One of the governing truths of faithful theology is that God Himself provides for us the categories by which we understand Him (Deut. 29:29). The fourth-century church father Hilary of Poitiers put it eloquently when he wrote: “[The human mind] must not measure the nature of God by the laws of his own nature but evaluate the divine truths in accordance with the magnificence of God’s self-revelation. . . . Since we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of himself, and bow with humble reverence to his words.”
What Hilary is saying is that if God names Himself, we tether our thoughts to that name and adjust our posture in order to bow at that name, not adjust the name in order to fit our life’s posture. As a name, Father reveals personal identity within God. It is not used to communicate fatherly attributes alone, though it does do that (see Heb. 12:3–11); nor is Father used as a handy “model” we use to describe God. Naming God Father, in other words, is done not for pedagogical or sociological reasons but for theological and relational ones.
Scripture gives us a number of similes and metaphors for thinking about God’s qualities, but we must recognize that it clearly and directly speaks of God as Father. What is more, Scripture reveals this is a personal name.
A name is more than a metaphor. It is something we use to identify and establish intimacy in direct address. That Jesus commands us to take “our Father” on our lips (Matt. 6:9) is the greatest privilege on earth, for what He is doing is inviting us to take on our lips the very name He has spoken from all eternity. We see this as Jesus prays to the Father toward the end of His earthly life in the midst of His disciples in John 17:
I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. . . . Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. (vv. 6–12, emphasis added)
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. . . . O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. (vv. 20–26)
Jesus saves the best for last. He relates that the beautiful end of all that He came to do is an invitation into the eternal communion He has shared as the Son with the Father for all eternity. And it is in Him—the Son—that we gain the privilege of calling on the Father’s name.
We are in relation to a person with a name, so our thoughts and speech about Him, whether direct or indirect, are to be ordered accordingly. The Son provides for us the context for knowing and relating to the Father. It is because of His prior relation to the Father and His work on our behalf that we, former rebels enslaved to sin, are enabled to know and call on the Father as sons and daughters. Jesus said, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). We do not name God from any other “place” than in the Son.
As devastating as the circumstances are that sin and corruption brings into our lives—and indeed, the circumstances Mack faces in The Shack are horrific—there is no lasting comfort from a god who is constrained by the categories of our own understanding. We dare not name Him according to what we feel He should be for us. We must name Him in accordance with who He is.
And He is Father. He is eternally so in relation to the Son. And, as we will examine in my next post on this theme of divine Fatherhood, in our salvation we are adopted into their eternal family. The Son has existed in eternal bliss with the Father and the Spirit. Through adoption, we enter a familial relationship wherein the Father becomes our Father by grace even as He is the Son’s Father by nature.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on September 28, 2018.