From the July/August, 2000 issue of Touchstone
Father, Glorify Thy Name! by Patrick Henry Reardon

Father, Glorify Thy Name!

The Patriarchal Shape of Trinitarian Theology

by Patrick Henry Reardon

There persists among Christians today a disposition to talk of God apart from Christ. I do not mean that Christians, at least serious Christians, explicitly theorize that the true God can be known without Christ. I am referring, rather, to a tendency to describe even the true God, the God of the Christian revelation, in very general, abstract terms not rooted in the living experience of God in Christ. It seems that some Christians, having found God in Christ, feel free to separate him from this unique font of revelation and to discuss and describe him in terms that are hardly related at all to the vision of his glory manifest in the face of Christ. They take their ideas about Christ and God and then run off to elaborate them, as it were, on their own.

A chief and disturbing instance of this disposition, I submit, is what I venture to call today’s via negativa vulgaris, or popular apophaticism. The Orthodox Church has always said, of course, that we cannot adequately describe God as he is in himself. Thus, in Orthodox theology, the knowledge of God always involves a certain “unknowing.” A good number of non-Orthodox Christians, however, and perhaps even a few Orthodox, seem seriously to have misunderstood what the Orthodox Church means in such an assertion. Speaking of God as mysterious and incomprehensible has become very much the style in certain quarters. In my opinion it is most often just another symptom of modern murky thinking, however, and I plan to argue here that it has nothing to do with what the Church has traditionally called apophatic theology.

The formulation of this popular apophaticism tends to run along the following lines: “God is very, very obscure. God transcends all of our conceptual images of him and all the language in which we speak of him. In thinking about and discussing God at all, we constantly run the danger of idolatry. All references to God must be as indefinite as possible, because every description of God, in the measure that it is dogmatically clung to and insisted upon, may become a graven or molten image.”

An attempt is sometimes made at this point to justify this apophatic vigilance against doctrinal formulation by some vague and very caliginous reference to those Fathers of the Church especially known for their emphasis on the via negativa (that is, saying what God is not rather than saying what he is). The latter appeal is apparently supposed to quiet any scruple that Eastern Orthodoxy may feel about the whole process.

Our popular apophaticism then goes on to contend that the contemporary theological task is twofold. First, we are informed, one must maintain a strict caution. Mysterious means blurry, so when one speaks of God, it is imperative not to say anything very clear or precise. One must be constantly aware of the peril of identifying him with any concept descriptive of him, for such descriptions are only symbolic and metaphorical. Inasmuch as the new via negativa ultimately negates the whole theological pursuit anyway, theology should glory in being hazy, haphazard, and provisional.1

Thus, according to this popular apophaticism, when the Creed speaks of God as Father, theology must recognize that we are dealing only with a metaphor. All positive statements about God must then be negated. A proper respect for this consideration should prompt us to say, then, that God is also not Father, for the image of fatherhood must be apophatically transcended. Similarly, if God is Lord, the same reasoning insists, he also surpasses the category of lordship, and that image, too, only testifies to its inadequacy.

Second, according to the via negativa vulgaris, precisely because all imagery descriptive of God is merely metaphorical and provisional, a proper evangelical solicitude will prompt theology to balance and condition such descriptions in various ways in order to make God more attractive. For example, recognizing that the proclamation of the gospel may be hindered by its inclusion of images perceived as negative or oppressive, it says that theology should endeavor, at the least, to neutralize these images, or perhaps even to expunge them altogether. In this way, theology can be made more relevant to the contemporary concerns of feminism, political liberation, and other just causes. Sometimes this process of re-interpretation is described as a “development of doctrine,” and rather shaky allusions are made to the thought of Cardinal Newman. This last move is apparently supposed to quiet any misgivings that Roman Catholicism may feel about the whole process.

We may illustrate this procedure by the same examples used above. Because the modern apophaticists associate the terms Father and Lord, by which we have traditionally spoken of God, with the oppressive patriarchies of the past, something must be done about them. And since modern apophaticism has already pronounced them to be inadequate and possibly misleading anyway, there should be no problem about dealing with them decisively. If God is not really Father, then Father is no more appropriate a name than Mother. So why not employ both names, or perhaps neither? As for Lord, the word is nearly Nietzschean; it so smacks of oppression that maybe it should be dropped altogether, or at least neutralized with a less masculine equivalent like “sovereign.”

