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The divine Father from St. Athenasius to Balthasar

by Aidan Nichols O.P.


The hymnology of the Latin Church calls Jesus Christ, the Son, 'Father of the world to come'; and the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, 'Father of the poor'.  But it is the first Trinitarian person who is the paternal origin not only of the world made through Son and Spirit, but also of the Son and Spirit - fatherly though they be under certain aspects - themselves.

            I shall, then, devote the bulk of my exposition to a 'paterology', that is, to a theology of the first person of the Trinity (though this, as we shall see, is impossible without reference to Son and Spirit).  On the way I shall treat three critical issues which have divided Christians, whether ancient or modern, in their thinking about this primordial credendum with which the historic Creeds of Christendom begin: 'I believe in God, the Father almighty'.  Next I will suggest some ways in which the occlusion of the being and activity of the Father in creation, revelation and salvation has had a deleterious effect on the culture of the West.  And in conclusion I will indicate how the objections, whether theological or cultural, that have been made to the orthodox Christian theology of the Source of the Trinity, the divine Father, can be removed if, as the best twentieth century Catholic theologians have proposed, [1] the specifically Christian doctrine of God is construed - not exclusively but above all - in the light of the Cross.

I           The revelation of the Father

            That God is our Father is the manifest claim of the New Testament, but to scan this claim successfully we need the interpretative assistance of Tradition to see what suchlike words might mean.  The influential Liberal Protestant theologian and historian of doctrine Adolf von Harnack, for example, wanted to restrict the 'essence of Christianity' - das Wesen des Christentums - to acknowledgement of the unique value of everyone, conceived in the framework of belief in the fatherhood of God.  Harnack's hostility to the Church's dogma made him miss the fact that the New Testament revelation of God as Father is neither simply nor even primarily the attribution of certain qualities to the divine nature.  It is not only, or even mainly, a statement about the provident care and tender mercy of One who knows every sparrow that falls to the ground, and considers human beings of more worth than any sparrow - though, to be sure, the Gospels include such affirmations.  Yet those qualities of the truly caring parent who is ever-attentive to the welfare of their children had already been ascribed, in Israel's tradition, to the God of the patriarchs, who was also the God of Moses and of David, and so united in himself all the covenant relationships which bound the chosen people to their Lord through these human mediators.  Indeed, in the canticle recited by the dying Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, YHWH is explicitly named as 'father' of his people, with an emphasis on both divine authority and divine longsufferingness.

Do you thus requite the Lord,

you foolish and senseless people?

Is not he your father, who created you,

who made you and established you? (Dt 32, 6).

Of course, the New Testament confirms the Old, and nothing of the Judaic doctrine of God - his transcendence of, yet presence in, his creation, and notably his freely willed co-involvement with his chosen people - is alien to the teaching of Jesus and the faith of the apostolic Church.  But the New Testament is far from merely confirming, in matters of the doctrine of God, its Old Testament inheritance.

            What we must now take into account is the Paschal Mystery.  Already hinted at in sayings of Jesus about his peculiar relation of intimacy to God, and the embodiment of the divine claim in him, as well as about the power of the Spirit at work in his words and actions, there took place at the first Easter a veritable explosion of divine glory.  Or, to put that in terms less of biblical aesthetics, vital as its categories are for expressing the overwhelming wonder of what happened then, and more in terms of religious semantics: a company of Jews (and Jewesses) who, through their sharing the faith of Israel, possessed a true grasp of the divine reality were suddenly confronted with a super-abundance of fresh meaning.  As they saw things, in the combined events of his suffering, death and resurrection, Jesus, the ultimate prophet and definitive divine legate, did not simply vindicate the claims he had made about the divine nature and his place in the working out of the divine plan.  More than this, there took place in those events a new disclosure of the divine that was, for the world, redemptive in force.  To shift to the present tense which came so readily to their lips (or pens): in the bestowal on the risen Jesus of a real - tested and proven - lordship over nature and history, God reveals Jesus to be the divine Son - and therefore, by the same token - reveals himself to be quintessentially the divine Father.  And this God does by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit now sent on the disciples from the Father through the Son as the Spirit brings the disciples of Jesus, restored and forgiven, into a share in the love-life of Father and Son by means of what the New Testament calls huiosis, adoption as sons (and daughters).

