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Theological Language and the Fatherhood of God: An Exegetical and Dogmatic Account

November 21, 2023
By Kyle Claunch

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Eikon.

The one true and living God is named Father in many texts of both the Old and New Testaments. Isaiah cries out to God on behalf of Israel, saying, “O LORD, you are our Father” (Isa. 64:8).  Jesus taught his followers to address God as “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). Paul says that Christians, who have the Spirit of God, cry out to God as “Abba, Father,” the very same cry by which Jesus addressed God in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he was crucified (see Rom. 8:15 and Gal. 4:6, cf. Mark 14:46).

Even so, the very notion of the fatherhood of God is a subject of much theological confusion, often characterized by muddled arguments, which leave in their wake befuddled minds. The cultural landscape of the Western world, with its ideological gender insanity, is not helping matters. Since the name Father is inescapably masculine, and since God is not a biologically sexed being, confusion over the fatherhood of God is not surprising in our cultural moment. But it is nonetheless troubling! Christian theology is increasingly affected by a rising tide of influence from thinkers who wish to dismiss or diminish the theological significance of masculine names for God (and their accompanying masculine pronouns). This rising tide is battering the ramparts of sound doctrine with many different waves. That is, not all dismissive and diminishing voices are making the same arguments, but the variety of arguments have the same overall effect: the erosion of sound doctrine.[1] Furthermore, it seems to me that all such arguments have at least one common error, a failure to understand with precision the various ways Scripture predicates truths of God generally and the ways it names God as Father specifically.[2] Clear thinking coupled with uncompromising conviction must mark the way forward.

This essay will argue that Father is a divine name predicated of God properly, not figuratively. As such, it names God in two ways — personally and essentially — both of which find analogical correspondence in human fatherhood. This argument will be advanced in four movements: (I.) First, I will survey the scriptural significance of names in general and divine names in particular. (II.) Second, I will give a robust account of theological language, which is intended to be a synthesis of classical Christian theism concerning how Scripture norms the Christian doctrine of God. (III.) The third section of the essay will situate the name Father in this classical account of theological language, demonstrating it to be a properly predicated name in two ways: personal and essential. (IV.) In the final section of the essay, I will draw on the theological account of Father as a divine name to suggest some limited points of analogical correspondence between divine and human fatherhood.[3]

1.The Scriptural Significance of Names

For medieval scholastics like Thomas Aquinas, the category of divine names referred to any predication made of God in any way. Thus, all distinctions between different kinds of speech about God are made under the heading: “The Names of God.”[4] The Reformers and post-Reformation Reformed Orthodox theologians took a somewhat different approach. For them the category of the names of God was much narrower than Thomas’s. They treated the divine names as designations for God found explicitly and verbally in the biblical text. Names are ascribed to God in a proper way, meaning they are not mere metaphors or figures of speech. Furthermore, what the Reformed consider to be a divine name is the kind of designation for God that can be fittingly used as the grammatical subject of a sentence, which seems to be one of the chief ways a name is distinguished from an attribute.

The reason for this narrower account of what constitutes a divine name is the Reformation’s emphasis on the unique authority of Scripture as the very word of God written (sola scriptura) and the commitment to letting the text of Scripture regulate dogmatic formulation of the doctrine of God. As Richard Muller observes in his magisterial Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, “From the time of Zwingli onward . . . the names of God provided the Reformed with a primary source and focus” for theology proper as a whole. He goes on to suggest that the reason for this move is a “fundamental biblicism”[5] and a conviction that the divine names offer a primary exegetical pathway into theology proper as a dogmatic locus.[6]

The Reformed focus on the biblical divine names did not mean that they were in fundamental disagreement with Aquinas about the nature of theological language predicated of God. Rather, as will be shown, there was a high degree of agreement between Thomas and the Reformed Orthodox. Nor did this emphasis mean that Reformed thinkers gave no attention to broader dogmatic themes in the doctrine of God, such as divine attributes and Trinitarian relations. Far from it, they are known for their robust and lengthy accounts of these matters. Rather, they emphasized the divine names in order to facilitate such dogmatic considerations. Seventeenth-century Dutch Reformed theologian Petrus Van Mastricht, for example, offers an extensive treatise on the divine names and the relationship of names to the rest of the doctrine of God. He says, “The nature of God is made known to us by his names.” He goes on to explain that the names of God (1) reveal the divine essence, (2) distinguish the true God from false gods and creatures, and (3) disclose his properties (attributes and eternal triune relations).[7] Following the example of our Reformed forebears, let us consider the theological significance of the divine names revealed in Scripture.

The Significance of Names in Scripture

In Scripture, a person’s name signifies something more than the particular phonemes (sounds) or graphemes (written letters) by which a person is identified. Two general truths about the significance of names should be observed. First, names are given by one with authority to one under authority. In Genesis 1:26, God names mankind (אדם, a name designating both the genus of humanity and the specific name of the first male human created). Adam, who is given dominion over the animals on the earth, names the animals (Gen. 2:19-20). Significantly, Adam also names the woman as a particular type of human (Gen. 2:23) and later gives her the specific name, Eve (Gen. 3:20). Furthermore, parents, who have authority over their children, give names to their children, who are to honor and obey their parents (Ex. 20:12, Eph. 6:1).

Second, the name of a person generally signifies some truth about the person so named. The name woman signifies that she is created from the man (Gen. 2:23), and the name Eve is derived from a Hebrew word meaning “living” because she is “the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20) humanity. In the case of parents naming their children in Scripture, names often signify some feature about the child’s birth.[8] In other instances, the names of children reflect some prophetic expectation based on divine revelation.[9] Still other times, a child’s name reflects something of the circumstances in the land where the child is born.[10] There are even times in Scripture when a person’s name is either changed by God or some new name is given in addition to a prior name because the person’s life has been changed by God.[11] In all such cases, the common thread is the revelatory significance of a given name.

The Significance of Divine Names in Scripture

The names of God in Scripture are similarly significant. First, since names are given by one in authority to one under authority, it should not surprise us to find that God names himself in Scripture. This pattern of naming signifies the fact that God is not beholden to anyone. He is not given names by his creatures but reveals his names to his creatures. The paradigmatic passage for understanding this truth is Exodus 3:1-15, the historical narrative of the call of Moses at the burning bush. Here it is abundantly clear that the act of naming the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a divine prerogative. Moses asks God his name, and God answers,

“I AM who I AM. And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: I AM has sent me to you.’ God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: “The LORD [יהוה], the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.” This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations’” (Ex. 3:14-15).

Moses could not choose a name for God based on some mere metaphorical association drawn from the creaturely realm, nor based on his own reason, preference, or imagination. If Moses would know the name of God, it would have to be made known to him by revelation from God. “What is your name?” says Moses. “This is my name,” says the LORD.

