How to Pray

For Melanchthon Monday this week, we’re taking a hiatus from the series “Then in Distress We Upraise,” but don’t worry: we’ll get back to it. (I know you were worried.)

Instead, this week I want to look at a passage from the last phase of the Loci Communes on prayer, which I was perusing to prepare for the other aforementioned series.

Unsurprisingly, it is amazing. But let’s try to be a little more specific.

Melanchthon opens by distinguishing Christian prayer, which is unique, from many other virtues (e.g. temperance) that are common to Christians and non-Christians alike.

But is Christian prayer unique? The status of prayer among the adherents of the Abrahamic religions vis-à-vis the God they invoke has received much attention in the last half century, particularly since the Second Vatican Council. Do Christians, pagans, Muslims, and Jews all pray to the same God?

Many want to say, “Yes.” Melanchthon says, “No.”

How does one decide? Melanchthon says that when considering the question, one has to keep in mind two distinctions: the essence of God (Dei essentia) and the revelation of God in the gospel (promissio et Filius Mediator).

That is, Christians worship and pray to a Trinitarian God who is one in essence and three in Persons, which is not true of any other faith; and they worship and pray to a God who has declared his saving will in the gospel in the person of Jesus Christ, the Mediator between God and man–also not true of any other faith. Self-conscious belief in the doctrines of the Trinity and of God pro nobis in the work and word of Jesus Christ (i.e., Trinitology and Christology) as the ground of prayer distinguish the address and petitions of Christian prayer in a way that uniquely characterizes and shapes Christian prayer in distinction from and rivalry with all other forms of divine address.

What sets Christian prayer apart from other kinds, and makes it (and it alone) truly prayer, in other words, is faith.

This is not mere theory, not mere posturing and performative self-positioning in service of some other worldly agenda, as so much recent online Trinitarian debating has been. For Melanchthon, it is simply the anchor that keeps one from despair, the only reason one can have any hope and any confidence that God listens when we speak.

To illustrate, he gives a model prayer (forma), which I translate below.

Almighty, eternal, and living God, eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who have revealed yourself with immeasurable goodness and have cried out concerning your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, “Hear him”; the creator and preserver of all things, together with your coeternal Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and your Holy Spirit, who was poured out on your Apostles; wise, good, merciful; our judge and our strength: have mercy on me on account of Jesus Christ, your Son, whom you of your wondrous and ineffable counsel willed to be victim and mediator and protector of suppliants, in order to show your enormous wrath against sin and your immeasurable mercy toward the human race; sanctify and rule me by the Holy Spirit; preserve and rule your church, as well as human polities, which are the churches’ way stations; give aid to the studies of those who learn the doctrine of the church and other honorable arts, etc.

The closing “etc.” may seem odd; but the one who prays can take it from there. What Melanchthon gives can serve as a model for how the business is to be engaged. As he says, “This form in some way reminds the one reciting it about the Persons, about the Mediator, and about the promises.” These are the essential points, the sine qua non without which prayer cannot even occur.


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