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Naming God at Baptism

Gail Ramshaw

Gail Ramshaw, a retired professor of religion, studies and crafts liturgical language from her home outside of Washington, D.C.

While our God is before all time, heard through the ages, God is also with us in this moment. How can we trust that ancient words are sturdy enough to carry contemporary distress?

In contemporary American English, we can say it this way: God’s name is God-as-God-is.

We want to know the name of God. It makes sense that religious people try to ensure that when they address their God in praise or petition, whether during rituals in the assembly or in the personal prayer of their hearts, they are calling on God using the right name. We want to honor the deity of our choice; we wish to stand within a hallowed tradition; we are glad to unite with others of our faith community. We train our children in how to address their prayers, in the hopes that their focus is firmly on the God in whom we believe and trust. No, our deity is not named Isis or Jupiter. No, we are not appealing to our nation’s president, to a cultural heroine or an ethnic hero, or to a power that we like to think is in the Self. Our God is deeper, wider, than these.

The Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, 1375–1400, unknown artist, Benaki Museum, Athens

The Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, 1375–1400, unknown artist, Benaki Museum, Athens

Our God is named . . . what? What does a character made up by James Joyce say about this?

God was God’s name just as his name was Stephen. Dieu was the French for God and that was God’s name too; and when anyone prayed to God and said Dieu then God knew at once that it was a French person that was praying. But though there were different names for God in all the different languages in the world and God understood what all the people who prayed said in their different language still God remained always the same God and God’s real name was God.1

So reasons the eight-year-old Stephen about the real divine name. But for better or for worse, we are no longer children. We want our worship to say more than “God,” especially in a culture in which those three letters constitute a commonplace expletive. When we assemble on Sunday, what name shall unite us?

And more: Christians speak countless languages, and perhaps around the globe we hope to agree on at least the primary name of the God whom we all address. In this way, it would be as if the prayers in all languages would be bundled together to be presented to the God of the globe. And despite that even Moses was granted only a circumlocution for divine unknowability, each thanksgiving and every petition will strengthen the others, the billions of prayers providing weight to my little request. Our words will carry one another, all of us joining with those of centuries past and with today’s countless assemblies, my voice supported by the folks around me and by those I will never encounter. Addressing the same God, we are bound together with all the baptized. Our common speech makes of us a community of care, which is one of the primary goals of all the religions of humankind.

Our search for God’s name seems especially intense these days, given our time of cultural disruption and creative expansion—despite what in the second century the Christian martyr Justin wrote:

No one can utter the name of the ineffable God: and any one who dares to say that there is a name raves with a hopeless madness.2

Yes, we hear you, Justin, a philosopher of religion warning us about religious arrogance. But we are assembling each Sunday, century after century, and we are not all raving mad, and we wish to pray together, some of us wholly content with the tradition and others questioning whether our words of address are the best that they can be. While our God is before all time, heard through the ages, God is also with us in this moment. How can we trust that ancient words are sturdy enough to carry contemporary distress? How can we remain formed by the past and yet reform it for a future that does not care about the past?

The Christian pattern has been to retain old formulations and surround them with new. At weekly worship, for example, Christians proclaim old Hebrew and Greek texts about God, albeit each decade suggesting a better translation into our vernacular. We delight in singing hymns composed centuries ago, being grateful that the latest hymnal has updated their archaisms. We ponder that “Jesus” bore the same name as Joshua: the memories of a first-century healer are now superimposed on the tales of the conqueror of Jericho. We trust that in our time this layering of mercy, new onto old, will continue to speak rightly of God.

But we know that the religious task of naming God that is set before Christians is extraordinarily complex, since our God is both divine and human. Like other deities, our God bears traditional titles worthy of worship—creator, warrior, savior—but, unlike other deities, these classic names are incongruously bound up with the name of a Jewish man. How can we name our God around the mystery of the incarnation? Who is God, given Jesus Christ?

What is “the name” that identifies the power we seek for life that is worthy of living? What is the name of the one we can trust, who welcomes us and offers us salvation, the one with the mercy to hear us and the power to meet our needs? The religion and mythology sections of our bookstores are loaded with wonderfully illustrated books that narrate lots of past and present gods and goddesses who beckon our adoration, and from whom at least some people seek aid. The story goes that in the last century in a small midwestern town, the two brides in a double wedding were sisters, and the pastor, who was their father, named the wrong husband for the older daughter, and she yelled out, “No, Papa, no!” Which is the name we are to invoke, the name to which we are bound in baptism? Which text ought to accompany our pouring water over the candidate? Not that name, but this one?

