The word, “Abba,” is used in the New Testament 3 times, once by Jesus and twice by the Apostle Paul in his letters. There is a common thought that this word is properly viewed as meaning, “daddy,” but according to numerous articles written by scholars of the Aramaic and Hebrew languages, they have reached the conclusion that this is not a correct rendering of the word.
According to an article written by Glen T. Stanton, “This origin of this understanding is generally traced to the notable German Lutheran New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias who in his 1971 text New Testament Theology explained that abba was “the chatter of a small child. . . . a children’s word, used in everyday talk” and seemingly “disrespectful, indeed unthinkable to the sensibilities of Jesus’ contemporaries to address God with this familiar word” (p. 67). While Jeremias did not use the word “daddy” or “papa” in relation to abba, the implication was strong and others came along to make that connection. But other Hebrew and New Testament scholars have taken exception with this understanding.”
Further in his article, Stanton quotes James Barr from his essay, “Abba Isn’t Daddy,” as found in the 1988 Journal of Theological Studies: “It is fair to say that abba in Jesus’ time belonged to a familiar or colloquial register of language, as distinct from more formal and ceremonious language. . . . But in any case it was not a childish expression comparable with ‘Daddy’: it was a more solemn, responsible, adult address to a Father.”
While I understand and respect their research on this word, I cannot help but latch onto the fact that they also say that this word has a level of intimacy with it which, in my view, would have most likely been scandalous (at least in the eyes of the religious of the day) to use when referring to God. It did not denote a sterile relationship between God and humanity, which, in practice, was the way I see those religious leaders of the day (Pharisees, Sadducees, among others) viewing God’s relationship with Israel and humanity as austere and sterile and very formal.
Jesus introduced and ushered in true intimacy with God. In his prayer right before his arrest (John 17:21), Jesus prays, “That they may all be one, even as You, Father, are in me and I in You, THAT THEY MAY ALSO BE IN US.“ (All caps mine) In this unity was extreme intimacy, a oneness, unlike that which had been available since the banishment from the Garden of Eden.
So, the challenge that is before Christians today is how to, in the colloquial language of our day, communicate the intimacy now available to us in a relationship with God, an intimacy that God desperately desires to have with each person? And it is an important challenge to be met.
In my understanding and use of the word, “father” has very little or no intimacy connected with it. To me, it is a very sterile formal word that does not denote an intimate relationship. When I am addressing my own father, I do not say, “Father.” I typically only use this word when I am referring to him in a conversation about him which only speaks to the biological connection which has no aspect of intimacy connected to it. When I address my father, I say, “Dad,” because this word has intimacy connected to it.
Consider this saying: “Any guy can father offspring, but it takes a real man to be a dad.” There is a huge difference between being a father and being a dad. To me, being a “father” only speaks to the biological aspect of the relationship. Being a “dad” speaks to the love and intimacy of a relationship between man and child. That’s why a child who has been adopted can call the man who adopted him/her, “Dad,” even though he never fathered him/her. It’s all about the relationship.
So, inside remaining true to the meaning of the language used by Jesus or the writers of the New Testament, there must also be a commitment to transferring that meaning into the language people today use and understand. Only sticking to a strict translation does not do this. And that makes it once again sterile and cold.
So, speaking as a father of 4 wonderful kids whom I love deeply, I love hearing them call me “Dad” or “Daddy” because that tells me that they sense and love and enjoy the intimacy of the relationship. I do not find it disrespectful in the least. And I think that God looks at it the same way. He loves having an intimate relationship with us and enjoys the fact that we recognize and love having an intimate relationship with Him as well.
So, even though the scholars might disagree, as a pastor, I would encourage you to use words that share and express how much you love the intimacy you have with our Heavenly Father.