Since in the past I’ve helped perpetuated a myth, the myth that the Aramaic word ʾabbā has the same connotations as English daddy, I feel responsible also for standing against this myth and its ill effects on Christian piety. No doubt Christian believers are indeed caught up into communion with God – adopted as sons in Christ, they have the same relationship with the Father as Christ has – but ʾabbā does not in any way imply being casual with God in the manner into which many Christians have been deceived. Instead it illustrates what an extraordinary privilege is conferred upon sinners who are in Christ: unlike the rest of the world, they have the status of sons who will inherit the earth.
The myth was most forcefully promulgated by Lutheran theologian and biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias (1900–79). But Mary Rose d’Angelo says in ‘Abba and “Father”: Imperial Theology and the Jesus Traditions’, Journal of Biblical Literature 111, no. 4 (1992), 615–16, also drawing on a 1988 article by James Barr, ‘ ʾAbbā Isn’t “Daddy” ’,
Jeremias began almost at once to retreat from the claim that ‘abba’ had the same connotations as ‘daddy’. In a sense, Barr’s title (but only his title) misrepresents Jeremias. Even as Jeremias acknowledged that the word was in common use by adults and was used as a mark of respect for old men and for teacher, he continued to stress the origins in babytalk and the consequent intimacy as a special component of Jesus’ use of the word. This meaning seems to have been the basis on which he regarded Jesus’ use as absolutely distinct from the Judaism of his time.
The NT itself gives quite a different reading of ἀββα. Each of the three occurrences of ἀββα in the NT is followed by the Greek translation ὁ πατήρ, ‘the father’. This translation makes clear its meaning to the writers; the form is a literal translation – ‘father’ plus a definite article – and like abba can also be a vocative. But it is not a diminutive or ‘babytalk’ form. There are Greek diminutives of father (e.g., πάππας), and the community chose not to use them.
Likewise, J. R. Daniel Kirk suggests that Jesus’ use of ʾabbā in the garden of Gethsemane puts Christians into the cross-bearing role of the suffering servant, hardly a warm and fuzzy position. If Barr et al. represent the best scholarship on the biblical and extrabiblical use of ʾabbā, I hope that efforts to equate it with daddy are due to ignorance and not to a wilful refusal to let go of a sentimental doctrine.
Referring to God the Father as Daddy is not suggested by holy Scripture, nor can any pragmatic appeal to heightened religious feeling surmount the utter want of warrant in Scripture. Just as the elements of our worship ought to be driven by biblical concerns, and we have no right to do in worship whatever strikes our fancy – for which reason we don’t burn incense to God as an offering or worship him through the image of a golden calf – the use of daddy about God is, in my view, an illegitimate part of Christian piety, to be expunged from our devotional vocabulary.
Far too long has love for God been divorced from reverence and godly fear, and far too often has the Name of Jesus suffered abuse in Christian mouths. The refiner’s fire is a wholesome thing, the appearance of the Sun of righteousness in our hearts, to be welcomed by those who love God, but even so the proper response is awed reverence, not pretentious familiarity. Perhaps some imagine that Moses, David and especially the apostles looked like modern charismatics in their intimacy with God. Yet even St John, the beloved disciple, as shown in his Apocalypse, shows no signs of informality toward God, but appears much the same as the prophets of the Old Testament in his reverence.
By devoting ourselves to the spirit of the biblical models without taking one example slavishly as the divine-right template for the ages, I hope, we’ll have a piety founded on the word of God and not on the unsanctified fancies of our hearts. This will not lessen God’s glory but allow it to shine more clearly. And surely such an outcome is desirable to all who long for the glory of God to be seen among the nations.