            In the founding happening of the Christian tradition, a happening re-actualised every time the Church celebrates the Mass, we are dealing not simply with a redemptive action of a God who is, on the basis of the Old Testament, already known, but with a redemptive revelation which has as its issue the life-transforming impact on us of the supreme truth that the saving God is the Holy Trinity.  As that catholicising Presbyterian, the Scots theologian Thomas Torrance has put it:

In ourselves as contingent beings we are confined within the limited range of our creaturely consciousness and perception, but under the impact of God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ and the creative operation of his Holy Spirit our minds and capacities are opened and our thoughts are expanded far beyond their finite limits until they are made appropriate, in some measure at least, to their divine object.[2]

And in the first place what this means is the discovery that God is primordially the Father.

            We are so used to thinking - in philosophical or quasi-philosophical contexts, in conversations with other monotheists such as heterodox Christians and Jews, and explanations of ourselves to agnostics and secularists - that God is the Creator, we forget the fact that for the Creeds there is something even more primordially true.  God is the Father far more fundamentally than he is the Creator, for he generated the only-begotten Son before all worlds.  The victory of the Nicene party, with in the East St. Athanasius and in the West St. Hilary at their head, in their struggle for recognition as authentic witnesses to the deep mind of the Church, was the triumph of that orthodox Christology which alone makes full sense of the New Testament records.   Since God himself was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, Jesus is not, in his ultimate personal identity, a creature as we are, for of no creature could it be said that its actions were those of God himself.  But Athanasius’s victory meant more still.   The triumph of the Nicene Symbol vindicated faith in God as the essentially fruitful One - the Father : he whose loving generativity expressed in the eternal procession of the Uncreated Son gives us the key for understanding the basic relation of God to the world.

            If the world is not a necessary work of God; if, as Scripture indeed presents it, it is not the unfolding of the divine being (this would be some form of pantheism) but a work as freely made as that of any artist, then we might be justified in thinking of creation as, so to speak, thrown off by God gratuitously, taking 'gratuitously' there to be synonymous with 'atypically' or even 'carelessly'.  Perhaps, if the world be (as it is) God's free creation, God regards it as something of an experiment.  Possibly he may see the experiment, at least so far as man is concerned, as rather a failure, on which the files will in due course be declared closed.  But the Creed's authoritative interpretation of the New Testament - God did not create his Son, as he created the world, but, as Father, generated him from all eternity - proves the divine nature to be something which no philosophy of religion or natural metaphysic could show it to be.  (Here we are moving in the realm of the supra-rational mysteries of faith, which, however, are pregnant with rationally exploitable meaning for our natural understanding.)  The Creed proves the divine nature to be essentially self-manifesting fruitfulness - in which perspective we cannot speak of God as simply 'happening to' create the world, as though this could be fortuitous and uncharacteristic. Delighting to bring into being what is not himself, so as to rejoice in its otherness, is the property par excellence which befits the Father's constitution as the first Trinitarian person, what technical theology calls his 'hypostatic particularity'.  It is the defining property of the Father that, himself ungenerated and so the primal Source of all that is, he nonetheless generates the eternal Son - and in so doing himself provides the framework of interpretation for his making of the world in time.

            Everything we have to say, then, about God as our Creator must be governed by the more primordial truth that he is Father of the Son.  It is only in the Son, Jesus Christ, that the Father has revealed who he is in his own essential nature.  As Athanasius puts it, to name God 'Father' is not to name some quality in God, but rather, to 'signify his very being'.[3]  Only because God is inherently productive - the Greek Fathers employ here words I have already made use of in English equivalents (gennetikos, 'generative', karpogonos, 'fruitful') - is he the Creator at all.

