The Forgotten Father
I have had the leisure this summer of reading whatever I want for the first time in a long time. One of the more important books I have read is Thomas Smail’s The Forgotten Father. This book is not only timely, but also unique. Few seem to have taken up to writing about God the Father in recent times.
For modern westerners, especially in an age where family life is very fragmented and often dysfunctional, probably the most difficult thing to understand about God within Christianity is that He is a Father. There are academic, cultural, and experiential problems we have with God the Father. My parents divorced and remarried like so many others in America. My Mom was awarded primary custody so I only saw my Dad on the weekends. Smail’s father died when he was too young to know him. Culturally, Dad’s are often depicted as buffoons on TV and the “Leave it to Beaver” days are considered a joke and virtual legend. No one has a father like that. Radical feminist theology viciously attacks all male references to God, suggesting he ought to be castrated (seriously, I have read it). Academically, as I was preparing to write my doctrinal paper to graduate seminary, of the six popular systematic theologies I owned, only Louis Berkhof in 1938 directly addressed the person of the Father. Not Erickson, Grenz, Lewis & Demerest, Pannenberg, or the crusader for male roles, Wayne Grudem. Entire sections are devoted to Jesus and the Spirit, but the Father was elusive, not unlike many people’s experiences with their heavenly or earthly father.
The seminary knew this was a problem and addressed it by focusing more directly on the Father in our systematic courses. We were pointed to Smail’s book as a resource (Thank you Dr. Payne). I did not benefit from this since the change came after me. I got notes from a classmate (Thank you Erin Swanstrom) on that lecture which I then passed on to all who were theologically poor like me.
The opening chapter of Smail begins as he describes the danger we have in projecting the inadequacy of earthly fathers onto our heavenly one. He does this making interesting insights into the role of a father in the life of his son, as contrasted with his mother. He also describes how inadequate understandings of the roles of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons affects the life and faith of a Christian and the Church. We must be careful not to pick our favorite person of the Trinity and think that we are engaging fully with who God is. God is Trinity. It is not just how God acts (economic Trinity) but who he is (immanent Trinity). All of his being is involved in all aspects of faith. The Father sends the Spirit and the Son so only he can be approached through His Son and in His Spirit. The Spirit does not operate on His own power and such speech about the “Spirit’s” presence in individual’s spiritual experiences and churches is empty without understanding the Spirit glorifies the Son and speaks only what the Father wishes. Smail explains each of these clearly. The opening chapter alone is worth the book.
Here we see a key task in theology. Not to talk about God from the perspective of mankind, but as he has revealed himself to us. Thus, God’s revelation in Scripture particularly through Jesus Christ that we learn what it means that God is a Father. We learn through Jesus (Jn 14:9) who the Father is and what he is like. We do not know the Father God by extrapolating what earthly fathers are like. Rather, earthly fathers look to God to see what they ought to be like. We learn through Jesus that God is loving, good, worthy of ultimate trust, knows everything about us and he cares for those who seek him as he cares for the birds of the air and lilies of the field (Mt 6:25-34). Thus we learn as Louis Berkhof says, “all earthly fathers are but a faint reflection.”
Let me highlight a couple of the points of Smail’s book that struck me most. Perhaps I will write more about it later…
1) Father as source – God is the creator of all. Both Old Testament and New Testament depictions of God’s fatherhood are careful to avoid pagan notions of God being a literal father. He is the Father of all humanity only in the sense that he created all things. God is primarily revealed as Father in the New Testament. Israel as a nation is described as his son. God’s fatherhood of Israel is understood in a social and covenant sense, not any natural sense. His relationship to Israel is one of His election. This setups the greater revelation of the New Testament with Jesus.
2) The Father as Abba – God is the Father of His people. Jesus Christ becomes the first to pray to God the Father and to call him, “Abba,” the Aramaic equivalent of “Dad” or “Daddy”. This is significant for one reason already mentioned, that Jesus alone reveals the Father. Jesus Christ paves the way for us to become children of God. Only through Jesus and in the Holy Spirit, can the Christian claim to be a child of God. The Father has adopted us to be his children, co-heirs with Christ as his redeemed sons and daughters. We are adopted sons and daughters who through the Spirit can cry, “Abba Father” (Rom 8:15-17). Furthermore, it is significant because Jesus Christ makes it possible for us to have such a close relationship to the greatest Dad of them all. Christ models for us obedience to the Father and having life by his name and not by our own devices. This is what is the significance of being “reconciled to God” means in Scripture. We are reconciled to God the Father through the Son and united by the Holy Spirit. It is the gift of God that we can cry, “Abba Father.”
This is, as Smail puts it. The heart of the gospel. There is so much emphasis placed upon Christ being our justification its makes the Father sound like a mean judge waiting to punish us until Jesus our lawyer steps in. NO! The other side of the coin to justification is reconciliation. Christ reconciles us to the Father that we may enjoy his love and provision. It is important to note that Christ cries Abba in the garden of Gethsemane. We not only enjoy the Father’s love and gracious provision, but also we will share in Christ’s sufferings and the Father’s sustaining grace and mercy through whatever troubles life can through (Rom 8:38-39). We live through Christ and become the sons and daughters the Father always intended us to be, carried along by the Holy Spirit who was sent to us when we were adopted. This is a beautiful message and is good news indeed.
In case you desire to read it, a little info about how the book reads:
Smail is writing having experienced the charismatic emphasis on the Holy Spirit and the evangelical emphasis on Jesus Christ. His work is a technical theological work but also is very practical. Though it is not an easy read for most people, it is not cumbersome if you have a college reading level. But this is just a little academic info for those of you interested in checking it out since this is not his motivation. I will reread this book in the future. It will definitely be on the shelf of books I look to frequently.