WHY GOD IS FATHER AND NOT MOTHER
"The Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man" is how the 19th century liberal Protestant theologian Adolph Harnack once summarized the Christian faith. Nowadays Harnack would find his brand of reductionist religion dismissed as hopelessly sexist and exclusive by many feminist theologians. The "brotherhood of man" might be reworked into "the family of humanity" or its equivalent. But what would they do about the Fatherhood of God? Can we replace the allegedly "sexist" language of Divine Fatherhood with so-called gender-inclusive or gender-neutral terms such as Father/Mother or Heavenly Parent without further ado?
Many peopleï¿½including some Catholicsï¿½say "yes." "We not only can," they contend, "we must. God is, after all, beyond gender. Calling God ï¿½Fatherï¿½, without adding that God is also Mother, unfairly exalts one image for God above all others and ignores the culturally conditioned nature of all our images of God," they argue.
A Consensus of the Many and the One
Of course, not everyone agrees. While most "mainline" Protestant churches have acquiesced, Evangelicals, the Orthodox churches and the Catholic Church have maintained traditional language for Godï¿½although even within these communions some peopleï¿½s sympathies run in the other direction.
That the Catholic Church and these churches and ecclesial communities would agree on a point of doctrine or practice presents a formidable unity against feminist "God-Talk." How often do we find that kind of united witness among that range of Christians? Yet as solid a prima facie case as that makes, a more serious obstacle to feminist revisionism existsï¿½an insurmountable one, in fact. Not the witness of this group of Christians or that, but of Christ Himself. The commonplace manner in which Christians address the Almighty as Father comes from Him. In fact, Jesus actually used a more intimate word, Abba or "Daddy."
Unfortunately, twenty centuries of Christian habit has eclipsed the "scandal" of this. For the Jews of Jesusï¿½ day, however, it stunned the ear. They did not usually address the All Powerful Sovereign of the Universe in such intimate, familiar terms. Yes, God was acknowledged as Father, but usually as Father of the Jewish people as a whole. Jesus went further: God is (or can be at least) your or my Father, not mere our Father or the Father of our people. Anyone who wants to fiddle with how we talk of God must reckon with Jesus.
But did Jesus really call God "Father"? Few things in modern biblical scholarship are as certain. Skeptics may question whether Jesus turned water into wine or walked on water. They may doubt that He was born of a Virgin or that He rose from the dead. But practically no one denies that Jesus called God "Abba" or "Father." So distinctive was the invocation in his day, so deeply imbedded in the biblical tradition is it, that to doubt it is tantamount to doubting we can know anything about Jesus of Nazareth.
What is more, not even most feminists deny it. What then to make of it?
Since Christians believe that Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, they must hold that He most fully reveals how we, by grace, should understand God: as Father. Otherwise they tacitly deny the central claim of their faithï¿½that Christ is the fullness of Godï¿½s self-disclosure to man. Non-Christians may do that, of course, but Christians cannotï¿½not without ceasing to be Christians in any meaningful sense of the word.
"But surely we must hold," someone will object, "that Jesusï¿½ view of God was historically conditioned like that of his contemporaries? His masculine language for God cannot be part of the ï¿½fullness of Godï¿½s self-disclosure,ï¿½ as you suppose. It was merely a residue of first century Jewish sexism. We must look instead to the ï¿½transhistorical significanceï¿½ of his teaching. And that is not the Fatherhood of God but the Godhood of the Fatherï¿½that God is a loving Parent."
At least two false claims lie hidden in that objection. The first is that Jesusï¿½ own concept of God was "historically conditioned." The second, that we can strip away a patriarchal "coating" to His notion of God to get at the gender-inclusive idea of the Divine Parent beneath. In other words, Godï¿½s Fatherhood, per se, is not central to Jesusï¿½ revelation of God, only those qualities which fathers share with mothersï¿½"parenthood," in other words.
