Not Only A Father #3: But Jesus Named God ‘Our Father’! [Guest]

Welcome back to our guest poster Dr Tim Bulkeley, and welcome, readers, to perhaps the most controversial bit of this series (see the debate on today’s subject in the comments on the previous post)!

Not only a father, gender and the Bible, Dr Tim Bulkeley |

I’ve argued that we need to talk about God as motherly if we are to speak in pictures about God at all, and that we do need pictures, because otherwise God is ineffable. In post two I suggested that this sort of motherly God-talk is not absent from Scripture (we’ll return to the nearly 1500 years during which such talk was more present among Christians in the next post). Now I’ll address (what seems to me) the strongest objection to such talk.

Jesus named God ‘Father’

Not only a father, gender and the Bible, Dr Tim Bulkeley |

The Hebrew on this cartoon reads ‘I love you, daddy’ by Chrissyissypoo19 CC

‘Father’ is one of the commonest New Testament pictures of God. Gradually as understanding that Jesus was God dawned, leading early Christians towards trinitarian thinking, ‘Father’ became the description of the first person of the Trinity (God-not-Jesus-or-the-Spirit).

Jesus even once called God abba (Mark 14:36). This was once thought to be the equivalent of daddy, showing Jesus’ uniquely intimate relationship with ‘Father’ God (see also Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6 where Paul speaks of all Christians using this term).

By contrast, father-language was thought to be rare in early Jewish writings and so many 19th and 20th century scholars believed that this intimate father-language was something new in Jesus’ teaching.

Actually, the statistics of passages in the New Testament where God is called ‘father’ suggest that such talk is rare in the gospels when they are quoting Jesus’ own words, except in John. (John’s gospel is often thought to be more theological and at a greater distance from events than the others.)

Talk of God as father is in fact more common in Paul than on Jesus’ lips in the other gospels (see 3.1 Jesus Called God Father). Nor was it in fact so rare in early Judaism either. Alon Goshen-Gottstein, in his study of ‘God the Father in Rabbinic Judaism,’ noted around a hundred rabbinic uses of the phrase ‘Father in Heaven’ which Jesus uses in Matthew.

I concluded the section of Not Only a Father that looks at this issue (3.1 Jesus Called God Father) saying that the early church remembered Jesus as using father language more than he in fact did, and that such langauge was not his own innovation, but quickly grew in popularity the early church.

Fathers in the ancient world and Jesus’ talk of God

In this conversation about how Jesus used father-language it is helpful to remember how the father’s role was understood in the ancient world:

The father is viewed as severe, stern and authoritarian; the mother is viewed as loving and compassionate. Children respect and fear the father but love the mother affectionately even after they are married.

(John Pilch, Handbook of Biblical Social Values, 147.)

With this in mind, read Jesus’ best-loved story that describes God as father, in Luke 15. The father reaches out to his child even when the child rejects him. In the light of cultural stereotypes (ancient or modern), the story is astonishing: the father breaks almost all the ancient cultural expectations, abandoning dignity and respect to welcome the return of his errant son. Studies of both ancient cultural stereotypes and the ideas of Middle-Eastern peasants today highlight that this father’s behaviour was inappropriate!

Not only a father, gender and the Bible, Dr Tim Bulkeley |

Illustration of Luke 15:20 from CC

Indeed, the story works because the father’s behaviour is a surprise. Imagine if Jesus had told the story of a mother… do you think it would have had the same power?

Other places where Jesus uses father-language about God also transgress cultural norms. Jesus describes fathers who feed and clothe their children (Matt 6:26-32; Luke 11:1-2, 13; 12:30; John 6:32 cf. Luke 24:49; John 6:27); give gifts to bad as well as good children (Matt 5:45); forgive rather than punishing (Matt 6:14-15; 18:35; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:36 though the father does judge, in John 5:45; 8:16 but see also 5:22); and God as father deals with infants and little ones (Matt 11:25; 18:14; Luke 10:21). This divine father often acts in ways that fit the ancient world’s cultural stereotype of mother better than the expectations of fatherly behaviour. Some of these stereotypes are still at work today. How have you experienced them?

(For more see 3.2 Jesus’ Motherly Father)

Jesus was male, so God is in some sense more male

Many people talk about Jesus’ maleness and seem to think that this means the first person of the Trinity is male. I think this reasoning is a mistake. In technical language not everything that we can say of the Word incarnate (Jesus) should be said of the second person of the Trinity. So Jesus had eyes of a certain colour, but we cannot say this of God, or even just of the second person of the Trinity. Jesus doubtless had a liking for certain foods, but God does not…

Such human characteristics would, if we transferred them to our talk of the Godhead, result in God being a member of one group of beings that excludes others. So, if a god had brown eyes (the most likely colour of Jesus’ eyes) then that god would not be part of the group of blue-eyed beings. Therefore to attribute such characteristics to the Godhead is idolatry – worshipping a god who is a member of certain classes or groups of being, but not others. Early Christian theologians were therefore quite clear, God has no gender. God is not a member of any class of beings.

This applies to the ‘genders’ male and female as well as eye-colour or food preferences!

What do you think? Do you think any of Jesus of Nazareth’s physical attributes tell us about what God is like?

Jesus and Nicodemus, 1899, Henry Ossawa Tanner, via Wikimedia Commons

This makes it complicated

If God does not belong to any “class” (or group) of beings, then all our pictures of what God is like are in some ways wrong as well as right, false as well as true.

God is like a rock, eg a strong protector, but God is not like a rock, eg unable to respond. That’s why (see the first post) we need complementary pictures, to minimise the error. Picturing God as a father is a better image if we use the picture of ‘him’ as mother as well.

It seems so simple. In everyday life two loving parents are usually better than one. So how come our everyday Christian language does not reflect this? (In the next post I’ll introduce a millenium and a half of Christian thinking that did use such motherly pictures of God.)

Another question for you today: what other feminine images of God might be helpful (besides mother)?

This is part of a short series based on Dr Tim Bulkeley‘s book Not Only a FatherYou can read the other posts here:

1: What’s Wrong with this Picture?

2: God as Mother in the Bible

3: But Jesus named God ‘Our Father’

4: Speaking the Unspeakable

5: Knowing the Unknowable

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0 comments on “Not Only A Father #3: But Jesus Named God ‘Our Father’! [Guest]”

  1. not a wild hera Reply

    Thanks, Tim. I found this fascinating.

    I had never made the connection that most of the fathers in Jesus’ teaching are non-typical. This is helpful for men deciding how to parent as well as in shaping our pictures and language for God.

    I appreciated your clear argument about the distinction between Jesus the incarnate Word and Jesus the second person of the Trinity. People often say, in discussing the possibility of female ordination, that restricting priesthood to men because Jesus was a man (and chose twelve male disciples) surely requires restricting it also to Jewish men (as were all thirteen). Your argument clarifies why neither maleness nor Jewishness are essential, eternal qualities of Jesus.

    A question – you say that it was once thought that abba was like daddy. Do we have updated knowledge on this now?

  2. Tim Bulkeley Reply

    First to respond to your question: Now I’d be less confident “abba” = daddy rather than just father or dad, it was probably just the usual way of speaking not a specially intimate one, but I’m not a specialist on this, so I say it a bit cautiously. It seems to me one more strand of evidence that Jesus’ use of father talk was not in itself new, but perhaps his talk of a motherly father was!

    On the discrepancy between Jesus’ talk of father and the cultural image of father the case of the parable is particularly interesting with modern Arab Christian women saying that real fathers act like the father in the parable but the men still express the old cultural stereotypes of what fathers “should” be like! See paragraph 5 onward.

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