God's Self-identification and Gender

August 16, 2022

The church today needs to recover a simple priority. In theology, it is called the priority of the Father–Son relation over the Creator–creature relation [1]. Simply put, it is the proposition that before God was creator he was Father. It’s one of those starting points of theological reflection. The basic claim is that while God was always Father, God was not always Creator for there was a time when God was, but creation was not. Equally, While God was always Son, the Son was not always incarnate. The eternal logos is the Son in relation to the Father from eternity. The Father is for the Son as the Son is for the Father, within their perichoretic relation. The perichoresis [2] of the Father and the Son is a relation realized through God, the Spirit. In this way the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one being by virtue of their perichoretic relations. God is one in essence but also has a oneness in God’s perichoretic relation [3]. Thus the unity of the Godhead is bound up in God. God’s oneness is from God, through God, to God.

The world and God are in no sense co-eternal. The Trinity was first. Such an order allows us to maintain a distinction without separation of the immanent and economic Trinity, [4] so that any attempt to historicize the being of the Son with the idea that history somehow constitutes him as the second person of the Trinity, (as Arian did) is a destructive idea. This kind of thinking we now see in process theology. Such thinking allows history and not God to determine who God is. God as Father is not an anthropomorphism but a divine revelation of the relation in the imminent Trinity. A referent of God (name) to be true of God is an example of God acting in divine condescension accommodating human experience in an analogical way. The analogical thinking moves in only one direction. This means that true knowledge of God can only occur through God.

Important Implications
The idea that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit before God was Creator is not some piece of abstract doctrine. The priority of the Father–Son relation before the Creator–creature relation has two powerful implications. God's self-identification as Father, Son, and Spirit is a central component of Christian theology, spirituality and even Christian ethics.

1.) Father, Son and Spirit: God reveals the names we are to name him.

God in relation to himself from eternity is fundamental to who God is. In the uniques of his interrelation of his being, God is Father, Son, and Spirit. It is worth noting from God’s Triune reality, one can argue that God's Fatherhood is utterly unique and not at all defined by our experience of human fatherhood; it is not defined at all by our prior experience or knowledge. For that reason no gender can be read into God with the suggestion that we might think of God as mother in order to think more inclusively about God. Since gender is a part of being human and care part of human experience, we simply can-not read that back into God with the imperative that we ‘must’ think of God as mother and not just as Father. It is not a matter of what we think about God but about what God has revealed of himself in his Son, through his Spirit. In the same way, no one is excluded from the love of God revealed in Christ, through his Spirit. So it would be extremely misguided to think that for women to have equality in the church, we need to reconceptualize God as mother or use the pronoun ‘she' when we pray.

The question is who defines who God is. Who defines God? And the answer is only God, the eternal Father, Son and Holy Spirit, define God. God's self-identification as Father, Son, and Spirit is a foundational truth of the doctrine of God.

When we confess that from eternity, God has revealed the names by which He wants to be named. We are stating, these are not optional terms that we use from our experiences to refer symbolically to God. Rather, it is our terms and our categories that must be transformed by an encounter with God, and in Christ enable us to think of him with thoughts worthy of him. Through the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to name him as he wants be named.

2.) We may not think of God as having gender but we still must name him by his names.

In one sense, God is incomprehensible in his being. The imminent Trinity dwells in unapproachable light (I Tim 6:16). The eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is knowable only as far as he makes himself known. Thus only God reveals God, this is the meaning of the incarnation. The knowledge of God can only be revealed from God, the Father, through God, the Son, by God, the Spirit.

That does not mean human language about God as meaningless quite the contrary. Human language about God is put in proper theological perspective. We don’t abandon our creaturely images and concepts, words and phrases. Yet we should seek to relate to them rightly. Such created images are means given by God to help us think of God through them in a “see through” fashion. We see in part and the same is true of such created images. As we see though them we do so without the intrusion of creaturely forms or sensual images interjected into God. Thus, we may not think of God as having gender. In the same way, we don’t think of the Father as begetting the Son or of the Son as begotten as if they are giving birth. An all-to-human concept we are familiar with as creaturely beings. We never take the metaphor to far nor draw the line of analogy beyond the lines of scripture to do so is to flirt with error.

The first principle then is that our images and concepts, words and phrases, must be transformed through union with Christ to point beyond themselves to God as he exists in an utterly unique way as Father, Son and Spirit. As said above, this analogical thinking moves in only one direction, from God to humanity. Then we in Christ can “see through” those human shadows and return to the referent from which it refers. Thus, God’s revelation of himself in his written word has preeminent importance as where God names his name.

Christain analogical thinking moves in only one direction, and exit from God in revelation and a return to him in praise. Thus our thinking is in keeping with the end for which God created the world, the glory of God.

[1] This principle goes by many names. (1.) God's self-identification as Father, Son, and Spirit. (2.) The priority of immanent Trinity. (3.) God naming himself from eternity. (4.) The Father–Son relation over the Creator–creature relation. Different theologians use different terms and for your amusement and like frustration I use them all {Reader be warned}.

[2] the doctrine of Perichoresis can be defined as co-indwelling, co-inhering, and mutual interpenetration. The concepts, “allows the individuality of the persons to be maintained, while insisting that each person shares in the life of the other two. An image often used to express this idea is that of a 'community of being,' in which each person, while maintaining its distinctive identity, penetrates the others and is penetrated by them.” Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Blackwell, 2001), p. 325.

[3] in this formulation, Both ontology and teleology become the foundational categories for describing God’s unity. God is one in essence (ontology) and ultimate goal (teleology). Thus, God’s ontological reality is distinct and different for everything else for God is holy. God’s teleological reality is a movement for God’s glory a glory that makes much of God in a joyous display of self giving love. Thus God’s life overflows in a movement of self-giving love to such degree that each member literally indwell one-another. This means the perichoresis of God’s divine life is expressed in self-giving joy and love. From the overflow of divine life in the Trinity, God loves the world into existence. Since God is holy, absolutely unique in every way, God remains different and distinct from creation but not distant. For even in creation in its fallen condition, the Father, Son and Spirit work all thing for the good and sustaining, redeeming and guiding the world towards the end for which it was created, the glory of God.

[4] Immanent Trinity is understood as God in himself from eternity (as an endless duration of time) outside of history and Economic Trinity is God in relation to his creation, through his redemptive action within history.



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