Formed by Divine Teaching: Part II

(This is Part II of “Formed by Divine Teaching”, a 12-part series on the Lord’s Prayer. Click here for the “Formed by Divine Teaching” main page, where you can find updated links for each new installment in the series.)

“Our Father, who art in heaven”

Of all the clauses in the Lord’s prayer, this is the only one written in the indicative mood.  Whereas the rest of the prayer is in the subjunctive (the mood of petition, contingency, and improbability), here we find a clear statement of fact.  In the previous installment of this series, we saw that prayer consists fundamentally of lifting one’s hearts to God, and in this way participate in the humble, obedient communication of Son to Father.  By virtue of this humble disposition, we already acknowledge with certainty that we are indeed his lowly creatures and that there is a certain “distance” between him and us.  The far end of this “distance” is what we call “heaven”.

God is in heaven

This is not so much a physical distance but an ontological distance. Creation exists within time, and all creatures are bound by their temporal and material constraints.  But God and his angels, who exist outside time, pertain to this atemporal realm.  Look to the story of creation (Genesis 1): already at this stage, Scripture posits a hierarchical delineation between the atemporal and temporal realms: “In the beginning, …God created the heavens and the earth”.  Now God did not “create” the heavens in the same way he created the world; rather, by creating temporality, he differentiated the created realm from the eternal. Now recall what the Lord says through the prophet: “…my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways…For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). His ways are not bounded by the restrictions of materiality and temporality. God’s creatures, on the other hand, who by virtue of their creatureliness cannot fully apprehend the eternal and atemporal, must acknowledge the immensely ineffable majesty of the one who created them.

God’s supremacy is not merely on the physical level– he is not made of some supersubstance, nor is he merely a being so great that nothing greater can be imagined (id quo maius nequit cogitari).  This via negativa favored by both Anselm and Aquinas has its limits: namely, that God is depicted as a negation in terms material categories. There is a positive aspect of God which one cannot overlook. His mode of action, while at times inscrutable or incomprehensible to his limited, imperfect creatures, is always in harmony with his Wisdom, his divine reason– his Logos.  In him there is a perfect unity of intention and action– and this is what we call divine freedom.

Unlimited by any condition, his intention and action become reality.  His freedom is his power. Of course, humans don’t have this kind of freedom.  As creatures in the created realm, every choice is conditioned by given circumstances, though this does not negate the doctrine of free will. Free will for man is the ability to make choices within the constraints of the created order. In a nutshell, this is what it means to say that God’s ways are higher above those of man; to call upon the one who is in heaven is to graciously acknowledge one’s humble stature in the presence of God.

God is Father

There are two senses in which God is “Father”.  The first sense is what I call the “general” sense, inherited by Christians from the spiritual patrimony of the Jews.  The second sense is the uniquely Christian sense, or “Trinitarian” sense.  The latter concept developed only as a result of prolonged reflection on the revelation of God made present in the person of Jesus Christ.  These two “senses” of God’s fatherhood are distinct and refer to two diverse contexts; the first concerns God’s relation to the world; the second concerns God as he is in himself.

1.  The general fatherhood of God

In the Old Testament, though we find fatherly language for God in less that two dozen instances, we cannot say that the idea of God as Father forms an insignificant aspect of the Jewish consciousness.  Perhaps the most important instances of the father-son motif is in Exodus, when God commands Moses to say to Pharaoh: “Israel is my son, my firstborn” (4:22).  In the male-preference primogeniture cultures of the ancient Near East, the firstborn son was the bearer of his father’s inheritance.  By calling Israel his “son”, God provides protection and inheritance for Israel.  This was obviously understood metaphorically, as a theological expression of hope in a time when Israel’s faith was threatened by more powerful empires and their gods.  The God of Abraham is the guardian of Israel, much as the other surrounding cultures had their own patron gods.  God is Israel’s provider, much like a father to his family, and Israel patiently awaits the inheritance promised to Abraham and his descendants.  Yet Israel must continually show its worthiness to receive the inheritance: for faithfulness, Israel is rewarded; for sin, the Lord punishes Israel as does a just father.

Reverence for God among the Israelites was so great that rarely did they appeal to God with such a familial term. When Israel became a nation-state, its people favored stately, worldly forms of address to emphasize the divine majesty. God was called King, Sovereign, and similar titles, all of which likened his reign to that of an absolute monarch. He provides for and defends his chosen people while requiring that his people obey his commands. The fatherhood motif is definitely implicit in the monarchical conception of God, though in the age of the Israelite kingdom, the idea of God as a King was more apprehensible to the Israelites of the time.

The experience of the Babylonian Exile and the Temple’s destruction once again forced Israelites to examine anew their relationship to God. As a child begs his angry father for mercy, they too appealed to their ancient privilege as the firstborn of God. In Isaiah’s exilic writings, we find the desperate cry of the Chosen Race who suffers under the Babylonian yoke: “For you are our father. Were Abraham not to know us, nor Israel to acknowledge us, You, LORD, are our father, our redeemer you are named from of old” (63:16), and again, “Yet, LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you our potter: we are all the work of your hand” (64:7). Israel’s faith matures in this era, for the people recall that God is not simply a despot like worldly kings, but indeed the Father and Creator of all. They turn away from the worldly, royal titles, and return to the practice of earlier times, when God was simply known as the Almighty, Most High, and Lord of Hosts.  When the end of the exile nears, the Lord says through Jeremiah, “With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my first-born” (31:9).

