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In his explanation of the term "Son", which is also a term often considered non-inclusive in our era, Gregory of Nyssa reiterates that this also is a precise theological term leading one to the inner relationships of the Godhead. It has primacy over other scriptural terms. He says:

"While the names which Scripture applies to the Only-begotten are many, we assert that none of the other names is closely connected with reference to him that begot him, for we do not employ the name ‘Rock’ or ‘Resurrection’ or Shepherd’ or ‘Light’ or any of the rest, as we do the name ‘Son of the Father’, with a reference to the God of all. It is possible to make a twofold division of the signification of the divine names, as it were, by a scientific rule: for to one class belongs the indication of his lofty and unspeakable glory; the other class indicates the variety of providential dispensation" (Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book).

All sorts of epithets for God are available to man through revelation–goodness, love, mother, fire. But none of these is exchangeable or comparable to the revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These are the terms by which man enters trinitarian life to discover the unique Persons of the Trinity and their distinguishable marks.

The traditional trinitarian terms arc precise theological terms, not easily exchangeable for any others. They lead us to the Persons of the Trinity, as well as defining relationships between them. To be unbegotten, begotten, and in procession are characteristics of the Persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Paternity, generation, and procession are the unique marks of the respective Persons.


What about the feminist allegation that the traditional doxology is the product of a patriarchal structure, of a "male" theology? Did the patristic writers harbor animosity toward women or femininity? Did they use masculine terms for God, the source of all life, because they mistakenly thought that human fathers are the sole source of human life? Indeed, the opposite appears to be true.

First, some women did have opportunities to express their understanding of the Godhead. Macrina, elder sister of two of the greatest theologians of the fourth century) Basil the Great and the aforementioned Gregory of Nyssa, was referred to by her brothers as the "teacher". It was she who raised them in the Faith and instructed them in the theology of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. She defended these titles as revelations recorded in Scripture (A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. second series, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Vol. 5: Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, etc, [Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1892], pp. I6).

Likewise, Nina, the evangelizer of the Georgians, converted that nation by her teaching of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Trinity-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. She did so by her own will; she was not commissioned by the bishops (Lives and Legends of Georgian Saints, by David Marshall Long [Crestwood, N.Y.: SVS Press, 1956], pp. 13-39)


Second, the most accurate way to describe the Church Fathers’ attitude toward women would not be animosity but ambivalence. One can indeed find passages in their writings deriding women for their weak wills and for leading the human race into sin (John Chrysostom writes that "the woman taught once and ruined all"). But one also finds Passages extolling women for being of great character and teaching the gospel better than men. Gregory of Nazianzen, in writing of his parents, explains that his father’s virtue was "the result of his wife’s prayers and guidance, and it was from her that he learned his ideal of a good shepherd’s life.... They [his parents] have been rightly assigned, each to either sex; he is the ornament of men, she of women, and not only the ornament but the pattern of virtue" (Funeral Oration on His Sister Gorgonia).

Jerome says his reader may laugh at him for so often "dwelling on the praises of mere women. . ., [but] we judge of people’s virtue not by their sex but by their character and hold those to be of the highest glory who have renounced both rank and wealth" (Letter 127, To Principia).

It must also be noted that ‘in several instances the Church was much fairer toward women than the surrounding culture. Gregory of Nazianzen exemplified this by upbraiding the men of his flock in regard to a civil law which meted out strict punishment for wives committing adultery but disregarded husbands committing the same crime: "[Let me discuss] chastity, in respect of which I see that the majority of men are ill-disposed and that their laws are unequal and irregular. For what was the reason why they restrained the woman but indulged the man, and why a woman who practices evil against her husband’s bed is an adultress (and the legal penalties for this are very severe), but if a husband commits fornication against his wife, he has not account to give? I do not accept this legislation; I do not approve this custom. Those who made the law were men, and therefore the legislation is hard on women" (On the Words of the Gospel).

