The right reason for crying "Abba! Father!"

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It’s a long time since I’ve sung “Abba, Father, let me be yours and yours alone” in public, but it’s the song that is now rather dated, not the sentiment. Evangelical theology is quite insistent on the fact that as Christians, as sons and daughters of the Father, we have the unique right to address him in intimate terms as “Abba”, “Daddy”. We have been taught that this was Jesus’ typical form of address to God, and that because we have all received the Spirit of adoption, etc., we too may call out to God as “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).

In the spirit of friendly deconstruction (I’m not sure that “deconstruction” should be used in this sense, but everybody else does, so why not?) that I hope characterizes this blog, I want to suggest that this misses the point. It is a good example of theological inflation at the expense of contextualized argumentation.

I argued in The Future of the People of God (now available for the Kindle and Kindle apps) that what we have in Romans 8 is not a general account of Christian existence in the Spirit but specifically a theology of martyrdom, and that Paul makes reference to Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane because he knows that the saints in Rome will soon find themselves in an similar situation. In the face of persecution they will also want to ask the Father that the cup of suffering should be taken from them, and they will cry out, as Jesus did, “Abba! Father!” In Paul’s argument here, those who are “fellow heirs with Christ”, who are his “brothers”, conformed to his likeness, are those who will have to suffer with him in order to be glorified with him (8:17, 19).

Dale Allison’s discussion of the evidence in Paul for the nature and reason for Jesus’ death lends support to my argument (Constructing Jesus, 417-18). He notes i) that people do not “pray”, “Abba! Father!”, they “cry out” (krazomen), “Abba! Father!” ii) that several of the prominent themes of Mark 14:32-42 (suffering, death, weakness, flesh against spirit) “reappear in the immediate context of Rom 8:15”; that the moment when Jesus so painfully contemplates his suffering recorded in Mark 14:36 is the only place in the Gospels where the Aramaic term is used; and that in the summary of Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane in Hebrews 5:7-8 he is said to have “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries (kraugēs) and tears”—kraugē and kraugazō/krazō being cognate. I would add further that krazō is used frequently in the Old Testament for the “cry of the afflicted to God for deliverance from their suffering”.1

The martyr theme is certainly not so pronounced in Galatians, but it is not entirely absent. At the end of the Letter Paul offers an explanation of why the Judaizers might want to impose circumcision on the Galatian converts:

It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal. 6:12-14)

Those who are sons according to the Spirit, who cry, “Abba! Father!”, are those who resist circumcision, who accept the prospect of persecution, who have nothing now to boast in except the cross of Jesus. Through their suffering, however, these descendants of Abraham will inherit the promise—that is, they will inherit the coming kingdom of God (cf. Gal. 5:21).

  • 1The Future of the People of God, 116.
Chris Jones | Sat, 10/29/2011 - 14:34 | Permalink

Did you think Jesus actually used the Aramaic (abba) and then switched to the Greek (pater) in his originial cry? Just a question? 


I would assume that Jesus said (for want of better equivalents) “Daddy! Father!” all in Aramaic. The question then would be: why wasn’t the abba translated into Greek? To preserve the memory of Jesus’ distinctive form of address? To acknowledge the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers in their suffering? Or simply because there was felt to be no satisfactory equivalent in Greek?