Publications: Articles - Theology
Who is God the Father?
Having discussed the Tri-unity and Unity of God, the ensuing articles of VEMA will endeavour to articulate the distinctive characteristics of each Person of the Trinity.
The fathers of the early Church, faithful to the Scriptures, considered the term "God", when used as a proper name, belonging primarily to God the Father. Therefore the Scriptures claim that the Son (Jesus Christ) is the "Son of God" and the Spirit is the "Spirit of God." The Christian Bible claims that God is both the Father of Israel and Father of his only begotten Son Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, there are many passages, which refer to God as Father. For example Deuteronomy describes the relationship between the people of Israel and God in terms of fatherhood:
"Is not he your father who created you and established you?" (Deut 32:6)
Elsewhere in the Scriptures God is depicted, in a strikingly profound way, lovingly caring for, and having compassion on his people:
"When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son… I took them up in my arms… I led them with bands of love… I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them." (Hos 11:1-4)
In the New Testament, the image of God as father is taken up by Jesus and it becomes the most characteristic way in which Jesus addresses God. So intimate is Christ's relationship with God, his Father, that He says to Philip, his apostle:
"He who has seen me has seen the Father." (Jn 14:9)
And the image of God as loving Father is fully made known in the giving of His Son to redeem, sanctify and unite the entire world with him:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."(Jn 3:16)
God is Father because here He is depicted as the ground of all confidence, trust and our existence. It was for this reason that in the early Christian tradition the name of God as Father did not refer to some characteristic of God but signified his very being.
In analysing the fatherhood of God, the second point would be that the term 'father', used to describe the one God of faith in the Scriptures is not a title projected onto God by human persons. For the early Church the title 'father' was never meant to imply any biological maleness to God or attribute to him any so called masculine characteristics. Therefore, in reflecting upon the mystery of the God as Father, it is of paramount importance to detach from this title any patriarchal or male notions of human fatherhood. As Father, God is not a coercive or authoritarian father-figure holding his creation to him by force. Rather, in the early Church it was only in gazing upon the only begotten Son and Word of God in the flesh that God came to be called "father" beyond any anthropomorphic notions of human fatherhood. Therefore God the Father is beyond any human characteristics whether they be male or female. Indeed God the Father is described with certain attributes usually associated with the feminine: God is compared to a midwife (Ps 22:9) and a suckling mother (Isa 49:15) and even a mother comforting her child:
"As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you." (Isa 66:13)
Nevertheless the Orthodox tradition would claim that the term 'father' is not simply one of many metaphors or images used to describe God's qualities but is the distinctive term addressed by Jesus to God. Its unshakeable basis lies in Jesus' intimate and filial relationship to God whom he witnessed and proclaimed during his earthly ministry and therefore this term cannot be surrendered in favour of other language about God.
From what has been said thus far, we can see clearly that the name of God as Father is a purely theological term – which is to say, that it has always been understood in terms of God's eternal relation to his Son. It was in his self-revelation to the world in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, that God clearly made Himself known as Father. Therefore it is in respect to God being the Father of His Son that he must be called Father. In other words, this specific attribute of God is defined primarily in terms of his relationship to his Son and not to his fatherhood of the universe. In contemplating God, in faith, the Christian fathers came to see that God is not alone in his divinity, but from all eternity had a Son and it was for this reason that He was called Father. In fact, in the Scriptures of Israel, God the Father was never without His Word or Spirit nor did He act in the world alone. For this reason, St Irenaeus (2nd century) described God as acting with his two hands, that is to say His Son and Spirit. In the Fourth Gospel we read that the Word of God,
"was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being" (Jn 1:2-3).
The above passage makes it clear that Jesus Christ was not only the agent through whom the world was created but existed, from the very beginning with God the Father.
Now, in fellowship with the one Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ the early Christians also dared to call God "abba" which means "beloved father" or "daddy". The early Christians, in partaking of the life Christ, made possible through God's ongoing presence in the Holy Spirit were also entitled to call God 'father' as Jesus did.
"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." (Rom 8:14-15)
As God's children (Gal 3:26) living in union with Jesus Christ, we too are adopted in God's eternal kingdom becoming, by grace heirs of His eternal life with all the gifts belonging by nature to God's Son. Calling God, father was unprecedented as previous to that all people of Israel considered the name of God too sacred even to pronounce. The reference to God as Father by the early Church was used only after the revelation of the perfect image of God to the world in the person of Jesus Christ who taught his followers to pray to God in what came to be called the Lord's prayer: "Our father in heaven…" The communion between God and the world realised by Jesus Christ was such that the gap between the divine and the world was bridged to such an extent, which now made possible the invocation of God as Father.
