Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Is Prayer Redundant? Calvin and the Early Reformers on the Problem of Petitionary Prayer

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Is Prayer Redundant? Calvin and the Early Reformers on the Problem of Petitionary Prayer

Article excerpt

"Do we receive an answer when we pray?" This question stands at the beginning of Karl Barth's treatment of John Calvin's theology of prayer. Barth goes on to conclude that, according to Calvin, God indeed does answer prayer. In fact, "God does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God's action."1 But Barth's view of Calvin's theology of petitionary prayer could not be further from recent views put forth by both friends and foes of Calvin. One "friend" argues that given God's nature and purposes, petitionary prayer may be redundant for Calvin.2 One "foe," on the other hand, claims that the theological system implied by Calvinism makes prayer logically unnecessary and for all intents and purposes a waste of time. Accordingly, "Prayer becomes practically meaningless for the true Calvinist since, if he is consistent in his Calvinistic worldview, to him all things have been decided in advance."3 So which is it? Does petitionary prayer influence God's action in this world or is it redundant? If those who argue that Calvin's understanding of the nature and purposes of God make petitionary prayer redundant are correct in their interpretation of Calvin, we may wonder, is Calvin concerned with the redundancy of prayer and does he attempt to find a solution to this problem? We may also wonder, if Calvin is in fact concerned about the redundancy of prayer, is Calvin unique in his concern or do other early reformers share this concern as well? As we will see, Calvin is aware of the problems of petitionary prayer and his concerns about petitionary prayer are not unique. However, the manner of his response to these same concerns differs from other Reformers' responses in interesting ways.

The plan of this essay is as follows. We shall begin by outlining some concerns that analytic theologians have raised about petitionary prayer-a survey that will help define petitionary prayer and bring clarity to the "redundancy problem of petitionary prayer." With these contemporary concerns in mind, we can turn to three early reformers whose theology of petitionary prayer had significant influence on Calvin, namely Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, and Heinrich Bullinger. These Reformers will illustrate the intellectual and theological climate in which Calvin wrote about prayer. Turning next to Calvin, we shall see that Calvin's theology of petitionary prayer is framed by the dual concepts of human frailty and dependence upon God, leading Christians to pray all sorts of petitions. These prayers are "not so much for his [God's] own sake as for ours."4 We shall conclude by noting how our findings may affect the spiritual life of the church.


Before turning our attention to early Reformation accounts of petitionary prayer, it will be helpful to define petitionary prayer and the problem of petitionary prayer. How shall we define petitionary prayer? One might define petitionary prayer as the type of prayer which takes the form of a desire being presented to God in the form of a request. But the category may be understood in three distinct ways.

PP1: A prayer directed at God that merely takes the form of presenting a request for some state of affairs, X, to God.

This type of prayer can be distinguished from other sorts of prayers, for instance: confession, praise, conversation, etc. By most accounts, however, petitionary prayer is more than the mere expression of a desire to God; rather, petitionary prayer seems to aim at getting things from God by asking for them.5 What does it mean to say that these types of petitionary prayers are effective? One might believe that a prayer is effective if the thing requested in prayer would not have come about had the prayer not be offered. This understanding of effective prayer "presupposes a personal God who can freely choose to do certain things even though he has the ability to do otherwise."6 That is, petitionary prayer seems to presuppose that God is free to bring about X or not bring about X because Y prayed for X. …

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