Friday, April 1, 2016

Chp. 22 - Prayer

First and foremost, my apologies to our group on the late post this week.

Secondly, let's talk about prayer. Calvin had quite a bit to say about prayer; who should do it, why we should do it, and how we should do it. All of chapter 20 in book 3 of the Institutes surrounds this topic of prayer. The two questions asked at the beginning of Lane's book ask: why out we to pray? and in what way ought we to pray?

I appreciate how Lane has split up the chapters in Calvin to give a clearer distinction as to what he is talking about. The first chapters 1-3 speak to the why and the following chapters 4-16 cover the how.

The reason why we pray according to Calvin is because we are called to as believers. But it because of our belief and faith that he says we are compelled to pray - we are incapable of not praying. "As faith springs from the Gospel, so by faith our hearts are framed to call upon the name of God".  We pray to receive the blessings and treasures that God has already prepared for us. there is so much that God wants for us and already is preparing for us. God desires for us to know and experience all that this includes and one of the primary ways we can do this is through our relationship with God in prayer. "Assuredly it is not without cause our heavenly Father declares that our only safety if in calling upon his name, since by it we invoke the presence of his providence to watch over our interests, of his power to sustain us when weak and almost fainting, of his goodness to receive us into favour, though miserably loaded with sin; in fine, call upon him to manifest himself to us in all his perfections.

Per the usual, Calvin is very specific in where we should be spiritually, mentally, and emotionally when approaching God. Because of this the how of prayer is incredibly important to Calvin and he spends a decent amount of time invested in walking us through these how's. He breaks it up in four rules for what "right" prayer is and looks like.

The first rule is that when one goes to prayer he/she must be in the right frame of mind before God. Calvin shows the importance of prayer and how one approaches God. "What I say is, that all foreign and extraneous cares must be dispelled by which the mind might be driven to and fro in vague suspense, be drawn down from heaven, and kept groveling on the earth." Calvin believes we must clear our minds of what is only of human concern so that we are able to focus on God rather than ourselves. He deems it important to enter into prayer not in a state of casualness but in a state of being proper.

The second rule is that we bring only those things to God that God permits. "For not only do many without modesty, without reverence, presume to invoke God concerning their frivolities, but impudently bring forward their dreams, whatever they may be, before the tribunal of God". I think the main focus for Calvin was the idea of reverence for God. It apparent that Calvin believed that not all things could be brought to God as he thought them to be insignificant.

The third rule is that we must recognize we are praying in God's glory and because of God's glory rather than our own. The best way to do this according to Calvin is found in our repentance of sin before our supplications. "In fine, supplication for pardon, with humble and ingenuous confession of guilt, forms both the preparation and commencement of right prayer".

The fourth rule is that we should be pray with confidence believing our prayers are heard. Calvin does well to remind the reader that this confidence is not without anxieties and doubt. It is here that Clavin shows the importance of our faith and coming before God, in all things; confidently. "God can only be invoked by such as have obtained a knowledge of his mercy from the Gospel, and feel firmly assured that that mercy is ready to be bestowed upon them".

There were many aspects about why and how we pray that I agree with when it comes to Calvin. However, my question stems out of my disagreement with him. It seems as though Calvin spends a lot of time in an either/or mentality regarding prayer. God so great and we are worthless to worship; all Glory must be give to God and we are so stupid as humans and therefore have nothing to offer; we must come to pray and we aren't worthy to pray in our humanity. If everything is about relationship with God through Christ, why does Calvin spend so much time trying to divide our relationship?

Ok, I also have another question. Calvin believes that we are to pray according to the will of God, and if I read him correctly, he does not believe that will includes our human frivolities. So, what then fits under Calvin's definition of the will of God?


  1. Hi Kate,
    Thanks for this excellent summary of Calvin's position regarding prayer especially the reminder of the "hows" of prayer. As I'm sure you and those who are gathered here together on this blog would agree, we cannot underestimate the place of prayer in our faith journeys. I struggled with Calvin's rule when he stated as you summarized: "He deems it important to enter into prayer not in a state of casualness but in a state of being proper." When I first read this statement I began to ponder what this state might be like and to think "who can pray properly?" Who is in the "proper" state and what exactly is this state? What does it look like. I began searching the scriptures and found what seems to be the answer in philippians 4:6 when Paul says: Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. I think Calvin is attempting to describe how we should come to God, acknowledging that we must be thankful. For me this idea of prayer is tightly woven into Calvin's idea of the righteousness that we have because of Christ. It is Christ (via the Holy Spirit) which will guide our hearts and minds whenever we pray. Do others have thoughts?

  2. Best post on a very difficult subject. Our prayer life develops into our world view or should I say Heavenly view. I know of no other verse in the bible more important in developing that view then (Romans 11:33) :Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and Knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable his ways! A little meditation on that verse and you can quickly see who God is in comparison to who we are and why we should always say Lord your will not mine be done.

