“Abba” is not “Daddy”

It isn’t quite right to say that the Aramaic “abba” means “daddy.”  In other words, to call the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “daddy” at the outset of our prayers is a bit too casual and irreverent.  Philip Ryken explains.

“To call God ‘Abba, Father’ is to speak to him with reverence as well as confidence.  Abba does not mean ‘Daddy.’  To prove this point, the Oxford linguist James Barr wrote an article for the Journal of Theological Studies called ‘Abba isn’t “Daddy”.’  What Barr discovered was that abba was not merely a word used by young children.  It was also the word that Jewish children used for their parents after they were fully grown.  Abba was a mature, yet affectionate way for adults to speak to their fathers.”

“The New Testament is careful not to be too casual in the way it addresses God.  The Aramaic word abba appears three times in the New Testament (Mark 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).  In each case it is followed immediately by the Greek word pater.  Pater is not the Greek word for ‘Daddy.’  The Greek language has a word for ‘Daddy’ – the word pappas – but that is not the word the New Testament uses to translate abba.  Instead, in order to make sure that our intimacy with God does not become an excuse for immaturity, it says, ‘abba, pater.”

“The best way to translate abba is “Dear Father,” or even “Dearest Father.”  That phrase captures both the warm confidence and the deep reverence that we have for our Father in heaven.  It expresses our intimacy with God, while preserving his dignity.  When we pray, therefore, we are to say, ‘Our dear Father in heaven.’”

Philip Ryken, When You Pray, p. 57-8.

shane lems

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28 comments on ““Abba” is not “Daddy”

  1. I’ve never been in a position to call anyone Daddy myself, but if it’s a term of endearment, and respect, I don’t see a conflict. It’s not irreverent, as far as I can tell. I’m more bothered by “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs than this.

  2. I think it depends on where your from. Here in the South these pesky Southerners call their dads “deddy” their entire lives.

    • nina says:

      thats not always true with every southerner. it depends on how southern you are. I live and was raised in S.C. I call mine father.

    • MTinNC says:

      I’m one of those pesky Southerners to whom you refer, and my earthly father will be Daddy until he’s gone, or I am. It’s a name that fits him. But as for referring to my heavenly Father – “daddy” is not even considered. He’s so much more, and deserves so much more respect than any human; I don’t care how familiar a person believes they are with God. It makes me cringe inside to hear it used.

      • tomlassiter44 says:

        Me too,MT!

      • utterleehis says:

        A quadruple AMEN to that “MT”! I can remember being taught that ‘Abba’ translates as ‘Father’ and feeling uncomfortable with it back then. As i’ve gotten older and a bit more experiential with our Most Gracious Heavenly Father GOD and on the receiving end of all His Grace & Goodness that has been so wondrously extended to the likes of me all these many years there is no way i could consider calling Him something as trite as “Daddy”. I too believe we have become all too familiar (or perhaps it would be more correct saying “un”-familiar) with the ONE we have hardly scratched the surface of KNOWING. His Word says we don’t even know our own hearts, how much less is our knowledge of Him? Besides,’Daddy’ is more than likely just another americized-version of what has been referred to throughout the ages as ‘Father’.

  3. Dan H. says:

    I think that the problem is also in English words can have very different meanings to many different people. To me “Daddy” means “Dearest Father” even “Father” by itself moreso.

    None the less, I think that it would be preferred that we had a “casual” relationship with God. Not so much in the sense of what I want when I want, but rather the kind that means running into your dad’s bedroom, jumping on the bed and saying: “Hey Dad, can I borrow the car for an hour?”.

    I need to clarify that by that I mean the way you approach God can be more intimate because of what Christ has done on the cross. I don’t mean negating respect or authority. So calling God “Daddy” can be done as a sign of submission and intimacy. Not so much as dis-respect etc.

  4. Elly McCall says:

    WOW am I ever glad to finally see this in writing. It’s always made me feel very uncomfortable to hear the somewhat irreverent “Daddy” when speaking of God, but I never have said anything about it when I hear/see people call Him that. I know modern Hebrew (rusty, but well enough), and know that Abba is used as it is described in your blog post, and yes, all adults use the term Abba for their father in Israel. Every time I’ve seen someone refer to God as Daddy I’ve been reminded that that is *not* how I would ever translate Abba into English. Thank you for posting this!

