In the liturgy of the Holy Eucharist in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, at the end of the prayer called The Great Thanksgiving, the celebrant enjoins the congregation: “And now, as our Savior Christ hath taught us, we are bold to say,” and the people and the celebrant say together the words of the Lord’s Prayer—the version found in Matthew’s Gospel, 6:9-13.
We are bold to say. Why “bold”? What’s so bold about saying a prayer in unison? And what did the original author, Anglican archbishop Thomas Cranmer (d. 1556), even mean by “bolde” when he wrote, “As our saviour Christe hath commaunded and taught us, we are bolde to saye” (based on a remnant of the Latin liturgy, audemus dicere—“We make bold to say”)? Was he denoting the same thing as the first entry in Webster’s dictionary: “showing a readiness to take risks or face danger; daring; fearless”? That’s surely the Star Trek significance, as in “To boldly go where no man has gone before!”. Not exactly. Cranmer surely intended to convey what is now listed in dictionaries as an obsolete or archaic meaning for bold: “confident” or “assured”. What are we confident and assured about saying when we recite the Lord’s prayer? Namely this: that we can address God as “Father” without being “bold” in that other dictionary sense: “presuming unduly; brazen; forward”.
We can be confident in calling God our Father because Jesus has taught us that we can, and should, do so: ‘This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’… ” (Matthew 6:9). The profound privilege we have been given by Christ’s injunction has been obscured by familiarity and repetition. But, as New Testament scholar D.A. Carson points out, directly addressing God as Father was not a theme of the Old Testament nor an aspect of Judaism up to Jesus’ time; “not till Jesus is it characteristic to address God as ‘Father’” (see Carson, Matthew, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8).
In fact, in no other religion, worldview, or belief system is it characteristic to address or pray to God as “Father”. For atheism, of course, there is no God, and calling the universe “Father” would be at best pointless. Richard Dawkins might also call it delusional, as he described the universe as possessing only “blind, pitiless indifference” (in River Out of Eden) with respect to us and our concerns. In pantheism, “God” is just the sum total of everything, and ultimately beyond personality of any kind. One does not even pray in pantheism; one only meditates. In Islam, Allah seems austere, aloof, unapproachable. Theologically, it is difficult to conceive of the monadic deity of Islam as even personal.
In the Old Testament, God is deeply personal—frequently being portrayed in anthropomorphic metaphors—and deeply involved with his people, Israel. But God is approached only with care and caution. In the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, only the priests ever entered and only the high priest went into the inner room, the “Most Holy Place” (see Heb. 9:6-7; Lev. 16:11-19). And, as Carson points out, while God may be likened to a “father” (see Deut. 32:6; Ps. 103:13; Isa. 63:16; Mal. 2:10), he is never directly addressed as “Father”.
The Old Testament and the New Testament, Judaism and Christianity, agree that God is the transcendent Creator; the majestic Sovereign over all the universe; the “King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, who no one has seen or can see” (I Tim. 6:15-16). All this is true, and we should not let familiarity or repetition or pop theology scour this out of our thinking. For losing this right-mindedness about God’s true nature, and our lowly estate, would lessen our joy in this truth: The God who dwells in unapproachable light has approached us in his Son Jesus Christ. He has revealed to us that the heart of existence is relationship-in-love; an eternal Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And he bids us to come into this relationship, and so we are bold to say, “Our Father . . . ”.