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The Father

the Only and the Sufficient God

Samuel Longfellow

Tracts for the Times, No. 4 (Ladies’ Religious Publication Society, 1859)

A statement of theological belief, recently made to the public by a deservedly distinguished and popular preacher, has revealed the fact, already suspected, that a large part of the Christian world has not yet found its Father. The statement is this:

"Christ Jesus is the name of my God. All that there is of God to me is bound up in that name. A dim and shadowy effluence arises from Christ, and that I am taught to call the Father. A yet more tenuous and invisible film of thought arises, and that is the Holy Spirit, but neither are to me aught tangible, restful, or accessible…. Christ stands my manifest God. All that I know is of Him and in Him, I draw all my life from Him."

We should not quote these words if we thought them only the statement of an individual belief. They doubtless represent the prevalent belief in the churches with which the writer of them is connected. We presume the theologians in those churches will not accept the statement. But we feel assured that it expresses the notion that lies generally in the minds of Trinitarian Christians. We believe that they would accept it as a very good statement of their conception of God. We believe, if they were honest with themselves, they would say: Just so we think, just so we feel about God. The Father is to us a faint abstraction; the Son, Jesus Christ, is our God.

And we think we can see why they should say so and so believe.

First, because the human mind and heart cannot, after all, really have more than one God; that is, more than one Supreme, more than one Infinite.

The speculative theologian may form to himself an abstract conception of a Trinity that is still Unity. But to the practical understanding the idea of Trinity is virtually that of three-ity; to it the three persons must be three gods. It can make them one, only by selecting and giving prominence to one of them and letting the others fall into a shadowy unreality—names but not persons. But one God the Trinitarian must have by the necessity I have spoken of. Hence a selection is made. The Son is chosen and set forth in prominence and light; to him the affections cling, to him salvation is entrusted, to him prayers are made—“helpless hangs the soul on” him. The Father and the Holy Spirit retire into the background, into vague, shadowy effluence and twilight— are named, but not trusted in or known.

But why this selection of "the Son," of the "second person?" Why is not "the Father," the "first person" by all claims, nay, by very force of those names, the chosen God? Because, and this is the second point of an explanation, because in the popular theology, "the Father" is not such a being as the heart can cling to, or trust to for its safety, or willingly pray to. He is represented as an awful and unapproachable sovereign, sitting remote from the universe upon a throne from which He watches the worlds and rules them, communicating with them by His messengers. Worse than this, He is represented as a judge who has made an irrevocable law, by which He is bound to inflict upon everyone who has sinned an eternity of torment, in a hell of which unquenchable fire is the instrument or the symbol. But every man, inheriting from the first a fallen, corrupted, and totally depraved nature, has sinned and is exposed by this Divine "Justice" to eternal torment, which that "Justice" having once proclaimed cannot and will not remit; for the Judge is not only inexorable, but He is also full of wrath, angry with the sinner every day, pouring forth his vengeance upon the guilty, whom He will by no means clear. This is the being whom we are taught to call the Father. Is it strange that they shrink from meeting him, deeming it a fearful thing to fall into His hands? Is it strange that they do not look to Him for salvation or for compassion? Such a being they could not possibly cling to, rely upon or love; they must gladly escape from the thought of him, banish him from their hearts as much as possible, and look elsewhere for their God. And when "the Son" is represented to them as a being equal in omnipotence to this "Father," but as full of love and compassion as the other of vindictive justice and everlasting wrath; when he is represented as interceding for them, averting the divine anger, redeeming them from the penalty by himself paying the debt, by himself suffering the bodily and spiritual tortures which would else fall on them, as shedding his blood to quench the fiery heat of the Father's burning throne, as seeking and saving the lost, is it to be wondered that they gladly turn to him, embrace him, cling to him, hang all their hopes on him? Is it strange that they choose him for their God, and gladly, if they can, dismiss into the vague background of their conceptions and the unfrequency of their thoughts the fearful being they have been taught, by a strange mockery of language, to call the Father?

