By Anthony Baker
As Episcopalians work toward the next revision of our Book of Common Prayer, we continue to observe the no longer hidden social power of the male abstractions buried in our languages: the English singular “he,” like the Spanish plural “ellos,” has for centuries suggested a male normativity and, thereby, a female marginality.
This now seems obvious. But is it the same, or is it different, when we used gendered language for God? Is calling God “he” in public the same order of insensitive speech as referring to the human collective as “man?” Is there another pronoun that does the job better? Should we consider avoiding pronouns entirely when it comes to God? Should we expand the language to include other metaphors and genders? These questions also, obviously, sit close to the surface of any liturgical revision.
And we can take the question one level deeper, though the levels connect: should we continue to refer to the first person of the Trinity as “Father?” I say the levels connect because it seems more or less obvious that the ultimate reason for calling God “he,” for Christians, is that the ultimate eternal origin in the Godhead is called “Father.” Though all the Persons are equal in being, the Second and Third proceed from the First: there is something theologically basic about the fatherhood of God.
But is it time to let this metaphor go, in the same way that most of us are ready to let the generic human “he” go?
Let’s first pause long enough to ask what the metaphor of fatherhood is doing in our theological language. I call it a metaphor because I assume, as the Church Fathers and authors of the New Testament seem to me to assume, that by it we mean something other than “God is a male progenitor of biological offspring.” It is a metaphor insofar as we mean God, who is not that, is also father-like in particular ways; or perhaps better, it is an analogy, signifying a relationship of a particular sort: God is in relationship to someone or something in the same or a similar way that human fathers are in relation to their children.
But what sort of relationship is that? What is, in the end, father-like about God?
Jesus is, of course, the one who says, “when you pray, say ‘Our Father,’” and he also addresses the analogy in various places. The “mini parables” of the stone and the snake, for instance:
Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matt 7:9-11)
Already we can add a layer to our expected analogy, since here the heavenly one to whom Jesus refers is characterized as analogous to human fathers in two ways: by the having of dependents, but also by the giving of gifts. In fact, the poverty of earthly fathers is the exception that, for Jesus, proves the rule: there are terrible fathers, but very few of them would make their children eat stones and snakes. Jesus here anticipates an important protest, of those who have experienced absent or abusive fathers, to the analogy of the fatherhood of God by suggesting that the analogy works the other way around: evil fathers need not ruin our image of God, since God is the ultimate Father, of whom even the most loving of dads are but poor examples.
We see the same duality of giving existence and giving gifts in the narrative of the Prodigal, which appears in Luke as a parable of the welcoming of sinners. God is something like a father who has a son who receives not only his existential inheritance (ousia is the loaded Greek term for inheritance here, which Nicaea will pick up eventually as the name for what the Father and Son share), but also the surprising gift of recognition and love.
By characterizing his listeners over and over again as “children of the heavenly Father,” Jesus seems to be suggesting that we are in a similar relation to God as the younger son in the parable: we are the inheritors of plentiful being, and we are the receivers of surprising gifts.
Paul’s language, in Romans and Galatians, extends this into more explicitly trinitarian terms: the Spirit becomes for him the one who gives us the gift of divine language, so that our all-too-human groaning can be interpreted as a cry to our heavenly Abba. In this way, Paul suggests, we can begin to reimagine ourselves as adopted children alongside Christ the “natural” Son.
It would not be too much, then, to say that the term Father, in the New Testament, refers to these two dimensions of characterization: the generator of a progeny beloved enough to receive good gifts.
The theologians of the early church pick up this dynamic, especially when they are following Paul’s intuitions and working to sort out what it means to call God a Trinity. God is, to be sure, the one who gives birth to creation; but there is also something like an eternal birth event in God, and so the fourth-century Egyptian bishop Athanasius suggests an analogous relationship between the nearly identical terms “created” (genetos) and “generated” (gennetos), so that he can say, against the earlier Arius, that the Son is generated from the Father but is not created by the Father. Still, the only begotten one is like a creature, in that he is born of the source of all being, even if unlike a creature in that this birth is an eternal one.
Similarly, Saint Augustine later suggests that the Spirit who is given to us by God is also a kind of gift given within God. To say that the one who is present in the life and love of Christians is divine is to register our belief that the Spirit who circulates among God’s creatures as a gift is, beyond this circulation, eternally the transfer of something like a gift between something like a father and something like a son. “Three somethings” appear in this exchange, Augustine says, despairing of ever naming the analogy sufficiently.
In this sense, the fourth and fifth century are developing a doctrine of the Trinity from the New Testament language of the Fatherhood of God. God is Father not only because God is creator, but because God is the one inclined by love to pour out good gifts on those whom he creates. Father is what the classical cultures gathered around the Mediterranean called one who has a child and gives a gift; heavenly Father is what they called one who is eternally the begetting of a child and the giving of a gift. And Triune God is what they called that eternal Father, Child, and Gift.
There are, to be sure, limits to this language. Jesus the first century Jew needed a metaphorical term for one who had both the capacity and the inclination to give a perfect gift to one’s progeny, and the obvious term was “father.” A different moment and a different social order might have suggested the term “mother.” The question for us today is whether the limits of the language completely deadens the theologically rich analogy.
Divine motherhood has something rich for us also, though the Latin and Greek traditions in fact find feminine imagery more suited to the Second Person of the Trinity, following the Sophia personifications in the Septuagint (Proverbs, Wisdom) as well as Jesus’ own self-analogizing as a mother hen in Matthew 23:37. Other ungendered analogies generate central spiritual connections to God for the praying Christian, like the stream for thirsty deer in the Psalm, or the mighty fortress for exhausted war refugees in Luther’s hymn.
Expansive language presses against the limits of the worst habits of our theological imaginations, especially, for instance, assuming we know what a word like “father” means. And of course these expanded images too have their limits. God is not just like water, and the word “mother” also requires some careful sorting. Perhaps all the metaphors have their moments to wax and wane?
Perhaps. Still, there remains, it seems to me, something so basic in the analogy of the fatherhood of God that it very nearly escapes the metaphorical register, as I hinted above: it suggests that all our creating and all our gift-giving are approximations to the true and eternal begetting and giving. This is the fundamental reference in Athanasius’s claim that God is eternally engaged in an act of begetting that is like the way God creates a world, and in Augustine’s claim that God is equally engaged for all eternity in an act of giving that is like the way God bestows graces upon us. This is what Christian theology means by calling God “Father.”
Here I think we may get some assistance from that strangest of Jesus’ parables, the dishonest manager, from which Jesus abstracts the moral, “make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth.” Our language, like our money, is dangerous, dishonest, and filled with unjust collections of power. That may prompt us to stop using it, or to replace it, or to relativize it with other currency. And sometimes, indeed, pastoral wisdom will take exactly this route: it is not always the right moment to insist on calling God “Father.”
But perhaps we could also “make friends,” or receive relational edification, by means of our “dishonest” language. We have this term “Father.” It is sometimes beautiful, sometimes hideous. And perhaps, in the life and rhythm of the triune one, it means — and is — more than we could ever ask or imagine. Perhaps a true and eternal Father is not a male, not the empowered half of an ancient social and political injustice, but rather the inexhaustible font of creation and donation.
If that is the case, then I suggest we go on, in spite of everything, saying “Our Father” when we pray.
Dr. Anthony D. Baker is the Clinton S. Quin Professor of Systematic Theology at the Seminary of the Southwest.