- William G. T. Shedd, edited by Alan W. Gomes, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd Edition (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2003), 253-257.
Deity of God the Father
The deity of God the Father is undisputed, and hence there is less need of presenting the proof of it. Divine names, attributes, works, and adorableness are ascribed to him.
The term father denotes an immanent and eternal relation of the first trinitarian person. God in himself and irrespective of any reference to the created universe is a father: the Father of the Son. Were God primarily the Father because of his relation to men and angels and not because of his relation to the second person in the Godhead, his fatherhood would begin in time and might consequently end in time. If there was once a time when God was not the Father of the Son, there may be a time when he will cease to be so. “It is the greatest impiety,” says Cyril of Jerusalem (Catecheses 11.8), “to say that after deliberation held in time God became a Father. For God was not at first without a Son and afterward in time became a Father.”
The hypostatic or trinitarian paternity of God the Father as related to the Son must not be confounded with the providential paternity of God the Trinity as related to the creation. Only one of the divine persons is the trinitarian Father; but the three persons in one essence constitute the providential and universal Father. The triune God is generally the Father of men and angels by creation and specially of the elect by redemption. Hence, the term father applied to God has two significations. It may denote divine essence in all three modes or in only one mode. The first clause in the Lord’s prayer is an example of the former. When men say, “Our Father who is in heaven,” they do not address the first person of the Godhead to the exclusion of the second and third. They address, not the untriune God of deism and natural religion, but the God of revelation, who is triune and as such the providential Father of all men and the redemptive Father of believers. If a man deliberately and consciously intends in his supplication to exclude from his worship the Son and the Holy Spirit, his petition is not acceptable: “He that honors not the Son honors not the Father” (John 5:23). A man may not have the three persons distinctly and formally in his mind when he utters this petition, and in this case he does not intentionally exclude any trinitar-ian person or persons; but the petition, nevertheless, ascends to the divine three, not to a single person exclusively; and the answer returns to him from the triune God, not from any solitary person exclusively. Says Witsius (Lord’s Prayer, diss. 7):
It is a doctrine firmly maintained by all orthodox divines, that the Father cannot be invoked in a proper manner, without at the same time invoking the Son and Holy Spirit, because they are one in nature and in honor. Nor can it, I think, be denied that, laying out of view the distinction of persons and looking only at what is common to all three persons in the Godhead, God may be denominated our Father. Yet I cheerfully concur with those interpreters who maintain that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is particularly addressed in the first petition.
Says Augustine (On the Trinity 5.2), “That which is written, ‘Hear, 0 Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord,’ ought not to be understood as if the Son were excepted or the Holy Spirit were excepted. This one Lord our God, we rightly call, also, our Father.” (See supplement 3.4.10.)
The term father denotes the Trinity in John 4:21, 23-24: “The hour comes when you shall neither in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem worship the Father. The true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” Here the term father is synonymous with “God” who “is a Spirit,” the true object of worship. But Christ, in mentioning the object of worship, had in his mind the God of revelation, not of deism—trinal as he is in Scripture, not single as he is in natural religion—the very same God in whose trinal name and being he commanded all men to believe and be baptized. Christ’s idea of God as the universal Father was trinitarian, not deistic. In intuition and theology, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God and the heavenly Father of angels and men:
The appellation father, descriptive of the connection between God and his creatures, is true of every one of the divine persons and of the three divine persons, one God. The [paternal] relation to the creatures is as true of the Son and Holy Spirit as of the Father in respect to divine nature; for all these persons are respectively, and in union, the Father of the universe; the Father in creation, in government, and in protection. The Son as Messiah is foretold in his protecting kindness and mercy as “a Father to the fatherless” (Ps. 68:5-6; Isa. 9:6). (Kidd, Eternal Sonship, chap. 13)
A believer in the Trinity, in using the first petition of the Lord’s prayer, may have the first person particularly in his mind and may address him; but this does not make his prayer antitrinitarian. He addresses that person as the representative of the Trinity. And the same is true whenever he particularly addresses the Son or the Spirit. If he addresses God the Son, God the Son implies God the Father. Each divine person supposes and suggests the others. Each represents the others. Consequently, to pray to any one of the divine three is by implication and virtually to pray to all three. No man can honor the Son without honoring the Father also. Says Christ, “He that has seen me has seen the Father also” (John 14:9). In like manner, he that prays to the Son prays to the Father also. Says Turretin (3.25.27):
The mind of the worshiper will not be distracted by the consideration that there are three divine persons, if he remembers that the whole divine essence is in each of the persons, so that if he worships one he worships all. With Gregory of Nazianzus, he may say: “I cannot think of the one Supreme Being without being encompassed with the glory of the three persons; and I cannot discern the three persons without recurring to the unity of the essence.”
The hypostatic or trinitarian paternity of God, in distinction from the providential, is mentioned in John 17:5: “Now, 0 Father, glorify me with your own self.” Here, Christ addresses the Father alone, the first person of the Godhead exclusively. He did not address the Trinity, for he died not address himself or the Holy Spirit. Respecting this trinitarian fatherhood, the Son says “my Father,” not “our Father” (14:27; 15:1, 8; and other passages).
The baptismal formula and the doxologies indisputably prove that paternity is an immanent and eternal relation of God. The rite that initiates into the kingdom of God would not be administered in three names denoting only certain temporal and assumed attitudes of the Supreme Being. Neither would a divine blessing be invoked through three titles signifying only these. Baptism and invocation are acts of worship, and worship relates to the essential and eternal being of God.