The burning bush passage is paradigmatic in that it states clearly what is implied in many other passages involving divine names. For example, In Genesis 16:13, Hagar calls the name of the LORD “You are a God of seeing” (אל ראי, El Roi). There is no account of Hagar asking God his name, nor any indication that the LORD said to Hagar, “This is my name: El Roi.” Nevertheless, Hagar’s naming of God is in response to God’s revelation of himself. Hagar fled from the presence of Abram and Sarai and was desperate and alone in the wilderness where she believed she and the child in her womb would surely perish. It is then that the LORD “found her” and spoke to her words of promise and instruction. She would bear a son who would live and flourish, and she should return to Sarai and bear the son for Abram. Note that the LORD found Hagar, not the other way around. The name by which Hagar referred to God—“God of seeing” — was a response to his revelation of himself. Thus, the late nineteenth-century Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck was right when he said, “We do not name God; he names himself,” a sentiment he further clarified by saying, “What God reveals of himself is expressed and conveyed in specific names. To his creatures he grants the privilege of naming and addressing him on the basis of, and in keeping with, his revelation.”[12]

Secondly, as with scriptural names in general, divine names signify truths concerning the nature of God. Again, the burning bush passage demonstrates the point. When Moses asks God his name, God says, “I AM WHO I AM” (אהיה אשׁר אהיה, Ex. 3:14). He goes on to offer the most prominent name for God in all of Scripture, the LORD, which in Hebrew is four letters (יהוה, YHWH), the famed tetragrammaton, the sacred name. This name, the LORD, is to be the name by which God is known “forever, throughout all your generations” (v. 15). Though the details are disputed, it is generally agreed that the name YHWH is grammatically derived from the name “I AM,” expressing the same truth in the third person. Pre-modern theologians and exegetes tended to see this name as revealing the aseity of God, the fact that God is not dependent on anything external to himself for his being and existence. Thus, he reveals himself by the name of being itself. All other beings receive their existence from God, but God has his existence from no other. In other words, God exists from himself (Latin, a se).

The enduring influence of the Hellenization thesis might lead one to think that the notion of aseity is too philosophical and foreign to the context of the passage itself.[13] Thus, some prefer alternative interpretations.[14] Good work has been done, however, demonstrating that the Scriptures presuppose philosophical commitments concerning the nature of being and existence (metaphysics) and that the Hellenization thesis is drastically overstated.[15] Furthermore, the exegetical case for linking the divine name (“I AM” / “the LORD”) to the aseity of God is quite strong. It is undeniable that God chooses a form of the being verb to answer Moses’s question about his unique name. This indicates that God’s name is irreducibly ontological, revealing the mode of his existence, which is altogether independent. Who is God? He simply is! Put differently, he is the existing one who receives his life from none, but possesses it fully of himself (a se, cf. John 5:26). Furthermore, the visible manifestation of God as a flame seems to correspond to the verbal revelation of the divine name. When Moses first sees the burning bush, his curiosity is aroused by the fact that “the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed” (Ex. 3:2). In his eighty years of life, Moses had undoubtedly seen a flame before, and he had probably even seen a flame burning in a bush before. But he had never seen a flame burning in a bush that did not consume the bush as fuel. This utterly unique flame-bush relation provoked Moses to say to himself, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned” (v. 3). In every observable case of burning flames, the flame is dependent on fuel to burn. Take away the fuel, extinguish the flame. But this flame does not consume fuel. It is a self-burning flame, just as the great “I AM,” whose presence is represented by the flame, is the self-existent God. God’s name (“I AM” / “the LORD”) reveals an attribute of his nature (aseity). Whether revealing the attributes of God’s nature or the eternal relations of the three distinct persons, names predicated of God reveal truths about God.

This section has shown the significance of names in Scripture in general in order to make some basic observations about the significance of the names of God in particular. Names are given by one in authority to one under authority. As such, no creature can name God. Rather, God names himself and reveals his name to creatures. Names also reveal certain truths about the one named. The names by which God makes himself known reveal his attributes and Trinitarian relations.

2. Classical Theological Language: A Conceptual Map

The purpose of this section is to synthesize the insights of a massive theological tradition regarding the ways that Scripture predicates truth of God. This tradition’s roots extend from the patristic period through Western medieval theological scholasticism and into the Reformation and post-Reformation eras of Christian theological reflection. Many have referred to the Christian doctrine of God as expressed by this tradition as classical theism. Standing on the shoulders of giants, I hope to offer a conceptual schema that is descriptive of Scripture’s various modes of discourse with respect to theology proper. Insofar as the schema is faithfully descriptive of Scripture’s own modes of discourse, it should also be prescriptive in the sense that it helps readers of Scripture recognize the nature of the language being deployed in a given scriptural context where truths about God are being conveyed.[16]

Analogical Language in Scripture

All true creaturely language about God is analogical. This claim is a recognition of two facts. First, God has chosen to reveal himself truly to creatures in a way that can be understood by creatures, namely through created words. Second, words predicated of God do not mean exactly the same thing in God as when predicated of creatures. Rather, words predicated of God are true of God in ways that transcend the limits of created reality. In any analogy, two things correspond to one another in ways that are similar and dissimilar. In the case of analogical language predicated of God, the two things, words and God, do not bear an exact similitude with no remainder. Rather, the fullness of God’s being transcends the capacity of meaning conveyed by finite words.

The idea that all language about God is analogical stands in stark contrast to two alternative proposals. First, the theory of analogical language stands in contrast to the theory of univocal language. If words spoken about God are univocal, then the meaning of the word discloses exactly what is true about God without remainder. The implication of this theory is that God can be comprehended intellectually (i.e., exhaustively understood) by finite creatures. Most theologians in the classical tradition have recognized that this would blur the Creator/creature distinction by reducing the being of God to the level of creatures. Second, the theory of analogical language stands in contrast to the theory of equivocal language about God. If words spoken about God are equivocal, then the meaning of a word does not disclose anything true about God. To equivocate is to express two altogether different things with the same word. To hold a theory of equivocal language about God would be to embrace a kind of functional deism in which all speech about God is merely a blind guess concerning the reality of one who is utterly unknowable. The analogical theory of theological predication affirms the fittingness of created words spoken about God to reveal truth concerning him (John 17:17) while acknowledging that the LORD’s being is ultimately beyond all comparison (Isa. 46:5, 9) and his ways “inscrutable” on account of his infinite glory (Rom. 11:33).

The distinction between univocal and equivocal language has roots in Aristotle, who, in his Metaphysics, proposed the notion of analogia as a middle way of predication. This feature of Aristotelian thought makes its way into Christian theology through early medieval thinkers like Boethius, who wrote a commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics.[17] However, it was Aquinas who applied these categories explicitly to the doctrine of God and gave the magisterial description that would be firmly fixed in Christian theological discourse moving forward.

Thomas considers the divine attribute of wisdom and observes that the term wise is not predicated of God and man in exactly the same way. Wisdom in man is a quality distinct from his essence and existence. Whereas in God, wisdom is identical to his essence and existence, per the doctrine of divine simplicity. Furthermore, we can fully comprehend the meaning of the term wise when applied to man, but we cannot fully comprehend the meaning of the term wise when applied to God, who is incomprehensible. From this, Thomas concludes:

Hence it is evident that this term wise is not applied in the same way to God and to man. The same rule applies to other terms. Hence no name is predicated univocally of God and of creatures. Neither, on the other hand are names applied to God and creatures in a purely equivocal sense, as some have said. Because if that were so, it follows that from creatures nothing could be known or demonstrated about God at all; for the reasoning would always be exposed to the fallacy of equivocation. . . . Therefore, it must be said that these names are said of God and creatures in an analogous sense, i.e., according to proportion.[18]

It is unsurprising that later Roman Catholic theologians would follow Thomas with respect to these distinctions, but some are quite surprised to learn that the Reformed theological tradition takes the notion of analogical language as a given. John Calvin warned of the limitations of creaturely comprehension of the immeasurable and spiritual essence of God, explaining that divine revelation is accommodated to our finite mode of understanding. He writes, “[A]s nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us.” In this way, Calvin explains, God “accommodates the knowledge of him to our slight capacity.”[19] Nearly one hundred years later, the successor to Calvin’s chair at Geneva, Francis Turretin, would state plainly that the attributes of God are “not predicated of God and creatures univocally. . . . Nor are they predicated equivocally. . . . They are predicated analogically.”[20] Bavinck could summarize his account of the nature of theological language by saying, “Our knowledge of God is always only analogical in character, that is, shaped by analogy to what can be discerned of God in his creatures.”[21]

Proper and Figurative Predication

Serious Christian thinkers must acknowledge the basic truth of God’s transcendence and creaturely limitations when speaking of God on pain of collapsing the Creator/creature distinction. A commitment to the analogical theory of language about God has proven to be the most consistent way that classical Christian thinkers have accomplished this. While all scriptural predications of God are analogical, not all analogical predication in Scripture functions the same way. Some analogical predications are proper, and some are figurative.

