During a recent interfaith lecture a mention was made of the Holy Trinity and its celebrated constituents — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. One participant asked the speaker whether these terms could be considered metaphors. The speaker coyly responded that all speech could be considered metaphor. And perhaps that is true. The word “fire” will not burn the tips of your fingers nor leave ashes scattered about your room.
All nouns are substitutes for the genuine article. And indeed the word “Father” does not do justice to the comprehensive providence of God nor does the word “Son” exhaust the total obedience of Christ, and no single word can encapsulate the height, breadth and depth of the Spirit’s expanse. Human language which fails even earthly realities certainly cannot encompass the glory of God. But then, that is why there are poets.
And yet believers should not be too quick to degrade the terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit even if one allows them to be metaphors. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not mankind’s metaphors for God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit are God’s metaphors for himself. Of all the words in humanity’s languages, of all the metaphors at God’s disposal, the three words God thought most favorable toward revealing God’s inner essence to his creatures are Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now it is certainly true that God employs a number of metaphors to reveal himself to the believing world. Shepherd, king, rock, light, breath, wind, voice and even mother hen are among the many words God employs in Scripture to open himself up to believers. But clearly Father, Son and Holy Spirit take exceeding pride of place both in Scripture and in Tradition.
The Father’s initial words during Christ’s public life, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” and Christ’s final words at the end of his public life, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” are but the brackets for many Father-Son references. The word “Father” is used by Christ some 65 times in the Synoptic Gospels and over 100 times in John’s Gospel. The very tender Aramaic word for father, “Abba,” is poignantly heard from Christ during his final agony.
The word Father certainly indicates that there is an off-spring somewhere. And the word Son certainly implies that there is a forebear. Father and Son are relational words. Unlike like King, Shepherd, or Rock, Father and Son do not stand in isolation. They demand a bond. By choosing these interpersonal and interactive words God is beginning to reveal to mankind the heart of the Trinity as an eternal relationship of communication, sharing and love. God did not favor three operational words to describe himself, like Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.
No, God choose three of the most intimate words in any language to get to the heart of the matter. God is love. The Father gives himself to the Son and the Son offers himself to the Father so perfectly that their mutual love has a personhood of its own — the Spirit. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son, the fullness of heavenly interaction, the soul of the Trinity.
God revealing Himself as a subsistent relationship, that is, a continuous, loving interchange, not only begins to lay bare who God is, but also begins to disclose who mankind is. Man is made in the image and likeness of God, the Book of Genesis famously teaches. So if God is essentially a relationship, then humanity is clearly destined for relationships. In fact men and women are most Godlike when they enter into a loving relationship with one another. “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
The family is to earth what the Trinity is to heaven. The enduring mutual love of one man and one woman open to new life is a faint glimpse of the eternal mutual love of the Father and the Son basking in the Holy Spirit. This love at the heart of God and the love at the core of mankind are never more clearly highlighted than in the first Epistle of St. John: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
Wisely does the Christian world begin and end virtually all its enterprises “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Both in heaven and on earth, the Trinity is clearly at the heart of the matter.