If you have been involved in Christian groups that pray frequently or in church gatherings where individuals in the room take turns praying aloud, you may have noticed how common it is for Christians to begin their prayers with the word Father. The overwhelming majority of personal prayers begin with some form of reference to God as Father.
On the other hand, perhaps you haven’t taken notice of the frequent use of the word Father in the prayers of believers. We have a tendency to take this title for God for granted. It is so familiar to us, so common to our life and to our liturgy, that we rarely give any thought to it. We fail to grasp what a radical thing it is to refer to God in this way.
The German theologian Joachim Jeremias, a New Testament scholar, did a study in which he searched through the Old Testament writings and existent rabbinic writings from ancient Jewish sources. He could not find a single example ever of a Jewish writer or author addressing God directly as Father in prayer until the tenth century AD. He found examples of God being referred to as “the Father,” but the word Father was never used in a direct form of personal address.
This is curious, because the Old Testament spoke about the nation of Israel as God’s “son.” Matthew’s Gospel tells us that shortly after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, an angel warned Joseph to take Mary and the baby to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. Matthew specifically notes that this event occurred as a fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy, “Out of Egypt I called My Son” (, ). In its original context, this statement referred to the exodus, when Israel was delivered from its bondage in Egypt. On the night the Israelites were released from their captivity, God passed over the land, bringing the worst plague of all against Pharaoh and the Egyptians. He came to slay the firstborn son in every Egyptian household, including the household of Pharaoh. What was the significance of that? God was saying to the most powerful ruler on this planet, “Pharaoh, if you will not respect My son, I will kill your son.” So there was a sense in which the Israelites were understood to be sons of God, which placed God in a fatherly role. However, the Israelites never addressed God as Father.
Jeremias also examined the prayers of Jesus, and there he made an equally fascinating discovery—in every prayer of Jesus recorded in the New Testament except one, He addresses God as Father. Jeremias says that the significance of this is that Jesus, who was a Jew and a rabbi, was making a departure from tradition. It wasn’t just a little departure; it was a radical departure. Of course, this departure aroused profound hostility from His contemporaries. When Jesus referred to God as His Father, His contemporaries—the Pharisees, for example—would become enraged. They understood that, in calling God His Father, He was making Himself equal with God (). By addressing God in this familiar form, Jesus was indicating a profound sense of intimacy between Himself and God, showing that He was the unique Son of God.
One of the most important doctrines of the New Testament that gives expression to our redemption is the doctrine of adoption. By nature, the Bible says, we are children of wrath (). God is not our Father naturally, in terms of an intimate, personal, filial relationship. But we are adopted into the family of God in Christ. Christ is the monogenes, the only begotten Son of the Father. He is the only One who has the inherent right to address God as “Abba, Father” (). But when He gave His disciples this model prayer, He invited them to use that personal form of address, which indicates an intensely familiar filial relationship. Of course, not only does the Son give us the right to address God as Father, but the Holy Spirit, as He assists us in our prayer lives, prompts us to cry, “Abba, Father!” ().
With those facts as background, consider the way in which Jesus instructed His disciples to address God: “In this manner, therefore, pray: ‘Our Father in heaven’” (). Jesus was saying that not only was He allowed to address God as Father by virtue of His unique status as the Son of God, but even His followers had that privilege by virtue of their adoption.
This is not something to be taken lightly. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, every time we open our mouths and say, “Our Father,” we should be reminded of our adoption, that we have been grafted into Christ and have been placed in this intimate relationship with God, a relationship that we did not have by nature. It is a relationship that has been won for us by the perfect obedience of the Son, who received an inheritance that was promised to Him from the foundation of the world, which inheritance He shares with His brothers and sisters who are in Him.
In the nineteenth century, a new discipline was added to the curriculum of the study of religion. It was called “comparative religion.” This was an attempt at understanding the great religions of the world not in isolation but, as the term itself suggests, in comparison with one another. This interest was brought about in part because of the shrinking of the globe as travel and communication became faster. In the past, it was common to find various religions clustered in certain geographical portions of the world and usually limited to ethnic groups or nationalities. But as the world became smaller and more interaction took place between the West and the East, Christians increasingly had to deal with Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Confucianism, and so on. The field of comparative religion was developed in an attempt to look at the various religions of this world and find common denominators.
