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.