The Fatherhood of God

Author: Mark J. Kelly

The Fatherhood of God

by Mark J. Kelly

The Fatherhood of God is perhaps the most overlooked attribute of God in the Christian world. Christians worldwide pray to God by uttering the familiar words, "Our Father who art in heaven." "Father" is the most familiar term for God in Christian Tradition, and perhaps the most theologically significant title for God in all of Scripture. What is the significance of God as "Father"?

How does God exhibit His Fatherhood to mankind? Is the image of God as Father now outdated by the current changing climate of Western society that is striving for a matriarchal society, or even an asexual one? Is the Fatherhood of God an eternal immutable attribute, or an outdated anthropomorphism? These are questions that are extremely critical to the Church today.

Defining Fatherhood

Fatherhood, in a basic sense, can be defined in several ways. A father is one that establishes or is head of a household; an originator or patron of a class, profession, or art; a producer or generator. He feeds his household, physically and spiritually. He loves and cares for this household because it is his.

In the Greek language, Father literally means nourisher, protector or upholder. Holy Scripture presents the concept of fatherhood in several ways: (1) headship-generating and establishing a household; (2) feeding - nourishing or protecting his offspring; (3) maintenance - upholding that which he established.


The first glimpse of the Fatherhood of God is in the Book of Genesis. Chapters 1-3 in Genesis are about God generating and establishing a household. The plants and other things are created after their own kind (Gn 1:25), but God creates man in His own image (Gn 1:26). God creates mankind in two parts-man and woman. There is a spiritual equality implied in the verse.

Chapter 2 describes in detail the creation of mankind. In Genesis 2:7, we are shown that the male was created first. Adam is generated and then established in the garden. God, being a father, established a covenant with Adam, wherein life is promised to Adam (Gn 2:16-17). God made a covenant with Adam before Eve was actually created.

Genesis 2:22-23 describes the creation of Eve and the completion of the creation of mankind. In the equality of this creation, there is an order of creation. Mankind sprang from Adam, yet God designed that the rest of the human race should descend from the ordered relation of Adam and Eve. Now Adam is seen as a father because he is the head of a household, and he must nurture all who come from him.

According to St. Paul, this divine order of creation is significant. "For Adam was formed first, then Eve" (1 Tm 2:13). And, "For the man is not from the woman; but the woman from the man" (1 Cor 11:8).

God has shown His Fatherhood to us in a direct manner by creating all things and establishing man, and by establishing a covenant with His offspring. God also shows His Fatherhood through an indirect or mediated manner.

Adam, as a son of God (see Lk 3:38), will "image" God to the rest of the world by mediating the Fatherhood of God. Man is truly to know himself and his place by knowing God, looking upon His face and descending from the contemplation of God to scrutinize himself. Man must know God and His Fatherhood before he can fulfill his own role of father to the world. Truly, this is the work of man; Adam's charge is to be a father to the world. Adam will generate his own kind. He is given a wife to assist him in the work and produce other "fathers" to fulfill the cultural mandate that God has given to his children.

"And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living animal that moves upon the earth'" (Gn 1:28).

God mediates His Fatherhood through Adam. God apparently had marriage and posterity in mind for Adam when He gave this command. God will reflect His Fatherhood to the world through the mediated divine order of His creation.

God created Adam and gave him a name. Adam reflects the Fatherhood of God in that he will create and give names, not only to the animals but to his wife, Eve. The order of beings created in God's image will be a constant witness to the world of the Fatherhood of God.

When Adam and Eve sin in chapter 3 of Genesis, God searches for Adam and addresses him first as father, or head of his family. Ultimately, it is Adam who faces the largest responsibility for the fall.

Eve is responsible for her personal sin, but Adam is held to account as the father of the race. Adam, as the head of the human race, receives the brunt of the curse. Eve's penalty is directed at her person, while for Adam the curse is directed at the creation outside of Adam. His entire posterity is judged.

"Therefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned" (Rom 5:12). "For as in Adam all die" (1 Cor 15:22).

But God upholds His relationship with His creation and promises redemption. Even in the promise of a redeemer, the depth and severity of Adam's sin is brought to the forefront. The promise of redemption will come through the seed of the woman.

"And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel" (Gn 3:15).