    By the way, I posted this on FaceBook and many people are encouraged to have this truth confirmed.

    • mikejeshurun says:

      I agree and feel the same way as Elly McCall. ‘Daddy’ has too much of a casual and familiar ring to it, while ABBA Father sounds more reverant!

      There is a limit to which human relationships can be compared to the heavenly! I cannot picture myself as jumping into the lap of the mighty Jehovah and demanding the ‘car keys’!

      Yes, He is my Father! But he is also thrice Holy God before whom angel and devil tremble – the Ancient of days!

      Thank you for clarifying this through this wonderful post! I am going to save this in my files!

      • jaitaiwan says:

        Just a quick follow-up, how else can we learn about relationships except through the bible and what we already have around us.

        So for my Dad I can rock up and (keyword) ask (not demand) for the keys to the car. I really understand that I have to respect my Dad and sometimes even fear what he might think of me. The relationship the Jews had of God was one of distance and fear or complete denial. In the new testament you see the nature and beauty of intimacy with the Father. Either position can be taken to extremes but there is a time for fear, just as there is a time for reverence.

    • Elly, I’m having a hard time seeing why you consider “Daddy” as irreverent.

      • Elly McCall says:

        It might not be irreverent for your earthly father, but it is not appropriate for our heavenly Father if we look at the way God is portrayed and referred to in the Scriptures.

  5. [...] Read the whole post here. [...]

  6. Interesting read, I remember praying with an SDA acquaintance who started his prayer with Papa, Father. Sounded odd, but not too uncomfortable.

  7. [...] Seminary California. He blogs, along with fellow classmate Andrew Compton, at Reformed Reader where this article first appeared: it is used with [...]

  8. Josh says:

    In my findings, when someone thinks having an intimate enough relationship with God to call him daddy is irreverent, they spend their time studying God rather than communing with him. We can study a football player all day long and know everything about him but have never even met him, much less have a relationship with him. The same can be done with God. By no means am I saying any of you don’t know God, nor am I telling you how to address God. Just maybe we should ask ourselves ” do we know Jesus or just his stats and info?” BTW, I don’t call God daddy. Also what does the prodigal son story tell us of how God wants our relationship to be with him?

    • Josh, the parable of the prodigal son tells us a lot about how God wants our relationship to be with him. At first, the prodigal only cared about what he could get from his father. When he said,”Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me,” he was basically telling his father, ” Daddy, I know I’m not supposed to get my inheritance until you’re dead, but since you’re not dead yet, give it to me anyway!” That’s rather disrespectful, don’t you think? After he repents, he says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” That is the position of every one of us! None of us are worthy of our Father’s goodness and mercy. It is solely by His grace that any of us are called His sons and daughters, and He deserves more than the respect some irreverent, unthankful, and ungrateful child might give Him. He is our Father, but He is also the Most High God, and we should never forget to approach Him as such. Those who would call the Almighty God “daddy” should learn Who it is they are addressing. He deserves our utmost respect and reverence always!

      • Dan H. says:

        That of course is assuming “Daddy” is dis-respectful and irreverent. Using that as one of the many names that God has is not indicative of either.

      • Josh says:

        Tom, I think we can focus on the son’s actions in the parable or turn our eyes on the father and see how he interacts with the son instead. We know there are actually 2 prodigal sons in the story, the younger and older. Even though the older son never outwardly disrespected his father, his heart was still all about himself, his actions, and how “respectful” he was to his father. Yet we see at the end, the father ran to the younger son with open arms, embraced and kissed him. Then, he throws a party and celebrates the rescue of his son and invites the older brother to be a part of this celebration. He invites the older brother to be rescued also. This is a picture of how our Father embraces us. Even once we are justified, there are places in our hearts where we are prodigals and don’t fully believe the Gospel. But he wants to rescue us from the evil of this world. He wants to rescue our hearts from those places.

