A ViewPoint by Reta Finger
Sunday, June 16, 2019, is Father’s Day, and I am thinking of changing my habit for this one day of the year. We sing a lot in the church I attend, and I always substitute “Mother” and “she” when singing about or to God. Somebody needs to do it, even if I am the only one and nobody notices.
But, perhaps, for Father’s Day, I should feel free to address God as my Father. I had a good model in my own dad, a gentle man who loved me and, though primarily self-educated, taught me much and sacrificed much for my education and well-being. You can read my personal reflections about him here. I wrote this for Father’s Day 2010, after he died that May, aged 93.
Although I usually feel closer to God when I visualize her as a mother, another gentle man introduced me to Abba in a way that broke through my resistance to Father God. He is Willard Swartley, a feminist New Testament scholar and longtime friend who wrote an article on this topic in Daughters of Sarah, the magazine I edited for a number of years. The article, from the Nov/Dec 1990 issue (pp. 12–14), is called “God as Father: Patriarchy or Paternity?” In it, he spells out his own journey to a nonpatriarchal Father God.
First, there was the personal way Jesus related to God by calling him Abba, the Aramaic word for Papa or Daddy, as in his agonizing prayer in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). This left an impact on later believers, even Gentiles, as in Romans 8:15-17 or Galatians 4:6. Willard’s own experience using Abba in prayer had “the effect of depatriarchalizing, for it breathed intimacy, tenderness, and bonding feelings in believers.”
Willard also noticed that God was not called Father in the earlier biblical writings and the primitive Hebrew religion—only the more distant God and Lord God. “God as Father,” he says, “buds in late Old Testament writings (the Deuteronomist and later Isaiahs) and flowers in the New Testament, especially in Matthew and John.” In Matthew’s Gospel, only Jesus calls God Father, which he does 44 times. But he uses it only in prayer or when addressing his disciples or the crowds who followed him—never to the hostile religious leaders.
Another observation is that “where the New Testament portrays God as Father, women’s narrative roles are very positive,” as in John 4, where Jesus converses with the Samaritan woman in John 4:23 or with Mary Magdalene in John 20:17: “My Father and your Father.” Conversely, notes Willard, where women’s roles are restricted within patriarchal structures (1 Cor 14:34–35; 1 Tim 2:11–12), God is not portrayed as Father.
Willard also discovered in those later Old Testament writings that “when the image of God as Father began to be used, maternal imagery also appeared in those same scriptures” (see Deut 32:6 and 11; Isa 63:16; 64:8; 42:14; 49:5; 66:9, 13). Here, the writings of two feminist scholars, Diane Tennis and Sandra Schneiders, helped Willard separate patriarchy from paternity. “Perhaps God’s paternity . . . is more an antidote to rather than an ally of patriarchy.” Perhaps something new and fresh and intimate is emerging from the cultural background of patriarchy. Is it possible, Willard asks, that the portrayal of God as our loving, gracious Abba is “our best defense against patriarchy”? Indeed, “the Father-Abba God of Scripture possesses those traditional feminine characteristics of nurturing, TLC, and enduring relationship.”
The tenderness shown in this article brings a tear to my eyes. I may have to rethink how I address God when I sing in church—at least on Father’s Day! But I notice that never once in his article does Willard call God he! Perhaps I shall use Abba-She. A little gender-blending in worship can’t hurt!
Some relevant titles:
Diane Tennis, Is God the Only Reliable Father?
Sandra Schneiders, Women and the Word
Ruth Duck, Gender and the Name of God
A. Visser’t Hooft, The Fatherhood of God in an Age of Emancipation