Thoughts on ‘This Is My Father’s World’

Re-post from 2008. I thought it was germane to some of the current discussion in the post Gender-Inclusive Language. This old post rings strongly of ‘Leave My Hymns Alone!

Albertan Rockies
Albertan Rockies

One of the most important events of my life was moving from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, to Thunder Bay, Ontario. Most notably, by moving to Ontario, I chose to go to the University of Ottawa for my undergrad rather than the University of Calgary. At the U of O, I met my wife, a fellow student of Classics.

In this move, I also learned more and more to trust my Saviour. I was torn from life in the country and began to live the city life. I left behind mountains! More importantly, I left behind friends and a supportive, loving, strong church community. Yet through it all, through the times of loneliness all alone at midnight on my bedroom floor rocking back and forth, God Almighty, Lord of all, was there. He became more real to me through this time.

I truly learned the message of ‘This Is My Father’s World‘ at that time, that the world, the creation, is the Lord’s. The fullness of His glory dwells herein. He speaks to us everywhere. In the rustling grass, I hear Him pass!

Our last Sunday at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Rocky we sang “This Is My Father’s World,” the music of the spheres ringing round us. My mom and I arrived in Thunder Bay before my dad’s official start at St. Thomas’, so we went to St. Paul’s our first Sunday in the city. And we sang “This Is My Father’s World,” the morning light declaring its Maker’s praise. And then, in case we hadn’t quite got the message yet, our first Sunday at St. Thomas’, we sang the hymn again, resting in the thought of rock and trees.

“This Is Our Father’s World” was almost like our theme song! And I wasn’t cognisant of it at the time, but this is the message I truly needed to hear as I crossed two provinces, from foothills to Canadian shield, as I left behind all I knew — that my Father was in control, and that “Jesus, who died, shall be satisfied, / and earth and heaven be one.”

Reading Week 2008. My wife and I avail ourselves of the GO Train and her grandpa’s generosity. We have a lovely visit with him and Ruth and stay with them on Saturday night. Sunday morning we go with them to the local United Church.

The sermon was good. The man preaching knew Jesus and preached that salvation is from Christ our God. It was a good sermon. And we almost sang two of my favourite hymns, “This Is My Father’s World” and “Be Thou My Vision.”

Only Voices United is a sad travesty and butchered both, the former more than the latter.

“This is God’s wondrous world,” the words read. I sang, “This is my Father’s world.” Rather than, “In the rustling grass, I hear him pass,” it read, “In the rustling grass, in the mountain pass.” I was more than a little perturbed and angry.

You see, as Christians, we don’t simply worship some vague divinity up there in the clouds. We worship a specific Person (or, more accurately, Persons) who is certain things and not others. One of the things God is is Father. Clearly no one thinks he has a penis. God does not have a penis. God is Spirit! But as Father, we are reminded that God is our creator, that He is the one who sustains the universe and keeps us alive.

In the Trinitarian God, the Father is the One Who begets the Son, the One from Whom the Spirit proceeds.

He loves us.

And He cannot be both Father and Mother because then He loses specificity and becomes a vague blob of some variety. God is beyond personality, as CS Lewis notes in Mere Christianity, but he is more than our personalities, not less. His role as Father is one of love, care, and benevolent rule.

A glance through Voices United showed me a hymn wherein God was called “Mother.” It’s one thing to call God “Mother” because He performs some motherly tasks for us, another to call Him “Mother” because you are being inclusive and a third to call Him “Mother” but not “Father” which is the biblical name for Him. Are we smarter than the Bible?

A review of Voices United cites that God is only called Father if the word Father is accompanied by the word Mother.

What Voices United is reminding us is that we are smarter than Scripture. It is the modern rejection of the old and traditional for the new and “progressive.”

I could rant longer but won’t. My gorge is rising to high and too quickly.

For the ruin of the falsehood that calling God Father won’t be of use to people who had bad dads, read Knowing God by J I Packer (p. 229, although that whole chapter “Sons of God” is worth a read to understand the fatherhood of God) and Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf (169-181; reader beware, he uses words such as ontologization and the clause, “the Father therefore constitutes the mutual relations between the persons as egalitarian rather than hierarchical”).

Edith M Humphrey’s book Ecstasy and Intimacy, pp. 170-174, dispels this whole “Mother God” business.

For the hubris of modernity, see Thomas Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy.

Last, Jerome, quoted in Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall:

It is inconceivable that sex exists among God’s agencies, since even the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the usages of the Hebrew tongue, is expressed in the feminine gender, ruach, in Greek in the neuter, to pneuma, in Latin in the masculine, spiritus. Hence we must understand that when there is discussion concerning the above and something is set down in the masculine and feminine, it is not so much an indication of sex as an expression of the idiom of the language; because God Himself, the invisible and incorruptible, is represented in almost all languages in the masculine gender, and since sex does not apply to Him. (112)

Typology As a Way Forward in Bible Reading

I have previously posted about the fourfold sense of Scripture here and here. Among the spiritual senses, we find typology. Typology, as you may recall, is when we see events, items, and persons in the Old Testament as prefigurations of New Testament theology. It is distinguished from allegory as allegory is when we see parallels in events in the Old Testament not only of the New Testament but also of our own spiritual journey. Thus, an allegorical reading of Genesis 3, while not denying the real Fall of humanity, will say that this is the story of Everyman.

