I was recently surprised to be told that there is a large body of scholarly research emerging that has shown the common Christian assumption that Jesus invented the practice of praying to God as our Father is false.
Doing some of my own research, I came across an excellent article “God the Father in Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity: Transformed Background or Common Ground?” by Alon Goshen-Gottstein in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol. 38, 2001. If you have the time and inclination, there is a lot that can be learned from reading this article – more than you might initially think – about what the Church means when it prays to “God the Father”.
One of the things that I noted throughout the article is that Goshen-Gottstein regularly calls this way of speaking of God a “metaphor”. That is an issue that I have spoken of here before on this blog (eg. Here in a commentary on the ideas of Fr Kennedy at St Mary’s South Brisbane). I was beginning to take a rather strong issue with the author until I came to a section at the end entitled “Do Judaism and Christianity speak of the same Father?”.
At this point, his methhod differentiates between three ways of speaking of “God the Father” which, for him, correspond to the way in which this phrase is used by Jews, by Jesus, and by the Church/Christianity. And this is a very helpful distinction, even if you might quibble that the way in which Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels is a product of the early Christian Church (he does acknowledge the difficulty of speaking about what the “historical Jesus” said and taught). Here is a precis of his analysis.
The first level relates to religious language. Religious language contains manifold ways of speaking of God, and part of religious language is the use of metaphors. …Accordingly, when speaking of God as Father this would be taken as a metaphor… According to this first level of understanding, God is only Father by analogy…
The second sense refers to religious experience…. [It] may convey a real experience and thus give expression to the consciousness of the person relating to God as Father… [This] is quite distinct from intellectual lessons drawn by analogies based upon human language… The advancement from the first to the second level is not necessarily a conceptual advanceement. …It is the move from the more external dimension of religious language to the more direct impact of immediate cognition.
There is yet a third sense in which God-Father language could be employed: through metaphysical speculation. On this third level, an attempt is made to articulate divine reality “as it is.” Human language is not viewed as relative and subjective, belonging primarily to the realm of the human. Granting the appropriate qualifications, proper thought and articulate expression can provide a view of divine reality in and of itself. Human language is thus metaphysically endowed and serves as a vehicle for revealing higher truths.
He then correlates the first sense to the Jewish use of the term “God the Father”, the second sense to Jesus’ teaching and practice of prayer, and the third to the dogmatic assertions of the Christian Church. For me, the question is brought into sharp relief when we ask whether we can speak of God as “Mother”. Goshen-Gottstein writes:
For Judaism, both ancient and later, “Father” never ceases to be a metaphor… Because there is no absolute status to this description, it is complemented by a host of other descriptions, such as that of God as King… There is no absolute sense in which God is spoken of as Father, nor does the description of God as Father carry any absolute value. When one is pressed as to why God is Father rather than Mother, one can simply point to cultural habits, without needing to justify in some essential sense God’s paternity. Human language and concepts are relative and do not convey absolute truths… This is a cultural choice rather than a theological necessity.
Now, I think, he is onto something. When “God the Father” is viewed solely as a metaphor of religious language without any assertion about “God as he is” then of course, we must concede that it is culturally conditioned and therefore may be used, discarded or modified as culturally appropriate. Furthermore, in the second sense (that of personal relationship with God) it is not surprising that there may be some who, in terms of their spirituality, would prefer to relate to God as “Mother”. Yet Goshen-Gottstein recognises that this is not how the Church uses the phrase “God the Father”:
The teachings of the Christian church seem to me to belong to the third level in which Father language is applied. Indeed, here we encounter a new teaching concerning the nature of the Father… Within the context of the church’s teaching, a completely new understanding of divine fatherhood emerges. While this understanding is closely linked to Jesus’ personal experience of God the Father, it also constitutes a radical transformation of the understanding of God the Father. Let me quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“Jesus revealed that God is Father in an unheard of sense: he is Father not only in being Creator; he is eternally Father by his relationship to his only Son who, reciprocally, is Son only in relation to his Father: “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” [quoting Mt. 11 :27].”…
Thus, “Father” ceases to be metaphorical and is to be understood as revealing something substantive about God. God’s paternity is essential to a proper understanding of God and, in fact, is a constitutive feature of the uniquely Christian teaching of God. In fact, one can say that “Father” becomes part of the very definition of God. Unless one has the proper understanding of father-son relations within the Godhead, one does not know God. Put differently, one cannot think of God without considering his paternity. To talk of God the Father is no longer an option available to human religious discourse; it is an essential component of the proper definition and understanding of what is meant when we say “God.
We might find it surprising that this fact should be so clear to a Jewish scholar while so many Christians have the issues entirely muddled (see the afore mentioned reference to Fr Kennedy’s ideas expressed in his defence of the baptismal formul “In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier”).
I find Goshen-Gottstein’s analysis to be very helpful for us today. We can use “God the Father” as a metaphor. In this sense it may be said to be “culturally conditioned.” Individuals may, in their personal spiritual life of prayer, find it helpful to relate to God by means of other “metaphors”, eg. God as my “Mother”. But the distinctive thing about Christianity is that we claim that to speak of “God the Father” is speaking about the very essence of God’s nature as Trinity, and that for us, it is “not an option”.