GOD, FACE TO FACE CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FOUR: How modern theologians attempt to explain the Holy Spirit while excluding sexuality from God
For the most part the Protestant Church, in contrast with her Catholic sister, simply accepts the lack of the feminine and ignores the issue altogether, treating it as beyond the pale of appropriate intellectual investigation. Despite this general official refusal of the Protestant Churches to address the void caused by the removal of functional gender from God, a number of interested theologians have attempted to explain the nature of the Holy Spirit in a way that, while conforming to Church doctrine, makes an effort to present the Holy Spirit in a logical and, as they struggle to achieve, a warm manner.

Yet both Catholic and Protestant Churches have in common a view of the Trinity in which sexuality is at most a superficial feature even for birth and in which vital aspects of femininity are denied altogether. This view leads most investigators into the nature of the Trinity into an admission that the topic is very complex, to the extent that in the end they admit further that. like attempting to understand the duality of light or the logic behind quantum mechanics, they can’t comprehend it completely. This limitation has and continues to have a profound influence on the entire nature of Christianity. Didn’t any of these investigators grasp a hint in the wake of this inability to comprehend such an important topic that perhaps the standard view of the Trinity might need some revision?

Both the Father as the divine Will and the Son as Jesus Christ, the divine Word, are well-defined in Scripture as to their general natures and their functional roles. Of the three Members of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is by far the most enigmatic. It is the lack of understanding, or perhaps simply the misunderstanding, of the nature of this divine Member from which the confusion and apparent complexity of the Trinity has arisen. A substantial part of this confusion is the obviously apparent but discomforting feature of the Holy Spirit’s Scripturally-defined character as embracing specifically feminine elements in contradiction to the general view of the Trinity as being either gender-neutral or masculine.

Many expositors of the Holy Spirit see in Genesis 1 the active participation of the Holy Spirit in the act of creation. This is the position taken by respected scholar of Scripture Benjamin B. Warfield, who describes this functional attribute of the Holy Spirit in Chapter Seventeen of his book The Holy Spirit:

“His offices in Nature – The ‘Spirit’ or personal ‘Breath’ is the Executive of the Godhead, as the ‘Son’ or ‘Word’ is the Revealer. The Spirit of God moved upon the face of chaos and developed cosmos (Gen. 1:2). Henceforth he is always represented as the author of order and beauty in the natural as of holiness in the moral world. He garnished the astronomical heavens (Job 26:13). He is the organizer and source of life to all provinces of vegetable and animal nature (Job 33:4; Ps. 104:29, 30; Isa. 32:14, 15), and of enlightenment to human intelligence in all arts and sciences (Job 32:8; 35:11; Ex 31:2-4).”

Dr. H. A. Ironside, in a little tome first printed in 1941 entitled The Holy Trinity, also interprets Genesis 1:2 as asserting that the Holy Spirit, in concert with the Father, was actively involved in creation. Interestingly, in referencing Isaiah 66 as an Old Testament reference to the Trinity he quotes from verse 13:

“As one whom his mother comforteth so will I comfort you.”

Although Ironside invariably interprets the Holy Spirit in terms of the masculine pronoun ‘he’, he also confesses a lack of full understanding of the nature of the Trinity. Yet the passage quoted above, by associating the word ‘mother’ with ‘comfort’, furnishes a key argument for the feminine function of the Holy Spirit. For Jesus, in John 14:16 and 17, directly links the Holy Spirit with the name (implying role) Comforter:

“And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.”

Dedicated theologian Dr. Bruce A. Ware makes similar statements to Warfield regarding the executive (implementation of will) role of the Holy Spirit in his work Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. In fact, this executive role of the Holy Spirit is a general theme among theologians. In his own work, Ware encapsulates the roles of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as follows: Father – Grand Architect; Son – Submission to the Father in doing (displaying) His Will; Holy Spirit – Carrying out the work of the Father.

Alister McGrath, who wrote the work Understanding the Trinity, provides a representative viewpoint of this genre, yet also furnishes some remarkably fresh insights. He stands on what I humbly perceive as firm soil in his eloquent and moving descriptions of God and the incarnate Jesus in chapters 1 through 6. In reading it for a second time quite recently I realized afresh how his treatment of the Trinity had influenced my own work Family of God. It was Dr. McGrath, in fact, whom I mentioned on pages 24 through 26:

“Some theologians, having briefly noted the one intuitively satisfactory functional description of the Trinity, reject this particular answer quite abruptly, justifying their rejection on the basis of insufficient logic. They proceed from there to hammer out tortuously-derived and ultimately insufficient, emotionally empty alternatives. One such expositor, who otherwise paints with highly readable and insightful words a delightful description of God, mentions the Trinity with profound understanding and then quickly discards it as a misapplication of a familiar model in an attempt to apply too much of what is, after all, just a simplistic and imperfect model to the reality of God Himself. In his haste to reject that application, however, he violates the same logical guidelines which he carefully presented in the immediately preceding pages of his discussion.

