Divine Fatherhood and True Family

You know, lately I cringe every time I see a blog post about the value of fatherhood. Which I see generally because I know too many Reformed folk—not that Lutherans are immune to making claims about male headship, just quieter about it on the whole.

But this morning's epistle, from Ephesians 3, begins with a passage that raises the question front and center. "For this reason," namely the charism of missionary responsibility, in spite of the troubles it brings, "I genuflect before the Father, from whom every family in the heavens and on the earth is so named ...". Which is a play on pater and patria, and which doesn't translate well into English because we lack the pun. It's much like the implication, now stated outright in the series, that civilizations everywhere get the word "doctor" from the Doctor.

So, following on my recent realizations about Barth's anthropology, I want to sketch out, in a Barthian vein, why the nature of family deriving from the Fatherhood of God is not in any way a claim about the value of the human male.

Think about it just a bit. Where do we get the use of "Father" for God? It's not from Jesus; that just incarnates the messianic logic by which the people already used "Father" for God. Jesus as the messianic Son who happens also to be the genuine son is simply the fulfillment of an old and perpetual promise in a new way. He uses language for God that his audience already accepts without question. As does Paul. "God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ." It's formulaic. How did it get that way?

If you look through the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic History, you'll find that the terms "God" and "father" are more distantly related. The standard reference is to YHWH as "the Lord God of our fathers." The god of Abraham, and then the god of Isaac, and Jacob; therefore also the god of Israel and Judah, so long as they do not seek other gods than the god of their fathers. God is the origin of the family of the people of God, the one who made "father Abraham" a father, the one whose promise it was that he would become "the father of many peoples."

And God is the one who decides who in the lineage becomes a "father" of the people, too—the story of Jacob is a prime example of the choice against "natural" type. Esau is the male, the son to do his father proud, the masculine heir whose strength secures the well-being of both the family and its future offspring. Except ... Esau is not the strength of the family. No one but God alone is the strength of the people of God. And Esau becomes the father of a family of his own ... but only because God has been good to him, because God has become his strength and his security. God is the god of the fathers of the peoples, and they become families and peoples by right of God's strength and provision, not their own.

So let's get that right: it is active trust in God that makes a family possible. Or, let's say, a just family. The nature of true human family is faith in God. It is so whether this happens to align with our concepts of human nature and natural relationships, or not—and it is emphatically, visibly the case when it does not.

Now, Abraham became a father before God made him one, by human conspiracy. But the result was discord and injustice. The result was the destruction of a family, a further injustice that only God could rectify—the same God in whose sight Hagar and Ishamel remained, severed from Abraham, and became a family in their own right because of God's providence for them. Abraham's trust, and his love for the son of God's own providence to him, had to be restored through more painful means. How do you redeem the trust of a man whose beloved son you have taken away for his own good? How do you redeem his virtue as a parent to the "other" son he has left?

And so we see that in Abraham God has created the patriarchy, but that this has nothing to do with maleness. It is patriarchy that is not permitted to follow patriarchal principles. It is simply the arche patrias, as suggested in Ephesians 3:14, for God provides in Abraham's faith the principle of all family, and it is not Abraham himself! His fatherhood would not exist were it not for the source of all family, the One whom alone we rightly call Father. And, unlike the Pentateuch and the DtrH, the Psalms and the Prophets follow suit, speaking in poetic language of God as Father, and not just the god of their fathers. And it is in the imagery of God as the Father of the people, and not just the god of their fathers, that we receive from the tradition the logic of messianic sonship. It is in this way that the Covenant Father, from whom Israel inherits, is truly the father of Jesus Christ, the messianic instrument of that inheritance. And it is in this way that, contrary to our nature as gentiles, we have been grafted into the family of God and made participants in true, just family.

And so, if we follow this as Barth follows the true humanity of Christ, we are obliged to say that there is no creaturely, natural basis for family separable from God. There is no lingering remnant of created order in our worldly institutions. Providence works wholly apart from that. It is not the nature of our being human that determines the meaning and construction of family. Family has no natural form, not even the bare reproductive pairing of male and female that describes the nature of human being qua animal life. Male and female God created us, the sole natural distinction within our kind as humanity, but sexual and reproductive realities are not constitutive of family, no matter how euphemistically we might speak of "fathering" a child through genital interaction.

If we look to God as our truth, in fact, family has nothing necessary to do with blood lineage, either. Family comes about by choice, by the election of love. Family, in fact, comes by adoption. Family is constituted, in the Fatherhood of God, by the first and ultimate "Yes" of God to the creature, the affirmation that redeems us from all sin and failure. This is what it means that we are not merely creatures of the Creator, but children of the heavenly Father. This is the nature of true family, as we see it in God.


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