On the Divine Names

In a comment on the previous post, Scott drew my attention to a post by Denny Burk, who says ‘While we don’t believe that God has a gender, we do believe that He has revealed Himself as God theFather and never as mother.’ This reminded me that Krish Kandiah pointed me late last year to a post by Matthew Hosier (on the Think Theology Blog) in which Matthew (who I don’t think I have met) argues a similar point, though with a bit more theological precision than Burk offered. His formulation ran as follows: (1) naming God as Mother is different to naming God as Father, in that ‘Mother’ is clearly used metaphorically of God in the Scriptures, whereas ‘Father’ is not; so (2) ‘Father’ is the proper name for God:

“Father” is the proper name of God, and is no more metaphorical than my name being “Mr Hosier.” Sure, God at times acts in ways that are like a mother (that’s a metaphor), but Father is who he is.

From this, Matthew argues that (3) this has decisive bearings on the ‘egalitarian-complementarian debate’ and (4) that understanding this truth allows us to enter fully into Trinitarian worship – citing Mike Reeves’s excellent recent book.

What to do with this? We need to think very clearly about how we name God, in particular making the distinction between what the tradition called the divine names, which name the one God who Father, Son and Holy Spirit together are, and the hypostatic names, ‘Father’, ‘Son’, and ‘Holy Spirit’. Getting this distinction right was near the heart of both the Cappadocian and Augustinian formulations of trinitarian doctrine. When we look for the divine names, we find a series of Biblical ascriptions of titles to God which do not, at first sight, appear to be metaphors. In the OT, we have supremely YHWH, the Name revealed to Moses when he asked God at the burning bush, ‘what is your name?’, but also such ascriptions as Elohim (‘God’ – assuming a pl. of majesty…), Eloah (‘God’), El Shaddai (‘God Almighty’ or ‘many-breasted God’, depending on which etymology you believe), El Elyon (‘God of Gods’), Adhonai (‘Lord’), … which do not appear to be metaphorical usages. As Brueggeman points out somewhere, however, the more characteristic ways for Israel to express their faith used verbs (‘The One who brought us up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’) or adjectives (‘The Lord, The Lord, the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love…’), not nouns. Is ‘Father’ a divine name?

The answer must be yes: consider Dt. 32:6, where God is clearly spoken of as the father of Israel (‘your father, who created you, who made you and established you…’); this usage, however, is obviously – if not metaphorical, at least in some sense non-literal (in fact the fourth-century decision enshrined in orthodox trinitarianism was that all divine names are in some sense non-literal, for some very good reasons) – and God is described as a mother in the Scriptures in just the same way, and probably with a similar frequency.

So the OT might invite us to say ‘YHWH is the proper name of God,’ but not ‘Father is the proper name of God’; what of the NT? Jesus certainly names God as ‘Father,’ and that is of course decisive; at the same time, there is a careful inclusion of Jesus himself in narratives of the divine life. This happens in a whole series of ways – see various books by Bauckham or Hurtado – but, to take the two most obvious, Jesus is repeatedly named as kurios, ‘Lord’, the title that translates the divine name YHWH in the OT; and OT confessions of faith in God are expanded to name Jesus alongside the Father (the expansion of the opening clause of the Shema in 1 Cor. 8:6 is perhaps the most obvious example).

This creates a problem for us if we say that ‘Father’ is ‘the proper name of God’: if ‘Father’ is the proper name of God, then the Son, Jesus, is not God, because not properly called ‘Father’.  Strikingly, this was almost precisely the argument that was played out in the Cappadocian response to Eunomius, the great anti-Trinitarian heresiarch of the fourth century (he was far more significant than Arius). Eunomius argued, on the one hand, that human words could successfully apply literally to God, and that God’s proper name was ‘the ingenerate One’ – thus suggesting that the Father is truly God, having no origin, whereas the Son, whose essence is to be generated by the Father, is simply not God. Choosing ‘Father’ as the proper name for God leads to exactly the same problem; the Son is not called ‘Father’ (pace Is. 9:6!), and so would seem to be other than God.

How can we evade such a conclusion? The Cappadocian answer, which became the orthodox answer, involved two moves, which I have hinted at already. One was to distinguish between the divine essence and the divine persons: to say ‘God is ingenerate’  is unacceptable; to say ‘the Father is ingenerate’ is – not just acceptable, but required by ecumenical doctrine. Equally, God is not generate, but ‘the Son is generate’ is a necessary dogma. The second was to insist that all language applied to God was fundamentally  – if not ‘metaphorical’, at least non-literal. The divine perfection is infinitely beyond our naming; all names we use are feeble gropings after a majesty so high and holy.

So to say ‘God’s self-revelation was as “Father”‘ is to make some basic mistakes. God’s self-revelation was/is as being beyond gender and beyond any human terms; God’s self-revelation was/is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But to take the hypostatic name ‘Father’ as a reason not to call the triune God ‘mother’ is to misunderstand trinitarian orthodoxy fundamentally.



  1. Ian Paul
    Mar 12, 2013

    Steve, the logic of what you are saying appears to be similar to Kevin Giles, that is, to believe in hierarchy between male and female people necessitates having a ‘heretical’ understanding of God…?

    • steve
      Mar 12, 2013

      Hi Ian; not quite – I appreciate Kevin’s work on eternal generation in particular, but I just don’t think there is any straight line of logic from the doctrine of the Trinity to human gender relations. One could believe in gender hierarchies for anthropological reasons, for instance, without falling foul of anything I have written here (although I don’t…)

      • Ian Paul
        Mar 17, 2013

        Sorry, what I meant is: to believe in hierarchical gender relations *on the basis of the nature of the Trinity* is to have a deficient, even heretical, view of Trinity.

