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“Our Father in Heaven” and our Triune God

18 April, 2008

In this post I want to explore some more of what’s going on in the Lord’s Prayer (posts below) and how to understand the Prayer, particularly concerning the address, “Our Father in heaven”. Actually, I’m only going to get to “Our Father”.

As I said before, it is the disciples of Christ who are privileged to call God their ‘Father’. As followers of Jesus, the Son of David and Abraham, the Son of God and Son of Man, they’re now children of God because of him (see 3:9). So the disciples are addressing ‘God’ (and all that means in light of the OT), and are taught to address their God as ‘Father’, since they are his children, as disciples of Jesus the Son.

The Triune God as “Father”

Because Jesus is teaching his disciples to address God, we need to make sure as Christians that we do not fall into the (very understandable) mistake of thinking ‘Father’ here means ‘only the first person of the Trinity’. If we’re Christians then we’re trinitarians, and we confess that God is as thoroughly three in one way (Father, Son and Spirit) as he is one in another (the one God). The God who is our Father because of and in Jesus Christ, in other words, is the Triune God of the Bible. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I talk about this a lot here as well.

This can get confusing, however, so we need to be very careful to keep a couple things in mind:

1) Jesus is not speaking to his disciples here in his ‘naked’ glory as the eternal Son, second person of the Blessed Trinity. He’s speaking to them as that Son who has humbled himself by taking the form of a servant (Phil 2), for us and for our salvation. So Jesus is speaking here to his disciples, about our God, as the mediator between God and men. So him saying ‘Father’ here is teaching us to pray to our God; he’s not distinguishing himself at this point as the second person of the Trinity from the first.

2) Because we’re trinitarian, we always need to keep in mind the way we’re called to speak about our Triune God faithfully according to the scriptures. When we speak about God’s ‘threeness’, we’re talking about the three persons and their inter-relationships as Father, Son and Spirit. And so we speak in a relational or comparative way — we’re talking about the persons with respect to one another, not about the divine being as such. But when we speak about God’s ‘oneness’, we’re talking about the one God and we don’t make any distinction between Father, Son and Spirit in their ‘Godness’. So we don’t speak in a relational or comparative way, but in a way that refers to the Triune God as a ‘whole’ (so to speak), with respect to himself. So we always have to keep in mind which way of talking is being employed.

Here’s a couple examples. In Isaiah 9, a prophecy of the Messiah speaks of him as being praised as the ‘mighty God’ and ‘everlasting Father’. Now, does that mean these things are referring to the first person of the Trinity because it uses the words God and Father? No; and the reason is that in that context the ‘oneness’ way of speaking is being employed. A less abstract way of saying this is that the text isn’t addressing any relation or distinction between persons of God; it’s talking about the Messiah in divine terms with respect to himself. The same thing is going on with ‘Father’ in the Lord’s Prayer, because Jesus isn’t distinguishing between himself and the Father as divine persons. He’s simply referring to the one God — who is the Triune God — as the loving and gracious and faithful God of the disciples for Jesus’ sake. Jesus is the gracious and loving and faithful God of us his disciples, too, along with the Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, take a look at Jesus’ own prayer to his Father later on (read John 14-17). There, Jesus is clearly speaking as the Son to his Father, and its clearly a situation where these two persons of God are shown in their mutual inter-relationship. So ‘Father’ is used in a person way there, as distinguished from the Son and Spirit, with respect to the ‘threeness’ way of speaking.

Both of these ways of speaking come together very tightly in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. When ‘Word’ and ‘God’ are used with respect to each other, relationally, then we understand this to mean the persons of the Son and Father. But when ‘Word’ and ‘God’ are used with respect only to the Word himself, we don’t understand ‘God’ to mean the person of the Father, but ‘God’ in the essential sense. So John uses ‘God’ in two different ways in the exact same verse! John doesn’t say the Word was with the person of the Father and the Word was also the person of the Father. And John doesn’t say the Word was with the essence of God and was the essence of God. He says one of each, and it all depends on which way of speaking he’s working with, either in the ‘threeness’ way with respect to the persons, or the ‘oneness’ way with respect to the divine essence. Chew on this for a while and the juices will start to flow, trust me.

I hope this distinction in the way we speak of the one essence (God) and the three persons (Father, Son, Spirit) makes sense. This isn’t philosophical speculation or hair-splitting; it’s of utmost practical importance for faithfully thinking and speaking of our God according to the way he has revealed himself and calls us to think and speak of him (and trust him and worship him) in the Bible. According to the Bible, there is only one God; but the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are each clearly and strongly identified as being God; and yet Father, Son and Spirit are not mere ‘names’ but are really distinct from one another and mutually related to one another in the most intimate communion. This rich and profound biblical testimony to who God is, is the basis for everything we must say about him in order to speak faithfully. And to speak faithfully of God, we must speak of him in a certain way with respect to his ‘unity’ as the one true God and a certain way with respect to his ‘trinity’ as the one true God who is the Triune God, Father, Son and Spirit.

