God is not a Father in exactly the same way a human being is a father. Of course not, for we are the image of God; just as my image as I looked in a mirror this morning was not human, or aged 44, or male, in exactly the same way as I am all those things. But to whatever extent my image reflects those characteristics, it is because I am really those things, in a way far more profound than the image is.
The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury has asserted that God should not be seen as male of female, because he is ‘beyond human language’ and is ‘not a father in exactly the same way as a human being is a father’. There is nuance in these words, rather more than in the way that the press has reported them (e.g. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/we-can-t-pin-god-down-as-man-or-woman-says-archbishop-of-canterbury-justin-welby-558l2h03m). Nevertheless, the Archbishop is an intelligent man and would have known exactly how his words would be taken. And so, on the authority of the Archbishop, many Christians will today be wondering whether they have been wrong to call God ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ and Jesus their ‘Lord’ and ‘King’.
The archbishop’s words are correct, in a sense. God is not a Father in exactly the same way a human being is a father. Of course not, for we are the image of God; just as my image as I looked in a mirror this morning was not human, or aged 44, or male, in exactly the same way as I am all those things. But to whatever extent my image reflects those characteristics, it is because I am really those things, in a way far more profound than the image is.
Therefore the archbishop’s statement that ‘It is extraordinarily important as Christians that we remember that the definitive revelation of who God is was not in words, but in the word of God who we call Jesus Christ. We can’t pin God down.’ is false. Of course our words are inadequate to define God. That is because we are an image of God, and he is the original; our words describe our knowledge of him which is only a reflection, an image of his knowledge of himself. But for that reason we are bound to use the words he has used of himself. Jesus is indeed God’s word made flesh, God revealing himself to us. Jesus is the fullness of God’s being united to human flesh. And so Jesus teaches us the words that we finite humans have to use to understand God. The Word made flesh is not in competition with the word written; rather, the Holy Spirit has taken the Word made flesh and brings us his words in the words of Scripture. And first of all the words that we have been told we must use to understand God is the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If we call our god anything else, whichever god it may be it is certainly not the God who has made himself known in Jesus Christ.
Let us then going back to the image in the mirror. Of course God is not a man in exactly the same way that a human being is a man. Whoever would have said otherwise? But what is emphatically clear, from the first chapter of the Bible onwards, is that our male-ness and female-ness is an integral part of how God displays his image in mankind. And so when Jesus directs us to call God our Father, and to know him as the Son, he is doing so because these things in humanity are images of the reality which is present in God. God is truly Father, the one from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth receives its name (Ephesians 3:14-15). And this points to the reality that the sexual difference speaks both of the difference between God and his creation, and of God’s design to bring mankind into married union with himself.