Sunday, March 09, 2008

Metaphor and God the Father

It is my position that the term "Father" when used of God in relation to His only-begotten Son (John 3:16; 14:28) or when employed with respect to those whom God has imbued with His Spirit (Galatians 4:6-7) is a metaphor or as-if structure. While it is not always feasible to contrast the metaphorical with the literal, I would contend that God is not the literal Father of His only-begotten Son nor is God the literal Father of those whom He has regenerated through the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5-6). Some have wondered why I would deny that God is literally the Father of the Son since the Trinity brochure published by Jehovah's Witnesses clearly appears to state that God is literally the Father of the Logos.

It is not my intent to take exception to what the Trinity brochure expresses. Much depends on what is meant by the term "literal." By "literal," (in this context), I mean "a usage of speech whereby the properties that are predicated of a subject actually are exemplified by the subject." For instance, if I attribute the property "burgundy" to my 2001 Ford Focus (the subject in this case), then I am using the predicate "burgundy" in a literal manner. Conversely, if I say that my 2001 Ford Focus is "cool," I'm probably not employing the predicate "cool" in the same way that I utilize the predicate "burgundy." One word is being used literally whereas the other term is metaphorical; that is, my car does not actually exemplify or instantiate the property of being cool. It does not exemplify the property of coolness in a matter-of-fact way. Similarly, when I utter the words, "God is the Father of the Son," my contention is that the proposition is not attributing properties to the subject "God" that God (as the subject of the proposition) literally exemplifies since the definition of a literal "father" in English is "A man who begets or raises or nurtures a child; a male parent of an animal; A male ancestor" (American Heritage Dictionary).

But God is not a male (Numbers 23:19; Hosea 11:9) nor does God literally beget, raise or nurture children. As Paul Ricoeur has pointed out, there is a dialectical tension that exists between the "is" and the "is not" when we talk about God the Father: there is a sense in which God both is and is not Father. In English, to speak of a literal father pretty much equates to speaking of a biological male who either nurtures or engenders children. But these descriptions do not appertain to Almighty God.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

You will never figure out the relationship between the Father and the Son until you first figure out who/what is GOD, or God The Father. Then, you will understand why the Son was actually a necessity in order for the Father to interact with and have a personal relationship with His various creations.

If a human was the creator of an organism found at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, how could the human (with creative powers -- for the sake of argument) have an ongoing relationship with such organisms. It would be impossible for those organisms to directly interact with their creator, unless their creator also had the ability to manuever his own circumstances to accomodate the circumstances of the organisms, and live amongst those organisms as one of them, yet maintain his own nature at the same time.

ATOMS - CELLS - SOLAR SYSTEMS

Using similar principles as found here on earth in asexual reproduction, GOD no doubt has the power to be able to NOT CREATE, but rather BEGET a "Son", who in one sense is 100% GOD, but in another sense is a separate, distinct "person".

That "Son", who is both separate and distinct, but who is also still 100% GOD, could then be placed in the "vehicle" of a human body to interact with humans, and possibly in the "vehicle" of angels to interact with angels. The "vehicle" is unimportant to the "Son's" existance, since his existance is separate from such as still being "deity".

The Son is then able to interact with various creations on their own terms, and since the Son is still in actuality 100% the Father, it is the same as if GOD was there Himself interacting with His own creation.

The Son could be "re-absorbed" back into the Father, but such will not happen so long as the Father wishes to interact with His creation.

Edgar Foster said...

There are a number of problems with your proposal. First, your scenario about the "organism" found at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean is too vague. We are not given enough information to know whether the "organism" that you speak about is analogous to the rational creatures on earth whom God has made-the creatures we call "humans." Second, your suggestion concerning asexual reproduction also seems to fail if we're talking about God as Father producing God the Son. By positing the Father who begets a Son, you've already introduced sexual identity into the equation, that is, unless we understood "Father" as a metaphor (i.e. a trope or conceptual domain).

vasileios78 said...

