Without Prayer there is No Salvation

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Icon of the Ascension

Sergius Bowyer, in his delightful little book Acquiring the Mind of Christ, says that “without prayer…, there is no salvation” (p 12). I read that line months ago, and it has never left me: without prayer there is no salvation. It is, as should be obvious, an overstatement. From Protestant ears, it’s even a damnable overstatement!

But we must couch this statement within the context of Bowyer’s definition of prayer. At the beginning of this short, lovely chapter, Bowyer quotes St. John Climacus who defines prayer very simply as “union with God”. He goes on to say that “our task in this short earthly life is to resume a dialogue that was lost with God in paradise” (p 11). Prayer, for Bowyer, and following the early fathers of the church, is not simply saying stuff to God. Prayer is entering into a divine dialogue of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Prayer is, put simply: the final realization of mankind’s salvation in Christ.

But what does that mean?

The early fathers of the church expressed man’s final end in terms of union and communion. God in himself is a community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And out of love, he created mankind not so that we might live independent parallel lives with God, but rather that we might be included in that divine community.

Andrew Louth, in his introduction to Christianity, explains that the Trinity must be explained in terms of relationship, prayer, and coinherence. He introduces John of Damascene’s doctrine of perichoresis to explain:

[John of Damascene] introduces a concept that had not hitherto been used with much confidence in relation to the Holy Trinity: the idea of perichoresis, interpenetration or coinherence. The persons of the Trinity are not separate from each other, as human persons are, rather they interpenetrate one another, without losing their distinctiveness as persons, their reality coincides or coinheres…

It seems to me that the doctrine of perichoresis, coinherence, that John introduces in the Christian theology, expresses well the realization that within the Trinity there is relationship, a relationship expressed in prayer. There is, as it were, a kind of mutual yielding within the Trinity: the Father makes space for the Son and the Spirit…and Son and the Spirit yield to the Father as they turn to him in prayer. (Eastern Orthodoxy: A Personal Introduction, p 31)

Human beings were created to enter into that relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And, the original sin is principally a refusal to be included into that relationship of reciprocity and incoherence. Adam (and all men after) wanted his “independence” from this community. He wanted to be his own man. And for that he fell away from communion into sin and death.

With this context, we look at salvation. Put within this frame of reference, salvation is nothing more than God’s own loving extension into space and time to gather all of creation back into this relationship of Triune communion. Indeed, in the incarnation the Son became one of us in order to give us what is his: Sonship. Robert W. Jenson, in his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer, explains this principle very well:

We dare speak to God at all— however others may dare it— only because our Lord permits us to join his prayer, only because he has said, “Trade on my unique filial relation to God, that I may call him ‘Father;’ begin with me, ‘Father . . . ,’ and make it ‘Our Father . . . ,’ not just ‘His Father . . . .’” Thus we pray with this Son, to his Father. Just so, we enter into the living community between them, that is, into their communal “Spirit:” we pray to the Father with the Son, in the Spirit. Indeed, the doctrine of Trinity can be derived by simply adding that only so, only as we occupy the space defined, as it were, by these coordinates—“ to,” “with,” “in”— is it the God of the gospel with whom we have to do. (A Large Catechism, p 14-15)

This paragraph is magnificent, by far my favorite from Jenson. However we speak of the atonement, the goal of God the Son’s incarnation among us and of his being gathered up in his resurrection and ascension, is to exchange his filial relationship with the Father for our sinful reality. The Father’s and the reformers spoke in terms of a great exchange happening through the incarnation, cross, resurrection and ascension. This is no bare legal exchange. It is a real transformation: God became man (incarnation) that man might become God (salvation) as St. Athanasius said.

Salvation is thus being gathered in the Spirit through the Son to face the Father in communal prayer. 

In this way, we simply must speak of prayer as a condition of salvation! Not because prayer is a work that makes us somehow acceptable to God: no, prayer is salvation. When we pray, we enter a new space: the space of Father Son and Spirit. We enter that space by the Spirit through the mediation of the Son, to the Father.

As St. Paul says: God “made us alive together with Christ… and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6-7). As Scott Hahn says about this passage: “This is not poetic speak, this is metaphysical reality!” Through salvation, we come to be in that space between the Father and the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is the final realization of that mystery. 