        It’s possible that you and I are talking about 2 different kinds of people that call God “Daddy”. Personally I don’t know many people that do, but those people, all have complete and total respect and reverence for God. It is evident that their entire lives have been changed by him and they walk with him daily.

        I think to say,

        “Those who would call the Almighty God “daddy” should learn Who it is they are addressing. He deserves our utmost respect and reverence always!”

        as you did above is a blanket statement that is inaccurate.

  9. Elly McCall says:

    I just want to reiterate: I would *never* translate “Abba” as Daddy, and I know Hebrew. No matter what part of the country we live in, or whether we live in Israel or in the US, Abba would still not be translated as Daddy.

  10. Elly McCall says:

    Perhaps we’ve taken in our own experiences and ways that we communicate into this conversation – which is good. I’m glad that “Daddy” is not disrespectful to many, it isn’t to me either. I think the issue at hand is that the word Abba is not translated as Daddy, so while Daddy may be perfectly a respectable name for our dads (or daddies ;o) ), it is not a term that is used Biblically for God. So perhaps mentioning that Daddy can be disrespectful is another issue or not an issue at all; maybe the best question would be “is the term Daddy being used for God a Biblical term?” Based on the Greek mentioned in the blog post and based on the Hebrew, I’d say it is not Biblical. There is no judgment taking place, just a Biblical observation to consider.

  11. Monty Ledford says:

    Maybe this is one for the “prayer closet”, similar to speaking in tongues–he who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. “Daddy” might be appropriate for private worship, but somewhat out of place, or at least to be used with diffidence, in public worship.
    I also note that Jesus said, Pray this way, Our Father in heaven–I would think that the qualification that the Father is in heaven carries with it an element of respect and (dare I say it?) distance.

  12. pgepps says:

    Seem to be many folks blurring the terms, here. “respect” and “reverence” aren’t the same thing. I am respectful to my students, but I do not revere them. Reverence is an *addition* of respect on account of the *superiority* of the object. Again, “respectful distance” (to cite T. S. Eliot) is not “alienating fear” by any means. An intimidating, demanding father may alienate his children, but a father who insists that his children respect their parents’ bedroom door is simply living justly with his family.

    It is entirely possible that some folks who lack proper reverence do so without outright disrespect. They simply lack an understanding of how *much* respect they ought to show, and perhaps will eventually be taught “respectful distance” in the dark night of the soul. On the other hand, I feel confident that in no way would God desire the immature and sloppily affectionate to be driven away through over-harsh chastisement; though the Father remains unapproachable fire even in the language of Jesus, this same Jesus did say, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not…”

    But dear ones, what is affectionate snuggling from a four-year-old may be perverse in a forty-year-old. Those who yearn for milk, which they should, ought also to read the reproof attached, and seek to grow up.

  13. [...] week I quoted Phillip Ryken’s helpful explanation of why the NT term “abba” should not be translated “papa” or “daddy” (Mark 14:36; Rom. [...]

  14. kellie gillman says:

    When a child falls and hurts himself he looks for a parent and runs in to his fathers arms and the child cries”.DADDDY!!!. “And the father comes running to comfort the child. He doesnt formally say.” Oh Father dearest. Please come and help me I have hurt myself. ” We are his children. He is our FaTHER. Father and daddy are the same. One is a little more intimate. Is your relationship intimate with God. Or is it formal? Is it based on religious activity or heart to heart?
    We are His beloved

  15. Lon says:

    I have read a lot of interesting comments here, both pro / con the position of this post. If I can add a thought in experiential terms, I think we would all do well to reverently acknowledge God as our King and sovereign Lord, love Him gratefully as our Redeemer who first loved us, and address Him as we are taught in Scripture. We are taught that we may address him reverently and lovingly as Father, Heavenly Father, or Abba Father by virtue of what Christ has done on our behalf. Christ, our mediator, has brought us into a new kind of relationship with God by his work on the cross. We are adopted children. Those who are awed by this grace will not be inclined, I think, to approach God irreverently, and will choose their words of address carefully.

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