Typology, on other hand, sees a moment as a single flash of the greatness of the fulfillment of the promises in Christ and the Church — Melchizedek is a type of Christ; the flashing sword in Eden is a type of Mary; the crossing of the Red Sea is a type of Baptism, Jerusalem is a type of the heavenly city, and so forth. I have already posted on Noah’s Ark as a type of Mary.

This approach to Scripture is never meant to entirely supplant the literal or historical meaning, something even its most famous proponent, Origen, acknowledges. Yet it seeks to see with spiritual eyes a new, different layer of meaning. Since the purpose of Scripture is to reveal to us the things of God and empower us to lead godly lives, I see no difficulty in this way of reading Scripture.

Indeed, many see this way of reading the Bible as a way forward for western biblical interpretation. Sebastian Brock writes:

the typological approach to the Bible as found in the Syriac (and of course other) Fathers is essentially a fluid one, refusing to be contained by dogmatic statements on the one hand, or considerations of modern biblical scholarship and its findings on the other. Indeed, one wonders whether this approach does not offer the openings of a via tertia for twentieth-century western Christianity in its dilemma when faced with the liberal critical approach to the Bible that to many seems purely destructive, on the one side, and a distastefully fundamentalist approach on the other. (p. 188)*

Now, one may argue that there already exists middle ground between liberal criticism and fundamentalism, but the idea of typology as being part of that middle ground is not a bad idea. With typology, we are able to say, “Indeed, the points of the liberal’s modernist critique may be valid, and the doctrinal concerns of the fundamentalist are also worthy of consideration, and with typology I am able to honour both.”

Suddenly, Scripture is not limited to a single, literal meaning at every turn of the page. Through prayerful consideration and the reading of other spiritual books, the Holy Spirit can guide us to spiritual truths about ourselves and the Gospels that perhaps we would never have thought of if shackled to the liberal/fundamentalist approach.

Typology can be beautiful and can stir the thoughts of the reader, as we see in Brock on Ephrem the Syrian:

Ephrem’s highly allusive poetry, shifting almost relentlessly from one set of symbols to another, makes considerable demands on the reader who, above all, if he is to appreciate Ephrem to the full, must know his Bible as well as Ephrem did. Much of this typological exegesis will appear to modern readers as forced, or it may even be described as ‘wrong’, but I think it is misleading to speak of this kind of exegesis in absolute terms of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’. The very fact that quite often one finds side by side two pieces of typological exegesis which are logically incompatible when taken together, seems to be an indication that what is being offered was never meant to be the ‘correct exegesis’, such as modern biblical scholarship likes to impose, but possible models which are held up, and whose purpose is to make meaningful, and give insight into, some aspects of a mystery that cannot be fully explained. (185-186)

If we remind ourselves that our doctrine of the Trinity is smaller than the Trinity, that our Christology is a feeble attempt to encapsulate in words the wonders of God Incarnate, if we keep in mind the smallness of ourselves and our doctrines about God in the Face of God Himself, then typology and its difficulties make a certain sense — God is ultimately incomprehensible and a great mystery. Ought not His self-revelation to the world to be filled with wonder and beauty?

Now, most of us probably aren’t reading to do our own typologies, for it is a way of thinking that is foreign to us. Here are some places to begin:

Typology in Action

The Orthodox Study Bible. The NT of this study Bible has been out for a long time, and a couple of years ago they released the entire Bible, Septuagint and NT. Its footnotes provide us with a primarily typological reading of the OT, so it can stand alongside most Protestant study Bibles that give us the literal account and thus bring us deeper into the spiritual world of the Word.

The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. This series of commentaries gathers together selections from the Fathers on the entirety of Scripture. A great many, though not all, patristic passages herein provide a typological understanding of the Scriptural passage at hand.

Ephrem the Syrian, referenced by Brock in the second passage above, has a number of works translated at the CCEL; there is also a volume in the Classics of Western Spirituality Series from Paulist Press and another of the Hymns on Paradise in the Popular Patristics Series from SVS Press. His hymns on the incarnation are especially beautiful, as I’ve noted on this blog before; he takes your mind in worship to places it has likely never gone before.

Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, mentioned here before, is worth a read, combining both the allegorical and typological readings of Scripture after giving the straight historical reading of the text. The same translation exists in the Classics of Western Spirituality series as well as in the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics; the latter has a less extensive introduction but is also cheaper.

Origen of Alexandria is the most famous of the exegetes who apply “spiritual” methods to Scripture. His Commentary on the Gospel of John provides an introduction to his method of reading Scripture. I’m still working on Origen, myself, so I do not know what else of his to recommend.

