‘FATHER’ AS A DIVINE NAME - Orthodox Catechism

‘FATHER’ AS A DIVINE NAME

‘Father’ is the traditional, biblical name for God. His children are the people of Israel: ‘For Thou art our Father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us; Thou, O Lord art our Father, our Redeemer from of old is Thy name’ (Is.63:16). The fatherhood of God is, of course, not a matter of maleness for there is no gender in the Divinity. It is important to remember, however, that the name ‘Father’ was not simply applied by humans to the Divinity: it is the very name with which God opened Himself to the people of Israel. Male imagery was not therefore imposed on God, rather God Himself chose it in His revelation to humans (cf. 2 Sam.7:14; 1 Chron 17:13; Jer 3:19; 31:9). The three Persons of the Holy Trinity bear the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit, where the name Son belongs to the eternal Logos of God, Who was incarnate and became man. In Semitic languages where the word for Spirit (Hebrew ruah, Syriac ruha) is feminine, female imagery is applied to the Holy Spirit. Both the Hebrew and the Greek terms for the Wisdom of God (Hebrew hokhma, Greek sophia) are feminine: this opens the possibility of applying female imagery to the Son of God, Who is traditionally identified with the Wisdom. With this exception, for both Father and Son exclusively male imagery is used in the Eastern tradition.

The Orthodox normally oppose modern attempts to change traditional biblical imagery by making God-language more ‘inclusive’ and referring to God as ‘mother’, and to His Son as ‘daughter’, or using the generic terms ‘parent’ and ‘child’. For the Orthodox, the full understanding of motherhood is embodied in the person of the Mother of God, whose veneration is not merely a custom or cultural phenomenon, but a church dogma and an essential part of spirituality. It is therefore not a matter of cultural difference between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics on the one hand, and the Protestants on the other, that the former venerate the Mother of God, while the latter pray to ‘God the Mother’. It is a serious dogmatic difference. Moreover, it is not simply stubbornness on the part of the Orthodox when they reject changing biblical God-language, but rather a clear understanding of the fact that the entire spiritual, theological and mystical tradition of the Church undergoes irrecoverable alterations when the traditional set of the divine names and images is changed.

Indeed, any name can be applied to the Divinity, while none can describe it. All names used for God in biblical and Orthodox traditions are aimed at grasping the mystery which is beyond names. Nevertheless, it is crucially important to remain with biblical God-language and not replace it with innovative forms. All names for God are anthropomorphic. Yet there is a difference between biblical anthropomorphism, which is based on the experience of the personal God in His revelation to humans, and the pseudo-anthropomorphism of modern theologians who, by introducing the notion of gender into the Divinity, speak of God as ‘He-She’, or ‘Our Mother and Father’.