Fourth, it appears that it was not unknown to the leaders of the fourth-century Church that mothers as well as fathers contributed as sources to the making of a child. John Chrysostom wrote:

"A man leaving them that begat him, and from whom he was born , is knit to his wife. And then the one flesh is, father and mother, and the child from the substance of the two commingled. For indeed, by the commingling of their seeds the child is produced" (Homily 20, On Ephesians 5:31).

Yet, even with this knowledge of mothers and fathers both acting as "sources" in the life process, the Church insisted on using the exclusive term "Father" for God.


Perhaps even more interesting, patristic writers never excluded the ideas that women were made in the image of God or that human femininity had some relationship to God. In many texts, there appears the idea that women, with their femininity, are closely associated with the Person of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s mode of life. In the patristic period, the Fathers compared the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father with the "procession" of Eve from Adam.

Later, in the seventh century, Anastasius of Sinai wrote: "Eve, who proceeded from Adam, signifies the proceeding Person of the Holy Spirit. This is why God did not breathe in her the breath of life; she was already the type of the breathing and life of the Holy Spirit" (On the Image and Likeness). Especially in Syriac hymnody, the association between human femininity and the mode of existence of the Holy Spirit was stressed. Therefore, the "masculine" terms used in the trinitarian names are not the result of disdain for the feminine.

With this evidence, it is clear that the patristic writers were interested in preserving the scriptural terms of "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" as revelations from God rather than reflections of patriarchal culture. This is evident from their frequent appeals to Scripture for the bases of their arguments.


In view of this historical background, it appears the arguments supporting "non-exclusive" language changes for God arc untenable–incompatible with Scripture, apostolic teachings, and Christian experience. Against the historical backdrop of Church life, the terms "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" appear not as exchangeable metaphors, human imaginings, or pillars of a patriarchal culture, but rather as precise terms revealed by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit and preserved in the canon of Scripture.

The challenge to Christians today compares to the challenge to Christians in the fourth century; to preserve these names as gifts from God which give us clues to his inner life, for us as adopted children through his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Read part one of "Father, Son, and Spirit—So What's In a Name?" here.

Deborah Malacky Belonick is a lay theologian who holds a master of divinity degree from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. She is the author of Feminism in Christianity: An Orthodox Christian Perspective and is a member of the Orthodox Theological Society of America. This essay first appeared in Pastoral Renewal in April 1986.

The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God

Edited by Helen Hull Hitchcock

Feminism and related ideologies have exerted unparalleled influence on organized religion--and on nearly every other aspect of Western culture–for about three decades. Nowhere is evidence of this dominant influence more obvious than in worship of the liberal mainline denominations. The transformation of the language of worship began almost imperceptibly with relatively peripheral liturgical elements, such as prayers incorporating approved feminist language and concepts, and with "corrected" lyrics to existing hymns and words of prayers.

Encountering no effective resistance to these achievements, the feminists' objective of radical destruction of "oppressive, patriarchal" religion has now accelerated into an all-out attack on the Scripture and on the core beliefs it incorporates which are common to both Christianity and Judaism--essential beliefs about the nature of God, of the nature of mankind's "imaging" of God, of the meaning of human sexuality and of the relationship of men and women with one another and with God. According to their view, the power of these teachings (the Judeo-Christian "Myth") must be destroyed--and not only destroyed, but replaced with a changeling Myth concocted to conform to their own politically charged notion of reality and presided over by a god (or goddess) of their own construction and which they claim the right to name.

So far there has been sparse and ineffective resistance to the relentless undermining of the worship of God. The contributors to this timely and critically important volume include Catholic, Protestant and Jewish believers, men and women, scripture scholars, theologians, translators, linguists, poets, clergy and laity who have in common, in addition to a shared regard for and interest in the integrity of language–an unambiguous affirmation of their religious faith, and a clear-eyed and objective view of the nature of the Cosmic War in which we are all now engaged. These essays offer important insights into the function of language and objectives of translation, as well as penetrating analysis of the effect of ideologically motivated linguistic innovations on new Scripture translations and on the worship of God.


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