The Father is Not A Metaphor

What’s the deal with all that “father” language in the Bible anyway?

The gender-explicit language of Scripture has long been a stumbling block to theological liberals. Under the influence of feminism, many have sought to relegate all the masculinity of the God of the Bible to the cultural prejudices of the times in which it was written. Accordingly, they feel comfortable purging Scripture of patriarchy by either neutering the language or adding feminine language into it alongside the masculine. Why restrict ourselves to praying “Our Father who art in Heaven” when we could pray “Our Mother who is within is” or “Father and Mother of us all in whom is heaven”? Why put God in a masculine box?

Of course, some of these people might claim that I’m misrepresenting the situation because the Bible already uses feminine language for God, and this was simply repressed/ignored by the evil patriarchs running the Church in the past. “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you” says the Lord in Isaiah 66:13. “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” says Jesus in Matthew 23:37. See? God is just as much a mother as a father, and Jesus might just as well be a daughter as a son!

But such claims betray the underlying beliefs of those who want to neuter the Bible. The key word in such passages is “as.” “As one whom his mother comforts.” “As a hen gathers her brood.” That word makes these verses similes. A simile is an explicit kind of metaphor in which one thing is straightforwardly compared to something else in order to illuminate a shared quality. If one takes these metaphors as a license to call God “mother” just as he instructed us to call him “father,” then one is treating both “mother” and “father” as metaphors.

For rather than seeing the Bible as God’s Word, theological liberalism sees it as a record of individuals and communities encountering God and trying to make some kind of sense of their experiences. Being the patriarchal people they were, they noted that God behaved like the human fathers that they were more familiar with (and were mostly oblivious to the ways in which God acted like a mother). And behold: “God the Father” was born of man! So when Jesus calls God “Father” and instructs us to do the same, theological liberals think Jesus was merely condescending to use the popular metaphor of the time in which he lived. The resultant idea is that people may experience God as father (or as Jesus, or as the Holy Spirit, for that matter), but God is not really a father, let alone the Father.

But if the Father is simply a way in which we experience God, or one of the ways in which God has revealed himself, then the Father is not God at all and is instead simply a ‘way’ that exists primarily in our own thoughts and experiences. This is nothing else than the ancient heresy of modalism—the belief that The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not God, but are simply “modes” in which God interacts with the world. Unlike its ancient counterpart, modern modalism might not care whether God is three persons or only one, but it shares the same root problem: confusing God Himself with something in our minds and hearts that stands between us and the “real” God. This is the danger of thinking that the “father” language of scripture is some kind of optional metaphor. Metaphors stand between us and what they represent—if we worship them, they therefore become idols. If you pray to a mother, and/or a neuter, and/or a being who is both male and female, then you are not praying to the one true God at all.

“But the Bible says God is a Spirit! The first person of the Trinity doesn’t have a body like us, so he’s not really male or female at all!” Too many people labor under this Gnostic assumption—that everyone is really a neuter spirit inhabiting a male and/or female meat-sack—and extend their false assumption even to God. But the relationship of God and “father” is just the opposite of what theological liberals presume. Humans didn’t encounter a neuter and/or female God and clumsily grab the closest somewhat apt metaphor at hand. Instead, God created fathers, body & spirit together, specifically to be a representation of Himself. Theological liberals think that “God the Father” is a pale shadow of the real God because the real God is less of a father than the fathers we see on a regular basis. The reality is that He is more of a father. He is The Father. Human fathers are the pale shadow of the real Father God, just as patriarchal orthodox Christians have always known Him.

Some mainline denominations have opted to expand their language of the Trinity to additional poetic phrases such as “Mother, Child, and Womb.” While there’s nothing wrong with describing God poetically, they feel free to add their poetry alongside God’s self-revelation of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” because they think that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are merely poetry in the first place. But the ecumenical creeds of the Church catholic do not express a belief in poetry or metaphors. Theological liberals might as well refer to their god as “Molech, Astaroth, and Baal,” because they do not worship the same God proclaimed by orthodox Christianity.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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7 Responses to The Father is Not A Metaphor

  1. Pingback: Then We Can No Longer Refer to You as Christians | The 96th Thesis

  2. J-Irving says:

    I appreciate these nuggets of incite you’ve given. I am currently sitting under liberal Christian education and the aim is to dismantle any semblance of God actually being who He says He is and reveals Himself as. Reading Sallie McFague’s “Metaphorical Theology” within a so called Systematic Theology class that no longer can claim to be systematic or theological except in its indoctrination of their own god(s) that meet the timely needs of our own culture. I wish, I wish, I sincerely wish this were just the condition of my Seminary, but in reality it is the condition of many mainline seminaries who seek to be “modern” and acceptable.

