Speak in Time

I’m doing a good bit of reading on the issue of the “Abba, Father” prayer in preparation for SBL.

The history of the prayer’s interpretation over the early to late 20th century is a fascinating study. There were at least two major driving factors at work in how it was read.

First, German scholarship was heavily influenced by Rudolf Bultmann, and he by the larger cultural ethos, who was deeply committed to existentialist philosophy as the framework for making sense of the NT. In a manner not all dissimilar from American conversionist preaching, Bultmann suggested that the core of Christianity is an experience of God, an in-breaking of the divine into the heart of the believer.

So what makes Christianity unique? It’s this immediate experience of God.

The other significant factor was the idea that the significance of Christianity is, in fact, to be found in its uniqueness. Yes, Jesus had to find his way through the Jewish world, but all the really great stuff was to be found in how Jesus was different from Judaism. Again, with Germany at the center of NT scholarship in the early-mid 20th century, its cultural ethos was significant. Think Hitler. Think World War II. Got it?

So what does all this have to do with reading the “Abba, Father” prayer?

These two factors came together in an exposition of the phrase that declared that this prayer gives evidence of an unparalleled intimacy between Jesus (and then, subsequently, the believer), and God.

“Unparalleled intimacy.”

Unparalleled: much ado was made about the alleged lack of parallel material in which God is addressed as “father” in prayer. But this is tied to the “intimacy” thing: prayers in which the Jewish community as a whole would address God as father were excluded.

Intimacy: the idea was tentatively put forward by Joachim Jeremias that ‘abba was baby talk, parallel to daddy. That sort of intimate family language was seen as expressing the heart of the believer’s existence in the family of God.

The latter claim is also easy to debunk. For one thing, every time it appears in the NT, the word abba is followed by the Greek [ho] pater: a form that is clearly NOT the baby-talk word for “daddy” in Greek.

The amazing thing about this claim about unique intimacy is that it became the central thrust of a whole strand of NT scholarship, bearing fruit even in whole New Testament theologies that centered on the idea of the intimate fatherhood of God to the believer.

In a circular process of cause and effect, this reading that derived from an existentialist, anti-Jewish environment resonated with those who occupied that same environment, and became the obvious reading of not only three verses in the NT, but of the whole NT itself.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You think that the point is going to be, “Therefore, be careful about how your environment shapes your readings.”

Well, that’s important. But I was actually thinking something along the opposite lines.

Say what you need to say for your own time and place, realize that the people who came before you said what they needed to say for their own time and place, and don’t worry about saying something that will be viewed as correct for the next five centuries of Christian faith and practice.

For all that the existentialist reading of the “Abba, Father” prayer seems to me to be driven by dubious assumptions, it resonated with a people and declared to them that Jesus was the Messiah sent from God. If my idiosyncratic readings, that nobody will agree with in 100 years (I hope someone will agree with them for the next 25 or so…) put that same conviction into the hearts of my readers / listeners, then I’ve done what I can for the time and place which is given to me.

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