Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Calvin on Prayer

My reading schedule for the Institutes of the Christian Religion had me hold out and read all of Book III, Chapter XX, before having a day of reflection. This somewhat lengthy chapter is entirely devoted to prayer, and it is one of the shining moments, I've found, in Calvin's massive work. It will not be easy to summarize, so I'll just have to ramble along and let the text come back to me by way of written reflection.

Prayer is central for Calvin. As he states at the beginning of Section 2, "It is, therefore, by the benefit of prayer that we reach those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father." And a little later, "Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is, and in how many ways the exercise of prayer is profitable."

Section 3 is devoted to giving six reasons for prayer. In particular he answers this objection: "But someone will say, does God not know, even without being reminded, both in what respect we are troubled and what is expedient for us, so that it may seem in a sense superfluous that he should be stirred up by our prayers--as if he were drowsily blinking or even sleeping until he is aroused by our voice?" His answer to this objection is clear enough: "But they who thus reason do not observe to what end the Lord instructed his people to pray, for he ordained it not so much for his own sake as for ours."

His six reasons for prayer may be summarized as follows:
  1. That we increase in our zeal for God.
  2. That we learn to be open and honest before God.
  3. That we prepare ourselves to gratefully receive blessings from God.
  4. To meditate on God's goodness after he has answered prayer.
  5. To enjoy those things which God has given in answer to prayer.
  6. To gain confidence in God's providence.

It's striking to me how God's sovereignty works itself out in Calvin's theology. Just as Calvin said way back in the first book, belief in God's sovereignty is no mere fatalism. It would turn into fatalism if God were distant. But for Calvin, God is always quite present, and his work is always intimately connected with the Christian life. God's sovereignty would make prayer superfluous if God didn't care about us. But for Calvin, God's sovereignty is precisely the reason why we pray, because God cares about us deeply. His sovereignty is all for our good.

In Sections 4-16, Calvin discusses the rules of right prayer. In sections 4-5 he comes out against irreverent prayer. Two statements demonstrate the seriousness he thinks we need to bring into prayer: "First, whoever engages in prayer should apply to it his faculties and efforts, and not, as commonly happens, be distracted by wandering thoughts.... We have noted another point: not to ask any more than God allows." This second point becomes even stronger later in the chapter, where Calvin says that all prayer should be modeled after the Lord's prayer. More on that later.

Although Calvin demands a certain effort be applied to prayer, true to himself he insists we can't do it on our own. "Therefore," he says, "in order to minister to this weakness, God gives us the Spirit as our teacher in prayer, to tell us what is right and temper our emotions." From my reading of Calvin, I'm not surprised at all that he has been called the theologian of the Holy Spirit.

In Sections 6-7, he proposes another rule: "that in our petitions we ever sense our own insufficiency, and earnestly pondering how we need all that we seek, join with this prayer an earnest--nay, burning--desire to attain it." In other words, prayer is not just a duty to be performed, but something to be done out of a sincerely felt need for God's help.

In Sections 8-10, he proposes a third rule: "that anyone who stands before God to pray, in his humility giving glory completely to God, abandon all thought of his own glory, cast off all notion of his own worth, in fine, put away all self-assurance--lest if we claim for ourselves anything, even the least bit, we should become vainly puffed up, and perish at his presence." Again, Calvin insists on a great deal of reverence in prayer. Also, this emphasis on humility is just so Calvin. It shows up literally everywhere in the Institutes.

In Sections 11-14, Calvin expounds on the fourth rule, which is "that, thus cast down and overcome by true humility, we should be nonetheless encouraged to pray by a sure hope that our prayer will be answered." There are a lot of details to be ironed out in this section, and I admit it's one of the more difficult passages for me to get through. I think most of us Christians struggle with this. What about unanswered prayer? Can we really believe in prayer, when evidence seems to suggest it makes no difference? It's fine for theologians to talk about it in this wonderfully pious way, but in the real world it just doesn't seem to work that way.

