Why God is Father and Not Mother | Mark Brumley | IgnatiusInsight.com
Why God is Father and Not Mother | Mark Brumley | IgnatiusInsight.com
"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 peopleincluding some Catholicssay "yes." "We
not only can," they contend, "we must. God is, after all, beyond
gender. Calling God Father, 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
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 Godalthough
even within these communions some peoples sympathies run in the
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
existsan 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 Jesus 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
faiththat Christ is the fullness of Gods self-disclosure to
man. Non-Christians may do that, of course, but Christians cannotnot
without ceasing to be Christians in any meaningful sense of the word.
"But surely we must hold," someone will object, "that Jesus
view of God was historically conditioned like that of his contemporaries?
His masculine language for God cannot be part of the fullness of
Gods self-disclosure, as you suppose. It was merely a residue
of first century Jewish sexism. We must look instead to the transhistorical
significance of his teaching. And that is not the Fatherhood of
God but the Godhood of the Fatherthat God is a loving Parent."
At least two false claims lie hidden in that objection. The first is that
Jesus 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, Gods Fatherhood, per se, is not central
to Jesus revelation of God, only those qualities which fathers share
with mothers"parenthood," in other words.
But was Jesus 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
pointthe nature and identity of Godare 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 Jesus
divinity or hold to a watered-down notion of it, such a view remains impossible
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
Jesus 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 historically conditioned.
Nor can we simply ignore Jesus teaching about Gods Fatherhood,
as if it were peripheral to His revelation. Time and again Jesus addresses
God as Father, so much so that we can say Jesus 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
Notice too that these truthsstill widely held todayare subject
to the "historical conditioning" argument. They are just as
liable to be wrong as Jesus views about the Fatherhood of God, are
they not? They, too, can be explained away as "culturally conditioned."
Furthermore, Jesus 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 Jesus mother, for Jesus mother is
not God but Mary. Jesus 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 Catholicisms
doctrine that Mary is the "Mother of Christians" is correct.
The Real Issue
Undergirding Jesus 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 idolatryfashioning
God in our image, rather than receiving from Him His self-disclosure as
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 womens 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 our 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 Jesus 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
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 soand
there is reason to doubt such a sweeping stereotype of first century Judaismrevealing
God as a loving, compassionate Father is not the same as revealing Him as
Father/Mother or Parent. That Jesus corrected some peoples 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
writers 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 languageanalogy 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 elsemeaning
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 "Gods wrath."
By this we do not mean God really possesses the trait of anger, but that
the effect of Gods 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 fatherhoodmale 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)without 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 Gods 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
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 the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 239) states,
"Gods parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image
of motherhood, which emphasizes Gods 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 offsprings 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 mothers priority as first nurturer, due to
her procreating within herself and carrying the child within herself for
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
Gods act of creating to a human fathers 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 initiatorthat
is the fathers role as a man in impregnating her. A father can be
an analogue for the Creator who creates out of nothing insofar as fatherswhile
not procreating out of nothingnevertheless 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 waysas 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 creationindeed, 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. Anselms
description). Immanence, on the other hand, refers to the fact that God
is present in His creationas 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 itselfcloser
than its very own existence is, for God gives the cosmos existence, 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 childs 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 herselfwithin
her womb where she also nurtures her child for nine monthsher 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
Gods transcendence is represented by fatherhood, which symbolizes
Gods otherness and initiating activity (His being the "source"
of creation). Meanwhile, Gods 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 Gods 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 Gods transcendence from being lost
sight of and God being wrongly reduced to, or even too closely identified
with, His creation, language stressing transcendencemasculine terms
such as father is necessary.
A second reason for putting Gods 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 extentnot because of any limitation in God,
but because of limits inherent in anything that is not God.
Thus, in order to express adequately Gods 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 Gods
immanence and tend to confuse Him with His creation (pantheism). This does
not exclude all maternal imageryas we have seen even the Bible occasionally
employs itbut it means we must use such language as the Bible does,
in the context of Gods fatherhood.
In other words, Gods 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 termsGod 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
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 sons intellect; the son does not
choose with his fathers 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 equalityeach Person
is wholly Godand basic differenceeach 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
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 Trinitywhether Creation, Redemption or Sanctificationreally
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
functionCreator, Redeemer, Sanctifier is 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 modesFather, Son and Spirit. Or in this case, Creator, Redeemer,
The Father of the Incarnate Son
But we must not stop with the First Person of the Trinitys 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 fatherSt. Joseph is His "foster-father."
Jesus Father is God the Father and He alone. That is why Jesus refers
to God as "Abba"a highly personal and intimate form of paternal
address. Jesus existence in time and history parallels His eternal,
divine existence as God the Son. For this reason, we must not speak of God
as Jesus Mother, as if the terms "father" and "mother"
are interchangeable when it comes to Jesus relation to God. God is
Jesus Father; Mary is Jesus 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 beingscapable
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
Gods 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 Jesus own
Divine Sonship, albeit in a created way (Rom 8:29). God is our Father because
He is Jesus 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 Christs
followers; He is really their Father. In fact, Gods 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.
Language Given by God
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 languageadmittedly through a particular
culture and its imagesbut 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
Spirit"sons in the Son." Finally, as a result of Gods
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.
This article originally appeared in the July/August
1999 issue of Catholic Faith magazine.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
Father, Son, and
Spirit: So What's In A Name? | Deborah Belonick
Mary in Feminist
Theology: Mother of God or Domesticated Goddess? | Fr. Manfred Hauke
Marriage and the Family in Casti Connubii and Humanae
Vitae | Reverend Michael Hull, S.T.D.
Do Boys Need Dads? | An Interview with Maggie Gallagher
Male and Female He Created Them | Cardinal Estevez
Understanding The Hierarchy of Truths | Douglas Bushman, S.T.L.
Mark Brumley is President of Ignatius
Press and associate publisher of IgnatiusInsight.com.
An former staff apologist with Catholic Answers, Mark is the author of How
Not To Share Your Faith (Catholic Answers) and contributor to The
Five Issues That Matter Most. He is a regular contributor to the
InsightScoop web log.
He has written articles for numerous periodicals and has appeared on FOX NEWS, ABC NEWS,
EWTN, PBS's NewsHour, and other television and radio programs.
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!