Third in a series on St. Paul.
St. Paul stood in the front lines of a revolution. He preached a radical proposition. And yet we have somehow lost our capacity to be shocked by it.
At the heart, Paul’s gospel was the revelation of God’s fatherhood. By now, after centuries of Christian piety, this seems like a worn coin. God’s fatherhood is so cliché that everyone assumes it. Right?
Well, no. God’s fatherhood — at least as Paul understood it — remains a scandal to the world.
Remember that the very same message was reason enough to get a man killed. “This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill [Jesus], because he … called God his Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18).
It was customary for Jews to call upon God as Father of their nation (see John 8:41), but not as Father to an individual. To make such a claim, they rightly assumed, was to make oneself “equal with God”; for earthly children do share a common nature with their earthly fathers.
The shocking truth is that Jesus wanted us to share the divine nature of our heavenly Father (see 2 Peter 1:4). That was a religious bombshell in Jesus’ day. St. John felt its impact (see 1 John 3:1).
Paul explored this revelation more deeply than anyone, and he employed it more daringly. So he began his letters to the churches: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father” (Romans 1:7).
For Paul, God’s fatherhood was not a homey metaphor. It was, rather, something eternal and metaphysical. He did not say that God is “like” a Father. No, he said that God is eternally Father because the word is his eternal Son (see Philippians 2:6; Galatians 4:4).
It’s one thing to say that God is metaphorically “father” to a nation or to the world, because he created both out of nothing. But it’s quite another to say that God is eternally “Father” by nature. If God is eternally Father, then there must be an eternal “Offspring.” To a mind trained in monotheism, that seems to imply a threat to God’s oneness and transcendence. Indeed, even today, Muslims consider it blasphemy to attribute fatherhood to God.
Yet Paul placed God’s fatherhood — and Jesus’ eternal sonship — at the heart of his preaching. It was a revelation of the Trinity.
And it was a revelation that we, through baptism, have come to share in Christ’s sonship. Paul spoke of us repeatedly as living “in Christ” (see Romans 8:1) and of Christ as living in us (Galatians 2:20).
We are sons and daughters in the eternal Son of God. Though Christ had the “form of God” (Philippians 2:6), he poured himself out to take on a human “form” (2:7). Why? So that we might be in him and he in us. God “destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5). “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:26).
This is the truth that theologians call divine filiation. We need to recover the doctrine, surely. But we also need to recover its shock value.