Introduction: The Fatherlessness of Modern Man
From as early as the fifteenth century to the present day, modern man has suffered under a tremendously disordered view of God the Father. To be sure, one could trace man’s false vision of God much further back in history, as far as the Garden and the serpent’s first lie to Eve: “God knows that when you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5, RSVCE).1 In this key verse, comments St. John Paul II, one encounters “the mystery of man … who turns his back on the ‘Father’ (even if we do not find this name of God in the account). By casting doubt in his heart on the deepest meaning of the gift, that is, on love as the specific motive of creation … he in some sense casts him from his heart.”2 The “whole business” of man after Eden has ever been “to heal the eyes of the heart whereby God may be seen”3 rightly and thus, by faith in and union with Christ Jesus, to turn back to the Father, repudiating our first parents’ faithlessness in turning away from Him. A right vision of the God who is love is necessary if we are to entrust ourselves to Him in faith.
It would seem, however, that the ‘spiritual astigmatisms’ from which the eyes of the heart must be healed will differ in every age according to the unique distortions of God which are widely accepted and taught at the time. Truth may be distorted in countless ways and, as the famous phrase of Chesterton has it, the saint “will generally be found restoring the word to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age.”4 Our specifically modern distortion, underlying the present-day crisis of faith in God’s fatherhood, may be traced back to the problematic of divine omnipotence and human freedom as conceived by Martin Luther in the fifteenth century. According to Luther,
God’s omnipotence rules out the possibility that God could allow his almighty will to be ‘dependent’ on anything else—certainly not on a creature’s freedom of will vis-à-vis Himself … Luther denies human freedom a cooperative role in its encounter with divine freedom. Human freedom is not unfailingly persuaded to actively cooperate (which is Augustine’s view), but remains purely passive in relation to the overpowering force of the divine will. For Luther, the proper counterpart of omnipotence can only be impotence.5
In the words of Henri de Lubac, then, God the Father “began to seem [to modern man] like the enemy of his dignity.”6 It is no wonder that society would reject such a Father, in relation to whom mere human beings must always stand in the position of impotent children, utterly subject to the whims of an infinitely superior power. “In rejecting God,” de Lubac concludes, modern man “is overthrowing an obstacle in order to gain his freedom.”7
Without confusing correlation for causation, it is worthwhile also to note that “there is a father absence crisis in America,” with more than one in four children in the United States living without a father in the home in 2017.8 Between forty to fifty percent of marriages in the Untied States end in divorce.9 It would seem that the “freedom” man has gained from rejecting God has had catastrophic consequences for society, much like the deadly fruit of man’s first rejection of the Father. What is urgently needed, then, is a recovery of the true vision of the Fatherhood of God as one whose divine omnipotence is best expressed as “all-powerful powerlessness,” a loving Father who gives Himself without remainder and without compulsion to his beloved, holding nothing of Himself back, and thereby makes room for the beloved’s free response. The supreme image of this self-sacrificial divine love is Christ giving himself up on the Cross for his bride, the Church, the definitive act by which he “made the two one” (Eph 2:14) and reunited fallen humanity with the Father. Following the pattern of his perfect and redemptive self-offering, the union of man and woman in marriage becomes a sacrament, a “great mystery,” which reveals the hidden drama of loving self-gift in the very heart of God and in His relationship with humanity. A recovery of the true vision of divine fatherhood, then, will lead man and woman to entrust themselves, not only to God, but to one another in reciprocal love and self-donation, mirroring and making present the mystery of divine love in the world.
The Divine Image: The Love of the Father and the Son
All our knowledge of the inner life of the Trinity comes from what is revealed by the Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, in His earthly existence.10 Therefore, it is fitting to begin with the Lord’s own words about his filial relationship to the Father: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). This cannot be taken to mean a strict identification between Father and Son, as if the two were interchangeable modes of divine being or one single hypostasis. Rather, these words of Jesus point to the unity in action of the Father and the Son. The Son so closely mirrors the Father’s activity that, in seeing Jesus living and acting in the world, one sees the “shape” of the Father’s own being and activity. A fitting analogy might be a dance in which one of the two partners is invisible; by watching the movements of the visible partner, one can “see” the movements of the invisible dancer.
