Calling God “Father” remains problematic for many. A high percentage of people grow up without fathers, or wish their abusive fathers were absent! Others see the exclusive use of male names for God as driving oppressive patriarchy and sexism. These very real problems impact the way people think about God and so deserve serious reflection. Unfortunately, the usual answers lack the wisdom gained from patiently listening to Scripture and the Church’s great tradition. Typically, three solutions emerge that nonetheless end up as reductions and ultimately distortions of the Church’s faith.
At the extreme end, some want to displace male language for God with female language. This “solution” fails because it’s simply the mirror extreme of the perceived distortion. Also, it’s hard to see how this alternative bears any likeness to Scripture’s language and the Church’s long tradition. Others suggest we adopt androgynous language and discard male and female language altogether. This option fails too because it bleeds into pantheism. Scripture and classic Christianity witness to an essentially personal God. If we want to speak of this God intelligibly, then our human situatedness requires that we use gender language.
Still others suggest we use both genders to speak of God. This seems the least objectionable option. After all, when Scripture speaks of God as Father its primary purpose isn’t to assign a particular gender. God is a Spirit who transcends the sexual distinctives of human beings. And Scripture does occasionally apply female as well as male imagery to God. Even so, using both genders to speak of God can go very wrong if Christians don’t think carefully about the theological implications.
For example, some think “Father-Mother God” captures the biblical balance and overturns a patriarchal monopoly on God language. So, epitaphs like these are often inserted into the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the rubrics of the Liturgy. Of course, such language may be harmless if used in informal ways by people grounded in the historic faith. But it’s quite another thing to displace the Church’s foundational language. Such a move not only opposes the communal wisdom of the faithful for almost two millennia, but ignores Scripture, and obscures the gospel.
C. S. Lewis (Anglican) would probably call such moves “chronological snobbery.” After all, those who vie for these changes usually accept the present intellectual climate uncritically, assuming that the Church’s faith is out of date, needing a more socially congenial makeover. In fact, Luke Johnson (Catholic) calls the move to change the Church’s foundational texts “generational narcissism.” This is so, he says, because such changes rob future generations of the choice to confess their faith the way Christians always have. But most importantly, Edith Humphrey (Orthodox) reminds us, as trinitarians, we don’t have to struggle to name God. He has revealed himself to us. There’s a givenness to the name Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If we reject or tamper with this revelation, we only end up darkening our perception of God and endangering our relationship with him. After all, God intends this mystery to be a source of joy, and not an embarrassment or moniker for the exclusion of women.
Although many balk at confessing “God, the Father” in the Creed, we should remember that Jesus himself gave us the “Our Father”. On the lips of Jesus, “Father” became the proper name for God. It’s in union with Jesus the Son that we know this mystery of God as our Father, and share in their eternal bond of love through the Holy Spirit.
So, we confess “God, the Father” in the Creed precisely because we know God as Jesus’ Father. Jesus opens the life of God to us, the mysterious inner life of a Triune fellowship of being: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s why St Athanasius the Great said, “it’s more godly and true to signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate” (Con. Ar. 1.34). So, from within the Creed’s own frame of reference, confessing “God, the Father” is to love Jesus’ Father as our Father, to embrace him in union with Jesus, through a deep experience of the Holy Spirit.
Neither Jews nor Muslims see the fatherhood of God as central to their devotion. In fact, such a notion offends many Muslims, since Allah, we are told, does not have a son (cf. Koran 19:88-95). But for Christians, knowing God as Father through his Son, expresses the very heart of our faith (Rom 8:15-16). So, by implication, Classic Christianity reflects a particularly rich spirituality compared to the other monotheistic faiths. For to know the one God as Father means knowing him through his eternal Son, by means of the Spirit of love, who embraces us in the fellowship enjoyed by the Father and Son from all ages.