II  The relation of the Father to the Son and Spirit

            As we have seen, it is because the Father eternally brings forth his Son from within his own being - and not, as with the world - creates him from out of nothing, that the Son, as revelation of the Father, enables us to see the world and humanity within it in a new light: as the typical, not atypical, result of the essential fruitfulness of God.  The world is a richly diverse and multifaceted example of that otherness issuing from himself which God loves to love.  Belief in the divinity of the Son is thus a necessary condition for finding credible the proposition that God cares passionately for the world (rather than regarding it with a distant and possibly revocable benevolence).

            Before considering more fully the divine Son as Son precisely of the Father, I shall pause and interject a comment on the first of my 'disputed questions', and that is the issue raised by Christian feminists as to whether we may regard as mere metaphor, culturally conditioned and hence dispensable, Jesus's designation of his personal Source as Father and the use of the same term by the apostolic Church in naming the ultimate Origin of the salvation given through the Paschal Mystery.

            Just as the Christian common sense of those of the Church's faithful who are simultaneously instructed and devout would lead them to find unwarrantable a determination by the Church that use was not to be made - at any rate exclusively - of the name by which Jesus instructed his disciples to address God in prayer (Abba, ‘Father’), so the theological tradition insists that the term 'Father' is, in Trinitarian language and thought, not a metaphor but a proper name.  Already in the Old Testament, the symbolisation of God as 'father' (as in the Canticle of Moses) can be correlated with Israel's sense that God is related to what is in the world by virtue of his very transcendence vis-à-vis the creation.

A mother goddess is too continuous with the world, too much like the womb from which we came, to stand for the divine reality revealed in the Old Testament, a reality that is decisively other than the world, different from the world, discontinuous with the world, and with a plan, indeed, for the world's remaking…[4]

a point which religious feminists of a post-Christian kind, desirous of a different kind of deity, with nature as her body, often unblushingly admit.[5]  But in the Gospel, as distinct from the Law and the Prophets, the question is not so much a choice of primary gender symbolism, albeit one made under the constraint of divine inspiration, but the revelation by the eternal Word, now incarnate, of the ultimate divine Origin's proper name.  The name of the Father, as that of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, is a 'proper' name.   It is literally applicable, because it rests on the inter-relation of one divine person to another, and so is not dependent for its justification on an experience of the created medium in the way that some analogically or metaphorically arrived at name for the divine would be.  The Father is the principle, the originating starting-point of the Son, as is a human father of the being of his child - and is so in such wise that all earthly fatherhood is but a defective copy of his eternal generation of the Word.  Of course, there is no way other than the supernatural by which could we have surmised this: no flesh and blood reveals to us that Christ is thus the Son of the living God.  Fortunately for women, and pace the Christian feminists, this says nothing at all to the discredit of the Christian and ecclesial dignity of females.  As one historian of attitudes to human gender, herself a woman, synthesizes multifarious data here:

The gender of the deity or leaders of cult does not determine the presence or absence of either religious or social opportunities for either gender.[6]