It was during this period that the famous mountain analogy was developed. The idea was that God sits at the summit of a great mountain and that many roads go to the peak. Some of them go more or less directly from the base of the mountain to the top, while others bend and wind and twist and turn, taking a circuitous route to the summit. But the basic idea was that it doesn’t really matter ultimately which road you take, because all of the roads lead to the top and eventually will bring you there. So if you’re trying to get to God, you can go on the road of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or any of the others. All of these religions are just different roads, all going to the same place.
In German scholarship in the nineteenth century, particularly in this field of comparative religion, there was a German word that occurred over and over again in the titles of important books. It was the word wesen. This word can be translated in English as “being,” “substance,” or “essence.” The frequent use of this word reflected the attempt in German scholarship to penetrate to the core beliefs of the various world religions, the fundamental substance, the essence of each of them. The sanguine conclusion of these scholars was that at the core of all world religions is the common affirmation of faith.
What Makes Christianity Christian?
One of those works was written by an outstanding German church historian, perhaps the most important church historian of the past two hundred years, Adolf von Harnack. He produced a work in German that subsequently was translated into English and became a best seller in the theological world. That book had a tremendous impact on theology at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. The English edition was titled What Is Christianity? But the title in German was asking “What is the essence or being (wesen) of Christianity?” Harnack was asking what makes Christianity Christian.
Harnack came to the conclusion that the message of Christ and the core doctrines of biblical Christianity can be reduced to two fundamental propositions. You may never have heard of Harnack and you probably have never heard of What Is Christianity? but I’m sure you have heard these propositions. They are, first, the universal fatherhood of God, and second, the universal brotherhood of man.
You may think my next words are controversial or even shocking; you may be completely outraged, but hear me out. I think Harnack was wrong in his analysis of the essence of Christianity. I don’t think these two propositions are at the core of the Christian faith. In fact, I don’t think they’re even a part of the Christian faith. I think these propositions are actually antithetical to the Christian faith. If you were to ask me to write a book titled What Is Humanism? or What Is Nineteenth-Century Liberalism? then I might say that those systems of thought can be reduced down to the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man. However, I can’t agree that those propositions are of the essence of Christianity.
Why do I say this? I believe it is impossible to go to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and find there the concept of the universal fatherhood of God. I can find a couple of passages that may support this concept only in a very tangential way. For example, when Paul is debating with the philosophers in Athens at Mars Hill, he makes the statement that “We are also His offspring” (). However, this is not a quotation from the Old Testament; it is a quotation from a pagan poet. It follows Paul’s statement that we live and move and have our being in God, meaning we can speak of the universal fatherhood of God in the sense that He is the Creator of all people. We are all His offspring because He is the universal Begetter of the human race. However, when the Bible speaks of the fatherhood of God, it doesn’t characteristically do so with regard simply to creation, but specifically to redemption. Since that is the case, the fatherhood of God is not inclusive, but exclusive and restricted.
So God is the Father of Jesus in a unique way—Christ is the “only begotten of the Father” (). Then the fatherhood of God is extended to those who are adopted into His family by virtue of their union with Christ. Thus, far from teaching the universal fatherhood of God, the Bible teaches the particular fatherhood of God. Therefore, to call God “Father” in the New Testament sense of the word, in the sense of the word the way the church expresses it as the family of God, is to affirm the very uniqueness of Christianity. Yes, it’s un-American and antihumanistic to question the universal fatherhood of God, but this idea is not a biblical concept.
