More on the Trinity, Metaphors for God, and Devotion

The thread on M’s sermon has engaged some of the issues around the naming of God. If I may summarize what I read there, I think all participants are in agreement that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is the normative means for naming the Trinity in our public worship; the discussion turns then to whether this is the only metaphor or whether others are to be used, in what settings, and to what degree.

Frequently during discussions of this topic, I’m reminded of the Anthropomorphite controversy. This is one of the spin-offs of the long-standing Origenist controversy that rocked Alexandria for quite a while. The basic question seems to be whether Origen had taken allegory too far—what, in descriptions of God, were metaphor and what were literal? When the Scriptures speak of “God’s outstretched arm” is this purely a metaphor or is there a physical divine member in view here? In particular, this controversy caused some real difficulties in the first few generations of the monastic movement among the monks who were wise and holy—but not particularly learned. While you get sprinkles of this controversy in a variety of places in the literature, my thoughts this morning turn especially to John Cassian’s Conferences 10.1-5.

I think this section is worth citing in full so here it is from the venerable NPNF:


Among the sublime customs of the anchorites which by God’s help have been set forth although in plain and unadorned style, the course of our narration compels us to insert and find a place for something, which may seem so to speak to cause a blemish on a fair body: although I have no doubt that by it no small instruction on the image of Almighty God of which we read in Genesis will be conferred on some of the simpler sort, especially when the grounds are considered of a doctrine so important that men cannot be ignorant of it without terrible blasphemy and serious harm to the Catholic faith.

Chapter 2

Of the custom which is kept up in the Province of Egypt for signifying the time of Easter.

In the country of Egypt this custom is by ancient tradition observed that— when Epiphany is past, which the priests of that province regard as the time, both of our Lord’s baptism and also of His birth in the flesh, and so celebrate the commemoration of either mystery not separately as in the Western provinces but on the single festival of this day, — letters are sent from the Bishop of Alexandria through all the Churches of Egypt, by which the beginning of Lent, and the day of Easter are pointed out not only in all the cities but also in all the monasteries. In accordance then with this custom, a very few days after the previous conference had been held with Abbot Isaac, there arrived the festal letters of Theophilus the Bishop of the aforesaid city, in which together with the announcement of Easter he considered as well the foolish heresy of the Anthropomorphites at great length, and abundantly refuted it. And this was received by almost all the body of monks residing in the whole province of Egypt with such bitterness owing to their simplicity and error, that the greater part of the Elders decreed that on the contrary the aforesaid Bishop ought to be abhorred by the whole body of the brethren as tainted with heresy of the worst kind, because he seemed to impugn the teaching of holy Scripture by the denial that Almighty God was formed in the fashion of a human figure, though Scripture teaches with perfect clearness that Adam was created in His image. Lastly this letter was rejected also by those who were living in the desert of Scete and who excelled all who were in the monasteries of Egypt, in perfection and in knowledge, so that except Abbot Paphnutius the presbyter of our congregation, not one of the other presbyters, who presided over the other three churches in the same desert, would suffer it to be even read or repeated at all in their meetings.

Chapter 3

Of Abbot Sarapion and the heresy of the Anthropomorphites into which he fell in the error of simplicity.