There is still a third reason for this selection of Jesus Christ as God, and it is one which influences many who, like the writer quoted, do not accept all the repulsive notions of which we have been speaking. It is this: the difficulty they find, or suppose to exist, of conceiving of a purely spiritual being. Pure spirit, they say, is so vague and intangible a conception that they are at once lost. They cry out for a God of whom they can form a distinct image, a God whom imagination can picture. This tendency, this supposed necessity, is precisely what in all ages has given rise to fetishism, idolatry, image worship, saint worship and Mariolatry. In all these, it is the unspiritualized mind groping after an eidolon, an embodied, a visible, a human God. It might seem as if this necessity would not exist among a people whose religion, now for thousands and thousands of years, has forbidden the making "any graven image or any likeness" of God. Nevertheless, now, even as among the people to whom this command was of old given, the tendency shows itself in what is called anthropomorphism, or the ascribing to God human parts — hands, eyes, ears, human passions and limitations, such as anger, repentance, changeableness, successive thoughts, detailed plans and individual affections. Even this, it seems, is not enough. The affections, not truly spiritualized, still ask for more; and Jesus, though he must necessarily be an ideal, becomes the "visible God." Of him the imagination can make a distinct picture; therefore he is selected as the God to love and to trust. The affections, always anthropomorphic, cling to him, and the un-incarnated, invisible Father retires, a vague and shadowy effluence.

We have thus stated, or attempted to state, the common Theology, and the reasons for it. We have done this, sketching it in as a background, that we might make more clear the view which we hold to be the truer Theology.

And this we state in those old words of Paul: to us there is one god, the father. Here we have a doctrine of God, simple, definite, sublime and tender, entirely sufficing for every need of the soul, for every problem and stress of life. To us, the Father, and the Father alone, is a sufficient God and Savior. None can love us so much as He; none surely can be as mighty as He to help. When we have named the Infinite and called Him Father, we have named the Name which is above every name, the Love above every love, the Power above every power. We have named Him, who, if known, must be nearest and dearest of all, and to all; we have named Him who is the All in all.

To us there is one God. Our prayers are not distracted, our worship is not divided, our thoughts are not perplexed by any Trinity. Through all manifoldness of operation and of manifestation, we reach and perceive the "One and self-same Spirit," the universal, the only God. To us He is the one God; He is not divided against Himself. In that Perfect Mind, there is no dissension. His Justice is not opposed to His Mercy; His ability does not contradict His desire. There is no need of any expedient to reconcile His Love with His Law. His Justice is but a form of His Love; His Mercy is also His Law. It is not His Justice that condemns and His Mercy that forgives. "If we repent of our sins," as one said of old, "He is just to forgive us our sins," because true repentance deserves forgiveness [1 John 1:9]. If we continue in sin, His Love sends every penalty of suffering that we need to admonish and recall us, because true love is not the weak indulgence that spares its object all pain, but the strong goodwill that gives pain when the good of its object demands. To us there is one God, throughout the world and the ages, under whatever name; and He is as willing, and as able, to save the Jew who comes to Him through Moses, or the Persian who comes to Him through Zoroaster, or the Muslim who comes to him through Mohammed, or the Theist who comes to him through his own spirit, as He is to save the "Evangelical Christian" who comes to Him only "through Jesus Christ," if they only really come to Him, as they may.

And to us, this one God is the father. We ask no higher name; we can have no dearer or nearer. It satisfies the most yearning heart, and it justifies itself to the intellect. For what do we mean by "the Father?" Certainly not a metaphysical abstraction, the name of the "first person" of a metaphysical "Trinity," not an "effluence" and a "film." The name is to us as vital as with life-blood, significant of the utmost reality. It does not give us, indeed, a God visible to eyes or our imagination, tangible to our hands; but it gives us a God perceptible to our Spirits, apprehensible to our Reason and our Love.

When we call God our Father, we mean, first, that He is the source of our being, and that our being is akin to His. We mean not merely that we are creatures of His power and objects of His love, but that we are born of His very substance. Our essential life is a germ from His essential life. Our nature is essentially His nature. We, as spirits, are emanations from, and therefore manifestations of, Him, the Spirit. Made in His image, we inherit His likeness. By this kinship, we are perpetually bound to Him and He to us. Here is a primal tie which can never be abolished. This makes Him accessible, apprehensible to us. Our own essential, that is, spiritual, faculties are representative of what He is. As we live in them, He becomes known to us through the law of affinity. Justice, Reason, Conscience, Love, Will, in us, are not different in kind, but only in degree, from the same qualities in Him. So the Son in us reveals the Father in him; and we can rightly judge of thoughts, purposes and deeds attributed to Him by their correspondence to the highest faculties in us. In fact, all men unconsciously and in practice do so. Hence no relation can be so intimate, no being so near, as God, our Father, may be to us; while at the same time we reverently recognize that, as Father, He is, to us children, far above us, higher, greater, not comprehensible, if apprehensible. The intimacy takes away no reverence, but inspires it. The great mystery of God remains, only not to terrify but to uplift, and it is plain that, as we live filially with Him, this nearness, intimacy, union and likeness will become more and more, from a possibility, an actuality. Our growing spirituality is a growing revelation of the Spirit to us, for no one truly knoweth a father save a true son and him to whom true sonship shall reveal him.

