God jointly creates all life and existence in an equal partnership with some other being, which would be an actual heresy. Fortunately, I have seen mercifully little evidence that anyone is following that train of thought to its logical conclusion. But even at its best, Father now conveys only one part of its original meaning, our loving dependence upon God as upon a parent, without being joined to the doctrinal claim that God is the single source of our life and existence. Once the word has been deracinated from its doctrinal content so that only its emotional content remains, it is perhaps little wonder that many of us instinctively approach this whole debate with rather more sentiment than reason.

I must confess that I am deeply attached to our inherited language, both for good reasons (like a desire to be faithful to the doctrine and practice of the historic Church) and for some decidedly less laudable motivations (such as unbridled sentimentality and nostalgia). But I must also acknowledge that once we are left with only the first meaning of the word, describing our loving dependence upon God, other terms like Mother or Parent can convey that part of our intended meaning at least as well as Father can.

These terms don’t succeed any better at conveying the second meaning, however. An English word like font, spring, or source would provide much of that second sense, but these terms also remain partial and incomplete. It is, after all, rather difficult to feel any kind of intimate emotional connection with a font.

Although human language will always be inadequate for expressing truths about God and can only ever be analogous rather than exact, in this case we may have an even more serious problem, which is that modern English may simply no longer have a single word for something that Christians once did have a word.

If that is the case, and if the English word Father no longer adequately conveys all of the meaning that the tradition has attempted to hand down to us, there are two basic linguistic options. First, we could perhaps find a new word, including the possibility of importing a word from another language. Second, however, we can pile words upon words, realizing that we simply have no single word that can express all of the meaning we hope to convey.

It seems to me, then, that we may indeed need to expand our language for the first Person of the Trinity — but not merely because of modern concerns about gender, but because Father has so narrowed in its range of meaning that it no longer conveys the fullness of the orthodox dogmatic claim we were trying to express.

God the Son

If the Son is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), and anyone who has seen him has seen the Father (John 14:9), then the only image of the Father we ultimately have is Christ. This should be a check on any of the ways in which any of us attempt to think about the first Person of the Trinity.

We know that the second Person of the Trinity became incarnate as a male, and that particularity would seem to commit us to referring to Christ as male. Here too, however, the Christian tradition has complexities that the English language often obscures.

I was very interested to hear testimony at General Convention that urged us to consider not using gendered pronouns for the resurrected, ascending, and returning Christ, because we really have no idea whether the post-resurrection Christ continues to be male. That testimony was dismissed almost without discussion, because everyone agreed that we have no authority to change the creeds of the universal Church. A significant number of my friends also signed a memorial to General Convention stating that the “Jesus whom we worship is the Incarnate King, and remains in his Resurrected Incarnate body a human male.”

While I certainly agree that the Episcopal Church has no authority to change the historic Creeds of the Church, both the Latin and the Greek versions of the Nicene Creed don’t use gendered pronouns here at all. They don’t need to, being able to express what they need to simply by using the third-person singular form of the verb. The need for a gendered pronoun in those clauses is simply a problem for English. It’s not something on which any of the ecumenical councils commit us to taking a position.

Indeed, the question of whether Christ remained male after the resurrection was rather intensely debated in the patristic period, and to some extent during the Middle Ages as well, along with the corollary question of whether our resurrected bodies will have sex. There has never been a definitive orthodox position pronounced on this question. Some, most prominently Augustine and Jerome, insisted that the resurrected body would preserve each person’s sex. Much of the Greek and Syriac tradition disagreed, most prominently the Cappadocians, as well as some Western theologians like Eriugena. Many believed that the resurrected body transcended sex altogether; others taught that all of us, both men and women, would be resurrected as 33-year old males.

To be clear, whether Christ, or any of us, retain our sex and gender after the resurrection is really not a question about which I have a strong opinion. (While I am not remotely sold on the merits of suddenly finding myself in a male body, I will admit that I am now advanced enough in years to be rather pleased at the prospect of suddenly being 33!)

Quite honestly, the only opinion I am firmly against in this whole debate is Tertullian’s, since he seems to suggest that while sexuality and childbearing will cease in the world to come, menstruation will probably continue, which surely has to rank as one of the absolute worst ideas of all time.

But while I am not very attached to any particular position in this debate, I am fascinated and somewhat troubled by how often in recent months I have heard Christ’s continuing maleness asserted as being part of the minimal essentials of Christian orthodoxy. I don’t even know what to make of an understanding of Christian orthodoxy so narrow that it would exclude the Cappadocians, and I worry about a hardening of boundaries that seems to be happening as those who oppose liturgical revision try to insist upon theological commitments that the tradition has never required of us.

Moreover, I wonder what this debate reveals about us as 21st-century people. It seems that, for many of us, sex and gender are such basic components of personal identity that a Christ who was no longer male might no longer even be recognizable as Christ. Then again, if we learn anything from the resurrection appearances in the Gospels, it is precisely that the resurrected Christ did seem strangely difficult for everyone to recognize. 