The simplest way to describe the difference between proper and figurative predication is to consider which direction the analogy runs between God and creation. The analogical theory of language indicates that there is a comparison between a term predicated of creatures and the same term predicated of God. There is similarity and dissimilarity. The analogical predicate is proper if the notion has its origin in God and its analog in creation. The predicate is figurative if the origin is in creation and the analog is in God.

Let us return to Aquinas’s discussion of the divine attribute of wisdom. The term wise is true of God in himself even when there is nothing else in existence that can be called wise. When God creates men and angels and gives them the capacity for wisdom, the term wise can be predicated of such creatures by way of participation. Divine wisdom precedes creaturely wisdom, and divine wisdom is the infinite perfection of which creaturely wisdom is but a shadow. Because wisdom is in God originally and in creatures derivatively, the term wise is predicated of God properly.[22] The analogy runs from God to creatures.

On the other hand, when a term is predicated of God which is true of creatures in a primary way, that term is understood to be figurative with respect to God. For example, when Scripture ascribes human body parts to God, we are to recognize that such body parts are proper to human beings and only spoken of God as a figure of speech. Proverbs 5:21 says, “For a man’s ways are before the eyes of the LORD, and he ponders all his paths.” Because Scripture plainly teaches that God is an infinite, invisible, immaterial spirit, we know that eyes are predicated of God figuratively. The figure of speech refers to the perfect knowledge of God with respect to all the ways of men. Eyes are predicated of God figuratively to reveal his comprehensive knowledge, which is true of God properly. The analogy runs from creatures to God.

All figurative language is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. It communicates what is true of one thing in terms proper to another thing. Metaphor can take many specific forms. Simple metaphor is the identification of one thing by the name of another thing. “The LORD is my rock” (2 Sam. 22:2) is a prime example. Simile is a type of metaphor that makes the comparison with the words “like” or “as.” When he judges the kingdom of Judah, “The LORD is like an enemy” (Lam. 2:5). Metonymy is a metaphor in which a concrete object symbolizes an abstract quality, such as a divine attribute. When the psalmist says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever” (Ps. 45:6), throne symbolizes God’s sovereignty. Theological anthropomorphism (in the form of a man) is a metaphor in which human body parts are ascribed to God in order to reveal some truth about him (see Prov. 5:21 above — “the eyes of the LORD”). Theological anthropopathism (after the passions of a man) is the predication of human suffering or changing emotional states to God, as when regret and grief are predicated of God (Gen. 6:6).

Again, Aquinas discusses the distinction between what I am calling proper and figurative predication. In Question 13, Article 6 of his Summa Theologiae, Thomas asks whether names predicated of God are predicated primarily to creatures. He answers that some things predicated of God are true of God primarily and of creatures secondarily (analogy runs from God to creatures), while other things are true of creatures primarily and predicated of God in a secondary sense (analogy runs from creatures to God). To discuss things true of God primarily, Aquinas appeals to the attributes of goodness and wisdom. Concerning goodness and wisdom, for example, Thomas says, “[T]hese names are applied primarily to God rather than to creatures, because these perfections flow from God to creatures.”[23] Thomas contrasts this mode of predication, which I am calling proper, with another mode of predication in which the names are “applied metaphorically to God,” which is to say, “applied to creatures primarily rather than to God, because when said of God they mean only similitudes to such creatures. . . . Thus it is clear that applied to God the signification of names can be defined only from what is said of creatures.”[24] This is the mode of predication I am calling figurative.

Turretin recognizes this same distinction. Turretin defines analogical language as one name being predicated to more than one thing. Regarding analogical predication of God, he says that sometimes the name “may be said of one primarily or principally or by priority, but of the others secondarily and by posteriority on account of dependence on that first.”[25] He goes on to say that the communicable attributes of God are predicated of God in this way — spoken primarily of God and secondarily of creatures. This is what I mean by proper predication. In his exposition of the various divine attributes, Turretin recognizes that Scripture sometimes speaks of God in a way that is primarily proper to creatures and only secondarily to God. For example, defending the immutability of God, he says, “Repentance is attributed to God after the manner of men (anthropopathos).”[26] That is, repentance is proper to men and only figuratively spoken of God in order to convey his holiness and the seriousness of human sin in relation to the holy God.

Van Mastricht is explicit in his recognition of this distinction, even using the terms proper and figurative. He says, “Regarding names that are proper . . . theologians observe that in a primary sense they apply to God, and in a secondary sense to creatures.”[27] On the other hand, Van Mastricht avers, “[T]he figurative names (as secondary) apply to God either metonymically, when for example he is called our strength, help, light, and salvation (Ps. 18:1; 27:1), or metaphorically, as when he is called a shield or sun (Ps. 84:11; Isa. 10:17), or when these metaphorical names are obtained from man or any other creatures.”[28]

Thus far, it has been argued that all scriptural language about God is analogical, but not all analogical language is predicated of God in the same way. Sometimes analogical predicates have their original in God and their analog in creation. This mode of predication is what we are calling proper predication. Other times analogical predicates have their original in creation and their analog in God. This includes many forms of metaphorical speech. This is what we are calling figurative predication.

We observed earlier that divine names are revealed by God, not given by creatures. Further, the names of God reveal truths about God to his people, which is why Reformed theologians have tended to see the scriptural names of God as the exegetical pathway into the doctrine of God. Where do the names of God, as the Reformed tended to use that terminology, fit into this schematic map of theological language? For the Protestant Scholastic tradition, especially the Reformed Orthodox, all divine names fit the category of what I am calling proper predication, not figurative predication.[29] See “Figure 1” below for a visual diagram of the conceptual schema as explained thus far.

 Divine Names: Essential and Personal

In addition to the things already observed about divine names, one further distinction needs to be made. Some names of God are essential; other names are personal. Essential divine names refer to that by which God is one — the divine essence. Essential names are proper to all three divine persons because all three have the same divine essence. Personal names, on the other hand, name the mode of subsistence of one divine person in relation to another. Personal names are proper to only one divine person because the eternal relation, which is designated by the personal name, is the only feature that distinguishes one person from another in the eternal life of God.

Because essential names are predicated of the divine essence, they correspond very closely to the divine attributes. As noted earlier, the attributes are most fittingly understood as descriptions of the divine nature that fill in the meaning of the divine names — essential names to be precise. Since the sacred name YHWH reveals the aseity and immutability of God (along with the other incommunicable attributes), it is rightly understood to be an essential name. As such, it is true of all three divine persons. Scripture bears this out by ascribing the name to all three persons explicitly. For example, in 1 Corinthians 8:6, the apostle Paul gives a Trinitarian interpretation of the famed Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4, which says, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Paul, contrasting the Christian faith with pagan polytheism, writes, “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” The one LORD (YHWH) of Deuteronomy 6:4 is understood to be the name of both the Father and the Son in 1 Corinthians 8:6.[30] Paul also identifies the person of the Holy Spirit with the name YHWH when he says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). Here, Paul uses the Greek word κύριος (the “Lord”) to refer to the name YHWH, which follows the standard pattern of his day, as illustrated by the Septuagint.[31] Thus, YHWH, which is predicated of all three persons in Scripture, is an essential name of God, naming that which the persons have in common, the divine essence.