The impact of this development is already being experienced by some Christians in their congregational worship. Whether in the new Methodist service book in use for the past several years, or the so-called trial liturgies inflicted from time to time on those long-suffering Episcopalians, or the various new hymnals adopted by several of the major and mainline churches, traditional references to the Persons of the Holy Trinity are rapidly disappearing. They are being replaced by such expressions as “Grandfather, Great Spirit,” “God, our grove,” “Jesus our Mother,” “our father and mother God,” and (everybody’s all-time favorite) “Bakerwoman.”2 Moreover, the same license with regard to altering language about God also characterizes several so-called translations of the Psalms intended for congregational use.3

Diverse Forms of Obscurity

Now what are we to say to all of this? Mystery and incomprehensibility certainly are appropriate terms when we speak of God. God is mysterious; God is incomprehensible. The ancient worship language of the Church describes him as aphatos, “inexpressible.” But does this mean that all language about the living God is equally meaningless? If an apophatic principle in Christian theology makes it finally impossible to take seriously the defined affirmations of the Creed, then what is distinctive about the Christian faith? Other great religions, after all, such as Islam and Hinduism, likewise describe the divinity as incomprehensible. Are we Christians only saying the same thing as they? Do we have in Jesus a knowledge of God not otherwise available, or only a somewhat more advanced God-talk? Indeed, if we Christians may no longer, with a quiet conscience, refer to God using the names Father and Son, are we really talking about the Christian faith at all?

We should suspect here the presence of some terribly perverse thinking that needs to be cleared up. A critical reexamination of Christian apophaticism would seem to be the proper way of tackling the problem, and I suggest that we start by being apophatic about apophaticism. That is to say, that we commence by examining what Christian apophaticism does not mean.

First, Christian apophaticism is not primarily an epistemological affirmation. That is to say, when we Christians call the true and living God incomprehensible, we are saying something about God himself and not simply describing the limitations of our knowledge. It is not as though we knew where God was, so to speak, but were obliged to confess our inability to get there. The difficulty of getting to God is a statement more about God than about us. It is not as though we human beings, by dint of deeper reflections, more lucid musings, or improved heuristic patterns, might somehow get closer to the summit. That we do not know the living God describes him, not us. The difference between God’s inner truth and our knowledge is not one of degree. Even to say that God transcends our concepts is inadequate, inasmuch as it suggests some relationship between our concepts and God, whereas Christian apophatic theology insists that there is no such relationship.

For that reason, quantitative assertions of human ignorance here are only metaphorical. In speaking of God as “immeasurable,” ametretos, we are affirming infinitely more than the inability of our minds to take his measure. The difference between God’s truth and man’s thought is not merely dimensional. In Christian apophatic theology we are not simply asserting that the human mind is insufficiently capacious to contain him. If that were the case, references to God’s incomprehensibility would have only an anthropological significance. It would be an apophaticism owing more to Feuerbach than to St. Basil.

Second, Christian apophaticism is not a merely logical reference. The incomprehensibility of the living God is revealed truth, not a fact available to unaided reason. I believe it very important to insist on this point. Left to her own lights, after all, philosophy, too, can certainly affirm an incomprehensibility of “God” in the sense that that concept is plainly tautological. If, as Aristotle wisely taught, understanding is the knowledge of things in their causes, then the Principle of Causality is the basis of understanding. And if the concept “God” excludes his having a cause, then philosophy itself may properly speak of the incomprehensibility of God.

