By Corinne Winter
“I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” That short sentence comprises what we call the “first article” of the Apostles’ Creed. The Nicene Creed includes the word One and the phrase “of all things, visible and invisible.” The Creed is customarily described as including three articles, each naming one of the three divine persons. Thus, we see that our belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit as One God stands at the center of our faith.
We must not assume that Father, Son and Holy Spirit have separate positions in our lives. It is not our belief, for example, that only the Father creates. Rather, Scripture tells us that all is created through the Son (see, for example, Jn. 1) and the Nicene Creed names the Holy Spirit “Giver of Life.” All divine works are works of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
What then is the emphasis to be found in the article that names God as Father? As we pray these phrases, we are called to view God primarily as relational, as powerful beyond our imagining. We are reminded that all of creation is the work of God, expressive of God’s love and goodness.
The name Father comes to us primarily from the New Testament. The Old Testament includes a few references to God as Father of Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus names God “Father” 170 times. Most often, he calls God his own Father; he also tells his disciples to pray to God as their Father because of their union with Christ. God the Father is the one from whom the Son comes for our salvation, the one who, in the Spirit, calls us to know and to love God.
Some people, for various reasons, struggle with the idea of God as Father. When I was teaching high school in the 1980s, I was touched by the story of a student whose father was abusive. She spoke eloquently of finding a way back to God, even to God the Father because of her introduction to other images also found in Scripture. While being faithful to Jesus’ revelation of God as
Father, we must take care that our ways of speaking and acting never imply that the fatherhood of God could justify the sinful domination of one person or group by another.
Though she would not have explained it in these terms, the student was becoming aware of the analogical nature of theological language. Words that we use to speak of God can’t be understood in the same way as they are when we use them to describe human experience. God is utterly transcendent. The fatherhood of God transcends what we know even from our experience of the best human fathers. Gregory of Nazianzus, for example, warns us not to be so foolish as to think that God’s fatherhood implies that God is male.
The word “almighty” also deserves some careful reflection. We sometimes think of might as power for domination. However, God’s power is the power of love. Orthodox theologian John Behr proposes that we must understand that the Father is almighty through the Son and in the Spirit who come forth eternally from the Father and share fully in the Father’s divinity and in divine works. Might then, is always shared power.
We must also acknowledge the struggle to understand how the absolute power and goodness of God can be reconciled with the existence of evil. It is too complex a question to deal with adequately here. When I asked questions about God and evil on exams, I always told students they should begin their response by stating that we don’t have an adequate answer. We must avoid overly simplistic answers such as God is testing us or God sent this or that suffering in order to bring about a specific good effect. Certainly our faith is tested in suffering, and it is true that God can bring good out of evil, but those are only part of the attitude we must have.
Finally, the first article of the Creed declares that God is “creator of Heaven and earth.” The Nicene Creed’s emphatic addition “of all things visible and invisible,” reflects conflicts between early Christians and those who saw material creation as the work of a lesser or even of an evil God. The dualistic view made material creation unimportant or even bad. Today, we are not tempted by the idea of several gods, but we do need the reminder that all of creation is God’s work and is to be treated with reverence. Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, the anniversary of which is due to be celebrated through calls to action, is the most recent in a line of papal documents calling us to a more just relationship with all of creation.
The first article of the Creed, then, calls us to live according to the belief in God who IS in relation among Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whose nature and power we cannot fully comprehend, and who, as creator calls us to respect all of creation.
(Corinne Winter is a professor-emerita of St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)