7 February 2022
The great ecumenical creeds of the Christian Church—the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed—begin with the declaration that the Church believes in God, the Father. The fatherhood of God is the fundamental tenet of Christianity that not only distinguishes it from other religions, but also from other versions of theism.
Yet as theologian Thomas Smail has observed in his book entitled The Forgotten Father, the fatherhood of God is one of the most neglected themes in evangelical Christianity. Why is this so? Several reasons are offered by Smail.
First, liberal theology has taken advantage of the concept of the fatherhood of God to present a kind of generic theism that pushes the distinctive doctrines of orthodox Christianity such as the Trinity to the margins. The concept of God as Father has also been commandeered by liberal theologians to promote a theory of religious pluralism which postulates that the different religions in the world all point to the same God.
In responding to liberalism, evangelical Christians are anxious to underscore the distinctiveness of the Christian faith by focusing on Christ and the Cross. In the process, however, the concept of God as Father is inadvertently neglected and pushed to the background.
Second, the ascendency of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity, which thrusts the third person of the triune Godhead, the Holy Spirit, into the limelight has also contributed to the neglect of this important doctrine. In fact, some theologians have observed that charismatic churches have not only neglected the Father, but also the Son—hence the expression “a Christ-less Pentecost”.
There is a need to recover the concept of God as Father because it is absolutely central in the biblical witness of the divine self-disclosure.
In Hebrews 1:1–3, we are told that the incarnate Son is the supreme revelation of God. The Son of God became a human being in Jesus of Nazareth not only to bring salvation to the world but also to reveal God the Father.
Jesus Himself testified to this when He said: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has declared him” (John 1:18 NKJV). This had prompted theologians such as Athanasius (AD 296–373) to insist that no one can know God the Father except through the incarnate Son.
Similarly, the third person of the triune Godhead, the Holy Spirit, also reveals the Father as He indwells believers and assures them that they are indeed God’s children. The apostle Paul makes this point in his letter to the Christians in Rome:
For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father”. The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God. (Rom 8:15–16)
The familiar passage in the Gospel of John (John 3:16), which summarises the good news so well, emphasises the indispensable role of the Father in human salvation. Thus, Smail reminds us that the Gospel “starts not with the cross of Christ or the gift of the Holy Spirit but with the Father who so loved the world that he gave his Son in his Spirit” (20).
In fact, we fail to understand the New Testament itself if we focus only on the second and third persons of the Trinity. In his highly acclaimed book Knowing God, J. I. Packer puts it like this:
You sum up the whole of the New Testament teaching in a single phrase, if you speak of it as a revelation of the Fatherhood of the holy Creator. In the same way, you sum up the whole of the New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s holy Father.
Packer adds: “If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father” (201).
The paternity of God is not a religiously inspired human construct, a convenient metaphor. In historic, orthodox Christianity, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is the proper name of God.
The fatherhood of God, therefore, is not a negotiable concept that can be replaced by others deemed as being more relevant to contemporary society. It is the way God has revealed himself and therefore it ought to inform every aspect of the Christian vision of reality.
Packer, J. I. Knowing God. Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1993.
Smail, Thomas. The Forgotten Father. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.