Such a tautology is characteristic of the standard cosmological arguments, such as Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, for example, which becomes the Prime Mover in Maimonides, and the “Necessary Being” both of Avicenna and of the Third Proof of Thomas Aquinas. I submit that a philosophical via negativa is even more pronounced in the entirely negative formula of St. Anselm’s ontological argument: aliquid quo nihil maius, “something than which nothing greater.” It is no less true, I think, of Descartes’ thesis that the concept of God, inasmuch as it cannot be causally traced, must be assumed as a principle independent of any other. To sum up, the philosophical concept of God, because it outruns, as it were, the Principle of Causality, is tautological and, as such, defies understanding. But this consideration is itself still infinitely short of what Christian theology means when it calls the true and living God “incomprehensible,” akataleptos. Philosophy, after all, required no special revelation to know that a tautology is logically inaccessible.

Third, Christian apophaticism is not Neoplatonic ecstasy. Plotinus, too, writes of the divinity as incomprehensible, but this is his way of identifying that divinity as The One, to hen. Observing that discursive reason necessarily introduces a distinction between the knower and the known, Plotinus recognizes it as an exercise in multiplicity. That is to say, I cannot really know The One if I remain distinct from The One, for in that case he is not The One; he is, rather, the “other.” So the goal of Plotinus’s mystical quest is a union with The One, to hen, in which the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity is removed. What the Neoplatonist pursues is an absolute simplicity (haplosis) by which is dissolved the difference between the knower and the known, and this is accomplished by way of the ecstatic experience of “unknowing.” Inasmuch as it eliminates the essential difference between God and the soul, however, the Neoplatonic “unknowing” is obviously not to be identified with Christian apophaticism. The Christian does not “un-know” in the same sense that a Platonist does.4

Even earlier than Plotinus, expressions of this “mysticism of absorption” are also found in Hindu monistic literature as variants of the famous phrase Tat twam asi, “That art thou,” from the Chandogya Upanishad. For example, the Maitri Upanishad says that Brahman has two forms: Brahman formed and Brahman formless, manifest and unmanifest, Brahman He and Brahman It. To the extent that the atman, or soul, remains distinct from and relates to the Brahman, the Brahman is He, personal, manifest, and formed. But the mystical goal of this Upanishad is the absorption of the soul into the Brahman, as the drop becomes lost in the sea or the ray of light returns to the sun. Individuality disappears. There is no longer Brahman He; there is the formless, the unmanifest, the impersonal, but ultimately real, Brahman It. Brahman and atman are one, so that there is no more distinction between objective and subjective.5

Christian Apophatic Theology

The similarity of such Hindu speculations to Plotinus’s ecstatic unknowing is obvious enough, but I am more struck by their affinity with a certain doctrinal aberration rather often found among Christians. Let me identify the aberration by posing this question: Is God ultimately It or He? What is “first” in God, so to speak, essence or person? Using the classical terms of Christian theology, is God first ousia or hypostasis, essentia or persona?

It is unfortunately customary to dismiss such questions as excessively speculative. To raise them is to risk being indicted for unnecessary Byzantine subtlety. Nonetheless, how this question is answered will make a great deal of difference to our analysis of apophatic theology. If the “font of divinity”—the pege theotetos, to borrow an expression from St. Maximus the Confessor—if the font of divinity is the divine essence, ousia, then God is ultimately impersonal. God’s unknowability is an abstraction. That is to say, it affirms that there is in God a priority of It to He.

In fact, one runs across this idea rather often among Christians. I have lost count of the times that I have read in Christian theological literature such lines as: “. . . the one divine being, who subsists in three modes of existence. . . .” In other words, ousia precedes hypostasis; essence precedes person. Thus, the It of God, so to speak, is prior to the He. I submit that, if this is the case, there is no ultimate theological difference between Christianity and Hinduism.

I reject this notion and call it a theological aberration quite simply because it does not conform to the ancient creedal expressions of the Church. The Apostles’ Creed, for example, does not begin with the divine essence but with the Person of the Father: “I believe in God, the Father almighty.” The Nicene Creed likewise does not make God first ousia but hypostasis, not essence first but person: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty. . . .” Make no mistake: what these new apophaticists want to get rid of is God as Father.

Now in identifying God first as the Father, and then affirming that the Son is begotten of the Father and that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father—in holding, that is, that the pater (the Father) is the arche (the source)—then we necessarily affirm “patriarchy” in the Holy Trinity. Indeed, inasmuch as all the Christian Dispensation is Trinitarian, there is a necessary inference that “all of the Christian revelation is patriarchal.”6 The incomprehensibility of God is personal, because the very root of God’s being is personal.