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  5. Kate this is an excellent breakdown of this very long section of Calvin. I struggled with Calvin in this section, I believe prayer should be like running water flowing into the ocean. Calvin makes it all sound so complicated and cold.

  6. Excellent summary. Unlike Tim I did not find this section cold. A bit complicated, yes, but it is laid out in a formula that can be followed. "How to Pray in four easy steps" would make a great title for an article or blog post, or in Calvin's case, he could probably produce a reasonably lengthy book.

    We could break it down to:
    1. Put yourself in the right frame of mind.
    2. Pray for what God wants for us.
    3. Remember God's Power
    4. Have faith God will answer.

    I have been reading Matthew Henry's book "Method for Prayer" and he gives a lot of great examples that I think would fall in line with Calvin.

    I don't think it is Calvin's intention here to tear down our relationship with God, rather, perhaps, to put it into perspective. God is infinitely great, we are specks on a tiny planet in an insignificant solar system, in a rather obscure galaxy probably in some out of the way corner of the universe.

    Nevertheless, I have been reading a bit about Hutcheson (the Scot) and Lord Shaftesbury (Irish I believe) in the early - mid 1700s. They have a much gentler view of humanity. They presume that humans were given, by God, a predisposition to love one another. Yet, all of these gentlemen agree that there is something in "polite" society itself that puts a polish on individual humans. Calvin would say it was grace, Hobbes - government (the leviathan), Shaftesbury - social interaction (which could come through the church as well). I guess the point I am trying to make here is that Calvin could seem to be negative and there are much more positive views that will get you to the same place he is trying to get to. Yet, I think Calvin's goal here is to bring us closer to God through appropriate prayer.

    Sorry, went on a bit of a tangent there.

    1. Well Bill since you called me out by name, let me retort. Someday you may have a mother in your office that has just lost her child and she's asked you to pray. Are you going to pull out your little list and remind her that we need get in the right frame of mind?

      When my daughter calls me and says, "Hey dad, do you have a minute?" I always respond, "always!" Calvin's instruction is clinical and it's cold. I assume he wrote this for pastors?

    2. Hi Tim, I didn't mean you are wrong, but I did mean that I saw it differently. I think times of sorrow or need, even times of exasperation are times we are in the right frame of mind. I think we can take many of the Psalms as an example.

      I think you are correct in assuming that this is written more for pastors than lay people.

    3. Tim & Bill - thanks for capturing the tension I feel in Calvin! I know he's a significant theological voice in our tradition - and I appreciate (or at least I think I do) his phenomenal organizational mind. I can certainly see, though, how he does a better job with analysis and categorization than with empathy or reassurance. I have to agree with both of you when you say Calvin is probably more helpful as a scholarly reference than as a tool for pastoral care.

    4. I hate to play this card, but what I think is happening here between me and Calvin is cultural. I am of latino descent and we are an emotional people who lead from the heart. Calvin is definitely not. He is all cerebral, spends a great deal of time come at his theology from the mind. Brother that ain't me. My theology is all relational. How many of my post are reflections of things I've experienced? Why do I see his writing about prayer as cold hearted? Well as I mentioned above in my reference to my relationship with my daughter as an analogy to our relationship with God (hope most of you caught that as I did not make that clear). In 'my walk of faith' God is my most wonderful father and God is always up for a conversation no matter where or when I start it. And if I drift from one thing to the next, my father knows me well and understands hey it's just Tim being Tim. That's how we do it in my family. It is my hope that you all also feel this comfort in your relationship with God however it is you view 'Her' or 'Him'.

    5. Hey Tim, great reply as always. Ever since starting seminary I have thought of you as a compass and a guide. I tend not to express emotion much. When I see you reacting to an issue, I often go back and revisit what it is that is important about it from a relational point of view, rather than from the strictly theoretical. Thanks for being there.

  7. I agree with you Bill and looking at the community of Geneva we see a loving, caring community. In the previous sections, I have been very aware of Calvin's accusation that the flesh is evil but there is always, or almost always, an underlying understanding that the flesh cannot exist without the presence of God. Even the unbeliever knows of God and because of this, its seems that there is always a chance for humanity. Prayer then connects us with our creator "by the benefit of prayer ... we reach those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father." (3.20.2) Prayer is therefore necessary to connect us with the creator making us whole directing us towards providence (remember that we can choose not to be with God (2.2.8)

  8. I agree with you Bill and looking at the community of Geneva we see a loving, caring community. In the previous sections, I have been very aware of Calvin's accusation that the flesh is evil but there is always, or almost always, an underlying understanding that the flesh cannot exist without the presence of God. Even the unbeliever knows of God and because of this, its seems that there is always a chance for humanity. Prayer then connects us with our creator "by the benefit of prayer ... we reach those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father." (3.20.2) Prayer is therefore necessary to connect us with the creator making us whole directing us towards providence (remember that we can choose not to be with God (2.2.8)