    Nonetheless, thank you for fighting the good fight and taking hold of every thought captive to obey Christ! This article helped clarify some important points for me.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, J-Irving–assuming you meant “insight” rather than “incite.” Although to be fair, I do provide nuggets of both. 🙂

      It can’t be easy to persevere under that kind of education. May God bless you as you contend against the spirit of the age.

      Oh, and given your circumstances, you might also find my YouTube series on Theological Liberalism to be helpful:

  3. Paul says:

    “Instead, God created fathers, body & spirit together, specifically to be a representation of Himself. ”

    Exactly. This is why males are created (directly) in the image of God, and females aren’t.

    Gen 1 is a summary of the creation of man and the one taken from him: wo-man, given in more detail in Gen 2: it was the male who was created out of the dust of the earth, into God’s image, when God breathed His spirit into his nostrils. Eve was not similarly created, but taken out of man. God most likely did not breathe into her nostrils. When God walked in Eden, He looked like Adam, not like Eve. When God spoke to Abraham, He looked like Abraham, not like Sara. The whole NT helps us understand that hu-mans are represented in the first male, Adam. As such women only indirectly are created in God’s image, because they look like Adam. Similarly, Jesus was born a male, not a female.

    1 Cor 11 also shows this ordering; the head of woman is man, the head of man Christ. “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man.”

    Feminism trying to destroy the image of man is destroying the image of God. We can see its effects everywhere in society, including the churches. Females lifting themselves up to be like gods, which was the original sin of Eve. And males helping them rise to power, instead of not listening to their voices, like Adam was supposed to have done.

    • Matt says:

      I wouldn’t go so far as to say women aren’t made in the image of God. In Genesis 1, our being made male & female is mentioned in the same breath as being made in God’s image. The verses read like Hebrew poetry, in which the parallel lines generally imply a close relationship. Likewise, if men are created body and soul in God’s image, then surely “bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh” is as well when its handcrafted by God.

      That said, “indirectly” created in God’s image isn’t necessarily a bad way of putting it. There’s clearly an order to our creation. Woman is of man. And although she’s in God’s image, she’s also a representation of creation’s response to God’s love in the way she interacts with her husband.

  4. Paul says:

    Matt, I agree with you insofar I wouldn’t say women aren’t made in the image of God, because they share the image of men to a large degree, but indeed indirectly, not directly. Directly men are made in God’s image and reflect His maleness, but women obviously do not. And for sure the androgynous interpretation of God’s image must be wrong.

    (I would say that no one is more “male” than God, human males reflect that, not the other way around, although we should be careful to understand God’s maleness from extrapolating human maleness)

    As for the Genesis 1 summary: careful parsing already reveals the distinction between male and female. First v.26 does address the combination of male and female, but has a subtle shift: “Let us make adam/Adam in Our image, according to our likeness, and let *them* rule.” Adam “man” is masculine singular, “them” is plural, while referring to Adam. That still fits my interpretation, as female is seen as “part” of male, or being represented by male. Then v.27 “So God created the man in His own image, in the image of God He created him (male singular), male and female he created *them*.”
    The parallel of shifting from male singular adam/Adam to plural them (male/female) can be seen in both verses. It can be interpreted to reflect that woman are not directly created in the image of God, but reflect it to a lesser extent being created out of Adam.

    I don’t have enough expertise in Hebrew to assess if the formulation would have been different if God in His word wanted to explicitly express that both males and females are created in His image, each in equal amounts. It’s clear however that the symbolism of Eve being a secondary creation out of Adam is significant, and is confirmed in the NT (headship/head-covering/submission/authority/teaching).

  5. Another Matt says:

    Understanding “Father” as a reality instead of a metaphor seems much more sound than theological liberalism, since God calls himself Father… but isn’t Jesus also called “Father” in Isaiah 9:6? And isn’t the whole Trinity called “Father” in the Old Testament, in places like Isaiah 63:16 and Deuteronomy 32:6?

    I want to say that Father is not a metaphor, but then is Father likewise not a metaphor when used of Jesus or of the whole Trinity?

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