The Trinitarian formula “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” has been around for some time, but seems now to be gaining traction as an appropriate, liturgical form of prayer to the Triune God. One can understand and appreciate the motivation of this movement. The traditional Trinitarian formula “Father, Son, Spirit” employs gendered language of a God who cannot be defined by or limited to such human concepts. While the traditional formula is not literal, the formative power of language, as Elizabeth Johnson has argued, cannot help but relentlessly reinforce the idea that God is a man. At its best, then, the alternative Trinitarian formula “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” works against this erroneous implication of the traditional formula and underscores the analogical nature of our theological language.
With that said, however, “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” is an inadequate Trinitarian formula that should never be used in the liturgy.
This is not because, as is often argued, the alternative formula rejects the scriptural terms “Father, Son, Spirit.” Mere presence in Scripture has never been the standard by which the orthodoxy of theological terms is determined; the homoousios of traditional Trinitarian theology is not a scriptural term after all and, in any case, “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” are indeed scriptural terms. Nor is this alternative formula to be rejected because “Father, Son, and Spirit” somehow provide a more intimate or essential understanding of God’s nature. The great eastern tradition reminds us that none of God’s names (whether “Father” or “Creator”) reveals the essence of God, which always remains a mystery in its transcendence. Rather, the problem with the alternative Trinitarian formula is that it rejects the logic by which the early church came to see how the God revealed in Christ is three in person but only one in essence.
Thus, the formula “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” must be rejected because it professes belief not in the one, Triune God but in three separate gods.
The traditional logic is lost in the alternative formula in two ways. First, “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” names three divine actors who, while seemingly aligned in similar purposes, actually lack any intrinsic reference to one another that would necessitate divine unity. Indeed, the connection among the divine actors in this formula is akin to that shared by the Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, which is to say, a pantheon. Conversely, “Father, Son, Spirit” expresses the key Trinitarian insight that the divine persons are relations and thus exist in an intimate communion whereby one can only be known in relation to the others. “No one knows the Father except the Son,” Jesus said. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” he says, “[because] I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (Matt 11:27; John 14:9-10).
Scripture reveals that Father and Son exist in a mutually indwelling relationship and, as Augustine famously reasoned, the mutual love shared by them is the Holy Spirit. For this reason, feminine language, such as “Mother,” would be perfectly appropriate for liturgical use because it maintains the intrinsic relations, and thus the unity, of the three divine persons. (Not to mention, the use of feminine language of God has a venerable tradition in Christian theology.)
A second way the logic of traditional, Trinitarian theology is lost in the alternative formula focuses on the divine works themselves. “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” names three loosely related actors, but, even more problematically, it assumes that the Father creates, the Son redeems, and the Spirit sustains. Traditional Trinitarian theology rejects such a classification of the divine works. Rather, all three persons are together involved in every divine work. Irenaeus, for example, noted their cooperation, such that the distinct works of each are essential to the completion of every divine action. Augustine said that one divine person can never be imagined without the other two. Clearest of all is Gregory of Nyssa, who insisted that the three divine persons do not work separately but share only one power. “Every operation that extends from God to the Creation,” he writes, “has its origin from the Father, and proceeds through the Son, and is perfected in the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the unity of operation is what demonstrates the unity of essence.
This theology is, again, in keeping with the witness of scripture. God the Father creates through the Word (John 1:3; Col 1:16) with the Spirit hovering over the waters (Gen 1:2; Prov 8). The Son is sent by the Father (John 3:16) in the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35; 3:21-22), and the Father is with the Son, even on the cross, reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19). In our own lives, having been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are now being sanctified by the presence of the Spirit in our hearts, who forms us in the image of the Son to the glory of the Father.
Those who advocate for the alternative, Trinitarian formula “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” are to be commended for rightly alerting the church to the reality that the language we use for God matters as it reinforces the ways in which God is imaged and understood. Moreover, facile arguments that the traditional language must be maintained because they are somehow more scriptural or more essential only further their case because these arguments, more often than not, turn out to be thin veneers for an essentially masculine conception of God. Yet, precisely because our language matters, the alternative formula “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” must also be rejected. Having obscured both the intrinsic relations existing among the three persons and the unity of work that is shared among them, this alternate formula necessarily forms in the church’s mind a conception of the divine nature, not as the blessed Trinity, but as a pantheon of gods unknown to Scripture or Christian tradition.