April, 2017

Prayer – Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa was an early Church Father during the 4th century. He is often known as one of the three Cappadocian Fathers along with his brother, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory of Nyssa is the least well-known of the three. He suffered the double ignominy of being neither the best theologian in his family (behind his brother) nor the best “Gregory” among the three. Sometimes life is rough that way.

Gregory of Nyssa did make important contributions to the development of Trinitatian thought in the 4th century. He was an influential member of the Council of Constantinople (381) that solidified many of the Christological and Pneumatological matters that remained after the Council of Nicea (325).

Gregory’s Homily 1 “The Nature of Prayer” was a sermon that explained not just how one ought to prayer but the necessity for prayer in all things. He explains, “The present gathering needs to learn not only how to pray but that we must, by all means, pray. Perhaps this has not yet been understood by many. For many in daily life have neglected and passed over this sacred and divine work of prayer.”[1] The Christian is to persevere in prayer (Rom 12:12) and also to listen to the “Divine Voice” (i.e. Scripture) which teaches how to pray.

A common problem in our prayer lives is simply that we don’t take the time to pray. The concerns and worries and obligations of modern life seem to constantly crowd out our time to pray. But we should realize that this is not a problem isolated to our modern times. This has always been the case. Gregory, preaching in the 4th century, keys in on a problem that resonates with us today.

All seem to act the same way — the craftsman, the orator, the one who files a lawsuit, as well as the one who happens to be the judge. Each devotes his whole self to what is at hand and forgets the work of prayer. He considers engagement with God a harm compared to the work before him. For whoever practices a craft thinks God’s alliance is useless and unprofitable for one’s current business. He therefore forsakes prayer, putting all hope in his own hands and forgetting Him who has given us hands.[2]

Gregory’s point is that we get distracted with the busyness of life and forget to pray to the One who gave us life. It continues to be a problem in our prayer lives that we undervalue the power of prayer.

There are great benefits to us when we pray. Gregory argues that “if prayer precedes labors, sin will not find entrance into the soul.”[3] Gregory is a bit ambitious in this statement, but there is great truth in it. We must not look at prayer as some work we can do to ward off sin. Instead, we must view prayer as our dependence upon the grace of God given through Jesus Christ. By faith we depend on God through Christ to provide for our whole lives. In this sense our labors are transformed by prayer. In this vein Gregory goes on to define prayer with great oratorical skill:

Prayer guards prudence, moderates temper, restrains vanity, cleanses from rancor, removes envy, destroys injustice, and corrects impiety. Prayer is the strength of the body, the prosperity of the household, the good order of the city, the might of the kingdom, the victory in war, the security in peace, the unity of those divided, the constancy of those united. Prayer is the seal of virginity, the fidelity of marriage, the weapon of travelers, the guardian of those sleeping, the courage of those awake, the abundance of farmers, the safety of sailors. Prayer is advocate to litigants, comfort to prisoners, rest to the weary, solace to the sorrowful, delight to the joyful, consolation to mourners, wedding crown to spouses, festival to those celebrating birthdays, shroud to those who die. Prayer is to speak with God, to behold invisible realities, to satisfy spiritual yearning. Prayer is equality with angels, progress in good things, overthrowing of evil, correction of sinners, enjoyment of present gifts, assurance of future blessings.[4]

Prayer provides innumerable benefits to the one who prays. In sum, Gregory adds that our prayers keep us eternally minded. God is not deaf to the small and simple requests in our lives, but he does so in order to turn our attention to the greater things of his grace. The blessings of “childish toys” (i.e. material wealth) is so that we’ll look to the Father for greater and more perfect gifts. With a focus on God’s glory, our prayers will not descend into babble or nonsense. Our prayer will turn our eyes to the eternal hope we have in Christ.

[1] Gregory of Nyssa, “Homily 1 on Lord’s Prayer,” trans. Theodore Stylianopoulos, 2003, http://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Articles_files/GregoryNyssa-Homily1%20Lords%20Prayer.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

Prayer – Tertullian

Tertullian was one of the Ante-Nicene Church Father (Ante-Nicene means before the Council of Nicea, 325AD) from the city of Carthage in North Africa (modern Tunisia). He wrote at the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd centuries and is often considered one of the most prolific Latin Christian writers. During his time the dominant language for literature began to shift from Greek to Latin. Tertullian is known for an ability to craft sharp and memorable turns of phrases that have endured through the centuries. Perhaps even in recent weeks you have heard his phrase “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Apology 50), or “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (Prescription against Heretics 7). His phrasing was also foundational for some important but non-biblical terminology, such as “original sin,” the distinction of “person” and “nature” in the Trinity, sacrament, merit, and others.[1]

Later in Tertullian’s life, he was drawn into the sect of Montanism. Montanism appeared in Phyrgia (modern Turkey) around 150AD. It was an unorthodox sect that revolved around prophecies that Montanus and two female prophetesses received from the Paraclete (Jn 14) which focused on ascetic and legalistic practices. On the whole the sect was mostly orthodox in their beliefs, but the emphasis tended to focus more on the fantastic than on the biblical.