But I'm afraid Calvin has nothing but rebuke for doubting Thomases like me. He has this wonderfully frank statement in Section 12:
Now what sort of prayer will this be? "O Lord, I am in doubt whether thou willest to hear me, but because I am pressed by anxiety, I flee to thee, that, if I am worthy, thou mayest help me." This is not the way of all the saints whose prayers we read in Scripture. And the Holy Spirit did not so instruct us through the apostle, who enjoins us to "draw near to the heavenly throne...with confidence, that we may receive...grace" [Heb. 4:16 p.]; and when he teaches elsewhere that we have boldness and access in confidence through faith in Christ [Eph. 3:12]. If we would pray fruitfully, we ought therefore to grasp with both hands this assurance of obtaining what we ask, which the Lord enjoins with his own voice, and all the saints teach by their example. For only that prayer is acceptable to God which is born, if I may so express it, out of such presumption of faith, and is grounded in unshaken assurance of hope.
This statement is characteristic of the kind of passion with which Calvin approached his faith. He may be overstating his case here, but he states it so beautifully that it's hard not to be awestruck by it.

Sections 15-16 are also quite interesting, in that they deal with God's answers to prayers either from nonbelievers or from believers who do not pray rightly. But I think I'll pass over this.

Sections 17-27 deal with a matter of central importance for Protestant doctrine--the intercession of Christ alone as our mediator. He rejects praying to or for departed saints. I find his arguments rather compelling, but I don't wish to state them here. Doctrine is only one part of this rich and beautiful chapter.

Sections 28-30 are about public and private prayer. I won't go into this very much, but I found this quote about church buildings rather fascinating:
Now as god by his word ordains common prayers for believers, so also ought there to be public temples wherein these may be performed, in which those who spurn fellowship with God's peopel in prayer have no occasion to give teh false sxcuse that they enter their bedroom to obey the Lord's command. For he, who promises that he will do wahtever two or three gathered together in his name may ask [Matt. 18:19-20], testifies that he does not despise prayers publicly made, provie ostentation and chasing after paltry human glory are banished, and there is present a sincere and true affection that dwells in the secret place of the heart.

If this is the law lawful use of church buildings, as it certainly is, we in turn must guard against either taking them to be God's proper dwelling places, whence he may more nearly incline his ear to us--as they began to be regarded some centuries ago--or feigning for them some secret holiness or other, which would render prayer more sacred before God. For since we ourselves are God's true temples, if we would call upon God in his holy temple, we must prayer within ourselves.
I'm not sure if I agree with Calvin entirely on this one. His view of church buildings seems rather utilitarian, and doesn't fully appreciate how beauty can communicate the creative nature of God and, more importantly, the beauty of the Incarnation. But I won't dwell on that point very deeply. What Calvin says here is surely quite important for the development of modern Protestant thought on that subject.

Sections 31-33 deal with the questions of whether prayer should be sung, and in what language prayer should be spoken. His answers are: yes, there should be singing in church, but it should not be a matter of entertainment or show; and all prayers should be spoken in the language of the people, so that everyone can understand what is going on.

Basically the rest of this chapter on prayer is devoted to the Lord's prayer. Calvin says, "Now we must learn not only a more certain way of praying but also the form itself: namely, that which the Heavenly Father has taught us through his beloved Son." He elaborates with this rather remarkable passage:
Plato, on seeing men's want of skill in making requests to God, which if granted, would often have been disadvantageous to them, declares this, taken from an ancient poet, to be the best prayer: "King Jupiter, bestow the best things upon us whether we wish for them or not, but command that evil things be far from us even when we request them." And, indeed, the heathen man is wise in that he judges how dangerous it is to seek from the Lord what our greed dictates; at the same time he discloses our unhappiness, in that we cannot even open our mouths before God without danger unless the Spirit instructs us in the right pattern for prayer [Rom. 8:26]. This privilege deserves to be more highly esteemed among us, since the only-begotten Son of God supplies words to our lips that free our minds from all wavering.
Thus the Lord's prayer gives us a model of true prayer, so that we do not pray for what we ought not to pray, and we do pray for what we ought to pray.