But was Jesusï¿½ view of God "historically conditioned"? Not if you mean by "historically conditioned" "wholly explicable in terms of the religious thinking of His day." We have no reason to think Jesus uncritically imbibed the prevailing ideas about God. He certainly felt free to correct inadequate ideas from the Old Testament in other respects (see, for example, Matt. 5:21-48) and to contravene religio-cultural norms, especially regarding women. He had women disciples, for example. He spoke with women in public. He even allowed women to be the first witnesses of His resurrection. How, then, on this most central pointï¿½the nature and identity of Godï¿½are we to suppose He was either unable, due to His own sexism and spiritual blindness, or unwilling, to set people straight about God as Father? Even if you deny Jesusï¿½ divinity or hold to a watered-down notion of it, such a view remains impossible to maintain.
Furthermore, even if Jesus had "picked up" the notion of God as Father from His surrounding culture, we can not simply dismiss an idea as false merely because it happens to have been held by others. Otherwise Jesusï¿½ monotheism itself could be as easily explained away on the grounds that it, too, was generally affirmed by the Jews of the day and therefore must, on this view, be only ï¿½historically conditioned.ï¿½
Nor can we simply ignore Jesusï¿½ teaching about Godï¿½s Fatherhood, as if it were peripheral to His revelation. Time and again Jesus addresses God as Father, so much so that we can say Jesusï¿½ name for God is Father. If Jesus was wrong about that, so fundamental a thing, then what, really, does He have to teach us? That God is for the poor and the lowly? The Hebrew prophets taught as much. That God is loving? They taught that as well.
Notice too that these truthsï¿½still widely held todayï¿½are subject to the "historical conditioning" argument. They are just as liable to be wrong as Jesusï¿½ views about the Fatherhood of God, are they not? They, too, can be explained away as ï¿½culturally conditioned.ï¿½
Furthermore, Jesusï¿½ way of addressing God as Father is rooted in His own intimate relationship to God. Now whatever else we say about God, we cannot say that He is Jesusï¿½ mother, for Jesusï¿½ mother is not God but Mary. Jesusï¿½ mother was a creature; His Father, the Creator. "Father" and "Mother" are not, then, interchangeable terms for God in relation to Jesus. Nor can they be for us, if Catholicismï¿½s doctrine that Mary is the "Mother of Christians" is correct.
The Real Issue
Undergirding Jesusï¿½ teaching about God as Father is the idea that God has revealed Himself as to be such and that His revelation should be normative for us. God, in other words, calls the theological shots. If He wants to be understood primarily in masculine terms, then that is how we should speak of Him. To do otherwise, is tantamount to idolatryï¿½fashioning God in our image, rather than receiving from Him His self-disclosure as the Father.
Many Feminist theologians seek to fashion God in their image, because they think God is fashionable (in both senses of the word). Many feminists hold that God is in Himself (they would say "Herself" or "Godself") utterly unintelligible. We can, therefore, speak only of God in metaphors, understood as convenient, imaginative ways to describe our experience of God, rather than God Himself. In such a view, there is no room for revelation, understood as God telling us about Himself; we have only our own colorful, creative yet merely human descriptions of what we purport to be our experiences of the divine.
Whatever this is, it is not Christianity, which affirms that God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ. C.S. Lewis, in an essay on womenï¿½s ordination in Anglicanism, put the matter thus: But Christians think that God himself has taught us how to speak of him. To say that it does not matter is to say either that all the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in origin, or else that, though inspired, it is quite arbitrary and unessential. And this is surely intolerable: or, if tolerable, it is an argument not in favor of Christian priestesses but against Christianity.
Cardinal Ratzinger made a similar point in The Ratzinger Report: "Christianity is not a philosophical speculation; it is not a construction of our mind. Christianity is not ï¿½ourï¿½ work; it is a Revelation; it is a message that has been consigned to us, and we have no right to reconstruct it as we like or choose. Consequently, we are not authorized to change the Our Father into an Our Mother: the symbolism employed by Jesus is irreversible; it is based on the same Man-God relationship he came to reveal to us."
