Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Apostles' Creed: God the Father Almighty

The Apostles’ Creed is a confession of faith. As such it not only speaks about the act of faith (i.e. “I believe”) but also its object. In what do Christians believe? Answer: God, but not just the concept of god. We believe in the one true and living God, the God who is and who has revealed himself generally in his works of creation and providence and specially in the the Holy Scriptures and the incarnation. As J.I. Packer notes on pp. 31-32 of Affirming the Apostles’ Creed, “Today’s idea is that the great divide is between those who say, ‘I believe in God’ in some sense and those who cannot say it in any sense. Atheism is seen as an enemy, paganism is not, and it is assumed that the difference between one faith and another is quite secondary. But in the Bible the great divide is between those who believe in the Christian God and those who serve idols—“gods,” that is, whose images, whether metal or mental, do not square with the self disclosure of the Creator. One wishes that some who recite ‘I believe in God’ in church each Sunday would see that what they actually mean is ‘I do not believe in God—not this God, anyhow!’”

A.W. Tozer famously said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” The Creed begins by identifying God as “the Father.” What is meant by this designation? According to Scripture God is Father in at least two ways. First, God is a Father in relation to his Son. He eternally begets his Son. The Son is eternally begotten of him. Thus we confess in WCF 2.3: “In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.” Though the Son and the Holy Spirit are also fully God, the Creed begins with the Father because he is first in order of origin in the trinitarian relations. This order of origin is not chronological. God did not become a Father when he begot his Son. There was no such when. He is always the Father who begets his Son. The Father begets; the Son is begotten. This is why the Apostles often refer to the Father as God in relation to the Son whom they typically designate as Lord (cf. John 3:16; 1 Cor. 12:6; 2 Cor. 13:14; Heb. 1:5; 1 Pet. 3:3; Jude 1). It is also why The Apostles’ Creed begins with God the Father.

But there is another sense in which God is designated Father. He is also, eternally, the heavenly Father of all his adopted children within the creation. Thus Jesus taught his disciples to pray, saying, “Our Father in heaven…” And the Apostle encourages the Romans, writing, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs-heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:14-17). We also confess in WCF 12.1: “All those that are justified, God vouchsafes, in and for his only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption, by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God, have his name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry, Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him, as by a father: yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption; and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.” To confess faith in God the Father is to confess that we belong to him as his beloved children. Our fundamental identities are not found in the various human relationships that bind us—whether earthly families, marriages, national citizenship, etc.—but in the heavenly family, marriage, and citizenship into which we have been adopted. To be an adopted child of God is to participate, albeit in a creaturely way, in the eternally blessed relationships of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Our God is personal. He does not become personal when he creates. He is eternally personal in himself personally invested in the history of his creation. This personal investment is revealed to us by way of a covenant. Thus Caspar Oliveanus teaches on pp. 9-15 of his An Exposition of the Apostles' Creed that the Creed is at bottom a covenantal affirmation. Our God is not only over and apart from us. He is also for and with us.

The Creed continues by describing God the Father as “almighty.” Besides the fact that he is good, we confess that he is unlimitedly powerful. But this raises a question. Does the Creed’s attribution of almightiness to the Father mean that the Son and Spirit are less mighty? No. The power of the Father is an attribute of the deity he shares with the Son and the Spirit. Just as each person of the trinity is equally God, so each is equally almighty. But what does God’s almightiness entail?

I remember a moment in fourth grade when one of my teachers asked if anyone in the class could draw a two-dimensional shape with just two straight lines? Believing I could do anything, I raised my hand. She handed me the chalk. I walked to the board. After several failed attempts, I sat down. The lesson was clear. Some things are impossible by definition (i.e. a two-dimensional shape, by definition, cannot be drawn with only two straight lines). Does God’s unlimited power mean that he can draw a two-dimensional shape with two straight lines? No, that’s nonsensical. God’s almightiness does not mean he has the ability to be nonsensical. It also doesn’t mean he has the ability to act contrary to his own nature. God cannot sin, which is another way of saying he cannot cease to be God. God’s almightiness means that he is able to do whatever he pleases, as Ps. 115:3 says, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” And he is only pleased to do that which is consistent with his nature.

God’s almightiness is evident in his works of creation and providence. God spoke forth the creation from nothing by the word of his power. Moreover, as we confess in SC 11, “God's works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.” Both these works are the execution of God’s eternal decree, of which we confess in WCF 3.1: “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” Included in this decree is the predestination of some (i.e. the elect) to everlasting life and the foreordination of others to eternal destruction.

To confess that God is almighty is to confess that he controls all that comes to pass in such a way that it cannot be otherwise. His plan cannot be thwarted. But if that is true, what about evil? And what about human free will? While God’s almightiness is not limited by his creation in any way, he has created human beings with moral agency. That means we have the freedom to act according to our nature. Like him we are able to do whatever we please, but we are not able to please whatever we please. We are not able to get behind our nature to change it at any point. We are secondary agents with the power of secondary causation. God is therefore able to be in control of all we do without that control being active at every point. We only do what God has decreed we will do AND we always ultimately do what we please. Both are true. We alone are culpable for the evil we do, because we are the only active causal agents in it and we always intend evil by it. God’s agency in evil's occurence is permissive, and he has ordained it for good reasons, reasons that he has not fully disclosed to us. He is not the author of evil, but neither is evil something that is outside his power at any point.

But if God has the power to rid the world of evil, why doesn’t he? This is sometimes called the problem of evil. The argument goes as follows. (1) Evil exists in God’s creation. (2) An all-good God would eliminate evil if he could. (3) An all-powerful God could eliminate evil if he would. (4) Therefore, God cannot be both all-good and all-powerful. The problem with this problem is that it doesn’t simply make the elimination of evil an entailment of God’s goodness. We would agree with that. It makes the immediate elimination of evil an entailment of God’s goodness. We disagree with that. As Packer says on p. 48 of Affirming the Apostles’ Creed, “If God moves more slowly than we wish in clearing evil out of the world and introducing the new order, that, we may be sure, is in order to widen his gracious purpose and include in it more victims of the world’s evil than otherwise he could have done.” Further, he has already begun this good process within all his adopted children, and because he is almighty we can be assured that he will finish what he has begun. There is therefore much comfort in the doctrine of God’s almightiness. As Oliveanus writes on p. 41 of An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe that I have a covenant with God almighty, who by His omnipotence both brings to pass whatever He wills in all the world and prevents, confuses, and drives back whatever He does not will or has not decreed, so that it is impossible for these things to happen.”

Christians believe in the one true and living God who has revealed himself as both an eternal Father to his only begotten Son and a temporal Father to his adopted children. He is personal, good, and powerful. Working out his holy and wise decree for his own glory and the good of his adopted children.

Review Questions

1. What is the significance of the designation “Father” being applied to God? In what two ways is he a Father?
2. What is the significance of the Creed’s description of God the Father as “almighty”? Why is this attribute ascribed to the Father? Are the Son and Spirit less mighty?
3. Does God’s almightiness mean that he can do anything? If not, in what does it mean?
4. How does God’s almightiness relate to human free will and the existence of evil?

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