Luther on Prayer

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In his book Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, Oswald Bayers argues that prayer is “constitutive…for Luther’s theology” (p 346). Bayer lays out Luther’s theology of prayer from his sermon May 13, 1520, Rogate Sunday:

As nowhere else, this text documents in a pregnant way Luther’s reformational understanding of prayer; it shows very clearly not only how Luther explained the Trinity is such a way that its theological character of as promise was central, but also how his understanding of prayer itself had a trinitarian character. Whenever Luther preached in subsequent years on Rogate Sunday, he came back to the basic structure of what he articulated in this sermon (346)

Bayers quotes this sermon, which follows 5 steps that, as he says, are centered around God’s promise and his triunity. Luther says:

Every prayer consists of five [identifying characteristics]; otherwise the prayer is offered in vain.

The first is the promise of God, which is the foundation on which the entire prayer relies: if there were no promise, our prayer would be worthless; it would be unworthy of a favorable hearing, since it would rely on its own merit.

The second is that one states the specifics…so that the scattered thoughts can be focused on the godly promise, because I hope to acquire help; this is what one calls gathering one’s thoughts. Based on this, [self]-selected little prayers… are not priestly prayers, since they do not gather one’s thoughts, nor do they summarize the matter on the heart that seeks resolution

Third: faith is necessary, by means of which I believe in the God who makes promises, that I can expect that what I pray for is possible without having doubt. To be sure, God ensures that all things are guaranteed not because of you and your prayer, but because of his trustworthiness, by means of which he has promise that he will give it…

Fourth, [the prayer] is uttered with earnestness, not with a vacillating spirit and not as if one does not urgently desire the thing for which one prays… This would be a mockery to God, as if he were not willing to guarantee what he had promised… (347)

Before we move to the fifth mark, which transitions to the trinitarian structure: notice here that all of prayer is dependent not on the one who prays, but on the God who promises. God is the one who gives the riches of himself in his Son, and promises to hear and answer because of his benevolence, not because of our worthiness or lack thereof. This is why Luther says in step two not repeat selected little prayers. He has in mind not liturgical prayers (Jesus gave us a prayer to memorize!!), but rather mindless praying. Prayer must be thoughtful, filled with the content of God’s benevolence. Prayer this is not a passive enterprise; it is one that remembers and claims God’s covenant promises in Christ.  

Next, Luther ventures into the trinitarian structure of prayer in his fifth mark:

Fifth, such prayer takes place in the name of Jesus, by whose command and by whose authority we can come confidently before the Father of all things. Thus it cannot happen that the prayer goes without being heard: the Father has promised an answer through the Son, as through an instrument. And our sins hurt Christ; he prays concerning them in heaven, as if they were his own. Tell me now: what could cause a rejection here? The Son prays in heaven in my name; I pray on earth in his name. Thus the righteousness of Christ is my own, my sins are Christ’s: this is admittedly an unequal exchange. And both come to purity together: my sins vanish in Christ and his holiness washes me clean, so that I become worthy of eternal life (347-8)

Notice here that prayer is located in the Son before the Father. This is what Bayer means that Luther’s theology of prayer is trinitarian. In prayer, sinners are unequally yoked to Christ, and being in him, they come worthily before the Father. And thus it is because of that union with Christ that their prayers are heard. We may speak to the Father because Christ has latched himself to us and us to himself, and thus we are one mystical person in conversation with the Father.

Bayer expounds on this principle:

The final section [of Luther’s sermon, number 5,] answers the decisive question: How can I have any right to address the one who has power over all things, and furthermore, how can I be confident I will be heard?

Freedom from such uncertainty and from our sins comes to us only in connection with that event in which God himself comes to us and brings us to himself: in the way God comes as the triune one. For only in the differentiation and yet mutual connection between Father, Son and Spirit can we be certain concerning the speech in action of God, as those who believe and as those who pray… (348)

Bayer means to say that our prayer is heard because in salvation, we come to inhabit the “mutual connection between the Father, Son and Spirit”. We become one person with the Son in the power of the Spirit, and thus the Father hears us because we are in his Son. Put more simply, we come to the Father not in and of ourselves, but in the Son. We are, to put it sacramentally, in vital union with Christ through baptism: we die and rise with him, and ascend with and in him to the Father. We are seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph 2:6).