This reference to the seed of the woman is unique in all of Scripture. Inheritance in the covenant is at all other times received through the seed of the male. Adam's sin as head of the created order is so great and the curse so deep that his seed cannot produce a redeemer. That is why the redemption must come from the seed of the woman.


One of the many dynamics that take place in the Garden of Eden is an exchange of fatherhood. Feeding and nourishing as an aspect of fatherhood is a major theme of "The Genesis Exchange." This exchange of fathers takes place in a food test, which will become a familiar theme in Scripture.

God was the Father of Adam because He generated him, established him and fed or nourished him. God as a Father not only fed Adam divine revelation, but He fed Him with physical food.

"And God said, 'Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food"' (Gn 1:29).

"And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die"' (Gn 2:16-17).

The last two verses show that the food was not only a sign of God's nourishing Adam but would be a test of Adam's future faithfulness to God his Father. Adam had life as long as he was fed by God, both by revelation and physical food. In this aspect both types of feeding are spiritual feedings. Adam received doctrine and physical food from God.

The eating of proper food was a sign that Adam was remaining in the covenant established by God. The teaching is sealed by "food sacrament," the sign of continuity and faithfulness to the covenant. Adam was a faithful son of God as long as he was being "fed" by God in every aspect of the Word of God. To eat God's food is to be in communion with Him.

Adam exchanges fathers in his eating of the forbidden fruit. He refuses the revelation and food of God and comes to be fed from the hand of Satan himself. Adam and Eve believed the doctrine of Satan instead of the teaching of God. Then, to seal their belief, they partook of an unholy communion. They ate the food provided for them by their new father, the devil.

Adam and Eve could not remain faithful to their father by believing only in their minds the commands of God. They had to continue in the covenant by obediently eating sacredly sanctioned food. On the other hand, Satan was not satisfied with Adam and Eve simply believing that God's Word was wrong; they had to demonstrate their allegiance to their new father by actually partaking of the food that he offered them.


The Lord upholds the covenant by a sacrificial act and the promise of a redeemer that will crush the head of the serpent. The false father will be destroyed. Again, we are focused, here, on Genesis 3:15.

God provides atonement and clothing for His fallen children in Genesis 3:21. Even when the children are disobedient, the Father maintains and upholds the relationship. Furthermore, this passage shows that God continued to provide food for Adam and Eve. They would have to wrestle it from the cursed earth because of their sin, yet God still provides for them. Though He disciplines His disobedient children, and places them under the mark of His displeasure, He does not disinherit them.

The Fatherhood of Joseph


The Old Testament Joseph is most noted for his dreams. When Joseph receives his dreams, he is pictured as bread.

"For, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, IO, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf" (Gn 37:7).

Not only is he pictured as food in his original dream, but he is visited in prison by the wine taster and the baker. Joseph is delivered from his imprisonment because of his power to interpret dreams. Most of these dreams deal with food. The baker meets an untimely end and Joseph, in many ways, takes his place. Now he will provide bread for Pharaoh. The story of Joseph is enveloped in the understanding of food and fatherhood. This combination of ruling and feeding is essential to understanding a biblical view of fatherhood. As long as Adam and Eve ate the food ordained by God, they were in the covenant with Him, and they were His children. They exchanged fathers when they ate the food offered them by the devil.

The image of the entire Israelite clan, including his father, bowing down to Joseph, pictured as a sheaf of wheat, shows the integral connection between feeding and fatherhood (see Gn 37:5- 11). When we see this prophetic dream fulfilled, Joseph states, "So now it was not you that sent me here, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt" (Gn 45:8).

How had Joseph become a father to Pharaoh, who, without a doubt, as our last discourse has proved, was in fact a father to Joseph? Biblically speaking, the one who feeds you is your father.

Joseph goes from being the servant of Pharaoh to being his father. This is done by an exchange of position in the office of feeding. Joseph provides food for Pharaoh, his whole house and the surrounding countries; Joseph has become bread to the world.

"And all countries came into Egypt to Joseph to buy [grain]; because the famine was severe in all lands" (Gn 41 :57).

Joseph is a father to Pharaoh and to the world because he feeds the world with physical and spiritual food. Joseph is a priest to the world; he provides bread, the interpretation of dreams and, eventually, the hidden plan and Word of God to his brothers (see Gn 50:20-21).


Joseph as a father maintains his people. When Israel died, the brothers came to Joseph with the false report that Jacob had asked that Joseph promise not to judge them after he was dead. They feared the wrath of Joseph (see Gn 50:15-23).