Among those then who were caught by this mistaken notion was one named Sarapion, a man of long-standing strictness of life, and one who was altogether perfect in actual discipline, whose ignorance with regard to the view of the doctrine first mentioned was so far a stumbling block to all who held the true faith, as he himself outstripped almost all the monks both in the merits of his life and in the length of time (he had been there). And when this man could not be brought back to the way of the right faith by many exhortations of the holy presbyter Paphnutius, because this view seemed to him a novelty, and one that was not ever known to or handed down by his predecessors, it chanced that a certain deacon, a man of very great learning, named Photinus, arrived from the region of Cappadocia with the desire of visiting the brethren living in the same desert: whom the blessed Paphnutius received with the warmest welcome, and in order to confirm the faith which had been stated in the letters of the aforesaid Bishop, placed him in the midst and asked him before all the brethren how the Catholic Churches throughout the East interpreted the passage in Genesis where it says, “Let us make man after our image and likeness” Genesis 1:26 And when he explained that the image and likeness of God was taken by all the leaders of the churches not according to the base sound of the letters, but spiritually, and supported this very fully and by many passages of Scripture, and showed that nothing of this sort could happen to that infinite and incomprehensible and invisible glory, so that it could be comprised in a human form and likeness, since its nature is incorporeal and uncompounded and simple, and what can neither be apprehended by the eyes nor conceived by the mind, at length the old man was shaken by the numerous and very weighty assertions of this most learned man, and was drawn to the faith of the Catholic tradition. And when both Abbot Paphnutius and all of us were filled with intense delight at his adhesion, for this reason; viz., that the Lord had not permitted a man of such age and crowned with such virtues, and one who erred only from ignorance and rustic simplicity, to wander from the path of the right faith up to the very last, and when we arose to give thanks, and were all together offering up our prayers to the Lord, the old man was so bewildered in mind during his prayer because he felt that the Anthropomorphic image of the Godhead which he used to set before himself in prayer, was banished from his heart, that on a sudden he burst into a flood of bitter tears and continual sobs, and cast himself down on the ground and exclaimed with strong groanings: “Alas! Wretched man that I am! They have taken away my God from me, and I have now none to lay hold of; and whom to worship and address I know not.” By which scene we were terribly disturbed, and moreover with the effect of the former Conference still remaining in our hearts, we returned to Abbot Isaac, whom when we saw close at hand, we addressed with these words.

Chapter 4

Of our return to Abbot Isaac and question concerning the error into which the aforesaid old man had fallen.

Although even besides the fresh matter which has lately arisen, our delight in the former conference which was held on the character of prayer would summon us to postpone everything else and return to your holiness, yet this grievous error of Abbot Sarapion, conceived, as we fancy, by the craft of most vile demons, adds somewhat to this desire of ours. For it is no small despair by which we are cast down when we consider that through the fault of this ignorance he has not only utterly lost all those labours which he has performed in so praiseworthy a manner for fifty years in this desert, but has also incurred the risk of eternal death. And so we want first to know why and wherefore so grievous an error has crept into him. And next we should like to be taught how we can arrive at that condition in prayer, of which you discoursed some time back not only fully but splendidly. For that admirable Conference has had this effect upon us, that it has only dazzled our minds and has not shown us how to perform or secure it.

Chapter 5

The answer on the heresy described above.

Isaac: We need not be surprised that a really simple man who had never received any instruction on the substance and nature of the Godhead could still be entangled and deceived by an error of simplicity and the habit of a longstanding mistake, and (to speak more truly) continue in the original error which is brought about, not as you suppose by a new illusion of the demons, but by the ignorance of the ancient heathen world, while in accordance with the custom of that erroneous notion, by which they used to worship devils formed in the figure of men, they even now think that the incomprehensible and ineffable glory of the true Deity should be worshipped under the limitations of some figure, as they believe that they can grasp and hold nothing if they have not some image set before them, which they can continually address while they are at their devotions, and which they can carry about in their mind and have always fixed before their eyes. And against this mistake of theirs this text may be used: “And they changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of the image of corruptible man.” Romans 1:23 Jeremiah also says: “My people have changed their glory for an idol.” Jeremiah 2:11 Which error although by this its origin, of which we have spoken, it is engrained in the notions of some, yet none the less is it contracted in the hearts also of those who have never been stained with the superstition of the heathen world, under the colour of this passage where it is said “Let us make man after our image and our likeness,” Genesis 1:26 ignorance and simplicity being its authors, so that actually there has arisen owing to this hateful interpretation a heresy called that of the Anthropomorphites, which maintains with obstinate perverseness that the infinite and simple substance of the Godhead is fashioned in our lineaments and human configuration. Which however any one who has been taught the Catholic doctrine will abhor as heathenish blasphemy, and so will arrive at that perfectly pure condition in prayer which will not only not connect with its prayers any figure of the Godhead or bodily lineaments (which it is a sin even to speak of), but will not even allow in itself even the memory of a name, or the appearance of an action, or an outline of any character.”