Personal names are fundamentally relational names in that they name the divine persons distinctly by identifying the relations between the divine persons. The personal name of the first person of the Godhead is Father, and the second person’s personal name is Son. The Father is so named because his mode of subsistence as God is from no one else, but the Son subsists as God from the Father. The names Father and Son do not point out any unique attributes of the respective natures of each person. This would be impossible because they share identically the same nature (“the LORD is one”). Rather, the names Father and Son are distinct only in relation to one another. The meaning of the personal name Father is an empty set except in relation to the Son, who is the eternal “only begotten of the Father” (John 1:14). Concerning the third person, his personal name is Spirit, which translates the Hebrew (רוח) and Greek (πνεῦμα) terms that mean “breath.” As the one “who proceeds from the Father” (John 15:26) and is the “Spirit of his Son” (Gal. 4:6, cf. Rom. 8:9), the Spirit subsists as God breathed out from the Father and the Son. The personal name Spirit does not point out some attribute of the third person’s essence that distinguishes him from the Father and the Son because he shares with them identically the same essence. Rather, the term Spirit is a relational name, which only has distinct meaning when understood in relation to the Father and the Son. “Figure 2” below diagrams the distinction between essential and personal names.

The distinction between what I am calling essential and personal divine names is upheld by all orthodox theologians, even if different terms are deployed. One of the clearest and most enduring articulations of this distinction comes in Augustine’s De Trinitate. In Augustine’s day, the Arian heretics argued that everything predicated of God is said of him “substance-wise.” This would entail two different essences of the Father and Son.[32] Augustine responded by recognizing that many things are said of God substance-wise, such as wisdom, goodness, knowledge, and the divine name, “I AM.” He went on to argue, though, that not everything said of God is said of him substance-wise. This does not mean that God has accidental properties by which he can change. That is, for Augustine, nothing is predicated of God “modification-wise,” because God can in no wise be modified. Augustine observes, however, that some things are said of God “relationship-wise.” He explains, “If . . . what is called Father were called so with reference to itself and not to the Son, and what is called Son were called so with reference to itself and not to the Father, the one would be called Father and the other Son substance-wise.” But the Father is not called Father in reference to himself, only in reference to the Son. Augustine continues, “Since the Father is only called so because he has a Son, and the Son is only called so because he has a Father, these things are not said substance wise.” If not substance-wise and not modification-wise, then how are the names Father and Son predicated of the one God? Augustine answers, “relationship-wise.”[33] The terms substance-wise and relationship-wise, as Augustine uses them here, correspond to essential and personal names as I use those terms.

Van Mastricht acknowledges the same distinction and uses the exact terminology of essential and personal names. In his extensive discussion of the divine names, Van Mastricht asks, “How many kinds of names of God are there?” He answers, “[T]he divine names are said to be either essential, such as Jehovah and θεός, God; or personal, such as Elohim, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”[34] Van Mastricht recognizes the same distinction between essential and personal names that I am advocating here, which is materially the same thing as Augustine’s distinction between substance-wise predication and relationship-wise predication.

To sum up this section, all true creaturely predication about God (including scriptural predication) is analogical in nature. Analogical predication can be proper, in which case the analogy runs from God to creatures, or figurative, in which case the analogy runs from creatures to God. Figurative predication can take many forms, such as simple metaphor, metonymy, anthropomorphism, and anthropopathism. Proper speech includes divine names, which can be either essential or personal. Essential names reveal divine attributes, which are common to the whole Trinity because they are predicated of God according to the unity of the divine essence. Personal names reveal the distinction between the three Trinitarian persons by pointing out their eternal relations to one another. “Figure 3” below diagrams the conceptual schema, as presented thus far in this essay.

III. Father as a Divine Name

With this map of classical theological predication in place, we are finally ready to return to the specific issue of the divine name Father. As a divinely revealed name, Father is predicated of God properly, not figuratively. Furthermore, Father is both an essential name and a personal name.

Father as Proper Predication

By saying that Father is a divine name predicated of God properly, I am saying that human fatherhood is a secondary analog of divine fatherhood, which is primary. This is of vital importance to the current debates about the significance of this divine name, because it is abundantly common for contemporary Christians to state that the name Father is figurative language, a mere a metaphor.[35] The argument is usually driven by the fact that God is not a biologically sexed male being. Since Father is a male designation among creatures, so the argument goes, it must be a metaphor when predicated of God. This argument greatly diminishes the significance of the name Father by placing it in the same conceptual space as other figurative predication. Some have gone on to suggest that biblical metaphorical imagery of motherhood spoken of God means that the name Mother is interchangeable with Father, or a least a fitting complement to the masculine name.[36] But this argument fails to account adequately for the nature of analogical language and the distinction between proper and figurative predication as distinct forms of analogical language. Most who argue that Father is a metaphorical name seem to be confusing analogy with metaphor in a way that is foreign to classical Christian accounts of the doctrine of God and inconsistent with biblical language.

As noted above, analogical language entails both similarity and dissimilarity between God and creatures. Thus, with respect to any analogical predication, we must consider how the term communicates truth about God and also what imperfections of creatures must be negated. In the case of the name Father, there is much in the way of similarity between divine and human fatherhood, but there is also much in the way of dissimilarity. One such point of dissimilarity is that God, though properly named Father, is not biologically sexed as male. The acknowledgement of this dissimilarity does not mean that Father is a figurative or metaphorical name, only that it is analogical.

At times, discerning the correct category for some theological predication can be a matter of exegeting many texts and considering many levels of dogmatic entailments from those relevant texts. There are bound to be points of disagreement even between like-minded Christian theologians. In the case of the name Father, however, Scripture gives a clear-cut statement indicating that it is predicated of God properly, that is, that the analogical correspondence runs from God as primary to creatures as secondary. In Ephesians 3:14-15, Paul writes, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” The word “family” in v. 15 translates the Greek word πατριὰ, which means fatherhood. It is true that this word can be a general designation for the family unit as a whole, but this extension of the meaning of the word only makes sense because of the ubiquitous recognition that it is fitting to name the family in terms of its covenantal head.[37] Paul is stating here that fatherhood in creation (“in heaven and earth”) derives its name from God the Father, to whom Paul and all faithful Christians bow the knee. Bavinck captures the sense well:

This name “Father,” accordingly, is not a metaphor derived from the earth and attributed to God. Exactly the opposite is true: fatherhood on earth is but a distant and vague reflection of the fatherhood of God (Eph. 3:14-15). God is Father in the true and complete sense of the term. . . . He is solely, purely, and totally Father. He is Father alone; he is Father by nature and Father eternally, without beginning or end.[38]

Note that Bavinck is recognizing the direction in which the metaphor runs as distinguishing how one should understand the name or attribution. “Father,” he says, is not “derived from the earth and attributed to God.” The opposite is true. The analog runs from God to creation. Centuries before Bavinck, Aquinas cited Ephesians 3:14-15 as a prime example of the distinction between proper and figurative predication as well.[39] Because the name Father has its origin in God and its analog in creation, it is therefore a proper designation for God rather than a metaphorical or figurative one.

