How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Should we call Jesus “Everlasting Father”?

Read time: 6 minutes

David Sunday asks how Jesus can be called “Everlasting Father” in Isaiah 9:6:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

“How can Jesus the Messiah, the second person of the Godhead, be called Everlasting Father?” Sunday insists that Isaiah is not teaching us that “God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, is the same person as God the Father”. That can’t be what Isaiah means because that would be the heresy of modalism, and obviously Isaiah wasn’t a heretic So what Isaiah must mean is that Jesus is “father-like” in the way that he treats us. Moreover, this is an “eternal” characteristic. The child described by Isaiah is “the author of eternity”, the “father of time”!’ He is fatherly in that he reveals the Father to us (cf. Jn. 14:9-10).

This, to my mind, is a good example of how established theological commitments mess with the interpretation of scripture, especially at Christmas time. Sunday takes for granted the traditional messianic reading of the passage, merely assuming that it constitutes a correct understanding of Old Testament prophecy, that it is properly applied to Jesus, and that it must be compatible with Trinitarian orthodoxy. If we start with the texts, however, it is not at all clear that the question needed to be asked in the first place. In fact, arguably it is a mistake to call Jesus “Everlasting Father”.

Let’s begin with the names, which are not easily applied to a king. The problem with “Mighty God” is obvious, but Israel’s king is not normally called “father”, and a king is not a counsellor: he has counsellors or he receives the “Spirit of counsel” from YHWH, he is counselled by YHWH (cf. Is. 11:2). Only “Prince of Peace” fits comfortably.

This is not the first child given a meaningful name in this section of Isaiah. Isaiah has a son called A-Remnant-Shall-Return (Is. 7:3). A virgin gives birth to a boy and calls him God-With-Us (7:14). A prophetess calls her son The-Spoil-Speeds-The-Prey-Hastens (8:3), “for before the boy knows how to cry ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria” (8:4).

These names are not merely titles; they are prophetic statements. It occurs to me, then, that the name given to the boy in Isaiah 9:6 could be Mighty-God-Is-The-Wonderful-Counsellor-The-Father-of-Forever-Is-Prince-of-Peace. In other words, the prophetic “name” celebrates the fact that YHWH guides his king in establishing peace in Israel (cf. Is. 11:1-5). John Goldingay has suggested that YHWH names the king “One who plans a wonder is the warrior God…; the father forever is a commander who brings peace”.1

The Aramaic Targum of Isaiah takes the first three names (“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father”) as descriptive of YHWH, so that the son of David is simply one who brings peace:

The prophet said to the house of David that a boy has been born to us, a son has been given to us, and he has received the Torah upon himself to keep it. And his name has been called from before the One Who Causes Wonderful Counsel, God the Warrior, the Eternally Existing One, “The Messiah who will increase peace upon us in his days.” (Targ. Is. 9:5)

The Septuagint has something rather different again, omitting any reference to the names “Mighty God, Everlasting Father”, but also emphasising the role that YHWH plays in the exercise of government and the bringing of peace:

…he is named Messenger of Great Counsel, for I will bring peace upon the rulers, peace and health to him. His sovereignty is great, and his peace has no boundary upon the throne of David and his kingdom, to make it prosper and to uphold it with righteousness and with judgment from this time onward and forevermore. (Is. 9:6 LXX)

The New Testament does not apply “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”, or anything like it, to Jesus. The angels declare to the shepherds, “unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (Lk. 2:11), but this is as close as we get to an allusion to the passage.

Luke affirms the everlasting Davidic kingship of Jesus in conventional terms without invoking the language of Isaiah 9:6: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:32–33).

This is not Trinitarian language. It is political language, as I noted last week. The infancy stories affirm the revolutionary sonship of Jesus, who will judge Israel and astonish the nations. David Sunday’s anxieties about the Trinity are misplaced and merely illustrate the fact that theology is more of a nuisance than it’s worth.

Nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus said to be a father or father-like. He is Lord in the sense that he has been given authority by God to judge and rule over Israel and the nations. But in relation to his followers, and at the personal level, he is characteristically “brother”. Insofar as believers share in his sufferings, they are also “sons” of God, conformed to the image of the one who suffered and was vindicated, so that Jesus is “firstborn among among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). The writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus was the first of many sons brought to glory; he is “not ashamed to call them brothers” (Heb. 2:10-11).

So in hasty conclusion before I go off to watch Fulham play Rotherham…

1. It is not certain that the Davidic king is given the names “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father”. The pattern of naming sons in Isaiah strongly suggests, to my mind, that the name given in Isaiah 9:6 is a declaration about the God who has established his king.

2. The New Testament consistently presents Jesus as the fulfilment of Davidic expectation but shows no interest in applying “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” to him. Perhaps just an oversight, but it needs to be taken into account.

3. The New Testament does not present Jesus as “father-like”. In that he suffered, was martyred, and was vindicated, he is a firstborn brother to those who would likewise suffer, and I would argue that for understanding the significance of Jesus in the New Testament context this is a badly neglected motif.

4. This is not a matter of defending Trinitarian orthodoxy or otherwise but of recovering the New Testament narrative.

  • 1J.D.W. Watts, Isaiah 1–33 (WBC, 1985), 176.

In a similar vein, the suffering servant in Isaiah speaks of descendants, but you don’t ever hear sermons mention that.

Doane | Sun, 01/03/2016 - 19:48 | Permalink

“Nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus said to be a father or father-like. “

Wouldn’t all the language used to describe how Jesus would return/come and judge, language that is father like in the OT?