How is God called Father?
- July 18, 2019
- Steve Macias
Our most basic statement of faith, the Apostles’ Creed sets forth the essential truths about how we are to understand the Christian God. This Creed begins with, “I believe in God the Father Almighty” as the foundational statement of Christian theology and serves to articulate the first leg of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The term “God the Father” applied to the first member of the Godhead is later complemented by the identification of Jesus as the “God the Son.” Identifying these two persons of the Trinity with titles that are also associated with the human roles of father and son.
The Trinitarian formula of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit presents us with the difficulty of reconciling the unity of God’s singular divine essence with his distinct tri-personal identities, which are often referred to as hypostases or persons. One process for understanding how the various “persons” of the Trinity are able to express their distinct personalities is through the doctrine of appropriation. Appropriation is the idea of attributing some characteristics or names as belonging to one Person of the Trinity rather than to another. The term “God the Father” is used in the Apostles’ Creed to emphasize the truly paternal identity of God the Father among the Godhead and it is the father’s monarchial identity among the Trinity contributes to the consubstantial unity with God the Son and the God the Holy Spirit. It is an analogy that has left the divine imprint on mankind it is this “Fatherness” of God the Father that protects the Divine Trinity from encroachments of both Arian or Sabellian extremes.
The Monarchy of the Father
Attributes among the persons of the Trinity are equally possessed, that is to say that there are no attributes that belong only to the person of God the Father, therefore any attributes that are uniquely expressed by one person are to be understood also equally belonging to the other members of the Godhead. For example, if we say that God is merciful, we are to understand that attribute to belong to the essential character of the Trinity. Although, the doctrine of appropriation allows us to understand that each member of the Trinity does not equally express these attributes in the same likeness. God the Son may retain his essential sameness with God the Father while also yielding certain attributes to God the Father. In redemptive history, we see different members of the Trinity representing different attributes of salvation.
An important example of appropriation is the phenomenon of the Monarchy of the Father. The Apostles’ creed begins to establish this doctrine by naming the Father as the “Almighty.” The Creed ascribes a certain attribute of almightiness to the person of God the Father. Later the Church would produce the Athanasian Creed that also clarifies, “likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.” While each person of the Trinity is to be understood as possessing the attribute of “almightiness,” the Father uniquely expresses this “almightiness” as an aspect of his divine fatherhood. Fatherhood here is referring to the ontological priority of God the Father in the relationship between the various members of the Trinity. The word Almighty is synonymous with the phrase omnipotent, according to Francis Sheed, the doctrine of appropriation, “works of origination and of omnipotence are appropriated to the Father.” ((Francis J. Sheed. (1993). Theology and Sanity. Part II. pg.78)) Thus, we should then understand the use of almighty alongside father as a related intentionality rather than as coincidence. The Apostles’ Creed is linking the distinct Almighty attribute to the person of God the Father.
Distinctly reserved to the person of God the Father is the honor and office of fatherhood in that he is to beget God the Son, not as a creation, but as his eternally equal. St. Basil the Great describes this generation as, “the Son of God came forth, begotten from the Father, the source of life.” ((St. Basil the Great (330-379). Homily on Faith, 2. PG 31.465D.)) By appropriating the attributes of almightiness the Father is able to fully express his own identity as the one, singular cause, while also defending the true equality of God the Son by offering of his own essence. It is the very fact that God the Son is begotten of God the Father’s same essence that he may retain his equality. Therefore, one reason that first person of the Trinity is called Father is because this name describes his relation to the cause of the Trinity. It is difficult to discuss the cause or source of the Trinity, because it is eternal. There was never a time when God the Son or God the Holy Spirit was not. Therefore, we understand this ontological reality in a nontemporal way. The oneness of God and the triunity of God are not in competition due to the Father as the source or cause, but rather as Dr. Cornelius Van Til explains, “Unity in God is no more fundamental than diversity, and diversity no more fundamental than Unity.” ((Cornelius Van Til (1955). Defense of the Faith. pg. 25))
This monarchy of God the Father is what provides the ontological unity of the Godhead its consubstantial essence. Metropolitan Zizioulas explains it this way, “If God exists, He exists because the Father exists, that is, He who out of love freely begets the Son and brings forth the Spirit. Thus God as person—as the hypostasis of the Father—makes the one divine substance to be that which it is: the one God.” ((Zizioulas, J. (2011). Being As Communion: Studies in Personhood. pg. 41 )) Why do we call God the Father? Because he is the source of the life of the Godhead. If the Father and the Son had a common source, they would be more akin to brothers, but we have one father and one son. The generation from God the Father to God the Son is described in the Nicene Creed as, “God from God, Light From Light” as to imply that this generation in no way diminished the deity of the Son or in any way dampens the light from God the Father. “In the constitution of the Trinity the Father has undoubtedly priority,” writes German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann, “whether we call it the monarchy of the Father or not: the unity of the Triunity proceeds in eternity from the Father.” ((Moltmann, J. (2010). International Journal of Orthodox Theology. pg. 45)) Moltmann attempts to resolve what may appear to be an asymmetry toward a Fatherly hierarchy, with a Trinitarian perichoresis where each “person makes himself livable for the others” The Father is truly the father of the other members of Trinity and it is by his omnipotence that these two other subsistences of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit find room to derive their divinity, equality, and personhood.