Now people are certainly free to reject Christianity. But they should be honest enough to admit that this is what they are doing, instead of surreptitiously replacing Christianity with the milk of the Goddess, in the name of putting new wine into old wineskins.
Taking Another Tack
Here proponents of feminine "God talk" often shift gears. Rather than argue that Jesusï¿½ teaching was merely the product of a patriarchal mindset to which even He succumbed, they say that Jesus chose not to challenge patriarchalism directly. Instead, He subverted the established order by His radical inclusivity and egalitarianism. The logical implications of His teaching and practice compel us to accept inclusive or gender-neutral language for God, even though Christ Himself never explicitly called for it.
This argument overlooks an obvious point. While affirming the equal dignity of women was countercultural in first century Judaism, so was calling God "Abba." Some feminists counter with the claim that the very idea of a loving Heavenly Father was itself a move in the feminist direction of a more compassionate, intimate Deity. The first century Jewish patriarch, they contend, was a domineering, distant figure. But even if that were soï¿½and there is reason to doubt such a sweeping stereotype of first century Judaismï¿½revealing God as a loving, compassionate Father is not the same as revealing Him as Father/Mother or Parent. That Jesus corrected some peopleï¿½s erroneous ideas of fatherhood by calling God "Father" hardly means we should cease calling God "Father" altogether or call Him Father/Mother.
Feminists also sometimes argue that Scripture, even if not Jesus Himself, gives us a "depatriarchalizing principle" that, once fully developed, overcomes the "patriarchalism" of Jewish culture and even of other parts of the Bible. In other words, the Bible corrects itself when it comes to male stereotypes of God.
But this simply is not so. Granted, the Bible occasionally uses feminine similes for God. Isaiah 42:14, for example, says that God will "cry out like a woman in travail." Yet the Bible does not say that God is a woman in travail, it merely likens His cry to that of a woman.
The fact is, whenever the Bible uses feminine language for God, it never applies it to Him in the same way masculine language is used of Him. Thus, the primary image of God in Scripture remains masculine, even when feminine similes are used: God is never called "She" or "Her." As Protestant theologian John W. Miller puts it in Biblical Faith and Fathering: "Not once in the Bible is God addressed as mother, said to be mother, or referred to with feminine pronouns. On the contrary, gender usage throughout clearly specifies that the root metaphor is masculine-father."
In fact, the Bible ascribes feminine characteristics to God in exactly the same way it sometimes ascribes such traits to human males. For example, in Numbers 11:12 Moses asks, "Have I given birth to this people?" Do we conclude from this maternal image that Scripture here is "depatriarchalize" Moses. Obviously, Moses uses here a maternal metaphor for himself; he is not making a statement about his "gender identity." Likewise, in the New Testament, both Jesus (Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34) and Paul (Galatians 4:19) likened themselves to mothers, though they are men. Why, then, should we think that on those relatively rare occasions when the Bible uses feminine metaphors for God anything more is at work there than with Moses, Jesus and Paul?
Of course there is a crucial difference between God and Moses, the Incarnate Son and Paul. The latter possess human natures in the male gender, while God, as such, is without gender because He is Infinite Spirit. Furthermore, the biblical authors obviously knew that Moses, Jesus and Paul were male and intended to assert as much by referring to them with the masculine pronoun and other masculine language. The same cannot be said about the biblical writersï¿½ notion of God. Even so, they speak of God as if He were masculine. For them, masculine language is the primary way we speak of God. Feminine language is applied to God as if it were being used of a masculine being.
Why the Masculine Language to Begin With?
Which brings us to a more fundamental issue, namely, "What is the masculine language about in the first place?" Since Christianity, as St. Augustine was overjoyed to learn, holds that God has no body, why is God spoken of in masculine terms?
