Prayer – Reformed Confessions -1

Much more could be said about the development of the Church’s understanding of prayer in the Middle Ages. It was during this time that many scholars were rising up in order to engage with the Biblical on a whole host of issues. It is important to note that the Middle Ages were in no way the “Dark Ages.” Remember, it was during this time that Greek philosophy was rediscovered in Europe, universities began to be formed, and much of the scientific, philosophical, and theological groundwork was laid for the Renaissance and the Reformation.

But our attention will now turn to the period of the Reformation. The 16th and 17th centuries saw a great deal of advancement and refinement in the Church’s understanding of prayer. The dual emphases of ad fontes and sola Scriptura reopened the eyes of the Church in order to evaluate the practice and tradition of the church in light of God’s Word. Beginning with Luther’s 95 Theses nailed to the door of the chapel at Wittenburg, everything in the church began to be examined through the lens of Scripture.

The topic of prayer was examined by a number of the Reformers as they sought to bring all things under the Word of God. The Reformers addressed a number of matters relating to prayer, but they might be summarized under four general categories: 1) What is prayer? 2) How are we to pray? 3) To whom are we to pray? 4) For what are we to pray? This week we will look at the first two matters.

What is prayer? William Farel was a fiery, red-headed reformer Frenchman who came to Protestantism through a thorough study of the Scriptures. After studying under or tussling with a “who’s who” of 16th century theologians, Farel landed in Geneva. In 1535 Farel was able to convince (or coerce) John Calvin to come and be the minister in Geneva. Their attempts to thoroughly reform the city met insurmountable opposition in 1538 when Calvin and Farel were given three days to leave Geneva. William Farel’s Summary, written in 1529, is one of the earliest confessions of the Reformed faith. In it Farel states that prayer is “an ardent talk with God.” Prayer is “the true sacrifice of praise: by which one gives honor and glory to God, and to Him alone we have cried for help.”

A few years later, the various Protestant groups faced persecution from the Roman Catholic church in the form of the Counter-Reformation. With the rise of Charles V as the Holy Roman Emperor, they sensed an opportunity to have the civil government protect them, if they could present to the emperor a reasonable defense for their beliefs at the Diet of Augsburg (1530). Martin Bucer on behalf of four cities (Strasbourg, Constance, Memmingen, and Lindau) composed the Tetrapolitan Confession. This was truly the first “Reformed Confession” but was ultimately adopted by no one because it failed to assuage the specific concerns of the various Protestant factions (primarily the Lutheran versus Reformed views on the Lord’s Supper). In regard to prayer, Bucer wrote, “Prayer is a lifting up of the mind to God, and such conversation with him that no other thing so greatly inflames man with heavenly affections and more mightily conforms the mind to God’s will.” Prayer is a means by which man’s mind is conformed to God’s will.

How are we to pray? As noted by Augustine, the matter of the heart’s attitude toward God is a primary concern in prayer. Ulhrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer of Zurich, wrote his 67 Articles as one of the earliest broadsides against the abuses of the Roman Church. In it Zwingli notes that “true worshipers call on God in spirit and in truth, without clamoring before people.” Also he says hypocrites will be seen by the people and that is their reward. So prayer with “chanting and loud clamor, without true devotion and done for money only” will not be honored by God. Instead, the Reformers emphasized that the one praying must acknowledge his sin before a holy God and rely upon God’s grace in prayer. The Waldensian Confession (1560) arose out of the Reformed church in the NW corner of Italy, bordering on France and Switzerland. This confession placed its instruction on prayer between its discussion of justification and the discussion of righteousness by faith alone. The placement here seems to point to the work of the cross being a prerequisite for man to enter into prayer with God.

This sentiment is echoed in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). Frederick III ordered that a new catechism be written for his kingdom. The task was given to the faculty of the University of Heidelberg. Tradition holds that Caspar Oliveanus and Zacharius Ursinius were the principal authors. It continues to be a confessional document in the Dutch Reformed churches. Question 117 instructs that prayer should be made “with our whole heart…thoroughly knowing our need and misery, so as to humble ourselves in the presence of Divine majesty…firmly assured He will hear our prayer.”