God as Father: Seeing the same God in both Testaments

April 25, 2018

The first time I read the entire Bible I was struck by the different titles used of God between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament usually described God as “Lord,” whereas the New described him as “Father.” The difference seemed to affirm an old stereotype: In the Old Testament, God is a stern lawgiver prone to wrathful judgment; in the New, he’s a tender parent eager to forgive and save. I knew that the difference was false and that God is unchanging, but a casual survey of Scripture seemed to confirm the dichotomy.

A new perspective on the same God

Then, I read Isaiah 63:15-16: “Look down from heaven and see, from your lofty throne, holy and glorious. Where are your zeal and your might? Your tenderness and compassion are withheld from us. But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.”

After hundreds of pages of Old Testament history, law, and prophecy, this passage leapt out at me. It seemed like a new piece of revelation, a sudden change or addition to Scripture. I almost couldn’t believe it was in the Old Testament. It appeared to be wholly new in the context of God’s covenant with Israel.

Here was the God of Sinai, the God of the Law, the God of the temple and sacrifice, of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction, the God that willed the fall of Jerusalem, being described as a tender and compassionate Father to his people. It is as if Isaiah, recognizing the fearful wrath and majesty of the Almighty, was divinely inspired to describe a new way of relating to God, lest his people be too scared to approach him.

Progressive revelation and God as “Father”

Years later I learned the doctrine of progressive revelation. Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, writes, “At each stage in redemptive history, the things that God had revealed were for his people for that time, and they were to study, believe, and obey those things. With further progress in the history of redemption, more of God’s words were added, recording and interpreting that history.”

God is unchanging, but his revelation of himself happens over time. In times past, before the canon of Scripture was complete, God did not provide his people with all the revelation we have of him today. For example, before the Incarnation, God did not reveal the person of Jesus, the nature of the Trinity, the distinction between the first and second comings of the Messiah, or the exact means of the Atonement. Those pieces of revelation came later.

I was right to notice that God is not frequently revealed as “Father” in the Old Testament (although there are a handful of other passages aside from Isaiah 63). That does not mean God was not Father to Israel, just that God did not desire to emphasize his role as Father early in his redemptive plan. Why not?

Three purposes for “Father” passages

What does the Fatherhood of God add to our understanding of him that would make it fit more naturally within the redemptive-historical context of the New Testament rather than the Old?  What does the Fatherhood of God mean? The passages that describe God as Father in the Old Testament seem to serve three purposes.

1. They emphasize God’s compassion and tenderness toward his people.  

Moses opens up the book of Deuteronomy (1:31) by reminding Israel of how God fought for them and delivered them from Egypt: “There you saw how the LORD your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” We read in Psalm 103:13-14, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.”

In Jeremiah 31:20, God asks, “‘Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him,’ declares the LORD.” And in Malachi 3:17, God declares, “‘On the day when I act,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him.’”

2. They emphasize God’s authority and the rightfulness of his judgment against his disobedient children.

In Deuteronomy 14:1, while Moses is delivering the law to the nation of Israel, he declares, “You are the children of the LORD your God.” God continues, “Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the LORD your God.” The connection between the law and the Fatherhood of God is this: Israel was to obey God and treat herself “holy to the LORD” because that is the obedience a child owes to his father.

The Prophets echo the theme of God’s authority and justice as pictured in his Fatherhood. Isaiah opens his book with a thundering denunciation in 1:2, “Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the LORD has spoken: ‘I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.’” Similarly, in Malachi 1:6 we read, “’A son honors his father, and a slave his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?’ says the LORD Almighty.”

These two themes culminate and combine in a few powerful passages about God’s authority and tenderness, his justice and mercy, his wrath and his love together. Solomon writes in Proverbs 3:11-12, “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” God’s judgment against his people’s sin is an expression of his love.  A father who simply ignores his son’s disobedience is not loving his son; he is raising a spoiled and wild boy. Furthermore, Isaiah acknowledges God’s fatherly authority yet appeals to his fatherly mercy in 63:15–17 and 64:7–9.

3. They point to the Messiah.

Passages in 2 Samuel 7, Psalms 2 and 89, and Isaiah 9 speak of God as Father, not of Israel, but of the ruler of Israel. God is Father to a particular individual, a descendent of King David who rules and saves God’s people. “And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (Isa. 9:6-7). The New Testament will shed more light on how the sonship of the Messiah relates to the sonship of Israel.

When collected together, these passages cover most of the Old Testament references to God as Father and his people as his children (See Exo. 4:22, Isa. 45:10-12, Hosea 1:9-11; 11:1-2, 10 for other passages). There are hardly two dozen fatherhood references in the entirety of the Old Testament (20 by my count) that only look like a large body of Scripture when you aren’t looking at the context in which they occur. By contrast, there are literally hundreds of fatherhood references in the New Testament, which is much shorter.

This, then, is the picture of his fatherhood that God wanted his people to have during that moment in redemptive history. As their father, he had special tender mercy for them, but he also expected honor and obedience from them. The people of God are welcomed to approach their God not only as creator, lawgiver, and judge, but as Father. By contrast to the other religions of the ancient world, the relationship was personal, not contractual; affectionate, not businesslike.

And so it is with us today. Through faith Christ, the Lawgiver and Judge becomes our Father and helps us to understand the mystery that the Old Testament was whispering all along.

Paul D. Miller

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University, a visiting professor with the American Enterprise Institute, and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24