For me, the most beautiful passage of this whole beautiful chapter is Sections 36-40. Calvin spends four sections meditating solely on the words "Our Father," and a fifth section meditating on "Our Father, who art in heaven." The first meditation consists in this: in calling God "Our Father," we show that we are praying in the name of Christ:
With what confidence would anyone address God as "Father"? Who would break forth into such rashness as to claim for himself the honor of a son of God unless we had been adopted as children of grace in Christ? He, while he is the true Son, has of himself been given us as a brother that what he has of his own by nature may become ours by benefit of adoption if we embrace this great blessing with sure faith.
Surely no one could fail to see Calvin's passionate love for God after reading these words:
By the great sweetness of this name he frees us from all distrust, since no greater feeling of love can be found elsewhere than in the Father. Therefore he could not attest his own boundless love toward us with any surer proof than the fact that we are called "children of God" [I John 3:1].

The second meditation on "Our Father" is that we must not be afraid of going before God on account of our sins. Feeling unworthy is not a reason to shy away from prayer:
For if among men, a son can have no better advocate to plead his cause before his father, can have no better intermediary to conciliate and recover his lost favor, than if he himself, suppliant and humble, acknowledging his guilt, implores his father's mercy--for then his father's heart cannot pretend to be moved by such entreaties--what will he do who is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort [cf. II Cor. 1:3]? Will he not rather heed the tears and groans of his children entreating for themselves, since he particularly invites and exhorts us to this, than any pleas of others, to whose help they in terror have recourse, not without some signs of despair, since they are distrustful of their Father's compassion and kindness? ..Therefore, whenever any hesitation shall hinder us, let us remember to ask him to correct our fearfulness, and to set before us that Spirit that he may guide us to pray boldly.
Here Calvin is implicitly being critical of the Roman Catholic tradition of praying to saints to intercede for them, but I can't help but admit his view seems not only more biblical, but also more beautiful. For if God really is perfectly gracious, and even calls us his children, why would we not go to Him first, and not to any intercessors? A child who goes to someone else to talk to his father for him truly has a broken relationship with his father. It would seem, then, that asking for others to seek God's forgiveness on our behalf, is not a sign of piety, but rather a sign that Christ's teaching has not been understood.

The third meditation on "Our Father" is on the word "Our," as opposed to "My." "From this fact," i.e. the fact that we say "Our Father" and not "My Father," Calvin says, "we are warned how great a feeling of brotherly love ought to be among us, since by the same right of mercy and free liberality we are equally children of such a father." He goes on,
Let the Christian man, then, conform his prayers to this rule in order that they may be in common and embrace all who are his brothers in Christ, not only those whom he at present sees and recognizes as such but all men who dwell on earth. For what God has determined concerning them is beyond our knowing except that it is no less godly than humane to wish and hope the best for them.
It is evident from this words that every image ever painted of Calvin as cold-hearted or unfeeling, on account of some misunderstanding of his doctrine of predestination or God's sovereignty, is totally false. Calvin's heart was for all people on earth, as I have noted earlier.

The fourth meditation on "Our Father" is a counterpoint to the third. Calvin notes that we are indeed to pray for ourselves individually, even though we are also praying for God's people as a whole. He uses the example of almsgiving as a comparison. We give alms to those who are around us, not to everyone in the entire world who needs help. However, this is not because we don't care about everyone in the world--we do--but we must act in our own station in life. Yet, Calvin notes, prayer and almsgiving are not entirely the same, since prayer can in fact be directed toward all people generally, as well as certain people particularly.