I think that it is a little bit extreme to make a distinction between a "literal" and a "metaphorical" fatherhood of God. Of course, God is not a male, neither did he go to the hospital to give birth, but we have to remember to two important things:

1) God is the inventor of fatherhood and the archetype of father, not man. Hence, God has more chances to be a literal father than man. Actually, the difference between God's fatherhood and man's fatherhood is, first, the way of bringing children into existence and, second, that God, beyond being a father, is also a creator because, as I mentioned above, he is the inventor of fatherhood and the Designer of his children. On the contrary, man's fatherhood depends on God's design.

2) When we speak about fatherhood and bearing of children, it is very helpful to see how the original Biblical languages use the terms involved. Such a discussion can help us to avoid many misconceptions Christendom inherited from Greek philosophy.

As far as I understand, the real Biblical distinction of God's fatherhood is between his being a father as a giver of life and his being a father as a giver of spiritual values. In the first case, all his rational creations are his children; in the second, only the rational creations who imitate him are or will be his children. In God's viewpoint, the most important is the second, because the second is depended on our decision to accept him as a Father, and that is why he has terms and conditions in order to accept someone as a member of his universal family and to officially acknowledge him as a child.


Tsialas Vasileios

vasileios78 said...

Allow me also to give a comment to "anonymous". Anonymous, reflecting the pattern of the negative theology of Philo Judaeus and his spiritual offspring of Alexandrine Patristic theology, said that God cannot communicate with the created cosmos and he needs a mediator to act as his representative, that is, Logos. This concept has two big problems:

1) Who said that God is so different from his creation that he cannot communicate with it by himself? This idea is clearly Platonic, not Biblical.

2) If Logos is a 100% of the same essence with God, then how Logos is able to communicate with creation and God is not?


Tsialas Vasileios

Edgar Foster said...

Hello:

You write

"I think that it is a little bit extreme to make a distinction between a 'literal' and a 'metaphorical' fatherhood of God. Of course, God is not a male, neither did he go to the hospital to give birth, but we have to remember to two important things:"

Construing the term 'Father' as a metaphor is pretty much de rigueur in modern biblical or patristic scholarship. Moreover, I argue that the term was viewed as metaphorical by ancient Jews, first century Christians and by most pre-Nicenes in the East or West. By 'literal,' (using William Alston's distinctions) I mean that a subject in a subject and predicate utterance actually instantiates the properties attributed to the subject (e.g. 'That horse is fast'), whereas in the case of a metaphorical locution, the subject does not instantiate the properties attributed to the subject (e.g. 'Sally is a block of ice'). My contention is that God does not instantiate the relational property of paternity. God lacks the properties that a subject needs in order to be considered a literal father.

"1) God is the inventor of fatherhood and the archetype of father, not man. Hence, God has more chances to be a literal father than man. Actually, the difference between God's fatherhood and man's fatherhood is, first, the way of bringing children into existence and, second, that God, beyond being a father, is also a creator because, as I mentioned above, he is the inventor of fatherhood and the Designer of his children. On the contrary, man's fatherhood depends on God's design."

I've heard certain theologians assert that God is the archetype of father, as you state above. But it seems to me that this claim often begs the question. How do we know that God is the archetype of father? Even if one believes in the Trinity doctrine, it evidently does not follow from this datum that God is the archetypal father. Miroslav Volf argues this point in his work Exclusion and Embrace. He believes that the idea of God being an archetypal father might be a projectionist form of theology. Much closer to the truth, in my estimation are the views of Tertullian, Justin Martyr and Minucius Felix. Each one of these pre-Nicenes do not view God as the archetypal father. Moreover, if we talk about God being Father in the sense of being the "inventor" or "Designer" of his "children," then we are employing metaphorical, not literal speech.

"2) When we speak about fatherhood and bearing of children, it is very helpful to see how the original Biblical languages use the terms involved. Such a discussion can help us to avoid many misconceptions Christendom inherited from Greek philosophy."

It seems that Israel thought of God as a metaphorical Father. For instance, the nation is God's "firstborn" son or the Davidic king is figuratively generated by God (Psalm 2:1-7) and deemed God's son. Additionally, the NT refers to God as the Father of the "celestial lights" (NWT) in James 1:17. Whatever the celestial lights are, I find it hard to believe that the writer is using anything else than metaphor in that text.