I’m struck by the narrative qualities of this passage—by how Cassian chooses to tell this story.Clearly, he considers himself to be orthodox and champions the position which was deemed orthodox. Yet he paints a very sympathetic picture of Abba Sarapion but, unlike many stories of this ilk, he decides to close the story in a rather ambiguous fashion. Instead of relating that henceforth Abba Sarapion lived in quietude and orthodox faith, our final glimpse of the anchorite is a burst of grief and a spiritual dilemma: “Alas! Wretched man that I am! They have taken away my God from me, and I have now none to lay hold of; and whom to worship and address I know not.”

Cassian does this deliberately and skillfully for he sets up his topic perfectly. Those who mine writings like these solely for their history of theological arguments miss quite a lot if they do not consider the context. The discussion of the controversy is not accidental; this whole conference is on prayer and, specifically, what images we should form in our mind as we pray. That is, as we pray, how do we conceive of the One with whom we communicate?

Cassian uses this episode to hammer home the ascetic implications of bad doctrine. The wise and holy ascetic risks losing his years of spiritual labor because he has thought wrongly and grounded his spirituality in a theologically deficient framework.

Abba Isaac goes on in the Conference to portray a spirituality grounded in the incomprehensible God who, nevertheless, reveals himself to those who seek him with diligence and earnestness. It seems to me—and I speak with less than perfect knowledge here—that what is described in this Conference dovetails nicely with what we find in On the Divine Names by Pseudo-Dionysius where he presents a brilliant introduction to God’s self-revelation that carefully balances the cataphatic and apophatic approaches to God.

So—bottom line—this theology stuff matters because of the way that our spiritual lives are shaped by it. We do well to not fall into the Anthropomorphite error and to take sufficient safeguards against it. God as beyond materiality is beyond gender. God is not “he”. I use “he” when I speak about God, and, no doubt, there are some seminaries where I would get into trouble for doing so. (Far too often the various ways around the male pronoun turn our language about God into a stilted mess rather than something beautiful, prayable, and singable. I have severe reactions against the seminary phrase “God God-self” for its horrible infelicities as an English expression.) I am no Anthropomorphite, and have no plans of becoming one—and yet casual use  becomes habitual formation. I don’t think that God is a dude. And yet, with frequent enough repetition and no checks in other directions, concepts of God-ness and dude-ness will become linked whether I’m intending it or not. And herein lies the danger, and therefore the need to remember and to utilize, when appropriate, alternate language for and about God.

This is another area of theology and public liturgical speech which has been negatively impacted by the incessant culture wars which swirl around and through the church. The rejection of masculine language has become a cause celebre for certain liberal types. This has prompted a backlash from certain conservative types who will then insist on nothing but masculine and sometime deliberately,  antagonistically patriarchal language for God. Both of these groups are distorting our theology to score political points. (And I kindly request them to stop now. There. We’ll see how far that gets me…)

I’d like to point back to Cassian and to Pseudo-Dionysius as both an appeal for a reason why a return to a more civilized discussion is needed. We cannot now God as God is. We only know God as God has been revealed in Scripture through metaphor and we then use these metaphors as keys to understanding our personal experiences of God and our glimpses of the divine life. One of the foremost ways God has chosen to reveal himself and his triune nature is as “Father, Son, and, Holy Ghost” and, as such, this is what our forebearers have enshrined in our liturgies. We do well to follow them.

But we must also be firmly reminded that in no way do these epithets exhaust both the potential and the edifying metaphors and names for God. No, Cassian and Pseudo-Dionysius are not collaborators in some devious feminist plot (despite what some choose to think…).  I don’t think that conscious Anthropomorphism is a danger in today’s world; subconscious Anthropomorphism is alive and well—and perhaps even promulgated by those who can only start prayer with “Father God…” In our teaching then and perhaps in our private prayers other names and metaphors should be cultivated and remembered not to displace other formulations, but to fill out a more robust understanding of the One of whom Dionysius says, “Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name. It is and it is as no other being is. Cause of all existence, and therefore transcending existence, it alone could give an authoritative account of what it really is.” (DN 588B 1).

22 thoughts on “More on the Trinity, Metaphors for God, and Devotion

  1. Christopher

    I always think of St Gregory of Nazianzus’ Fifth Oration on the Holy Spirit, and clues he gives us to a more expansive vocabulary as well as to warnings about genderizing the Godhead.

