"I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, 'You are my son; today I have become your father.'" —Psalm 2:7
When Jesus taught His disciples to pray “our Father,” He gave us the key word in our understanding of God (Matthew 6:9).
In the Old Testament
It was not entirely new. Moses was instructed to give God’s message to Pharaoh: “Israel is my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22), implying that God was Israel’s “father.” And what was implicit there becomes an explicit use of “father” in the song of Moses. There He asks Israel: “Is he not your father, who created you, who made you and established you?” (Deuteronomy 32:6).
The word “father” is used to speak specifically of God’s special relationship to the king of Israel. When God established His covenant with David, He declared that his son, Solomon, would sit on his throne and promised, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be a son to me” (2 Samuel 7:14).
But what exactly does this mean? Clearly, it does not mean that God will be Solomon’s male parent. That was David’s role! It is therefore not a literal use of the word “father.” It is a metaphor and means that in the same way that a father looks after his son, so God will look after Solomon and the kings after him. In the same sense, God was the “father” to Israel, God’s chosen people.
In Isaiah, God’s fatherhood is linked to His role as Redeemer: “You, O LORD, are our father: our Redeemer from of old is your name” (Isaiah 63:16). Some ancient pagan myths thought of the gods as literally fathering nations so that human beings were in some sense “divine.” This also promoted cruel and dictatorial patriarchy. But that was not the faith of Israel. The God of Israel was indeed the Creator of all. But He acted as a “father” specifically to His redeemed people. This true “fatherhood” was characterized by committed and redemptive love.
In the New Testament
Jesus brought a new depth of meaning to the word. As He “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Luke tells us), He said: “All things have been handed to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son will reveal him” (Luke 10:22, Matthew 11:27).
Jesus is claiming that God is exclusively His Father. He is claiming an exclusive, reciprocal relationship between equals. Moreover, as the unique Son, He has the exclusive ability to include others in that personal knowledge of God.
The Gospel of John develops this language. That Jesus is uniquely the Son of the Father is a major theme. Others may have some kind of dim knowledge about God, and Israel certainly knew God as her Redeemer from earthly slavery, but that knowledge has to be understood as coming exclusively through the only Son: “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” (John 1:18, NRSV).
Paul explains that as Christians, we have received the Spirit of the Son, so we too can call God our Father. “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16; see also Galatians 4:6).
Jesus the Son has given us His Spirit so that we may be included in His exclusive relationship with the Father.1
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
This relationship is the root of that most distinctive doctrine of the Christian Church, the doctrine which unites all our other doctrines in a comprehensive unity – the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. This doctrine is not an abstract piece of irrelevant speculation but is rooted deeply in Christian experience. Every Christian knows that he or she has received God who is the Spirit, in order to be united to God who is the Son, in a love relationship with God who is our heavenly Father.
But once again, we have to ask, how is this language being used? Does this mean that God is literally our father? No. Once again, this is a metaphor. God is not literally the male parent of all Christians. Indeed, God is not a physical creature at all!
To think of God as male is a horrible mistake. In the ancient Near East, the nastiness of the religion of Baal arose from the belief that Baal and Astarte were male and female gods. The result was the fertility cult in many ancient religions with priestesses acting as sacred prostitutes in the shrines and temples. The God of Israel must not be thought of in such a blasphemous way! Our God is beyond the creaturely division into two sexes. God is neither male nor female.
Of course, the Old Testament and the New (and Jesus Himself) use the masculine pronouns for God: “He,” “His,” and “Him.” But those of us who are limited to the English language must understand that in most of the world’s languages, masculine grammar does not imply that we are referring to a male! And while the word “Mother” is not used for God in the Bible, motherly attributes are attributed to Him (see Isaiah 49:15). Indeed, while there may be differences in emphasis, the attributes of true fatherhood and true motherhood are complementary. Both parents protect, both nurture, both provide, and both guide and discipline.
Analogy and Metaphor
It was the bishops and theologians who formulated the Church’s doctrine of the Trinity from Holy Scripture who insisted that when we speak of God, the words “father” and “son” must not be taken to apply literally in the same way they do to human beings. If they were, the great bishop Athanasius pointed out, we would have to ask whether this Father had a father and other ridiculous questions!2
When we use human language for God, we must realize that it is used by analogy. The relationship between the Father and the Son is like the relationship between a human father and his son. And yet, metaphors are not fictions. What this means is that within God, our Lord Jesus Christ is truly and actually the “Son” of the “Father.” These words are taken from a human context to reveal to us what is actually true eternally within God—but it is beyond human language to express it fully.
This is not merely a creaturely relationship within time like the relationship of the kings of Israel to God. This is an eternal relationship of love. Jesus did not become the Son of the Father when He was born in Bethlehem. He is the eternal Son of the Father. He is (in the words of the Nicene Creed), “true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father.”
Thus, it is revealed to us in Christ that our God is within Himself an intimate communion of love, the mutual love of the Father and Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. And the miracle is that we are admitted into this holy fellowship (1 John 1:3).
All language is open to misunderstanding, however. In our day, some have argued that, contrary to Scripture (and Jesus), we must drop the words “Father” and “Son” and stop referring to God as “He.” Far from ignoring that plea, we must listen to it very carefully. Feminism has raised some distressing problems and uncovered some appalling facts about human sinfulness. In her book, Scars Across Humanity, the evangelical Anglican theologian Elaine Storkey has documented what she calls “a global pandemic”3 of violence against women through selective abortion, female genital mutilation, child abuse, rape, domestic violence, and much more. We have to listen to these voices! We also have to hear the plaint of those whose image of “father” is of a vile, violent, and oppressive tyrant.
But this brings us back to Isaiah’s link between the fatherly action of God and redemption. All human language is affected by the fall. Any language we use for God—any metaphor and any analogy—is open to being twisted into a lie. But language can be redeemed! Those who have suffered under an abusive father can know that there is One who is the true Father (patera), the one “after whom every family (patria) in heaven and earth is named” (Ephesians 3:15). This is the God of whom we say, “God is love” (1 John 4:16). This God is the source and model of true parenthood – true fatherhood and true motherhood.
There is redemption even from the deep scars we have within us from the sinful human relationships which have shaped us. By the Spirit of love, we are embraced by the Son who is self-sacrificial love. He brings us within that circle where, with Him, we may pray “Our Father.” And this God, “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus” (2 Corinthians 11:31), is the source of all true love. This God, our heavenly Father, wants to sanctify us fully by filling us with His Spirit, the One who is “perfect love.”
T. A. Noble is research professor of theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary, Kansas City, and senior research fellow in theology at Nazarene Theological College, Manc
1. See the book by the Nazarene biblical scholar Dr. Svetlana Khobnya, The Father Who Redeems and the Son Who Obeys (Pickwick, 2013).
2. Athanasius, Discourse I, 21.22 in the “Four Discourses against the Arians,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 4, 318-19. See also Gregory of Nazianzus, the Fifth Theological Oration, 7-9, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 7, 319-20.
3. Elaine Storkey, Scars across Humanity, (London: SPCK, 2015), 4-17.
Holiness Today, May/June 2020
Please note: This article was originally published in 2020. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.