Throughout the Bible we find God portrayed as a Father. This portrayal, however, is surprisingly rare in the Old Testament. There God is specifically called the Father of the nation of Israel ( Deut 32:6 ; Isa 63:16 ; [twice] 64:8 ; Jeremiah 3:4 Jeremiah 3:19 ; 31:9 ; Mal 1:6 ; 2:10 ) or the Father of certain individuals ( 2 Sam 7:14 ; 1 Chron 17:13 ; 22:10 ; 28:6 ; Psalm 68:5 ; 89:26 ) only fifteen times. (At times the father imagery is present although the term "Father" is not used [ Exod 4:22-23 ; Deut 1:31 ; 8:5 ; 14:1 ; Psalm 103:13 ; Jer 3:22 ; 31:20 ; Hosea 11:1-4 ; Mal 3:17 ]). This metaphor for God may have been avoided in the Old Testament due to its frequent use in the ancient Near East where it was used in various fertility religions and carried heavy sexual overtones. The avoidance of this description for God can still be found in the intertestamental literature. There its use is also rare: Apocrypha ( Wis 2:16; 14:3; Tob 13:4; Sir 23:1, 4; 51:10); Pseudepigrapha ( Jub 1:24, 28; 19:29; 3 Macc 5:7; 6:4, 8; T. Levi 18:6; T. Judah 24:2); and Dead Sea Scrolls (1 QH 9:35f.).
The teaching of the Fatherhood of God takes a decided turn with Jesus, for "Father" was his favorite term for addressing God. It appears on his lips some sixty-five times in the Synoptic Gospels and over one hundred times in John. The exact term Jesus used is still found three times in the New Testament ( Mark 14:36 ; Rom 8:15-16 ; Gal 4:6 ) but elsewhere the Aramaic term Abba is translated by the Greek pater [pathvr]. The uniqueness of Jesus' teaching on this subject is evident for several reasons. For one, the rarity of this designation for God is striking. There is no evidence in pre-Christian Jewish literature that Jews addressed God as "Abba. " A second unique feature about Jesus' use of Abba as a designation for God involves the intimacy of the term. Abba was a term little children used when they addressed their fathers. At one time it was thought that since children used this term to address their fathers the nearest equivalent would be the English term "Daddy." More recently, however, it has been pointed out that Abba was a term not only that small children used to address their fathers; it was also a term that older children and adults used. As a result it is best to understand Abba as the equivalent of "Father" rather than "Daddy."
A third unique feature of Jesus' teaching concerning the Fatherhood of God is that the frequency of this metaphor is out of all proportion to what we find elsewhere in the Old Testament and other Jewish literature. (Note 165+ times in the four Gospels compared to only 15 times in the entire Old Testament!) This was not justa way Jesus taught his disciples to address God; it was the way. They were to pray, "Father, hallowed by your name" ( Luke 11:2 ). This is why the Greek-speaking Gentile churches in Galatia and Rome continued to address God as Abba. They used this foreign title for God because Jesus had used it and taught his followers to do so. It should be pointed out that although Jesus addressed God as "Father" and taught his disciples to do the same, he never referred to God as "our Father." ( Matt 6:9 is not an exception, for here Jesus is teaching his disciples how they [plural] should pray. ) His "Sonship" was different from that of his followers. He was by nature the Son; they were "sons" through adoption. This is clearly seen in John 20:17 in the distinction between "my" God and "your" God. It is also seen in Matthew 5:16, 45, 48; 6:1, 4, 6; 7:21; 10:32-33, where Jesus refers to "your" (singular and plural) and "my" father but never "our" father.
Because of Jesus' use of this metaphor, it is not surprising that the rest of the New Testament also emphasizes the Fatherhood of God. In the Pauline letters God is described as "Father" over forty times. It occurs in blessings ( Rom 1:7 ; 1 Cor 1:3 ), doxologies ( Rom 15:6 ), thanksgivings ( 2 Cor 1:3 ; 1 Thess 1:2-3 ), prayers ( Col 1:12 ), exhortations ( Eph 5:20 ), and creeds ( 1 Cor 8:6 ; Eph 4:6 ). For Paul this fatherhood is based not so much on God's role in creation but rather on the redemption and reconciliation he has made available in Jesus Christ. This is why Paul refers to "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" ( Rom 15:6 ; 2 Cor 1:3 ; 11:31 ). It is through the work of Christ that God invites us to call him "Abba, Father." It is through Christ that grace and peace have resulted and we have become God's children ( Rom 8:12-16 ; 1 Peter 1:3-4 ; 1 John 3:1 ).
The description of God as "father" is under attack today in certain circles. It is charged by some that this leads to a false view that God is a male. This criticism should be taken seriously in that God is not a "man" ( Num 23:19 ). He is a Spirit ( John 4:24 ) without sexual parts. When God is referred as a father, this is simply the use of a metaphor in which he is likened to a kind and loving father. Elsewhere God's love and care can be compared to that of a concerned and caring mother ( Isa 49:14-16 ; Luke 13:34 ). Yet to avoid the metaphor of father as a description and designation for God is to lose sight of the fact that Jesus chose this as his metaphor to address God and that he taught this as the metaphor by which his disciples should address God. It also loses sight of the continuity established by the use of this metaphor with those who have called God "Father" over the centuries. These include the disciples; the earliest congregations ( Rom 8:15 ; Gal 4:6 ); the earliest church councils ("I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth "); and Christian churches all over the globe who over the centuries have prayed together "Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed by thy name."
Robert H. Stein
Bibliography. J. Barr, JTS39 (1988): 28-47; R. Hamerton-Kelly, God the Father; J. Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus; J. Scott Lidgett, The Fatherhood of God; W. Elwell, TAB, pp. 42-44.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Fatherhood of God'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".