During a recent mission trip to Zambia, I visited mighty Victoria Falls, a thundering, mile-wide torrent of water falling hundreds of feet into the lower Zambesi River. Later that evening, gazing in awe at the countless stars in the night sky above a remote area of Zambia, I saw the “Southern Cross,” a constellation visible only from the southern hemisphere. In awe of the sights and sounds of the day, I praised God for the majesty of creation.
Thundering waterfalls, countless stars in the night sky, majestic mountains rising above the clouds, vast oceans with their unexplored depths―these marvels of nature create in us a sense of awe and mystery. Most rational people believe that “something” or “Someone” brought the universe into existence. The beauty and design of the world around us, including the regular, lawful movement of the heavenly bodies, attest the existence of “God”―an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator, Designer and Lawgiver, who brought all things into existence and governs them with infinite power and wisdom.
In the western-Latin theological tradition, “natural” theology―that is, rational reflection on nature (i.e., “creation”)―has been the starting point for speculation about God. In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) developed his famous “five ways” of knowing God, each based on the principle that a “cause” can be known by its “effects.” Following the Greek philosopher Aristotle, Aquinas argued that creation (i.e., “effects”) demands a “Creator” (i.e., “First Cause”), while the design inherent in the universe attests a “Designer.” Just as we can draw inferences about an artist by studying his or her paintings, for Aquinas, we can draw conclusions about the nature of God by studying his “handiwork” (i.e., “nature”).[i] Following Aquinas, theology textbooks continue to describe God primarily in the abstract language of “natural” theology, where God is conceived primarily in negative terms, such as “infinite,” (not finite), “immutable” (not changeable) and “impassible” (not able to suffer).
The abstract, impersonal Deity of natural theology underlies American civil religion, wherein the “God” in whom “we trust” is conceived primarily as “Maker,” “Designer” and “Lawgiver.” In our multicultural, politically-correct society, this generic view of God is easily fitted to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, so that the pastor, rabbi and imam can ceremoniously unite in joint (albeit generally vague) prayers to the “Creator.” The “all-purpose” Deity of American civil society is the God of religion, the impersonal “Judge” who presides over a vast meritocracy, watching us from a distance with his “”all-seeing eye,”[ii] rewarding those who do “good” and reserving stiff penalties for those who do “evil.”
While the moon and stars, the high mountains and the deep oceans attest with one voice the existence of an “all-powerful,” “all-knowing” Maker-Designer-Lawgiver, who created the universe and governs it with a steady hand, many vitally-important questions remain unanswered in regard to the generic deity of natural theology and civil religion. For example, why did God create the universe? What is the purpose of our lives? Are we safe in the hands of an “all powerful” God? Can an “all-knowing” God be trusted? What does an “all-powerful,” “all-knowing” God require of human beings?
The Son Reveals the Father
While natural theology cannot address these vital questions, God has graciously provided answers to humanity’s deepest existential concerns. Unlike Aquinas, who developed his primary doctrine of God from rational inquiry into “nature,” the great Athanasius (c. 296-373) insisted that it is better to start with the “Son” and to know God as “Father” than to start with creation and to know God only as “Unoriginate” (i.e. “Maker” or “First Cause”).[iii] As Athanasius rightly understood, knowledge of God must begin with Jesus!
While Christians rightly believe that Jesus came to save us from our sins (1 Tim 1:15) and to reconcile us to God (2 Cor 5:19), many fail to realize that Jesus also came to reveal the Father. When Jesus was teaching his disciples to pray, he taught them to say, “Our Father in heaven” (Luke 11:1; emphasis added). For Jesus, God is not an impersonal Creator-Designer-Lawgiver that can be described in negative abstractions as “infinite” and “impassible.” Rather, Jesus reveals that God is first and foremost “Father!” (see John 1:18).