We could, of course, merely insist that He has revealed Himself in this way and be done with it. That would not, however, help us understand God, which presumably is why He bothered to reveal Himself as Father to begin with. No, if we insist that God has revealed Himself as Father, we must try to understand what He is telling us by it.
Why call God Father? The question is obviously one of language. Before we can answer it, we must observe a distinction between two different uses of languageï¿½analogy and metaphor.
Sometimes when we speak of God, we assert that God really is this or that, or really possesses this characteristic or that, even if how He is or does so differs from our ordinary use of a word. We call this way of talking about God analogy or analogous language about God. Even when we speak analogously of God, however, we are still asserting something about how God really is. When we say that God is living, for example, we really attribute life to God, although it is not mere life as we know it, i.e., biological life.
Other times when we speak of God, we liken Him to something elseï¿½meaning that there are similarities between God and what we compare him to, without suggesting that God really is a form of the thing to which we compare Him or that God really possesses the traits of the thing in question. For example, we might liken God to an angry man by speaking of "Godï¿½s wrath." By this we do not mean God really possesses the trait of anger, but that the effect of Godï¿½s just punishment is like the injuries inflicted by an angry man. We call this metaphor or metaphorical language about God.
When we call God Father, we use both metaphor and analogy. We liken God to a human father by metaphor, without suggesting that God possesses certain traits inherent in human fatherhoodï¿½male gender, for example. We speak of God as Father by analogy because, while God is not male, He really possesses certain other characteristics of human fathers, although He possesses these in a different way (analogously)ï¿½without creaturely limitations.
With this distinction between analogy and metaphor in mind, we turn now to the question of what it means to call God "Father."
The Fatherhood of God in Relation to Creation
We begin with Godï¿½s relationship to creation. As the Creator, God is like a human father. A human father procreates a child distinct from and yet like himself. Similarly, God creates things distinct from and like Himself. This is especially true of man, who is the "image of God." And God cares for His creation, especially man, as a human father cares for his children.
But does not what we have said thus far allow us to call God Mother as well as Father? Human mothers also procreate children distinct from yet like themselves, and they care for them, as human fathers do. If we call God Father because human fathers do such things, why not call God Mother because human mothers do these things as well?
No doubt, as CCC no. 239 states, "Godï¿½s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasizes Godï¿½s immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature." Scripture itself, as we have seen, sometimes likens God to a mother. Yet, as we have also seen, Scripture never calls God "Mother" as such. Scripture uses feminine language for God no differently than it sometimes metaphorically uses feminine language for men. How do we explain this?
Many feminists simply dismiss this as sexism by the biblical writers. But the real answer rests with the difference between God and human beings, between fathers and mothers and between metaphor and analogy. The Bible sometimes speaks metaphorically of God as Father. But it would be strange for Scripture so often to call God Father and so seldom to use maternal language, if the whole thing were merely a difference in metaphor. By never calling God "Mother" but only likening God to a human mother, Scripture seems to suggest that God is really Father in a way He is not really Mother. In other words, that fatherhood and motherhood are not on equal footing when it comes to describing God. To understand why this is so, let us look at the difference between fathers and mothers.
Father and Mother
What is the difference between fatherhood and motherhood? A father is the "principle" or "source" of procreation in a way a mother is not. To be sure, both father and mother are parents of their offspring and in that sense both are causes of their offspringï¿½s coming-to-be. But they are so in different ways.
Both mother and father are active agents of conception (contrary to what Aristotle thought). But the father, being male, initiates procreation; he enters and impregnates the woman, while the woman is entered and impregnated. There is an initiatory activity by the man and a receptive activity by the woman. Furthermore, modern biology tells us that the father determines the gender of the offspring (as Aristotle held, though for a different reason).
Thus, while father and mother are both parents of their offspring and both necessary for procreation, the father has a certain priority as the "source" or "principle" of procreation. (This "priority as source" is complemented by the motherï¿½s priority as first nurturer, due to her procreating within herself and carrying the child within herself for nine months.)