"As far as I understand, the real Biblical distinction of God's fatherhood is between his being a father as a giver of life and his being a father as a giver of spiritual values. In the first case, all his rational creations are his children; in the second, only the rational creations who imitate him are or will be his children. In God's viewpoint, the most important is the second, because the second is depended on our decision to accept him as a Father, and that is why he has terms and conditions in order to accept someone as a member of his universal family and to officially acknowledge him as a child."

I believe that God is a Father in that he creates, gives life or spiritual values. However, those uses appear to be metaphorical, not literal. According to Walter Casper, there are three aspects of father: the biological, the forensic or legal and the social aspect (if I remember correctly). In English, we generally think of the first aspect of fatherhood as a literal use of the term. To be a literal father requires that an individual be male, and have some biological ties to those he fathers. While one could possibly argue that God literally adopts those whom he begets through his spirit, I would counter that the language of "adoption" in this case is also metaphorical. For God has not literally undertaken some legal process that results in S (a certain human being) becoming his child, C.

Regards,

Edgar

Edgar Foster said...

Correction: "Casper" should be "Kasper."

vasileios78 said...

Dear Edgar,

Above I said this: "The difference between God's fatherhood and man's fatherhood is, first, the way of bringing children into existence".

You said, according to Kasper's definition, that a literal father is the one who has biological relationship with his children. Actually, this definition is too narrow to be applied to God. You see, man cannot bring children into existence without the well known biological procedure. But why should we limit paternity to the human way of bringing children into existence? God has his own ways to bring children into existence, and he has determined a specific way for man to make children also. So, since literal paternity means the bringing of children into existence, then God is a Father most literally than anyone else.

What could we say about the “biological” connection between God and his children? Even though I do not, really, consider it Biblical and rightful to limit paternity in these terms, Biblical language, contrary to the expectations of via negativa supporters, uses expressions of His natural kinship with some of His creatures. Yes, angels in some verses are called “sons of God” and “divine” because of their spiritual nature—whatever this means—in contrast with humans, who are made of dust.—See Ge 6:2, 4• Ps 8:4, 5.

You said: “How do we know that God is the archetype of father?” I think that this is the answer: “On account of this I bend my knees to the Father, to whom every family in heaven and on earth owes its name.”—Eph 3:14, 15.

As regards the Biblical use of fatherhood and the related terms, I will write more on Monday because I don’t have my dictionaries here.


Kind regards,

Tsialas Vasileios

Edgar Foster said...

Dear Tsialas,

You wrote:

"You said, according to Kasper's definition, that a literal father is the one who has biological relationship with his children. Actually, this definition is too narrow to be applied to God. You see, man cannot bring children into existence without the well known biological procedure. But why should we limit paternity to the human way of bringing children into existence? God has his own ways to bring children into existence, and he has determined a specific way for man to make children also. So, since literal paternity means the bringing of children into existence, then God is a Father most literally than anyone else."

I believe that I listed three aspects of fatherhood (in general) from Kasper's work The God of Jesus Christ. Not only does he mention the biological dimension of fatherhood, but he includes the legal (i.e. being a father by adoption) and the status of being a father in a social sense. My point is that God cannot be a "father" in a biological sense nor has God literally adopted any children. It should also be obvious that God is not our Father in a social manner. God is our creator or God brings it about that animate and inanimate things exist. Moreover, God (I believe) is not inherently masculine since God is not a male (Numbers 23:19; Hosea 11:9). I thus wonder how God could be a literal father. Additionally, God is called the Father of the "celestial lights" (James 1:17). Is this usage not metaphorical?

"What could we say about the “biological” connection between God and his children? Even though I do not, really, consider it Biblical and rightful to limit paternity in these terms, Biblical language, contrary to the expectations of via negativa supporters, uses expressions of His natural kinship with some of His creatures. Yes, angels in some verses are called “sons of God” and “divine” because of their spiritual nature—whatever this means—in contrast with humans, who are made of dust.—See Ge 6:2, 4• Ps 8:4, 5."

