I first met Dr. Jackson Lashier when we were both seminary students. Unlike many of the students who were pursuing degrees to become local church pastors, he and I found ourselves in many of the same classes as we worked toward degrees that prepared us for ministries in academic contexts. At the time, I knew him to be thoughtful, bright, and adept in handling resources that sometimes felt remote across the vast stretches of centuries and also abstract in their presentation of concepts. For pastors or academics or laypeople, the combination of remote and abstract can seem forbidding; but Jackson’s strengths lend themselves to bringing the remote and abstract both near and accessible. He’s the kind of person who comes to mind when you want to talk about the language we use when we talk about God . How we speak about God matters, and his point of view and expertise are valuable resources in exploring why we speak about God, and how.
Jackson is now a theology professor; he is also a John Wesley Fellow, about which you can read more at A Foundation for Theological Education, here. He has a passion for connecting the historic doctrines of the church to everyday lives of Christians (see his short video on “Why Church History Matters for Discipleship”) and authored Irenaeus on the Trinity and numerous scholarly articles. Currently, he is Associate Professor of Religion and Chair of the Social Science Division at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas.
Initially we began this discussion before the pandemic hit, and I appreciate his sustained efforts through that upheaval. It’s a gift to welcome his insight today.
Elizabeth Glass Turner, Managing Editor
Wesleyan Accent: So – Americans talk about God, or describe God, in a lot of different ways. American Christians often share some commonality in the language we use about God, but even within Christianity there can be different emphases or language employed. Is there any point in trying to use common language about God, or does it matter how we speak about God? If so, why?
Dr. Jackson Lashier: I think the language we use when speaking about God or to God matters greatly. First, it reflects our beliefs about God. So to call God gracious or loving or simple or immutable or Father, to name a few common examples, is to reveal convictions about the nature of the particular God we worship that cannot be implied from the word “God” alone. Second, and related to this, when used in the liturgy or in a common place of worship, our language proclaims a shared understanding that both unifies us as the Church and marks us off from communities of other faiths.
Now, having a common language of God does not mean we must have a uniform language of God. So many times I hear in public prayer people using the same title or titles of God over and over again (“Father God,” for example, seems really popular among American evangelicals). There is nothing necessarily wrong with repeating the same titles, but this practice fails to engage the vast treasure of names and language for God provided for us by Scripture and tradition. Using names for God that we are not familiar with helps open our minds to other aspects of God’s nature that we can praise and think creatively about.
WA: In systematic theology classes, students delve into Trinitarian theology – that God is three in one, not just one God with three masks or not three Gods who are best friends. God is three persons, and often we use personal, relational language to attempt to convey that – language that is found in Scripture: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet Christians have also classically believed that God is spirit, which gives a different understanding of God than may be implied in the Trinitarian language which is exclusively male. Why might it be important to remember that Christians classically haven’t affirmed belief in what Marge Simpson called “Mr. Lord” or the common phrase “the old man in the sky”?
JL: I like your images, particularly the Marge Simpson reference, and I agree with you that assumptions that God is inherently male, even when we say otherwise with our qualifications, is a problem and skews our understanding of the nature of God. Because God is absolutely unique, completely unlike anything in creation (according to the basic distinction that God is the eternal Creator and everything else is contingent creation), our human language – even language used by Scripture – always falls short of fully encapsulating God.
Theological language is, as Thomas Aquinas taught, “analogical.” That is, it refers to God only by way of analogy. This is easy to grasp when we call God “a rock” or something of that sort, but it even holds true when we say that God is love. When we say that God is love, we mean that God is in some way like our human concept of love even though the love that is God’s nature transcends even the highest human examples of love. The analogical nature of our God language is crucial to keep us from bringing God to our human level and thereby to falsely and somewhat idolatrously assume the ability to completely know God in human terms.
This subject bears directly on the question of gendered language for God and male images of God that we seem to hold de facto. The Scriptures and the majority of church tradition use male titles for God (primarily Father and Son) as well as male pronouns for God. If we keep the analogical nature of theological language in mind, we can affirm that these male titles and pronouns demonstrate God’s personal and relational language (God is “Father” and “he” as opposed to an “it”). Yet we can affirm these titles without falling into the mistake of thinking that God is literally male. If we think that God is literally a male, we have failed to honor the transcendent nature of God, which, as your question rightly expressed, is affirmed in the Scriptural teaching that God is spirit.
WA: Some Christians seem to think, however, that in the Incarnation God becomes a man and so that affirms the inherent maleness of God and justifies our exclusive use of masculine titles and imagery. Does your argument here implicitly deny the reality of the Incarnation?