Now the proper name of Jesus Christ in his relatedness to the Father is Son, and here we must ask why it is of world-shaking significance that Jesus is, as the Creed of Nicaea puts it, Theos ek Theou, 'God from God'.  Clearly, the question whether or not some human individual is personally identical with the uncreated Word through whom the world was made, can in no circumstances be regarded as a bagatelle.  The claim that Jesus of Nazareth was hypostatically united to the Godhead may be dismissed as false, but it can hardly be written off as trivial.  Yet put in such terms it remains a question of theory, albeit one of vast speculative importance.  The same question when put in the soteriological fashion characteristic of the Church's Creeds is charged with existential and practical import for human life and destiny.  It is the question, Do the deeds of Jesus Christ as wrought for our salvation have, in the last analysis, only exemplary and morally inspirational value?  Or have they actually changed the terms on which the gift of human life is received from God since in those deeds one who was himself personally divine was active precisely so as to re-order the origin, life-resources and final destiny of human beings?  The second alternative is the correct one – and why it is vital for the Church to maintain that the incarnate Son has all the prerogatives of God, excepting Fatherhood alone.  This she has done by letting her discourse be controlled by that key word homoousion, introduced by the bishops at Nicaea.  It is an indispensable term, carrying as it does the twofold affirmation that, first, the Son is of identically the same being as the Father (without which he could not save us), and second, the Son is eternally distinct from the Father (without which the divine being could not be known to be endlessly fruitful in itself, and, by dependence on its inherent nature, endlessly fruitful in the free act of our creation).  Only

if Jesus Christ cannot be divided in being and act from God the Father, …does he) constitute in being and act in his incarnate presence or saving economy the creative self-giving of God to mankind…

But since he is not so divided, then:

In virtue of his divine reality and presence incarnate within mankind he acts upon people in an utterly divine and creative way, making them partake of himself through grace and thus partake of God.[7]

As St. Irenaeus puts it, knowledge of salvation is simply identical with knowledge of the Son of God qui et Salus, et Salvator, et Salutare, vere et dicitur et est, 'who is called and really is "Salvation", and "Saviour", and Saving Act"',[8] and this because the Son's teaching, deeds and subsequent activity in relation to the faithful are the self-revelation and self-communication of the Father.

            However, the work of salvation, like the person of the Saviour in his Godward identity, cannot be satisfactorily spoken of without reference to the Holy Spirit.  Here in the relation of Son to Father and Spirit we come to the second of my disputed questions - though this one, known to historians of doctrine as the Filioque dispute, is as ancient in terms of the Christian centuries as the debate over the intrusion of feminism into sacra doctrina is modern.  In his treatise against the Arians, St. Athanasius was obliged to come to terms with those Gospel passages which speak of Christ as somehow indebted to, or dependent on, the Holy Spirit.  He interprets them according to the norm of the homoousion doctrine, that is, in such a way that they do not in the least diminish what the Father has manifested of his generative power in putting forth his only Son.  The Son's indebtedness in his incarnate existence to the Spirit is real yet functional – peculiarly ordered to our salvation.  The Word of the Father sanctifies himself in the Spirit as man in order that henceforth all human beings may be sanctified in Christ.  Thus when at the Baptism in the Jordan, the Spirit descends on the Son made man, this is done, in the words of the great Egyptian doctor 'not for the promotion of the Word himself, but for our sanctification, that we might share in his anointing'.[9]  This reluctance to impair the order in which the Trinitarian persons are named in the Church's worship (the doxology runs, 'Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit') by introducing theological theses which render the divine being of the Son dependent on the being of the Spirit will finally issue in the doctrine of the Catholic Church that the Spirit's hypostatic particularity lies in his origin not from the Father only but from the Father and the Son.  Unfortunately, this is a teaching combatted by a number of Middle and Late Byzantine theologians before and after its dogmatic articulation, as by modern Orthodoxy.

            We can note that this problem would never have arisen had it not been for the forthright confession of the Church, East and West, in the eternal Godhead of the Spirit, whose own homoousion (consubstantiality with yet distinction from the Father) was the subject matter of the contribution to doctrine of the Second Ecumenical Council, Constantinople I.  'In the Holy Spirit, God acts directly upon us himself, and in giving us his Holy Spirit God gives us nothing less than himself.'[10]  In the Spirit the Father reaches out to us through the Word redemptively and sanctifyingly, to bring us into communion with himself.  And just as the Son could not save unless he shared fully the divine being and agency that is the Father's, so here it is with the Spirit.  In the argument so frequently used by the Cappadocian Fathers against those who queried the Godhead of the Spirit: Only One who is divine can divinise.