Now that their father was dead, who would take care of the brothers and be the head of their house? Joseph says that he is in the place of God and that he will be their father. Joseph will nourish and maintain them and their children. Despite their sins, he will maintain the covenant of God. Joseph is in the place of God as a father in the same way that God maintained the covenant with Adam after the fall.

Joseph is a wonderful "type" of our Lord Jesus Christ in his forgiveness, his self-sacrificial nature and the love displayed to his own brothers, who tried to kill him.

New Testament Appearances

Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, yet He, too, is pictured and addressed in Scripture as a father. A passage in Isaiah accurately describes Christ (the Messiah) as a father.

"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

"Of the increase of His government and peace [there shall be] no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this" (Is 9:5-6).

The Messiah will order and establish a government; He will be the head of a people and a Kingdom. Like Joseph, the Messiah will be a son who becomes a counselor (a provider of wisdom, spiritual food). The attributes of fatherhood described in this article are all present in Christ. He establishes, feeds and maintains a household. He is the Head and the second Adam of a new creation (see Rom 5:14, 1 Cor 15:22,45).

Christ is seen in the Gospels as establishing His people by instituting the Church. He is seen as feeding His people with both physical and spiritual food. Our Lord teaches the Word of God and gives them loaves, fish, a new Passover and the Bread of Life. Christ promises to be with the Church that He has established and to feed her to the end of the age. He will maintain His Covenant People.

The divine order of the Trinity must always be maintained. We are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The Apostles' Creed attests to the importance of the inner working of the Trinity and its importance to Christians of all ages. Christ as the Son of God mediates the Fatherhood of God in the Trinity and shows forth the divine order of the Trinity with God the Father as the Head. The mediation of the Fatherhood of God is so perfect in Christ that He claims that to have seen Him is to have seen the Father (see Jn 14:8-11).

Christ truly is the ultimate image of the living God, as Paul says, because He is the perfect picture of a father. By knowing Christ, we know the Father -as our Lord instructed Philip.

Apostolic Fatherhood

The apostles are called "fathers" in the Canon of the New Testament (see 1 Pt 5:13; 1 Jn 2:1; 1 Cor 4:15,17; 1 Tm 1:2,18; 2 Tm 1:2; Phlm 10; Ti 1:2).

Peter, John and Paul all address fellow Christians who are not their natural offspring as children or sons. They call themselves "fathers" because they fulfill the biblical requirements of being a father. They have generated churches and people, they feed churches and they maintain the same. By being ministers of the Word of God, they continue the work of mediating the Fatherhood of God to the rest of the world. This work was begun by Adam, redeemed and perfected by Christ, and is now being brought to completion by the Church.

Is the image of God as Father now outdated in the changing climate of a Western society striving to be matriarchal-and sometimes asexual?

Is the Fatherhood of God an eternal, immutable attribute, or an outdated anthropomorphism?

The Fatherhood of God was originally mediated in His creation of the world and the human race. The image of God is fully represented in both genders.

"God created man in his [own] image" (Gn 1:27). "Male and female he created them" (Gn 5:2).

Yet, in this creation of male and female as "Adam" or mankind, God made the male first and the woman was brought forth from his living flesh. She came from man and was named by him, the sign of headship and fatherhood. Paul sees this order as significant.

Man and woman are equal heirs in the Kingdom. This equality exists within God's holy order (the literal meaning of hierarchy). Just as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are equal and yet have a different position and function in the Trinity, so it is with the only creation that has been brought about in God's image.

Mankind is both male and female. Their offspring will be under their headship. The father, mother and children are all equal heirs in the kingdom of God, yet they have an order of relation that reflects the divine order of the Trinity. Since God is immutable, so is His chief agent, mankind, in mediating this divine order to the whole of creation.

For this reason, the Catholic Church has reserved the ordained offices to men. These offices mediate or show forth the Fatherhood of God. The bishop or priest "images" the Fatherhood of God. They establish us in the new covenant by baptism; they feed us the Word of God and the sacrament of Holy Communion, and by doing this they maintain us in the Church. When St. Paul instructs Timothy and Titus in the requirements for these offices, he says that they should be good fathers (see 1 Tm 3:4-5; Ti 1:6).