JL: Not at all. It is absolutely true, both historically and theologically, that at some point in history, God entered human experience and was born a man, Jesus of Nazareth. But to conclude from this that, as a whole, God is male, is to be extremely confused on our Trinitarian language. Scripture affirms not that God in total becomes human but that the Word or the Son (who the tradition will come to refer to as the Second Person) becomes truly human. The Father and the Spirit (who the tradition will come to refer to as the First and Third Persons) remain spirit, as you noted in a previous question. Moreover, the orthodox teaching of hypostatic union states clearly that Jesus’ human and divine natures exist in perfect union though remain unconfused and unmixed (indeed, certain authors like Julian of Norwich will refer to the Son as our Mother). So the incarnation in no way compels us to think of God as male. At the same time, we do not have to somehow deny the historical reality of the maleness of Jesus for fear of that reality making God male.
The path forward, then, is to remember the central teaching of the Trinity. It is not that God is male. It is that God is relational in God’s essence.
WA: Your use of the title “Mother” for the Son may sound odd to our modern ears. Despite numerous examples of very maternal, female imagery of God throughout Scripture, many Christians might think it arises from a theology of the Divine Feminine that isn’t rooted in classic Trinitarian theology. How can we walk a path in which we celebrate shared belief in the Trinity and value the Trinitarian formula – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – while affirming that while Jesus Christ experienced humanity in a male body, the Trinity is not inherently or eternally male?
JL: I think you’re right that many Christians have an immediate aversion to feminine language. I doubt whether there is a good reason behind it so much as the cumulative effect of using exclusively male language and thinking of God in exclusively male images. Indeed, it so forms our thinking about God that we cannot even recognize the many feminine images of God in Scripture —the mother hen, the woman who sweeps her floor looking for a coin, to name a couple off the top of my head. (Sometimes these images are wrongly dismissed by people who argue that God is not being “called” a feminine name [as God is called “Father”] but only compared to a feminine image; this argument makes no sense if we remember that all language and titles of God are analogical.) So for these reasons, we must reject the exclusive use of male imagery and language for God. However, for these same reasons, it is also insufficient to simply switch to using exclusively feminine language as I’ve seen some theologians and churches doing. Scripture reveals, and the tradition draws this out, that the transcendent and unique nature of God is neither male nor female but encompasses both male and female.
The path forward, then, is to remember the central teaching of the Trinity. It is not that God is male. It is that God is relational in God’s essence. Thus, God’s one nature is actually constituted by three “relations” or “persons.” This makes God eminently personable and that reality is more clearly expressed in relational titles like “Father” and “Son” than it is in titles like “spirit.” But “Mother,” for example, is also a relational name. And so I believe, along with Julian (and Gregory of Nazianzus and other Orthodox writers) that this title and other feminine titles can be used without sacrificing Trinitarian teaching in any way. Indeed, as I’ve argued elsewhere in print, I think “Mother” more faithfully retains the central Trinitarian realities than does reverting to “Creator,” “Redeemer,” and “Sustainer” often used today.
Of course pragmatically any new introduction of unfamiliar titles and imagery of God should be paired with preparation and teaching, so that congregations understand where they come from. But having said that, the use of titles like “Father” and male pronouns should also be explained better.
WA: You mention titles like Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer – in terms of how we speak about God, a popular means of representing the Trinitarian formula without relying on gendered titles. However, it seems that this formula reduces the persons of the Trinity from Scriptural ways in which they relate – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – to function, and what humanity experiences them doing. Is affirming personhood of “God in three persons, blessed Trinity” more essential than reconfiguring gender-specific language for the persons of the Trinity, even if that language had its origin in patriarchal societies?
JL: I believe in altering our language, attempts that guard against the misguided conclusion that God is literally male are admirable and needed. Nevertheless, I would answer yes to your question about this recent attempt. The formula “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” is simply an insufficient Trinitarian formula as it removes any inherent relational connection among the three persons that is the basis in traditional Trinitarian theology for maintaining the Oneness of the Three. Effectively, this formula implies a worship of three gods. Or, alternatively, the formula could be taken in a modalist sense, which means that the one God at one time creates, at another time redeems, and at still another time sustains. But here again, there is no eternal relation of persons. So, both conceptions are not fully Trinitarian. As I mentioned before, it is for this reason that I am much more comfortable with “Mother” language of the Divine because it maintains the essentially relational character of the Triune God. And while the tradition creatively engages such feminine language, it uniformly rejects such modalist or tri-theistic formulas.
Perhaps the most important principle is creativity with the wealth of images in Scripture. Encourage yourself to think of God using different images.
WA: I’ve heard some theologians and pastors refer to the Holy Spirit as the “she” within the Trinity. What are your thoughts about this approach?
