In the Old Testament God is not that often spoken about as father. God is described as a king, lord, mighty one and so on. When God is spoken about as father he is usually depicted as the father of the Jewish people and nation.
However, things changed drastically in the New Testament times. Jesus frequently addresses and speaks about God as father. The Aramaic word (at this time the Jews did not speak Hebrew. Hebrew was for scripture and liturgy, but they spoke Aramaic) is “Abba”. This is an unusual use of the word. Usually, when a Jew prayed to God as father he used a somewhat more formal term. Sometimes it is said the word “Abba” means “daddy”, but that is not quite the case because it is no childish word.
Rather it indicates a strong, mature love between Jesus and his Father. Abba is a word of deep intimacy and this is the usual way Christ addresses God. And, as far as we know, Jesus was the only Jew on record speaking to God in this way. Others did not, so the use of this word is one of the indications that Jesus thought of himself as the son of God in a unique sense. Sometimes it is said that Jesus did not claim explicitly to be God (except in the Fourth Gospel), but Jesus ‘ use of this word is an example of his having a unique relationship with God.
It should be noticed that in speaking to the apostles he never referred to God as “Our Father” but always made a distinction between how Jesus viewed God in relation to him and to his apostles. Some will object and say that Jesus taught his disciples the Our Father. This is true. However, it is not really an exception. When Jesus Christ was teaching them this prayer he was speaking as one of the apostles In effect, he was teaching a liturgical form rather than speaking to his Abba personally. An example of this way of speaking is found in Christ’s words to Mary Magdalen after his resurrection:
“I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (Jn 20:17)
To sum up, Jesus’ use of the word Abba to address God shows Jesus’ sense of having a uniquely intimate relationship with God.
However, Jesus did teach his apostles the “Our Father”. This shows that through our Christian faith we become sons and daughters of God. We never become God in substance, but by grace. We become sons and daughters of God through baptism.
Baptism is our “adoption ceremony” so to speak. As St. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians (Gal 4:4-7): “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”
We can see why Jesus gives us the parable of the Prodigal Son. The young man takes his father’s money and wastes it in riotous living in a far country. When he is completely out of money he realizes what he has done and decides to go back to his father and ask him to hire him as his servant. However, the father rejoices to see himand forgives him. This parable, of course, is for us. Through the sins we have committed we have distanced ourselves from God, but God is waiting for us to come back to Him. And the way we do this is through baptism, in which we participate, in a certain sense, in Jesus Christ’s “Abba” experience.
The Greek word for God is Theos. It is from this word we get many English words referring to God, as we shall see. For example, polytheism is the belief in many gods.
This belief was common before the coming of Christianity. In a Christian context polytheism was essentially the faith that the apostles had to confront when they began to evangelize the non-Jews. It has to be said, though, that by the time of Christ many of the philosophically-minded, educated pagans were moving beyond polytheism to a belief in one God, somehow beyond and above the many lesser gods and goddesses.
We now move on to monotheism, the belief in one God. This is common to Christianity, as well as Judaism and Islam. In addition, many Hindus are monotheistic. Of course, we as Christians believe in the Trinity, one God in three persons, but this doesn’t negate our belief that God is one. This doctrine is not based on philosophical consideration, but on the apostles personal experience of God made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. In other words, the apostleals, as good Jews, believed in God, but their experience of Jesus Christ, especially after His resurrection, convinced them that Jesus was God.
Atheism, of course, is the denial of the existence of God. Although there probably have always been atheists, their numbers are growing in our society and they are becoming more militant. One cannot prove the existence of God with arguments that would convert an atheist to Christianity, but we can certainly be witnesses to our faith and give reasons for our faith, but we should never argue. If we have friends or relatives who are atheists, the best thing we can do is pray for them.
Hinduism, of course, is basically polytheistic. However, there are many forms of Hinduism that are monotheistic. In addition, some forms of Hinduism believe in one, divine reality of which everything else, the cosmos, human beings, the various gods and goddesses, are simply manifestations this.
Buddhism does not have any concept of God at all. However, it is better to say that Buddhism is non-theistic rather than atheistic. Buddhists themselves realize that atheism in its modern form is a reaction to Christianity, whereas Buddhism grew in a different context entirely.
If we look at the Judaism from which Christianity has arisen, the belief in one God is expressed more succinctly in the most basic creed of Judaism “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord….” (Deut 6:4)
Pious Jews recite this daily in public and private prayer. It is out of this creed with its uncompromising, monotheism that the Christian creed has developed. Although Jews disagree with the Christian belief in the Holy Trinity, it is a development of this monotheism, not a denial if it.
In our religion we often hear the word faith. We are told how important it is. We don’t want to lose it. In difficult times people may tell us to have faith. But what is faith?
In the letter to the Hebrews we find “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)” This may not be a complete definition, but it shows that faith is something that takes us beyond our usual, physical, psychological world. It is clear that faith is not proof. Throughout the ages, philosophers, including the ancient Greeks and Indians, and later Moslems, have tried to ‘prove’ the existence of God. These attempts continued through the Middle Ages, though the Reformation and Enlightenment until today. There are still philosophers of different religions or no religion who try to prove the existence of God though philosophy.
