Friday, May 26, 2017


          Almost everyone these days knows that the Aramaic term Abba, by which Jesus addressed God in prayer (Mk. 14:36), means “Father”, though according to the German Aramaic scholar Joachim Jeremias, the word is more akin to a child’s term for Father, roughly equivalent to our endearing term “Papa” or “Daddy”. Indeed, it is almost certain that Jesus’ own use of this term to address God underlies its extended use in the New Testament Greco-Roman churches as an address to God, even though their language was Greek and not Aramaic (cf. Ro. 8:5; Ga. 4:6). Such an address for God was not typical within the Jewish community, but if this was the way Jesus prayed, then it became the way Christians prayed.

A brief word, therefore, should be said about Jesus' insistence that prayer be offered to the Father in his name (Jn. 16:23-28). On the night of his betrayal, when Jesus spoke to his disciples about his departure from the world and his return to the Father, he instructed them to pray to the Father in his name. So far, they had heard Jesus’ teachings about prayer in the form of what we call “the Lord’s prayer”, in several parables on prayer, in the Sermon on the Mount, and so forth, but there had been nothing in any of those teachings suggesting that they should come to the Father “in the name of the Son”. Now, however, they were to ask in just this way. In that day, you will ask in my name, that is, in the soon-to-come day when Jesus would no longer be physically accessible, since he was leaving the world and going back to the Father. What Jesus seemed to be saying was that their requests to the Father “in his name” could now be made directly, since by his return to the Father, Jesus had made such intimate access possible (Jn. 16:26-27; cf. He. 4:14-16; 10:19-22).  Because of their love and loyalty to Jesus, the Father was only too ready to hear their requests!  Now, the incarnational mission was almost complete.  Jesus had come from the Father into the world, and now he was returning from the world back to the Father where he was before (16:28; cf. 6:62).

Because of this language, Christians sometimes ask who should be addressed in prayer, whether the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, or whether equal time should be given to all. This was apparently a problem that the primitive Christian community did not address. In the first place, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not three separated Beings but one God, as say all the ancient creeds. Each interpenetrates the other so that prayer to one is sufficient (cf. 1 Jn. 2:23; 2 Jn. 9).  However, one should not forget that the common form of praying in the New Testament demonstrates a priority, that is, prayer is invariably to the Father rather than to the Son or the Holy Spirit. Prayer may be “in the name of the Son”, and it may be “by the Spirit”, but it is “to the Father”. Indeed, prayer in general in the New Testament is never addressed directly to the Son or the Holy Spirit. Rather, Jesus taught his followers to pray to the Father (Mt. 6:9; Jn. 4:23), and further, that they do so in the name of the Son (Jn. 16:23-24). It is significant that the nature of Christ's mediatorship is not so much that he goes to the Father instead of us (as though he goes where we cannot go), but because of his resurrection life and ascension he goes to the Father with us. He has made the way open to us. To be sure, on occasion Jesus was addressed directly in visionary experiences (cf. Ac. 7:59; 9:13-17), but while this is true, one must concede that these occasions are not the ordinary form of prayer, and they must be regarded as the exception and not the norm. The standard form is for prayer to be directly addressed to the Father in the name of the Son (Ro. 8:15; 15:6; 2 Co. 11:31; Gal. 4:6; Ep. 1:17; 2:18; 3:14; 5:20; Col. 1:3, 12; 3:17; 1 Th. 3:11; Ja. 3:9).


  1. Great thoughts, Dan.

    We have obviously been thinking along the same lines. I keep a stack of ideas I want to "flesh out" in writing on my desk next to the computer. Near the top is a single page of notes entitled "How Should We Pray - and To Whom?"

    However, one describes the "being" of God - a category that eludes me - is not nearly as important as how God has revealed Himself to us and how we, in turn, express ourselves toward Him.

    More and more, I find myself at home with the apophatic theology of the Greek Fathers who simply surrendered to the inevitable fact that we do not - and cannot - know the inner life of God. To affirm otherwise is, at best, philosophical speculation or, at worst, rational arrogance. As much as I respect the struggle of the Fathers between Nicea (325 CE) and Chalcedon (431 BC) in their war against ideas they knew to be unbiblical and wrong, I am lost in the conceptual framework they borrowed from middle Platonism and Aristotle's "substantial" metaphysics.

    Of course, I am not alone in this struggle. The great Trinitarians of the past century - Barth, Rahner, Moltmann, Boff, and Catherine Mowery LaCugna - have all attempted to revive the triune shape of scriptural revelation without substantial metaphysics. (Maybe it would serve our Oneness Pentecostal friends well to worship at these Trinitarian altars a bit.)

    Whoever God is and whatever the nature of His being, we know him ONLY through His self-revelation in salvation history. These are the things to which holy scripture bears witness.

    We see him in the exodus stories of ancient Israel, in the face and - especially - in the cross of Christ Jesus, and His living and abiding presence in the gathered and scattered - the often reviled and persecuted - church in the presence of the Holy Spirit. His revelation has come to us in a triune unfolding in history and ultimately His demand upon those of us who seek Him is - like the deepest revelation of His heart - cruciform.

    So when we pray, we should pray in light of the way we know God - in the way He has revealed Himself to us. Thus, we pray - as Paul repeatedly commanded - to the Father in the name of the Son and through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is not an abstract philosophical reflection on God's being, but an acknowledgement of how He has revealed Himself to us.

    1. I agree that the Eastern Orthodox hermeneutic of apophasis would be helpful to many western theologians on a rather wide range of complicated subjects. Further, your point is well taken that we know God only through his self-revelation in history. Our philosophical speculations beyond that cannot be and never should be held as the gospel. They may be worth exploring, but they must always be treated for just what they are--the search for truth by finite minds with limited capacities.

  2. As I re-read my comment, I just realized that there is nothing in my statements that is inconsistent with the teachings of G. T. Haywood, W. T. Witherspoon, and S. G. Norris. (Not all Oneness Pentecostals mind you, but at least, this particular branch in the larger Oneness tree.)

    They may never have chosen the same language - and certainly would never have reflected the same historical foundation - but their ideas were not far from my own.

    Or should I say - with the intellectual humility that is coming easier-and-easier with my advancing years - my ideas reflect theirs.