Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Trinity III: Creative Language

Some who have read the last few posts probably think that I’m just cranky and unappreciative of metaphor and creative language. The draft authors cite John Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 46:3, suggesting his openness to female imagery in speaking about God. Although I quoted the verse in the last post, here it is again.

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb;” (Isaiah 46:3, NRSV)
The verse does give feminine characteristics to God. Here is what John Calvin writes.

…Here the Prophet beautifully points out the vast difference between the true God and idols. Having formerly said that the Babylonian gods must be drawn on waggons and carts, because they consist of dead matter, he now ascribes a widely different office to the God of Israel, namely, that he "carries" his people, like a mother, who carries the child in her womb, and afterwards carries it in her bosom…

This is a very expressive metaphor, by which God compares himself to a mother who carries a child in her womb. He speaks of the past time, when he began to give them testimonies of his grace. Yet the words might be taken as meaning simply that God kindly nourished that people, like an infant taken from its mother's womb, and carried it in his bosom…

If it be objected, that God is everywhere called "a Father," and that this title is more appropriate to him, I reply, that no figures of speech can describe God's extraordinary affection towards us; for it is infinite and various; so that, if all that can be said or imagined about love were brought together into one, yet it would be surpassed by the greatness of the love of God. By no metaphor, therefore, can his incomparable goodness be described. If you understand it, simply to mean that God, from the time that he begat them, gently carried and nourished them in his bosom, this will agree admirably with what we find in the Song of Moses,

"He bore them, and carried them, as an eagle carrieth her young on her wings."

In a word, the intention of the Prophet is to shew, that the Jews, if they do not choose to forget their descent, cannot arrive at any other conclusion than that they were not begotten in vain, and that God, who has manifested himself to be both their Father and their Mother, will always assist them; and likewise, that they have known his power by uninterrupted experience, so that they ought not to pay homage to idols.
“God cares for us like a mother.” “We suckle upon the word which God alone gives.” I can accept creative language, even feminine imagery for God. Still, I am concerned about the limitations of all theological language. Whether traditional or new, theological language must never be used to further an ideology. Likewise, the acceptance of feminine imagery for God does not mean the replacement of the traditional formulation of the Trinity.

Calvin suggests, at least here, that he himself is not too bothered by feminine imagery for God. If we grant that Calvin was a pretty smart guy, one might ask why he did not discard the traditional formulation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Calvin did not even supplement the traditional language with the “historically faithful yet freshly imaginative”. Perhaps one reason might be that with other language we would lose too much. The Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit says much about our understanding of Christology and soteriology. Other formulations are lacking. Be creative, but avoid giving up the heart of the faith.

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