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The Meaning Of Fatherhood

Fatherhood has been gutted of honor and respect until the most common portrayal of an American father is the spineless, bumbling idiot of television’s situation comedies.

—Weldon Hardenbrook, Missing from Action (1987)

Fatherhood on earth is but a dim reflection, a faint shadow of God’s fatherhood. —Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (1918)

Hand Washing and Gifts to God
Jesus’ “Twelve” sat down to eat.  They hadn’t performed the ritual washings that tradition prescribed.  The Pharisees were breaking bad and getting mad.  They went to Jesus and asked about His disciples’ conduct:  “Why do your disciples ignore the traditions of our fathers?”

Now Scripture does commands us to respect the wisdom and testimony of our fathers.  For example, we are forbidden to move the landmarks “which our fathers have set,” and the commandment has more in mind than boundary stones (Prov. 22:28).  The Pharisees were suggesting, not too subtly, that Jesus and His disciples were in violation of the Fifth Commandment from Sinai, “Honor thy father and thy mother.”  It was not the first time the Pharisees had made such an claim. They had already tagged Jesus with the label “a drunkard and a glutton, a friend of publicans and sinners,” an allusion to the Mosaic case law aimed at rebellious sons (Deut. 21:20).

Jesus immediately denounced their hypocrisy.  “Why do you break the commandment of God by your traditions?”  He cited both the Fifth Commandment and a subsidiary case law with full approval.  That case law reads, “He that curseth his father or his mother shall surely be put to death” (Ex. 21:17).  Jesus did not approve of rebellious sons.  He fully supported the law of God. But, Jesus argued, the Pharisees didn’t support God’s law. While giving lip service to far-removed fathers, they actually used their traditions to escape honoring their own fathers. Jesus gave an example.

The Pharisees taught that a man might present all his possessions to God as a gift and appoint himself trustee of that gift.  As such, he could draw off funds for his personal needs, but he couldn’t spend any of “God’s money” to help his parents in their old age.  Jesus concluded, “And many like things you do.”

But Jesus honored His Father.  That was his goal.  His endgame.

The Origin of Fatherhood
Fatherhood has its origin in the Trinity.  The Father has always been a Father; the Son has always been a Son.  God the Father has always begotten His Son; the Son has always been begotten.  This begetting or generation…

“…is an act eternal and immutable, eternally finished, yet continuing forevermore.  As it is natural for the sun to give light and for the fountain to pour forth water, so it is natural for the Father to generate the Son.  The Father is not nor ever was without generating. He begets everlastingly” (Bavinck, 309).

Rationalists and humanists have dismissed this doctrine as a lot of raucous speculation, as wrangling over words and half-understood ideas. They have complained that the early Church and its Councils confused us all with Greek thought forms and unintelligible metaphysics.  But this kind of talk is all smoke, mirrors and “suppressing” excuses. Of course, the Being of God is beyond our understanding.  God would be a rather poor thing if we could wrap our intellects around His ineffable essence.   Scripture tells us that God communicates to us truly; that the words He uses are meaningful words.  God speaks of Himself as Father because He is the Father, the original and archetypical Father, from whom all fatherhood derives its name and meaning (Eph. 3:14-15).  But God also tells us truly that He is also Son and Spirit.

Trinitarian Christianity
Trinitarian Christianity affirms both true unity and real diversity in the Godhead.  There is one God, yet there is distinction in God.  The Father is not the Son.  The Son is not the Father.  The Holy Spirit is not the Son.  Yet each is truly and fully God.  The Father begets the Son, and the Son is begotten.  The Father breathes forth His Spirit to the Son, and the Son breathes the Spirit to the Father.  That Spirit is Himself divine Love and sentient Life eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.  God is Life—absolute, overflowing, fruitful Life (Ps. 36:9; John 11:25).  He is eternally living and life-giving (John 5:26; 6:57).

He is not an abstract, “distinctionless unity.”  In him is fullness of life.  His nature is a “generative, fruitful essence”; it is capable of unfoldment and communication.  Whoever denies that divine fecundity does not figure with the truth that God is infinite, blessed life.  All such a person has left is an abstract, deistic idea of God.  In order to supply the deficiency thus brought about, he now, in pantheistic fashion, incorporates into the being of God the life of the universe.  Apart from the idea of the Trinity, the act of creation becomes inconceivable: if God is absolutely incommunicable, He is a darkened light, a dry spring; how then would it be possible for Him to impart Himself to His creatures?  (Bavinck, 308).

The alternative to Trinitarian theology is a unitarian or deistic ontology that slides quickly into pantheism and crazy blind monism.   If God is not by nature life-giving, then the only life He knows is that of the temporal universe.  And that life has nothing beyond itself to define it or give it meaning.  In other words, what’s so great about life if God Himself is a stranger to it? Or what’s so great about God, if the only life He knows is that found within the fleeting, floating stream of time and matter?  What is God, if He isn’t Life?  Rationalism with no answers, just sits and spins.

A Step Further
But wait, there’s more.  And it has to do with beginnings and endings, with genesis and eschaton. The Father begets, but He isn’t diminished in the begetting.  The Son isn’t diminished because He is begotten:  He is eternal deity, the very image of the Father (Heb. 1:3). The Father delights in His Son; it is His joy to honor and glorify Him (John 5:20-30).  The Son loves His Father; it is His joy to honor and glorify Him (John 8:28-29).

From eternity the Son shared His Father’s glory, but in His incarnation and with respect to His humanity Jesus laid aside that glory (Phil. 2:5-8). He came to Earth as a servant to do His Father’s will, even to death on the cross (John 6:38).  And so, with His work nearly done, He could pray, “I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.  Redemption doesn’t eclipse or degrade creation.  It rescues, transforms, and glorifies it.  This is radically at odds with the metaphysics and mythology of the pagan world.

Rebellious Offspring and Darkened Light
In Greek mythology, the god Chronus castrated and supplanted his father, Uranus; and Chronus himself was violently supplanted by his son, Zeus. Odin had his Loki, and Ra his Isis.  The theme of filial rebellion and parricide is common in the mythologies of the ancient world. The child turns on the father; the supplement supplants the origin; the end destroys the beginning.  The eschaton erases the genesis.

Pagan philosophy and mysticism display a similar theme.  Any emanation from the original source is necessarily diminished in its essence.  The light that streams out of the eternal is dimmed and, through further emanation and reflection, degrades into darkness.  Salvation, if it’s possible, must involve a return to the source and a rejection of the first error.  The soul must return to the eternal, the sparks to the light.

But in the Trinity the Father is in the Son, and the Son in the Father (John 17:21).  The Son glorifies the Father, and the Father glorifies the Son.  The beginning is fully revealed and glorified in the end. The Origin is manifest in the Supplement, the Creator in the Redeemer; and neither is without the other. God begets and is not disappointed.  The Son is begotten and does not rebel.  The Son does all the Father’s will and shows us the Father plainly (John 14:9-11; 16:25), and the Father is well pleased (Matt. 3:17; 17:5).

The Fifth Commandment Again
The Fifth Commandment says in full:  “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee” (Ex. 20:12).  God requires children to honor their parents. For young children, honor means obedience.  For grown children, honor means respect for their parents’ wisdom and accomplishments.  It also means, as Jesus pointed out so forcibly, that grown children must take care of their aging parents when they can no longer take care of themselves.  God links honor for father and mother with long life on the land that God has given His people.  Paul expands “land” to mean “Earth” (Eph. 6:1-3).  Long life means more time for productive service, more time to learn and grow, more time to train the next generation.  Basic to the role of the family in God’s kingdom is the creation of wealth that can be transmitted and compounded from generation to generation.  The Fifth Commandment corresponds to the covenant principle of continuity, succession, and inheritance.

Inheritance can take many forms:  a bag of gold; a cleared and plowed field; a library of useful books; a tradition of faith and service; a land of liberty and laws.  But in all cases, an inheritance is historical wealth that should empower its recipients to serve God more effectively.  Inheritance is leverage for godly stewardship.

Scripture says that fathers are to lay up an inheritance for their children (2 Cor. 12:14).  That is, they are to forego pleasure and idleness now—they are to work and scrimp and save—so that their children may go further in God’s service than they did themselves.  Those children are to do the same for their children.  The family is to be future-oriented.  Solomon says, “A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children” (Prov. 13:22).  Again he says, “Children’s children are the crown of old men; and the glory of children are their fathers” (Prov. 17:6).  Godly parents are crowned in their children and grandchildren. Godly children honor their parents and bring honor to their parents.  There ought to be no rivalry, no generation gap.  As the family remains faithful over time, its inheritance should compound.  Its sphere of stewardship and productive service will grow.  And so God’s kingdom advances on Earth and in history until Jesus returns.

When earthly sons honor their fathers, when earthly children honor their parents, they are imitating eternal realities.  They are imitating the very Son of God.  The eternal archetype above sets the pattern for the covenant family here below.  The doctrine of the Trinity points away from sterility and toward fruitful life and compound growth in Christ.  God’s children inherit the Earth (Ps. 37:11; Matt. 5:5).  Fatherhood and family by their nature represent and eschatology of stewardship and victory.

We’ll, gotta go. In Belize, fishing with my children and grandchildren. Boat leaves in a few minutes. Happy Fathers Day!

For Further Reading:

Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (Edinburgh:  The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991 reprint).

Peter Leithart, Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2006).

Gary North, The Sinai Strategy, Economics and the Ten Commandments (Tyler, TX: The Institute for Christian Economics, 1986).

Gary North, Inherit the Earth, Biblical Principles for Economics (Ft. Worth, TX:  Dominion Press, 1987).

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