Fatherhood and the Conception of God in Early Greek Christian Literature

By Widdicombe, Peter | Anglican Theological Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Fatherhood and the Conception of God in Early Greek Christian Literature


Widdicombe, Peter, Anglican Theological Review


As the evidence of the New Testament makes clear, Christians had referred to God as Father from the earliest days of the faith. But quite what the early church meant to convey by calling God "Father" is not certain. It was not until the fourth century with the writings of Athanasius that the idea of the fatherhood of God became a subject of systematic analysis. From the fourth century onward, the idea that God was Father came to be seen as fundamental to the Christian conception of God, a conception that understood God to be a trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and, correspondingly, divine fatherhood came to be seen as fundamental to the doctrine of salvation. In what follows, I shall trace the development of the early Christian idea of divine fatherhood from the second to the fourth centuries. I shall look first at the writings of the second-century apologist Justin Martyr, secondly at the writings of Origen, the third-century Alexandrian, and finally at Athanasius, the fourth century Bishop of Alexandria.1

Justin Martyr's surviving works are the First and Second Apologies, and the Dialogue with Trypho the Jew.2 In the Apologies, Justin's main concern is to demonstrate that the new religion is both conceptually and ethically superior to the best of Greek thought and practice; in the Dialogue, his concern is to prove that the prophetic texts of the Jewish Bible have been fulfilled in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Throughout both the First and Second Apologies and the Dialogue, Justin refers to (God with the word Father. The description of God as Father is a commonplace of his theological vocabulary. But quite what status Justin attributed to the word Father when used of God, and what, if any, particular theological significance it had for him is uncertain. Apart from the word God itself, the word Father is his favourite term for referring to God and he seems to have felt no need to explain the meaning of the word or to justify its application to God. What I shall show in this first section of my paper is that while it is not possible to conclude that Justin had a deliberate understanding of what the word Father meant when used of God, there is nonetheless a discernible pattern in Justin's usage of the word, a pattern that reflects the influence of the biblical language of Father and Son.

But before we turn directly to Justin, we need briefly to note the occurrence of the word Father for God in Greek and biblical literature prior to the second century.3 In Homer, Zeus is referred to as Father more than one hundred times,4 and Plato refers to God as Father in the Republic (506E) and in the Timaeus where he gives the concept of divine fatherhood cosmological form. In Timaeus 28C, a passage of particular importance for our study of Justin, Plato writes: "Now to discover the Creator and Father of all is indeed a hard task, and having discovered him, to declare him to all men is quite impossible." In the Old Testament, God is spoken of as Father fifteen times.s He also is compared with an earthly father, and Israel is called his son? or firstborns The New Testament contains numerous references to God as Father. In the Gospels, the word Father is used for God about one hundred ninety times, two-thirds of which occur in the Gospel of John.9 In the Pauline epistles including the Pastorals, the usage occurs forty-two times; and elsewhere in the New Testament it occurs thirtyfive times, fifteen of which are in the Johannine epistles.

Earlier studies on the fatherhood of God in Western thought recognized two distinct traditions of referring to God as Father: the Greek and the Judeo-Christian, which they sharply contrasted with each other.ll 10The Greek conception they characterized as cosmic and genealogical and the biblical as historical and elective. The presence of the former they thought indicated in Greek literature by the occurrence of some form of the phrase "Father of all,"11 the provenance of which was Timaeus 28C, a text which was cited frequently in Greek, Jewish, and Christian literature subsequent to Plato. …

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