Furthermore, as Jesus says in the following verse, “it is the Father, living in me, who is accomplishing his work” (Jn 14:10). Hans Urs von Balthasar discerns from this Biblical data a “twofoldness” in the identity of Jesus vis-à-vis his Father: “Jesus is at once the expression of the Father and his own active imitation of the way his Father is God.”11 The Father is truly at work at every moment in the activity of his Son, while the Son is also truly at work at every moment by corresponding volitionally to the initiatory activity of his Father. The Father acts first; he “beget[s] the Son as man to be his definitive image and revealer.”12 The Son, who does “nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19), conforms himself to the Father’s activity: he “let[s] the Father produce in his humanity the perfect, unparalleled likeness” to Himself.13 Yet the Father remains at work even in the Son’s act of correspondence, as Jesus says: “He who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him” (Jn 8:29), and again, “My Father is working still, and I am working” (Jn 5:17). At every moment, the Father is fathering his own perfect likeness in the Son, an act to which the Son is at every moment saying “an entirely grateful Yes.”14
This sketch of the interpersonal dynamic of Father and Son in the economy of salvation reveals something of the Father’s proper pattern of acting, and it looks nothing like the Lutheran model of divine fatherhood. In no way is Jesus a puppet or slave of the Father, compelled by the Father’s omnipotence to obey his will, but neither is he an “island,” a “free agent” sent by the Father into the world, with whom the Father no longer maintains any involvement. Rather,
In calling Jesus to willingly collaborate with his paternal work, the Father delivers himself over to Jesus’ free decision. And conversely … Jesus, on his side, realizes his freedom by reciprocally “making space” for the Father’s work in him (thus in filial fashion entrusting himself to another) … [in] active imitation of the Father’s form of freedom. Indeed if Jesus learns obedience through what he suffers (cf. Heb. 5:8), his obedience is elicited by reason of his seeing in his Father a love which, in bestowing freedom, is willing to “suffer” the beloved’s exercise of freedom without revoking the gift.15
It is the gift of the Father not only in begetting his Son as man but in leaving him free to correspond with his begetting which “makes space” for the Son’s free correspondence to the gift. This “self-determined dependency” or “all-powerful powerlessness” of the Father vis-à-vis the Son, however, is not a way of holding himself “at a purely passive and impotent distance over against Jesus’ freedom.”16 Rather, the Father’s “self-surrender” to the Son in leaving him free is precisely what makes room for and evokes from the Son a mirroring self-surrender in obedience. “Whatever [the Father] does,” says Jesus, “that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he himself is doing” (Jn 5:19-20). The Father’s love truly “has the power to evoke from the beloved the answer of love which it seeks. Indeed the Father’s ‘defenselessness’ proves omnipotent, since in delivering himself over to the disposal of the One Sent, the Father engenders in Jesus an entirely grateful Yes to his paternal self-donation.”17
Making an inference from the economic activity of Father and Son to the inner divine reality of the immanent Trinity, von Balthasar finds the same pattern of God’s paternal self-surrender in the eternal generation of the Son. The begetting of the Son as man and his historical mission is a “temporal translation”18 of his generation in eternity; thus Balthasar argues that the Father “leaves-free the Begotten”19 in eternity as He does in time, and that the perfect and eternal self-gift without remainder by which the Father generates the Son “includes, as intrinsic to it, a modality of letting-be that begets in turn its mirroring counterpart in the Son.”20 The Father not only generates the Son, giving over his own divinity in an act of absolute, self-surrending love; in so doing, He “lets the Son be,” leaving him free to answer the Father’s love with filial love. The Son’s eternal assent to being begotten and his utter and reciprocal self-gift to the Father takes place in an “eternal interplay of divine freedom, since this filial disposition is the infinitely free response of love engendered by love.”21
What is most remarkable about this theology of divine fatherhood is that the Father’s omnipotence can no longer be defined as his capacity to do whatever he wills or to impose his will on another. What act of God could be greater than the generation of the Son, “not another God,” as von Balthasar notes, “but another in God?”22 No other divine act can surpass this, which takes place precisely in an eternal “event of absolute, self-surrending love.”23 Therefore, the almightiness of the Father must be defined as his capacity to “give without limit,”24 to make himself “powerless,” a loving surrender by which he fathers a corresponding movement of love and self-surrender in his coequally divine Beloved.
