. . . The center of the New Testament is the relationship between Jesus Christ and the One he addresses as Father. The communion between Jesus and his heavenly Fatherly is an utterly unique relationship, of which we can know nothing apart from Jesus’ own testimony.
God is thus Father not by comparison to human fathers, but only in the Trinitarian relation, as Father of the Son. Whenever Father is used of God it means “the One whom Jesus called Father.” The paradigm text is John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” In Greek, the word for “made him known” is exegesato. Jesus “exegetes” or “interprets” the Father. The term does not denote a generic title for God outside of the Father-Son relationship. Father thus functions in Trinitarian language not as a descriptive metaphor but as a proper name, whose home is the relationship that exists from all eternity between the first and second Persons of the Trinity. That is a relationship to which we as creatures have not immediate knowledge or access.
But by an astonishing gift of grace, Jesus invites us to be united with himself in the power of the Holy Spirit so that in union with him we may come to share in his utterly unique relation of Sonship to the Father. By ourselves we have absolutely no right or ground to address God as “Father.” It is only as we are united with Christ, partaking of his communion with the Father, that we can truthfully address God in this way ourselves. In Paul’s words,
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. . . . When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. (Rom. 8:14-17)
We know God only in and through Christ’s relationship of Sonship, into which he invites us as participants (“Pray then like this: Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”). This means that salvation is understood as our communion with the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. As Fanny Crosby’s hymn put it, “O come to the Father through Jesus the Son, and give him the glory: great things he hath done!” Our knowledge of God and our hope for salvation are directly Trinitarian in their scope.
The traditional naming of the Trinitarian God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is sometimes replaced today by the functional titles of Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. This works as an occasional use, describing God’s acts, but not as a substitute for the Trinitarian Name. The Fatherhood of God is tied utterly to Jesus’ naming of his own relationship to God, into which relationship we, by the Spirit, participate.
It was St. Athanasius who noted that the only reason we have for calling God “Father” is that God is so named by Jesus in the Bible. This points to the historical shape that the Gospels too: Christian faith is a biblical faith and a Jesus-based faith. God’s Fatherhood was understood relationally in an through Jesus Christ as self-giving love, and not as a human image or concept projected onto God. There is, in fact, an appropriate “thinking away” of that which is inappropriate in this terminology. By this we mean explicitly thinking away all biological and sexual imputation whatsoever into the theological concept of God. God the Father revealed in Scripture is Spirit. God has no sexual identity; sexuality, after all, is part of creation. The imago Dei (image of God) is not reversible; God is not created in our likeness! The personalized language of Trinitarian theology intends to bear witness in Christ to the liberation of humankind from all patriarchal idols and divinized ideologies. Where this did not and does not happen, there is a perversion of intent that must be utterly rejected on the ground of the nature and reference of Trinitarian language itself. (Andrew Purves and Mark Achtemeier, “Union in Christ: A Declaration for the Church,” 34-36)
There is so much in this that could be noted. I am only going to touch on some of the implications of what is being said here; I am going to reflect (below) with (1) Theological Implications, and then (2) Pastoral Implications.
Certainly it should at least be highlighted that thinking like that articulated in the quote flows from a prior commitment to a certain mode of theological discourse, in fact methodology or prolegomena. Purves and Achtemeir are in the, what Barth has called, analogia fidei (or analogy of faith) versus the Traditional approach, best articulated by Thomas Aquinas called the analogia entis (or analogy of being). Instead of discussing what the distinctions are, in general here, I am going to focus on how these two disparate approaches play out theologically; and for our purposes, Confessionally. What happens if a particular theologian, or school of theologians, follows Aquinas’ approach versus the more Luther[an], Calvin[ian], Barth[ian], Torrance[an] approach?Here’s how the WCF starts out discussion on God and Trinity:
I. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty. (WCF, 2/I)
And the Belgic Confession:
Article 1: The Only God
* We all believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God — eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite, almighty; completely wise, just, and good, and the overflowing source of all good.
Article 8: The Trinity
* In keeping with this truth and Word of God we believe in one God, who is one single essence, in whom there are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties– namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is the cause, origin, and source of all things, visible as well as invisible. (Belgic Confession)
Contrast the above with the Heidelberg Catechism:
Of God The Father
9. Lord’s Day
Question 26. What believest thou when thou sayest, “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”?
Answer: That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (who of nothing made heaven and earth, with all that is in them; (a) who likewise upholds and governs the same by his eternal counsel and providence) (b) is for the sake of Christ his Son, my God and my Father; (c) on whom I rely so entirely, that I have no doubt, but he will provide me with all things necessary for soul and body (d) and further, that he will make whatever evils he sends upon me, in this valley of tears turn out to my advantage; (e) for he is able to do it, being Almighty God, (f) and willing, being a faithful Father. (g) (Heidelberg Catechism)
And the Scots Confession:
Chapter 1 – God
We confess and acknowledge one God alone, to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom alone we must worship, and in whom alone we must put our trust; who is eternal, infinite, immeasurable, incomprehensible, omnipotent, invisible; one in substance and yet distinct in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; by whom we confess and believe all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible to have been created, to be retained in their being, and to be ruled and guided by his inscrutable providence for such end as his eternal wisdom, goodness, and justice have appointed, and to the manifestation of his own glory. (Scot’s Confession, 1560)
At first blush there might not be much discernable difference between the WCF/BC and the HC/SC, but that’s what I want to reflect on for a moment. The “Westminster” tradition starts talking about God by highlighting His “attributes,” these are characteristics that are contrasted with who man is not. We finally make it to Him as “Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” but not before we have qualified Him through “our” categories using man (“analogy of being”) as our mode of thinking about “Godness.” This is true for both the WCF/BC. Contrarily, the HC/SC both immediately speak of God as Father; which is to say that these approach God through an (“analogy of faith” to speak anachronistically). Meaning that the emphasis is on the economic Revelation of God in Christ as the ‘eternal Son of God’ who exegetes God’s inner-life as loving Father, Son, by the Holy Spirit as the shape of his ‘being’ (ousia).
I hope the significance of this is not lost on you. It almost seems nit-picky, I am sure for some of you, that I would try and draw this distinction; but I want to assure you, that it is real — and that it would serve as one of the reasons that Purves and Achtemeir felt it necessary to make the point they do in the quote I provide from them above. The next question might be, what difference does this shift in “emphasis” and approach make in real life; in “pastoral situations?”
I have a friend who is in the midst of “hellish” personal circumstances (a divorce with extraordinary circumstances surrounding it). We meet almost weekly to talk and pray. He has previously (for the past few years) sat under teaching that is self-consciously promoting theology that lines up with the Westminster approach to articulating God; his pastors teach through the theological grid that both John MacArthur and John Piper provide (in general). He is totally relying on the Lord, for this is really all he has, through this terrible season. And often, in our conversation he brings up the issue of “why” if God is sovereign would He allow or decree or appoint or cause the things that are happening to happen in his life in the way that they are. It is hard for my friend to conceptualize a God who is loving Father before He is sovereign Creator. So, like the “WCF” my friend primarily thinks about God through God’s attributes; instead of think of God through His relationship as Father, Son, Holy Spirit. This has real life consequence upon how my friend is trying to process his circumstances, and I must say not for the good. I am glad that I have been able to point him to a way to think about God as loving Father who is sovereign in relation to His Son versus thinking about God as sovereign Creator who deals with humanity through his unqualified attributes as if this is what defines the “essence” of “who” God is. My friend, I think, is starting to see what a difference this makes in trying to think about God in right ways!