The Church’s Answer

During the first four centuries of the Christian tradition, the fundamental question facing the theologians and bishops of the church was this: who was God in the face of Christ? Ought we to stand with Thomas, who when encountering the risen Christ said, “My Lord and my God”? What words can say best that the inner life of the almighty God became one with an executed human? Avoiding one heresy after another, the church’s authorities acclaimed Jesus as not lesser than God, not merely a stunning example of a human servant of the immortal sovereign God. Rather, in the mystery of the incarnation, God became the human named Jesus; the ancient hope for a messiah gets directed toward the one whom we title Christ. Jesus is the very Word proceeding from the mouth of God—spoken, of course, in metaphor, as if God has a mouth.

Out of those theological discussions arose the judgment that Christians are to name God as God is in God’s very self. The biblical texts said it this way: Jesus Christ was related to God as if they were Son and Father, just as global myths for millennia had told stories of a father god and a hero son. The naming of God needed to be articulated in both Latin and Greek, the church’s foremost languages, and this made the linguistic task of describing the very being of the Trinity complicated. Although other more philosophical categories were seriously considered, Christianity adopted these metaphors: father, son, spirit—preferred as being biblical.

Thus a naming of God’s Trinitarian self was developed, authorized, spoken, sung.3 Christ Jesus was the Son of the Father. Thus, the Father is the Father of the Son, and, at least in the Western church, the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son. In contemporary American English, we can say it this way: God’s name is God-as-God-is. The circle of God’s name included the Son; and Father, Son, and Spirit became the perennial name that clarified the relationship between God and Jesus. For Christians, the key to God is Christ, and the name of God-as-God-is tries to say this. Cyril of Jerusalem, an early explicator of the rite of baptism, wrote that when we douse the candidate in the water three times, we are entering with Christ in his tomb for three days, to arise with him in his resurrection.4 Baptism incorporates us into the embrace of the God known in Jesus Christ.

So when we inaugurate persons into the Christian community, when we confer on them the divine power hidden in the name, the text we have come to use is ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Contemporary biblical scholars question when in history this phrase in Matthew 28:19 became the baptismal text of choice, and indeed, there have been since the very beginning some Christians, perhaps even our neighbors across the street, who abbreviate this name of God-as-God-is by baptizing in the name of Jesus. But even as orthodox a theologian as Thomas Aquinas wrote that baptism in the name of Jesus is the same thing as baptism in the name of the Trinity.5 Furthermore, to solidify Christian identity, and in many Christian countries to stipulate which persons were legal citizens, church authorities came to require the use of the name of God-as-God-is at baptism. It was as if this text was the only set of words that worked, a formulation that must be articulated, as if the church’s judgment was a law promulgated throughout the Roman Empire. It is this name that blesses the community as it exits the liturgy for a week in the world.

Christians over the centuries have continued to suggest ways to name God-as-God-is. Using biblical texts, we can call God “Abba, Servant, and Paraclete,” the first and third persons gathered together in Christ, the servant.6 Augustine’s famous description of the Trinity as the Lover, the Beloved, and Love forms a circle thanks to Christ, the beloved of God.7 Catherine of Siena, in one of her ecstatic prayers after taking communion, praises God as the Table, the Food, and the Server,8 her imaginative picture of God centering on Christ, the food she has just received. In our time, David Cunningham’s proposal of God as Source, Wellspring, and Living Water also depicts God as related to Christ, the Wellspring.9 In each of these suggestions, who and what God is hinges on who and what we have come to know in Jesus.

Two Current Dilemmas

One difficulty is that most Christians who are busy praying are primarily concerned not with the name of God-as-God-is, but rather with the qualities of God-for-us, or even God-for-me. What do I hope that God will do for me? As I pray, I am not breaking my brain to articulate the divine mystery in theologically objective categories. Instead, I am subjectively calling upon God to hear us and help us. “Father” is not only the way that Christians designate the source of the messiah, but also is a primordial address cited by worshipers in the New Testament and invoked in religious traditions throughout time and place. The Roman head-god Jupiter, for example, is a shortening of the Greek Zeus Pater, “father Zeus.” Although first-century Jews did not normally address God as Father, and although as a name for God “Father” is rare in the Hebrew Scriptures, pagans in the Roman Empire regularly worshiped Jupiter as the Father of fathers. One metaphor, “Father,” has come to function as both God-as-God-is and God-for-us.

Yet for many of us in the twenty-first century, “Father” is an insufficient way to say God-for-us. In our culture we have rightly asked why we must be limited to these male terms. When we learn that in the early centuries of the church, the human fetus was thought to originate wholly from the father’s sperm, with the mother’s womb merely the flowerpot for the seed, we may feel even more alienated from the tradition than we were before. How are we to honor the historic name of God-as-God-is if we find it too narrow, too metaphorically male?