In what sense do you think that God is Father to the angels?

"You said: “How do we know that God is the archetype of father?” I think that this is the answer: “On account of this I bend my knees to the Father, to whom every family in heaven and on earth owes its name.”—Eph 3:14, 15."

Thomas Aquinas and other theologians apply the text from Ephesians in this way. However, I'm not sure that the Thomist or Barthian (i.e. Karl Barth) understanding of the text can be sustained in the face of critical exegesis. All the Ephesians passage seems to tell us is that all families in heaven and on earth owe their names (from a collective standpoint) to God the Father. But the verse contains its own ambiguities. In what sense are there families in heaven? Moreover, what if God is understood as Father in a manner analogous to human fathers?

"As regards the Biblical use of fatherhood and the related terms, I will write more on Monday because I don’t have my dictionaries here."

I would be interested in seeing what you find out about the Biblical usages of the term "Father." For now, here is what some of my lexica say.

There is a long section on PATHR in TDNT (volume V). This reference work states that "when the term father occurs [in the Hebrew Scriptures or Tanakh], it is fundamentally applied to God only in a metaphorical sense, and if we are to understand it everything depends on finding the right point of comparison [tertium comparationis]" (TDNT, V:970). See Deuteronomy 8:5; 2 Samuel 7:12-14; Psalm 2:7; 89:26; 103:13; Proverbs 3:12.

LSJ just notes that PATHR is used of God the Father of Israel (Deuteronomy 32:6), the Father of Jesus Christ (Matthew 7:21) and the Father of men (Matthew 6:9). It then states that the usage of PATHR at James 1:17 is metaphorical. But I would include the OT and Matthean passages as well as other authors do.

I looked at the entry for PATHR in the Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. It too mentions that God is a metaphorical Father to Israel or creatures. But this work insists that the term is not metaphorical in the case of Jesus Christ.

See http://tinyurl.com/37z8ya

Kind regards,

Edgar

vasileios78 said...

Dear Edgar,

I want, first of all, to apologize for my delay to answer, which is due to my very busy schedule, especially in the Chinese field.

Of course, “debates about words” (1 Tim 6:4) must be avoided, because Biblical message is basically simple, and such debates may degrade it and, even, cause divisions. On the other hand, the problem with the subject you raised is that it touches a very sensitive part of the Biblical religion: the relationship of God with his creatures and children. On the other hand, I think it very possible that you and I just employ the words “literal” and “metaphorical” in a different way, and possibly this is the core of our disagreement. I suppose that when you speak about a “literal” and a “metaphorical” father, you mean a father “in the human way” and the opposite. Hence, if “literal” means for you “in the human way,” yes, God is not a father in the human way.

When I employ the adjectives “literal” and “metaphorical,” I do this according the definitions below:

As Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary puts it, “literal” means “adhering to fact or to the ordinary construction or primary meaning of a term or expression: ACTUAL, […] free from exaggeration or embellishment.”

Similarly, according to the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary “literal” means “the real meaning of a word is its original, basic meaning” and “metaphorical” is defined as “not having real existence but symbolic and showing some truth about a situation or other subject.”

Let me ponder now on these definitions and on what you wrote in your original message: It is my position that the term "Father" when used of God in relation to His only-begotten Son (John 3:16; 14:28) […] is a metaphor or as-if structure. […] [God does not] literally beget or raise or nurture children.

If God is not the literal/actual father of Jesus Christ, then how should we understand the simple and strong statement of John 3:16: “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son?” Can this verse allow room for a metaphorical/nonfactual fatherhood and sonship? Can this verse, and similar ones like Mat 11:27 and Ro 8:32, allow room for something less than a real, factual and very strong relationship between a father and his unique son? Are these Biblical statements “exaggerations” or “embellishments” with statements “not having real existence?” I don’t think so, and I believe you don’t either.