It is clear that these philosophical arguments are not proof in a mathematical or scientific sense. Probably no atheist has become Christian simply by reading these proofs. However, if we think of these arguments not as proofs but as ways of understanding, they can be helpful. They can show us that our faith is not irrational.
They can also help us to make sense of the faith we already have. Faith can be divided into two broad categories: faith that something is true and faith as trust.
The first kind of faith is faith in the first sense meaning that some idea or concept or feeling is true. So, we say that we believe in God. This means that with our whole person, including our reason, tells us that there is a God, that God exists. We can call this faith propositional faith, faith that some proposition is true, i.e., “God exists”. The statements of the Creed are all propositional in the sense that we assent to certain statements. In this kind of faith the role of reason is prominent, but this kind of faith is not simply a product of reason. Our whole person is involved.
The second kind is faith as trust. In that sense we have a strong feeling that God or a family member or friend will always be there for us, will always ‘have our backs”.
This feeling is not something we can prove rationally. It is a conviction that comes from deep within us. It is a faith built up from experience.
Obviously Christian faith encompasses both kinds of faith. There is the intellectual faith that God exists and that all the other doctrines of the Creed are true.
This kind of faith is important. It is a statement about reality. It is not simply an expression of our feelings. However, this kind of faith is not enough. It is possible to intellectually assent to the existence of God and be a terrible person. As the Epistle of James says: “……You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder.” (James 2:19) In other words, the demons and Satan himself know with certainty that God exists, but they are filled with such hatred of God that this kind of faith does them no good.
We need to trust God, to believe that God is there for us. How do we attain to this kind of faith? Partly this comes from looking at our lives. If we carefully review our life story, we can often see the hand of God guiding it. We can also learn this by looking at the lives of other people, whether they may be friends, family members or the saints.
One good way to strengthen this kind of faith is every night before sleep, look at the events of the day and our response to them. If we get in this habit it can help us to see God acting in our lives. Another way faith as trust is experienced is by answered prayer.
No doubt we can recall when God has answered our prayers. He may have not answered one prayer as quickly, or in the way we have imagined, but again when we look at our answered prayer we can see the hand of God.
Faith in both senses grows through the practice of our religion. We grow in faith through prayer, liturgy and the reading of scripture. If we neglect the practice of our religion we can hardly expect to maintain our faith.
We can see then that when we say “I believe in one God….” This is a response of our entire humanity, body, soul and spirit, to a reality which goes far beyond us, but is always present to us.
In our church the Creed begins with the words “I believe…” This is a personal affirmation of faith. However, if one visits various Catholic and Protestant churches one will sometimes find the Creed begins with the words “We believe…” This is not primarily a translation issue so much as reflecting two dimensions of faith. When we say “We believe” we emphasize that our faith is a corporate faith. In other words, we are not “rugged individualists” who read the Bible or have religious experiences and then found a new theology or even a new church based on our personal insights. This does not mean that we cannot think about our faith or even have questions about it, but it shows that we have not created our own individualistic, idiosyncratic religion, but that we defer to the wisdom of the church. As the English writer G. K. Chesterton wrote, in the church we practice “the democracy of the dead.” In other words, we don’t think that something which is modern is necessarily better than something which is old; the dead have a voice in our faith.
On the other hand, when we say “I believe” we assert that our faith is something personal to us. It is not enough to repeat the Creed as if it were something external to us, someone else’s faith. We have to know our faith. Knowing our faith is something which is not only intellectual. It is good to know about our faith. In the age of the internet answers to our questions can be found at the push of a button (not that we should believe every religious opinion on the internet). But we can also learn about our faith by reading about it in books. The Orthodox Church in America is blessed with many excellent publishers beginning with our seminaries and extending to many private publishers. One can find books about Orthodoxy from the elementary to the advanced.
Also, we can learn about our faith in church. If we pay attention to sermons, we will often gain insight into some aspects of the faith. But priests are human, so sermons are not always adequate. The primary way we can learn about the faith are the hymns and prayers we sing or hear. Orthodox hymns and prayers, more so than those of other Christian churches, are often dogmatic, revealing some aspect of the faith. Very often, the liturgical texts explain the events of the Bible. For example, on Epiphany we read about the baptism of Jesus Christ. To learn the significance of the Gospel passages we can turn to the troparion of the feast which draws out the meaning of the Gospel account.
When Thou, O Lord wast baptized in the Jordan the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee and called Thee His beloved Son. And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of His word. O Christ, our God, who hast revealed Thyself, and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee!
In other words, the Biblical account of Christ’s baptism is not simply an account of an event in Christ’s life, but it is the first explicit expression of the Christian dogma of the Trinity. This can be said of the texts of most of our Sundays and feasts. It is, of course, sometimes difficult to pay attention to what is being read or sung but the repetitive nature of Liturgy gives us many opportunities to hear what is being sung or read.
However important as it is to have at least some intellectual knowledge of our faith, knowledge of our faith is not entirely or primarily intellectual. An early church writer said “The one who prays is a theologian. A theologian is one who prays.” In other words we learn theology ‘on our knees’ as Western Christians sometimes say. A merely intellectual understanding of our faith without a personal encounter with God will not save us. So whether we begin the Creed “I believe” or “We believe” all these dimensions are included.