This, the “Father without origin” (as the Divine Liturgy calls him), is the God whom “no man hath ever seen at any time.” We would not know him at all, except that the only-begotten, who is in the bosom of the Father, has revealed him to us (John 1:18). The Son can reveal this Father to us because he is in the bosom of the Father; he and the Father are one (10:30); he is of the same essence (homoousios) as the Father. This, the Holy Trinity, the Father and the Son with the Holy Spirit, is the truly incomprehensible God.

When one says that God is incomprehensible because we are unable to conceive of the divine essence, that is correct; but it is still an inadequate way of describing Christian apophatic theology. The Christian via negativa, unlike the impersonal apophaticisms of Hindu monism and Neoplatonism, is first an apophaticism of person. What Eastern Orthodox theology calls the “root of divinity” (riza theotetos) is not the divine essence but the Person of the Father, not even known to be unknown unless revealed, unknown only as revealed, and revealed as unknown. It is the Person of the Father who, in the fullness of his hypostatic freedom, is the source of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

To hear some Christians talk, you would think that we all along knew exactly who God was and then, “in these last days,” identified Jesus by reference to this God whom we knew all along. One might imagine that we were dealing with some longtime and very familiar friend who finally got around to telling us that he also had a son that he had been keeping secret from us and had at last decided to come clean about it. Or it would be as though Jesus, when he revealed himself to us as God’s Son, expected to be greeted by the words: “Oh yes, we already know your Father. Isn’t it strange that he never mentioned you.” And then we would go on to investigate how to manage the proper damage control for our monotheism!

The truth, of course, is that we do not know the true God except in the Son who reveals him. Indeed, “whoever denies the Son, does not have the Father” (1 John 2:23). And the Son reveals this Father to us as eternal mystery, as infinitely incomprehensible, as the Father who lives in unapproachable light.

If Christians speak of the incomprehensibility of God, then, it behooves them to be certain that they are talking about the true and living God manifest in Jesus Christ, not some philosophical Unmoved Mover, not some general, all-purpose divinity. The living God is not the Necessary Being to which clear thinking may reason its way. He is, rather, the personal God whose glory shines on the face of our Lord Jesus Christ. Philosophy cannot reach, nor does it even begin to guess at, the real incomprehensibility of God. The true God is infinitely more inaccessible than any philosophy ever suspected.

The incomprehensibility of the true God is a very specific and utterly unique mystery, not a general obscurity that we must somehow manage as best we can by juggling our metaphors. When Christians speak of the incomprehensibility of God, they are not talking of darkness but of light. According to Holy Scripture, this unapproachable light “no man knows nor can know.” The name of him who abides in this light is the Father (1 Timothy 6:16).

So when we invoke God as the Father, we are pronouncing only what we know in Christ. It is solely in the Holy Spirit that we call out “Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15),7 and it is imperative that we do not second-guess the Holy Spirit. “Father” is the ultimate apophatic pronouncement; there is no way for it to be further apophaticized. At no time is it good theology to say that the Father of Jesus is not the Father.

Therefore, to pretend that in teaching us to call him Father, “God adopted patriarchal concepts in order to reveal his will and purpose to the human race”8 is to make a claim about God for which there is no warrant in Holy Scripture. Just where, then, is the ground for taking such a stand? This is purely private theology. It has nothing to do with either the Bible or the Church. There is no theological justification for thus attempting to get “beyond” the Father. Indeed, such an endeavor scarcely differs from Meister Eckhart’s pursuit of a “God beyond God.”

A Figure of Speech?

Patristic literature asserts that, in God, the name Father is not titular but real. It is a “proper” name,9 pertaining to God as God, and not simply to God’s relationship to us. Before he is “our Father” outside the Trinity, he is the Son’s Father within the Trinity (cf. John 20:17).