Especially for Jesus Christ it is true that God himself begot him, that is, he brought him in existence as his son, and then “raised” him. Of course, nothing in the Bible denotes that spirit persons have a bodily development (this is something limited to the physical creation), but every one else but God needs development as a person. As you well know, there are many verses showing the development of Jesus in character.

You asked me: “In what sense do you think that God is Father to the angels?” As far as I understand, in the Biblical terms, God is a Father to the angels as the cause of their rational existence and life, as the source of their spiritual nourishment, and as being the giver of a similar/same nature. Of course, angels do not have the unique sonship Jesus has as the μονογενής (=of unique descend and kind), since angels “were created or begotten by Jehovah through that firstborn Son” and do not enjoy the unique intimacy Jesus enjoys with God.—See Insight on the Scriptures, 2:996, and Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 4:738.

I would like, on this point, to combine the idea of the “archetypal father”, that I mentioned in my previous message, with the definition of Cambridge’s dictionary. Even though, “father” is an English word and “πατήρ” a Greek with a history of few thousand years, the concept or idea (to give a “Platonic” notion) of paternity is as old as God decided to bring a son into existence. Humans are made in the image of God, not the opposite; and thus the “original” meaning of paternity belongs to God and not to men. Yes, there is an older family in heavens, with God and His heavenly organization.

Closing this message, I will briefly refer to the Biblical use of terms of paternity, beyond the information I have already presented. Insight on the Scriptures gives a very nice definition: “The Hebrew ´av and the Greek pa•ter´ are both used in various senses: as begetter, or progenitor, of an individual (Pr 23:22; Zec 13:3; Lu 1:67), the head of a household or ancestral family (Ge 24:40; Ex 6:14), an ancestor (Ge 28:13; Joh 8:53), a founder of a nation (Mt 3:9), a founder of a class or profession (Ge 4:20, 21), a protector (Job 29:16; Ps 68:5), the source of something (Job 38:28), and a term of respect (2Ki 5:13; Ac 7:2).”

As it is clearly seen above, the basic, original, primary idea of the Biblical paternity focuses to the cause/source of existence of something or someone.

Theologians of Christendom are lost in the anachronistic labyrinth of the via negativa as regards paternity, and they claim that only Jesus is a literal son of God, while others, as creatures, are not literal sons of God. I have already presented data showing that this was not the Biblical concept of paternity, and I will give one more source regarding Jesus himself:

Commenting on the 8 chapter of Proverbs (v. 22-25: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. […]Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth), Kenneth T. Aitken says in his Daily Study Bible: Proverbs, p. 81:

“Was Lady Wisdom created or begotten by God? Some scholars come down heavily on the side of birth, and take all three expressions the same way (“begot...fashioned [in the womb]...born”). Lady Wisdom would therefore be presenting herself as a child of God rather than the first of his creative works. While this is possible and attractive, it may be wiser not to press the language into a single mould. If we follow the RSV, Lady Wisdom describes her origins from different standpoints: as created, installed (perhaps with overtones of her royalty), and born. We should notice that the ideas of creation and birth are not nearly so diametrically opposed in Old Testament thought as we might suppose—and as they later became in the Christological controversies of the early Church, as indicated in the phrasing of the Nicene creed “begotten, not made”. In the Old Testament, birth can happily be described as an act of creation (Ps. 139:13; cf. Deut. 32:6), and an act of creation just as happily as a birth (Ps. 90:2). The language is in any case poetical and metaphorical, and the choice between created and born is not of terribly great importance. What is central is not the manner of Lady Wisdom’s origins so much as her antiquity and precedence within God’s creation.”

I hope that I have made my position clearer now.

Kind regards,

Vasileios Tsialas

Edgar Foster said...

Dear Vasileios,

Greetings to you. Due to time constraints, I'm going to address some of your comments by using parts of my dissertation. I hope to clarify what I mean in speaking of "Father" as a metaphor for God. Furthermore, I want to stress why I believe that it is so important to view the term as a metaphor.

