At about 80 words, the February 29 document wasn't much longer than the headlines it produced, like "Vatican Says Baptisms Using Wrong Words Are Not Valid, Must Be Redone."

Anyone baptized "in the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier" or "in the name of the Creator, and of the Liberator, and of the Sustainer" didn't really get baptized, explained Cardinal Urbano Navarrete after the Vatican's brief statement. If you got married after such an invalid baptism, Navarrete said, your marriage isn't valid either (at least in the Roman Catholic sacramental sense).

Media reports only turned up one Catholic congregation that had been using the proscribed formula: in Brisbane, Australia. And it stopped using it in 2004.

Avoidance of "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" is, unfortunately, common in some North American streams of Protestantism. Gender-neutral language for the Trinity is often an emblem of progressive churches that see liberation from patriarchy as a hallmark of the gospel. After the Vatican's statement, one Methodist pastor howled about the Vatican's "liturgical fundamentalism that values human language over divine grace."

He failed to recognize that this particular instance of "human language" is a matter of divine grace. We use this rather than other Trinitarian formulas for a simple reason: Jesus—"very God of very God," as the Nicene Creed puts it—gave it to us and commanded its use (Matt. 28:18–20).

This formula is perfectly consistent with the self-revelation of God throughout the Bible. In the Gospels, Jesus refers to the Father and to himself as the Son. Yes, he also employs other metaphors for the Godhead, but never so consistently and starkly.

Furthermore, it is a mistake to focus only on the phrase "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" without noting the two words that introduce it in the Great Commission: " … the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

Whenever God reveals his name, he reveals his character. We see in God's name his communal nature and desire for a personal relationship to his people. "I Am who I Am," he told Moses. "The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob … This is my name forever."

Almost all the recent alternatives to the Trinitarian formula undercut the personal significance of God's name by replacing it with words of function. As many have noted, "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier" encourages modalism, the heretical teaching that God's threeness is more about his modes of operation, or our perception of him, rather than something intrinsic to the divine essence. Biblical Christianity teaches that all three persons of the Trinity are involved in creation, redemption, and sanctification. A document "commended for study" by the Presbyterian Church (USA) explicitly rejected a modalist understanding of "Creator, Savior, Sanctifier," but still encouraged its use, along with "Mother, Child, and Womb," "Sun, Light, and Burning Ray," and other troubling triads.

As theologian Robert Jenson has noted, "Such attempts presuppose that we first know about a triune God and then look about for a form of words to address that God, when in fact it is the other way around. … [T]he phrase Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is historically specific and can be what liturgy and devotion—and, at its base, all theology—must have, a proper name of God."

God is serious about his name—which is why he took the trouble to reveal it to us in Christ. To create an alternative according to our cultural sensibilities is at best parody and at worst idolatry, even if it is constructed from the good metaphors God has given us. Most idols, after all, are created from God's good gifts.

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