Although it is difficult (and ultimately futile, one suspects) to classify God’s name “Father” (his Christian name, if you will) within normal rhetorical and literary categories, we should at least avoid reducing it to a mere figure of speech, for such a reduction is the very opposite of apophatic. It is just one more endeavor to conceptualize a mystery. Indeed, to classify Revelation’s language about God at all, to cramp it into rational categories of any sort, is simply the attempt to bring divine truth under human control.

Moreover, it appears to me that classifying the Father’s proper name as only metaphorical is not, in practice at least, to explain it; it is, rather, to explain it away. It makes God’s revelation nothing more than a restatement of our ignorance of him, so that we are back where we started, as though there had never been a divine revelation in Jesus Christ.

Nor is it my point here simply to distinguish between a metaphor and a simile, for the difference between the two is only a matter of grammatical configuration. Constructed on a comparison, both have the same conceptual content; a metaphor is only an implicit simile. In either case, whether explicitly or by inference, we are asserting that one thing is like another.

A legitimate example of such a figure of speech is referring to God as a mother, a reference justified by Holy Scripture (cf. Isaiah 49:15; Matthew 23:37) and favored by some of the saints. Whether expressly or by implication, this usage is founded on an analogy; it is a comparison to motherhood as known through human experience. One is asserting that God’s relationship to us has certain maternal characteristics.

In no wise would it be theologically correct, however, to call God the Mother in any sense comparable to calling him the Father. Unfortunately, even some defenders of the traditional faith miss the point here by drawing attention to how God’s relationship to us is more fatherly than motherly. Such arguments “from propriety” (ex convenientia) are inadequate and even misleading. To refer to God as Father is not simply to assert that God’s relationship to us has certain fatherly characteristics, as distinct from motherly characteristics. It is not as though God somehow reminds us of dear old Dad, or even what dear old Dad should have been.

Such attempts to explain how God is our Father represent a failure to accept the apophatic force of Christian theological language, an endeavor to reduce the mystery to human dimensions. When we invoke God as our Father, however, we transcend all that we know of fatherhood in this world; we make a formal departure from the purely figurative realm, surpassing pious metaphor to an absolutely unique and personal mystery.

The fatherhood of God is not a soft, benign, self-evident truth. As the solemn introduction to the Lord’s Prayer in the Liturgy indicates, to call out that holy Name “Father” into the mystery of God, “the unapproachable light,” requires an ultimate boldness: “We dare to call upon thee, the heavenly God as Father, and to say. . . .” It is a deed of awesome audacity, for which nothing in this world prepares us.

Our God is not a father; even less is he like a father. He is the Father, the One “from whom all paternity in heaven and on earth is so named” (Ephesians 3:14f.). We are speaking in strictest propriety here, not mere analogy, inasmuch as this Father has begotten us in Christ, who is God’s Son in an absolute and eternal sense. The invocation “our Father” reflects the fact that, in Christ and only in Christ, we ourselves have become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). In Orthodox theology, calling God “Father” has to do with our own deification.

Because of our incorporation into Christ, we are not simply called the children of God; we are the children of God (cf. all the major manuscripts and most translations of 1 John 3:1). Indeed, because of our participation in the divine life, it is even more proper to call God “Father” than to give this name to our own earthly fathers. Truth to tell, in comparison with this Father, no one on earth should even be so called (Matthew 23:9).

Some Christian thinkers have at times expressed this mystery rather boldly. Thomas Aquinas, for example, citing Ephesians 3:14f. as his authority, speculates that the name “Father” pertains more properly to the First Person of the Holy Trinity than to any other instance of paternity. Indeed, he goes on explicitly to deny that calling God “Father” is a metaphor at all, saying of the Lord and his Father: proprie et non metaphorice dicitur Filius; et ejus principium, Pater —“properly and not metaphorically he is said to be the Son, and his origin (principium = arche[!]), the Father.”10 Orthodox theologians will find the Angelic Doctor much less apophatic in this respect than, say, the Cappadocian Fathers. Doubtless they are right, but I believe that his speculations here, rooted as they are in Holy Scripture and the dogmatic affirmations of the Church, are worthy of reverent consideration. They are not on a par with the irresponsible neo-gnostic speculations noted above.

A Feminine Father & Son?