This difference between fathers and mothers for the Fatherhood of God is crucial. As Dominican Fr. Benedict Ashley has argued, so long as we compare Godï¿½s act of creating to a human fatherï¿½s act of procreation through impregnating a woman, we speak only metaphorically of God as Father. For God does not "impregnate" anyone or anything when he creates; He creates from nothing, without a partner. But if we move beyond the particulars of human reproduction, where a father requires a mother to procreate, and instead speak of the father as "source" or "principle" of procreation, then our language for God as Father becomes analogous rather than merely metaphorical. As a human father is the "source" or "principle" of his offspring (in a way that the mother, receiving the father and his procreative activity within herself, is not), so God is the "source" or "principle" of creation. In that sense, God is truly Father, not merely metaphorically so.
Can we make a similar jump from the occasional metaphorical likening of God to human mothers in Scripture to an analogical way of calling God Mother? No, and here is why: A mother is not the "principle" or "source" of procreation the way a father is. She is a receptive, active collaborator in procreation, to be sure. But she is not the active initiatorï¿½that is the fatherï¿½s role as a man in impregnating her. A father can be an analogue for the Creator who creates out of nothing insofar as fathersï¿½while not procreating out of nothingï¿½nevertheless are the "source" or "principle" of procreation as initiators, as God is the source of creation. But a mother, being the impregnated rather than the impregnator, is analogous neither to God as Creator from nothing, nor God as the initiating "source" or "principle" of creation. As a mother, she can be likened to God only in metaphorical waysï¿½as nurturing, caring, etc., as we see in Scripture.
One reason, then, Scripture more often speaks of God as Father than likens Him to a mother is that fatherhood can be used analogously of God, while motherhood can only be a metaphor. We can speak of God either metaphorically or analogously as Father, but we can speak of Him as maternal only metaphorically. Thus, we should expect that masculine and specifically paternal language would generally "trump" feminine and specifically maternal language for God in Scripture. For an analogy tells us how God truly is, not merely what He is like, as in metaphor.
But we can go further. Even on the metaphorical level, it is more appropriate to call God Father rather than Mother. To understand why, we return to the difference between father and mother, this time introducing two other terms, transcendence and immanence.
Transcendence and Immanence
Transcendence here refers to the fact that God is more than and other than His creationï¿½indeed, more than and other than any possible creation. This is part of what it means to call God "the Supreme Being" or "that than which no greater can be thought" (to use St. Anselmï¿½s description). Immanence, on the other hand, refers to the fact that God is present in His creationï¿½as the author is "in" his book or the painter "in" his painting, only more so. God created the world and it is marked by His creation of it. But God also continues to sustain the world in being. If He ever withdrew His power, the cosmos would cease to be. In that sense, God is closer to the cosmos than it is to itselfï¿½closer than its very own existence is, for God gives the cosmos existence, moment by moment.
Now back to fathers and mothers. We said a father "initiates" procreation by impregnating the mother, while the mother "receives" the father into herself and is impregnated. The obvious difference here is that the man procreates outside and "away from" himself, while the woman procreates inside and within herself. Symbolically, these are two very different forms of procreation and they represent two different relationships to the offspring.
Because the father procreates outside of himself, his child is symbolically (though in reality not wholly) other than his father. Likewise, the father is other than his child (though also not wholly). In other words, the father, as father, transcends his child. Fatherhood, in this sense, symbolizes transcendence in relation to offspring, though we also recognize that, as the "source" of his childï¿½s life, the father is united or one with his child and therefore he is not wholly a symbol of transcendence.
On the other hand, because the mother procreates within herselfï¿½within her womb where she also nurtures her child for nine monthsï¿½her child is symbolically (though in reality not wholly) part of herself. And similarly, the mother is symbolically (though in reality not wholly) part of her child. In other words, the mother, as mother, is one with her child. Motherhood, in this sense, symbolizes immanence, though we recognize that as a distinct being, the mother is also other than her child and therefore not wholly a symbol of immanence.