Once the name Father is recognized as a proper designation for God, all biblically based arguments for referring to God as Mother due to the presence of motherly metaphors in Scripture are exposed as fallacious. Motherly and feminine imagery is used in Scripture to describe God and his work in the world, but Mother is never properly predicated of God as a name.

Father as a Personal Divine Name

The name Father is a designation for God in two distinct ways in Scripture: personal and essential. We have already seen that the name Father is a personal name in that it names one divine person, not in reference to himself but in reference to another, the Son. The classical and biblical Christian doctrine of eternal generation teaches that the Son is truly God. The answer to the questions, “What is the Father?” and “What is the Son?” is the same: God. The deity of the Son just is the deity of the Father. Another way of saying this is that the divine essence of the Son just is the divine essence of the Father. The only distinction is that the Son’s eternal mode of subsistence is from the Father whereas the Father’s eternal mode of subsistence is from no one. John refers to Jesus repeatedly as the “only begotten” (μονογενής) as a way of communicating this eternal relation between the Father and the Son (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18).[40] Also, Jesus says, “The Father has life in himself, and he has granted to the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:26). The phrase “life in himself” is a reference to the aseity of God. God is the uncreated possessor of the fullness of eternal life, and he is dependent on no one for that life. This, Jesus says, is the kind of life the Father has in himself, and this is also the kind of life the Son has in himself. The Father has it from no one. The Son has it from the Father. This is the doctrine of eternal generation and fills in the meaning of the personal name of the Father, as well as the personal name of the Son.

The fact that Father is a personal name for the first person of the Trinity, grounded as it is in the biblically revealed doctrine of eternal generation, further cements the argument that Father is a name predicated properly of God. God is a Father eternally as the source of the eternal and uncreated Son. Thus, fatherhood is not a mere human denomination applied primarily to biological males with children. It is the other way around. Biological males are named father analogically in reference to their children. God is Father first in reference to his only begotten Son.

Father as an Essential Divine Name

It is less common to think about the name Father as an essential name, but it is certainly predicated as such in Scripture. Recall that an essential name is predicated of the divine essence, which is one, and is therefore common to all three persons of the Godhead. Thus, when I say that Father is an essential divine name, I am saying that fatherhood is a divine attribute shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At least three major considerations need to guide our discussion of Father as a divine name.

First, Scripture names God as Father in relation to creation, specifically, in relation to his covenant people. In Deuteronomy 32:6, Moses anticipates a future day of the rebellion of Israel against God. He asks, “Is not he your Father, who created you, who made you and established you?” In Isaiah 64, Isaiah laments the judgment of God on his people and pleads with the Lord to “rend the heavens and come down” (v. 1). In verse eight, he cries out “But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” The list of examples could continue, but the point is that the name Father sometimes names the relation of God to creatures. It is in this sense that the name Father is an essential name. The relation identified is not with one particular divine person as opposed to the others within the eternal life of God. Rather, the relation is between created covenant partners and the one triune God. The triune God is both Creator and covenant Lord of his people.

Secondly, there are even times that Scripture explicitly speaks of the person of the Son as a Father. The most obvious example is the famed messianic prophecy of Isaiah 9:6: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (emphasis added). It has been virtually ubiquitous in the Christian tradition to interpret this text as a prophetic foretelling of Jesus. The child born and the Son given is none other than the Lord Jesus, and he is explicitly named “Everlasting Father.” This does not represent a confusion of the persons of the Father and Son because Father, in this context, is not a personal divine name but an essential divine name. The relation named is the relation between the child, who is the Mighty God, and his people. Thus, it is not a personal divine name. The Son is called Everlasting Father in the same way that he is called Mighty God — essentially.

Some might demur that Isaiah 9:6 is not quoted directly in the New Testament. All, however, agree that this prophecy is given with a view to fulfillment of the promises of the Davidic Covenant (see 2 Sam. 7), as the very next verse makes plain. Isaiah 9:7 says, “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this” (emphasis added). There can be no dispute that the New Testament consistently presents the Lord Jesus as the one in whom the promises of the Davidic Covenant find their ultimate fulfillment. Given this fact, it is likely that there are intentional allusions to Isaiah 9:6-7 in the New Testament. Consider the angelic announcement of the birth of Jesus to the Judean shepherds (Luke 2:8-14). They are told that, in the city of David, one who is called Savior, Messiah (Christ), and Lord “is born to you” (v. 11). In anticipation of a future day, Isaiah says, “Unto us” the final Davidic king will be born. On the day of Jesus’s birth, the angel says, “Unto you” this one is born. Furthermore, when the host of angels appear, they declare that the child will bring “peace on earth,” a very likely allusion to “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6) and “of peace there will be no end” (9:7).

At this point, another distinction in theological language needs to be observed, this one with respect to the attributes of God. All attributes are predicated of all three persons (and thus correspond to essential names), but some attributes are predicated of God in himself, such that these attributes are true of God whether he ever creates a world or not. These attributes are commonly called absolute attributes (or divine perfections). Examples include all of the incommunicable attributes (aseity, simplicity, immutability, etc.) as well as some communicable attributes (love, wisdom, knowledge, power, etc.).[41] On the other hand some attributes are predicated of God in such a way that they do not name God in himself, but they name the relation between God and creatures. These are often called relative attributes, all of which are communicable. See “Figure 4” below for a diagram of the categories of divine attributes in relation to divine names.

The name Father, as an essential name, points out the relative attribute of fatherhood. Every relation between a creature and God is a relation to the divine essence, not to individual divine persons. The real distinctions between the divine persons only pertain within the divine essence, because the relations are not between three beings but between three eternal modes of subsistence of one the one being of God.[42] The relation between God and creatures is a relation between the one divine being (who is eternally three persons) and creation. This truth is usually articulated in terms of the classical doctrine of the inseparable operations of the Trinity. Every external work of God is a work of all three persons of the Trinity, because the power of the operation is the one power of God.[43] It is not the case that the Father has a distinct work or set of works independent of the Son and Spirit. This would be impossible, because the principle of the external operation is the divine essence common to the three persons. Because creation is a work of God, it is a work of all three persons. Because covenant making is a work of God, it is a work of all three persons. The effect of God’s work — in this case creatures and covenant partners — is in relation to the principle of the work, namely the one God. As such, Father is an essential divine name.

3. Analogical Correspondence Between Divine and Human Fatherhood

Thus far, I have argued exegetically and dogmatically that Father is a divine name predicated of God properly, not figuratively. Furthermore, I have argued that Father is a divine name in two ways — personal and essential. As a personal name, Father names the first person of the Trinity in relation to the second. As an essential name, Father names the relation between the triune God and creatures and thus is fittingly predicated of all three divine persons. It remains to be considered how human fatherhood corresponds to divine fatherhood considered personally and essentially.

When contemplating analogical correspondence, we must approach the matter in two distinct ways in order to affirm both the similarity and the dissimilarity involved in the analogical relation. The first approach is what has been called the way of eminence (via eminentia) by classical theologians. The way of eminence observes some feature of creation that Scripture says is also true of God, and ascribes appropriate aspects of the creaturely reality to God in a supreme (eminent) way.[44] For example, we observe genuine goodness in creation. When we ascribe goodness to God, we acknowledge that this goodness is in God originally and supremely. The other approach is what has been called the way of negation (via negativa) by classical theologians. The way of negation observes some feature of creation that is also true of God, and negates all creaturely limitation and imperfection when contemplating the same truth in God.[45] When we ascribe goodness to God, for example, we negate the imperfections of creaturely goodness. God’s goodness does not change, is not mixed with evil, is not an accidental property really distinct from his essence, and so on. We will engage in both of these approaches as we consider the analogical correspondence between God as Father and human fatherhood.