Some Christians, nonetheless, bothered that God is invoked by so obviously a masculine noun as “father,” continue to look for ways of softening or neutralizing that word by recourse to more feminine images. It is even alleged that the Christian Tradition itself encourages such a pursuit by providing suitable models.

The major ancient text occasionally adduced in support of this thesis comes from the Eleventh Council of Toledo in 675, which said of the Son that “he was begotten or born from the Father’s womb—that is, of his substance”—de Patris utero, id est, de substantia ejus . . . genitus vel natus.11 Some writers, making much of this conciliar reference to the “Father’s womb” (Patris uterus), are also impressed by the juxtaposition of the participles “begotten” and “born.”12 Fathers, after all, beget, and mothers give birth. So the claim is made that Toledo XI, in its employment of such language, was intentionally striking out on some new and bold theological venture. Jürgen Moltmann, for example, describing the conciliar statement as “daring,” goes on to speak of Toledo’s “bisexual affirmations” and “radical denial of patriarchal monotheism.”13

Such enthusiastic conclusions are, to say the least, premature. Indeed, I believe that they would greatly bewilder the venerable fathers at Toledo, and with a view to sparing them such bewilderment I propose the following four points for consideration.

First, no one in the whole conciliar and creedal tradition regarded the word father, when used with reference to God, as having any sexual connotation whatsoever. The Cappadocians in particular had already gone to some length to say that paternity and sonship in God possessed no sexual reference.14 So the bishops at Toledo, endeavoring to respect the traditional affirmations, were certainly not trying to “correct” those affirmations by the deliberate introduction of feminine language. It was the thing furthest from their minds.

The very idea of sexuality in God, to say nothing of bisexuality, is more than slightly silly. It is not simply that God’s eternal fatherhood transcends sexuality; it transcends any consideration of sexuality, even the denial of sexuality. It is not related to sexuality at all, not even in transcending it. Sexuality offers no avenue to the mystery. The dogma of God’s fatherhood must be “come at” entirely on its own terms. It can only be approached within the context of its revelation, the glory of God shining from the face of Christ. Christians are not free to go off and develop the idea on their own.

Second, the juxtaposition of “begotten” and “born” in reference to the Son was not Toledo’s attempt to balance doctrinal language with masculine and feminine words. In fact, when used of the Son’s relationship to the Father, those two words, each equally inadequate to express the divine and eternal mystery in question, had for a long time been employed interchangeably and in parallel construction in Church teaching, whether in councils or in other contexts.15

Third, far from being daring and innovative, Toledo XI’s reference to the “Father’s womb” was rather conservative. In fact, the authors thought it was biblical! Sunday by Sunday since at least the third century,16 the entire Latin Church had been starting vespers with Psalm 109 (110 in Hebrew), in verse 3 of which they found the following reference to the Son’s eternal generation from the Father: ex utero ante luciferum genui te—“from the womb, before the day-star, I have begotten thee.” So God’s “womb,” however modern scholarship may judge its accuracy as a biblical translation, would hardly have struck anyone in the late seventh century as particularly bold.17 The bishops of the council comfortably employed the word quite simply because they had all along been using it with the same reference in worship every Sunday and major feast day for four centuries or more.

Fourth, it is significant that this reference to the Father’s “womb,” found in both the Latin and Greek Psalters, was never, not a single time, exploited for its “feminine” possibilities in the entire Christian Tradition, East or West. If ever anyone had thought it important to find a “feminine side” to God’s paternity, Psalm 109:3 was readily at hand to assist in the effort. In fact, however, the opposite was true. That is, except in liturgical texts where a more poetic form rendered it appropriate, Christian theology tended generally not to draw attention to the “Father’s womb.” For example, St. Augustine’s De Trinitate, which cites that line from the Psalter dozens of times, invariably leaves out the reference to the womb. Similarly, in his Enarrationes in Psalmos, Augustine interprets it as a metaphor for the divine substantia, exactly as Toledo XI does later, without drawing any attention to its feminine character. The few other references to the paternal womb in Latin Christianity follow suit.18 In sum, then, Toledo XI does not say what Moltmann, Soskice, Harrison, and others would like for it to say.