            The Creed in which the work of those Fathers terminated - the Constantinopolitan recension, and expansion, of the Creed of Nicaea - contents itself with affirming the procession of the Spirit from the Father.  It does not add, however, as such Byzantine thinkers as Photius were wont to do, the crucial adverb monos: 'from the Father alone'.  To remove reference to the being of the Son from an account of the being of the Spirit struck some later Easterners as something demanded by fidelity to the letter of the Creed.  But at a deeper level it attacks the logical structure implicit in the Creed's making, for it was not through his bringing us some knowledge of the Father independent of the Son that patristic thinkers deemed the Spirit to be one being with the Father, but, on the contrary, owing to the Spirit's activity in revealing the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father.  The intention of Byzantine Monopatrism - the theology that would have it that the Spirit is from the Father alone – is a perfectly good one.  By contrast with the modern feminism already touched on, it aims to vindicate the Father as fount of the whole Godhead and so of the created world made through the Word by the Breath or Spirit.  But it does so by the counter-productive means of denying to the Father that total generosity of fruitful self-giving whereby in generating his Word he gives away to him with the divine nature his (the Father’s) property of active spiration.  This is the generous act which brings it about that the procession of the Spirit from the Father is - ‘as though from a single principle’, in the words of the Council of Florence - a procession from the Father and the Son.  It is only congruent with the divine fruitfulness - the insight given into the Father's nature by the homoousion of the Son - that the Father creatively enables the Son to spirate the Spirit with him.  It is, then, for the sake of a deeper congruence between the doctrines of the homoousion of Son and of Spirit that the Filioque teaching deserves support.  And this is an interpretation of its underlying aim that will satisfy those who look to the Greek-speaking doctors of the early centuries for their basic construal of the Gospel.

            I said that, in this account of the Father, both in himself and as Source of Son and Spirit, I would consider in passing three controverted issues, and I have yet to mention the last of these, which has no name but consists in a widespread tendency in writing about the Holy Trinity less controlled by the norms of the Holy Fathers than that presented here to retroject into a theology of the divine being that attack on the principle of hierarchy so often met with in a democratically minded age in Church and State.  Thus whereas an earlier theological style, committed to some form of Trinitarianism but tending to scepticism about how far we can legitimately present a snapshot of, so to speak, the Trinity's home-life, the persons’ internal relations of communion, characteristically opted for some form of modalism, treating Father, Son and Spirit as three ways in which the one God presents himself to us as Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier respectively, it is more typical of a radical theology today to hold to a higher doctrine of the divine persons as persons, but at the same time to dissolve the Trinitarian taxis, or order, which has been, historically so important for an appreciation of their inter-relations.  Since the idea of the dependence of the second and third persons on the first is deemed to be unacceptably hierarchical - a transgression of that mutuality and exchange which is the hallmark of the relations of communion of Father, Son, and Spirit, the classical accounts of their hierarchically ordered relations of origin are to be abandoned and replaced by a notion of intra-trinitarian 'vitality' in which all the persons are simultaneously co-originating of each other.  I will suggest in my conclusion how, once again, this challenge to orthodoxy quite misses the point.