In the second place: in saying that our God is our Father, we mean that He is perfect Love. He is no father who does not love his children; and He is not the Infinite Father who does not love His children with absolutely unlimited and inexhaustible Love. We can, therefore, never impute to Him hate, wrath or anger, even against the most rebellious and wicked of His children, whatever men of old time may have thought and said. These, in men, are perverted passions, and not spiritual faculties, and they have no likeness or correspondence in the Divine Nature. They are unworthy of a true human father, and to attribute them to God is to make Him less than man.   A being of infinite wrath is simply Devil, not God. We will never tell our little ones, even, that God will not love them if they do wrong, or that God is angry with the wicked. If we want a figure to shadow to them the alienation which sin causes, we can say that God is grieved if they do wrong, and that they cannot feel His love till they repent. And God being perfect love, when most just He is most loving; for His justice is but the application of His love. And when that Justice appears in the most terrible retribution of sin, we see it to be Love still, because the spirit sees it to be restorative, and never vindictive. This love our heart first feels, and then our reason justifies, seeing everywhere proofs of the perfect Providence; and where it cannot see, it trusts still the affirmation of the heart, and believes. It may seem, at times, as if this Providence wore only Power and not Love, and so God a Ruler and not a Father, for at times it looks as if the individual were quite disregarded and crushed in the on-going of the great Will. But a farther reaching look and a more spiritual insight justifies the heart still, and sees that in a spiritual estimate, in the eternal view, a great law of compensation is revealed, and we shall find that the individual is cared for in the end as scrupulously as the race, the atom as the universe, and none are lost. The perfect Providence is individual, not by being special, minute and detailed, but by being universal.   We can reconcile, with the thought of a loving and almighty Father, the existence of evil and suffering, so long as they are temporary and capable of being lost at last in infinite good; but the moment you speak of everlasting evil and everlasting misery, you have dethroned the Father, and must look for another God.

In the third place: in calling God the Father, we mean that He is the Infinite Will, the Supreme Law, the Absolute Authority. As our Father, He has a rightful claim to our obedience. For His Power is not arbitrary strength, but it is the energy of wisdom, love and justice. His law is not arbitrary enactment or statute, but it is the Divine method of the universe; it is the law of His own essential being. It is therefore the law of our being, and we can live completely and happily, only in accordance with it. We obey Him when we obey the inmost laws of our being, since His law for us is written in our constitution, while at the same time we gladly recognize it as a law above ourselves and look to Him to reveal it to our reason and conscience, and to give strength to our will to obey it when revealed. God is judge and sovereign, but is these as the old patriarchs were, and is not less, but all the more, our Father. Our obedience is not the reluctant service of slaves fearing the lash, but of sons glad to carry out the Father's will, and to work in accomplishing His pleasure. If we disobey, we are harming ourselves, but that does not make Him angry, nor does it break His law. That law, which is perfect justice and perfect love, meets us, then, as retribution.  It pursues us till it restores us to unity with itself. So the same who judges, also redeems. And our Father is our Savior, too.

Such is our doctrine of the Father. We hold it sufficient for every need of the soul, for every private want and every public emergency.

You are lonely, desolate, friendless: here is One bidding you know Him as the Father, and in that name giving you assurance of tenderest sympathy, a friend who, because He is Spirit, can be always present with you, and can enter into your inmost spirit, to comprehend, to strengthen and uphold.

The deep shadow of bereavement and affliction lies heavy on your heart and broods darkly over your home: lo! "standing in the shadow," your Father. In the silence a voice, saying "My child be of good cheer; I am with you to bear your griefs. I stand by you, and you shall not fall; I touch your sorrow and change it into blessing." Is not the all-mighty, all-loving Father the sufficient comforter?

You are troubled, weary, harassed with the care and burden of life: what thought so helpful and cheering as of the eternal presence of the perfect Providence, the Infinite Father, whose calmness bends serenely above our distractions, and around "our restlessness His rest," who is near in every emergency and disappointment and able and willing to make everything work for good!

You are confronted by difficult duty: what thought can be so inspiring as the thought of Him, the Father, whose work every duty is, whose will is working through every true work, in and through every faithful man!

You are tempted: what thought so powerful as the remembrance of the nearness of the infinitely Holy Father, whose holiness is in your soul, too, as warning and power, if you will listen to it and obey it, whose sons should be ashamed of every baseness, since they are capable of all nobleness!