1) The morphological forms "literal" or "literality" in my study refer to S (a given subject) having or exemplifying a certain property P (e.g. wisdom, beauty or being paternal). Conversely, my dissertation utilizes "metaphor" (among other things) to delineate a figure of speech (i.e. a trope) whereby a signifier or phrase designating one entity is applied comparatively (i.e. by suggestion) to another entity, through a process of linguistic transference. Or the term can refer to an "as-if" structure which preserves the tension between the "is" and the "is not" of predication in a subject-predicate locution.

2) I guess my point about construing "Father" as a literal term for God has all sorts of implications that I would think Christians want to deny or eschew. For instance, a "father" in English is usually male. We normally don't consider women to be "fathers." Yet, God is not a male (Numbers 23:19). How can he thus be a "Father" in the matter-of-fact way that the term is employed in English or other language? Additionally, father is a biological, legal or social term in English (when used literally). But none of these usages apply to God. God is not Father in a biological, strictly legal or social sense. God has not literally generated or engendered children: he has brought forth children in a figurative sense or God has created his sons or daughters (as I understand the Bible), thereby giving them existence.

3) The Bible does speak of Christ as God's Son (John 3:16; Romans 8:32), but I think that this usage is metaphorical in that the Son of God was not a male prior to his "enfleshment" and he was evidently created (Revelation 3:14), not generated or engendered as when humans are born to their parents and become "sons" or "daughters" of a man and woman. Moreover, does not God call Israel his firstborn son in the OT? Is not the King of Judah also designated God's son? And of course we've discussed how Adam is called the son of God in Luke 3:38 and angels are labeled "sons of God" in Job 38:1-7 (etc).

4) I would not deny that the LOGOS developed as a person. However, any talk of "raising" the LOGOS must be understood in a figurative sense (IMO). I do not recall the Bible speaking of the preexistent Christ being "raised" by God. At best, would such language not be an inference based on "Son" terminology?

I'll continue in a different post because of the length of this one.

Edgar Foster said...

Continuing, I would agree that God causes the angels to exist and is the source of their spiritual nourishment, as you put it. We may even agree that God grants a nature to the angels. Yet, I'm not sure that any of these actions qualify God as a literal Father to the angels since God is not a male, and God does not engender the angels with the help of a queenly consort, but he supernaturally causes the angels to exist or creates them (Colossians 1:15-17).

There is a difference between a creator and a literal father; fathers do not create but only procreate. When we employ "father" in the sense of creator, maker, founder, inventor or sustainer, such usages are figurative--not literal. The Oxford English Dictionary makes this point very clear IMO.

I am not saying that "Father" or "Son" as used in the Bible for God or Christ are embellishments or exaggerations, but my point is that one should think of these ascriptions in terms of as-if structures. For example, when we read that God is the Shepherd of his people, why do we not generally construe this term in a literal fashion? Does God own a hook or staff?

What about when we encounter the title "King of eternity" in Scripture? Should we construe this term literally? Is God an archetypal King with a crown and literal throne that circumscribes him or is the expression "king" being used in a figurative sense (taken from human experience and discourse) in order to help us understand something about God?

Concerning the IMAGO DEI language in Genesis 1:26-27, it is debatable what Moses intended when speaking of man being created in God's image. One might ask whether he meant to imply that God is the archetype and humanity is the echtype in light of what one reads in Colossians 3:10. Hebrew scholars have also associated the IMAGO DEI language of Genesis 1:26ff with earthly dominion that resembles divine authority. I'm thus not sure that the text in Genesis supports the archetypal idea of God's paternity.

I believe that most of the usages you cite from the Insight book would be considered figurative or metaphorical in everyday English. God is not our literal ancestor nor does he literally head a clan, does he? For that matter, God the Father is not really a "he," right? God transcends sex or gender since God is spirit and qualitatively infinite.

I do not deny that God is the cause of source of existence (John 6:57; James 1:17), but that is a metaphorical use of the term "Father" (not a literal usage).

I am inclined to agree with William Alston who suggests that Father (as a divine title) "wears its metaphorical provenance on its face" insofar as "an ideal picture of fathers" is utilized in this instance without this supposition being spelled out in detail.

Regards,

Edgar Foster