An Analogy to Human Fatherhood
If the Father is to be understood as distinct among the Godhead for his identity as a paternal source, how much of this fatherliness translates into and away from the human analogy of Father and Son. St. Gregory of Nanzianus taught that God the Father is, “truly a father, a far more truly father, in fact, than we humans are…” This he based on the unique position of God the Father as, “…a Father only, not formerly a son; and that he is wholly Father, and father of one wholly his son, as cannot be affirmed of human beings; and that he has been Father from the beginning and did not become Father in the course of things.” ((St. Gregory of Nazianzus. (325-389). “Oration 20.” )) It is clear from the descriptions of the Father as having a son, that the Church fathers like Sts. Basil and Gregory believed that the fatherliness of God the Father was certainly related to the human family. This idea of fatherhood among the Trinity and the Human family is addressed by St. Thomas Aquinas is his answers to the objection that, “the name Father taken from generation does not seem to be the proper name of any divine person.” To which St. Thomas Aquinas answers: “the very fact that in God a distinction exists of the Begotten from the Begetter as regards relation only, belongs to the truth of the divine generation and paternity.” ((St. Thomas Aquinas (1485). Summa. “Question 33. The person of the Father”))
Where the Divine fatherhood is expressed in this perfect generation, the human concept of Fatherhood is expressed in creation. Just as the Apostles’ Creed begins with calling the God the Father Almighty, it immediately appropriated the acts of the material creation to the Father as the, “creator of heaven and earth…” ((The Apostles Creed)) God the Father therefore also expresses his Almighty or omnipotence in begetting the son and in creating the universe. While creation is certainly a Trinitarian activity, as we see revealed in the Genesis account and in the New Testament attributions to Christ’s involvement, the Father is identified with the cause or source of the creation, while God the Son is simultaneously the “firstborn of all creation” and “in him all things were created.” ((Colossians 1:15-16))
Analogy in the History of Redemption
This identity of the God the Father and his behavior toward to God the Son as analogical to human relationships is not limited to the simple idea of merely begetting. The history of redemption uses the analogy of the human father’s love for his son to make sense out of the plan God has to redeem the world. We can point to narratives like Abraham and the sacrifice of his son Isaac or the various pieces of anecdotal wisdom appealed to throughout the scripture. Christ himself appeals to the analogy of God the Father as a type of good and loving father who shares compassion on his children in a way that is similar to earthly fathers when he asks, “if you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” ((St. Luke 11:13)) Together these images give us a picture of a person that is God the Father as a district member of the Godhead. Therefore, we also call God Father because our earthly Fathers are to be like God the Father. Our earthly families are ordained by God through the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and ordered into a procreative community as a family. Thus, fatherhood ought to be understood as a having a Trinitarian bend. Just as Pope St. John Paul the Great identified the goal of self-realization through a “sincere gift of self.” The family and true Fatherhood can look to the, “Trinity, as a communion of Persons.” ((Pope John Paul II. (1988). Mulieris Dignitatem. ))
These illustrations are not, although, universally accepted as analogous of God the Father. One notable objection is Karl Barth, who explicitly rejected the analogy saying, “When Scripture calls God our father it adopts an analogy only to transcend it at once. Hence we must not measure by natural human fatherhood what it means that God is our father ” ((Barth, K. (2004). Church Dogmatics. pg. 266.)) To this objection, I offer the suggestion of viewing the ontological relationship between the Father and the Son from the perspective of Karl Rahner: “The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity.” ((Rahner, K. (1961). Theological Investigations 1-23, pg. 177.)) The implication being that God’s actions as redemptive history reveal God’s character and attributes. Thus we should take no issue with drawing analogies from God’s actions into what God is like. It is also important to note that we understand the relationship between the Father and the Son as analogical is the method of Jesus’ own parables like the prodigal son. Our danger in ignoring the real applications is to abstract the Fatherhood of God from a covenantal reality to a philosophical idea.
Monarchy and Heresy
My emphasis on the monarchy of God the Father can be misread as falling too far into the ditch close to the Arian camp. The emphasis on “begotten” can be noted as similar to the Arian argument against the eternality of God the Son. I believe I have cautioned against these fears by my continued emphasis on the ontological equality and eternal existence of God the Son. Furthermore, I believe the strength of this position is against the neo-Sabellian positions that undermine full personhood and any real distinct hypostases of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Any fear of subordinationism or tritheism with distinct hypostases is assuaged by the emphasis on perichoresis and the exhaustive mutual indwelling of these persons.
As we approach “Our Father” in our daily prayers, understanding that his fatherhood is a tangible reality that bleeds into human, creational, and theological categories can help solidify the reality of God’s caring providence in our lives. So much of our theology depends on properly maintaining these personal distinctions. If God the Father is not truly a person, then communion among the Trinity is not truly possible. Because of the communion of the Trinity and its incarnation of the Son, we too, have access to the communion of the Trinity and the ascent of the Son.