Praying in Light of the Resurrection

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In his new little book on the atonement and resurrection, The Sign and the Sacrifice, Rowen Williams explains five ways in which the reality of the resurrection changes the lives of believers. The entire chapter is a goldmine of insights, but I want to hit on one point that I believe is incredibly important: if the resurrection is true, our prayer life changes. Specifically, if Christ has risen and has already entered into the holy place, face to face with Father, this changes fundamentally the way we approach God in prayer.

Rowen Williams explains:

It’s far too easy to fall into the way of thinking of prayer as a sort of “storming” of heaven, a campaign: somehow we’ve got to get enough petitions together to make God change his mind; or we’ve really got to exert a bit of pressure on God to make him do what we want; or even, God’s a very long way off and we’ve got to make a lot of noise to attract his attention; and all the various other distortions of prayer that are around. But if we are being introduced into a new world, the place where Jesus is, then prayer is most deeply “allowing God to happen in us”; the Spirit bringing Christ alive in us, being int he place where Christ is real, with the Spirit coming into us to bring Christ alive in our own hearts (p 92-93)

In other words, if Christ is already at the Father’s side, prayer is principally not working our way up to God to gain his favor. It is allowing the reality of Christ happen within us in the power of the Spirit. It is being joined to Christ in his face-to-face relationship with the Father. It is being united with Christ by the Spirit in his resurrection reality.

This turns prayer from a work to reception. It is receiving Christ’s accomplished relationship with the Father and practicing that reality.

Williams continues by explaining that because of the resurrection, prayer becomes a Trinitarian reality: we come to the Father through the work of Christ in the power of the Spirit. We do not come with our own accomplishments, but

I come before God allowing the Holy Spirit to put Christ’s words in my mouth, to let my breath by breathed anew by the Spirit, carrying the words of Christ, and just let the Trinity be where I am when I pray (p 94)

If the resurrection is a reality, prayer is our inclusion through Jesus in the community of the Triune God. We belong, as Williams says, “in God’s eternity” (p 94). What a joy!

God as Prayer

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Andrew Louth — in his very interesting series of lectures on Eastern Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy: A Personal Introduction — has a fascinating examination of who God is.

It is fascinating, because Louth takes an approach which I had never read before. In a usual western approach to proper theology — the theology of God — one examines God by looking at his nature or attributes, who he is in his essence or being.

The emphasis within the Eastern Christian church, however, is not to see God first and foremost as a being to be studied. Rather, Eastern theology emphasizes that God in his essence is a true mystery. We cannot truly know him in his being. We can only know him as he has revealed himself through history and redemptive acts (Western Christianity does not deny this of course, but following Aquinas et al, Western theology creates more categories with which to study God, for better or worse).

For this reason, Louth defines God as the one to whom we pray. Louth says this about God:

The ways Jesus wanted his disciples to remember him seems to me to suggest a different way of approaching the mystery of God. The Lord’s Prayer first and foremost teaches us that God is the one to whom we pray; he is not some ultimate principle or final value, but one to whom we can address our prayer, one with whom we can enter into a relationship. We call him “Father”; we are his children, his sons and daughters.

God is the one to whom we pray. Now, without this being wrong in my mind, when I first read this paragraph, I thought, “Yes I pray to God; but what is he? Yes, God is a personal being with whom I can interact, but what sort of being am I interacting with?” This definition of God seems to have no handles.

To flesh out what he means, Louth interacts with the numerous Christological and Trinitarian controversies which plagued the first centuries of the church. Who was Christ? And what was his relation to the Father? Without going into detail about all the opinions which were finally rejected, the Council of Nicaea finally articulated that Jesus was homoousios of the Father; put another way, Jesus Christ owns the same divine nature or substance as the Father. Later on, the Holy Spirit was argued to be homoousios as well.

What this all amounts to is that Christians worship one divine being who exists in three distinct persons; Or, we worship the Trinity. But what sort of existence does this Triune Being live? Louth, now having context, answer that this Triune being which we worship lives a life of reciprocal prayer and love! Or, God is in himself prayer. 

To concretize this concept of God as prayer, Louth brings in a doctrine first articulated by John Damascene called perichoresis. He says:

[John of Damascene] introduces a concept that had not hitherto been used with much confidence in relation to the Holy Trinity: the idea of perichoresis, interpenetration or coinherence. The persons of the Trinity are not separate from each other, as human persons are, rather they interpenetrate one another, without losing their distinctiveness as persons, their reality coincides or coinheres…

It seems to me that the doctrine of perichoresis, coinherence, that John introduces in the Christian theology, expresses well the realization that within the Trinity there is relationship, a relationship expressed in prayer. There is, as it were, a kind of mutual yielding within the Trinity: the Father makes space for the Son and the Spirit…and Son and the Spirit yield to the Father as they turn to him in prayer.