In truth, I probably lean toward the side of the debate that does see biological sex as preserved in the resurrected body. However, I also think that our current practice of using gendered pronouns in the creed asks us to make a dogmatic claim that simply isn’t present in either of the original languages. Perhaps a translation that retained the ambiguity of the original would therefore actually be both more generous and more prudent.

Generous use of Who, for instance, appears in the clauses regarding the Holy Spirit in the translation of the Nicene Creed proposed by the ecumenical English Language Liturgical Consultation, and this translation was adopted in the Church of England’s Common Worship and by various ecumenical partners. A similar use of Who could appear in the clauses discussing Jesus Christ.

It is also worth noting that the translation of the Nicene Creed in the 1662 BCP — and thus in Rite I of the 1979 BCP — largely avoids this problem. It follows the Latin and Greek texts in beginning most of the Christological clauses with the third person singular verb: and was crucified…and ascended…and sitteth.

God the Holy Spirit

What, then, of the Holy Spirit? It is often thought that the Christian tradition gives us somewhat more license with respect to the gender of the third person of the Trinity, since the Spirit is grammatically masculine in Latin, neuter in Greek, and feminine in Syriac. Syriac does not have neuter pronouns, however, and so while it would certainly be possible to render texts discussing the Holy Spirit using the pronoun she, my very strong suspicion is that in the vast majority of cases the author really means it, and retaining the feminine pronoun in English feels as awkward and artificial as it would to use he or she for things like tables or pencils — things that do, indeed, have grammatical gender in other languages, but for which we would never pedantically retain the gendered pronouns in English.

There are, to be sure, some Syriac texts that use more explicitly female imagery for the Holy Spirit beyond merely female pronouns, such as the Odes of Solomon, the Didascalia, and the writings of Aphrahat and Sahdona. Yet there are actually just as many examples of Greek and Latin patristic authors who do the same, including Origen, Pseudo-Macarius, Hippolytus, Jerome, and Victorinus.

What is more, the majority of Syriac writers do not pick up this theme. (Indeed, beginning in the fifth century, it became common to combine the grammatically feminine noun Spirit with grammatically masculine verbs, which offered another interesting way of gesturing beyond gender that unfortunately the grammatical limitations of English cannot replicate.)

Using female imagery to describe the Holy Spirit is therefore entirely within the scope of our received tradition, and yet it nevertheless remains a minority report. It actually seems to be less common within the tradition than using female imagery to describe God the Father.

The other main argument for referring to the Holy Spirit as female tends to come from a conflation of the Holy Spirit with the feminine figure of Wisdom (Sophia) in biblical books such as Proverbs, Wisdom, and Sirach. Yet if anything, Wisdom might seem to index more closely to the divine Logos, the second Person of the Trinity, than to the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the most prominent theologian to make that identification was Arius, whose insistence the second Person of the Trinity was a creature was based in no small part on his interpretation of Wisdom’s words in Proverbs 8:22 (“He created me as the first of his works”), and his belief that Wisdom was to be identified with the divine Logos. The Council of Nicaea explicitly rejected this interpretation with its insistence that the Son was uncreated.

Given that subsequent ecumenical councils commit us to a belief that the Spirit is likewise uncreated, a simple identification of the biblical figure of Wisdom with any of the three Trinitarian Persons seems impossible to sustain. There are still all kinds of interesting things to do with that feminine personification of Wisdom; the Russian tradition of sophiology as expressed by Bulgakov and others offers examples. But there is no easy way to conflate it with the Holy Spirit that doesn’t simply result in subordinating the Spirit to the Father and the Son.

I tend to suspect, therefore, that to whatever extent people find female language for the Holy Spirit to be less problematic than female language for the first two Trinitarian Persons, it may simply be because most Western Christians (outside of the Pentecostal tradition) tend to have a rather anemic pneumatology.

(True story: When I was a little girl, “the Holy Spirit” was my childhood imaginary friend, because I noticed that no one ever prayed to him the way they did to God the Father or to Jesus, and so I thought he was probably lonely and could use a friend.)

The dominant understanding of the Holy Spirit tends to be rather hazy and amorphous, arguably shaped more by some kind of vestigial half-memory of Hegel lurking within Western culture than by anything in Christian history or tradition. If feminine language for the Holy Spirit feels less threatening, perhaps that is because our mental image of the Holy Spirit is so inchoate that changing the pronouns does not really impinge upon whatever preexisting conceptions we have.

In any case, for all that there is indeed some precedent in Christian tradition for describing the Holy Spirit as female, unless we as a Church also work to develop an understanding of the Holy Spirit that is considerably more robust, I struggle to see a great deal of benefit in it. If we ultimately think of the Trinity as the Father, the Son, and some kind of vague cosmic force binding them together, or (worse) two men and a bird, then the idea that maybe it is a girl bird really has no more benefit for gender inclusivity than it does for expressing orthodox theology.