  2. Derek Olsen

    I must confess that I’ve never read any of Gregory of Nazianzus, so thanks for the pointer. So many Fathers, so little time… :-)

  3. Bill Dilworth

    The problem with alternatives to referring to God as “he” is that they they not only degender God, as it were, but depersonalize him, too.

  4. John-Julian, OJN

    Only, Bill, if God happens to require a gender-specific pronoun in order to be “personalized”.

    Remember Aquinas’ definition of “person” as “an individual spiritual substance who is rational” (which also sounds very depersonalized, doesn’t it?)

    I’m not naturally an apophatic pray-er (however much I’d like to be), but the Incarnation provides me with enough visible images when that is what I need.

  5. bls

    The problem with alternatives to referring to God as “he” is that they they not only degender God, as it were, but depersonalize him, too.

    Easily solved by referring to God as “she” from time to time….

  6. Christopher

    What is fun and interesting is when we begin to take seriously the “clash” of our words, like “King Jesus our Mother.”

    For all of my personally not having problems with F,S,HS and male language, I don’t think it is enough given the intersection of history and male domination to pretend that God-language has not intersected and justified human oppression. It’s similar with Lord language and its sometimes use with master/slave language in this country. It doesn’t mean we need to lose male language or lose Lord language, but it means we need an expanded repoirtoire that breaks open where oppression is justified by God-language. Expanded rather than inclusive language.

    As I said, I have heard a lot of “God isn’t male, but he.” Or seen literally a professor present God isn’t an old bearded man in the sky and then go on to present an image on powerpoint precisely of God as an old bearded man.

  7. Lee

    Elizabeth Johnson’s _She Who Is_ has one of the best discussion of these issues that I’ve read. She advocates mixing it up with masculine and feminine terms, as well as terms drawn from the natural world. Her argument is based on the very traditional idea that all language about God is analogical (in St. Thomas’s sense). This makes a lot of sense to me because God is not only personal, but also “more-than-personal,” a fact that both masculine and feminine images can sometimes obscure.

  8. Bill Dilworth

    Well, Brother, in English there are no neuter personal pronouns. If you ditch the gendered pronouns you’re stuck with “it” – and God isn’t an “it.”

    RE: The Old Man in the Sky. Unfortunately, my parish has two examples of this meme carved in wood, if not in stone. One I’ve known for a while – the crucifix in the Lady Chapel is one of those pseudo-medieval Trinity get-ups: an old man in a beard (and what looks like the papal tiara, to boot) holding a Christus Rex, accompanied by a pigeon. If I were rector I’m afraid we’d have an unfortunate accident or break-in that took care of the thing once and for all.

    The other I just noticed yesterday. Our doors have carvings of four biblical figures, including our patron, St. Stephen. And above the saint’s head is a bust of OLJC…on the right hand of an old man in a beard up in the sky!

  9. Derek Olsen

    “King Jesus our Mother”
    Sounds like someone’s been to too many seminary chapel services… ;-)

    Bill, that’s a standard feature of depictions of St Stephen on the strength of Acts 7:55-6: “But [Stephen] being full of the Holy Ghost looked steadfastly into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And said Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.”

    So, if Stephen sees Jesus at God’s right hand God must have a hand for him to be seen at; hence we’re back to the Anthropomorphite controversy… I’ve never much liked the medieval pictures of the Old Man either (with or without the papal crown—which is a common feature) despite the fact that Daniel’s Ancient of Days utilizes this image.

    The whole genderless-yet-still-personal pronoun is yet another area where the modern English language fails us.

  10. C. Wingate

    I’m going to have to write something separate because what I’m finding myself wanting to say is too big to fit in a reply, but I’ll express three qualms briefly as a point of departure.

    First, I’m not convinced that metaphor is the right rhetorical figure to be invoking here. At least one person (and I believe this traces back to Elizabeth Achtemeier”) would argue that Father, Son and HS are names rather than metaphor. At the very least the abuse that tends to follow from interpretation through metaphor is that one can identify the intended meaning and adopt a different statement which theoretically avoids “errant” interpretations. I say “abuse” because the effect, often intended, is to deny one’s opponents the language they need to make their points rather than having to go through the trouble of actually refuting them.