“This same theologian, in viewing the Trinity in the uncontroversial terms of man’s encounters with God, explains it as different facets of His nature through which God has chosen to reveal Himself to man. God, he asserts, is altogether too vast for man, with his limitations in time and space, to acquire a complete picture of His entire nature. We can sample portions of this Divine Entity, however, and by thinking through the implications of the composite picture that He has given us through Scripture, we perceive His Trinitarian nature and the necessity for it. This experiential description is, I think, a valid one and has the advantage of being safely neutral with respect to gender. It is certainly the most intuitively satisfying characterization of the Trinity that I have seen to date. Yet such an exclusively man-centered description yields a disappointing poverty of information about God Himself, leaving the reader to ask why, if God does indeed have a Trinitarian nature, He is so reluctant to share a picture of that characteristic with us in terms of His intrinsic functional attributes. It would seem, after all, that a God-centered intuitive understanding would naturally lead to a greater appreciation of Him, and consequently a greater love toward Him on the part of His subjects. One might easily suspect, as a matter of fact, that those individuals in the past who were named in the Book of Hebrews, did indeed have personal insights into the nature of God beyond those which the usual churchgoer might have access to via his pastor or his reading of Scripture.”

The description of the Trinity that Dr. McGrath presented with profound understanding and subsequently discarded in haste begins on page 57 of Understanding the Trinity. An important continuation is presented twelve pages later, where the author appears to wish to tone down his rejection of the earlier model by presenting some qualifying remarks which suggest that perhaps he himself had some persistently lingering thoughts about the nature of the Holy Spirit that he didn’t wish to assert directly:

“It was therefore assumed that light also needed to travel through something [as was the case for sound, upon which light was modeled], and the word ‘aether’ was coined to describe the medium through which light waves traveled. If you read old radio magazines, or listen to old radio programmes, you’ll sometimes find people referring to ‘waves traveling through the aether’. But by the end of the century it had become clear that light did not seem to need any medium to travel through. What had happened was simply that the logical necessity of one aspect of the model (sound) had initially been assumed to apply to what was being modeled (light), and this assumption was gradually recognized to be incorrect as the experimental evidence built up.

“And so it is with models of God. For example, we often use ‘father’ as a very helpful model of God, emphasizing the way in which we are dependent upon God for our existence. But for every human child there is a human mother as well as a human father. This would seem to imply that there is a heavenly mother in addition to a heavenly father. But this assumption rests upon the improper transfer of the logical necessity of an aspect of the model (father) to what is being modeled (God), in just the same way as the necessity of one aspect (the need for a medium of propagation) of the model (sound) was transferred to what was being modeled (light). . .”

“. . . Although the strongly patriarchal structure of society of the time inevitably meant that emphasis was placed upon God as father (e.g., Jeremiah 3:19; Matthew 6:9), there are several passages which encourage us to think of God as our mother (e.g., Deuteronomy 32:18). We shall be considering these two images together, and ask what they tell us about God.

“The first, and most obvious, point is that God is understood as the one who called us into being, who created us. Just as our human parents brought us into being, so God must be recognized as the author and source of our existence. Thus at one point in her history, Israel is chided because she ‘forgot the God who gave [her] birth’ (Deuteronomy 32:18; cf. Isaiah 44:2, 24; 49:15).

“The second point which the model of God as parent makes is the natural love of God for his people. God doesn’t love us because of our achievements, but simply because we are his children. ‘The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you’ (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). Just as a mother can never forget or turn against her child, so God will not forget or gturn against his people (Isaiah 49:15). There is a natural bond of affection and sympathy between God and his children, simply because he has brought them into being. Thus God loved us long before we loved him (1 John 4:10, 19). Psalm 51:1 refers to God’s ‘great compassion, and it is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for ‘compassion’ (rachmin) is derived from the word for ‘womb’ (rechmen). God’s compassion towards his people is that of a mother towards her child (cf. Isaiah 66:12-13). Compassion stems from the womb.”

A delightful feature of his discourses, remarkable for its rarity, is a description of God’s loving relationship to mankind in romantic terms. Another feature of his presentation is his lengthy discussion of the necessities of Jesus’ essence as both man and God, and of His resurrection.
Unfortunately, Dr. McGrath appears to be on less stable ground in his discussion of the Trinity. In his presentation of this dogma he avoids delving too deeply into God’s intrinsic nature or attributes by substituting in its place a lengthy experientially-based account of Him in terms of His interaction with mankind. He is careful near the outset of his discourse, however, to distance himself from any notion that the Trinity includes a female Persona. He does so in his chapter entitled Thinking About God by noting that intellectual models are subject to misapplication through the improper assumption that every attribute of a model must apply to its counterpart in reality. As already noted, he cites as an example the wave characteristic of sound as a model for light, as was quoted directly from his work above.

But is the assumption of a Divine Mother in the economy of God necessarily a misapplication of the human parent model? It could be, but that’s a long way from must be. Nowhere does Dr. McGrath justify the necessity that he associates with that application. Instead, he elevates a mere illustrative example to the status of a law.

Moreover, and again as we have already noted, a short twelve pages further along, Dr. McGrath equivocates a bit regarding the possibility of motherhood in God’s economy, citing a number of Scriptural passages that describe God in a role more appropriate to motherhood than to fatherhood.