Human Fatherhood and Personal Divine Fatherhood

The personal divine name Father identifies the first person of the Trinity as the source (principium) of the second person by way of eternal generation. The analogy in human fatherhood pertains to a human father’s biological begetting of a child. In human fatherly begetting, the father begets, and the child is begotten.[46] That is to say, the child is from the father. This is but a shadow of the eminent eternal generation of the Son by the Father in the glorious plenitude of the divine life. Furthermore, a biologically begotten child is by nature what the father is by nature. Human fathers beget human children. This is eminently true of God the Father whose eternal Son exists in “the form of God” and is equal to God (Phil. 2:6). The only-begotten Son of God the Father (John 1:14) is the only-begotten God (John 1:18). By way of eminence, we affirm that the Son of God is the same nature as the Father in the most perfect way.

Of course, human begetting of a child involves creaturely limitations that must be negated of God. Consider the following necessary negations. First, in human begetting, the father is before the child temporally. There was a time when the human father was and the child was not. We must negate any hint of temporal sequence when we speak of God the Son being begotten of God the Father. As long as the Father has been Father, the Son has been Son from him. Thus, generation describes an eternal relation, not a temporal event. Secondly, in human begetting, fathers and their children share an equality of kind. There is a duplication of the nature such that the father and child are two individual beings of the same kind of nature. Anyone seeing me and my father standing together would see two men, not one man. In God, we must negate any sense of duplication, because there is only one true and living God. Thus, the begotten Son’s nature/essence/being is numerically and identically the same as the nature/essence/being of the Father. As Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Thirdly, human generation involves another. Human fathers cannot beget children alone. Human parentage, by God’s design, requires both a father and a mother who come together in a sexual union. This is not true of God the Father, who alone is the eternal source of God the Son. There is no heavenly mother. Finally, human fathers are embodied and sexed as male. God the Father is not embodied or sexed, because God is an infinite, invisible, immaterial spirit (John 4:24, 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16).

At this point, one might wonder if Father as a personal name might be interchangeable on some occasions with the gender-neutral Parent or the feminine designation Mother. After all, it could be said positively that human children are from parents/mothers and that they share in the same kind of nature as their parents/mothers. Furthermore, all the negations that apply to human fatherhood would apply to human parenthood or motherhood — temporal sequence, duplication of nature, and the necessity of a partner.

Two responses are in order. First, the fact that the divine name Father is predicated of God properly, not figuratively, such that human fatherhood is named after God the Father (Eph. 3:14-15) warns us against replacing the revealed name with a name derived from creation. Since mother is not a name given to God anywhere in his own self-disclosure in holy Scripture, we can safely conclude that mother is a name that only has meaning when predicated properly of creatures. Motherly metaphors can fittingly represent God’s character in figurative ways (Isa. 13:6-9, 46:3), but motherhood does not derive its name from a divine name. Fatherhood does. Furthermore, the name parent is only meaningful because biological offspring have both a mother and a father, something that is not true of God. Secondly, recall that God names himself by his revelation. For creatures to name God by their own reason and on their own prerogative would imply that creatures have authority over the Creator, given the biblical significance of naming. Since God has revealed the eternal relation between the first and second persons of the Trinity by the names Father and Son, we dare not seek to replace those names with others of our own choosing.

Human Fatherhood and Essential Divine Fatherhood

It is important to observe that not all creatures are called sons of God or children of God. Thus, the essential name Father seems to be naming a relation more precise than merely the Creator-creature relation. That is, the fatherhood of God to creatures seems to be covenantal. God is a Father to Israel (Deut. 32:6, Isa. 64:8), who is God’s adopted son (Hos. 11:1). God is a Father to the Davidic kings, who are his adopted sons (2 Sam. 7:14; cf. Psa. 2:7). The Davidic king occupies a unique relation of sonship, which Israel as the covenant people share in by virtue of their identification with the king. In this way, Jesus Christ, who is the eternally begotten Son, is also an adopted Son according to his human nature. He is one Son who has two relations of sonship to God, corresponding to his two respective natures.[47] This may help to explain why both male and female Christians are identified as sons of God. Adopted sonship is a status that is ours by virtue of our union with Christ, who is the king.

Given the covenantal nature of God’s relation to his people as a Father (essential name), we can begin to discern how human fatherhood analogically corresponds to essential divine fatherhood. Human fathers are created by God to be the heads of their households, governing, providing for, and protecting the inhabitants of their households. Their children share in their estate as heirs. What belongs to the father belongs to the children. The position of covenant head and Lord is one that God has given to human fathers/husbands in a particular way, a way not given to mothers/wives (Eph. 5:22-33).

This brief consideration of the analogical correspondence between Father as a divine name and father as a name given to men is not intended to diminish the tremendous value and dignity of motherhood. Women, like men, are created in the image and after the likeness of God. Mothers, in their mothering, carry out the glorious task of image bearing in ways appropriate to their God-given gender and their God-appointed role in their homes. It is vital for God’s people to remember that there are ways in which it is appropriate and good for mankind to seek to be like God, and ways that are wicked and evil for mankind to seek to be like God (cf. Gen. 1:26-27 and 3:5). When a human person desires to demonstrate the likeness between God and himself through obedience to divine revelation, this is good. When a human person desires to be like God in ways that undermine the authority of divine revelation, this is serpentine. Acknowledging that only human fathers are like God in fatherly ways is a matter of seeking to bear the image obediently and faithfully. Mothers can and should be like God in appropriate ways, but the desire to re-name God as Mother would be to reverse the direction of image-bearing, making God after the image of a creature in the very manner suggested by the ancient serpent.


In an age of gender insanity, muddled thinking and misguided teaching abound regarding the fatherhood of God. Much of the confusion can be mitigated if Christians will pay attention to the modes of discourse by which the Bible speaks about God, heeding the insights of those who have gone before us. Such careful attention will lead to the conclusion that Father is a divine name predicated of God properly, not figuratively. As such, it names God in two ways — personally and essentially — both of which find analogical correspondence in human fatherhood.

Kyle D. Claunch is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he has served since 2017. He and his wife Ashley live with their six children in Louisville, KY. He has more than twenty years of experience in pastoral ministry and is a member of Kenwood Baptist Church.

[1] The primary purpose of this essay is to give a constructive account. Because of space considerations, I will not engage at great depth with the specific arguments of thinkers who have dismissed or diminished the theological significance of masculine names for God, but a brief sampling is in order here. (1) Radical feminist thinkers accuse historic Christian orthodoxy and even Scripture of promoting a view of God as male. It is argued that the preponderance of masculine names and pronouns for God found in Scripture and Christian tradition inescapably yield this conclusion. Therefore, traditional orthodox and biblical categories must be rejected (e.g. Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation [Boston: Beacon, 1973]). (2) Other radical revisionists try to argue that the Bible itself supports current LGBTQ gender ideology. For a popular-level example, see the New York Times article by Jewish Rabbi, Mark Sameth, “Is God Transgender” (August 12, 2016, In this approach, biblical categories need not be abandoned, just re-interpreted. (3) Evangelical egalitarians do not wish to replace masculine language, but they often argue for complementing masculine names like Father and Son with gender-neutral names like Parent and Child or feminine names like Mother and Daughter. Because God is not biologically sexed, masculine names are believed to be merely metaphorical, which allows for a high degree of flexibility with the ascription of gendered names (e.g., Amy Peeler, Women and the Gender of God [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2022] and Ronald Pierce and Erin Heim, “Biblical Images of God as Mother and Spiritual Formation” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural, and Practical Perspectives, ed. Ronald Pierce and Cynthia Long Westfall, 3rd ed. [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2021], 372-92).

