Faith To Live By is a series of articles on the meaning of the Creed for us today. This is the third article in the series.
Dr. Roland Chia is Dean of Postgraduate Studies and Lecturer in Historical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore.
3. Sovereign God and Father
… the Father Almighty
The Creed describes God as ‘Father’ and as the ‘Almighty one’, and it is important that we do not separate these two distinct descriptions. As we consider the first description, we must alert ourselves to a mistake that is very often made about the fatherhood of God. God is Father not primarily in his relationship to the created world, and to his people. Rather, in the most fundamental sense, God is Father in relation to his eternal Son. The fatherhood of God is not dependent on the existence of his creatures because ‘Father’ says something about the eternal being of God. It points to the nature of God, and hints at the doctrine of the Trinity at which we shall have occasion to look more closely later in this study.
This truth is so basic to the Church’s understanding of God that the early theologians felt compelled to challenge an Alexandrian presbyter, Arius, for compromising it in his teaching. Arius, concerned to preserve the absolute oneness of God, taught that the Son was not co-equal with God the Father, but only a creature, albeit one that is more splendiferously graced and magnificent than any other creature. God, Arius taught, is Father of this created Son, and through him, of all creatures, thereby making the fatherhood of God contingent upon the created order.
In his defence of orthodoxy, Athanasius, on behalf of the theologians of the Council of Nicaea (who formulated the Nicene Creed), argued that if there was a time when the Son was not, then, it follows, that there was a time when God was not Father. But this is inimical to the Biblical portrayal of God. Consequently Arianism – as the teaching of Arius and his followers was later called – was condemned at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325.
But if God is primarily Father of his eternal Son, he is also ‘Father’ of his creation, albeit in a secondary, derivative sense. According to Paul, God is the Father ‘from whom all things came and for whom we live’ (1 Cor 8:6). This application of the name ‘Father’ refers not only to the First Person of the Trinity but to the entire Godhead. God is Father of the universe because he created it and continues to take care of it. The name ‘Father’ is also used to describe God’s relationship with Israel, the people of God. In this instance, the fatherhood of God has to do not only with the fact that he is Creator, but also because he is Redeemer. Isaiah declared on behalf of Israel, ‘You, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name’ (Isa 63:16b).
In the same way, God is described as the Father of his children in the New Testament. The Apostle John could therefore exclaim with joy: ‘How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God!’ (1 John 3:1). For the sake of his eternal Son, God has become our Father. We must remember that in relation to us, the fatherhood of God is not at all necessary or natural, but an act of grace. As C.E.B. Cranfield has explained it so well, ‘[i]t is rather, a matter of sheer grace, the stupendous grace of the eternal God, who adopts human beings as his sons and daughters for the sake of his own dear Son and gives them the right to call him “Father”’. The fatherhood of God points inexorably to the great love of God, as the Apostle John has so clearly seen and so gratefully proclaimed.
The Creed also describes God as the Almighty one. This means that God is all-powerful, the one who is truly sovereign. We must, however, exercise the greatest caution when we try to conceive of the power of God because there are notions of power that are totally inimical to the divine sovereignty. Here is where one must carefully and meticulously trace the biblical portrayal of divine sovereignty and resist the temptation of thinking in the abstract by imposing philosophical concepts of power on God.
The might of God is not ‘power-in-itself’, an abstract, absolute power or sheer sovereignty. When we think of the divine power in this way, we are already guilty of adopting a line of thinking that is inappropriate for theology. We begin with some abstract, philosophical notion of power as absolute freedom and unbridled might, and we apply this alien idea to God. ‘Power-in-itself’ seeks to dominate, control and destroy. ‘Power-in-itself’ is evil – it intoxicates and corrupts. One may even go so far as to say that ‘power-in-itself’ is demonic, the very antithesis of divine power.
It is said that Hitler understood God in this way, as sheer power. But Hitler was not the only one guilty of this. Such conceptions of divine power are found in some forms of religious optimism and triumphalism. We see this whenever we encounter the teaching that God’s power can be harnessed by us at will, by the application of the right formula or by uttering the right prayer. Popular phrases like ‘power encounter’ and ‘power evangelism’ sometimes encourage this view of divine power.
To do this is to say ‘the Almighty is God’, which is the reverse of what the Creed is saying. The Creed does not say ‘the Almighty is God’. It asserts rather that ‘God is the Almighty one’. Our concept of God must not be shaped by our abstract philosophical ideas of power. Rather our understanding of divine power that must be shaped by God in his revelation. God is almighty, but, to repeat, he is not power-in-itself, sheer power.
How then are we to understand the power of God? To do this we must think christologically, from God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, for God’s power is above everything else the power of his love in Christ. When we think of the power of God from the standpoint of Christ we will come to see that God’s power is never sheer might, it is never a characterless power. From the standpoint of Christ all our philosophical notions of divine power as an indeterminate and absolute force will be challenged. From that standpoint our philosophical questions that reason from the abstract – like whether God has the power to make two plus two to equal five – are exposed as vain speculations that are irrelevant to the God of the Creed.
From the standpoint of Christ we will come to see that God’s power is not symbolised by the sword or the chariot – common symbols of military and political might – but by the Cross, a symbol associated with shame, defeat and yes, powerlessness.
God’s power is therefore real and perfect, but it is not ‘absolute’ and ‘unqualified’. His power can never be understood apart from grace and love. And, if grace and love are both symbolised by the Cross of Calvary, then, God’s power is seen supremely in the self-sacrifice of the Son on the cursed tree of the cross. To be sure, the power of God is also that power which created out of nothing, the power which brought the whole universe into being. But the creative power of God is not an antithesis to the power of sacrificial love that took the road to Golgotha. They complement each other and together characterise the nature of divine power.
This brings us to the assertion with which we began. God is Father and Almighty. But ‘Almighty’ always receives light from ‘Father’ and not vice versa. The two descriptions, though distinct from each other, can never be separated.