Just as an aside as we end, it is worthy noting here that Luther did not have a merely extrinsic understanding of salvation, as many accuse. Christ is not “out there” representing us to the Father. Christ is in us, we are in him, and thus we are taken up with him to the Father. Luther famously says that “in faith itself Christ is present”. By this he means that to have faith means principally to be vitally united to Christ.

What all of this means is that prayer is effective because God donates the very person of his Son to us, and we become one person with him. We come in Christ by the Spirit to the Father. And thus our prayer is heard!

 

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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. 

The Trinity in the Old Testament

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In the fourth chapter in Can These Bones Live?, Robert W Jenson has an excellent biblical theological overview of the Trinity.

Jenson begins by tracing the historic development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Historically, the doctrine of the Trinity was solidified through the Nicene Creed; it was further grounded by the Cappadocian fathers. Jenson summarizes the historical articulation of the Trinity by explaining the difference between being and person or hypostases: “There is in God… just one being, which is why there is just one God. The is-ness of God is single, but there are three hypostases [or persons]” (p 48). So then, Christians worship one God who eternally exists in three persons. Jenson concludes that this is “the most biblical view” (p 48).

But of course, in order for it to be the most biblical view, it must be found in the Bible. The question then becomes, can the Trinity be found in the Bible? Or is the Trinity a novel doctrine created by the early Christians? Jenson explains:

It is often supposed that Christian trinitarianism is a total break from Judaism’s understanding of God. The Jews are said to have the doctrine that there is only one God and the Christians are said to have introduced a modification. This is historically false, and two of the most profound contemporary Jewish theologians, Michael Wyschogrod and Peter Ochs, both recognize that. Neither Judaism nor Christianity is an abstract monotheist religion. Neither insists that there is just one God and that this is all that can be said about him. Both are rather instances of what I would like to call “dramatic monotheism.” For both Judaism and Christianity, the oneness of God is the oneness of the story that he lives with his people. (p 48-49)

Jenson then goes on to explain that the OT presents a dramatic God who not only exists outside of history as “its author, who in some sense stands outside of the play or drama as the author of the drama” (p 49), but also…

as a figure in the drama, a figure in the history of Israel. Consider, for example, “the angel of the Lord.” Throughout the Pentateuch when something really decisive happens, the “malach yhwh”— that is, the angel or messenger of the Lord— appears to speak on the Lord’s behalf. As the tale goes on, however, this angel or messenger of the Lord speaks as God in the first person. It turns out that he is the Lord. So the malach of the Lord is simultaneously a messenger for the Lord or of the Lord but also the Lord himself. (p 49)

Jenson also points out the glory cloud of the Lord that is understood to be the presence of the Lord himself:

In the temple of Jerusalem we find simultaneously a manifestation of the Lord, the glory of the Lord, and a sort of shining of the Lord which just is the Lord…

The old rabbis of somewhere between 150 bc to ad 300 regarded such phenomena as different forms of the same thing which they called the “shekinah,” which means “the settlement one” or “the resident one.” The shekinah of God, then, is God as resident within the life of Israel as distinguished from God as author and transcendent to the life of Israel. (p 49-50)

Jenson notices “there are three” persons who are generally equated as YHWH in the OT, each in some way participating within the drama of Israel. This leads to the conclusion that the YHWH of Israel is more dynamic than simply one God as one person.

When this drama turns to the NT, Jenson observes that for the writers of the NT letters, the resurrection of Christ came to mean that the Shekinah glory of the temple had come to illumine and dwell within one man, a single Israelite (p 50). No longer was the glory outside of the people, but it had come to make its home within mankind. Even more then that, it is said in the NT that it was the Father who raised Jesus by the power of the Shekinah. Thus, the NT continues the threeness of the OT: the Son was raised by the Father in the power of the Spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trinitarian Atonement

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The cross is usually thought of as a work of the Son. And of course it is a work of the Son: a selfless giving-up — a priestly sacrifice — through which the sin of the world is forgiven.

But the cross is not just a work of the Son. Actually, the Bible presents the cross as a work of the entire Godhead done together. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”. What Paul means to communicate is that the whole God, not just the Son, was actively involved in the work of the cross to reconcile fallen humanity to himself. 

But in what way?