Then in Section 40 Calvin meditates on the words "in heaven." This meditation is so remarkable I'll just have to let Calvin speak for himself:
From this we are not immediately to reason that he is bound, shut up, and surrounded, by the circumference of heaven, as by a barred enclosure. For Solomon confesses that the heaven of heavens cannot contain him [I Kings 8:27]. And he himself says through the prophet that heaven is his seat, and the earth, his footstool [Isa. 66:1; Acts 7:49; cf. ch. 17:24]. By this he obviously means that he is not confined to any particular region but is diffused through all things. But our minds, so crass are they, could not have conceived his unspeakable glory otherwise. Consequently, it has been signified to us by "heaven," for we can behold nothing more sublime or majestic than this. While, therefore, wherever our senses comprehend anything they commonly attach it to that place, God is set beyond all place, so that when we would seek him we must rise above all perception of body and soul. Secondly, by this expression he is lifted above all chance of either corruption or change. Finally, it signifies that he embraces and holds together the entire universe and controls it by his might. Therefore it is as if he had been said to be of infinite greatness or loftiness, of incomprehensible essence, of boundless might, and of everlasting immortality. But while we hear this, our thought must be raised higher when God is spoken of, lest we dream up anything earthly or physical about him, lest we measure him by our small measure, or conform his will to our emotions. At the same time our confidence in him must be aroused, since we understand that heaven and earth are ruled by his providence and power.

Sections 41-47 are on the six petitions of the Lord's Prayer, and the conclusion ("For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen"). I don't think I'll summarize these sections, for the simple reason that the summary of each section couldn't be better stated than in the words of Jesus himself. But one point is worth noting: for Calvin, the entire prayer is about "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." The first three petitions seem to be more about this than the last three, but Calvin insists that even when we shift to praying for our needs, we are still praying for God's glory. Always for Calvin our needs are bound up in God's sovereign will.

And another point is worth mentioning, as well. Calvin believes in praying for our literal, physical needs, not just for abstract spiritual benefits. Commenting on "Give us this day our daily bread," he says,
What certain writers say in philosophizing about "supersubstantial bread" [Matt. 6:11, Vg.] seems to me to agree very little with Christ's meaning; indeed, if we did not even in this fleeting life accord to God the office of nourisher, this would be an imperfect prayer [Matt. 6:11]. The reason they give is too profane: that it is not fitting that children of God, who ought to be spiritual, not only give their attention to earthly cares but also involve God in these with themselves. As if his blessing and fatherly favor are not shown even in food, or it were written to no purpose that "godliness holds promise not only for the life to come but also for the present life" [I Tim. 4:8 p.]!
Thus Calvin understood our daily life on earth to be substantial enough to be worth praying for. This certainly strikes me as much better than the sharp dualism apparently represented by other theologians.

Sections 48-49 reiterate the point made earlier that the Lord's prayer is a binding rule on all of our prayers--it gives us the basic content which we can adapt to particular times and circumstances. We don't need to stick to the same words, but simply be guided by them to form our own prayers.

Finally, Sections 50-52 close out this chapter with a word on patient endurance in prayer. Calvin prescribes preset times for prayer, though he insists that "this must not be any superstitious observance of hours, whereby, as if paying our debt to God, we imagine ourselves paid up for the remaining hours. Rather, it must be a tutelage for our weakness, which should be thus exercised and repeatedly stimulated."

I have to say, I'm impressed by all the various times Calvin prescribes prayer: "when we arise in the morning, before we begin daily work, when we sit down to a meal, when by God's blessing we have eaten, when we are getting ready to retire." I know many families who always pray before a meal, but I've actually not met one that prays after a meal.

