Calling God Father -- Meaning?

If you read books on prayer -- such as Richard Foster's -- you may come across the idea that Jesus had invited us to call God Abba, which has been thought to convey a sense of intimacy.  Much of this has come about because of the work of biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias, who had suggested that Jesus may have been unique in addressing God as Abba, and in doing so had suggested an intimacy not previously understood.  As I began thinking of preaching on the Lord's Prayer this Lenten season that sentiment was present in my mind.  Ah, I thought, I can talk about both divine immanence and divine transcendence in one sermon.  But alas, I had remembered that this idea of intimacy had been challenged.

And indeed, it has been.  But, as Marianne Meye Thompson notes in her book The Promise of the Father:  Jesus and God in the New Testament -- Jeremias likely was misunderstood and misinterpreted -- she notes that while early on Jeremias had suggested that Jesus' use of Abba may have reflected a small child's address of one's father, he had retracted that idea.  Instead, the Aramaic was the address given by an adult child to one's father.  What is important to note as well, Marianne writes, is that in the gospels the word abba is found only once -- in Mark.  Thus, in both accounts of the Lord's Prayer the word is the Greek pater.  Besides, that, Jesus' use of the word abba for God likely was not out of character for Jews of his day.
So, what does it mean? 

Marianne writes:

Luke and Matthew particularly reflect the view that to speak of God as Father means to point to the one who has called this community into being.  As children of that one God, those within the community are obligated to each other.  Ultimately, then, God's Fatherhood serves not as a model for the behavior of the human father, nor does it in some way give shape to the nuclear family.   Rather, God's Fatherhood serves as the model for the life of the faithful community together.  All are called to reflect God's mercy and love.  No one reflects God's Fatherhood more or less by virtue of status, birth, gender, or class. All are to call on God, and only on God, as Father, and together all are family, brothers and sisters, children of God.  (Promise of the Father, p. 115). 

The idea of personal intimacy sounds appealing, but it's not likely what Jesus, nor the gospel writers had in mind!


John said…
OK then. I have to take issue with your thesis: "The idea of personal intimacy sounds appealing, but it's not likely what Jesus, nor the gospel writers had in mind!" I disagree.

I could point to the technical argument that Mark predates Luke and Matthew and therefore more accurately reflects the original words and attitudes of Jesus and his first followers, but I think there may be even more compelling evidence to contradict this thesis.

There is no dispute that Jesus calls on his followers to come to him (and God), as children. While Jesus's words don't go so far as to say that people are to approach him 'as children approach their parent,' it can hardly be argued that Jesus meant that people were to approach him 'as children approach an adult stranger.'

And then there is the story which Jesus told of the prodigal son and his father. It is an easy thing for us to do in a deconstructive post-modern analysis to assert that Jesus' culture was not the culture of nuclear families that prevails in contemporary Western societies and from there assert that we need to jettison the stereotypical images which form our own cultural perceptions. However, Jesus himself tells the story of a father with just two sons. So for Jesus to use a small family as a background for a teaching is not without precedent.

And while we might, from an academic vantage point, want to assert that in older cultural settings the degree of intimacy between parents (and especially fathers) and their children may not have been significant, the father in the prodigal son story challenges such an assertion.

Luke recounts Jesus parable: "But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him."

The father who runs down the road to greet his wayward son, the father who wraps his arms around the young man, who kisses his long lost son, is not the distant figurehead your thesis anticipates. Jesus' own parable suggests a picture of incredible intimacy - unusually intimate even for a contemporary Western nuclear family.

It could be argued that the in telling the story of prodigal's father, Jesus sets forth a new standard for all future fathers, a model not only for understanding divine love, but defining what God requires from human fathers, a standard of love which is utterly without condition.

And how do children respond to such fathers? With equally unrestrained trust and love, and with joyous shrieks of "Abba."

Robert Cornwall said…

I appreciate your thoughts.

The point that needs to be made is that Mark only uses the word once -- and not in terms of the Lord's Prayer (only in Matthew and Luke).

It's important to remember as well that the way a father was approached in the 1st century likely is different than today!

I think the key point here is that the scholarly consensus has taken a dramatic turn and that the Jeremias view, at least as it was misinterpreted has been set aside.
But, as they say, that's why we're Disciples -- we disagree!
John said…
From a purely pastoral perspective, it seems to me a good thing to encourage parishioners to greater rather than lesser intimacy with God.

Turning back to Scripture, it seems (in my untrained perspective) that the New Testament in general encourages greater intimacy with God and not greater formality or deference. God as described in the New Testament is a God of love - not deference, awe, or respect. Scripture repeats over and over again: Be not afraid; the one who loves you best is present. Feel safe, feel loved, feel cared for, feel trust and openness! Nowhere that I am aware of does the New Testament say anything close to 'get on your knees and show some respect.'

My point is that whatever the scholarly consensus is on Jesus' use of the word "abba," Jesus was calling us to a greater intimacy with God, and not to an attitude of greater deference and/or awe. And that is a message so many need to hear.

Anonymous said…
I say Jesus sets forth a new standard for all future "brothers" (or sisters). I always relate to the brother in the prodigal son story and how he might of turned around. If God is the father, Jesus is a definite sort of humanist brother. We always say he is "fully human". Is that like the football hero giving 110%? David Mc
There are many descriptions of the "heart" of the Gospel. I like J.I. Packer's ("Knowing God"):

For Packer the heart of the Gospel is that God (the Father) has become the believer's father through the blood atonement of his Son.

Raphael Gamaroff (Onedaringjew)

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