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God as Father now outdated by the current changing climate of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attribute, or an outdated anthropomorphism?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.
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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.
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
Is the Fatherhood of God an eternal, immutable attribute, or an
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
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
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
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"
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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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
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