Our inherited doctrinal statements about God the Father are paralleled with affirmations about his Son. In speaking of Jesus as the Son of God, we Christians insist that this is not a purely biological assertion. That is to say, he is not called Son simply because he assumed human nature in the masculine sex. Sadly, one frequently hears it alleged that God’s eternal Word became his Son only by the Incarnation. Those who venture this assertion invariably regard his sonship as a mere circumstance of biology, and they normally go on to claim that Jesus might just as well have been born as a little girl.

Such speculations are excellent examples of what I earlier described as thinking about God apart from his revelation in Christ. They are purely imaginative, even idolatrous attempts to get past the God actually revealed in Jesus Christ. Rooted in neither Holy Scripture nor any other component of Holy Tradition, their theological value is zero. To take such speculations seriously, to grant them even the faintest claim to valid consideration, is to summon forth once again, from the deep sepulchers where St. Irenaeus of Lyons long ago consigned them, the demonic specters of Gnosticism; it is to depart from the ancient creedal confession that has re-echoed down through history in the hymn Te Deum, where our Lord Jesus Christ is addressed: tu Patris sempiternus es Filius, “Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.”

Come to the Father

So what is revealed in Christ is not the mere name “Father” as a description of God. What is manifested, rather, is the invisible Father himself. It is a matter more of vision than of language. “And he who sees me, sees him who sent me” (John 12:45). The invisibility of God is revealed in the Son. “Have I been with you so long and you have not known me, Philip? He who sees me sees the Father” (14:9). God’s eternal Son is “the effulgence of his glory and the impress of his person” (Hebrews 1:3). He is “the icon of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).

This eternal iconography, made visible in the Incarnation, I take to be the heart of Christian apophatic theology. It is not primarily a way of talking about God but of seeing him. St. Paul calls it “the Gospel of the glory of Christ who is the icon of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). We do not see the Father except in the Son, and then only by reason of the Holy Spirit who is poured into our hearts. So no one comes to Jesus unless drawn by the Father (John 6:45), because no one knows the Son but the Father (Matthew 11:27). But if we know the Son, we know the Father also (John 8:19), because no one knows the Father but the Son and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him (Matthew 11:27). “And this is eternal life, to know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). “For the God who made light to shine out of darkness has shown in our hearts, to give knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

On his way to martyrdom in the year 107, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the church at Rome of his inner experience of the Holy Spirit. “My earthly desire is crucified,” he said, “and the love of material things no longer burns in me. There is, rather, a living water speaking inside and saying within me: Come to the Father!”19

This, the Father who dwells in inaccessible light, is the goal of the Christian life. Christians are those who pray with Christ: “Father, glorify thy name!” (John 12:28).

While apophatic theology is an attitude governing all the Christian life, it has chiefly to do with worship and contemplative love. It is primarily doxological. Its major expressions are adoration and longing. It prays with St. Isaac the Syrian, “Behold, Lord, the waves of thy grace close my mouth with silence, and there is not a thought left in me before the face of thy thanksgiving.”20 The direction of this silent adoration is eschatological. It holds a firm course finally to that Throne before which worships the Church in glory, that heavenly Church described by Dante as the “White Rose.” There arises from that anagogic Church, with whom we join our voices here on earth, the great hymn of apophatic praise: “Glory to the holy, consubstantial, life-creating, and undivided Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”  

This essay was a lecture given in Aiken, South Carolina, at the ecumenical conference “Not of This World,” jointly sponsored by Touchstone and the Rose Hill Conference Center in 1995. It appeared with other Rose Hill papers in Reclaiming the Great Tradition, edited by James Cutsinger (InterVarsity Press, 1997). Reprinted with permission.


1. Cf. P. H. Reardon, “Imaging God,” Touchstone 3:4 (Winter 1990), pp. 13–17.

2. Cf. P. H. Reardon, “Classroom Chaos,” Touchstone 8:1 (Winter 1995), p. 12.

3. Cf. P. H. Reardon, “Christology and the Psalter,” Touchstone 7:2 (Spring 1994), pp. 9f.

4. Cf. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), pp. 29–31.

5. Maitri 6.3,7, in The Thirteen Principal Upanishads (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), p. 425. Cf. also Brihadaranyaka 3.7.1–23 (pp. 115–117); Chandogya 6.8.6 and 12 (pp. 246f.).

