We Distinguish: Essentially/Personally
Theological distinctions matter. We need them for sound theology. That theology then goes on to inform how we think and live as Christians. Today I want to look at a key theological distinction that can have a significant impact on how we pray.
The name “Father” appears in relation to God numerous times in Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments. For many Reformed church members, basic Trinitarian theology has been drummed into us from childhood. We’re taught that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus conditioned, whenever we see the word “Father” in reference to God, we all too quickly conclude that this is speaking about the first person of the Trinity. This is true with the Old Testament, but also with some key passages in the New Testament.
One of those passages is the Lord’s Prayer. In the Lord’s Prayer, Christ teaches us to begin our prayers by saying, “Our Father in heaven…” Many conclude that our Lord Jesus is teaching us to address the first person of the Trinity, even to the exclusion of the Son and the Holy Spirit. After all, it seems obvious: he uses the word “Father,” and we’ve been conditioned to see God the Father.
A child or someone immature in the faith can be forgiven for reaching such a conclusion. But for older and more mature disciples of Christ, familiar with a broader range of teaching in Scripture, this ought not to be. The reason is that, in the Old Testament context, “Father” is often used to describe God in his unity (Yahweh); it’s used to describe the one true God. It’s not being used in reference to God the Father as distinct from the Son or the Holy Spirit. The classic example of this is in Isaiah 9:6 where the child to be born is called, among other things, “Everlasting Father.” This is a prophecy about Christ’s incarnation. The second person of the Trinity is denominated “Everlasting Father” by virtue of his divinity. He can be called that because he is God.
There’s every reason to think that Christ was using the term “Father” in the same way in the Lord’s Prayer. He was teaching us to pray to God, the one true God, as our Father. That makes the most sense in that context where our Lord Jesus was speaking to Jews familiar with the Old Testament. You could think also of Malachi 2:10, “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us?”
To put it in theological terms, we have to distinguish between the uses of the word “Father” in Scripture. Sometimes it is used personally. In passages like John 17:2-3, the reference is clearly to the first person of the Trinity, God the Father as distinct from God the Son. At other times, “Father” is used essentially. In passages like Isaiah 9:6, the reference is to the Triune God together in his essence. To determine which is which in any given place requires careful consideration of context. Specifically, if the context includes references to the other persons of the Trinity, then it is likely the term “Father” is being used personally. For example, Matthew 28:19 mentions baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There “Father” clearly means the first person of the Trinity.
This is a well-accepted distinction in Reformed theology. According to Richard Muller (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics), you’ll find it used by John Calvin, Zacharias Ursinus, Amandus Polanus, Herman Witsius, and a host of Puritans. It’s important for us to be aware of it today too, especially since it can inform how we pray. The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t teach us to pray to God the Father, but to God as Father. The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t teach us to pray only to the person of God the Father to the exclusion of the Son and Holy Spirit. Our Saviour’s intent was never to tell us we can’t pray to him or to the Holy Spirit. Indeed, elsewhere in Scripture we do hear believers praying to Christ (e.g. Acts 7:59). When you understand this distinction, it frees you to do likewise.