Friday, September 03, 2004

"Father-God" - Who is He?

In 2004 it is common to hear the Deity addressed as "Father-God" in ex tempore prayer by evangelicals and charismatics (this expression was often heard at the recent Anglican Conference in Ottawa, August 30 - September lst). I do not raise any question about the sincerity of those who so begin a prayer; but, I do raise a question about its legitimacy, where legitimacy here is established and fixed by the language of the Bible and of the classic Christian dogma of the Holy Trinity (e.g., as found in the Nicene Creed & the Quicunque Vult [The Athanasian Creed].

In my reading of the Liturgies of the East and West and of classic Protestantism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries I have not encountered this form of address. This sets off alarm bells!

I am not sure who first used it and then who popularized it. It may have belonged originally to what we may call the sub-culture of popular evangelicalism and thus be propagated through example and imitation. Then from this sub-culture it finds its ways into sermons, popular books, choruses and hymns. It seems to have the aim of making God close, friendly and kind.

Let us examine it.

According to the clear words of Jesus the full name of God is provided in his commission to preach the Gospel and baptize converts. "In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost" (Matthew 28). The "Name" is One Name, which in the Old Testament is revealed as YHWH [Jehovah, Yahweh, LORD] and in the New Testament is further unfolded by Jesus as "the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost" one God.

In the New Testament the word "God" refers almost exclusively to "God the Father" (as may be determined by the context). Only rarely is it used of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son, and of the Godhead, the divine Nature.

In the writings of the Fathers of the Church "God" was used both of the One Godhead, One Deity, One Divinity possessed by all Three Persons and also of the first Person of the Trinity, God the Father. The Nicene Creed begins, "I believe in One God the Father Almighty" and then goes on also to declare belief in the only Son of this Father and the Holy Ghost who proceeds from this Father. Thus in the Nicene Creed, God is the Father who is always together with his only-begotten Son and his Holy Spirit. Further, each of the Three possesses in totality the one divine nature, Godhead and Divinity, so there is One God and Three Persons.

In the Quicunque Vult [Athanasian Creed], the word "God" is used primarily of the One Godhead, Divinity, Divine Nature and Deity which is wholly possessed by each of the Three Persons. "The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet there are not three Gods but one God."

Therefore, the Church has spoken through the centuries of "the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost [Spirit]", one God, and has understood the Three Persons as Equal but yet in holy Order, that is the Father is first, the Son is second and the Holy Ghost is third in Order. So they are named in Revelation and Liturgy in this Order and prayer is offered "to the Father through the Son and with the Holy Ghost". Such prayer is itself in response to the Revelation and Salvation --from the Father through the Son and by the Holy Ghost?.

The Father is a proper name. The First Person of the Blessed, Holy and Undivided Trinity is "the Father". He is also "God". Thus the Church has addressed him as either "O God, the Father" or simply as "O God" (see the many examples of this in the collects of The Book of Common Prayer, 1662 & 1928).

One of the persistent heresies faced by the Church is that of "Arianism" or "Tritheism" (the Athanasian Creed was composed to deal with this heresy in its fifth century form). In one way or another, according to context and time, this heresy assumes and teaches that there is one Supreme God (Father) and then two less than supreme Gods -- the Son and the Holy Ghost. Usually those who hold to this heresy think that they hold to classic orthodoxy for they speak of the Three as distinctly Three Persons. They do not realize that they are separating the Father from the Son and seeing them on different levels of eternal being and divinity.

"Father" is not a word like "Almighty" or "Eternal" or "Gracious" to place before the noun "God". No it is a proper name, the real, revealed and true title and name of the First Person of the Holy Trinity. He is "the Father" and "God the Father", not "a Father" or "a fatherly God". He is addressed by the Son (see John 17) as "the Father" and so also by the Early Church. We pray "Our Father" not "our father God".

To pray "Father-God" is to reduce two Proper Names into one Name with an adjectival form attached (where Father is like "Almighty") and then to cause the Son and the Holy Ghost to become inferior even "Gods", or not even "Gods" at all. It could be described as a kind of evangelical Unitarianism where the real God is "Father-God" and the lesser but vital Gods are Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost.

Let us in our style and language of prayer be guided by the Sacred Scriptures and by the Liturgy of holy tradition, not the popular tradition of evangelicalism.

The Revd Dr Peter Toon September 3 2004.

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