6. When I ventured this mild and nearly self-evident assertion in print a few years ago (cf. footnote 2), Professor Donald G. Bloesch judged it an “astounding statement”; cf. his “Beyond Patriarchalism and Feminism,” Touchstone 4:1 (Summer 1990), p. 9. When he went on to claim, however, that to “teach the monarchy of the Father almost invariably ends in subordinationism,” I confess to a reaction quite beyond astonishment. Among those who have somehow managed this allegedly improbable task—that is, to teach the monarchy of the Father without ending in subordinationism—mention may be made of Saints Athanasius ( Contra Arianos 4.1), Basil ( Homiliae 24), Gregory Nazianzen ( Orationes Theologicae 20.7; 31.14; 42.15), Maximus the Confessor ( Scholia 2.3), and John of Damascus ( De Fide Orthodoxa 1.8). Identical, non-subordinationist testimonies in the Latin West include Toledo VI (in Denzinger/Schönmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum [Freiburg: Herder, 1973], p. 168), Toledo XI (p. 175.), Toledo XVI (p. 192), and the 1897 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Spiritus Sanctus (p. 652). For the position of the Orthodox Catholic Church on this point, one may consult her standard dogmatic textbooks.

7. “But through the prayer which grants us the right to address God as ‘Father’ we learn of our genuine adoption through the grace of the Holy Spirit.” St. Maximus the Confessor, Mystagogia 24.

8. Bloesch, loc. cit.

9. Cf., for example, St. Hilary of Poitiers, De Synodis 20; St. Ambrose, De Fide 2.1.18. On the “reality” and necessity of the Trinitarian names in the Cappadocian Fathers, see the magisterial study of Deborah Belonick, “Revelation in Metaphors,” The Union Theological Seminary Quarterly, 1984, pp. 31–41.

10. Summa Theologica I.33.2, corp. art., ad 3um and ad 4um. Following the thought of the Cappadocians, Jaroslav Pelikan reasons that “father” is a metaphor when applied to anyone but God; cf. Christianity and Classical Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 88.

11. In Denzinger/Schönmetzer, op. cit., p. 176.

12. E.g., Janet Martin Soskice, “Can a Feminist Call God ‘Father’?” in Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism, edited by Alvin F. Kimel, Jr. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1992), pp. 92f.

13. Jürgen Moltmann, “The Motherly Father,” Concilium 143, 1981, pp. 51f.

14. Cf. Belonick, art. cit. in note 9.

15. This juxtaposition is found as early as the Council of Caesarea in 325 (Denzinger/Schönmetzer, op. cit., p. 30). Other witnesses prior to Toledo XI include St. Epiphanius (ibid., p. 31), late fourth century councils in Armenia (p. 33) and Antioch (p. 35), Theodore of Mopsuestia (p. 35), the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 (pp. 66f.), Toledo I in 400 (p. 75), and Pope St. Sixtus III (p. 98).

16. Cf. Josef Jungmann, The Early Liturgy (South Bend, Indiana: Notre Dame, 1959), p. 107.

17. Toledo’s appeal to the Latin Bible here was evidently lost even on a historian otherwise so perceptive as Sister Verna Harrison, although she recognizes that same line of the Psalter when she finds it in Greek liturgical texts. This failure causes her to put what I think an unwarranted “spin” on Toledo XI. Cf. “The Fatherhood of God in Orthodox Theology,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37:2–3, 1993, pp. 206f.

18. For example, Eucher of Lyons: “The womb of the Lord is the secret place whence he brings forth the Son” ( Liber Formularum Spiritalis Intelligentiae 2; PL 50.737D); and Rabanus Maurus: “The womb is the Father’s substance” ( Allegoriae in Sacram Scripturam; PL 112.1086B).

19. St. Ignatius of Antioch, Romans 7.2.

20. St. Isaac the Syrian, Homiliae 60.

Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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