Sunday, October 07, 2007

On "God as Father"

Here is a brief piece brought to my attention in a prior comment that might represent a common evangelical view; it criticizes use of "Mother" to refer to God the Father.

Some of her points are astute enough; who would disagree with these?

Because God is not literally a father (i.e., a man who procreates), God is, therefore, a father in a metaphorical sense.

It should also be noted that God’s fatherhood is not about gender. The divine nature is not sexual or gendered in any sense. Although the human nature of Jesus is gendered, the divine nature is not. The fatherhood of God is not tantamount to the inherent masculinity of God.

Because the name “Father” is metaphorical and not literal, it does not speak literally of God’s having a male or masculine nature.

We have a broad base of agreement here, where I would say so far she is exactly right. But then she goes on to say:

The New Testament view is unmistakable: God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Mary was his (merely human) mother. And God is not only Jesus’ Father, God is “Our Father.” We have been adopted to “sonship” and are heirs of God, coheirs with Christ. This is the picture and terminology that the Bible uses to present the family relationship of believers to God and Christ. There is no place in this picture for a Mother God alongside or instead of a Father God.

I've put what seems to me to be her main point in a bold font. I presume what she means to say in the last sentence goes further than what she says elsewhere:

The picture of God as a mother is also present in Scripture, such as when Jesus describes himself as a mother hen. However, to make this observation is not to imply that the “father” metaphor is on a par with the “hen” metaphor.

After all, "not being on a par" might be taken to mean "being different". Surely the NT uses fatherhood metaphors for adoption with much greater emphasis than any motherhood metaphors--there is an unmistakable difference in emphasis.

But she wants to draw attention to more than difference in emphasis; maybe she means the fatherhood metaphor has a certain aptness that the motherhood metaphor does not? This even though she readily admits is abundantly clear, especially in the Old Testament, that God is both mother and father to his people. This is rightly understood in a metaphorical sense, pure and simple. God is to us like a mother and like a father.

It comes down to this: "Father" is both a metaphorical descriptor and a metaphorical name, while "Mother" is merely a metaphorical descriptor. Hence:

However, God as the Father of Jesus Christ—as the first person of the triune Godhead—is not “Father” merely in the sense of a simple metaphorical descriptor. Here “Father” serves as a metaphorical name. (A metaphorical name is to be distinguished from a simple metaphor, a figure of speech used to describe one or more attributes of someone or something)....Although the Bible speaks of God in metaphorical imagery that is motherly and feminine, “Mother” is never used in Scripture as a name for God.

Well, that does not do the trick for me. It's interesting, but the problem I have is simply that it is too easy to turn a metaphorical description into a metaphorical name. "Ball and chain" or "dragon" for instance can do duty as a metaphorical decriptor, and then be used to refer as a metaphorical name. There is no special logical barrier to using descriptions as proper names.

Maybe the emphasis of her argument however falls on the phrase "used in Scripture." That is, we should only use those names for God used in Scripture. In that case, the real work in her case is supposed to be done via what seems to me to be a very dubious principle: if it is not done in Scripture it should not be done. In which case I ought not to address God as "God" or "Father"--these names being translations of what appears in Scripture properly speaking. Or I should not drive a car, type, or brush my teeth.

That brings me back to the question: how is "Father" apt, and "Mother" unapt, in such a way that "Mother" should not be used?


At 12:03 AM, Blogger trueanglican said...

Some years ago, in a lively argument about God's metaphorical parenthood with Jerome Politizer, at the time president of the Society for the Preservation of the Book of Common Prayer, I drew Politzer's attention to Jesus's encounter with Nicodemus (John 3). In verse 3, Jesus notes that a man must "be born again" ("born from above," in some translations)if he is to see God's kingdom.

"Jerry," I asked, "who is the mother in this birth?" Politzer hemmed and hawed and finally ventured, "Holy Mother Church?"

"Yeah, right," I replied. He knew who the mother was. And is.

At 5:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My long-standing cliche on the matter is that it's not that God is male or female, but rather that male & female are *of God*.

Some years ago I could not have conceived of *not* calling God "He" (probably out of some "anti-feminist" reaction). Now I'm having a phase where I prefer not to say "He" at all, driven by theological thought.

Currently I'm pondering something along the lines of `God is [how God is experienced]'.

A couple of critical questions (to which I don't actually have answers):

a) in the NT, which characters use the term or image of `Father'?

b) Given that even the Jesus Seminar think Jesus himself used the word `Abba' with some certainty, in what context(s) did he use it? Was he opening up a new way in which God may be experienced? Was he having a dig at the other leaders of the day (compare "our father Abraham" - our sonship goes straight to the source, as it were?)?

At 8:32 AM, Blogger Strider said...


Kimel, Jr., Alvin F. and Donald D. Hook. "Calling God 'Father': A Theolinguistic Analysis. Faith and Philosophy (1995, 12:2) 207-222.

(I accidentally posted this under the previous article. My apologies.)

At 8:59 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Thanks for the reference to your work; I'll get hold of it. If it's '95, it should still be around through the net market--or available via Interlibrary Loan.

I know Griffiss put out a rather long book on the topic; would you see your work as a counterpoint to his? I have not read his work and I've not read yours, but I would very much like to picture them as involved in a debate on this question.

At 9:03 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Interesting questions--I'm not sure yet how to answer them.

But it seems any approach to this question will carry implications for how we view the "Complementarity Thesis": that female and male are complementary images of God's nature. You seemed to allude to that thesis, and some version of it seems on track.

But it is a nowadays a charged thesis, inasmuch as a strong version of it is viewed as a key premise by many of those who deny the permissibility of blessing gay unions or gay marriage.

At 9:04 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


That's a very astute observation, if I may say.

And I'm ashamed to admit I had not seen it or recognized it before.

At 7:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have always loved the image of God the Father, but it causes significant problems for many. I have known women who were sexually abused by their fathers. For them, there is a profound need for an alternative metaphor. I see no reason for the church to deny them. It's a metaphor, for heaven's sake.

Paul Martin

At 5:15 PM, Blogger Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

My sense is that Father imagery for God relies on the belief that the male is the sole source of the child that is begotten -- the mother being a passive receptacle or fertile soil, but not contributing to the "creative" side of things.

This is one more example of getting "stuck" on imagery instead of reality.

At 9:08 PM, Blogger bls said...

Here's a rebuttal of Kimel, and others, by Harriet Baber.

At 2:10 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Thanks bls.

At 11:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But isn't there a different sense to not doing what's not in the Bible and only calling a holy God by descriptor used in the Bible? I mean, I can see how the former is ridiculous, but many seem to think the later is very important (e.g., the use of G-d and not God by some). Historically, if we want to say that's a valid way to look at the Bible, names were important too I gather from God renaming people.

At 9:23 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Good--only God gets to name himself, and one might claim that he has in a sense done just that: "YHWH", or perhaps "I will be what I will be".

But then, "Daddy" or "Father" on Jesus' lips need not be proper names; they are descriptions that may refer, lower in status than "YHWH".

Why not another description, "Mother"? Well, you might say I would need to build an explicitly biblical case from the "main drift" of Scripture to show how the description captures necessary content of saving knowledge.

If I could offer such a case, if it could be done, then I just do not see what the obstruction to permissibility would be.

At 11:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From an evangelical perspective, we ought to take a look at Revelation where Jesus commands that we do not add nor take away anything from the Bible. Calling God 'mother' verbally speaking may do no harm; however, altering biblical texts that were written the way God wanted them to be would be, in my view, unwise since it misrepresents what God intended for Christians to read.


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