About Typology

Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. This book deals with the Four Doctors of the Western and the Four Doctors of the Eastern Church and how they read Scripture, including space devoted to Origen and Diodore of Tarsus. Space is thus given to the more spiritual readings of Scripture that lead us to typological understandings. This is a popular level book, geared towards pastors and students.

de Lubac, Henri. Medieval Exegesis: The Fourfold Sense of Scripture. This monumental work, a product of the Ressourcement that began in the 1950s (not ’20s, sorry), taking up three volumes in English, will give you all you want to know about Patristic and western Mediaeval approaches to the reading and interpretation of Scripture. This is a work of scholarship, but the rewards are no doubt hefty for those who persevere to the end (I have yet to do so).

*S. Brock, “Mary in the Syriac Tradition,” in Mary’s Place in Christian Dialogue, ed. Alberic Stacpoole. Pp. 182-191.

“Learning Theology with the Church Fathers” by Christopher A. Hall

Learning Theology with the Church Fathers is Christopher A. Hall’s sequel to Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (the third in the trilogy is Worshiping with the Church Fathers).  In this book, Hall examines various theological questions, taking the question of the divinity of Christ as his jumping-off point.  The examination of the question at hand is always narrowed to certain Church Fathers, never the entire corpus of Patristic thought on each issue, an approach that keeps the book to a reasonable, readable length.  For example, in the chapter “Christ the Son, Begotten and Not Made”, he draws principally from St. Athanasius.  In “The Mystery and Wonder of the Trinity”, our guides for the journey are St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Augustine of Hippo.

Other issues Hall sheds Patristic upon are the two natures of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the question of sin & grace, providence, the love of God, Scripture, ecclesiology, and the Resurrection (the final one).  He realised whilst writing that the topics covered weren’t enough, that something more needs to be said.  The third volume will help us draw nearer to the mind and life of the Fathers, for these men were not mere academics but practising, preaching, and worshipping pastors—thus, the question of Patristic worship is important.

The best things about this book are:  i. It blew my mind.  ii. It made me want to read more of the Church Fathers.  Each of these will receive a post of its own later.  Some other, more general comments on the book are the order for today, however.

My favourite chapters of this book were those that dealt with what I think of as theology proper—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Thus, “Christ the Son, Begotten and Not Made”, “The Mystery and Wonder of the Trinity”, “Christ Divine and Human”, and “On the Holy Spirit” especially, although “God’s Wise and Loving Providence” helped draw me closer to an understanding of impassibility, a doctrine I am not yet comfortable with.  This may be that I do not fully understand what it means for God to be impassible; it may be that I am clouded and biased by my 21st-century ways; it may be that the Fathers are wrong.  The last option makes me very uncomfortable, because I tend to agree with things they all agree about.

One of the aspects of Patristic thought that this book helps to draws out is its focus on real, live theology.  These days, a lot of people talk about something called “theology”, but it’s really a Christian or biblical approach to certain issues—such as eco-theology and ethics, but even at times ecclesiology, sacramental theology, liturgical theology.  Very rarely do we say, “Gee, who on earth is God?”  The Fathers did.  Who is Jesus?  How does the nature of who Jesus is affect the way we live, think, are saved?  Who is the Father?  Who is the Holy Spirit?  How on earth are there three Gods and one God all at the same time?  The Fathers addressed these foundational issues, and then from this truly theological framework—one always rooted in the foundations of Scripture and tradition—dealt with other issues, such as justification and ethics.

Hall attempts to give Nestorius and Pelagius a fair hearing in this book, but at no point does he act as though the teachings attached to their names are legitimate orthodoxy.  This is a dangerous but admirable trait.  When we look at these figures of church history, we have to realise that every saint was also a sinner, and every sinner a potential saint.  And sometimes people said things that they didn’t necessarily mean, or hadn’t thought through properly, or expressed badly, or their followers took their arguments to their logical, heretical conclusions.[1]

Sometimes you want more than a mere exegesis of the Fathers as they exegete Scripture and tradition, bringing them to bear on the theological questions at hand.  Sometimes I want to know more than just what this one Father taught, more than just this one thought on a question.  Sometimes I want to see objections to these thoughts, or counter-arguments to objections in my mind, or a thorough “modern” rationale for these ideas.  At times, these elements are lacking, but not always.  When they are present, Hall sometimes takes too long going about it, and this may be why he avoids it sometimes.  It may also be that his mind did not conceive of the same counter-arguments to the statements of the Fathers as mine did.  However, this is not meant to be a complete display of all of Patristic thought on these questions, nor even on all questions, since some never even arise.

The authors presented by Christopher A. Hall in Learning Theology with the Church Fathers are all major thinkers of the Patristic age, and their thoughts tend to be representative of the ideological climate surrounding the theological questions he addresses.  This book, as a result, is a good book to inspire people to explore the field of Patristics and Patristic theology further.


[1] This happens today with certain types of Calvinist.