Postscript: The Images We Hold Dear

I can reflect on all of these things as a theologian, but the truth is that my personal piety is pretty wildly traditional. Whatever decisions are made about the public prayer of the church, I rather suspect that in my private recitation of the Daily Office I will probably use Rite I until I die. (Unless, of course, my spiritual director pries it from my hands, which admittedly seems all the more likely now that I have written this.)

For those of us who have come to “speak the language” of the prayer book fluently, an attempt to change it (even in favor of language that might be objectively superior) can be as frustrating as being asked to abandon our mother tongue and to learn a language that is foreign to us. And I will admit that I often feel an emotional reaction against expansive language even in instances when I can objectively recognize it as potentially more orthodox, precisely because it grates awkwardly against the way that I instinctively imagine God to be.

There is an episode recounted by John Cassian and by Palladius of Aspuna that has long haunted me. It occurs in the context of a discussion about whether it is permissible to use one’s imagination to form a mental image of God during prayer. For Cassian and Palladius, like much of the Orthodox tradition, mental images (as opposed to physical images) should very much be avoided. The temptation to idolatry is far too strong; the danger that one will end up worshiping a God created in one’s own image is far too great.

But both authors relate the story of an old and holy monk who had always prayed imagining God in some kind of human likeness; perhaps the stereotypical old man with a long white beard? A theologian comes and explains to him that this is completely idolatrous and wrong, and the monk actually concedes his error. But then when he tries to pray like he had before, he finds that he cannot, and weeps: “Ah, the misfortune! They have taken away my God from me. And now I have no one to hold on to, and I do not know whom to adore, or whom to address.”

The text simply stops and leaves him there, alone in his disoriented grief and uncertainty, perhaps echoing the words of Mary Magdalene (John 20:13) who is unable to recognize the risen Christ who stands right in front of her, but without the Gospel’s prompt resolution of the agony. And this story has always haunted me, as someone who has dedicated her life to theological study and teaching. The authors of these texts definitely think that it is completely idolatrous and wrong to pray using that kind of mental image of God, and yet I also can’t imagine that we aren’t meant to feel profound sympathy for the elderly monk, whose sincere piety and genuine holiness have just been shattered by theological correctness, with absolutely no certainty that any additional enlightenment will be forthcoming.

And so I continue to wonder: At what cost do we tear down all of our false and incomplete images of the invisible God, the God of whom Christ is our only true image? Are we to always seek greater truth at absolutely any cost to worship that may be naïve and yet nevertheless sincere? And to what extent do we have the right or the obligation to do that kind of theological demolition work for anyone else?

Dr. Elizabeth Anderson is a visiting assistant professor at Claremont School of Theology, where she teaches church history and ascetical theology.



  1. Fabulous. One of the best essays yet here at Covenant on liturgical language. I heartily commend this essay to the whole Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, and to our sisters and brothers in other communions. Thank you Elizabeth for your fine contribution. I was riveted from the beginning to the end of your essay.

    Two reflections: First, I think we need an alternative doxology. By alternative I do NOT mean substitute. I think Father, Son and Holy Spirit should be memorialized as true analogous language for the Triune God. I also think some attempts at alternative language have failed, such as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, which speaks truly of God but does not name the three hypostases. I think serious work should be put into this. I suspect that Mother, Son and Holy Spirit is equally true language. I like the language of “font” for the first hypostases, but I don’t think such impersonal language would work in a doxology, though it could be usefully used elsewhere (“Font of Life” has such a lovely ring to it).

    Barth’s proposal seems like a promising candidate. Revealed, Revelation, Revealer has a tight structure to it and a good trinitarian distinction. It’s a little removed from ordinary language though.

    But in a similar spirit, what do people think about this: “In the name of the Living God: Author, Word, and Wisdom”? Crucially, this attempts to preserve the intimate relationship between “Father and Son” with the relationship between the Author and the author’s Word. I admit I don’t like the term author, as it implies too much the written word. “Speaker, Word, and Wisdom” would be more in line with Genesis 1. But I worry that ‘author’ would be more instinctual to people than ‘speaker’.

    Other ideas?

    Second reflection: I am so glad you brought attention to the problematic language of the 1979 revision on the Creed. This is probably the place that I think the 1979 BCP is weakest. The 1928 version, when its archaisms are removed, is almost entirely superior, not least when it uses only “who” for the Holy Spirit, where the 1979 unnecessarily changed that language to “He”. Whenever we say the Creed, I intentionally replace all the pronouns with the 1928 version. As someone who very much appreciates the revisions of the 1979, including the way in brought the congregation more into the creation of the liturgy, this is an area where I think we need to self-consciously acknowledge the error and revert back to the older form.

  2. This is an extraordinary essay. Thank you, Elizabeth, for writing it. I think its coda will be ringing between my ears for some time.

  3. This has been one of the best essays I have read on this topic. I wish you could speak to more people about this the way that you have talked about God here.
    Thank you very much.


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