Yesterday, I got into a brief twitter discussion with Ryan Nicholas Danker and then later David Watson on whether it is appropriate to refer to the first person of the Holy Trinity as Creator.1 Today, Jessica LaGrone posted an article she wrote on a few months back for the Wesleyan Covenant Association on the problem of referring to the first person of the Trinity as Creator. Undergirding the concern for all of them is that the Biblical confession that Jesus and the Spirit both are participants in the act of creation and that the traditions of the Church has affirmed the shared divine act of creation over and against the heresies such as modalism, which attempted to *reduce* the difference between Father, Son, and Spirit down to particular modes, or Arianism which made Christ a creature created by the Father.
There is a degree of legitimacy to this concern. In addressing the heresy of Arianism, which in part rested on understanding Christ as the creative wisdom of Proverbs 8:22 and whether this wisdom was created first before then created what comes afterwards, if we were to speak of God the Father as Creator in such as a way that we would never predicate the act of creation to Jesus or the Holy Spirit, then we might run the risk of falling into a functional Arianism. Or, if in our preferred modes of addressing the there Persons, we consistently used Creator for the Father but never for the Son or Spirit, this discursive practice, even if said with originally Trinitarian intentions, could lead to a modalistic view of God if repeated enough.
However, to acknowledge the potential misconstruals of referring to the Father as Creator is different from saying one should not call the Father Creator. Ss Wittgenstein famously observed, language operates as part of a game with many often implicit rules that govern its usage. In the two examples above, the rule that would emerge with the way the language gets used over the course of time would suggest appellatives are used in an exclusive manner. The Father is Creator and therefore neither Jesus nor the Spirit is Creator. Undergirding this logic is a usage of language where words express certain fixed essences about the entities they refer to and therefore cannot be multiply used unless each usage matches perfectly with other uses. We can refer to this as the Essentialist language rule, which a common thought pattern in the thinking of Hellenistic philosophy. This is a rule that treats the representations our words access as paradigms containing a set of essential features that everything that goes by that name must have to appropriately go by that name. Any difference entails an incorrect usage. Thus, if we say the Father is Creator in an exclusive way, we are suggesting the Father is Creator in way that the Son and Spirit are not. It is perhaps this essentialist view of language that could lead to Arianism, and thus necessitated the Church to affirm Jesus as with God at the beginning of creation. If we are operating under and Essentialist language rule, then certainly it is wrong to call God the Father without doing the same for the Son and the Spirit.
However, the Essentialist language rule is not universal for all language usage. It is not even a language rule of the New Testament. 1 Peter 4:19 can refer to the Father of Creator2 But in 1 Peter is working with an implicit narrative: the Father is the one acting on behalf of the Son in the resurrection and future revealing of glory and making this known and realized through the Spirit as a reality for believers. Hence, to refer to the Father as Creator participates in part of this implicit narrative, where God’s faithful actions are what for Jesus and then believers to trust in. Here, the language rule is a narrative role rule, where language is used to refer to particular roles within the narrative.
The narrative role rule doesn’t forbid talking about multiple persons taking the same role. Here, language refers to what they persons do but in a way that does not treat the actions of each person as concretely the same action. In other words, the Father creates, and so do the Son and Spirit. Furthermore, this creation is a joint action; it isn’t three acts of creation that occur separately from each other. And yet, what the Father does in the act of creation is different from the Son and the Spirit. The language of creation is suitable for each three persons, but yet there are not Creator in the exact same way. The prepositional language of John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16 express Jesus as involved in the act of creation, but it is in an instrumental way, which likely derives from Proverbs 8. Jesus is involved in the act of creation, but it is not the same way that the Father created. This instrumentality of the Word/Son in creation suggests something: while both Father and Son can be called Creator, the Father is prototypically called Creator in a way that Jesus would not be. The term is appropriate for both, but the Father’s role in creation is different from the Son’s role in creation. An alternative example of this is the role of Savior and Lord that Jesus is referred to as throughout New Testament. Does that mean we can not use this language to refer to the Father, or the Spirit? No. What it does mean however is that in terms of the specific actions that Jesus takes, he is prototypically referred to Savior and Lord but not in an exclusive way.
An important difference here is between concrete and abstract notions of action. A role describe by Creator, Savior, Lord, etc. entail an abstraction of what type of actions people who create, save, and rule do. But with a non-essentialist usage of language, there are multiple different concrete actions that can suffice to fall under the abstracted role. However, some of these concrete actions may be considered more significant than another. God’s concrete actions in the event of creation is more protoypical of “Creator” than the instrumental role assigned to Jesus. Jesus sacrificial death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God is more prototypical of “Savior” and “Lord.”
In the narrative role rule, it is not necessarily appropriate to call them “co-creators” unless the implicit narrative structure allows for such. If you are referring to Creation in an overarching or generic sense, then “co-creators” works. But if your implicit narrative entails a more detailed sense of creation, calling them Co-Creators would be misleading. Thus, in certain contexts, you can call the three persons co-creators just like you can the First Triumvirate of Ceasar, Crassus, and Pompeii co-conspirators, but we would still recognize they had different roles in joint action.
The overarching point is this: the implicit rules of the language games we are playing determine whether it is appropriate to call the Father Creator or all three persons of the Trinity as Co-Creators. There is not a quick and easy rule. If you play the essentialist rule, then you rule out NT language as out of bounds. If you play exclusively by the narrative-role rule, then you can only communicate when the implicit narrative remain the same between people, which entails people having sufficient knowledge of the narrative in the first place. But without that necessary knowledge, the hearers will probably revert closer to an exclusive view of the language usage, such that the Father is Creator and Jesus or the Spirit are not in any way. Thus, what grammatical rules we might apply to Trinitarian language really depends on the context. Pedagogically, calling the three person of the Trinity co-creators is important to teach people who have little narrative knowledge from the Scriptures. However, if you inflexibly enforce that type of language usage, you will form readers of the Scriptures who are blunted to the nuances of the texts, particularly in the NT, which can lead to some problematic interpretations of the words of Scripture. The Trinitarian language of the Creeds while resonant with the meaning of the Scriptures is not consistent with the usage of the language in the Scriptures. Put differently, a rigid view that forbids calling the Father as Creator engenders an implicit hermeneutic that gives de facto precedence to the Creeds over Scripture itself, which is incoherent with the spirit of Protestantism.
So to summarize: Is it acceptable to substitute “Creator” for “Father?” It really depends on the context. Without a sensitivity to this context by giving either a flat, always “yes” or “no” one way or another would unnecessarily set the Scriptures and the Creeds against each other. While certainly, there are implicit heresies that may motivated some persons substituting Creator for Father, creating a grammatical rule to outlaw it is deeply problematic on a linguistic and hermeneutical level. Having a rule to forbid against these linguistic practices may be a short-sighted pragmatism. To this, I would suggest it is better that the Church faces the theological ambiguity and seek other ways to identify and protect against heresy rather than a problematic grammatical rule.