When I was at school the terms were called Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity. Trinity is the current term, a time when Christians celebrate our experience of God as Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It causes a few headaches to children because of the use of metaphor which too often is understood literally. It causes difficulty to modern Christians because although we experience God as Father, as Jesus and as Holy Spirit, the metaphor we use as shorthand was a long time in development. It is important to remember that it took its present form way back in the fourth century AD using ways of thinking central to Greek philosophy but no longer ideas we easily understand.
Since the 4th century the world has changed dramatically. Even thinking of God as the Father, which once resonated with a patriarchal society, causes difficulties for many when the shape of modern families is radically changed and women now have very different roles to play.
So we use a variety of metaphors – some Christians refer to God as Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier – God who creates, who saves us from our worst selves, and who also strengthens us in life. So we struggle to express belief in a series of changing metaphors.
Metaphors should not be expected to provide literal physical definitions. In fact we trivialise our faith if we confuse metaphor with literal understanding. Rabbi Benjamin Sylva once put it this way: “A literalist interpretation of Scripture tells us that God is a rock that sent a bird to cause a virgin to give birth ….or Moses obtained a chiselled code of conduct from a flaming shrubbery in a cloud.”
If we recall some of the metaphors in the scriptures we can see why it would be inappropriate to analyse their literal meaning too far. Some metaphors in the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures, include: a shepherd (the 23rd Psalm), a potter (Isa. 64:8), then in Psalm 18 a rock and fortress . There are the female metaphors. Genesis Ch 3 and Psalm 139 refer to God as a seamstress who “stitches, mends” (Gen. 3:21) and knits (Ps. 139:13,15). In Deuteronomy Ch 32 (and Exodus Ch 19 ) God is presented as an eagle who teaches her young to fly and carries them on her wings, or is God rather the metaphor of mother (Isaiah 42:14; 66:13), ) a mistress (Psalm 123:2), or a mid-wife (Psalm 22:9-10).
Some of the metaphors reappear in the New Testament almost as a way of saying it is the same God acting. The wind and the fire of Pentecost are two standard illustrations to indicate the presence of God or the Spirit in the older scriptures too.
In the New Testament Jesus is the good shepherd, the Lord, the King, the foundation, the mother hen, the True vine, the living bread, the light, the door, the gate, the living water, the morning star and so on.
These metaphors are helpful, not so much because they tell us about the reality of a created universe but because they give us a focus for living our faith. The aim is not so much to find a perfect description of God but rather to focus on how we are prepared to let our understanding of God affect the way of life we want to lead, the people we want to become.