Almost at the end of his book it can be seen how Dr. McGrath rescues himself from this apparent inconsistency: as discussed in more detail below, he does not posit a distinct member of the Godhead who possesses the attributes of femininity; instead, he attributes this characteristic to the same Person as the Father. But rather than solving the problem of the feminine side of God, he comes dangerously close both to ultra-monotheism and modalism. Beyond that, he defines a God with gender characteristics indeed, but in the same Person. According to 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10, this suggests a model for a human malady known as hermaphroditism, which is contrary to Scripture, even to the extent of being labeled as unrighteous:

“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”

I find it hard to believe, given its treatment in Scripture, that in His own organization God would wish even to hint at sexual perversion, or even sexual difficulty.

The essence of McGrath’s description of Jesus may be encapsulated in this passage, found in his chapter entitled God as Three and God as One: “The difficulties really begin with the recognition of the fundamental Christian insight that Jesus is God incarnate: that in the face of Jesus Christ we see none other than the living God himself. Although the New Testament is not really anything like a textbook of systematic theology, there is nothing stated in the great creeds of the church which is not already explicitly or implicitly stated within its pages. Jesus is understood to act as God and for God: whoever sees him, sees God; when he speaks, he speaks with the authority of God; when he makes promises, he makes them on behalf of God; when he judges us, he judges as God; when we worship, we worship the risen Christ as God; and so forth.” Dr. McGrath goes on to characterize Jesus in his incarnate form as not actually comprising the fullness of God, but merely as a representative sample of God suitable for furnishing humanity with some comprehension, consistent with their limitations, of the far more complete spiritual God who resides in heaven. He claims in a similar vein that the Holy Spirit, like Jesus, is another manifestation of God, in this case one that indwells the believer, that furnishes another way by which redeemed mankind can encounter, or experience, God.

Dr. McGrath ends with this commentary:

“We can now see why Christians talk about God being a ‘three-in-one’. One difficulty remains, however, which must be considered. How can God be three persons and one person at the same time? This brings us to an important point which is often not fully understood. The following is a simplified account of the idea of ‘person’ which may be helpful, although the reader must appreciate that simplifications are potentially dangerous. The word ‘person’ has changed its meaning since the third century when it began to bed used in connection with the ‘threefoldness of God’. When we talk about God as a person, we naturally think of God as being one person. But theologians such as Tertullian, writing in the third century, used the word ‘person’ with a different meaning. The word ‘person’ originally derives from the Latin word persona, meaning an actor’s face-mask – and, by extension, the role which he takes in a play.

“By stating that there were three persons but only one God, Tertullian was asserting that all three major roles in the great drama of human redemption are played by the one and the same God. The three great roles in this drama are all played by the same actor: God. Each of these roles may reveal God in a somewhat different way, but it is the same God in every case. So when we talk about God as one person, we mean one person in the modern sense of the word, and when we talk about God as three persons, we mean three persons in the ancient sense of the word. It is God, and God alone, who masterminded and executes the great plan of salvation, culminating in Jesus Christ. It is he who is present and active at every stage of its long history. Confusing these two senses of the word ‘person’ inevitably leads to the idea the God is actually a committee, which, as we saw earlier, is a thoroughly unhelpful and confusing way of thinking about God.”

One certainly could not accuse Dr. McGrath of being a tritheist. On the other hand, despite his denial on the back cover of the book that he entertains the heretical notion of modalism, he’s on shaky ground there, being right on the edge or over it according to his own words.

Dr. Mcgrath is somewhat unique among other well-established theologians in that his scientific training has furnished him with an ability to be objective in his presentation and make use of useful intellectual tools such as models to make his points. Further, he at least addresses some notions that others avoid like the plague, as if they themselves might be infected by ideas they may have been taught were close to blasphemous. He has in common with the others, however, several notions regarding the Holy Spirit that are generally accepted within faithful Christendom: while all Members of the Trinity possess the same substance and are fully and equally God, they differ with respect to functional role; the role for the Holy Spirit conforms most closely to that associated with executive companion and motherhood; the Holy Spirit is a background Entity, more self-effacing than Father and Son; the Trinity (as confessed by the Church) is a mystery beyond man’s comprehension. The ‘others’ who share these particular view with Drs. McGrath and Ware include Dr. Peter Masters (The Faith) and James R. White (The Forgotten Trinity).

I agree quite thoroughly with all of these points except the last, regarding the mystery which appears to be beyond comprehension, with which I disagree quite thoroughly. To me, the incomprehensibility in understanding the Trinity is another typical case of man’s brain outsmarting his heart. What should be an extremely simple and intuitive understanding, man has turned into a riddle, in the process wrapping himself tightly around the intellectual axle.

A case could be made that in the many attempts made by scholars of Scripture to describe the Holy Spirit, they end up implying an association of the Holy Spirit with Wisdom. Wisdom, of course, is given a lengthy treatment in Proverbs, with a female gender association.

It must be noted that in every case, these respected theologians are consistent with each other and with general Church dogma, represented by the early Church Fathers, Zanchius, and Catholic theology concerning the absence of gender within the Godhead.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: