I said back in January that for a year this important, I think we need to go back to the beginning, to better understand where we came from and who we really are; and in that same spirit, we’re going to take the next few weeks to focus on the fundamental truths of our faith. To do that, I want to use the great creeds as an organizing structure. I know that will take some explaining, since some are dubious about them. I realize that folks around here tend to come from the free church tradition, which uses a much simpler liturgy than the classic Reformed tradition in which this church stands, and doesn’t include the regular affirmation of faith. The key thing to understand here is that in saying the creeds we’re not saying that we believe in them, but that we believe what they affirm; we believe through them, in essentially the same way as we believe through the Bible. We believe in God the Father Almighty, in Jesus Christ his Son, and in his Holy Spirit.
Now, in saying this, am I putting the creeds and confessions equal to Scripture? Of course not. Scripture is inspired by God, while the creeds and confessions are human efforts. They’re valuable human efforts, though, because they point us to Scripture—indeed, they bring us to Scripture, and cannot exist apart from it. Their purpose is twofold: first, to help us understand the word God has given us; and second, to keep us from fundamental misuse or misinterpretation of his word. In my observation and my reading of church history, since the Reformation, there has never been a major departure of the church from the gospel that didn’t involve, early on, abandoning the historic creeds.
To be sure, there are plenty of churches out there that use the creeds and just never bother to get around to the gospel, and thus leave the creeds as dead things; but those who would actively defy the word and will of God must get rid of the creeds, or replace them with ones more to their liking. Why? Because if you want to call yourself a Christian but not do what God says (and a great many people do), you must either twist the Scripture to say what it does not say or find an excuse to remove those parts of it which contradict you—and the creeds won’t let you do that. They lock us down to fundamental Scriptural assertions about who God is, who we are, what God did, and what he’s doing, and they refuse to conform to what our self-absorbed age would prefer to believe.
Take for instance the first article of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” It’s short because in the fourth century AD, it was uncontroversial. The church was at war over other things, primarily Jesus, but everyone agreed on this. Nowadays, though, people are a lot happier with Jesus; they usually want to jigger him around to fit their preferences better, but they can find excuses to do that, beginning with statements about how Jesus loved and accepted everyone, so long as they can unhook him from this Almighty God the Father guy who keeps insisting on holiness and stuff like that. For our age, it’s God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth with whom they have trouble.
And understandably so, really. During the weeks we spent in the first part of Genesis, we’ve talked about the significance of the truth that God is the maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible; and in particular, we’ve come to understand that if God is the Author of everything that is, then he has authority—which is to say, author’s rights—over all of it. Because he is absolute Creator, therefore he is absolute Lord. Hence this image Isaiah uses of the potter and the clay—which is an image that has appeared before in the prophet’s message; in earlier chapters, he asks if the clay have the right to criticize the potter’s work, or to deny the potter who made it. The answer is of course no; any such efforts are foolish and unjustified, and doomed to failure.
Nevertheless, human pride demands the attempts, in its continual insistence on asserting itself against its Creator, and so people keep making them. As we saw back in January, one way people do this is by denying God as maker of heaven and earth, in order to deny that he has the right to tell them what to do; this is the head-on challenge. Isaiah 29:16 asks, “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘He did not make me’?”—and some people say insistently, “Yes!” But there is another way to do this as well, and that’s by denying God as Father; doing this accepts that God may have the right to tell us what to do, but contends that he doesn’t have the will to do so. You see, to affirm God as Father—and specifically as our Father, as Isaiah does, as Paul does, as Jesus teaches us to do—is to say that he didn’t just make the world, but that continues to be at work in it. It’s to say that he cares about us, and is involved in our daily life—and that he’s involved as our Father, which means among other things that he gives us instructions and discipline and expectations and direction.
Now, a lot of people don’t want that sort of God, because they don’t want to deal with anyone’s expectations but their own. They would kind of like a god of some sort that they can ask for things, but a God who tells them what to do and expects things of them will only cramp their style. I’m sure we don’t always want God to tell us what to do, either, as we can see in the fact that we don’t always do what he tells us; but a lot of folks simply reject him in favor of the vague god of “spirituality,” whom they imagine as content to smile benignly and let them find their own path without intervening or offering any unwanted direction. It says much about human pride that people would prefer such a disengaged and fundamentally uncaring god to a God who loves them enough to warn them when they’re about to jump off a cliff without a parachute, but there you go: if loving and being loved means losing control of one’s life, many people would really rather keep the illusion of control instead.