Only Jesus can reveal the true nature and character of God, for he is the eternal “Word,” who was “with God” in the beginning, who “became flesh” and dwelled among us (John 1:1-3, 14). Jesus is the “image of the invisible God,” the one in whom “the fullness of God dwells in bodily form” (Col 1:15; 2:9). Jesus is uniquely able to answer our questions about God for only he knows the Father (Matt 11:27; John 10:15; 17:25). No one has seen the Father but Jesus (John 6:46). Jesus knows the Father because he comes from the Father (John 7:29). The eternal Son of God left the hallowed halls of heaven (Phil 2:5-8) in order to take ordinary human flesh from the Virgin Mary, so that―from “inside our skin,” using human words, images and thought forms―he could forever render redundant all rational speculation about the nature of God by revealing to a confused world that God is “Father.”
In complete harmony with the Father’s will, Jesus revealed who God is by doing only those things he saw the Father doing (John 5:19, 20; 6:38). In his out-stretched hand of mercy to the leper and the demon-possessed; in his healing touch upon the sick, the blind and the lame; in his compassion for the poor, the orphan and the widow; in his fellowship with sinners and outcasts, Jesus revealed the Father’s love for all (see John 3:16; Rom 5:8; 1 John 3:1). In his beloved “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (see Luke 15), Jesus revealed the Father’s heart, teaching that God loves us despite our utter selfishness and ingratitude. In his cry of forgiveness on the cross, Jesus revealed the infinite extent of the Father’s mercy, even in the face of our heinous evil (Luke 23:34).
The Father’s Love for the Son
While creation proclaims that God is Maker, Designer, Lawgiver, and Ruler, Jesus reveals that God is first and foremost “Father.” To be sure, God has not always been “Creator.” Rather, God became Creator when he made the universe; he became Lawgiver and Ruler when he imbued his creation with order and design and began to uphold it by his awesome power. But while God has not always been Creator, Lawgiver and Ruler, God has always been “Father.” In Jesus, we learn that God is eternally a Father loving his Son, for the Father loved his Son before the foundation of the world (John 17:24).
God is not merely the cold, abstract “omnipotent,” “omniscient,” “omnipresent” Deity of dusty theological textbooks. Rather God is “love” (1 John 4:8, 16), because God is eternally a Father loving his Son! For this reason, Athanasius and other theologians of the early Church took great care to insist that Jesus is not a “created” being (e.g., an “archangel”) but is the eternal Son of God.[iv] Just as a glowing lamp is never without its light, they argued, the Father is never without his Son, who is the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb 1:1-3). If ever there was a time when the Son did not exist, argued Athanasius, then there was a time when God was not “Father,” and if God is not eternally “Father” by nature, then God is not eternally “love.” In that case, the frightening reality for humanity is that God may cease to love! To be sure, the implications of a doctrine of God who is “all-powerful” and “all-knowing” but not “all-loving” are terrifying.
The Son’s Love for the Father
Not only is God the Father who eternally loves his Son, however; God is also the Son who eternally loves his Father. From before the beginning of time, the Son eternally exists with the Father in a relationship of supreme intimacy (see John 1:1-3, 14; Col 1:17; Heb 1:2), so that Jesus dares to call the Father “Abba,” a term of endearment used by little children (Mark 14:36). Jesus, the Son of God, so closely identifies with his Father that he says to Thomas, “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also” and to Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:7, 9). The relationship between the Father and the Son is one of mutual self-giving and reciprocal delight, wherein they “indwell” one another in a communion of love, as Jesus attested when he claimed, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:10, 11).
Moreover, there is an unparalleled harmony of will, purpose and intent between the Father and the Son. Jesus said, “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him [i.e., the Father] who sent me” (John 6:38). Jesus even claims that he “can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does” (John 5:19, 20a; emphasis added). The good news for humanity is that there is no abstract, impersonal “God” hidden behind Jesus, whose purpose for us is uncertain, but only the loving “Father” that the Son of God came to reveal!
Shared Love for the Spirit
In the Middle Ages, as he reflected upon the nature of God, Richard of St. Victor (d. 1173) rightly insisted that love requires another. That is, love requires both one to give it and another to receive it. Since God is “love” (1 John 4:8, 16), argued Richard, God must eternally exist in more than one person. Richard went further, however, to argue that God must eternally exist in three persons. According to Richard, if God is only two persons (Father and Son), the mutual love between them could conceivably be exclusive in nature, like that of enraptured lovers so absorbed in their mutual adoration that they disdain all others. Richard argued, however, that the Father and Son so delight in their love for one another that they rejoice in sharing it. As the mutual love between a husband and wife blossoms into a shared love for their child, the mutual love between the Father and Son overflows in an inclusive, shared love for the Holy Spirit.[v] Richard of St. Victor provides a theological rationale for the New Testament assertion that “God” is three divine persons―Father, Son and Holy Spirit―eternally united in a fellowship of “love.” From all eternity, the Father and Son have delighted to share their mutual love with and through the Holy Spirit in such an undivided communion of intimacy and inseparable closeness that we rightly refer to Father, Son and Spirit as “one God.”