The True and Living Icon: The Love of Christ and the Church
This pattern of loving self-surrender in the inner divine life of the Trinity is played out on the historical stage in the Son’s mission for the salvation of the world. Jesus does perfectly as man what he has done for all eternity as the Son: He mirrors the Father’s eternal act of self-donation. In the first chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul narrates this mission of the Son in the context of a beautiful prayer for his readers, that they might know “the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might” (1:19). What was the event in which God’s great might, his “all-powerful powerlessness” which, as we have seen, is defined as his capacity to give without limit, was revealed above all? It is the Paschal mystery, the Son’s total self-donation on the Cross, by which “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27).
The beautiful and detailed imagery of these verses portrays the Church as a virgin bride for whom Christ laid down his life. “The goal, mentioned twice,” comments Mary Healy, “is that the Church be ‘holy,’ that is, set apart from what is profane, and presented to Christ as a resplendent bride.”25 Of course, Christ is acting in accord with the divine pattern of “self-determined dependency” which he sees first in his Father. He will not defeat sin and render his Church holy by divine fiat. Rather, it is his sacrificial self-donation by which Christ at once sanctifies the Church, atoning for the sin of mankind, and by which he evokes in her a corresponding response of obedient and reverential love. As natural marriage on the human plane is effected by the exchange of consent of the bride and groom, Christ’s Paschal mystery may analogously be called the moment at which the marriage covenant is sealed between Christ and his Church: He gives himself up for her utterly, a total and irrevocable ‘yes’ spoken with the language of his whole being and life, both to the Father’s plan “to unite all things in him” and to the bride. His initiatory act of self-surrender “makes room” for his bride’s reciprocal self-gift in love. Just as the Son’s reciprocal self-gift to the Father takes the form of correspondence to the Father’s will, so the reciprocal self-gift of the Church to Christ will take the form of obedience and self-entrustment, handing herself over to him as he handed himself over for her.
“Let Us Make Man in Our Image”: Man and Woman Made for Communion
Before exploring in depth the mystery of human marriage as an icon of divine love, it will be worthwhile to spend a few moments on the nature of man.Man and woman are created by God as an imago Trinitatis, in the image of the divine communion of love which is the Blessed Trinity. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” says YHWH in Genesis 1:26. Commenting on this verse, St. John Paul II writes, “Before creating man, the Creator withdraws as it were into himself, in order to seek the pattern and inspiration in the mystery of his Being, which is already here disclosed as the divine ‘We’.”26 The pattern of God’s own inner Trinitarian life, of loving self-surrender, thus becomes “the eternal pattern of the human ‘we’, especially of that ‘we’ formed by the man and the woman created in the divine image and likeness.”27 It is precisely together that man and woman, the fullness of humanity, constitute an image of the Trinitarian communion of God.
The complementarity between male and female is written into human nature from the beginning. The creation of woman from the side of man (Gen 2:21-22) is an expression on the human plane of that “letting-be” which is intrinsic to divine love: the one who comes forth from the man is coequal to him in every way, but irreducibly and non-interchangeably other. As the Father’s generation of the Son includes an “intrinsic modality of letting-be,”28 by which the Father surrenders his own paternity to the Son’s judgment and voluntarily renders himself “dependent” on the Son’s response, so the creation of the woman from man necessitates that the man let the woman be other than himself. The man’s exclamation, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” reveals a love mirroring the pattern of the the Father’s which is willing to let the other be other. Though springing from a common origin, she is irreducibly different, and for that reason “a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18) and cause of his rejoicing.
