The fatherhood of God has a central, if increasingly controversial, place in Christian thinking about God. Yet although Christians referred to God as Father from the earliest days of the faith, it was not until Athanasius in the fourth century that the idea of God as Father became a topic of sustained analysis. Looking at the genesis of Athansius' understanding of divine fatherhood against the background of the Alexandrian tradition, Dr Widdicombe demonstrates how the concept came to occupy such a prominent place in Christian theology. He argues that there is a continuity in the Alexandrian tradition which runs from Origen to Athanasius, and shows how in the detail of their language and in the structure of their arguments, the third and fourth century Alexandrians drew on Origen's portrayal of God as Father. For Origen, the fatherhood of God lay at the heart of the Christian faith: to know God fully and thus to be saved is to know God as Father.
For Athanasius, the fatherhood of God was integral to the defence of the divinity of the Son against the Arian challenge: Fatherhood identified God as the loving and fruitful source of all things and as the one who has sought to meet us in his Son Jesus Christ. Arius, however, was an important exception, and for him it was logically possible to refer to God without calling him Father. In the context of modern debates about describing God as Father, this illuminating examination of early Christian thinking will help us to consider whether it is either desirable or possible to call God Father if we are to maintain an intelligible doctrine of God.
Peter Widdicombe is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.