Now God is distinct from and the source of His creation. He is infinitely greater than and therefore infinitely other than His creation (transcendent). As Creator and Sustainer of creation, He is also present in creation (immanent). And we, as creatures who are both part of creation and distinct from the rest of it, can understand God as transcendent (more than creation) or immanent (present in creation). If we go a step further and use "father" for transcendence and "mother" for immanence, we can say that Godï¿½s transcendence is represented by fatherhood, which symbolizes Godï¿½s otherness and initiating activity (His being the "source" of creation). Meanwhile, Godï¿½s immanence is represented by motherhood, which symbolizes intimacy and union with the things God created. Which leaves us with the obvious question, "If this is so, why does traditional theology use only male language for God?"
The answer: because Godï¿½s transcendence has a certain priority over His immanence in relation to creation. And this is for at least two reasons. First, because transcendence, in a sense, also includes the notion of immanence, although the reverse is not true. When we speak of God transcending creation we imply a certain relationship of immanence to it. For Him to transcend creation, there must be a creation to transcend. And since creation resembles its Creator and is sustained by Him, He is present in it by His immanence.
But the opposite is not necessarily so. We do not necessarily imply transcendence by talking of divine immanence. Pantheism (Greek for "all is God"), for example, more or less identifies God with the cosmos, without acknowledging divine transcendence. To prevent Godï¿½s transcendence from being lost sight of and God being wrongly reduced to, or even too closely identified with, His creation, language stressing transcendenceï¿½masculine terms such as father ï¿½is necessary.
A second reason for putting Godï¿½s transcendence ahead of His immanence, and therefore fatherly language ahead of motherly language for God, has to do with the infinite difference between transcendence and immanence in God. God is infinitely transcendent, but not, in the same sense, infinitely immanent. Although God is present in creation, He is above all infinitely more than the actual or any possible created order and is not defined or limited by any created order. The cosmos, however vast, is ultimately finite and limited because it is created and dependent. Therefore God can be present in it only to a finite extentï¿½not because of any limitation in God, but because of limits inherent in anything that is not God.
Thus, in order to express adequately Godï¿½s infinite transcendence and to avoid idolatrously identifying God with the world (without severing Him from His creation, as in deism), even on the metaphorical level we must use fatherly language for God. Motherly language would give primacy to Godï¿½s immanence and tend to confuse Him with His creation (pantheism). This does not exclude all maternal imageryï¿½as we have seen even the Bible occasionally employs itï¿½but it means we must use such language as the Bible does, in the context of Godï¿½s fatherhood.
In other words, Godï¿½s Fatherhood includes the perfections of both human fatherhood and human motherhood. Scripture balances transcendence and immanence by speaking of God in fundamentally masculine or paternal terms, yet also occasionally using feminine or maternal language for what is depicted as an essentially masculine God. This helps explain why even when the Bible describes God in maternal termsï¿½God remains "He" and "Him."
The Fatherhood of God in the Trinity
We see, then, that God is Father because He is the Creator and creating resembles human fathering in some important ways. But what if God had never created the world or man? Would He still have been Father? Or what about before God created the world or man? Was God Father then?
The doctrine of the Trinity tells us the answer to these questions is "yes." The First Person of the Trinity, Trinitarian doctrine reminds us, is the Father. He is, in fact, Father of the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity (CCC 240). Before all worlds and from all eternity, the First Person "begot" the Second Person, who eternally proceeds from the Father, "God from God, light from light, true God from true God," as the Creed puts it (CCC 242). In the Trinity, the Father is the Underived Principle of the Son (and through Him, of the Spirit as well); He is the Source or Unoriginated Origin of the Triune God.
Again, we draw on the analogy of human fatherhood. As we have seen, a father is the "source" of his offspring in a way a mother is not. The First Person of the Trinity is the "source" of the second Person. Thus, we call the First Person "the Father" rather than "the Mother" and the Second Person, generated by the Father yet also the Image of the Father, we call the Son.