The recent minority practice of women's ordination among Protestants tears at the very warp and woof of the created order. The Church needs to combat this aberration with a better weapon than quoting Paul, "I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over the man." Many Christians do not understand the created order or biblical, covenantal fatherhood enough to make a competent defense. Quoting parts of St. Paul or stating facts such as, "The Apostles were all men," makes orthodox Christians appear unlearned and uninterested in the whole of Scripture. We merely reinforce the wrongful views of the modern "Christian(?) Feminists". The Church needs to be consistent and energetic in its presentation of the entirety of Holy Scripture.

In the Old Testament, God is often referred to in a metaphorical way as a father. Sometimes God is referred to with the use of a maternal metaphor (for example, Ex 19:4); it is important to note that most if not all the Old Testament references are metaphors.

But, in the New Testament, the word "God" almost always refers to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Christ refers to God as "His Father." We are taught by Our Lord to pray to "Our Father who art in Heaven." Christ addresses Him by the proper name "Father" (Mt 10:32-33; 11:25-26). This progress of revelation of the Fatherhood of God has substantial impact on how we view God and His ministers.

God, in the New Testament, is no longer "a father concept," He is FATHER by direct address. Needless to say, this has a direct impact on how we worship and address God through Christ the Mediator. God, in the New Testament, is not "gender neutral." The push for gender-neutral, or inclusive, language and priestesses is a direct result of the broad loss of the sense that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is actually called "Father" by direct address and not just by metaphoric allusion. This latest fad in the Church is actually an attempt to redefine the image of God.

With this in mind, we need to discuss the nature of New Testament ordained ministry. Since the New Testament offices of bishop and priest fulfill the requirements of the mediatorial role of father, is it proper to call them "Father"? The point that needs to be discussed is the often misquoted verse in the Gospel of Matthew:

"But be not called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all you are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ" (Mt 23:8-10).

This verse, taken out of context, would seem to prohibit giving the title of father (or Rabbi, Master, etc.) to anyone, except the members of the Godhead.

It is obvious that the apostles called themselves "fathers" and Sarah called Abraham "lord." The Matthew passage, taken literally, would forbid us from calling anyone, even our natural male parent, father. The title of Mr. would be forbidden because it is a derivation of Master. It would even make Isaiah's prophecy concerning the Messiah being a father to be improper.

The passage above is a denunciation of the Pharisees. The entire chapter is a condemnation of the practice of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the teachers (spiritual feeders/fathers) of the day. They erred and exchanged the teachings of God for the teachings of men. The Pharisees named their own teachers as the ultimate fathers. They fed on their own spiritual food and no longer sought God's perfect food. They elevated their teachings over the Law of God. The sin of the Pharisees was in calling men their "father" and to view men as the ultimate teachers/ feeders of truth.

Christ identifies the primary sin of the Pharisees: "But in vain they do worship me, teaching [for] doctrines the commandments of men" (Mt 15:9). They had "exchanged fathers," just as Adam did. And Jesus identifies the true father of the Pharisees: "You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you will do" (Jn 8:44).

The injunction, in its context, to "call no man father, Master or Rabbi" is a command not to seek teachers other than God. Their teachings and traditions should not replace the Law of God as the Pharisees did. We must take our food from God, not men. Additionally, the passage is a charge against those who seek power for the temporal, fleshly trappings that it offers. We should always beware of those who seek power to be seen. God gives His power and mediates His Fatherhood best through those who would seek to serve.

With this proper understanding of the Matthew "fatherhood" passage and, hopefully, the fuller understanding that this article has presented concerning the Fatherhood of God in its direct and mediated appearances, then it is very appropriate to call a bishop or priest, or any one else in authority, including the secular realm, by the name or title "Father." This practice points to God's divine order and shows forth the mediation of His ultimate Fatherhood to us. Abuses of the past and misunderstandings of the present do not negate the proper use of the title "Father" for our teachers, governors, bishops and priests. Doing so demonstrates the glory and immutable essence of God. This was Adam's duty before the fall. It is now the eternal duty of Jesus Christ, the second Adam, and the duty of His children after the Redemption, now and forevermore.


Mark J. Kelly teaches theology at St. Hubert's High School for Girls in Philadelphia, PA.

This article was taken from the September/October 1996 issue of "The Catholic Answer". To subscribe please write: "The Catholic Answer", Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, In 46750.

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