    Second, there’s definitely an issue here of whether the masculinity of the trinitarian “metaphors” implies that feminine metaphors need to be played up or introduced to compensate. I think one could, for instance, object at length to anything which describes creation as birth from the Godhead.

    Third, the biggest problem lies not in the trinity, but in Jesus, because his particularity as being a real person of one particular gender is a point of irreducibility. There’s a tendency in Paul, for instance, to slip into language (when he’s talking about the differing roles of men and women) which could be read to suggest that men are saved through Jesus, and women are saved through their husbands. (At this point Dorothy Sayers wades into the middle of the argument and asks, “Are women human?”) It seems to me that if we can deal with Jesus’ masculinity without denying he is male, we can deal with the masculine “metaphors” 0f the trinity without saying that men are like God and women are not.

  11. Bill Dilworth

    Derek, I know where it comes from – I just want to find out how to make it go away! :-)

    I suppose if the Orthodox, whose canons forbid representations of God the Father (as opposed to the Ancient of Days, which is different in their system), still can’t get rid of such representations, I guess we’re probably stuck with it. The wall calendar I have from the Western Rite Vicariate has on its cover the Lamb of God, in front of a haloed bird, in front of…an old man in a papal crown!

  12. Derek Olsen


    I’d also agree that creation-as-birth from the Godhead has some *serious* theological flaws. Also, I’m not advocating a use of female God-language to “balance” the male God-language because I think it highlights the issue of gender rather than transcending it which is the goal in worship. (There are times and places to highlight gender issues in the church; worship does not seem to me to be the appropriate venue, though…) However—English presents us with a lack of decent alternatives as “It” is rightly seen as impersonal.

    I’d be interested to hear you say more on what you mean with the metaphor point. I’m very fond of metaphor seeing it (like Quintillian said) as the most beautiful of tropes.

    In particular, I’m not clear whether you’re trying to say that it is reducible or is not. Personally, I’d argue that it’s not reducible. That is, here is one possible line of logic: God is called father. A Father is a male parent. Since God has no gender it is thus possible to refer to God as mother since “parent” is the object in scope. For my part, I see this line of thought as very problematic. I don’t think that this kind of reduction captures what is being expressed. If it could be so captured than a simile would be most appropriate: God is like a parent. But this isn’t what we’re saying. The key difference for me is that simile tends to be flat whereas metaphor tends to be more three-dimensional, more multivalent, and more complex. Father and mother are in no way interchangeable when it comes to their archetypal and emotional valences—and I see these aspects as being preserved in metaphor.

    Yes, Bill, I think it’s safe to say that we’re stuck with it!

  13. Rick

    Everyday English usage seems to be evolving toward singular ‘they’ as a gender-indefinite pronoun, e.g. ‘someone left their backpack in the classroom.’ There is much discussion of this at Language Log.

    In 200 years people may speak of God as ‘they’ without blinking, and with no polytheistic overtone whatsoever. But I admit that this is not very helpful for present day usage.

  14. Bill Dilworth

    “In 200 years people may speak of God as ‘they’ without blinking, and with no polytheistic overtone whatsoever. But I admit that this is not very helpful for present day usage.”

    I’m thinking that English won’t evolve a good way of talking about a non-gendered person until the development of AI makes it a necessity.

  15. Christopher

    We cannot pull ourselves from the ways historically that this language has been used to put down women even if at the same time we can liberate it using bible and tradition. Just read St Augustine as women being in the image of men rather than of God, for example. That has an effect. St Aquinas words of women as defective men have an effect. The Gospel gets read through those lenses and impacts flesh and blood persons. We cannot ignore those interpretations and their effects even as we tease apart Father from such effects. That functioning is complex and will affect persons differently. We have a history of enriching or expanding. 1979 is an example of this. One way of expressing our relatedness to God (Maurice) is Father/adopted children, another is uncreated/creatures (such as in John 1 or Genesis 1-2). It seems to me okay to have prayers in our toolkit that do either or both.