For the early Christian tradition, it was only to the extent that the early Christians dwelt in the only begotten Son that they could refer to Christ's Father as their Father as well. It was for this reason, that, in the early Church, the Lord's prayer, which was directed to God the Father, was not taught to the catechumens (those preparing to become Christian) until a few days before their baptism because they did not have the competence to call God, "abba" and could not do so because they were not in Jesus and had not yet received the Holy Spirit. According to St John Chryssostom, in the East, the Lord's prayer was only taught for the first time to the catechumens on Holy Thursday so that they could recite it for the first time during the Paschal liturgy where they would have been baptised and sealed with the Spirit. So it is only in fellowship with the Son of God that we too can call God, Father. This universal scope of God's fatherhood in which all Christians are now invited to share, is a call for all to enjoy all that the Father has naturally given to His Son by grace.
From the above brief analysis, two aspects of God's Fatherhood have been discerned: God as our "adoptive" Father in Jesus Christ, and God as the "generative" Father of His Son from all eternity and it is the second of these two aspects of fatherhood that we now turn to. Upon reflecting upon the mystery of God, the early Church described God as Father since He had generated or given birth, from all eternity to his Son, the Word of God. In this understanding, God is called Father simply because He has a Son by nature from all eternity – that is to say, that there was never a time when God was not Father since his Son and Spirit are co-eternal with Him. All statements concerning the generation of the Son intend to state explicitly that God's only begotten Son, was not merely created by the Father but that He is of the same essence or substance (homoousios) with the Father; something which cannot be said about the created world.
It is in this eternal begetting of the Son that God is known as Father. The Christian tradition would therefore claim that the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father, but that God the Father proceeds from no other cause or origin - rather He is the origin and cause of the divine persons of the Son and Spirit. God the Father is precisely Father in that He is the one supreme almighty being, uncreated, self-sufficient, all-perfect, who is the transcendent fount, source and author of all other beings. The Christian tradition would therefore claim that God is Father since He is without origin and secondly since He is both Father of the Son, and the One from whom the Spirit proceeds from all eternity. As the eternal 'origin' of the Godhead God is the "I am who I am" (Ex 3:14) – that is, God the Father who does not draw His existence from any other reality.
Thus far, we have seen that the fathers of the early Church always described the one God of faith as "Father" indeed "Father almighty". There is one God, not necessarily because there was one essence in God but primarily because there is one Father. In the Symbol of Faith (known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed) we confess that the one God in whom we believe is the Father almighty. Only then do we continue to confess our faith in Christ and the Holy Spirit: "I believe in one God, Father almighty…. and in one Lord Jesus Christ… and in the Holy Spirit." We believe in one God because we claim that there is one Father. Therefore in reflecting upon the Godhead we say that it is one because there is one cause who is the Father. This was clearly affirmed by St Basil the Great in the fourth century who succinctly said that:
"God is one because the Father is one."
However in beholding the persons in whom the Godhead dwells, we worship three persons since the Son and Holy Spirit from all eternity and with equal glory have their being from the Father. The fathers however would even that since the Father is the sole cause and origin of the Godhead that He is "greater" that His Son and Spirit even though there is an essential identity of essence. This was the spirit in which the early Church interpreted the words of Jesus found in the Gospel of John: "the Father is greater than I" (Jn 14:28).
We end with a quote from St John of Damascus (675-749), who in his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, affirmed the essential dependence of the Son and Spirit upon the Person of the Father in a clear, coherent and concise way:
"Whatsoever the Son has from the Father, the Spirit also has, including His very being. And if the Father does not exist, then neither does the Son and the Spirit; and if the Father does not have something, then neither has the Son or the Spirit. Furthermore, because of the Father, that is, the Son and the Spirit are; and because of the Father, the Son and the Spirit have everything that they have".
From the above quote, we would conclude that the Orthodox tradition declares that God the Father is distinguished from the other Persons as eternally begetting from His nature God the Son and as breathing forth the Holy Spirit; the Son is distinguished, in his person as being eternally begotten of the Father; and the Holy Spirit as eternally proceeding from the Father.
Having briefly outlined the specific characteristic of God as Father, we must however affirm that in reference to other attributes of God, what the Father is, the Son and Holy Spirit also are since they are of the same essence and share the same divine nature with God. Thus if God the Father is everlasting and eternal, invisible, incomprehensible, unfathomable; loving, wise, holy and pure, so is God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Not only is their nature and essence identical but also their will and action towards the world is common. Now, since God the Father is inherently productive and creative in his very nature - in that He generated His Son and breathed forth His Spirit from all time - is He also Creator and "maker of heaven and earth". However, it is clear that the Father created the world through his Son (Word) and in the Holy Spirit; and it is to this unified action of God to create the world out of nothing that we will turn out attention in the next issue of VEMA.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer,
St Andrew's Greek Orthodox Theological College