A second dilemma rests in our wrestling with “the church.” How much is our century of baptized believers to be determined by the church of the past, and how much ought our assembly or denomination care about what other worshiping Christians in our own time say and sing? It has come to be for many readers of this journal that persons are not only allowed to alter in essential ways their identity and the name once given to them, they are even applauded for their expressions of individuality. I get to say who I am, and I may perhaps not answer to any other name. During a Quaker meeting, if persons feel strongly that an opinion being expressed is wrong, they rise to stand in silence. How large ought a community of the baptized who can “stand aside” when others baptize “in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” be? Or does my community have the right, perhaps even the obligation, to speak the name of God as we see it?

One Current Proposal

I judge that I have no authority to alter the church’s credal designation of God-as-God-is, and I believe that as part of the body of Christ I am called to attend with respect to the remainder of that body. And I so urge us all to continue to baptize in that classic name, to teach what it means, to honor the mystery of the Trinity, to appreciate the role of metaphoric language, to join with Christians around the globe to acknowledge a God whose name dances around Jesus Christ.

We might think of our historic ritual text “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as a placeholder in our baptismal rite:

A word is put down as a placeholder for something that cannot be communicated, no matter what anyone tries, no matter how many words accumulate, there is always that absence.10

Justin was correct that we cannot speak the ultimate name of God. Perhaps we Christians have become too comfortable with immortal transcendence, sitting there peacefully next to our God, all of us on a first-name basis. Centuries of Christian mystics suggest that finally we be mute before the merciful might of God. But now in the church let us agree on a placeholder for that unutterable name. Christianity is a communal religion, and we need words that the community can speak, words that stand before the Burning Bush, the Cross, and the Tree of Life at the End of Time, sacred speech that fills up the space left by what cannot be fully spoken. So we might think of “Father, Son, Spirit” as a placeholder for the mystery.

And what about those Christians for whom the historical naming of God-as-God-is is a pathway lost in the forest of the past? Wishing to provide an obligato—God-for-us—to our canonical cantus firmus—God-as-God-is—I urge us to surround that classic name with other biblical and creative terms, both God-as-God-is and God-for-us, other images of a God of grace and justice functioning like fruit on our tree, both innovative and faithful. We can do it.

One possibility for this proposal, the new amplifying the old, is cited in the worship book of my denomination. After the classic text is spoken, the entire assembly joins to affirm our devotion to God-as-God-is with complementary words that dress our creed in our favorite images. Following the baptism, the assembly is invited to call or sing out, “Blessed be God, the source of all life, the word of salvation, the spirit of mercy.”11 Or, recalling the tradition of seeing in the legend of Noah’s flood an image of the triune God at work, we might join with the cantor in this picture of God-for-us:

Rainbow of promise, blessed be God.
Ark of salvation, blessed be God.
Dove of peace, blessed be God.

We might follow the baptismal text with a prayer to God-as-God-is with the following: “Praise to the Holy One, praise to the Word of God, praise to the Power of mercy.” In some such way, the contemporary church binds itself to the root of the tradition, and yet also celebrates its flowering by adorning the traditional words with ones of our time and sensibility. We see this intention in the baptismal text made famous by Riverside Church in New York City: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God, Mother of us all.”12 The classic text is embellished with words that our community chooses.

A second possibility for this layering of the divine name is to follow the text of baptism with communal song that includes alternate imagery for the Trinity. For example, in the Presbyterian hymnal Glory to God,13 the assembly might sing hymn #1, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” the triple holies cited in the book of Isaiah now employed by Christians to praise the triune God. In #2, the eighteenth-century hymn “Come, Thou Almighty King,” God is called Ancient of Days, incarnate Word, and Comforter, Spirit of power. By the way, American hymnals used “king” as a divine title less than did British books—one wonders whether mostly to rhyme with “sing.” In hymn #3, Ruth Duck’s “Womb of Life and Source of Being,” God-as-God-is is met with God-for-us. Evoking God as womb, source, and home, and as Mother, Brother, holy Partner, are ways welcoming to many to envision how God connects with us.

“Mothering God,” #7, the hymn composed by Jean Janzen and inspired by the writings of Julian of Norwich, holds the image of mother next to that of creator, source, rain, wind, sun, grain, and grape, the one who nurtures and holds us close. Hymn #9, Mary Louise Bringle’s “The Play of the Godhead,” revives an image from the early church: the interrelationship within God, thus God-as-God-is, is described as participants in a dance, which in the third stanza, believers are invited to join in the dance. Hymn #10, David Gambrell’s “Sing Glory to the Name of God,” provides a gloss on “the name of God.” Hymn #11, Thomas Troeger’s tour de force, lists thirty-nine images of God-for-us, all together the I AM. The first person of the Trinity is celebrated in stanza one, the second person in stanza two, and the third person in stanza three. Hymn #303, Carl Daw’s “God the Spirit, Guide and Guardian,” names the triune God-for-us with over two dozen biblical images and could well serve as the basis of a Bible study session. Hymn #434, Daw’s “Restore in Us, O God,” praises the Trinity’s love, power, joy, and grace. I suggest that the assembly singing such a hymn either just before or immediately following the rite of baptism is like celebrating leaves and fruits on the tree, multiple ways to envision the Trinity who is blessing us in the water.

