The Trinity: he, she or they?

I hadn’t intended this to become a series, but following my posts The Word: he, she or it? and The Holy Spirit: he, she, it or they? it is beginning to look like one. In fact this post has arisen from comments by John Richardson on the Holy Spirit post, especially this one where he wrote:

The Scriptural tendency in these circumstances is, if [Calvin] is right, to give the name of God specially to the Father. To use ‘She’ of, as you put it, “the whole Trinity”, would be a contradiction of this, and to use ‘They’ would be to suggest, as the Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses assert, that we do indeed worship three gods.

So, is John right to insist that the Trinity as a whole should not be called “She” or “They”, but should rather be referred to only as “He”?

Those people who still think grammatical gender is relevant to this discussion, like Chris Bishop commenting on John’s blog, should I think conclude that the Trinity is “She”. After all, our English word “Trinity” is derived from the grammatically feminine Latin word trinitas (and the concept was first written about explicitly in Latin, by Tertullian). The Greek word used for the Trinity, trias, not in the Bible, is also feminine. As a result in Latin and Greek, also French etc, theological works about the Trinity, including those of Calvin which John quotes in translation, I would expect to find grammatically feminine pronouns used of the Trinity. But I think it should be clear that I do not consider this a valid argument for calling the Trinity “She” in English. I leave open the question of whether “She” is any less appropriate than “He”.

But I do find objectionable John’s rejection of calling the Trinity “They”. Although as orthodox Christians we do not worship three gods, we do worship three Persons, a plurality, although those Three are of one substance etc. Why is it wrong to refer to those Three as “They”? Indeed it cannot be, for Jesus used a plural pronoun for himself and the Father even as he testified to their unity: “we are one” (John 17:22). The context of this is that Jesus is praying for those who believe in him, “that they may be one as we are one” (17:22, TNIV). So the unity within the Trinity is of the same kind as that intended for believers in the body of Christ, not a unity which erases plurality and effaces personal distinctions such as gender, but a unity which preserves but also transcends this individuality and plurality.

I note that the Athanasian Creed, in the English translation in the Book of Common Prayer also calls the members of the Trinity “They”, again while affirming their unity:

So the Father is God, the Son is God : and the Holy Ghost is God.
And yet they are not three Gods : but one God.

Therefore, I conclude that we should follow Jesus’ example as followed in the creeds of the church and use a plural pronoun, “They”, to refer to the three Persons of the Trinity together.

6 thoughts on “The Trinity: he, she or they?

  1. Although as orthodox Christians we do not worship three gods, we do worship three Persons, a plurality, although those Three are of one substance etc.

    I’m not much of a scholar, but I understand that the Latin theological term persona doesn’t carry quite the same meaning as the English word ‘person’.

  2. I come out pretty much where you do, Peter, but without the baggage of advanced education or special training.

    I do not find the concern that Muslims will pounce on a pronoun terribly persuasive, as I’m pretty sure Jews and Muslims are going to accuse us of not worshipping one God whatever choice we make on this subject.

  3. Peter,

    I have been doing a bit of research on this after the logos issue. I have found that the KJV referred to the Holy Spirit as `it` except in cases where the pronoun refers back to the Comforter. This was altered in the RSV or perhaps 1881. I forget.

    However, it is clear that the spirit was referred to grammatically as feminine in the Old Syriac and I think the conclusion is clear that Jesus must have referred to the spirit as feminine. I know that this sounds as if I got it out of some book of feminist theology, but even now I hardly ever read the theology until after I have researched the linguistic items first.

    My conclusion is that Jesus, as human was male, no controversy there. As the incarnate Word/Wisdom, the Son, either has no gender or both.

    The spirit is femninine and God is masculine – that is grammatically. Perhaps none of them should have any gender associated with them.

    I have seen that the Hebrew NT refers to the spirit as “he” but I don’t think that Jesus would have done this. Its clear that the Syriac is masculinized after the 4th century. I think a great deal of masculinization has crept into the scriptures even since the reformation, but few people seem to notice.

  4. Tim, I accept that the precise meaning of persona may be debatable. But to suggest that the three Persons are different appearances of masks, or different personalities or “personas” in the current English sense, of the same individual was rejected as a heresy by the very early church.

    Suzanne, I think I agree with you. Interesting about the Syriac masculinisation: was this of the word for “spirit” in general or of pronouns referring to the Holy Spirit? As for the Hebrew NT, is this a fairly modern American etc version which may simply have followed English usage?

  5. I thought you might be interested in learning about OUR Jewish traditions, one which has embraced the real Christ of the gospel, the Law and the prophets.

    If this doesn’t interest you, I apologize in advance.

    If you are interested let me tell you that we are the Frankist Association of America. One of our members has a new book out:

    http://www.amazon.com/Real-Messiah-Throne-Origins-Christianity/dp/1906787123/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1245892844&sr=8-1

    I am not that I am trying to sell you something. If you can’t afford the book you can see the website of one of our teachers – http://www.stephanhuller.blogspot.com.

    I just wanted to let you and the scholarly world that there have always been more than one type of Judaism in the world at any one time. Some forms of the faith had to learn to hide their beliefs in order to survive and perpetuate themselves.

    Shalom, God Bless
    Everything is perfect with God

    Beth El Jacob Frank

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