As you may remember, back in May I wrote an article titled, “Why Evangelicals Struggle with Classical Theism.” One of my concluding observations was that evangelicals fail to appreciate the accommodated nature of Scriptural language. When we petition God to “make his face shine upon us” (Num. 6:25), we know better than to assume that God has a face. “God is spirit” (Jn. 4:24), we say. God is not literally a “rock,” “fortress,” or “shield” (Ps. 18:2). Neither does he have feathers or wings (Ps. 91:4). Even though these two examples seem simple enough, we struggle to make sense of those passages that attribute human emotions to God. Since God dwells in the bliss of his Triune life, he doesn’t experience emotional fluctuations like finite, sinful human beings. Yet we’re befuddled when we read that God “repents” (Gen. 6:6; Exod. 32:14), or that he “restrained his anger often” because he “remembered that they were but flesh” (Ps. 78:38–39). The classical understanding of this language is that while it communicates something true of God, it does not denote the way God is in his being or essence. Nothing outside of God activates his perfections. Nothing outside of God makes him loving, gracious, merciful, or wrathful. He is who he is (Exod. 3:14).
With some help from my former seminary professor Scott Swain, I’d like us to see what this means for the Fatherhood of God. Here’s why: In my conversations with well-meaning Christians, I have noticed that we often speak and think of God the Father as if he shares our limitations. We say or think things like, “We know what a good father is; therefore, if God is a good father, he must be like X,” or “he would do X.”
In the following quote, Scott Swain shows that since God’s fatherhood is primary, unique, and transcendent, we should exercise more caution in this regard.
First, the fatherhood of God is primary. The fatherhood of God is the first form of fatherhood, preexisting all other creaturely forms of fatherhood. Before the existence of creation, and thus before the existence of creaturely fathers and creaturely sons, the Father and his only begotten Son dwelled in eternal, mutual delight in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (John 1:1; 17:24–26). Moreover, just as God’s fatherhood is primary in the order of being, so also is it primary in the order of meaning. Every creaturely fatherhood in heaven and on earth is patterned after his divine fatherhood, not vice versa. He is “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:14–15). All creaturely fatherhood is an image and likeness of his divine fatherhood (Gen. 5:1–3).
Second, therefore, the fatherhood of God is unique. The fatherhood of God is not modeled after the fatherhood of creatures. Nor does the fatherhood of God belong to a larger class of fatherhood of which divine fatherhood and creaturely fatherhood are members. God’s fatherhood is holy, set apart, and singular. It is the fatherhood of the one God. Its meaning, therefore, is not defined by the measure of creaturely forms of fatherhood or by some generic sense of fatherhood that might apply to both God and man. The meaning of God’s fatherhood is determined by God’s fatherhood alone. He is who he is (Ex. 3:14). His fatherhood is one (1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:6).
Third, therefore, the fatherhood of God is transcendent. Because the fatherhood of God is primary, first in the order of being and first in the order of meaning, and because the fatherhood of God is unique, determined by God’s fatherhood alone and not by an external standard of fatherhood, the fatherhood of God transcends all creaturely limitations. Unlike the fatherhood of creatures, the fatherhood of God is not dependent, not composite, not changing, not limited, and not temporal. It is self-existent, simple, immutable, infinite, and eternal. God’s radiant fatherhood is “above” all other forms of fatherhood; he is “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).
The preceding discussion helps us appreciate why there is a family resemblance between God’s fatherhood and creaturely forms of fatherhood—the latter are patterned after the former. It also helps us appreciate why there can be no one-to-one comparison between God’s fatherhood and creaturely forms of fatherhood—God’s fatherhood is unique and transcendent.
(The Trinity: An Introduction, 70–71)
The late Nicholas Lash (1934–2020) used to say that theology is the practice of learning to watch our words before God. Immersing ourselves in Scripture and church tradition will enable us to know and speak well of God and all things in relation to him.
On the journey with you . . .