Monday, February 19, 2007

Tertullian on the Pater Noster

One finds some of the most poignant and significant uses of the term “Father” for God in the work On Prayer (De oratione). Tertullian comments on the opening refrain of the pater noster by declaring: “Happy are they that acknowledge the Father!”[1] Michael J. Brown has demonstrated that the pater noster is a distinctive invocation since it does not contain any sacred epithets (cognomina) that describe the God and Father of Jesus Christ.[2] He suggests that the invocation, when heard by a typical Greco-Roman, would probably have evoked notions of a Roman household head (paterfamilias)[3] or called to mind the ancient patron-client relationship as well as similar types of divine prayers incorporated in then contemporary Greco-Roman literature. Moreover, the prayer may have reminded some Roman citizens of the emperor, whom Romans considered father of their homeland (pater patriae).[4] Tertullian himself probably viewed “Father” as a divine cognomen and metaphor.[5] His exegesis of the dominical oration indicates as much since he linguistically parallels “Father” and “God,” indicating that he believes the former is an integral designation for the maximally excellent being: “Moreover, in saying ‘Father,’ we also call Him ‘God.’ That appellation is one both of filial duty and of power" (De oratione 2.10-11). Tertullian reasons that addressing God as pater obligates believers to obey or dutifully worship the omnipotent deity. By rendering “filial duty” (pietas) to the Father, one simultaneously honors the Son: “‘For I,’ says he, ‘and the Father are one' " (Ibid).

727 “Felices qui patrem agnoscunt” (De oratione 2.7-8).

[2] The Lord’s Prayer through North African Eyes: A Window into Early Christianity (London and New York: T & T Clark International, 2004), 4.

[3] Cf. Matthew 10:25; 13:27, 52; 20:1, 11; 21:33; 24:43. One biblical Greek term for a household head commonly is oivkodespo,thj. See also the entry for ku,rio,j in BDAG.

[4] Brown, The Lord’s Prayer, 4; Eva Marie Lassen, “The Roman Family: Ideal and Metaphor,” in Halvor Moxnes (editor), Constructing Early Christian Families: Family as Social Reality and Metaphor (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 110-112. See DI 5 for an example of the Emperor being called “parent” or Father. Cf. Tertullian’s Apologeticum 34.2.

[5] Ibid. Lord’s Prayer, 246.


Pertinacious Papist said...

Whatever those in the context of the Roman occupation of Palestine may have made of the Pater Noster, Jesus' answer to His disciples' request to teach them how to pray offers a model of divine intimacy that equates Almighty God in a familial relationship with 'Father'. The significance of this is monumental, when one contrasts it with perceptions of God in other religions -- with the sovereign 'Allah' of Islam, for example, who is so wholly other in transcendence than any notion of familial intimacy would be anathema. The words of the Gloria also call to mind an "almighty God" who is also "Father," whom we "worship" and to whom we "give thanks" and praise for His "glory."

Foster said...

I agree that more is involved in the Pater Noster than how the Romans might have construed the dominical oration of Jesus. But Michael Joseph Brown's point is that we do not interpret texts in abstracto. An imagined "Greco-Roman auditor" would not have heard the prayer in the same way that a Hellenized Jew would have heard or perceived it. Moreover, Brown wants to construct a thought-world in order to help us understand the contextual dynamics of the Pater Noster. The evidence that he summons is impressive and his book held my attention throughout my reading of the work. The bibliographical details on Brown's work are _The Lord's Prayer through African Eyes: A Window into Early Christianity_ (New York: T & T Clark, 2004).

I have no quibble (prima facie) with your comments on God as Father. As you are aware, however, it is my belief that "Father" is a metaphor for God. It is an "as-if construct" that emblematically delineates how God presents "himself" to us and it tells us something about God's attributes as a warm and caring "parent," in the words of Minucius Felix or Lactantius who both also call God "Father" along with using PARENS to describe God. I find it hard to believe that God could be a literal Father in view of the fact that God is not a man. How one can be masculine (in this context) without being male is somewhat perplexing. Some of the early fathers suggest that we need to avoid being misled by God appropriating "himself" to us through human speech. Divine revelation occurs through humans speech, which is characterized by certain accidents or contingent properties. That is my take on the matter.


Foster said...

Coorection: The title for Brown's book should read _The Lord's Prayer through North African Eyes_. Sorry for any confusion.