The hypostatic or trinitarian character of the first person is that he possesses the essence “originally,” in the sense that it is not communicated to him by one of the other persons. Augustine (On the Trinity 2.1) thus speaks of the “original” or unbegotten possession of the essence by the Father: “We call the Son, God of God; but the Father, God only, not of God. Whence it is plain that the Son has another of whom he is and to whom he is Son; but the Father has not a Son of whom he is, but only to whom he is Father. For every son is what he is, of his father, and is son to his father; but no father is what he is, of his son, but is father to his son.” A common term applied to God in the patristic age to denote this peculiarity was “unbegotten”: “Next to God, we worship and love the Word, who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God”; “we have the unbegotten and ineffable God”; “we have dedicated ourselves to the unbegotten and impassible God”; “he is the firstborn of the unbegotten God” (Justin Martyr, Apology 1.25, 53; 2.12-13); “there are also some dissertations concerning the unbegotten God” (Rufinus, Preface to the Clementine Recognitions). In the writings of Athanasius, the Father is denominated agennētos”‘ (ingenerate or unbegotten) and the Son gennētos (generate or begotten). (See supplement 3.4.11.)
The phrase unbegotten God implies and suggests the phrase begotten God. This denotes no more than the phrase God the Son, the latter containing the substantive, the former the adjective. Clement of Alexandria (Miscellaneous Writings 5.12) remarks that “John the apostle says no man has seen God at any time. The only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him.” Irenaeus (Against Heresies 4.20.11) quotes this text in the same form: “The only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him.” This patristic employment of the phrase begotten God strongly supports the reading monogenēs theos in John 1:18, which has the support of א, B, C, L, Peshitta, Coptic, and Ethiopic and respecting which Tischendorf (8th ed.) says, “Without a doubt [this reading] carries the weight of the testimonies.” Westcott and Hort adopt this reading.
In the controversy between the English trinitarians and Arians, conducted by Waterland and Samuel Clarke in the beginning of the eighteenth century, a distinction made by the former between “necessary existence” and “self-existence” is liable to misconception and requires notice. The Father, says Waterland, is both necessarily existent and self-existent; the Son is necessarily existent, but not self-existent. In this use of terms, which is uncommon, the term self-existent was employed not with reference to the essence, as is usually the case, but to the person only. In this sense, self-existence denotes what the Nicene trinitarians meant by “unbegotten” or “ingenerate.” The Father is self-existent in Waterland’s sense because divine essence is not communicated to or with him; he has it of himself. The Son is not self-existent in Waterland’s sense because divine essence is communicated; he has it not from himself but from the Father. But the Son is necessarily existent, says Water-land, because he possesses an essence that is necessarily existent. The fact that the essence is communicated by eternal generation does not make it any the less an infinite, eternal, and unchangeable essence. In brief, according to Waterland, the Son is necessarily existent because the divine essence is his essence; but he is not self-existent, because his personal characteristic of filiation, his peculiar “self,” is not from himself but from another person.
If no distinction be made between necessary existence and self-existence, as is the case in the Nicene statements, Waterland would attribute both necessary existence and self-existence to the Son. He would concede self-existence in the sense in which it is attributed to the Son in John 5:26: “As the Father has life in himself, so has he given to the Son to have life in himself.” Here, “life in himself” denotes the self-existence of divine essence, which is also necessary existence. The Father has this uncommunicated. The Son has it communicated or “given” from the Father, by eternal generation.
The Father was sometimes denominated pēgētēs theotētos or rhiza pases theotētos. This phraseology is used with qualification by accurate trinitarians. Some orthodox writers employ the phrase fons trinitatis’ to denote the hypostatic character of the Father, which is better than fons deitatis. Says Howe (Trinity, lect. 14):
If we do suppose the Son and the Holy Spirit to be from the Father by a necessity of nature, an eternal necessity of nature, and not by a dependence upon his will, they will not be creatures, because nothing is creature but what depends upon the will and pleasure of the Creator. And if they be not creatures, what are they then? Then, they must be God, and yet both of them from the Father, too; for all that do assert the Trinity do acknowledge the Father to be fonts trinitatis, the fountain of the Trinity: and if from this fountain the Son be in one way, and the Holy Spirit be in another way, both from the Father; that is, the Son from the Father immediately, and the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son, and this not by choice, but by an eternal necessity of nature, here is this doctrine as easily conceivable as any that I know of whatsoever, the lies not within the compass of our manifest demonstration.
Turretin (3.30.1) says that the Father is fons deitatis “if the mode of subsisting is in view.”‘ Owen (Saints’ Communion, 3) remarks that “the Father is the fountain of the deity.” Hooker (Polity 5.54) quotes Augustine as saying that “the Father is the source [fountain] of the Godhead.”” In these cases, deitas is loosely put for trinitas. Strictly speaking, however, deity denotes the divine essence; and the first person is not the Father of the essence. But Trinity denotes the essence personalized by trinalizing. In this reference, the first person is the father and fountain. “We teach,” says Calvin (1.13.23, 25), “according to the Scriptures, that there is essentially but one God; and therefore that the essence of both the Son and the Spirit is unbegotten. But since the Father is first in order and has himself begotten his Wisdom, therefore… he is justly esteemed the original and fountain of the whole divinity [Trinity].”