JL: Honestly, I don’t like it very much. For one thing, it seems to render the feminine aspect of God as secondary: masculine images still outnumber feminine images 2-1, so it seems to me there is not much to gain by this approach. But more problematically, this approach assumes that the persons of the Trinity are literally gendered. So it could be thought that Father and Son are literal male members of the Trinity, and Spirit—by virtue of not having a masculine title—is the female member of the Trinity. As we have discussed, all persons of the Trinity are fully God and together they are one God.
WA: If in God’s infinite transcendence as Creator, the nature of God encompasses male and female, then this impacts our understanding of what it means to be human, yes?
JL: So many implications. First and foremost is the question of the image of God as reflected in humanity. Genesis 1:27 clearly states that male and female are together created in the image of God. Because of the Adam and Eve story of Genesis 2, however, this primary anthropological teaching is often missed; some assume that only the man is created in the image of God, which of course undergirds all sorts of problematic teachings related to hierarchies in marriage and ministry. But male and female together created in the image of God makes sense if we think about God in the ways we have been discussing. It means that they are equal and that they need each other to fully reflect the image of God. This truth, it seems to me, grounds an egalitarian view of marriage and the full participation of women in ministry. Another implication is that humans are inherently communal creatures. This does not mean, of course, that everyone needs to be married; it does mean that everyone needs to be in human community to realize fully who they were created to be. We can’t be good disciples and be solitary.
WA: Pragmatically, I’m reminded of a time I read a description of someone’s expectation that God’s voice would sound like Morgan Freeman or Sean Connery. Both made me smile, yet I was startled by my internal response: what if God’s voice sounded like Cate Blanchett’s character, Galadriel? This funny, simple thought reminded me of the importance of how we conceive of God when we pray. What are some important principles that should shape our imagination when we pray or talk to God?
JL: This is such an important question and really gets at the heart of what is at stake in this question. It is clear that if we reduce our images to masculine ones, then we will likely fall into the trap of thinking of God as male. Perhaps the most important principle is creativity with the wealth of images in Scripture. Encourage yourself to think of God using different images. At one point, imagine God as the Father of the prodigal son running to embrace you. At another time, imagine God as the mother hen who enfolds you in her wings.
The great monastic theologian, Dionysius the Areopagite, encouraged his readers to focus their imaginations on comparisons of God to inanimate objects precisely because there is less danger mistakenly thinking that God is literally a rock, for example, than there in thinking God is literally a Father. Ultimately, every Christian must explore images that resonate. But in general, Scripture and tradition allow for more freedom and creativity here then people often allow themselves.
WA: When it comes to drawing from Scripture and tradition, do you think people of faith can affirm the value of believing that God – out of the Divine nature of holy love – really reveals the very real, actual nature of God? That our language isn’t just a Rorschach test in which we make God everything we think God should look like? At the same time, is there space to acknowledge that sometimes we think about God or speak about God in ways that are incomplete or less rich than they might be?
JL: Great questions that have been wrestled with for centuries. I agree there is a danger here, which is why I think we are wise in our creative imaginings to remain within the range of images provided by Scripture and developed by tradition. Thankfully, there is more than enough there to occupy our imagination in prayer and worship; we have just scratched the surface in our engagement with these treasures.
In answering your broader question about the tension between knowing the revealed God vs the mystery of God, I follow the Western tradition as represented by Thomas Aquinas, as opposed to the Eastern tradition as represented by Dionysius or, more recently, theologians like Vladimir Lossky. The Eastern tradition has generally said that God in God’s essence is unknowable, so the only way we can really speak of God is to say what God is not. This is the so-called “negative” approach or apophatic theology. From it we have derived such important concepts as God’s eternality (God is not limited by time boundaries), God’s simplicity (God does not have parts), and God’s immutability (God is not changeable). I understand the impetus behind this apophatic tradition and see its value, though I move away from it precisely because of your point that God has revealed Godself to us.
The Western tradition has generally been more positive in its approach, so-called cataphatic theology. It affirms that we can speak of God positively, such that when we say God is good or God is love or God is Father, we mean something like what we know of as “good” or as “love” or as a good “father.” Personally, this way helps me connect better with God through prayer and thought. It seems consistent with the Incarnate movement of God to bring Godself to our level.
Yet as we mentioned in our discussion of analogical language, even this way of doing theology insists that we cannot fully know the essence of God: God is infinitely more loving and more good than even our highest human notions. So while we can know God truly and authentically through God’s revelation to us in Christ and as recorded by Holy Scripture, we can never know God fully and comprehensively. Incidentally, this means that eternal life will be spent growing deeper and deeper into the knowledge of God’s essence. I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot more compelling then singing “Open the Eyes of My Heart Lord” over and over for eternity!