A Blueprint for Creation
In the overflowing love shared by the Father, Son and Spirit, we find the key to unlock the mystery of our lives. As noted above, the Father eternally pours out his life and love to the Son. Unlike a miser with his money, the Father does not hoard his love but delights to give it to his Son. Because the Father delights to share his life and love, his superabundant love overflows into creation, so that Jesus may be the first-born among many sons and daughters (see Eph 1:3-5; Col 1:15).
It is the Father’s nature to give life (see John 5:21). Because God is eternally a sharing God, God wills to create humanity in order to include us in the divine fellowship of reciprocal love, joy and delight shared by the Father and Son in the Holy Spirit. Our creation, then, has a “correspondence” (Karl Barth) in the Father’s love for the Son. In perfect freedom, the Father chooses to share his love for the Son with humanity. The Father’s love for the Son is the “blueprint” for creation, so that creation is the extension in space-time of the Father’s eternal love for the Son.
At the same time, the Son’s love for the Father is the “blueprint” for human response to God. According to Jesus, the Sons wills only to do the Father’s will (John 6:38); the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees the Father doing (John 5:19, 20). Jesus’ life of perfect faith and obedience in space-time history “images” (Col 1:15) and reflects (see Heb 1:3) the Son’s eternal love for the Father in the Spirit. Jesus desires that “. . . the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me (John 14:31), for Jesus’ love for the Father is the model for our relationship with God.[vi]
Children of God
When we begin our thinking about God with the eternal Son, Jesus Christ, we see that God is first and foremost our loving “Father.” Jesus reveals that creation is an expression of the Father’s heart, for the Father so delights in his love for the Son that he wishes to include us in it. Because Jesus reveals that God is eternally “Father” by nature, we are assured that we are not merely vassals or subjects under the thumb of an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator-Lawgiver-Judge. Because Jesus reveals the Father, we see that our standing with God is not merely a “legal” relationship, wherein we are liable for substantial penalties in case of breach of contract. In revealing that God is “Father,” Jesus frees us from the bondage of religion and frees us for relationship with God. Because Jesus reveals that God is “Father,” we may enjoy a familial relationship of love―the love of a Father for his children, as attested throughout the New Testament (e.g. John 3:16, Rom 5:8, 1 John 3:1; 4:9, 10). Because God is “Father,” we are “co-heirs” with Christ (Rom 8:17), so that all that belongs to him is also lavishly given us.
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! (1 John 3:1)
© 2014 Martin M. Davis, Ph.D.
[i] Christian apologetics draws upon Aquinas’ method to assert “proofs” that God exists.
[ii] The “all-seeing eye” of God can be seen on the back of a one-dollar bill.
[iii] Athanasius, Against the Arians, 1:34.
[iv] Arius, a deacon in the church at Alexandria, wrongly claimed that Jesus was not the eternal Son of God but, rather, was a created being, like an archangel. Arius’ heretical teachings are mirrored today in the false doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
[v] Great care is needed when making comparisons between human experience and the inner, divine relations of the Godhead. We must not think that the Father and Son “birth” the Holy Spirit, in the same way a husband and wife join together to “birth” a child. Rather, it is theologically proper to say that the Son is eternally “begotten” of the Father, while the Spirit eternally “proceeds” from the Father through the Son. In asserting that the Son is “begotten,” while the Sprit “proceeds,” theologians of the early Church guarded against the erroneous teaching that God has “two sons.”
[vi] For the excellent insights in this section, I am indebted to Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to Christian Faith, Downers Grove: IVP, 2012), pp. 41-4. This is one of best (and easiest!) books I have read on the doctrine of the Trinity.