God as Father in the Old Testament. Contrary to what one might be inclined to presume, explicit use of the father symbol to designate the Deity was extremely rare in the Old Testament. Nor was explicit use, when and as it did occur, original with the Hebrew people. However, neither of these considerations is so significant as would appear, for, quite aside from instances of formal designation, there is the far more important personal and clearly paternalist dimension that marked such concepts as that of lord and sovereign, creator, deliverer, and partner in covenant relationship. But this brings one to the heart of what was both distinctive and original in the Hebrew monotheistic faith.
The simple fact of more ancient, as well as broadly contemporary, parallels—Babylonia's Father of the Land, Greece's Father Zeus—points up the ultimate normalcy and spontaneity of conceiving a god as a father in human psychology. Further, this basic expectation is intensified when one turns to the cultural ancestors of the Hebrews specifically. For, as J. Jeremias has noted (The Lord's Prayer 17–18), here the paternal deity is no mere procreator but a merciful and gracious father. Nevertheless, all of this is still quite remote when compared with the highly developed and nuanced father symbol that emerged from within the strictly Hebraic concept of a God of history—a history that was itself conceived not as of men exactly but as of Yahweh-with-us.
A God who was lord and sovereign was by that alone, implicitly, and to some minimal extent, father. But the sovereignty of this God extended to the activity of universal creation, thus making His fatherhood more concrete and more meaningful. Finally, though in the revelation of salvation history it was actually prior, this Creator-Lord was Israel's very special deliverer and covenant partner. This specification of the fatherhood of Israel's God is brought out very neatly in Mal 2.10: "Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?" It was in the Sinaitic covenant that Israel was bound together as sacred family whose head
and father was the God who had delivered them from the bondage of Egypt and taken them unto His own. Hence, it is only in the same covenant relationship that the divine fatherhood as conceived by the Israelites—with its overtones of unique beneficence, intimacy, personalness—can really be appreciated. Even the righteousness of God, since essentially it was fidelity to His covenant promises, was reduced to the sustaining, as it were, of this fatherhood of unique and gratuitous election.
God as Father in the New Testament. The New Testament witnesses a twofold development. First, there is a highly significant deepening of the symbolism in the area of intimacy and familiarity. From the studies of J. Jeremias, who relies mainly on the testimony of the Antiochene Fathers, it appears (op. cit. 18–21) that the Aramaic term 'abbā ' must have been used by Jesus Himself and that the intimacy which it connoted was of farreaching theological importance. "He, to whom the Father had granted full knowledge of God, had the messianic prerogative of addressing Him with the familiar address of a child" (ibid. 20). But Jesus did not reserve this prerogative to Himself. If Jeremias is correct (ibid. 17), Jesus Himself authorized His disciples to address the heavenly Father with this same term when He gave them the famous Lord's Prayer instruction. In any case, in Rom8.15 and Gal 4.6 it is the name the believer is empowered to utter in virtue of the indwelling Spirit.
It would be incorrect, however, to consider the evidence for this deepening of the father symbol as resting exclusively, or even chiefly, on the interpretation of a single word. The argument would seem to be strong that 'abbā ', the child's name for its father, is the form of address, and behind that the mentality, authentically distinctive of the new covenant. But as such, it merely condenses and renders explicit what is already present in the essential features of the new covenant even apart from the term 'abbā '. For over and above the covenant intimacy characteristic of the Old Testament, it is the key message of the New that the believer, made one with Christ through possession of Christ's very own imparted Spirit, is thereby rendered adopted and true son of the Father. As in the Old Testament, so likewise in the New, the father symbol is a function of covenant relationship.
But the New Testament makes another and far more radical addition. Yahweh is father in the Old Testament exclusively with respect to creatures. In the New Testament His fatherhood is revealed as extending back into the recesses of the Godhead itself. It is only now that the Father as one distinct first emerges for to say that the Father was revealed in the Old Testament, Son and Spirit in the New, is actually, but perhaps unwittingly, to presume knowledge of the Trinity for the Old Testament. In referring to the Old Testament, it is more correct to say not that the Father was revealed but that God was revealed as father.
From the New Testament, however, one learns that God is father not only with respect to creatures but also, first and foremost—eternally—with respect to His own divine Son. It is this eternal sonship upon which the sonship of adoption, the sonship of the new covenant, is based and in which it is made to share.
God as Father in Doctrinal Development and Theology. In the great period of the evolution of Trinitarian dogma leading up to Constantinople I in 381, and thereafter, attention became focused on what might be called the ontological, rather than historical, concept of divine fatherhood. This happened as the Christian consciousness began to wrestle with the problem of a true plurality in the Godhead. In a sense God was one. In another and necessarily different sense God was nevertheless three—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God was one, it was eventually determined, in the sense of being, majesty, power; or somewhat more technically, in the sense of nature or essence. And God was three in the sense of Person or hypostasis. The reason, moreover, why this was not a contradiction, though it remained very much a mystery, was that Father and Son, to take the first two members, differed from one another not in nature or essence but only in the relative property of fatherhood and sonship respectively. Everything the Father was, the Son was also, excepting only fatherhood.
Two things can be said in historical retrospect of this concentration on the ontological aspect of the divine fatherhood. First, it was necessary. The ancient Christian spirit could not go on confessing one God, distinctly Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, if there were no satisfactory reply to both the subordinationist and Sabellian oversimplifications. Second, however, the concentration meant that everything else that was to be said of God's fatherhood—as drawn from the revelation of both the Old and New Testaments—was being presupposed or taken for granted. But this created a risk. Eventually one can lose sight of what is presupposed and taken for granted in matters of Christian belief and theology. It simply has to be recalled, quite explicitly. A proof of such a need, and one that touches directly on the subject of God the Father, is seen in the strange fact that Roman Catholics often take the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man to be a Protestant rather than a Catholic point of doctrine. Fortunately, however, and with profound ecumenical consequences, this naive attitude is in the process of being corrected in the wake of the Roman Catholic, as well as Protestant, Biblical revival.
The fatherhood of God has a special significance in the question of the divine plurality, but this is neither its only nor its primary significance. In the drama of salvation we return to the Father—and return is the right word inasmuch as the Father is source as well as end of all reality, even in the Godhead—we return, therefore, to the Father, to our Father, as one with Christ Jesus, sharing by adoption in His own sonship in virtue of His indwelling Spirit (see indwelling, divine). Such is the ultimate perfection and consummation of the Old Testament covenant relationship as achieved in the New.
See Also: agennĒtos; god, 1, 2; lord, the; paternity, divine; person (in theology); person, divine; redemption (in the bible); trinity, holy; trinity, holy, articles on.
Bibliography: b. w. anderson, in g. a. buttrick, ed. The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, 4 v. (Nashville 1962) 3:407–430. j. jeremias, The Lord's Prayer, tr. j. reumann (Philadelphia 1964), esp. 16–21; The Parables of Jesus, tr. s. h. hooke (New York 1963), esp. 190–191. j. muilenburg, The Way of Israel (New York 1961), esp. 38–40.
[r. l. richard]