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Presbyterians and the Trinity: Let Us Phrase

June 30, 2006|K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writer

When referring to the Trinity, most Christians are likely to say "Father, Son and the Holy Spirit."

But leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) are suggesting some additional designations: "Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-giving Womb," or perhaps "Overflowing Font, Living Water, Flowing River."

Then there's "Rock, Cornerstone and Temple" and "Rainbow of Promise, Ark of Salvation and Dove of Peace."

The phrases are among 12 suggested but not mandatory wordings essentially endorsed this month by delegates to the church's policy-making body to describe a "triune God," the Christian doctrine of God in three persons.

The Rev. Mark Brewer, senior pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church, is among those in the 2.3-million-member denomination unhappy with the additions.

"You might as well put in Huey, Dewey and Louie," he said.

"Any time you get together representatives of 2 1/2 million people, you get some really solid people and some really wacky people," he said, referring to the delegates who attended the 217th General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala. Other assembly actions attracted larger notice, such as endorsing medical marijuana and giving local authorities the ability to ordain gays and lesbians living openly with same-sex partners.

But now, through blogs and discussions during and after services, word is spreading about the additions to the traditional Trinity.

Others include "Sun, Light and Burning Ray" and "Speaker, Word and Breath." The wordings are meant to reflect particular aspects of worship, so a prayer noting God's "wrath in the face of evil" might use "Fire That Consumes, Sword That Divides and Storm That Melts Mountains." Some of the suggestions are familiar ones, such as "Creator, Savior, Sanctifier" and "Rock, Redeemer, Friend," which other denominations already use.

Although the delegates did not officially adopt a report recommending the new designations, after extensive debate they voted 282 to 212 to "receive" the document. By not rejecting the report, the delegates essentially allowed individual churches to decide how to use the new phraseology.

Written by a diverse panel of working pastors and theologians, the report noted that the traditional language of the Trinity portrays God as male and implies men are superior to women.

"For this and other distortions of Trinitarian doctrine we repent," the report said.

Daniel L. Migliore, a member of the committee that spent five years crafting the report, said critics miss the point.

"What we are speaking of is supplementary ways of referring to the triune God -- not replacements, not substitutes," said Migliore, professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.

And the Rev. Rebecca Button Prichard, pastor of Tustin Presbyterian Church, who headed the panel that wrote "The Trinity: God's Love Overflowing," strongly defended it as theologically sound.

"What people are afraid is that they think we are taking 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit' away from them," she said. "We're not. What we want to say is that no words can fully describe God. And so we want people to seek a variety of expression, so we can do justice to the greatness of God."

The concept that the omniscience of God is beyond comprehension -- and, hence, human language -- dates to antiquity. In ancient Israel, Jews did not dare to invoke the name of God -- Yahweh -- who declared in the Decalogue, "You shall have no other gods before me."

But critics of the new designations say the wordings are confusing and reflect a concession to touchy modern sensibilities.

"They're attempting to be politically correct, and unnecessarily so," said Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute in Charlotte, N.C.

Hanegraaff contends that the report is based on a false premise that Christianity is patriarchal, an assumption he called "an urban legend" being circulated with increasing frequency.

"Jesus Christ comes into a culture in which women are considered to be on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder ... and makes women his disciples," he said.

"Women are the first to bear witness to the empty tomb, which is central in Christianity. The Bible says in Christ there is neither male nor female. We are one in Christ."

Like many longtime Presbyterians, Sherie Zander, a Brentwood psychotherapist, has followed the General Assembly's actions. She worries that the report on the Trinity will further divide her denomination, already polarized over issues such as the ordination of gays.

"It's very odd and bizarre," she said. When she first heard about the report last week from a friend who called her from Birmingham with "You've got to hear this," she burst out laughing.

"It's very clear that God refers to himself as the father," she said. "Jesus, when he walked on the Earth, referred to himself as the son. All through Scripture, the Holy Spirit is referred to as the spirit. What would give any of us the right to change that?"

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