Bearing in mind that there is always an infinitely greater unlikeness than likeness in analogies between creation and God, we may with caution draw a line connecting the Father (in eternity), Christ (in the economy of salvation) and man (on the natural plane), and a parallel line connecting the Son (eternal), the Church (economic) and woman (natural). In each of these three relationships, one (the Father; Christ; man) primarily initiates love and the other (the Son; the Church; woman) primarily receives love. Thus John Paul II writes that “the understanding of the fundamental meanings contained in the very mystery of creation, such as the spousal meaning of the body … is important and indispensable for knowing who man is and who he ought to be, and therefore how he should shape his own activity.”29 The spousal meaning of the body refers to these primordial roles of love which are written into the very created natures of man and woman: they are made for communion.
“A Great Mystery”: The Love of Husband and Wife
In the fifth chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul reveals that “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Eph 5:23). It is essential to note here that the husband is not presented as a unilaterally superior authority over the wife, but as the head of a body. The accent is not on headship as domination but rather on the unity of the body and reciprocal self-surrender, to which Paul indeed exhorts all his readers in the verse which begins the pericope: “Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph 5:21). The latter part of this verse suggests the “corporate mystical union between the believer and Christ,”30 effected by Christ’s initiatory act of self-surrender on the Cross and by the free correspondence of the believer in reciprocal self-gift; the term “fear” here bespeaks that voluntary response.
The husband is head of his wife in an analogous way to Christ’s headship of the Church; before he is head of his wife, however, husband and wife alike are first members of Christ’s body. Christ’s headship of the Church is thus the model and archetype of the husband’s headship of his wife. Furthermore, it is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:3) who in turn establishes Christ as head over the Church: “He has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body” (Eph 1:22-23). The Father exalted Christ to this headship at the completion of his earthly mission and the consummation of his self-gift on the Cross, “when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:20). Thus we see the hierarchy of headship, which Paul gives explicitly in another letter: “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God [the Father]” (1 Cor 11:3).
It should be clear by now that headship is inseparable from, and indeed defined by, self-sacrificial love, as indeed the almightiness of the Father, “from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 2:15), is defined by his capacity to give without limit and surrender himself to his beloved. The Pauline notion of headship, St. John Paul II argues, primarily expresses “precedence in the giving and receiving of love:the ‘husband is above all the one who loves and the wife, by contrast, is the one who is loved. One might even venture the idea that the wife’s ‘submission’ to the husband, understood in the context of the whole of Eph 5:22-23, means above all ‘the experiencing of love.’”31
The husband is to love his wife with Christ-like agape-love, which includes giving himself up for her: “As Christ demonstrated his limitless, unconditional love by dying for us on the cross, so husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives by seeking their good, regardless of the cost to themselves (cf. 1 Cor 10:24; 13:5; Phil 2:4). Paul could not have set a more demanding standard.”32 Indeed, it is an impossible standard, as Mary Healy admits, “except by experiencing Christ’s paschal mystery as a power at work in one’s own life.”33 This bespeaks the vital necessity for the husband to first receive Christ’s initiatory, self-sacrificial love as a member of his body, the receiving of which “makes room” for him to correspond. His reciprocal self-surrender to Christ in the form of obedience and “fear” is what enables him to “go and do likewise” in his own gift of self to his wife. Likewise, it is the husband’s initiatory self-gift, laying down his own life in love for his beloved, which will make room for and evoke from her a freely given, reciprocal self-gift. Thus St. Paul ends his paraenesis to husbands and wives with the following exhortation: “Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Eph 5:33). In the Greek text, the command to the husband to love is an imperative (ἀγαπάτω ὡς ἑαυτόν), while the command to the wife to respect her husband is a conditional subjunctive (ἡ δὲ γυνὴ ἵνα φοβῆται τὸν ἄνδρα). This is a fitting summary of Paul’s teaching on headship. The responsibility lies first with the husband to love his wife with truly Christ-like, self-sacrificial love, that she might respect him and entrust him with her whole self in turn.