God the “Father” representing the Triune God

There is another dynamic in scripture that we need to keep in mind. The three persons of God, even as they are completely equal in status and dignity as the one true God, exist in a certain personal order. The Son is eternally ‘from’ the Father by being personally ‘born’, and the Spirit is eternally ‘from’ the Father and the Son (or through the Son) by being personally ‘breathed’. I won’t get any further into all this here (and I hope most of us are already quite familiar with these things). My point is twofold: that the order of the existence of the persons is maintained in their works of creation, redemption, etc., and though the persons work in their distinct ways, they all work together as the one God.

Everything that the one God does, is a work from the Father through the Son and in the Spirit. Creation is from the Father, spoken through the Son and brought about in the Spirit. Redemption comes as an outflow of the love of the Father, accomplished in space and time through the incarnate Son, and applied to us by the Spirit as work among us and in us, ushering us into fellowship with the Son and the Father through him.

This is also why Paul often uses the word ‘God’ in speaking of the first person’s relation to the Son and Spirit; the first person of the Trinity is the source of all the works of God accomplished through the Son and in the Spirit. So in speaking of God according to his works of creation and redemption, the first person (Father) often stands for or represents the whole Triune God.

A Bit of Application

All this to say, God “our Father” is the Triune God, Father, Son and Spirit, the God who graciously redeems us according to the purposes of the Father accomplished by the Son and applied by the Spirit.

So when Jesus teaches us to pray to “our Father” he’s not being a unitarian, and he’s not excluding himself or the Holy Spirit as objects of our faith or our prayers. What he is doing is teaching us about the God who is gracious to us because of Jesus’ work on our behalf; and he’s directing us to the one Triune God who is all our salvation, and thus, is also directing us to himself.

There’s so much more that could be said — this is our God we’re talking about here after all! — but, well, I really think this’s heavy enough for one sitting, don’t you?

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5 Comments
  1. 20 April, 2008 5:57 am

    I don’t find your opening comment helpful. I’m not sure we can distinguish — oh — here Christ speaks as a human submitting as an obedient son to God as Father, and over here he’s God as Obedient Son addressing His Father as God. Both/and always and throughout Eternity.

    The kenotic act which we hear so beautifully proclaimed in the hymn recorded in Philippians is an eternal act and not a discrete moment in time.

    And when Jesus cried out from the cross, Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani — he dis so as human, God, and God-human all wonderfully co-mingled.

  2. 20 April, 2008 6:54 am

    David~

    I can appreciate your concern, and I certainly don’t want to be abstract here, but it seems you’re coming at things differently than I am on this one. First of all, I think we can distinguish in what capacity Christ is speaking, according to the context. He’s teaching his disciples to pray to God as their Father, he’s not addressing intra-Trinitarian personal distinctions in the Godhead by saying “Father” here.

    I think this is also clear from the fact that Christ in other contexts claims unequivocally for HIMSELF all that the disciples are called to pray to the Father for here: Christ is the one who is the Holy One of God we are to look to for our purity before God; Christ is himself the coming of the Kingdom, the bearer of the Kingdom and its King; Christ fulfills all the will of God perfectly on our behalf; Christ is the true bread from heaven; through Christ alone we have the forgiveness of our trespasses and the gift of the Spirit to be able to forgive others; Christ was NOT spared being led into temptation and he WAS delivered over to the evil one on our behalf, so that we never would be. All that to say, Christ, as both our God and our divine-human redeemer and mediator, is no less the object of our trust and prayer than the first (or third) person of the Trinity. At the same time, of course, there is an order of working among the persons that we must recognise, as I talk about in the post.

    So sometimes Christ speaks and acts more in the capacity of mediator commissioned by the Father to seek and save the lost, and at other times he speaks and acts more as the very God who is doing the saving (and the judging, etc.). I’m not saying he IS these two things alternately, or that he’s schizophrenic. Sometimes he forgives sins, brings the dead to life through merely speaking its reality, and claims to be the sole Lord and judge of all; sometimes he allows himself to be ridiculed or abused without saying a word — it depends on the purpose of what he’s saying or doing in that context as the one united person of the God-man.

    Secondly, co-mingled, yes, but not confused. Two natures united in one person, yes, but still two natures. Philippians isn’t talking of the Son’s self-emptying by taking off Deity or divine attributes. It’s actually talking about the Son humbling himself by taking UPON himself something new — human nature, as fully man, born under the law for us and for our salvation (bringing in Galatians). The self-emptying is taking upon himself the commission of our redemption, it’s not taking off Godhead; he took on this commission as voluntarily as did the Father who sent him and the Spirit who enabled him. And as far as your reference to this being eternal and not ‘in time’, I’m not sure how that is reconciled with what actually happened two thousand years ago when a specific Jew named Jesus was born in Palestine, was crucified just outside the city wall of Jerusalem, and rose again bodily three days later. I’m not suggesting you don’t believe these things, but I’m concerned that these very historical events without which Christianity is meaningless, are not timelessly eternal (though they are planned from eternity). Christ is eternally ‘for us’, absolutely — but that’s in no way contradictory to his fulfilling all things for our redemption in flesh and blood, space and time. What exactly do you mean here?