Although the Son is also God and the Image of the Father, He is also distinct from and other than the Father. The Son is begotten; the Father, unbegotten. The Son is originated, the Father, unoriginated. Father-Son language expresses this relationship better than Father-Daughter; Mother-Daughter or Mother-Son language.
Of course because we use analogy, there are crucial differences between God the Father and human fathers. In the Trinity, God the Father begets the Son without a cooperating maternal principle, unlike how human fathers beget their sons. Moreover, God the Father does not precede His Son in time as a human father does his son. Both Father and Son are eternal in the Trinity, hence neither Person existed before the other. Finally, while human fathers and sons share a common human nature, they each have their own human natures. The father does not know with his sonï¿½s intellect; the son does not choose with his fatherï¿½s will. And while they may have similar physical makeup, their bodies are distinct and genetically unique.
Yet in the Trinity, the Father and the Son do possess the same divine nature, not merely their own, respective divines natures as humans possess their own, respective human nature. This is because there can be no such thing as divine "natures"; there can be and is only one divine nature, just as there can be and is only one God. The Father and Son each wholly possesses the divine nature, though each in his distinctive way. The Father possesses it as unreceived and as giving it to the Son; the Son, as received from the Father.
Thus, within the Trinity, there is fundamental equalityï¿½each Person is wholly Godï¿½and basic differenceï¿½each Person is unique and not the Others, not interchangeable. And there is also sacred order, with the Son begotten of the Father and the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son. This shows that equality and difference, and even equality and hierarchy, need not be understood as opposed to one another, as some feminists claim.
Furthermore, a proper understanding of the Trinity also helps us to see why we cannot just substitute "Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier" for "Father, Son and Holy Spirit," as some feminists propose. Traditional theology allows us to associate creation with the Father in a special way because of a similarity between the act of creation and the fact that the Father is the Unoriginated Origin of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Likewise, we can associate Redemption with the Son because He became incarnate to redeem us, and Sanctification with the Holy Spirit, because the Spirit proceeds in love from the Father and the Son and the gifts of the Spirit which sanctify are gifts of Divine love. This process of associating certain divine works in the world with a particular Person of the Trinity is called appropriation.
But in all these cases what is associated with or attributed to a particular Person of the Trinityï¿½whether Creation, Redemption or Sanctificationï¿½really belongs to all three Divine Persons. In other words, the Three Divine Persons of the Trinity are not "defined" as Persons by these actions, since Creation, Redemption and Sanctification are common to all Three. What defines them as Persons are their unique relations among one another, with the Father begetting, the Son being begotten and the Spirit being "spirated" from the Father and the Son. To reduce each Person of the Trinity to a particular functionï¿½Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier ï¿½is to succumb to the ancient heresy of Modalism, which denies that there are Three Persons in God and instead holds that there is really only one Person in God who acts in three different modesï¿½Father, Son and Spirit. Or in this case, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.
The Father of the Incarnate Son
But we must not stop with the First Person of the Trinityï¿½s Fatherhood of the Son before all worlds. For the Triune God has revealed Himself in history. The Son united Himself with human nature. He is the Son of the Father in His human nature as well as His divinity. This, in part, is the meaning of the Virginal Conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary (Lk 1:35). Jesus has no human fatherï¿½St. Joseph is His "foster-father." Jesusï¿½ Father is God the Father and He alone. That is why Jesus refers to God as "Abba"ï¿½a highly personal and intimate form of paternal address. Jesusï¿½ existence in time and history parallels His eternal, divine existence as God the Son. For this reason, we must not speak of God as Jesusï¿½ Mother, as if the terms "father" and "mother" are interchangeable when it comes to Jesusï¿½ relation to God. God is Jesusï¿½ Father; Mary is Jesusï¿½ Mother and she is not God.
