The Father and Son in the Trinity Transcend Human Genders

Dublin_Christ_Church_Cathedral_Choir_Tower_Crossing_Vault_and_Shield_of_the_Trinity_2012_09_26In the theological debates between St. Athanasius and the Arians, one of the central questions which the Arians raised was how the Logos, the Son of God, could be said to be begotten of the Father and not yet made. The Arians knew the position which Athanasius held, that which was stated in the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and born of the Father before all ages. God of God, light of light, true God of true God. Begotten not made, consubstantial to the Father, by whom all things were made.

Neither St. Athanasius and the Arians had no problem using the term,  “only-begotten Son” (μονογενῆ),  and so both employed it when discussing the personal identity of Jesus Christ because Jesus used it himself: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16 RSV). But the Arians believed that it was to be understood in light of human generation and read with the implications had with human sonship. Since Jesus was born of the Father, the Arians said that this meant that he had a beginning, indicating that there was a time in which the Son was not. Why? Because when we see human children, we know they had a time in which they were not before they are born. The Arians took the word too literally, applying to it all that they knew of its application in humanity, not seeing that the word was analogical and symbolic, pointing to a truth beyond what it meant when discussing human generation. It was valid to be used so long as it was understood that the relationship between the Father and the Son was explained through an analogical term without being limited by what it meant for the human experience.

What was revealed in the debates between Nicenes like Athanasius and the Arians was that people often read Scripture and its imagery in an overly-literal fashion, assuming the words used were not symbols pointing to a truth which was beyond human comprehension but actual representations of the divine nature and how it was in itself. Some Arians would be able to say, because of this, they thought they could comprehend and know the fullness of God in themselves. St. Athanasius, however, was quite clear: “But if God be not as man, as He is not, we must not impute to Him the attributes of man.”[1] Scripture employs all kinds of bodily images for God which are not to be taken literal: Jesus is said to be at the right hand of God, and yet God has no hands; God the Father is said to sit on a throne, and yet the Father is Spirit without a body and so does not have a body to sit; the finger of God is said to write down words, and yet, once again, God has no body and so no literal finger by which he wrote; God is not like man and, as a Spirt, God has no bodily features though the functions and powers which we understand bodily parts do can be seen ascribed to God through symbolic analogy.[2]

The relationship between the Father and the Son, even as stated in the Nicene Creed, does not truly follow the way fathers and sons relate in humanity. The Father both beget and gave birth to the Son- the Father, therefore, has both paternal and maternal aspects, making the Father not to be read as a kind of gender-inducing statement but rather as indicating he is the unoriginated origin of the Son, who is generated and birthed by the Father. The terms are used to help us understand that just as a father is seen in the son, and show represent a unity of nature, so we can see the Father in the Son and understand their unity in nature; but we must not then think we are talking about generation which is the equivalent of human generation, where the birthing of the Son is the same as establishing the Son as a part of creation. St. Athanasius, therefore, rejected such a human-oriented understanding of the terms:

Further, let every corporeal reference be banished on this subject; and transcending every imagination of sense, let us, with pure understanding and with mind alone, apprehend the genuine relation of son to father, and the Word’s proper relation towards God, and the unvarying likeness of the radiance towards the light: for as the words ‘Offspring’ and ‘Son’ bear, and are meant to bear, no human sense, but one suitable to God, in like manner when we hear the phrase ‘one in essence,’ let us not fall upon human senses, and imagine partitions and divisions of the Godhead, but as having our thoughts directed to things immaterial, let us preserve undivided the oneness of nature and the identity of light; for this is proper to a son as regards a father, and in this is shown that God is truly Father of the Word.[3]

The terms Father and Son are conventions, symbols which are used to point to a truth beyond the human words themselves. Jesus used them to help lead us up to God, to understand in a human way, the immanent Trinity. Of course, the fullness of God and the immanent Trinity lies beyond our comprehension, but through revelation, properly understood with realization that human terms are being used to discuss that which is not human, we receive a truth of God which is to be believed. The term Son is used because of the way fathers and sons were, as we said above, to be understood where the son imitates or imagines the image found in the father, Peter Lombard put it succinctly: “That is why the one and only-begotten of God is called son by nature, because he is of the same nature and is the same nature of the Father.”[4] Thus, we must not see the terms as indicating the Father and Son are father and son in a human fashion (such as being masculine in nature), but rather, representative of the personal relations which exists the Godhead:

As we said above, so now we repeat, that the divine generation must not be compared to the nature of men, nor the Son considered to be part of God, nor the generation to imply any passion whatever; God is not as man; for men beget passibly, having a transitive nature, which waits for periods by reason of its weakness. But with God this cannot be; for He is not composed of parts, but being impassible and simple, He is impassibly and indivisibly Father of the Son. This again is strongly evidenced and proved by divine Scripture. For the Word of God is His Son, and the Son is the Father’s Word and Wisdom; and Word and Wisdom is neither creature nor part of Him whose Word He is, nor an offspring passibly begotten. Uniting then the two titles, Scripture speaks of ‘Son,’ in order to herald the natural and true offspring of His essence; and, on the other hand, that none may think of the Offspring humanly, while signifying His essence, it also calls Him Word, Wisdom, and Radiance; to teach us that the generation was impassible, and eternal, and worthy of God.[5]