III  Concealment of the Father: some cultural corollaries

            These issues - and the paterological doctrine to which they are a negative response - might seem to be of purely ecclesiastical interest, but the concealing of the true face of the Father can be said to have had ill consequences of a wide-ranging sort in Western culture and society.  The death of the divine Father in whom authority and goodness are inseparably united, the font at once of power and value, was proclaimed in the late nineteenth century by Nietzsche not so much as a desideratum in itself but as a necessary condition for the autonomy of man.  Revolt against a paternal ancestor was deemed by Freud to be the origin of the projection by psyches in society of images of fatherly divinities that act as foci for guilt-feelings which may sometimes be reality-related but more often belong with psycho-dramas of an irrational kind.  Neither Nietzsche nor Freud, the one a child of the manse, the other of the synagogue, ever encountered, we can suppose, the true doctrine of the Father as the ever-generative, fruitful, enabling divine Source, active not in competition with man but for his final flourishing.  But the reaction against the Father, however imperfectly grasped, which they pioneered, has produced a society and culture where fathers are instinctively distrusted, where a spirit of unreflective parricide is abroad, where to exercise paternity, by nurture of one's biological children or by formation of one's spiritual children, has become especially difficult.  The seething of so many Catholics influenced by theological or other forms of liberalism and radicalism against the present Pope is only one obvious example.

            That authority should be fatherly is, for this mind-set, only a slightly less egregious error than the assertion that fatherhood - generativity - is essentially authoritative.  Resistance to the notion that those who are originative or creative have eo ipso some claim to be authority-bearing for others, at any rate in some relevant respect, underlies the current crisis of the 'cultural classic'.  The idea that there can be literary texts, or visual artworks, or monuments of thought, or dead people, for that matter, who constitute a kind of authoritative canon of reference in the continuing formation of culture is in many quarters quite as démodé as the Father himself.  And this also is connected with our theme.  For if it is from the Father of lights that all paternity takes its name, then his occlusion will naturally affect not only biological and spiritual but cultural generativity too.

IV A satisfactory conclusion

            The collective trauma created in the Western soul by distortion of the image of the divine Father, followed by murderous revolt against him, can only be healed and pacified by return to its source.  And, here is where the best Catholic theology of the twentieth century can help us for it has had recourse, in constructing its Trinitarian doctrine, to the sacrifice of the Cross where it was shown that, while it was the Son who suffered, and the Spirit by whom the Son's oblation was offered, what that oblationary suffering was to reveal was that the Father's nature, from before all time, is itself sacrificial through and through.  Thus for the French Benedictine theologian Ghislain Lafont, the 'mysterious face of Fatherhood'[11], which the Father shows by withdrawing into silence at the moment of Jesus's greatest agony, so far from being punitive indifference enables the greatest possible communion between them by opening the maximum space in which the Son made man can abandon himself to the Father.  For the influential Swiss dogmatician Hans Urs von Balthasar the Father undergoes a true kenosis, or self-emptying, in permitting his beloved Son to enter redemptively into sin and hell, but endures this so that all creation may be reconciled and integrated in the Son's divine-human person.  Here the Cross renews in the midst of the creation that self-surrender, Selbsthingabe, of the Father to the Son in which his eternal begetting consists.

            It is the sacrificial Father who subverts a heterodox feminism, a misguided Monopatrism, and a false egalitarian anarchism in Trinitarian thinking, just as it is, once again, the Father's sacrifice that must redeem the image of all human fatherhood and its analogues in the life of society and the life of the spirit.


1.Witness A. Hunt, The Trinity and the Paschal Mystery.  A Development in Recent Catholic Theology (Collegeville, Minn. 1997), p. viii, and passim.

2. T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith.  The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (Edinburgh 1988), p. 56.

3. Athanasius, On the Decrees, 15.

4. A. Nichols, 0. P., Holy Order. The Apostolic Ministry from the New Testament to the Second Vatican Council (Dublin 1990), pp. 149-150.

5. E.g. Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (San Francisco 1979), p. 8, cited B. Ashley, 0. P., Justice in the Church.  Gender and Participation (Washington 1996), p. 108.

6. C. Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption. Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York 1992), p. 59.

7. T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, op. cit., pp. 138-139.

8.  Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, III. 11, 2.

9. Athanasius, Contra Arianos, I. 47.

10. T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, op. cit., p. 191.

11. G. Lafont, O. S. B., God, Time and Being (Et Petersham, Mass. 1992), p. 169.

Version: 18th July 2009

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   Fr Aidan Nichols