In speaking with unbelievers, the apostle Paul appeals to their inward sense that there is a divine Father that we all have come from. Speaking to Athenians in Acts 17:28,29, Paul quotes (it is believed by most Biblical scholars) the heathen poets Aratus and Cleanthes (see below) and says:
“For in Him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.’ Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God…”
What does it mean for us to be the offspring of God? Is it possible that this terminology only means that God is a Maker and progenitor to mankind, but otherwise does not bear any fatherly relation to his creatures? Is it possible that the Bible uses the ascription of father in the relation of God to his creatures (Lk. 3:38; Acts 17:28-29; Heb. 12:9; Lk. 15:12-13,18,20,24; Matt 6:26; Isa. 64:8, Mal. 2:10) but that this does not imply that the creature ever receives any gracious blessings or benefits due to God’s fatherly relation? No.
The essence of fatherhood, as we are taught from our earliest experience and upbringing, is to:
(1) Have one from whom we came and whose image we bear,
(2) who is older, stronger and wiser than us,
(3) to love, bless, care for, guide and provide for us.
These are the constitutive elements of the definition of a father. If God meets this criteria in relation to the human race, then by definition He is a Father to the human race:
(1) The human race has come from God’s hand and bears his image (Gen. 1:26; 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7).
(2) He is older, stronger and wiser than all his creatures;
(3) He cares for, blesses, provides for, guides, helps his creatures (Ps. 107:23-31; 136:25; 145:9; Jonah 4:11, etc.), and loves them (Lk. 6:35; 1 Jn. 4:8; see The Three-fold Love of God in reformed history).
God is much more than a disinterested Original-Cause to his creatures; He is, by definition, a Father by creation to them.
And this is known by General Revelation. We all live with a sense of divinity upon our souls; we know that there is One greater than us whose affinity we bear, from whom we have come and must give an answer to. We see and feel God’s hand with us in our experience and in God’s providential ways in our life. And this One cannot be anything other than Good, the source and perfection of all good, the One for whom we were made, who has a kindly affection and care for all of his creatures, who has disposed good and help into our lives more times than we can count.
And yet we perceive the Father only distantly and faintly; our sins have separated us from Him. We have perceived his displeasure in his withdrawings and felt his anger in his righteous discipline. We are guilty and have left off our inheritance and are no longer worthy to be called sons (Lk. 15:19), but are the spiritual sons of the Devil (Jn. 8:4).
In this condition, it is only by the message of the Gospel (by Special Revelation), and not by General Revelation, that we are given any hope of being restored to our Father in heaven and legally adopted into his spiritual family (from which we have been cut off) by the sacrifice of God the Son.
The knowledge of God being our Father by creation and all the common grace benefits we receive by that relation, is to lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4) through the gospel. It was not the knowledge of God as a Judge that made the prodigal to desire to come back home (though God is a Judge), but of God as his Father by nature (Lk. 15:17-18), who is loving, kind and good. Thus, Paul, in evangelizing unbelieving pagans in Athens begins with the common ground of God being our Father from where we all have come from (Acts 17:27-29) in order to lead them to Christ by repentance (Act 17:30-31).
The Fatherhood of God to all his creatures by general providence, being written on the heart of man, naturally has been testified to by many pagans throughout history, innately springing from within them from their inmost basic concepts of the Divinity. Below are 10 quotes witnessing to this.
The quotes below are from Thomas Millington, The Testimony of the Heathen to the Truths of Holy Writ: A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, compiled almost exclusively from Greek and Latin authors of the Classical Ages of Antiquity (1863), pp. 1, 2, 474, 545-6.
For a further introduction to this Scriptural doctrine, to see that this doctrine has been consistently maintained by a large share of historic reformed Christianity, and for some recommended reformed reading on it, see Historic Reformed Quotes on the Fatherhood of God over all People.
Order of Quotes
Hesiodus 735 BC
Aratus 270 BC
Cleanthes 220 BC
Lucretius 52 BC
Cicero 43 BC
Seneca 65 AD
Epictetus 90 AD
Maximus TyrusPlutarch 200 AD
Orpheus Hymn on Jove, no date
O Jove, much honored, Jove supremely great,
To thee our holy rites we consecrate,
Our prayers and expiations, King divine,
For all things to produce with ease, through mind, in thine.
Hence, mother earth, and mountains swelling high
Proceed from thee, the deep, and all within the sky.
Saturnian King, descending from above,
Magnanimous, commanding, sceptered Jove;
All-parent, principle, and end of all, principle, and end of all,
Whose pow’r almighty shakes this earthly ball;
E’en nature trembles at thy mighty nod,
Loud-sounding, arm’d with light’ning, thund’ring God.
Hesiodus, Theogonia, v. 457, approx. 735 BC
Jove, in counsel wise,
Father of Gods and men.
Aratus, Phaenomena, v. 1, approx. 270 B.C.
Let us begin form Jove. Let every mortal praise
His grateful voice to tune Jove’s endless praise.
Jove fills the heaven—the earth—the sea—the air:
We feel his spirit moving here, and everywhere.
And we his offspring are.
Cleanthes, Hymn on Jove, 300-220 B.C.
Most glorious of immortals, Thou many-named,
Always almighty, prime ruler of Nature,
Governing all by law, Jove, hail!
For mortals all, Thee to address is meet;
For we are thy offspring.
Lucretius 95 B.C. – 52 B.C.
l. ii. v.
In fine, we all from seed celestial rise,
Which Heaven, our common parent, still supplies.
l. ii. v.7
The first parent of the world set apart the shapeless realms and unformed matter.
Cicero de leg. l.i. fragm., 106–43 B.C.
As one and the same universal nature unites and corroborates all the parts of the world, so did she [nature] unite into one harmonious family all mankind. But they through their depravity disagreed and quarreled, not recollecting that they are all consanguineous and akin, and equally subject to the same paternal providence. If this fact, indeed, were but kept in mind, all men might live the amiable life of the gods.
Seneca Epistle 90, approx. 6 B.C. – 65 A.D.
The first generations of men were of a noble spirit; and, if I may so speak, the immediate offspring of the gods.
Epictetus approx. A.D. 90
l. i. c. 13
Wretch, will you not bear with your own brother, who has God for his father, as being a son from the same stock and of the same descent with yourself.
l. iii. c. 24
Ulysses knew that no human creature is an orphan; but there is a father who always, and without intermission, takes care of all. For he had not merely heard it, as a matter of talk, that Jupiter was the father of mankind; but he esteemed and called him his father, and performed all that he did with a view to him.
Maximus Tyrus Dissertation 38, approx. A.D. 200
God, the father and creator of all things that exist, is more ancient than the sun, more ancient than the heavens, more excellent than time, than eternity, than every flowing nature.
Plutarch Sympos. l.viii, c. l, no date
Plato calls the one unmade and eternal God, the father and maker of the world, and of all other things generated.