That’s question 120 of the Heidelberg Catechism, the first in a series of ten on the phrases of the Lord’s Prayer.
They asked the question 450 years ago, but it is still a good one — and timely now for reasons the authors never would have guessed. Today calling God “Father” is deeply troubling to many people.
“How dare the Heidelberg Catechism command me to call God ‘Father’? Are you telling me I have to think of God as male? Unbridled patriarchy!”
The writers of the Catechism would point out that they are not commanding anything. Jesus is the one who makes it a command.
In Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer he says
“This then is how you should pray: ‘Our Father…’” (Matthew 6:9)
In Luke’s version he says
“When you pray, say, ‘Father…’” (Luke 11:2)
“Command” may be putting it a little strongly, but Jesus is clearly telling us to address God this way in prayer.
Now of course a 16th century catechism will not approach this issue with the same sensibilities as a 21st century feminist. Let’s be clear:
- Heidelberg does not soft pedal the idea of God as Father, apologizing for the masculine language or making it optional.
- Heidelberg does not hammer home the idea of God as Father, becoming insistent or belligerent about masculine language.
- There is simply no discussion of gender here at all. It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to use this Q&A to argue either side of that debate.
So if we start where the Catechism starts, acknowledging that Jesus did say to pray to God as “Father,” what do we find? The answer gives us three reasons — or more accurately, one very helpful reason with two substantial explanations of where praying this way can take us.
First the reason: We are taught to call out to God as “Father”
“To awaken in us…a childlike reverence and trust…”
It comes at the beginning of prayer to set our attitude just where it needs to be: aware of our need for help, and aware that God is able and willing to help us. There is something foreign to western culture in associating this with “reverence,” but in many cultures (including biblical cultures) reverence may be just the right attitude toward parents and elders.
So should everyone in the world think of God as “Father”? Is “the Fatherhood of God” a sort of general characteristic? That is what 19th century liberal theology taught. 16th century Reformed theology would say “no.” And this is the first explanation of where praying this way can take us. We call out to God with reverent trust as “Father” because
“…through Christ God has become our Father…”
It is a particular gift to Christians to be able to call God “Our Father.” The writers understood salvation as adoption into God’s family through Jesus Christ. Before we were strangers to God — maybe even enemies. Now, only because of Jesus, God’s only begotten son, we too are adopted as beloved children. By this way of thinking, calling God “Father” expresses the nature of salvation.
Finally the catechism emphasizes the nature of the trust this is intended to express:
“…just as our parents do not refuse us the things of this life,
even less will God our Father refuse to give us what we ask in faith.”
Perhaps this assumes we had good and generous parents — and if so, we know God is more generous still. But if we had ungenerous, problematic parents, by adoption through Christ we now have a kind and gracious Father. And we are invited to ask for what we need, knowing this wise and loving adoptive Father is willing and able to provide for our deepest needs.
Do you find it a help or a hindrance to pray to God as “Father”?
What other ways do you find yourself addressing God in prayer?
If you like the post I hope you’ll share it!
Click here to tweet this: “Does it matter if you pray to God as “Father”? @garynealhansen #Jesus #prayer. http://bit.ly/YVd8Uj”
Click here to tweet this: “Check out @garynealhansen on Heidelberg Catechism and the Lord’s Prayer. #prayer #YRR. http://bit.ly/YVd8Uj”