Husband and wife are only able to fulfill these radical demands of mutual submission “because we are members of his body” (Eph 5:30). St. Paul is outside the realm of analogy now: “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (5:28) because “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (v5:31), as indeed Christ is “one body and one Spirit” (4:4) with His Church (5:32). Here the analogical language of body and head earlier in the pericope is revealed to be more than a rhetorical device: it is “a great mystery” (5:32), a sacrament of union. Being filled with the Holy Spirit (cf. 5:18), the husband is to love his wife and “nourish and cherish [her], as Christ does the Church” (5:29), and indeed with the very same self-sacrificial love with which Christ loves and cares for the Church.
At the beginning of this paper, I argued that what is needed above all to combat our culture’s crisis of fatherlessness is a recovery of the true vision of the Fatherhood of God as one whose divine omnipotence is defined not over and against human freedom, but as “all-powerful powerlessness,” a loving Father who first surrenders Himself in an act of love to his beloved, even to the point of making himself dependent on the beloved’s free response. This is not a God who coerces or compels, but who leaves room for human freedom, and indeed who, by going before us on the way of self-donation, evokes from us a reciprocal self-gift in love. This Father has shown his love for us in sending us his Son (cf. John 3:16), the true and living icon of God’s Fatherhood, who faithfully mirrored the Father’s love “unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). This absolute and definitive act of self-donation to his bride, the Church, effectively reunited fallen humanity with the Father.
Furthermore, God created humanity “in the beginning” as an imago Trinitatis, in order to live in communion with one another and with Himself. The law of self-gift is therefore written into the very human body. Man is called to give himself over to his wife in absolute, irrevocable self-donation, making room for her to give herself back to him in trusting obedience and reverential self-surrender; thus do the two become “one flesh” (cf. Gen. 2:24). Following the pattern of the Father’s all-powerful powerlessness and Christ’s perfect and redemptive self-offering, the union of man and woman becomes a sacrament, a “great mystery,” which reveals the hidden drama of loving self-gift in the very heart of God and in His relationship with humanity.
In conclusion, those in our day who reject the fatherhood of God for the sake of the illusory freedom of self-determination are truly selling their birthright as human beings for a mess of pottage. Man was created for a much higher good than independence or mere autonomy; he is created to be a gift, to lay down his life for others (cf. John 15:13) as an “imitator of God” (cf. Eph 5:1). His likeness to God “reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”34 May the eyes of our hearts be healed to see God as he is and so to give ourselves to him and one another in freedom and love.
- Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006).
- John Paul II, TOB 26:4, in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 237.
- Augustine, Sermons on the New Testament, 38.5, trans. R.G. MacMullen, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 6, ed. Philip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, at http://newadvent.org.
- G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1933), 7.
- Margaret Turek, SD-5211: The Trinity – Course Reader with Commentary & Notes (Menlo Park: St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, 2019), 129.
- Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheistic Humanism (London: Sheed & Ward, 1949), 6, qtd. in Turek, Course Reader, 129, fn. 191.
- “Father Absence Statistics,” at National Fatherhood Initiative (2016), at http://www.fatherhood.org. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2017.
- “Marriage and divorce,” at American Psychological Association, http://apa.org/topics/divorce. Adapted from the Encyclopedia of Psychology.
- Cf. International Theological Commission, “Theology, Christology, Anthropology,” in International Theological Commission: Texts and Documents, 1969-1985, ed. Rev. Michael Sharkey (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 211-212.
- Turek, Course Reader, 130.
- Turek, Course Reader, 131.
- Turek, Course Reader, 130.
- Turek, Course Reader, 131.
- Turek, Course Reader, 132.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama II: Dramatis Personae: Man in God (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 257, qtd. in Turek, Course Reader, 132.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama V: The Last Act (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 77-78, qtd. in Turek, Course Reader, 133.
- Turek, Course Reader, 133.
- Turek, Course Reader, 134.
- Turek, Course Reader, 133.
- Mary Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review 111, no. 8 (2011): 14.
- John Paul II, Gratissimam Sane [Letter to Families] (2 February 1994), §6.
- Turek, Course Reader, 133.
- John Paul II, TOB 18:4, in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 200.
- Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2nd. ed.(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 157.
- Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” 13. Inner quote is from St. John Paul II, General Audience of September 1, 1982, in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 485.
- Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” 14.
- Paul VI, Gaudium et spes [Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World] (7 December 1965), §24.