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  10. Thank you for your thoughtful Prayer Post.
    I have looked over your post a couple times, and I am still not sure if I have misunderstood you or if I read Calvin differently. Because, I do not see divisiveness in Calvin urging the godly to use care as we prepare for prayer and lead our prayers in an honoring manner. 3.20.7, page 858, reminds us of the Lawful way to enter prayer by first cleansing or our hearts through repentance, and then near the bottom of this page, Calvin expands his thought of purity of heart toward all of worship. Also, I recall (but cannot seem to find the comment)Calvin,stating that there are times of 'crying out' in prayer as a kind of prayer that God does acknowledge and answer(not sure of this quote, maybe I will find it later tonight), indicating a kind of freedom to be somewhat shameless at times in prayer.
    Not being entirely sure I understand your question or quandary with Calvin's point in prayers being directed by God's Will and refraining from trivial or frivolous prayers... Calvin, as I read him, is reminding his reader of the sacred space being held in a time of prayer. And so a frivolous prayer would be more about the preparation and thoughtfulness of this time rather than what was said, during the prayer. And by retaining a mindset of God's Will, for my mind and heart while in prayer, for me Calvin is simply asking that I focus on the Will of God, who sees the plan of my life and the lives of those around me, and so, my thought of how something should go may be part of my prayer, but ultimately my Prayer must be, Your Will Lord, not mine.

    ... I am looking now at 3.20.11, on the bottom of page 862.. pray with confidence, Calvin shares his 4th rule, "Cast down and overcome by true humility, we should be nonetheless encouraged to pray by a sure hope that our prayer will be answered... just as repentance and faith are 'companions', as one terrifies us, the other gladdens us,

    I found, I think the comment I mentioned earlier, at the end of this section I just mentioned, 3.20.11 on page 863...
    "It is fitting therefore that the godly man's prayer arise from these two emotions... That is, that he groan under present ills and anxiously fear those to come, yet at the same time take refuge in God, not at all doubting he is ready to extend a hand".
    Many Thanks for your post!

  11. Kate, thank you for your excellent summary on prayer. I like Will’s summary of “How to Pray in four easy steps.” For #3 “Remember God’s Power,” I would add an overarching category of humility and asking for forgiveness of sins. “The plea for forgiveness of sins is the most important part of prayer.” (page 860) Calvin talks about the need to be reconciled to God before we would be in any position to receive anything. That being said I take comfort in Christ being our mediator—with all of his love and grace. I also appreciate that wonderful Bible verse that Rick reminded of us in Philippians 4:6.

  12. Kate - thanks for your questions about what "qualifies" for prayer in Calvin's world. Like other topics we've encountered, Calvin's knack for organization may have turned a natural act into something more prescribed.

  13. I read Kate's comment about "dividing the relationship" between humans and God as a reference to transcendence and immanence. Calvin emphasizes God's transcendence--how far he is above us, how different he is from us. By contrast, most Americans think of praying to an immanent God--a God who is near, with whom we can speak the way we'd talk to our most intimate friend. I read the Bible as portraying God in both ways, and I don't think you can have a healthy faith without both (see; the language is dated, but the concepts are clear).

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  15. Thank you everyone for your dialogue and interactions. Dr. Coffman, I appreciate your terminology differentiation as it does a better job of describing what I am wrestling with in understand Calvin. I also see both throughout the Bible and I am struck by how little I see it in Calvin's writing. Maybe I have overlooked it? I suppose my struggle with Calvin at times is that how his writing feels very "us vs. them" or rather "us vs. God" and at times the relational aspect with God seems to all but disappear.

  16. This was a long chapter and you summarized it beautifully. I really enjoy conversations to hear different points of view. It is healthy to have these conversations. I have found with Calvin that I like to go back and read the first couple of paragraphs after I complete the chapter. In the beginning of chapter 20, Calvin emphasizes the need for prayer (Institutes, 3.20.1 and 2). What stuck me as really interesting was Calvin’s admission that words fail to explain how necessary prayer is (3.20.2). With all the different perspectives, it really is great to find out that even Calvin admits that our language limits us.

  17. Yes, prayer is very important in the life of a christian. Scripture tells us to pray without ceasing. You did well with the summary. How to pray has been at the forefront of most debates at least from the rise of evangelical christians. It is just right for Calvin to delve into how to pray.
    Scripture tells us: "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."
    What a blessing! (Matthew 6: 5 - 7).
    But we also have Acts 4:24-When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.
    All is from the scripture and it is good.

  18. I echo everyone in saying that this topic is deserving of much attention. Prayer is well-covered in the Bible. For me, specificity in prayer comes smack up against the will of God. I'm never quite sure when to just ask for the will of God to be done, or to pray, as in Calvin's second rule (3.20.6), out of a sincere sense of want. Calvin seems to say - pray what you mean and mean what you pray. I think silent prayer is helpful to me in this instance.