    Finally, saying something of the person of the incarnate Son is not exactly the same as saying something of one of his natures specifically and particularly. Jesus Christ the God-man died and was raised, but Deity “as such” did not die and was not raised. Jesus is the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world, but he’s simultaneously and just as fully the I AM who was before Abraham came to be (John 8:58). What I’m getting at is that we have to be very careful to explain what we do and do not mean when we distinguish Jesus from “God” or “Father”, and how to go about that consistently with our Christian trinitarian confession and according to the particular biblical context.

    As always, much more can be said, but I hope this clears up where I’m coming from,
    ~B

  3. 20 April, 2008 5:13 pm

    Yes I subscribe to the historicity of Jesus life, ministry, death and resurrection. Just for the record.

    I guess what prompted my initial posting was i don’t see what difference it makes to say the Lord’s Prayer is addressed to the Triune Godhead or to the Father, first movement in the Triunity dance.

    In your response you do say something curious: Philippians isn’t talking of the Son’s self-emptying by taking off Deity or divine attributes. It’s actually talking about the Son humbling himself by taking UPON himself something new.

    The term “new” is an odd one to apply to an infinite and eternal being. That is technical point perhaps — and relates to the paradoxes of finite critters (bears of very small brain like me) talking matters that transcend the finite. It says he took the form of a human (and a slave). I’m not mindful enough of my koine to unpack “form” — but it is an act of obedience and humbling that takes place here. I would suggest the point of this passage is that something is being given up. That something may not be the divine nature, but it would seem to imply it entails the giving up of rights and privileges ordinarily attached to that divine nature.

    As to whether the second person of the Trinity died on Calvary — the divine nature died too — I’m not even sure what it would mean to answer that question. For someone to answer yes or no to that we would have to know what a meaningful response could be. What would it mean to know this? It transcends the possibility of knowing as such. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof on must remain silent.

  4. 21 April, 2008 12:14 am

    form/morphe– i’ll go with calvin and strimple that it refers to the glory which the son had with the father before the world was. john 17:4,5

  5. 21 April, 2008 1:05 am

    David~

    I agree with you (and Phil) that Phil 2 is speaking about the Son’s ‘humbling’ as setting aside the enjoyment of certain ‘prerogatives’ or ‘glory’ that are rightly his as God. But he did this BY taking up our humanity and bearing its curse, and triumphing over that curse and redeeming that humanity for us. He ‘took off’ by ‘putting on’ in humility the form of a servant. His ‘equality with God’ was not the ‘prize’ (translating ‘something to be grasped’ ) that he was after; it was already his by rights. The prize he was after was US.

    Further, I don’t think it is a problem (though a profound mystery) to say that the Son took on something new; again, he BECAME fully man. In this respect John 1 uses the very same verb for ‘all things came to be through him’ and ‘the word became flesh’. That’s part of the mystery and wonder of the incarnation, that the eternal and infinite Son has taken our temporal and finite humanity to himself forever.

    With respect to the crucifixion, I’m no more interested in prying into the hiddenness of God than you are, but I don’t think what I’m saying is anything other than according to what is revealed for us and for our children (Deut 29:29). That being said, there’s certainly a profound mystery about these things that remains, and always more to them than we can or may know.

    But part of what IS given for us to know concerning these things, it seems to me, includes an affirmation that in the union of the person of the God-man the two natures aren’t confused. As I just said, God the Son has joined himself to our humanity forever, but deity as such hasn’t become human nature and human nature hasn’t become the Godhead. So we don’t say the ever-living divine nature (the Godhead which Father, Son and Spirit are fully and equally) died on the cross.

    Again, I agree that the more deeply we delve into these things, the more mysterious it gets: the little newborn Jesus was the Lord of Hosts; the baby who couldn’t hold up his own head or speak was upholding heaven and earth by the word of his power! So even though it makes our heads spin when we start to get in deep, what we should be pursuing with these things is not to comprehend the incomprehensible and ‘explain’ the ‘mechanics’ of these mysteries — what we should be pursuing is the faithful ‘re-speaking’ to God and one another of what he has trustworthily first spoken to us in his Word. This is what is revealed, and this is how God in his Word has said, ‘Think and speak of me like this.’ That in a nutshell is also my answer to the importance of the difference between speaking of the Triune God and speaking of the first person of the ‘dance’, and that’s really all I’m trying to do here (whether or not I’m successful!).

    Thanks,
    ~B

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