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Whatever Happened to God the Father?

Whatever Happened to God the Father?

By Gerald McDermott
http://wp.production.patheos.com/
August 30, 2017

Recently an Anglican theologian asked me, "Have you noticed how few theological books have been published in the last decades on God the Father? Can you name even one?"

He was right. The Father has been lost from view--of both theology and the Church.

In the evangelical world since World War II, Jesus has been the focus of most thinking and worship. There were good reasons for this. Liberal theology in the 20th century had reduced the gospel to the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and social ethics. Salvation, liberals implied, was the reward for being a nice person.

Evangelicals were right to say, No, the gospel is about Jesus and the cross. They were partly right.

Then in the 1970s there was a new focus on the Holy Spirit. This was in response to the dryness and intellectualism of much of evangelicalism.

We needed more of the spontaneity and power of the Holy Spirit. So now, we heard from pulpits and books, we need to focus on Jesus and the Spirit. Full gospel ministry was about Word and Spirit.

They were partly right. At least two of the three Persons of the Trinity were being taught and preached and prayed.

Then there was feminism. It arose in the 1960s as a major social force, but it wasn't until the late 70s and early 80s that it started to affect the society and church in visible ways. At first it pleaded simply for equal representation. Then some feminists started suggesting that women are better--not only spiritually but morally--and that men are naturally sexist and stupid. And fathers and husbands are naturally oppressive to both their wives and children. In fact, they have a natural tendency to abuse. The system of the male's traditional roles in family and society was called "patriarchy," and it came to be assumed that this was naturally abusive.

Not all theological feminists took it further, but some proceeded to argue that orthodox Christianity's view of God the Father was abusive. The Father, they charged, abused his Son by sending him to bleed and die in order to forgive people. These feminist theologians said that even using the phrase "God the Father" is hurtful and oppressive.

Now we have the transgender movement. It wants us to believe that sexual differentiation between men and women is not only unimportant but false, and is itself oppressive.

The media have not helped. Long ago TV sitcom and movie writers decided that Father does not know best (younger readers might be shocked to learn that a popular TV show in the ancient world of the 1960s was titled "Father Knows Best"). Fathers are typically depicted as bumbling idiots and/or abusive. They are ridiculed and laughed at. As a result, men are afraid to assert themselves as men--and as fathers and husbands. They are especially afraid to suggest that they might be called to be heads of their families, no matter what "head" might mean. They have been persuaded that the idea of headship is theologically wrong and even immoral.

Let's turn from our confused (and confusing) culture to the Real World portrayed by Scripture. In the Bible God is presented overwhelmingly as Father. In the Old Testament, God is the Father of Israel. In the New Testament, the great revelation that Jesus brings is of the Father: "Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father" (Jn 14.9). To be saved is to become one with the Son through faith and baptism, and thus to share in Jesus' sonship. We become the Son's brothers, as we worship the Father by our being in the Son (Heb 2.9-11). Jesus makes the spectacular promise that by being in Him we can experience the love that the Father has for him (Jn 14.21; 17.26)!

Nearly every time Jesus prayed, it was to the Father. The only exception was his prayer of dereliction on the cross ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"). Yet his other famous prayer from the cross was to the Father: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

When Paul prays, it is almost always to the Father. Both of the great prayers of Ephesians are addressed to the Father: "I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation . . . . For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father (Eph 1.17; 3.14). He tells the Colossians, "In our prayers for you, we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Col 1.13).

Throughout the New Testament, whenever the Trinitarian God is referred to as simply "God," it almost always refers to God the Father. The Father is the head of the Trinity: "The head of Christ is God [the Father]" (1 Cor 11.3). That is why the historic church has always taught that our prayer is to the Father, in the Son, by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit joins us to the Son so that we have the authority to pray the Lord's prayer to the Father.

What does this mean for us? For one thing, it answers one of the most difficult questions today--What does it mean to be a man? To be a man is to be called to be a father--either biologically, or by adoption, or spiritually. Paul was a spiritual father to Timothy and Titus, and to all his churches. He referred to both Timothy and Titus as "my son" (1 Tim 1.2; 2 Tim 1.2; Tit 1.4) and told the Thessalonian Christians that he was their spiritual father: "We cared for you as a father cares for his own children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own Kingdom and glory" (1 Thess 2.11-12).

But what does it mean to be a spiritual father? Scripture suggests that we can learn what this means by watching how God is our Father. "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5.48). If our heavenly Father forgives us, we should likewise forgive others (Matt 6.14-15). Since God is compassionate, we should be compassionate. Just as we learn about the Father by submitting to his authority over us, we also learn about his Fatherhood by submitting to the human authorities he has placed over us (Eph 6.1-3; Rom 13.1-7; 1 Pet 5.5). In other words, we cannot be good fathers unless we have learned how to be good sons.

This connection between our human and church families on the one hand, and God's family on the other, is taught by Scripture. Paul says that "every family on heaven and earth takes its name" from the Father (Eph 3.14).

What else does God the Father teach us about being a man who is called to be a father? First, we are to take responsibility for the spiritual welfare of those God has entrusted to us. Job offered sacrifices on behalf of his children (Job 1.5). Joshua took leadership of his household so that as a household they served the Lord (Josh 24.15).

Taking spiritual responsibility involves teaching. The books of Deuteronomy and Proverbs say a father is a teacher. "Listen, my son, to your father's instruction" (Prov 1.8; Dt 6.4-9). If you're a father and feel unfit to teach, make sure your kids get to Sunday School at an orthodox church. Ask your wife to teach if she is better at it.

Taking responsibility also means bringing our family's needs to God in prayer. The good fathers in the gospels came to Jesus for their children's needs (e.g., Mt 9.18-26).

Scripture teaches that the husband is the head of the home (Eph 5.22ff; Col 3.18f; 1 P 3.1-2). What does that mean? Paul says the husband is head as Christ is head of the church, for which he laid down his life. Therefore being head does not mean bossing or domineering or making all the decisions. It means serving the family and laying down our lives for them in self-denial every day. It means praying for them every day, and making sure they get to an orthodox church each week for worship and learning. It means digging into God and his Word on a continual basis. Set the example by going to adult Sunday School with your wife.

I don't have space to elaborate on these, but being a spiritual head who imitates God as Father also means 1) providing materially (or caring for the kids so that your wife can provide materially), 2) giving good gifts (Jesus said a good father gives an egg and not a snake), 3) working with your wife to administer discipline to your children ("God disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in" Prov 3.12), 4) covering regularly with love ("How great is the love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; 1 Jn 3.1), thus being 5) an all-round agent of blessing.

In conclusion, we men are called to worship God the Father as we are joined to the Son by the Spirit. We are called to be spiritual fathers to our biological and adopted children, and to others in the church who need mentoring. We learn how to be fathers by imitating how God treats us as our heavenly Father, and this happens as we grow as disciples of Christ the Son. Growth takes place as we pray daily, read the Scriptures, and take advantage of the means of grace at church, especially the sacraments.

Gerald R. McDermott joined the Beeson Divinity school faculty in 2015 as the Anglican Professor of Divinity, and teaches in the areas of history and doctrine

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