“Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.” (Galatians 4:6-7)
I was talking with a fellow pastor a while back when this passage of Scripture came up. His immediate response was something along these lines: “I love how Paul uses baby talk to refer to God. Because we are God’s children, God is our Daddy. And we can talk to Him like that.”
Now, my friend certainly had a point. Because God has adopted us as sons, we are God’s children and heirs to God’s promises and all that God has (which is Paul’s real point here).
And so there is an intimacy of relationship between us and God. There is a parent-child aspect to how we relate to God. And we can call God ‘Father’ and feel the closeness and the personal nature of that relationship as we pray. All of that is true.
However, contrary to my friend’s assertion, Abba is not baby talk. It’s a well-meaning myth. An unfortunate misunderstanding of the passage that has become very popular through the years thanks to well-intending, but misinformed pastors.
The old line of thought goes something like this: Ab is the Hebrew word for ‘father.’ To double the ‘b’ and turn it into ‘Abba‘ is akin to turning ‘Father’ into ‘Daddy’ or even better ‘Dada.’ Clearly, it’s baby talk. It makes perfect sense.
The only problem is: Abba isn’t Hebrew. It’s Aramaic. In both Hebrew and Aramaic (sister languages), the word Ab means ‘father.’
However, one of the differences between the two languages is in how they indicate the definite article ‘the.’ In Hebrew, they take the consonant ‘h’ and add the vowel ‘a’ so that you have a ‘ha-‘ added on to the noun. So, in the case of Ab ‘father,’ that’s Ha’ab. It still just means ‘father,’ but it’s the more formal way of saying it.
In Aramaic, though, to indicate the definite article they double the final consonant of the word and add the vowel ‘a.’ So, in the case of Ab ‘father,’ they double the final ‘b’ and make it Abba. Literally, that’s ‘the father.’ But, we would render it in English simply ‘father.’
So, it’s not baby talk. Paul is not saying that we call God ‘Daddy’ or ‘Dada.’ He’s saying that we call God ‘Father,’ or as he puts it: Αββα ὁ πατήρ.
Note the Greek here. That’s the formal ‘the father’ that we would render simply ‘father.’ In Greek, there is a way to make that ‘papa’ if it were baby talk. But it’s not. It’s just ‘father,’ which is an accurate translation of the Aramaic Abba. Simply ‘father.’
Mind you, none of this takes away from the intimacy of talking to God as our ‘Father.’ If you like, you can even pray to God as ‘Daddy’. But, please, don’t use the argument that Abba is baby talk and so we can use baby talk too. It’s just not true. It’s passing on bad information.
And, when our lay people find out we were wrong about this, they will begin to wonder what else we are wrong about. Eventually, perpetuated inaccuracy undermines our authority as teachers of God’s Word. So let’s be careful what we teach.