In other words, God himself is a mutual community of divine prayer and submission. And, what Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer is that we are invited via the gospel to join this community of prayer. This makes prayer not simply communication with God, but communion with the divine communion of the persons of the Trinity! What wonder!

 

Praying to God as Father

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Christ the True Vine Icon. This icon pictures the disciples of Christ being caught up and participating in Christ’s death and resurrection, akin to branches connected to the vine (John 15)

In Matthew 6, the disciples, lost as to how to pray, ask Christ for a teaching on prayer. What Jesus gives them (and us) is the prayer of the Christian. It is almost credal in its emphasis. It does indeed mirror lines from the Apostles’ Creed. Early church father Tertullian, called the Lord’s prayer the “epitome of the whole gospel”. I assume, at least, that Jesus expected his disciples to memorize it, to know it intimately. To chew on the meaning of the lines, and to pray it often. This applies to the disciples of our age too!

One of the lines with which I’m almost always astonished as I pray, is the first line: “Our Father in heaven”.In this simple, short line, Jesus tells his disciples to pray to God as their Father. This command would almost certainly have been alarming to the disciples. Reason being is because the disciples could not conceive of calling God Father. 

In the OT, the Jewish people did understand Israel corporate to be God’s firstborn son. This is evident in passages such as Hosea 11:1 (a passage, interestingly, that Matthew depicts Jesus as fulfilling and subsuming in himself!). Israel was redeemed and adopted by God from their bondage to Egypt. However, no individual Jew would ever call God their Father. They related to God corporately, covenantally. Individually, however, Jewish people would not conceive to relate to God in such an intimate manner.

Connected to this is the reality that although all human beings can in some way attribute Fatherhood to God (Paul does in his discourse at Mars Hill in Acts 17), there is no human being that is properly, or by nature, God’s child. God is totally and utterly unique in his essence and substance. His holiness and “otherness” cannot even be comprehended by man. Certainly his nature isn’t shared by man. How then can a person even conceivably, realistically, call God a Father? This would have certainly been in the disciples’ minds.

So what did Jesus mean by commanding his disciples to call God their Father?

Frederick Bruner has a helpful discussion on this:

The church confesses in its Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, [God’s] only Son, our Lord”. Jesus’ relation to the Father is absolutely unique. He and he alone, is God’s Son by nature… Therefore, when Jesus gives us the right to call his Father by the address “our Father”, he is passing on something of his own priceless relation to God. This is Jesus’ greatest gift in the Lord’s Prayer… Jesus’ exquisetly simple reference to God as his “father”…, and now most intimately his gift to his disciples of “Our Father”, indicates a remarkable relation between Jesus, God, and Jesus’ disciples (Christbook, 296)

Bruner makes some theologically important points here (concentrate!): he points out from the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus, being God, has an actual, substantial connection to God the Father: he is God’s “only Son”; he shares in the same substance — the “homoosios”, as the Nicene creed says — as God the Father, and is thus his “eternally begotten Son”. When Jesus became a man, he did not give up his divine nature; rather, He added to himself a human nature — as the Chalcedonian creed says, he is one divine person with two natures. In this way then, Jesus the man, could call God Father and really mean it, because he had a true substantial relation to God the Father. He is truly the only man who can call God Father.

Going back to the Lord’s Prayer now: in giving us the command to call God “our Father”, what is Jesus teaching us?

Jesus is in fact expounding on one of the great mysteries of the gospel. As the early church fathers put it: God the Son became a son of man, that sons of men might become sons of God. That is to say, Christ came down and assumed what properly belongs to us, to give us a share in what properly belongs to him: Sonship (cf Gal 4:4). He united himself to human nature, that by by faith in him, we beggarly humans might be united to him and share in his relation to the Father.

I put the icon up top to illustrate this point. By faith, we are as it were, connected to Christ as branches to a vine; and he takes us up into himself — all the way up — to God the Father. And we gain filial relation to God the Father by the life of his trunk, or to say another way, by his Spirit. We are “born again” and receive supernatural life, and are adopted as true sons in the Son. We become, as a Peter put it, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and can relate to God really and truly as sons. What a dizzying, amazing truth that is!