Then you have those who object to the title “Father” as sexist, patriarchal, and so on; this is the attitude expressed by the radical American academic Mary Daly, who once wrote, “If God is male, then male is God.” The argument made for this is always that calling God Father has led to lots of bad things; even if this is true, it doesn’t prove that it’s wrong to call God Father, only that human beings are amazingly creative sinners who can turn any good thing into a weapon—which is not news. But look where these folks want to go, what they want to accomplish by calling God Mother (or something else) instead of Father: what you see is the desire to reinvent God in their preferred image, using the justification that male language has given us a false view of God which must be corrected. Unlike those who want to see him as distant and uninvolved in their daily lives, those who want to call him Mother go the other way, toward a more pagan or pantheistic sort of view; they argue that we are literally born from God, and thus divine in ourselves.
The problem both ways is that people are arguing from an understanding of God that is far too small. To conclude that calling God Father means that women are somehow less in the image of God and are thus inferior to men (whether one likes that conclusion or not), one must begin with the assumption that if God is Father, this must necessarily mean that he’s just the human male writ large, the ultimate alpha male—and this is completely wrong. As we saw earlier this year, Genesis clearly affirms that God made humanity, male and female combined, in his image; both are necessary for his image to be complete, even damaged by our sin as it now is. God is simply bigger than any attempt to reduce him to human gender; projecting your distrust of one sex or the other onto God, believing him to be too small to trust, is a mistake.
As for those who prefer a god willing to sign a non-intervention pact—the distant Divine Administrator rather than the encircling Divine Womb—the problem there I think is distrust born of pride, and the refusal to accept any god bigger than me. It’s a natural human tendency, not to want to believe that anyone knows better than me, that I’m the best judge of what’s good for me and nobody has the right to tell me otherwise. Raised to the level of a theological principle, this leads to the vague spirituality of contemporary America, with its god who vaguely wants us to be nice and happy and not hurt any non-consenting adults, and occasionally will give us nice things if we really want them. Nowhere in there do you have any god worth worshiping, let alone the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who is at work for the redemption of the world from the blight of sin and death. And that’s a shame.
To proclaim God as Father is to say something far bigger than the world can say, and indeed something far bigger than the world understands us to mean when we say it. (That is, by the way, why we have to be careful about changing our language for the sake of the world. Yeah, some of our churchy lingo is unhelpful, but when it comes to the great biblical words like sin and redemption, the basic problem isn’t that the words are strange to outsiders—it’s that the concepts are strange.) To call God Father is to say four distinct, interconnected things, three of which we’ve already noted this morning. First, God is the creator of everything that is, and thus has total authority over it. Second, God the creator is distinct from his creation; he created everything that is out of nothing, not out of himself, so we aren’t made of the divine stuff. Third, God the creator is closely involved with and cares deeply for every being he has made and every aspect of his creation; he is neither detached from the world he has made nor indifferent to its behavior and fate. And fourth, God is our Father not only as our Creator, but also as our Lord.
Think about it. When we think of fathers, we understand that the child-raising part is the most important. What’s the job here? It’s to teach and guide and lead and build up our children toward full maturity, and to supply them as best we can with the things they will need to grow; it’s to do everything we can to help them grow up to be people who know and love God, people of godly character and wisdom who use the gifts he’s given them for his glory. To say that God is our Father is to say that he relates to us in this way, and that this is his purpose for each of us as he works in our lives. It’s to say that when he gives us commands to do this and not that, when he rewards us for following him and disciplines us for disobeying him, when he allows us to suffer pain and grief, or to bear the weight of injustice, he’s doing it all for our sake. He’s doing it for the sake of our growth and our blessing, to accomplish his purposes in our lives for our good, including preparing us so that he can work through us for the good of those around us.
If this ever seems hard to believe, remember this: we weren’t automatically God’s children—only Jesus is the Son of God in that sense. He created us, but we were separated from him, alienated from him, by our sin and rebellion. But God loved us—God loved each of you—so much that he refused to let that be the last word; instead, as we talked about during Holy Week, he gave his only begotten Son to die at our hands, in order to buy us back from our slavery to sin and adopt us as his beloved children. This is why we can call him Father; this is what it means, and no less, to say we believe in God the Father.