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In his hands he gently bears us

16 January 2008

Anthony Phillips reflects on an Evangelical look at how the fatherhood of God can be known

Knowing God the Father Through the Old Testament
Christopher J. H. Wright

AT A TIME when many Christians at best ignore, or at worst reject, the Old Testament, Christopher Wright’s thoughtful popularising of the Hebrew scriptures is much to be welcomed. This is the third book in his Knowing God series. Having tackled both knowing Jesus and knowing the Holy Spirit through the Old Testament, he turns to knowing God the Father.

At the outset he notes that Old Testament texts rarely speak of God the Father for fear that Yahweh might be associated with the mythological notions of divine parenthood that were common in pagan religions. None the less, for Israel, knowing God could be compared with human fatherhood (and motherhood).

In successive chapters, Wright examines the various ways in which God can be known as father. He can be experienced in action as the one who carries his people, who both disciplines yet pities them, and who, when human fatherhood fails, adopts them.

He is known through experience of his grace, exposure to his judgement, and as the father of his people. He can be further experienced in prayer (Abraham and Moses), through reflecting on his justice (Jeremiah), returning to his love (Hosea), in expectation of his victory (Ezekiel), and through trusting in his sovereignty.

Wright writes from within the Evangelical tradition. No attempt is made to look critically at the many texts he quotes. For Wright, what is important is showing how the Hebrew scriptures can be appropriated by his Christian readership. He is, though, well aware of the danger of “importing assumptions” that derive from “vague and general aspects of the Christian faith”.

His book is full of sound common sense designed to challenge the reader sympathetic to his stance: “Doing righteousness and justice; defending the poor and needy — that is to know God. Where does that leave our limp Evangelical pietism?”

There is much wisdom to ponder here. Wright’s style is lucid, and his text jargon-free. He treats his readers as responsible for their faith, which could be more profound than they, perhaps, imagine. For instance, on prayer he writes: “To know God is to reflect God — even to reflect God back to God in intercession.” And in stressing the importance of the sacraments in conjunction with the Exodus events, he points out that “To know him we must join ourselves to that great heritage of historical faith and memory, enter into these stories, and experience the grace of God in them, along with the company of all God’s people.”

Finally, I utterly concur with Wright’s conclusion, that knowing God is a bit like marriage. Even in marriage, we have no proof of our spouse’s love, any more than we have proof of God’s. In both cases, we may have every indication that it is so, but ultimately we live by faith.

It is to be hoped that Wright’s trilogy will encourage further study in what are the foundation docu-ments of the Christian faith.

Canon Dr Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School in Canterbury.

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