October 2021 Credo
From its inception, Christianity has described God as the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” For the early Jewish Christians to speak of God as “Father” is rather unusual. While the Old Testament does speak of Yahweh as the Father of Israel (Deut. 32:6; Isa. 63:16 & Jer. 31:9) and compares his compassion for his people to that of a father having compassion on his children (Ps. 103:13), the metaphor of fatherhood is not commonly used of God in the Hebrew Bible.
The impetus for this description of God as “Father” goes back to Jesus himself, who addressed God as Abba. The Aramaic Abba was a term of endearment that little Jewish children use in speaking to their fathers. Historians may disagree on details about the historical Jesus, but they are united in affirming that he addressed God repeatedly as “Father.”
The God of the Christian creeds is not a generic deity, but One whom Jesus revealed as Father. The notion of God as Father is rooted in God’s self-revelation in Jesus the incarnate Son. This led to a change in the Jewish understanding of God. The God of the Old Testament, erstwhile understood as One, is revealed in Christ and the New Testament as Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit.
In unpacking the trinitarian relationship between the three persons of the Godhead, the church fathers described the Father as the originating “principle” or “source” in that he is the eternally unbegotten one. The Son, by contrast, is the eternally begotten of the Father, while the Spirit is said to proceed from both the Father and the Son. While all three are coeternal and coequal in essence, they are nevertheless distinct persons.
While Jesus taught his disciples to pray to God as “Father” (Matt. 6:9) and to see themselves as children of God, it’s clear from Scripture that Jesus’ relationship to the Father is absolutely unique. Jesus regards himself as one sent from the Father (John 5:37) and claims to be one with the Father (John 10:30). Believers are children of the Father only through faith in Christ (John 1:12) and only by receiving “the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom. 8:15). Jesus’ sonship, by contrast, is in accordance with his very nature.
The fatherhood of God is a datum of God’s revelation in Christ. Political correctness may want to address God as the “divine parent,” or to regard “father” as interchangeable with “mother.” This fails to see that God is beyond gender. “Father” does not refer to God’s gender. Despite feminine images being used of God in the Bible (e.g. Num. 11:12; Deut. 32:18; Isa. 66:12-13), he is never addressed as “mother” nor as “she” or “her” in Scripture. He is always “Father.”
The baptismal formula specifies that baptism is in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). We are bound by this and are not free to substitute Mother for Father. The use of father language does not necessarily entail a patriarchal denigration of women. Both Jesus and Paul likened themselves to mothers (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34 & Gal. 4:19), without denying their maleness or putting down women.
As with all images of God, the fatherhood of God can be misconstrued. Bad experiences with earthly fathers can leave emotional scars on us and distort our understanding of God as Father. And some of the negativities associated with earthly fathers may be projected onto the heavenly Father.
Yet in a profound way, knowing the loving care of God the Father can be a therapeutic balm to those suffering from the emotional and psychological whiplash sustained from either an absentee or abusive father. For God is “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation” (Ps. 68:5).
God’s fatherhood is the archetype of human fatherhood. The apostle Paul prays, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father (pater), from whom every family (patria) in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:14-15). There is a play of the words pater and patria in the original Greek. John Stott renders this phrase, “the Father from whom all fatherhood is named.” To truly appreciate what it means to be an earthly father, one must look to God our heavenly Father. The generosity of our heavenly Father points to the sacrificial generosity that human fathers are to demonstrate.
God as Father sustains the human community. He makes “his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). All good and perfect gifts have their source in the gracious generosity of the “the Father of lights” (Jas. 1:17).
God as Father is especially attentive and responsive to the needs of his children. In teaching us to pray, our Lord instructs us not to heap up empty words but to rest in the assurance that our Father knows what we need even before we ask him (Matt. 6:8). The heavenly Father who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the grass of the field (Matt. 6:26, 30) can be counted upon to look after his children.
Not only can we draw comfort from the fact that our Father will provide for our needs, there is also that wonderful assurance that Christ has entrusted us into the hands of his Father and that no one is able to snatch us out of the Father’s hands (John 10:29). There is eternal security for the children of God.
The fatherhood of God not only tells us who the Father is but also who we are and how we are to live as his children. The implications are far-reaching. Just as we derive our earthly identity from our biological fathers, so our identity is rooted in our heavenly Father. There is a sense in which God’s children bear a family resemblance to the character of the heavenly Father.
To have God as Father is to belong to the larger family of God. Life with the Father is always lived out in the context of relationships with others in the household of God. To know the Father is to submit oneself to his disciplining love (Heb. 12:5-11) and to obey his call to be about the Father’s business. Such are the blessings and responsibilities of being children of God.
Dr Mark Chan is Earnest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia (CSCA) at Trinity Theological College (TTC). He teaches hermeneutics, homiletics and other theological subjects at TTC.