    As Catherine LaCugna reminds us, whether or not matters of language should be addressed in worship all depends on whether or not how we relate and treat one another is or is not being addressed in communal life. Changing language alone won’t change relating, but language can justify some rather poor relating where conflations are made between male/God, Lord/Master. And the historical record is clear enough to show this sort of thing as a regular feature of Christianity. If our communities treated women and men as both imago dei, perhaps this wouldn’t be an issue. We don’t. I remember my priest in the restroom at Convention. A priest leaned over to him from the next stall and said, “The bitch won.” That was referring to our PB. As LaCugna points out it isn’t clear that that is enough given the differences in ways men and women are treated and all justified in the Name of Jesus. We end up with cardboard men and women who aren’t seen as persons with particular characteristics, gifts, etc. Some women are tough, like automechanics, and hunting, for example. JP II’s sickly romanticization of women in his writings is a good example of this and though I think Freud off, virgin/whore complex reads through those works like a straight arrow. Worse, he posits two human natures, one male the other female to back what reads as Jesus language meant to understand women as singularly mothers. What of the desert Ammas then who are anything but sweet?

    When our language of God is multivalent and draws in multiple descriptors, for say Jesus, such as Wisdom, Crucified, then Lord takes on a meaning that breaks down human conflations of chattel master and God. Deliverer of Exodus is the language of Lordship for the enslaved that broke open the Episcopalian masters’ language.

    I agree that God birthing the creation has problems in relation to creatio ex amore/creatio ex nihilo, but I will point out that the way these metaphors functioned in other times is not continuous with our own as we have a different understanding of generation for both males and females. The break is sharper and at the same time more easily conflated. My favorite line from a theologian pointed out that we don’t speak of creation being birthed because that suggests generation whereas Father does not. I almost laughed myself to death. For late-Twentieth century ears, Father and fathering suggests generation every bit as much birthing. Uncreated and created becomes a better distinction with the Incarnation as the grounds for speaking about either.

  16. Christopher

    And I can say all of that with a fond affection for Father language. I know the unlike. My human father was a broken man scarred by a terrible childhood and the Vietnam war. He was alcoholic and abusive. As a child praying to my Father in heaven was comfort that I was loved.

  17. Christopher


    Another way of saying this is that Persons are not reducible, and especially the infinite Three-in-One. The category of Person, a theological term, must break open, break beyond, and recognize mystery. That is what Rowan Williams is trying to do with the category of “beauty” in the latest thing folks have jumped on. Just so at the level of human beings, persons are not reducible, but particular and complex and unique, and yes, certainly shaped by their characteristics and circumstances, but not reducible to these. Again, women who have gifts for carpentry or gay men who farm. Or straight guys who enjoy lacy vestments. The question to our communities is are we being with one another in ways that the gifts each person brings are built up rather than shoved under a bushel because of their gender and justified in our language and enactment? There isn’t a one-to-one causality of language to the behavior, but the onus is on us to challenge the behavior if the language is still to speak God’s Gospel.

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  19. bls

    Actually, the birth metaphor is Rabbinical, I believe I remember reading someplace. I’ll go check and be back….

  20. C. Wingate

    Derek, I’ve been without power since Sunday, so I haven’t been sleeping well and haven’t had a chance to address this decently. But let me try something short.

    I think in the passage where you talk about simile you are getting at something of the point I was after. The biggest risk in dealing with the trope, either way, is to assume that we understand what it means and can put it in other terms which keep the desirable meanings while excluding the undesirable. The weak link in this is precisely that assumption of understanding. I think it is much safer to go with the counterargument that we need to especially eschew obvious alternatives because we can’t tell the reason why they weren’t used. With respect to “Father” and “Mother”, speculation as to why the latter goes unused is very dangerous; it seems safer to take the avoidance as a given and go along with it, particularly as in this case some of the important differences in the images lead directly to things that scripture disputes.

    The other side of the coin, and what I think is a more severe problem, is the amnesia resulting from avoidance of “Father” and “Lord” and all the other male language which has been that of the church from the beginning, and which we have from Jesus. It seems to me to lead almost inevitably into a kind of intellectual idolatry in which the Jesus of scripture is replaced by an intellectual construct who doesn’t say these things.

  21. Christopher

    Personally, that Father so often seems more like a mother ( a la John Paul I), says something about the radical rebuke of societal tendencies and human male formation. The Father as revealed in Jesus, and most so in the Nativity and Cross, is at odds with our muscular culture, not because wimpy, but because willing to enter into vulnerability and frailty and loss and undoing.

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