For Christmas this year, I got Andrei Rublev’s Trinity icon. It is the most beautiful picture of God that I’ve ever seen. Each member of the Trinity is enraptured with the other two in a gaze of sweet, gentle love. The figures are much too genderqueer and homoerotic for conservative evangelical sensibilities. But there’s nothing unorthodox about it. This is what a Trinity of love looks like (at least with Russian skin). Looking at this icon, it’s hard to understand why anybody would ever call God a “he” when God is so clearly a “they.” (Thanks to my seminary friend Ruthan Freese for raising this issue in a recent facebook post.)
Over the last couple of months, as dozens of bloggers have asked whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, the most honest answer has been both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that there is only one God in the universe. No, in the sense that Muslims believe that God is a he, while Christians believe that God is a they. Obviously that’s an oversimplification. Christians live in the tension of being both monotheistic and trinitarian. But it is ironic that the same Christians who insist that Muslims cannot possibly be worshiping the same God because our God is Trinity are also the ones who raise the loudest objections when God is given any pronoun other than he.
Why do we call God “He”? Because the Bible does. But it’s also true that everywhere the Bible refers to God as a he, it’s referring to the first person of the Trinity, God the Father, and not the whole Trinity. If one were to follow the Bible alone without any creeds or derivative doctrine, then God would refer solely to God the Father who has a less-than-fully-divine son Jesus and manifests himself in the world through a holy spirit, which is more like an alter-ego than a separate person. This is what the heretical 3rd century bishop Arius insisted, and it seems like the most straightforward reading of the Biblical text. The Christian doctrine that proclaims every member of the Trinity fully and equally divine is simply not self-evident from the Biblical text.
Every place that the Bible calls God a “he” would have been good supporting evidence against the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea where Arius was condemned and the Trinity was formulated decisively. Though the New Testament has references to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, nothing explicitly establishes the full divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit (though John 1 refers to a “Word” that “was with God” and “was God”). All three persons of the Trinity are present in the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:9-11) through the voice in the clouds, the dove that descends, and Jesus himself, but there is nothing in that story that explicitly makes the dove and the man being baptized equally divine with the voice in the clouds.
It was derivative theological concerns that compelled the council of Nicaea to declare that God is three persons (hypostases) with the same essence (homoousia). We can read the fully, equally divine Trinity into the Biblical text, but we could not conclusively prove that God is Trinity based on the text alone. Jesus after all rebukes a man who calls him good, saying, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18). If Jesus is God, then why does he object to being called good? Likewise, why does Jesus tell Mary Magdalene after his resurrection in John 20:17 that he is ascending to “my God and your God” if he himself is fully God? And if Jesus, being God, is fully eternal and not a created being, then why does Colossians 1:15 call him the “firstborn of all creation”?
Most American Christians who call God “He” are doing so as part of a heretical understanding that only the Father is truly God, while the son and the holy spirit are less than fully divine. Christians today are basically Arians at the grassroots level. We teach our children that Jesus is the son of God when we should be teaching them that Jesus is God the Son. John 1:18 is the only place that refers to Jesus as God the Son: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
John 1:18 should be the most awkward verse in the Bible for a Biblical inerrantist. Because it plainly says that something is less than perfectly true about every testimony of divine revelation prior to Christ. According to the Old Testament, God was “seen” by a number of patriarchs and prophets, such as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Isaiah. So when John says, “No one has ever seen God,” what’s he saying about the patriarchs and prophets? We can blithely wave away the concern and declare without any justification that John cannot be talking about those other stories. Or we can live with the fact that the Bible isn’t a flat, seamless, univocal document. It’s a messy, fragmented text in which the definitive Christian doctrine of the Trinity is almost completely absent from the Old Testament and not directly self-evident from the New Testament.
In any case, calling God “they” instead of “he” would force us to acknowledge the awkwardness of the Trinitarian paradox in which we supposedly believe. We would have to explain to our children the strangeness that God is both a singular and plural noun at the same time. And it would also muddy the waters regarding God’s gender. We call the first person of the Trinity God the Father because that’s the word Jesus uses and because Mary is the human mother of God the Son. But that doesn’t make God a male. God is not one person, but the love that radiates between three persons. I agree that one should not whimsically discard millennia of church tradition, but that’s not a reason to dismiss out of hand the argument for calling God “they.”