Fatherhood of God by Divine Adoption and Regeneration in Christ
We come now to God and humanity. Is God the Father of all mankind? In a sense He is, because He created us and, as we have seen, to create is like fathering a child. Yet God also made rocks, trees and the Crab Nebula. How is He Father of man but not also Father of them? Granted, humans are spiritual, as well as material, beings, which means they are rational beingsï¿½capable of knowing and choosing. In this, they more closely resemble God than the rest of visible creation. Nevertheless, human beings, as such, do not share Godï¿½s own life, as children share the life of their fathers. Thus, we are not by nature "children of God" in that sense, but mere creatures. And, as a result of sin, we are fallen creatures at that.
Yet Jesus tells His followers to address God as Father (Mt 6:9-13). He says the Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask (Lk 11:13) and that the Spirit of their Father will speak through them in times of persecution (Mt 10:20). He tells His disciples to be merciful as their heavenly Father is merciful (Lk 6:36). He speaks of being "born from above" through baptism and the Holy Spirit (Jn 3:5). On Easter Sunday, He directs Mary Magdalen to tell the other disciples, "I am going to my Father and your Father . . ." (Jn 20:17).
Elsewhere in the New Testament, God is also depicted as Father to Christians. Through Jesus Christ we are more than mere creatures to God; by faith in Him we become the children of God (1 Jn 5:1), sharing in Jesusï¿½ own Divine Sonship, albeit in a created way (Rom 8:29). God is our Father because He is Jesusï¿½ Father (Jn 1:12). What God is for Jesus by nature, He is for us by grace, Divine Adoption (Rom 8:14-17; Gal 4:4-7; Eph 1:5-6), and regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Tit 3:5-7).
Behind this language of Divine Adoption and regeneration is the idea that God is our Father because He is the "source" or "origin" of our new life in Christ. He has saved us through Christ and sanctified us in the Spirit. This is clearly more than a metaphor; the analogy with earthly fatherhood is obvious. God is not merely like a father for Christï¿½s followers; He is really their Father. In fact, Godï¿½s Fatherhood is the paradigm of fatherhood. This is why Paul writes in Eph 3:14-15, "For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named . . ." (RNAB). It is not that God the Father is earthly fatherhood writ large; rather, earthly fatherhood is the faint copy of Divine Fatherhood. This is why Jesus says, "Call no man on earth father. For you have but one Father in heaven" (Mt 23:9). In other words, no earthly father should be seen as possessing the fullness of patriarchal authority; that belongs to God the Father. All earthly fatherhood is derivative from Him.
Thus, God is not Father of those who have not received the grace of justification and redemption in the same way as those who have. Yet they remain potentially His children, since the Father wills the salvation of all (1 Tim 2:4) and makes sufficient grace necessary for salvation available to all. God desires that all men become children of the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit, hence the universal mission of the Church (Mt 28:19-20; Mk 16:15; Acts 1:8). We can speak, then, in general terms of God as the Father of all men, inasmuch as He created all men to be His children by grace and makes available to them the means of salvation.
We see now that there are good theological reasons for why we call God "Father," not the least of which is that such language is not ours to adapt or abolish to begin with. God gave us this languageï¿½admittedly through a particular culture and its imagesï¿½but it was God who nevertheless gave it. God wants us to understand Him as the Transcendent Source of creation, a truth better expressed using the language of fatherhood than motherhood. Within the Triune Life of God, the First Person is Father because He is the Unoriginated Origin of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, He is also Father of the Son in history, through the Incarnation. And, by Divine Adoption and regeneration, He is Father of those who are united to Christ in the Holy Spiritï¿½"sons in the Son." Finally, as a result of Godï¿½s universal salvific will, all human beings are potentially children of God, for all are called to share in the Divine Life of grace through Christ in the Holy Spirit.
Mark Brumley is the Managing Editor of The Catholic FaithMagazine.
The Catholic Faith Magazine ï¿½ 1999
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