Harnack’s second proposition is deduced from the first. Since God is the Father of us all, we must all share a certain brotherhood or sisterhood. Again, however, this proposition cannot be deduced from the New Testament. I don’t think the Bible teaches the universal brotherhood of men at all. You may respond: “Wait a minute. Doesn’t the Bible teach us to love everyone? Shouldn’t a brotherhood be a community where people love each other?” Yes, of course. But just because there is a community where people are obligated to love one another doesn’t make that community a brotherhood or a sisterhood. Once again we need to see and understand the biblical categories. The brotherhood of which the New Testament speaks is the brotherhood or sisterhood of fellowship enjoyed by all those who are adopted into the family of God and who are in Christ. He is described as “the firstborn among many brethren” (). I am in the brotherhood when I am linked to Christ by adoption. I am His adopted brother. Likewise, every other Christian who is in that special fellowship of the church participates in this special brotherhood. We are not born into it naturally; we must be reborn in order to be in this brotherhood. Therefore, when we speak about the universal brotherhood of man, we weaken or cheapen this crucial point that the New Testament makes about the singularity of the church as the company of the redeemed.
The Universal Neighborhood of Man
Why would anyone come to the conclusion that there is a universal brotherhood of man? I’ve already suggested one reason—they deduce it from the first of Harnack’s two propositions, the universal fatherhood of God. But some come to this conclusion, as erroneous as it may be, because the Bible does indeed speak of something in terms of universality. It’s not brotherhood but neighborhood. Not all men are my brothers, only those who are in Christ. However, all men are my neighbors, and I am required by God to treat these people as I would expect them to treat me. I am required to love my neighbor as much as I love myself. Jesus made it clear that the neighborhood is not restricted to the brotherhood. That was the mistake the Pharisees made. The Pharisees believed that all of the biblical obligations to love one’s neighbor were limited to their fellow Jews, to the brotherhood. Based on that conclusion, they didn’t have to be loving to Samaritans, for example.
In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus told the story of the man who went down to Jericho, but fell among thieves and was beaten, robbed, and left for dead. A Levite and a priest passed by and left the man suffering. However, a passing Samaritan took compassion on the man, stopped, anointed his wounds with oil, carried him to an inn, and paid the innkeeper for his ongoing care until such time as the Samaritan could come back and settle the bill. What was the occasion that prompted Jesus to tell this parable? He told that story in answer to a lawyer who asked, “Who is my neighbor?” (). The story features a Samaritan and a Jew, two people who certainly did not consider themselves as part of a brotherhood. But Jesus was saying to that Jewish lawyer, “Even the Samaritan is your neighbor.” Likewise, He is saying to us: “The Russian is your neighbor, the Asian is your neighbor, the pagan is your neighbor, the Buddhist is your neighbor, the Muslim is your neighbor. Every human being on the face of this earth is your neighbor, and you are to love that person as much as you love yourself.” While it is not true that there is a universal brotherhood of man, it is quite biblical to say that there is a universal neighborhood. However, it requires only a slight shift to move from the idea of universal neighborhood to that of universal brotherhood.
I know people who struggle to address God as Father. People have said to me, “I can hardly bear to say it, because my earthly father was a cruel and insensitive person.” People have told me of instances in which their fathers committed child abuse, and they have asked me: “After that experience, how could I possibly address God as Father? The word is repugnant to me.” I can understand that reaction. I usually acknowledge that what makes the pain and torment they bear in their psyches so severe is the fact that these things didn’t happen at the hands of a next-door neighbor, an uncle, or someone else—it was from the father. Nature itself teaches that they rightfully should expect much more from their earthly fathers than they have received.
When I talk to someone who is having difficulty using the word Father and wants to choke on it when he refers to God, I usually advise him that, as hard as it may be, to focus on the word that comes before it, our, because “our Father” is not his father. “Our Father” is not the father who violated him. It’s our Father in heaven, our Father who has no abuse in Him, who will never violate anyone. We all need to learn to use this phrase and transfer to God the positive attributes that we so earnestly desire and so seriously miss in our earthly fathers.
When Jesus gave the Lord’s Prayer, with its use of “Our Father” as the form of address, He gave us the unspeakable privilege of addressing God in the same terms of filial familiarity that Jesus Himself used. However, we must always remember that God is our Father. He is the Patriarch of the brotherhood. He is the One who adopts the brothers and the sisters. As the brothers and the sisters are born of God and are reborn by the Spirit of God, they become the adopted children of God, which is a status and a privilege that is paramount to the New Testament concept of redemption. This status should be brought to the front of our minds every time we say the Lord’s Prayer.