Pseudo-Dionysius, therefore, explained that the terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit are legitimate, so long as we understand them to being used for symbolic theology:

In my Theological Representations, I have praised the notions which are most appropriate for affirmative theology. I have shown the sense in which the divine and good nature is said to be one and triune, how Fatherhood and Sonship are predicated of it, the meaning of the theology of the Spirit, how the core lights of goodness grew from the incorporeal and indivisible good, and how in their sprouting they remained inseparable from their co-eternal foundation in it, in themselves, and in each other.[6]

As long as we misunderstand the proper application of the words, and try to absolutize the conventions, we will confuse their meaning and misconstrue their symbolic value. We might begin to think God is gendered, and because they seem to be masculine terms, to say God is male because of them. This, however, is far from what is meant. We must understand, the symbolic language, while pointing to the truth, points to a truth which transcends the words themselves, and once we try to affirm the words as absolutes and confine the Godhead to those absolutes, we end of demolishing the Godhead. This is why we must end up denying them:

It cannot be grasped by understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor it is a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings to not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth – it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial. [7]

St. Albert the Great, reflecting on what Pseudo-Dionysius wrote in his Mystical Theology, understood that it was a denial of the constraints which our words put on God through the concepts which they bring to our imagination; to deny fatherhood and sonship in God is to remind us that to speak of the Father and Son is not to think of the terms following human fatherhood and sonship:

But the way in which we use these words to mean something is more truly applicable to creatures, and it is in this sense that they are foreign to God, because we attach names to things in accordance to our conception we have of things in our mind. As Damascene says, words announce our understanding. But our knowledge derives from things and so the meaning of our words follow the nature of things from which our knowledge is taken, with all the complexity and temporality and other limiting factors which that involves. This is why he says that although all fatherhood derives from the Father in heaven, nevertheless the word ‘father’ is more familiar to us as meaning our kind of fatherhood. [8]

Likewise, Marsilio Ficino,  in his excellent commentary on The Mystical Theology, reminded us that the greater wisdom and truth we open ourselves up to, the more we will see how sublime the truth of God is and how far away we are from it; angels, whose intellects are greater than us, cannot comprehend God, so we should not expect to do so with our words:

After this, Dionysius denies certain absolute titles which commonly seem to be worthy of God, when he comes to the title ‘truth’ and to other similar titles. Finally, he does away with human notions about the respects in which the Divine Persons are distinguished among themselves. For such notions are [merely] intelligible rather than divine and are conceived only in the degree to which they can be captured by our [human] understanding. And as to all the notions that the highest angels have naturally conceived, and more sublimely so, they [too] are inferior to God. [9]

It should be obvious that the Father is not like human fathers, for the Father generates the Son in a way which is not human; the Father begets and gives birth, the Father, therefore, represents fathers and is the foundation for fathers, but also the Father represents mothers and is the foundation for motherhood as well. The Son is Begotten, not made, born of the Father in an eternal birth, a birth which has no beginning nor end. The Father is eternally birthing the Son, eternally establishing maternity in generating the Son. In this fashion, the words of Hugh of St Victor are invaluable:

Wisdom was always from Him, because He gave birth to the Wisdom that He had. Wisdom was always with Him, because once born He did not separate Himself from the one who bore Him. He is always born and is always being born, neither beginning to be when He is born, nor ceasing to be born after He has been born. He is always being born because He is eternal; He is always born because He is perfect. Hence, there is one who gives birth and one who is born. The one who gives birth is the Father; the one who is born is the Son. Because the one who has given birth has always given birth, He is the eternal Father. Because the one who has been born has always been born, He is the coeternal Son of the Father.[10]

The terms Father and Son, therefore, must not be seen or understood as if we are speaking of them in any gendered fashion; the Father would not be able to be said to give birth to the Son if we understood the Father purely in a masculine fashion. The terms are valid, when understood properly, but they become false and lead to error, like they did with Arius, when the symbolic aspect of them is lost. Symbols are valid, for, as Henry of Ghent recognized, “For there is no reality in creatures that is not in some likeness of that which is in the creator, although it is unlike in much.” [11] The dissimilarity is what is lost when symbols are read as absolutes instead of conventions, and with it, God is lost for God is no longer the incomprehensible God which cannot be spoken, but rather, becomes the God derived from human speech. It becomes even worse if we try to invoke what we understand from the persons to the nature of Godhood itself. For then the persons would and there would be nothing left to differentiate them, as Boethius understood:

Now if the Persons are separate, while the substance is undivided, it must needs be that the term which is derived from Persons does not belong to Substance. But the diversity of Persons makes the Trinity, wherefore Trinity does not belong to substance. Hence not even Trinity is predicated substantially of God; for the Father is not Trinity –since he who is Father is not the Son and Holy Spirit – nor yet, by parity of reasoning, is the Son Trinity nor the Holy Spirit Trinity, but the Trinity consists in plurality of Persons, the unity in simplicity of substance.[12]

