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Why do we call him Father?

Years ago I was leading a Bible study at our fellowship, and it was the start of a new semester, hence more visitors than usual, and so this study had a few new people. I don't remember the topic of that particular Bible study, but in the middle of the study, out of the blue, one of the visitors suddenly interrupted with a very off-topic comment. She said that we should think about vieweing God addressing God as a female instead of a male, and her husband chimed in to support her. We were surprised by this sudden, heterodox point, which was unrelated to what we were discussing - something just out of the blue. I was able to handle it, and had support from other well informed believers. I tried to explain that we don't think that God is literally male, but it's an important biblical metaphor, how God revealed himself to us, and how he wants us to view him as an authority figure and such. They weren't satisfied, of course, tried to argue, and didn't return after that. They weren't interested in learning from God's word, but in imposing their own mindset on it and promoting their heterodox theological agenda.

But that raises good questions. Why do we call him father? What does that mean? Why not 'mother'?

Obviously, no orthodox Christian theologian would say that God is literally male, as that would be just as heretical. That would be a sort of idolatry, making God like us, making God in our human image. Gender is merely one part of his creation. Besides, he made man and woman both in his image. And there are a few maternal images of God in the Bible. Some psalms describe God as being like a mother hen protecting her chicks, for example. But most often, he is referred to as God, Lord, or Father, or such. 'Father' is a masculine metaphor, and does not mean that God is male. It is an important metaphor, which Jesus taught us to use when we pray, as it puts us and him in proper perspective, and establishes our relationship in him. So what does it mean? This and other terms teach us about who God is.

'God' and 'Lord' and such are often rendered as 'Yahweh' and 'Elohim' in Old Testament Hebrew. 'Elohim' in Hebrew is actually a plural form, which indicates royalty (and may also imply trinity), and is associated with God as the covenant giver and covenant maker. He establishes and offers the covenant of salvation in the Old Testament, and as such we are to enter into a covenant where he is lord and master, like a king offering a covenant treaty to a smaller nation (back then, treaties were a sort of covenant, too). 'Yahweh' [or Jehovah] was considered a revered, holy name, so much so that average Jews wouldn't pronounce it. It thus conveys a sense of awe, of being an entity so holy, separate, and different from us and from anything of this world. These names teach us to revere and fear God, and to submit to him. Fear and reverence of God are important, and are expressed throughout Scripture, especially in the Old Testament.

The term 'Father' conveys the love of a parent, God's great love for us. And it conveys authority, probably better than 'mother' - especially in Ancient Near Eastern [ANE] culture, but even so today. It better conveys the role of authority figure, discipliner, and provider of all our needs, more so than 'mother'. As such, especially in the ANE cultural context, it also conveys something stronger, I think - more like reverence, respect, awe, and even fear, especially when the term is extended to God. So I think this conveys a balance of both love and a close personal relationship with God, with biblical awe, reverence, and fear of God. Both are important, and this way of viewing and addressing God conveys all these aspects that are necessary for us to have a right relationship with God. 'Mother' just wouldn't convey that, and would have gotten turned into a sort of wimpy, permissive love. Of course, the love of earthly mothers and fathers both model for children the kind of love that God has. But a maternal image as our primary image of God was deemed insufficient - it would get watered down and overly humanized to begin with, and it lacks those important counterbalancing elements of fear and awe. (Like, how would it sound to talk about fearing your mother?) 'Father' conveys the right balance of how we should view God properly.

Those who had bad earthly fathers may have trouble relating to God as Father, and that takes time, perhaps counseling or spiritual struggling, to learn to view God as the perfect Father, who is gentle, perfect, loving, and good, and so unlike our earthly fathers. But it's important for us to relate to God in this way - as our Father, life-giver, the one who loves us so much, and as one who is the eternal, holy God, whom we should fear, respect, and hold in awe. And we can also think of God, specifically, Jesus, as our lover (like the hymn, "Jesus, lover of my soul...") - especially if you're single or lonely.

But we have to cultivate a sense of biblical fear of God (the beginning of wisdom) and awe, otherwise, we sink into a sort of self-focused religion, which is what predominates today. Sometime later I'll talk more about the fear of God.


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