A Trinitarian Itch

In December last year I posted on THINK in response to a post by Krish Kandiah several months before that about whether God’s name of ‘Father’ is metaphorical. Some time later Steve Holmes posted a reply to my post, in which he offered the kind of precision one would expect of a professional theologian specialising in trinitarian theology. That was back in March, since when I have mulled off and on about how (and whether) to respond to Steve. I’ve made a few stabs at writing something down, then grown frustrated with my efforts, and left it alone. It’s been like a loose scab though – something I keep scratching at, that never quite goes away.

Part of my difficulty has been that there is not much in what Steve writes with which I disagree. I think my critique of Krish was aiming at something different to that for which Steve takes aim at me, but I understand why a lack of theological precision on my part would cause Steve to respond as he did. So I had just come to a final decision to let the thing rest, to ignore the itch, and not write about it, when a few minutes later an email came into my inbox from a woman in my church letting me know about an academic research project she had participated in, “carrying out a comparative, ethnographic study into women’s experiences and perceptions of religion.” My friend described how “the interviewer acknowledged that it was ‘heart stuff’ when I was describing my journey of knowing God as Father as well as knowing about God as Father.”

That did it for me, because that brief description of ‘knowing God as Father’ cut through all the theological and intellectual muddle I had been experiencing, bringing me right back to the point I had originally been trying to make.

I agree with Steve that God-language is ‘at least non-literal’ and thus always in some sense metaphorical. I don’t think I was taking “the hypostatic name ‘Father’ as a reason not to call the triune God ‘mother’” and thus “misunderstanding trinitarian orthodoxy fundamentally.” I may have lacked precision in my words (and am genuinely grateful for Steve’s historical expertise and theological clarification), but was trying to express that the hypostatic name ‘Father’ is reason not to call the first person of the Trinity ‘Mother’. My concern with Krish’s emphasis was that it is easy to follow a kind of syllogism that goes: The Bible describes God as a midwife, bear, hen and Father. Midwife, bear and hen are metaphors. So is Father, and thus this name tells us no more or less about God than do midwife, bear and hen.

That God the eternal Father of the eternal Son is now my Father, because of the saving work of the Son, meaning that by the eternal Spirit I can cry out “Abba, Father!” is deeply personal, and transforming. Grasping it is that moment of heart transformation, of “knowing God as Father as well as knowing about God as Father.” I know about God as the one whose attributes can in some degree be captured in the metaphors of midwife, bear, hen – and mother – but I know God as Father.

That was the point.

If we follow the ‘midwife, bear, hen, father’ syllogism I fear we make God less, rather than more, personal. Our cultural fear of patriarchy can end up robbing us of the assurance of grasping what it means to be adopted as a child of God. It leads us to a kind of plastic god whom we demand reveal himself to us in a way which ‘we can relate to’ (Papa in ‘The Shack’ being an egregious example of this). It means that like Philip we can start saying, “Show us the Father, and that will be enough for us,” when through the Son we see the Father already.

Knowing God as Father really is ‘heart stuff’. That is a metaphor as well, but when you have experienced it, it doesn’t feel like one.

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