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Reference and the name ‘Father’

October 17, 2009


I suggested in my previous post, it is important to distinguish between a metaphor and a name, even if some names have metaphorical associations (eg Father as a way of naming God). This is because ‘names’ play a key role in ‘making reference’ and ‘making reference’ is logically prior to metaphorical description.


The distinction I am concerned to think about here is that between ‘making reference’ and ‘describing’. ‘Making reference’ is a process of identifying what is being talked about. Thus the distinction between ‘making reference’ and ‘describing’ presupposes a relationship between the two. To describe (or ‘talk about’) about something relies on a logically prior act of identification (‘making reference’).


The key question for the question of language and metaphor in Christian theology is: How do orthodox Christians make reference to God? To put it another way, What is the specifically Christian way of identifying the one they call ‘God’ and thus speaking of God’s identity? When we put the question this way we are reminded that other people use the term ‘God’ in other ways and thus ‘make reference’ differently. It is prima facie absurd to assume that different ways of ‘making reference’ have the same referent. What Christians end up wanting to say about God is irreducibly bound up with the way they make reference to God and identify God in the first place.


The starting point for Christian theology is the experience of the resurrection of Jesus. God is the agent of this event in all its density. Thus to identify God they tell a ‘gospel’ story which goes something like this. The God of Israel (universe-transcending creator) raised Jesus from death, interrupting history with his life death and resurrection, and continues to interrupt the lives of particular people and communities with the experience of Jesus Christ so that they participate in his life and are conformed to it, in anticipation of the final restoration of creation to life with God.


Because this identifying story says ‘God did this’, it also says, ‘this is God’s identity’. In short there is a three-fold character to the events by which God is identified and therefore to God’s identity. The one who raises (and sends) Jesus, Jesus himself, and the one who brings us (the witnesses) to participate in Jesus, constitute together the referent of the term ‘God’.


To retell this story this story explicitly every time we talk about God is, of course, impractical. So we require names. What’s more to address this God also requires names. However, not any name will do. Names have no ‘ontology’ apart from the practice of referring and addressing. In short, my name is simply ‘what I am called’ (or ‘how I am addressed’). The Christian practice of addressing God as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ thus arose straightforwardly enough out of the memory of Jesus own address to the God of Israel as ‘Father’ and the memory of his own self-identification as ‘the Son’.


The dilemma this history gives rise to is that in naming ‘the one who sent and raised Jesus’ as ‘Father’ (as Jesus did) and thus providing the referential foundation for all descriptive and metaphorical God-talk (properly understood as analogical) we also risk suggesting that the universe-transcendent God is somehow more like those creatures of male gender than those of female gender. What ought to be a reference-fixing designation intended to function as a ‘proper name’ is also commonly used generically to refer to men who have children. In short, the question raised is a practical one. How do we ‘make reference’ to the triune God without suggesting that God is more like men who have children than other creatures? It seems to me that if you start at this point in the history of Christian theology and share the same commitment to ‘making reference’ as those first witnesses had, then the problem is a practical and pastoral one whose difficulty is often underestimated. I have no easy answers. The difficulty of changing a name, while maintaining the same reference, is enormous. What’s more maintaining the reference is the crucial issue, since the story of the triune God is nothing less than the gospel of the liberation of men and women. To change the name and lose reference would be to undermine the point of the name change in the first place. What’s more this difficulty is most often underestimated by those who imagine that reference can be made to God apart from the triune gospel.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrew Nicol permalink
    October 17, 2009 4:06 am

    Have you been reading Jenson again Bruce!

  2. October 17, 2009 5:48 am

    No, it’s in the blood though… you mean ‘the God of Israel raised etc… or something else?

    • Andrew Nicol permalink
      October 19, 2009 2:53 am

      Hey Bruce,

      Sorry my comment was a little obscure. I was particularly thinking of Jenson’s comments about the triune name, identity and narrative description. Eg. ST 1, 44-46.

  3. October 19, 2009 12:36 am

    Reflections after a slightly testy seminar on Friday? LOL

    • October 19, 2009 1:40 am

      mmm yep. Did the seminar inspire any thoughts worth blogging for you Mike?

  4. October 19, 2009 2:31 am

    Think I already got myself in enough trouble by saying to the woman who was most heated about the gender issue that it ‘isn’t the whole world’ – her reponse was that it is! I liked what Jason G had to say about there being a difference between Name and Function. It’s difficult to get away from the name, Father, when Jesus himself says it, just as it’s difficult to get away from Jesus being male – and presumably, if he ascended into heaven like that, he still is…

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