[2] This essay is limited to the name Father. Other masculine predications, such as Son, and masculine pronouns are beyond the scope of the current work. The methodology deployed here, however, would be equally fruitful in thinking through the significance of all masculine divine predications, indeed divine predications of all kinds. I hope to engage in a larger project of demonstrating the usefulness of carefully defined categories of theological language in offering a constructive account of the Christian doctrine of God at some point in the future.

[3] In an earlier essay for Eikon, I reviewed “Biblical Images of God as Mother and Spiritual Formation” by Pierce and Heim. In that work, I laid out a very basic map of theological language as a tool to critique the proposal by Pierce and Heim. This essay is more broadly constructive in nature and less narrowly polemical. As a result, the account of theological language is considerably more robust and comprehensive. Nevertheless, where there is overlap, some brief sections of this essay are drawn heavily from the earlier piece. See Kyle Claunch, “On the Improper Use of Proper Speech: A Review Essay,” Eikon: A Journal for Biblical Anthropology 5.1 (Spring 2023), 67–75.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (ST), q. 13, “The Names of God.”

[5] Of late, the term biblicism has taken on a negative connotation, often being used to refer to a naïve reading of Scripture uninformed by the insights of the orthodox Christian exegetical and dogmatic heritage. Muller does not use the term in this way. Muller understands that the Reformed Orthodox theologians were very conversant with the key Christian voices from the past, drawing heavily on tradition as a guard and guide in their own understanding and exposition of holy Scripture. Muller is using the term to describe the commitment the Reformed had to the utterly unique authority of Scripture as the norma normans (ruling rule) over against Christian tradition as a norma normata (ruled rule). Rhyne Putman addresses the unfortunate connotation of the term biblicism and uses the term “naïve biblicism” to differentiate the two senses with which the term can be used today. See “Baptists, Sola Scriptura, and the Place of Christian Tradition” in Baptists and the Christian Tradition, ed. Matthew Y. Emerson, Christopher W. Morgan, and R. Lucas Stamps [Nashville: B&H Academic, 2020], 27-54.

[6] Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520-1725, Vol. 3: The Divine Essence and Attributes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 246.

[7] Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Divinity, Vol. 2: Faith in the Triune God, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Todd M. Rester (Grand Rapids, MI: RHB, 2019), 97-98. Later he says, “In the calling of God by names, his attributes come forth” (116).

[8] Isaac means “laughter” because Sarai laughs in mockery at the announcement of his birth and also because there will be laughter of joy when Isaac is finally born (Gen. 18:10-15, 21:1-7). Esau means “red” because the boy was covered in red hair when he was born while the name Jacob means “supplanter” or “one who grabs the heel,” indicating the fact that he was grasping his brother’s heel in a prophetically symbolic gesture of the effort he would later expend to take from his brother the position of privilege normally associated with birth order (Gen. 25:24-26).

[9] Consider the children born to Isaiah — Shear-Jashub and Maher-shalal-hash-baz — whose names mean “a remnant shall return” and “swift is the spoil, quick is the prey,” respectively (Isa. 7:3, 8:3-4). The name of the child prophesied to Ahaz would be Immanuel, meaning “God with us,” a name which spoke of the covenant faithfulness of God to Israel in its immediate circumstances and also typologically pointed forward to Jesus, who is “God with us” in the flesh by way of the incarnation (Isa. 7:14, cf. Matt. 1:22). The name Jesus itself is identical to the name of Joshua in the OT and means “the LORD saves.” The angel tells Mary and Joseph to name this child Jesus because he, being the incarnation of the LORD, will save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). The names of Hosea’s children — Jezreel, Lo-ammi, and Lo-ruhamma — mean disaster, not my people, and no mercy, respectively as an indicator of the LORD’s judgment on Israel as they go into exile.

[10] Peleg means “division” because “in his days, the earth was divided” (Gen. 10:25). Consider also the name of Eli’s grandson, Ichabod, whose name means “the glory has departed” because he was born at a time when the ark of the covenant had been captured and the wicked priests of Israel had fallen in battle (1 Sam. 4:19-22).

[11] The most obvious examples here include Abram, whose name is changed to Abraham by the LORD (Gen. 17:5); Sarai, whose name is changed to Sarah (Gen. 17:15); and Simon, who is given the new name Peter by Jesus (Matt. 16:18). These examples of name changes or new names given seem to be types of the reality that is true of all the redeemed people of God, who will be given a new name in glory, a name that corresponds to our status as redeemed and glorified, fully conformed to the image of Christ in the age to come (see Isa. 62:1-2 and Rev. 2:17). In all such cases, the common thread is the revelatory significance of a given proper name with respect to the one named.

[12] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 98-99.

[13] The Hellenization thesis was popularized by the German liberal historian and theologian, Adolf Von Harnack. He argued that Christian theology in the early centuries of the church became enslaved to Greek (Hellenistic) philosophical categories, especially various forms of Platonism. As such, orthodox Christian theology, according to the Hellenization thesis, bears little resemblance to the text of Scripture.

[14] See Peter Enns, Exodus in The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000) and Terence Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: WJK, 1991).

[15] See Steven Duby, God in Himself (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019) and Craig Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018).

[16] While some will be skeptical of a conceptual schema or map of the nature of scriptural theological language, it should be noted that something of this sort is necessary for anyone operating on the assumption that Scripture is consistent and coherent in all that it says. If there is not some way of adjudicating the nature of the claim being made about God in a given text, then one will be forced to say that Scripture is self-contradictory. Does God “relent” (נחם, see Genesis 6:5, 1 Samuel 15:11, 35), or doesn’t he (see Numbers 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29; cf. Malachi 3:6)? Without a conceptual schema of some kind, there is no way to reconcile these seemingly contradictory predications. I submit that a carefully thought-out conceptual schema that consciously draws on some of the strongest witnesses from Christian history in an effort to synthesize the best of their insights is a better alternative than a spontaneous and imprecise schema that is simply intuited every time an apparent theological difficulty emerges from the text of Scripture.

[17] For a discussion of Aristotle’s and Boethius’s notions of analogy in predication, see Steven J. Duby, God in Himself, 242-44.

[18] Aquinas, ST, I. q. 13, a. 5.

[19] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.13.1.

[20] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992), 190.

[21] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:110.

[22] The entire book of Proverbs can be put forward as biblical support for this. The whole book calls upon the people of God to walk in wisdom, which has its beginning in the fear of God. Wisdom, Solomon tells us, is in God and with God eternally, and with wisdom, God created the world (Prov. 8:22-31). Thus, creatures are called to be wise in a manner that corresponds analogically to the original and perfect wisdom of God.

[23] Aquinas, ST I. q. 13, a. 6.

[24] Aquinas, ST I. q. 13, a. 6.

[25] Turretin, Institutes, 1:190.

[26] Turretin, Institutes, 1:206.

[27] Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, 2:99.

[28] Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, 2:99.