But you have fallen, you have sinned, you have disobeyed the Father's command, left his home, separated yourself from him and incurred the just penalty of his violated law. What thought so startling, so moving, so redeeming as the remembrance of your Father! His love, that bore you in your innocence in its bosom, has pursued you in all your wanderings and stirs the penitent resolve within you as you come to yourself amid your husks. You will go and confess all to Him; you do not fear a Father’s perfect justice. It will give you every penalty you need and every help you require to bear the penalty bravely. He has never left you, and he will redeem you, working in you and with you, an all-mighty and all-loving Savior.

We might speak of other experiences. Let these serve to show how sufficient to the needs and stress of life the doctrine of the Father is. In Him we find all that religionists, hampered by a perplexing creed, have sought and have found in Jesus Christ: have found, we say, for God cares not for names, and if men call Him Jesus Christ, He is none-the-less their Father, though they know Him not clearly. He, the one God, the Father, is to us Creator, Sustainer, Ruler, Judge, Savior, Redeemer, Holy Spirit, Inspirer, Sanctifier and Comforter, "for all these worketh that one and self-same Spirit" [1 Cor. 12:11].

And now I hear some one, Trinitarian or Unitarian, ask: but what then becomes of Christ; what place have you for Him? We have always thought He was our Savior, our Redeemer."

It may be a Unitarian, we say, who puts the question, for in many a Unitarian book we meet with passages which speak of "coming to Christ," "relying on Christ," "giving ourselves up to Christ," "clinging to Christ," "dedication to Christ," "we must lean on Christ," "trusting unreservedly to the Savior’s (Christ's) love for forgiveness and acceptance," "Christ is sufficient," "would you dare to die without resting on Christ?" till we are tempted to ask, is there then no God? Have we no Father? Or is he unable or unwilling to help us? And in Unitarian churches everywhere, the prayers, though scrupulously addressed to the Father throughout, as if He were both able and willing to hear us through His love and our needs, are at the close offered "through Jesus Christ," as if God were not willing or not able to hear us, or we are not able or willing to approach him.

To us all these phrases seem to be remnants and fringes of a theology which "Liberal Christianity" professes to have cast off. They do not grow out of, they are not expressive of or consistent with, the central ideas of those who have learned to know the one God as their Father.

To the question, “What place, then, do you give to Jesus Christ?” this is our answer: To Jesus of Nazareth we give the place which the recorded history of his life justifies. (Evangelical Christians certainly ought to be willing to go to the Gospels, the Evangels, for their authority.) We find that life fully explained by the view that holds him to have been an inspired man, a prophet, a human spirit, in whom (through his consecration and obedience, and in accordance with the native and universal laws of the spirit) the Father dwelt. Through him God worked; in him God was manifested—not in an altogether peculiar and unexampled, but in an altogether natural, spiritual way. He was not the Jewish Messiah or Christ, but something much higher. He was not official, permanent, universal and sole Mediator, Savior and Redeemer. But whoever has received through him Divine influences, and by them has been saved from wrongdoing and quickened to spiritual life, has found him all these in a spiritual sense. We gratefully recognize the debt which the world, and we, owe to that noble, devoted soul. But we remember that in our infancy we learned, as from him, to say "Our Father." And we do not forget that to those who leaned on him and clung to him, he was obliged to say, “It is expedient for you that I go away, else the abiding Comforter, the Spirit, will not come, to you. My Father is greater than I” [John 14:26-28].

"Christian" he may not be, in the technical sense, who denies that Jesus was "the Christ." But, in the spiritual sense, he is Christian who is possessed by the ideas and animated by the spirit and aims of Jesus. Jesus never in a single instance that has been recorded called himself God or taught others to call him so. His constant name for God was “the Father, who, he said, was the "only true God." If we are disciples of Jesus, we shall call God by that name. If we "follow in his steps," we shall go where those stops went. They went always to the Father. If we worship the God that he worshipped, we shall worship the Father only. If we, in dying, trust whom he trusted, we shall commit our spirit into the Father's hand. And if his spiritual mediation has been accomplished, it will have brought us to the Father, with no need of Advocate or Intercessor.

For not the words, even of Jesus, will suffice to reveal God to us as the Father, only the Son in us; the filial spirit of perfect trust, love and obedience will reveal to us fully what it is to have, for our God, the Father.

But as we have the idea, let us be true to it; let us put off all notions and phrases inconsistent with it; let us feel its grandeur and its richness and its inspiration and its sufficiency.

We are not polytheists; we are not orphans. Let others have what God they may or can: to us there is one God, the Father.

© 2005 American Unitarian Conference