Tertullians treatise On Prayer was likely written around 192AD and predates his entry in to Montanism. Tertullian begins by explaining a new form of prayer that has come to us through the instruction of Jesus Christ. The Lord’s Prayer in its words, spirit, and brevity serve as the “epitome of the Gospel.”[2] He finishes his explanation of the seven clauses of the Lord’s Prayer with a Trinitarian flourish of praise to the God who would condescend in order to teach his people how to pray, “What wonder? God alone could teach how he wished Himself prayed to. The religious rite of prayer therefore, ordained by Himself, and animated, even at the moment when it was issuing out of the Divine mouth, by His own Spirit, ascends, by its own prerogative, into heaven, commending to the Father what the Son has taught.”[3] Tertullian then begins to explain some of the practical aspects of prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer is very brief in its language. Tertullian explains that there are circumstances in the individual’s life that might call for other language, more petitions, or different prayers. This is acceptable, “yet with remembrance of the Master’s precepts.”[4] This gives the Christian great freedom in her prayers while maintaining appropriate boundaries. Prayer is more than a mechanical recitation of mere words, but it is an offering up of the desires of the heart for things agreeable to the will of God (WSC 98). The practice in the broader church of reciting a formulaic or set prayer without thought or heart did not develop from Scripture or during the time of the early Church. Tertullian rejected the “mantra” type of prayer.

The rest of Tertullian’s instruction on prayer deals primarily with freedom and humility. The Christian entering into prayer needs to be free. He should be free of anger with his brother. If you are odds with a brother or sister, reconcile, then come to pray (Matt 5:22, 23). The Christian should be free from mental angst (Eph 4:30). The Christian should have “clean hands.” By this Tertullian explains that he does not mean physically washed, but rather free of the stain of sin through confession and repentance. And the Christian should pray at times that have been freed up for that purpose. Again, this is not a slavish obligation to pray at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, but rather at a regular time set aside for prayer. “Albeit these practices stand simply without any precept for their observance, still it may be a good thing to establish some definite presumption, which may both add stringency to the admonition to pray, and may, as it were by a law, tear us out from our businesses unto such a duty.”[5]

Tertullian also encourages the Christian to pray with humility. He addresses the posture of the person in prayer. Some say you should kneel in prayer; others suggest raising hands toward the sky. Tertullian argues that the posture is far less important than having humility in one’s heart. The Pharisee raised his hands to heaven, but it was the publican who beat his chest and looked downward in humility (Luke 18:9-14). And in humility, the Christian should expect God to respond to our prayers. If Daniel prayed powerfully, how much more will God answer prayers brought before him by the intercession of His Son, Jesus Christ. Our prayers matter.


[1] Everett Ferguson, Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2005), 127.

[2] Tertullian, On Prayer, trans. S. Thelwall, vol. III, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classis Ethereal Library), 681, accessed April 12, 2017, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.vi.iv.i.html.

[3] Ibid., III:684.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., III:690.

Prayer – Origen

In Tim Keller’s book Making Sense of God, Keller argues that it is a relatively recent phenomenon to believe that finite man has the capacity to sit in judgment over an infinite God. “Ancient people did not assume that the human mind had enough wisdom to sit in judgment on how an infinite God was disposing of things.”[1] Keller’s understanding of the ancient mind is affirmed in Origen’s work On Prayer. Origen explains that prayer is a way in which humans can know and have discourse with God. When one realizes that he is entering into conversation with the Almighty, he quickly realizes this is no small feat. Origen explains the significance of prayer. He then explains the language and the disposition of prayer. Right prayer is prayer that is done for the right purpose and in the right manner.

Origen opened his treatise of prayer by placing man in proper perspective to God. The Almighty is so far above the thoughts of man that is an impossibility to consider that man could speak with God. The body is corruptible and the soul is weighed down by sin. The things of heaven are “impossible for man to trace out.” But God makes a way possible by his grace. Through Christ man is able to come to God. “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but, I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Origen places the accent, though, on the fact that man can only know this on account of God’s gift. God is great and incomprehensible but God condescends to man that he might know him.

Origen then answers the question that might be in your mind, “What does this have to do with prayer?” We must accurately understand the greatness of God and our inability to come before God apart from his grace so that we’ll understand why we must only approach God in prayer with the right purpose and in the right manner. “It is necessary not merely to pray but also to pray as we ought and to pray what we ought. For even though we are enabled to understand what we ought to pray, that is not adequate if we do not add to it the right manner also.”[2] Origen explains what he means by “as we ought” and “what we ought.” By the former he means the “disposition” of prayer. By the latter he means the “language” of prayer.