[29] At this point my distinctions differ formally from Thomas Aquinas, even though the material content of the categories is the same. As noted above, Thomas treats the names of God as the broadest category. By “name,” Thomas simply means any kind of predication. Thus, for Thomas, all names are analogical; some are proper, and some are figurative/metaphorical. I prefer to follow the Reformed pattern of treating the names of God as a narrower category, that is designations for God that can be appropriately used as the grammatical subject of a sentence.

[30] Most NT scholars recognize Paul’s intentional exegetical incorporation of Jesus into the very identity of YHWH. Mark Taylor, for example, observes that 1 Corinthians 8:6 “takes up the terms ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ in a remarkable reformulation of the Shema of Deut 6:4, already alluded to in 8:4b. Verse 6 explicitly brings Jesus into the definition of the one true God.” See 1 Corinthians, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, vol. 28, The New American Commentary [Nashville, TN: B&H, 2014], 206. Steven J. Duby says that this verse is Paul’s “Christianized version of the Shema.” Based on Paul’s teaching, Duby concludes that “each person, while being distinct from the other, is somehow identical to this God, the God of Israel.” See Jesus and the God of Classical Theism: Biblical Christology in Light of the Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2022), 62-63. Many other texts equate Jesus with YHWH by applying OT texts that name YHWH to Jesus explicitly. Examples include Mark 1:3 (Isa. 40:3), Rom. 10:17 (Joel 2:32), and Heb. 1:7 (Ps. 104:4).

[31] That κύριος refers to YHWH, the sacred name, is clear from the context as well. Paul is exegeting Exodus 34:29-35 where the glory shining from Moses’ face is clearly the glory of YHWH. So, David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, vol. 29, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 1999), 196.

[32] The word “substance” is used by Augustine synonymously with my use of “essence.” He clarifies that he is using the term as an equivalent of the Greek ousia, which is commonly translated essence. Thus, “substance-wise” is synonymous with “essential” (De Trinitate [The Trinity], ed. John E. Rotelle, OSA, trans. Edmund Hill, OP, 2nd ed. [Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2012) 5.1.6.

[33] Augustine, The Trinity, 5.1.6.

[34] Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, 2:99, italics in original. Van Mastricht locates the name Elohim under the category of personal name because he is convinced that the plural form of the name indicates the plurality of persons in the divine essence. While I am sympathetic to a Trinitarian interpretation of the plural name, I still think it is predicated of God essentially because the same name can be equally predicated of any or all of the persons. In other words, it does not point out a relation but something true of all three, which, by definition, makes it an essential name. In any case, though we differ on the categorization of the name elohim, Van Mastricht’s categories agree with the ones I’m proposing here in terminology and material content. Furthermore, they agree with Augustine’s distinctions in material content.

[35] This is the argument of the essays devoted to God and gender language in all three editions of Discovering Biblical Equality. See Judy L. Brown, “God, Gender, and Biblical Metaphor” in the first edition (2004), “God, Metaphor, and Gender: Is the God of the Bible a Male Deity?” by R. K. McGregor Wright in the second edition (2005), and Ronald Pierce and Erin Heim, “Biblical Images of God as Mother and Spiritual Formation” in the third edition (2021).

[36] Amy Peeler, who seems to collapse all analogical predication into figurative language, says, “God is described as ‘Father,’ or ‘Mother,’ or ‘Rock.’ To think of God as beyond gender in the sense that God encompasses aspects of both genders, that God is Parent or Mother and not only Father, helps to work against the ‘phallacy’ that God is male” (Women and the Gender of God, 17). Peeler goes on to acknowledge the prominence of the name Father, especially in NT witness as a name for the first person of the Trinity. Thus, the term cannot simply be replaced or balanced but must be explained. Nevertheless, her commitment to the metaphorical nature of the name does admit degrees of flexibility in Christian divine address in prayer and liturgy. For an extensive list of publications arguing along similar lines for a metaphorical understanding of the name Father, see footnote 17 of Chapter 1 in Peeler’s book.

[37] Nearly all the major English translations provide some kind of marginal note pointing out the semantic overlap of the word “father” in v. 14 (πατήρ) and the word translated “family” in v. 15 (πατριὰ). The ESV even suggests “fatherhood” as an alternate translation.

[38] Reformed Dogmatics, II:307-8.

[39] Thomas considers whether all divine names are predicated primarily of creatures and only secondarily of God. In customary fashion, he summarizes three arguments that might suggest all language is figurative. He then answers them thus: “On the contrary, It is written, I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of Whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named (Eph 3:14-15); and the same applies to the other names applied to God and creatures. Therefore these names are applied primarily to God rather than to creatures” (ST I, q. 13, a. 6. Italics in original).

[40] For a thorough and fascinating essay arguing for the legitimacy of the traditional Christian interpretation of the term monogenes as a testimony to eternal generation, see Charles Lee Irons, “A Lexical Defense of the Johannine ‘Only Begotten’” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 98-116.

[41] Among the Reformed Orthodox, it was nearly ubiquitous to refer to attributes by the designations of incommunicable and communicable. An incommunicable attribute is something true of God with no analogical correspondence in creatures. These attributes are always negations of the creaturely limitation or imperfection. A communicable attribute is true of God and, in an analogical way, can also be true of creatures.

[42] Some might see the language of “modes of subsistence” and fear that this proposal represents the heresy of modalism. However, the statement made here is the exact opposite of modalism. Modalism teaches that the distinction between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is only external to God, in his revelation. By referring to eternal modes of subsistence of the one divine essence, I am in lockstep with classic orthodox Trinitarian theologians in affirming that the personal relations are eternal, real, and internal to the being of God. The persons are modes of subsistence, not mere modes of manifestation or revelation.

[43] For a further description of the doctrine of inseparable operations, see my article, “What God Hath Done Together: Defending the Historic Doctrine of the Inseparable Operations of the Trinity,” JETS 56/4 (2013), 781-800. For a book-length treatment of this classical doctrine, see Adonis Vidu, The Same God Who Works All Things: Inseparable Operations in Trinitarian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2021).

[44] Van Mastricht describes the way of eminence as follows: “[W]hatever there is of absolute perfection in creatures we attribute with the highest eminence to the Creator, because of the fact that no one can confer on another what he does not have either formally or eminently, nor can an effect be conceived such that it is on the whole more excellent than its own cause” (Theoretical Practical Theology, 56).

[45] Van Mastricht says that, by way of negation, “[W]e entirely remove from him any imperfection that occurs in the creatures, for example, corporality, morality, finitude, and the like” (Theoretical Practical Theology, 56).

[46] While classical languages like Greek and Latin only have one word for the bringing forth of a child, and the word can refer to a father or a mother bringing forth a child, English has a distinct word for the way a father brings forth a child. Fathers beget their children while mothers bear their children. Put differently, children are begotten by their fathers and born of their mothers. This is not to suggest that the distinction between fatherly and motherly biological parenting is the ideological invention of the English-speaking world. In classical languages, the distinction could only be observed by context whereas English recognizes the distinction by explicit terms.

[47] See the way Hebrews 1:5 cites 2 Samuel 7:14 and Psalm 2:7, which clearly refer to the adoptive sonship of the Davidic kings, and applies them to Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus identifies with Israel as God’s adopted Son. See the way Matthew 2:15 cites Hosea 11:1, which clearly refers to Israel’s exodus from Egypt. This kind of typological fulfillment and identification between Jesus and David/Israel is made possible by the eternal Son’s assumption of a human nature. One Son, two sonships is virtually synonymous with the Chalcedonian formula, one person, two natures.

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