        My reading of the debate about women’s ministry in the UK is that this now is the mainstay of the theological argument.

  2. Matt C.
    Mar 12, 2013

    What about Zizioulas’ take that the Father is “the One God”?

    • steve
      Mar 12, 2013

      Yeah – I just think John is wrong on that, for reasons I explore at length in my book on the Trinity…

  3. Andrew E.
    Mar 12, 2013

    Steve, what are your thoughts on Robert Jenson’s identification of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as being the proper name for God? It would seem that Jenson would be against the assertion that we cannot call God “mother” because Jesus called him the name “father”, and because the church recognizes the first person of the Trinity as “father”. However, he would be against calling God “mother” because that’s not God’s name for through the narrative of Israel and Christ we know God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    • steve
      Mar 12, 2013

      Andrew, thanks for stopping by. I have the privilege of regarding Jens as a friend, but on this I think he is simply wrong – we have argued the point inconclusively across more than one conference floor…

      • Andrew E.
        Mar 13, 2013

        Hey Steve, so is “God’s self-revelation was/is as being beyond gender and beyond any human terms” the thrust of the point you are making? Are any of those debates on audio anywhere? They would be fantastic to hear.

  4. Maik G
    Mar 12, 2013

    Steve, this linguist is impressed. Your comment on a previous post that God as ‘mother’ was not metaphorical had me itching to post or start a blog, as it is, as you say, at least non-literal, in the same way that ‘father’ is, when applied to God.
    Now I imagine that in ‘divine-ish’ the words for the relationships within the trinity are literal, primary, prototypical (if we can speak of such a language and such words). And perhaps human fatherhood and motherhood are non-literal extensions of those words (speculation alert!). However that would still be divine-ish, whereas we speak English, and there’s no evidence that Hebrew or Greek have different primary meanings for ‘father’ and ‘mother’. Unfortunately many people understand ‘metaphorical’ as ‘not really true’, and it may be possible that rejections of God’s fatherhood as metaphorical are based on this apprehension at some level

    • Maik G
      Mar 13, 2013

      However, when talking of God, ‘Father’ is clearly a conventionalised metaphor in the Bible – through repeated use of the word to refer to God, we become accustomed to the link without having to wonder what characteristics are being invoked.
      In a similar way, if I refer to my son as a ‘sunbeam’, the (English-speaking) listener does not need to think about what I’m saying, as that metaphor is conventionalised in a way that referring to him as a ‘moonbeam’ is not.
      The use of ‘mother’ to refer to God is not conventionalised to the same degree (there’s a continuum of conventionalisation), which is probably what Matthew Hosier is picking up on. There’s a difference of degree, if not of type.

      • steve
        Mar 13, 2013

        Yes, I agree with this also – and would not generally refer to God as ‘mother’ in writing or in worship. But I need to know my reasons for not doing this…

    • steve
      Mar 13, 2013

      Hi Maik, thanks. Yes, the next stage of the argument is to say that the divine names – and here think more of ‘goodness’ ‘love’ … – apply truly to God and only metaphorically to us. (My colleague Alan Torrance wrote a paper years ago arguing this about ‘father’ entitled ‘Call no man “Father”‘).

  5. Matthew Hosier
    Mar 13, 2013

    Hi Steve – thanks for engaging on this one. No, we haven’t met – though when I was at King’s under Michael Banner he said I should talk to you about further study. You then moved north!

    Your response is very interesting, but I think there are some non sequiturs in your argument, so will try to make a response over on Think Theology when I have the opportunity.

    Thanks again.

    • steve
      Mar 13, 2013

      Look forward to it, Matthew.

  6. Mike Arnold
    Mar 13, 2013

    What an interesting concept, Father being the “proper name of God” just as Mike is my proper name.
    I have always taken Father to be a relational term and therefore descriptive of His position in relationship to Jesus and by extension tose who follow Jesus, and the Israelites before us.
    The procession question is, to me at least, puzzling- can we really seperate essence from person.

    The Bible tells us that God is Love, that is his very being, his very essence. However, love itself is a relationship discriptor i.e. it can only exist and find fulfillment in relationship with other persons- another relational term- as used by the Capadocian Fathers- here we cannot equate person with individual- we must think person in relationship with another.
    If this is the case then Father who is love could not exist indvidually outside of relationship with other persons.

    This is testified to in both scripture and tradition. Jesus is begotten, not created, being with the Father from the very beginning, not proceeding fron Him at some later point. This is of course true of the Holy Spirit.

    As a relational term, God has chosen to reveal himself to us as a being in relation- a divine community I think Fiddes called it, though I may confuse Fiddes with someone else.

    As a relational term I wonder if Jesus had called Father mother, would we have been having a different conversation.

    What is also of interest to me is that Ruach, the term used to discribe the Spirit of God in the Old Testament is feminine so within God, we have both masculine and feminine.

  7. John Thompson
    Mar 18, 2013

    Isn’t God a father figure simply and solely because the tradition out of which Christianity grew, and to whose scriptures we continue to defer, was a patriachal culture. The Creator/Redeemer/Life-giver we worship is surely beyond the limitations of our gender-sensitive language. Unfortunately, to avoid calling God “He” or “She” we are left with only the impersonal “It” which is completely inadequate.

  8. Phil Whittall
    Jul 18, 2013

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