The disposition of prayer is illustrated by Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2. “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (1 Tim 2:8). He also refers to Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:23, 24). These passages point out the attitude one is to have when engaging in prayer. Beyond the words, the attitude and actions of the one praying is important. This is our disposition in prayer, or as Origen said the “as we ought” of prayer.

The language of prayer is illustrated by Jesus’ teaching to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6:33). “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt 9:38). “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Matt 26:41). And “when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words” (Matt 6:7). These passages point out that there is a proper content to prayer. We are to pray for a number of different types of things, asking for the kingdom of God, righteousness, for the growth of the kingdom, for deliverance from temptation, and that we should use humble words. This is the language of prayer, or as Origen said the “what we ought” of prayer.

In all of his instruction on the language and disposition of prayer, Origen keeps in mind the inescapable reality of God’s unfathomable transcendence. Our words and our hearts in prayer must be guided by the greatness of God. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pray for the seemingly smaller things in life. We just need to do with the proper perspective. “We should therefore pray for the principal and truly great and heavenly things, and as for those concerned with the shadows accompanying the principal, commit them to God who knows before we ask Him what things, by reason of our perishable body, we have need.”[3]

Contrary to modern conception of God, we must come to God with an acknowledgment that he is so supremely great and above man than our finite minds can grasp. And yet, God in his great grace has condescended to us in Christ that we might approach him in prayer. As we balance the transcendence and immanence of God in prayer, we allow God’s Word to help us understand the proper language and disposition in prayer. We must honor God with right prayer done for the right purpose and in the right manner.

[1] Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York, New York: Viking, 2016), 37.

[2] Origen, On Prayer, trans. William A. Curtis (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classis Ethereal Library, n.d.), 3, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/origen/prayer#.

[3] Ibid., 34.

Prayer – The Tradition of the Church

Having looked at several examples of prayer in the Old Testament and the transition in prayer from the Old to the New Testament, it might be natural to then look at various prayers in the New Testament. We are, however, going to take a detour and first examine the writings on prayer from a variety of Church Fathers. Beginning with some early Church Fathers and leading up through a number of Reformed and Puritan theologians, we’ll take a quick survey through church history before we return to the New Testament and focus in on the Lord’s Prayer to conclude our study on prayer.

This detour through church history is meant to ground our understanding of prayer in Scripture as it has been handed to us through the church. The Reformed principle of sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone, is often misunderstood to mean that we look only at Scripture. The misconception is that the Reformation not only gives license, but instructs it adherents to read the Scriptures in a vacuum, completely devoid of any influence from ecclesiastical tradition. Not only is this impossible, it was never the intention of the Reformers.

Michael Allen makes the strong case in Reformed Catholicity that this abuse of sola Scriptura is more the result of modern rationalism and individualism than the intention of the Reformers. “Indeed, sola Scriptura has served for some moderns as a banner for private judgment and against catholicity. In so doing, however, churches and Christians have turned from sola Scriptura to solo Scriptura, a bastard child nursed at the breast of modern rationalism and individualism.”[1]

The Reformed faith at its best does look back to the tradition of the church. Reading Luther, Calvin, and others shows that they were well acquainted with the works of the early Church Fathers. The looked at the history of the church to influence and guide their interpretations of Scripture. The Ten Theses of Bern (1528), an early Swiss Reformed Confession, makes mention of the “traditions of men,” but it gives no value judgment on them (Ten Theses of Bern, 2). It simply argues that these traditions must be held up to the ultimate standard of Scripture. The Scots Confession instructs to neither “rashly damn” nor “without just examination…receive” the work of general councils (Scots Confession, ch. xx). Allen points out that Zacharias Ursinus, one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, argued in his commentary on the catechism that there are three methods of teaching and learning the doctrine of the church. First is the catechetical instruction. The learning of the broad scope and sweep of Christian doctrine. Second is the lengthier and more developed theologies of the church. Primarily in mind here are the Patristic writings. Third is the highest method, Scripture itself. “The Bible is the ‘highest method in the study of the doctrine of the church,’ precisely because it contains the oracles of God; yet it is not to be engaged apart from the teaching instruments of Christ’s church.”[2]

So it is wise for us to look at prayer through the work of the early church and the Reformation. And we do this before we return to the New Testament because what we will find in the work of the Church is that they consistently look to the Lord’s Prayer as the divinely given model for prayer. After listening to the voices of the universal Church, we will look at Jesus’ instruction for prayer. So over the next several weeks we are going to look at some of the key writings on prayer from the giants of the church. We will examine some early Church Fathers like Origen, Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. We will also look at some of the Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries on prayer. We’ll hear the voice of some of the Reformers and Puritans, like John Calvin, Wilhelmus À Brakel, Francis Turretin, Thomas Watson, and Matthew Henry. By looking at what some of the great minds of the church have taught about prayer, we’ll then refocus our attention on the Lord’s instruction in the Lord’s Prayer.


[1] Michael Allen, Scott R. Swain, and J. Todd Billings, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2015), 85.

[2] Ibid., 68.