A third possibility for enlarging our welcome of the classic God-as-God-is is to provide our eyes a biblical image of the Trinity, via print on the worship folder or projection onto a screen. I would, however, register a caveat: for some periods of Christian history, depictions of the Trinity featured the first person as an old white bearded man, or, to my mind worse, the triune God as a set of identical triplets with their feet resting on the globe. Christians who were concerned about the power of visual images to sear themselves into our consciousness preferred instead geometric designs, such as three interlaced circles. But over the centuries many Christians lauded the story in Genesis 18:1–8 of the three mysterious visitors to Abraham and Sarah. The biblical tale comes without gender or ethnic preference, and for Trinitarian Christians, the Hebrew text leaves open the question as to whether we hear three voices or one. Many Christians admire the mystical fifteenth-century depiction by Andrei Rublev, although I prefer the icons that are titled “the Hospitality of Abraham,” which include Sarah and Abraham—thus the community at the meal—with food set on the table, and a white tablecloth, and perhaps a carrot in front of each visitor. Perhaps one such image can present a backdrop for our ritual text.
In closing, let me say this. Although I am grateful to be a worshiping Christian during this time of critical thinking about male imagery and terminology for God, I know that there is a downside when we stare down our religion. I trust that you remember in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the dinner at the house of the Beavers, when the children first hear the name Aslan, and “a very curious thing happened.”14

None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. . . . At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something hum in his inside. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. . . . Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.

In this charming, albeit sexist, description of the Pevensey siblings first encountering the name of the Lion, the Christian author Lewis calls to me to respond with courage and joy when hearing the name Father, Son, and Spirit. I hope that by enhancing the church’s placeholder with metaphors, songs, and depictions, we can continue to stand with and under the classic Trinitarian naming. Perhaps in future decades a substantial part of the body of Christ will agree on alternate wording, but that has not yet happened.

As a laywoman with no authority to design even my own parish worship, I wonder whether we are called to practice forbearance with the traditional naming at baptism of God-as-God-is. Admittedly, our society has become adept at destroying monuments and deleting classics from reading lists if this history offends our sensibilities and contradicts our values, and I for one am glad to be rid of glorious statues of the traitor Robert E. Lee. Yet there is not one of our progenitors who is blameless, as neither are we. And so we do not agree on when the past must be expunged, when it ought to be gently set aside in a distant museum, or when it is to be honored throughout our lives with our forgiving hearts.

Tradition is what from the past is carried on to the next generation. What in our tradition can continue to inspire a mission alive for our time? When are words that we hesitate to say actually open doors to the mystery of the divine? May the Spirit of the living Word of the Source of all life assist us, as we work together to throw out the trash and yet reverence the treasures of our inherited identity.

Over the Waters acrylic and ink on wood Jennifer Bunge

Over the Waters, acrylic and ink on wood, Jennifer Bunge


  1. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Viking Press, 1964), 16.
  2. Justin, “The First Apology,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 1:183.
  3. For a full theological discussion of what has been termed the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity, see Catherine Mowry Lacugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: Harper, 1973).
  4. Cyril of Jerusalem, “On the Rites of Baptism,” par. 4, Lectures on the Christian Sacraments (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977), 60.
  5. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 3a.66.6.
  6. Gail Ramshaw, “Naming the Trinity: Orthodoxy and Inclusivity,” Worship 60 (1986): 491–98.
  7. Augustine, “On the Holy Trinity,” in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 3:204.
  8. Catherine of Siena, The Prayers of Catherine of Siena, ed. Suzanne Noffke, OP (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), 102.
  9. David S. Cunningham, These Three Are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 347–48.
  10. Catherine Lacey, Pew (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), 176.
  11. Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 230.
  12. Ruth C. Duck, Gender and the Name of God: The Trinitarian Baptismal Formula (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1991), 163.
  13. Glory to God (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), especially 1–11.
  14. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Macmillan, 1950), 54–55.
Introduction – 56.2

Introduction – 56.2

The story of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 begins when an angel of the Lord calls Philip to set out on “the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza (This is a wilderness road)” (Acts 8:26). Luke does warn us, doesn’t he? I can hear the moody background music between the parentheses. This won’t be a story about the familiar baptismal font and rehearsed liturgy of Sunday morning.

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Why Baptism Matters for the Work of Dismantling Racism

Why Baptism Matters for the Work of Dismantling Racism

Perhaps my favorite definition of the word sacrament is “the visible sign of an invisible grace.” Coined during the Council of Trent by Augustine of Hippo, the North African theologian on whose theology much of Western Christianity laid its foundations, it remains one of the most used definitions in both the Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant traditions.

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