Thus, when some not only misconstrue the Father, thinking he is like a human male, but try to use that as a way to suggest God is to be seen as pure masculinity, they have made a rather erroneous argument, abandoning reason for the sake of an ideology. For, it is as if they believe, like Richard of St. Victor, that they have to say this because they believe men are “more worthy” than women:

One ought to note that there are two sexes in human nature, and, for that reason, the terms of relationship are varied according to differences in gender. We call the parent in one gender ‘father’ and in the other gender ‘mother.’ We call the child in one gender ‘son’ and in the other gender ‘daughter.’ However, as all of us together know, there is absolutely no gender in the divine nature.  It was appropriate for the terms of relationship to be transferred from the gender that is known to be more worthy to that being who is most worthy of all. Therefore, you see how conventional language has properly maintained that one of the two persons is in Trinity is called ‘Father,’ and the other is called ‘Son.’[13]

In Richards time, his explanation for the convention came out of an erroneous and deplorable understanding of the sexes; and yet he at least understood the application was conventional at best, and that we should not use it to ascribe gender, masculinity, to God. To do so would misconstrue God, establishing God fully in the image of man, explaining how and why so many would reject such a God and declare themselves to be atheist. Atheists are right to protest, for by doing so, they can remind Christians what they have forgotten and so refine their notions of God.  We must let God be God, a God who reveals the truth, who is not contained by any human conception,  and yet is capable of being represented by both masculine and feminine imagery. This is the God Christians proclaim, the God who is worthy of all our love.


[Image=Shield of The Trinity on the ceiling of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin; photograph  byAndreas F. Borchert [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (, CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons]


[1] St. Athanasius, “Discourse One Against the Arians” in NPNF2(4):319

[2] Novatian, despite his later schism with Rome, was seen as a great representative of the developing Trinitarian theology which was being used to explain the Christian faith. He was one of the first, if not the first, Romans to write theology in Latin, and so it was because of his great genius and theological acumen, demonstrated early on in his career, his schism caused a great scandal to the church. Nonetheless, as his work on the Trinity is influential and significant in the history of theology, its themes and ideas are taken in and developed and accepted by later theologians. Thus, after explaining in the sixth chapter of his The Trinity how we can understand bodily symbolism for God, he then goes further and suggests that even the notion of God being a Spirit is itself a concept which is less than who and what God is in himself.  Jesus, he said, reasoned with us in the best possible fashion, using words which help us acknowledge God, but we must always keep in mind they are limited in how they can represent the transcendent God: “When Our Lord affirms that God is Spirit I think that Christ spoke thus about the Father because He wanted to imply that something more is to be understood than merely God is spirit. Although He reasons with men in His Gospel in order to better their understanding, nevertheless, even He speaks to men about God only in a manner that they can perceive or grasp at the time. As we have said, he endeavors to broaden their religious conceptions and bring them to an acknowledgement  of God,” in Novatian, “The Trinity”in Novatian: The Writings. trans. Russell J DeSimone, OSA (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 974), 37. In this fashion, by saying God is a Spirit, we must understand we say it to posit God’s greatness, but yet God transcends what we mean by such, even if the term itself is used to help us know and understand bodily representations of God are not to be taken literally.

[3] St. Athanasius, “De Decretis” in NPNF2(4): 166.

[4] Peter Lombard, The Sentences: Book I: The Mystery of the Trinity. Trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2007), 39 [I-v.3].

[5] St. Athanasius, “Discourse One Against the Arians” in NPNF2(4):322-23.

[6] Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Mystical Theology” in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 138-9.

[7] Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Mystical Theology,” 141.

[8] St. Albert the Great, “Dionysius’ Mystical Theology” in Albert & Thomas: Selected Writings. trans. Simon Tugwell, OP (New York: Paulist Press,1988), 193.

[9]Marsilio Ficino, On Dionysius the Areopagite. Volume I. Mystical Theology and The Divine Names, Part I. ed. and trans. Michael J.B. Allen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 81.

[10] Hugh of St. Victor, “On The Three Days” in Victorine Texts in Translation: Trinity and Creation. Ed. Boyd Taylor Coolman and Dale M. Coulter (Hyde Park: NY: New City Press, 2011), 86.

[11] Henry of Ghent, Summa of Ordinary Questions: Articles Thirty-One and Thirty-Two On God’s Eternity  & The Divine Attributes in General. Trans. Roland J Teske, SJ (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2012), 59. [32-2]

[12] Boethius, “Whether Father, Son and Holy Spirit are Substantially Predicated of the Divinity” in Boethius: The Theological Tracts; Consolation of Philosophy. trans. H.F. Stewart, E.K. Rand and S. J. Tester (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 37.

[13] Richard of St. Victor, On the Trinity in Victorine Texts in Translation: Trinity and Creation. Ed. Boyd Taylor Coolman and Dale M. Coulter (Hyde Park: NY: New City Press, 2011), 322.


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