Along with the rediscovery of God’s ancient titles of Almighty and Most High came the rediscovery of God as creator of the whole world, the source of all things.  The Genesis narratives reached their final form during the Exile as polemical apologetics against Babylonian creation myths, and thus the faith of Israel began to claim authority over the realms of other nations, even if politically and militarily, Israel was a poor player, strutting and fretting from empire to empire, on a stage too large for its little feet. Yet this return to God as Father and Creator of the whole world and the emerging universality of Israel’s creed will set the stage for the even deeper understanding of God’s divine fatherhood through the revelation of Jesus Christ.

In the ebb and flow between simply recognizing God as Almighty Father on one hand, and conceiving of him in terms of worldly despots on the other hand, there is a correspondence to the alternating obedience and sinfulness of the people Israel.  Like a child who vacillates between petulance and submissiveness, Israel mirrors the human condition of restless straying from and contrite return to God. The concept of “Father” first and foremost concerns the external relationship of God to the world: he creates it, provides for it, and rules justly over it.

2.  The Trinitarian fatherhood of God

“Father” is Jesus’ favorite mode of address to God. It implied a closeness shocking to the Jews of his time, who considered it presumptuous that a man should address the Almighty with such familiarity. The gospels are rife with examples of Jesus referring to his Father; in the Gospel of John alone, Jesus does this 107 times. The Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel (whence we receive the Lord’s prayer) is basically an extended treatment on God the Father.

When speaking of his closeness or oneness with the Father, when speaking in the first person with God’s authority (the so-called “emphatic ‘I’; in Greek ἐγώ εἰμί), or when performing miracles, it is increasingly clear that Christ is indeed divine.  This is explicit in the Gospel of John (10:30, 17:21). Not only is Christ divine, but he has a special, filial relationship to the Father. Jesus is truly God of God, light of light, true God of true God.

While God’s Fatherhood in relation to Israel and the world is metaphorical, analogous, and adoptive, his Fatherhood in relation to his Son is a true Fatherhood, perfect in the life-giving Spirit.  The first is a fatherhood ad extra; the second is a Fatherhood ad intra, concerning the very nature of God himself.

Through Christ, the adopted sonship of Israel finds a perfect archetype. Jesus is a son par excellence: perfectly humble and perfectly obedient, he obeys the Father’s will completely.  But this perfect Sonship first presupposes a perfect Fatherhood.  God is unlike human fathers; in his perfect unity of intention and action which constitutes his freedom, God’s ways are also perfectly just.  Christ teaches mankind the way to perfect sonship, and this fundamentally consists of taking up one’s cross and following the Lord, confident that in his wisdom and justice, all will find perfection (Matthew 16:24).

3.  Is this an anthropomorphism?

Isn’t this just another attempt to impose finite, human categories on the infinite God? Like the Israelites who wanted a worldly kingdom and then depicted God according to that image, isn’t calling God “Father” likewise an attempt to pigeonhole the divine majesty into comprehensible categories? Isn’t God above the categories of male and female?

Of course, given our fallen condition, analogical language is a necessary aspect of any theological speculation.  The Fourth Lateran Council affirmed this, saying that while certain expressions and terms can better express the content of divine mysteries, there is nevertheless a greater dissimilarity (dissimilitudo maior) no matter how accurate be the terminology. The accusation of anthropomorphism relies on an implicit assumption that the worldly examples (human fathers, human kings, etc.) are the archtypes in theological language. The reverse is actually true. God’s Fatherhood is the archtype for human fathers; Christ’s sonship is the archetype for human sonship.  “The biblical Father is not a heavenly duplicate of human fatherhood,” says Joseph Ratzinger. “Rather, he posits something new: he is the divine critique of human fatherhood.” (The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God)

It is indeed correct to say that God is above categories of male and female; the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms as much:

In no way is God in man’s image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective “perfections” of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband. (CCC 370)

The Old Testament is full of references to God’s maternal characteristics. More fundamentally, Genesis reminds us that “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (1:27). Through both sexual difference and sexual unity is mankind made in the image of God. But since humans pertain to the created order, mankind creates new life only through its biological-sexual nature. Almighty God, by contrast, can create and generate from his eternal unity. The divine Fatherhood is thus a fatherhood which transcends the biological-sexual aspect to which humans are bound. The unique traits which differentiate male from female and human fatherhood from human motherhood find perfection and unity in the Fatherhood of God.

So why call him “Father” at all? Again, returning to Lateran IV, though there is a greater dissimilarity between the concept of “Father” and the divine essence of God himself, “Father” is simply the best way we have to address God, imperfect though it is. Why is it the best? Simple: our Lord gave us these words. Knowing the inadequacy of human language, revelation could have given us any number of apt metaphors and titles for God (as we saw in the Old Testament), but Christ in his inscrutable wisdom chose these words. What is at stake whenever the charge of anthropomorphism is raised is our belief in the truth of divine revelation itself.

Those who accuse biblical language of anthropomorphism cannot comprehend a divine fatherhood that transcends male and female traits; so affixed are they on the merely human end of the analogy that, ironically, they are the ones who end up interpreting revelation through the human experience rather than interpreting the human experience through God.

God is Our Father

Since Jesus taught us to pray in this manner, this prayer in some sense already pre-existed within him. As the eternal Son of the Father, his perfect humility and obedience are the actualization and source of the words given to the disciples. The Lord’s Prayer is the verbal expression of what it truly means to be a son or daughter of God, and because we pray these words with Christ, we enter into his special filial relation with the Father. We are subsumed into the “I” of Jesus as we say “Thou” to the Father, and in this way we participate in the divine life of the Trinity. By devoutly reciting this prayer, we become like children and hope to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 18:3). And “as proof that [we] are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father,'” so that through Christ we might be destined to become adopted sons of our Father who is in heaven. (Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 1:5).

Part III posted!

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