Donald Macleod, in his chapter on the atonement from Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, explains that “as in every outgoing act of the Trinity, all three persons are involved” (p 255). Macleod explains firstly, that though the Father was not on the cross,

yet it is to him that the New Testament characteristically traces back the cost of Calvary, as if it were of his love that the cross speaks above all. But how, if he felt it not at all? If he has compassion for us, his children (Ps. 103), had he no pity for his Son? Did he not long to intervene as he did in the case of Abraham, and cry, “Don’t lay a hand on the boy!”?

The greatest indictment of sin is that even the divine love and wisdom could save the world only at the cost of God sacrificing his own Son. It was, indeed, a free and loving initiative, yet once it was embarked on, the sacrifice became a necessity. There was no other way. The cup could not pass (Mark 14: 35), and it was a sacrifice for both the Father and the Son. (p 255)

The Father gives up his Son, and he does not intervene in his sufferings. This is properly in what manner Jesus experiences the wrath of the Father. God lets him go; he abandons him. And on this account the curses of the law are said to be satisfied before the Father.

In this manner, the Father can be said to have offered Christ for the sins of the world. Macleod explains that while it is Christ who is priest of the New Covenant — and while Christ freely, lovingly, offers himself as the pure lamb for the covering of the sins of the world —

[there are also verses such] as John 3: 16; Romans 8: 32; and 1 John 4: 10 [that] speak of another priesthood: the priesthood of God the Father. Here is the heavenly archetype of the story of Abraham and Isaac, where the Father delivers up his jachid, his beloved Son, and where Father and Son together proclaim that there is no length to which they will not go to save the world. This is what “theories” of the atonement have to wrestle with: the cross not only as a demonstration of the love of Jesus but also as a demonstration of the love of God the Father. His, ultimately, was the cost, and his the loss. It is his Son who bleeds and dies. It is from his own Son that he must hide his face, to his cry he must turn a deaf ear, to him whom he can extend no comfort and offer no hint of recognition. (p 247)

All throughout this chapter, Macleod rightly compares Abraham and Isaac to the Father’s giving up of the Son. The Bible makes this comparison as well: “God so loved the world that He gave up his only Son” (John 3:16); Jesus is said to have carried wood on his back to the top of the mount, with no sacrifice but himself! Macleod concludes that just as Abraham and Isaac went up together to the place of sacrifice, “they [also] went up, ‘both of them together’ (Gen 22:6, 8), not as helpless victims of an unavoidable destiny but as divine persons who had covenanted together to share the cost of saving the world and were now walking together toward the pain” (p 255).

But it was not just the Father giving the Son up. The Spirit was also involved in the cross. But what did he do? Macleod says that the Spirit empowered the Son to (1) be the pure Lamb, having obeyed the entire law from the beginning of his life, and (2) “upheld the Son through all the challenges of his self-offering” (p 251).

Christ, in all humility, as Paul says, did not utilize his divine attributes during his time on earth “but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:7). Rather than his own divine power, it was instead the anointing of the Spirit which enabled Christ to obey the covenant, and it was the same Spirit which empowered him to pain of the cross. It was by the Spirit that Christ refused to revile his enemies, but rather to ask the Father to forgive them. The Spirit was the power behind it all.

But one last thing must be said of the Father and Spirit at work in the cross: it was because Christ offered himself as the innocent victim, and suffered the violence of wicked men, that the Father, through the Spirit, infinitely pleased with Christ, raised Him up to glory. Macleod explains:

The loving, adoring Father, struck with the glory of his Son’s obedience, brings him back to life, raises him up, and seats him in the heavenlies (Eph. 2: 5– 6). He places that humanity, so abused by men, in the glory the Son had with the Father before the world was (John 17: 5). (p 255)

It is the Father, through the Spirit, who raises Christ to glory. Even the resurrection takes a Trinitarian shape! 

Thus the work of the cross is entirely Triune. In it, the Father gives up his Son, and the Spirit upholds the Son; and because of this Triune empowered obedience, the same Triune God lifts the Son to glory. What joy!

 

 

 

 

The Importance of the Trinity (sermon)

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The Trinity is, in my estimation (alongside the divine/human natures of Christ), the most important Christian doctrine. One of my students from our church asked why it was so important. Here is an answer I gave to my students:

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!