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.