Sections 51-52 particularly address waiting on God's provision, with the latter section dealing with seemingly unanswered prayers. Here is, perhaps, where the rubber really meets the road, and a choice between faith and disbelief occurs. Here Calvin says,
But if finally even after long waiting our senses cannot learn the benefit received from prayer, or perceive any fruit from it, still our faith will make us sure of what cannot be perceived by sense, that we have obtained what was expedient. ... Besides, even if God grants our prayer, he does not always respond to the exact form of our request but, seeming to hold us in suspense, he yet, in a marvelous manner, shows us our prayers have not been vain. ... For the Lord proves his people by no light trials, and does not softly exercise them, but often drives them to extremity, and allows them, so driven, to lie a long time in the mire before he gives them any taste of his sweetness. And, as Hannah says, "He kills and brings to life; he brings down to hell and brings back" [I Sam. 2:6 p.] What could they do here but be discouraged and rush into despair if they were not, when afflicted, desolate, and already half dead, revived by the thought that God has regard for them and will bring an end to their present misfortunes? Nevertheless, however they stand upon the assurance of that hope, they do not meanwhile cease to pray, for unless there be in prayer a constancy to persevere, we pray in vain.
To put it mildly, Calvin was a pretty intense guy. It is hard to imagine a more devout affirmation of prayer than the one given in this chapter. Calvin's prayer is also distinctly Trinitarian: we pray to God the Father, in the name of Jesus the Son, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. This formula, commonly heard in worship, is firmly adhered to by Calvin in this chapter, and it informs everything he says about prayer. We cannot pray to God without God as our help and God as our advocate. To God, through God, and by God. Prayer, perhaps, is as paradoxical as the Trinity itself; for in it assert our individual needs and desires before God, yet it is actually God speaking through us. All of this makes for a remarkably deep and complex view of Christian prayer.

Next time I get to meditate on Calvin's doctrine of election. You know. The part everyone thinks "Calvinism" is all about.

Fun stuff.


  1. Here is a very good anti-predestination argument formulated by a Catholic priest who is a former Calvinist himself, Fr. Paul Rothermel...

    A true Calvinist teaches that everything that happens has been predestined before the foundation of the world. Thus, according to Calvinism, because I have free agency and no true power to choose contraries (i.e., free will), I do voluntarily what I could never do otherwise.

    Thus, "My sins last week happened; they were certain to happen; and they were predestined before the foundation of the world. I freely did evil, but I could not have done otherwise."

    A true Calvinist admits this. Yet St. Paul teaches that, with every temptation, God has made a way to escape from committing the sinful deed (1 Cor 10:13). Therefore, the question for the true Calvinist is:

    "Which way did God, in fact, provide for you to escape the temptations to do the sins you committed last week, if indeed you are so inclined? That is, if you have been predestined before the foundation of the world to do it?"

    This is a clear hole in the Calvinist position, forcing one to conclude that Calvinism cannot be reconciled with St. Paul.

    Clearly, if Calvin is right and one is predestined to commit a particular sin before the foundation of the world, God could not have truly provided a way out of that sin for you to take.

    How could He if you were predestined not to take it? So, either Calvin is wrong or we are dealing with a God Who feigns offers of deliverance from temptation.

    So, which is it? Is God a fraud or is Calvin?

    Many thanks to Mark Bobocore.

  2. Thanks for contributing! I sure wish you'd commented under my post on election. I hope you read what Calvin has to say on prayer--it really is quite beautiful.

    I just want to point out that if your quick refutation of Calvinism could have worked, then it would have worked by now. It seems little shallow to say things like, "Is God a fraud or is Calvin?" as if things were really that simple. You mention one verse from Paul; Calvin draws on numerous references from across the whole of Scripture. Surely you ought to at least deal with each of those references in order to truly arrive at a refutation of Calvin's position.

    In any case, it seems that you are confusing the very same things that nearly everyone confuses. Suppose you ask a Calvinist whether the sin you committed yesterday could have been prevented. The Calvinist can very consistently say yes, for the very reason you brought up--God offers a way out of every temptation. All that means is that things could have gone differently if you had made a different decision. Learning from that mistake, you will try not to make that decision again--this, for a Calvinist, anyway, is only by the grace of God.

    You're confusing this fact with the idea that God foreordains everything that comes to pass (which Calvinists hold quite strongly). He doesn't foreordain everything by taking away your choices. Your choices are still your own; they're just part of his perfect plan. For a Calvinist, there is no inconsistency here; it's simply the most faithful reading of Scripture he can come up with.

    Discussions about free will and predestination are very confusing. Most of the time we argue based not on what we think is true, but what we think should be true. Sometimes we have to step back and acknowledge that we don't really know how the universe ought to have been put together. In any case, I'm not exactly a committed Calvinist, but I do think it's worth examining all arguments as critically as we can.


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