Thursday, August 7, 2008

Trinitarian Praying

In Eccles. 5:1-2, we read, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.”

These words came home to roost for me during my first year of seminary. Sitting in a theology class taught by William Eichorst, the seminary president at the time, he mentioned that one of the school’s Board members had complained to him about how one of seminary’s students had recently preached at his church and had proceeded to thank God the Father for dying on the cross. The concern was then raised that we needed to be sure that we did not simply go on autopilot when we pray but conscious of what we were saying and to Whom we were praying. Keeping the members of the Trinity straight was the very least that we could do.

As I sat there, I was inwardly embarrassed because I knew that I had likely been that student since I had been providing pulpit supply for this church rather regularly as they were looking for a new pastor. It’s been 20 years since that took place and I still remember the lesson that I learned that day. Prayer is first and foremost communication with the Triune God. It behooves us to pray with both our mind and our heart.

I have since learned that I am not the only one who makes this mistake, of course. Like me, I have heard numbers of sincere believers - men and women, leadership and laity, old and young – thank the Father for coming to earth, suffering and dying on the cross for us or praising the Spirit for sending His Son. I have also heard the Father referred to in a way that, from my research, has no biblical and little historical precedent.

It probably began in the 1980’s when the Fatherhood of God or the “Father heart of God” gained prominence in many circles. Recognizing the need that many believers have for a loving father figure, Christians began referring to God the Father as “Father God.” The phrase always struck me as peculiar, but I didn’t give it much thought until it dawned on me one day as to why. Imagine referring to Jesus as “Son God” or the Holy Spirit as “Spirit God.” It just doesn’t sound right, does it? Nowhere in Scripture and rarely in church history is such phraseology used for any member of the Trinity and I think for good reason. As well intentioned as the phrase may be, it suggests that there is a father god, a son god and a spirit god, inadvertently suggesting division in the Trinity. By referring, however, to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, it is more obvious that we are referring to one God in three persons.

Some might say, as my wife did when we were chatting over lunch one Sunday a while back, “I don’t think that anyone who prays ‘Father God’ is even thinking about that.”

Which is my (and the author of Ecclesiastes’) point exactly! We are not supposed to be praying without thinking about what we are saying, even with the very best of intentions. As a final note, it is interesting to observe that the phrase “Father God” is quite popular with some modern day Gnostics like Sylvia Browne who suggest that God is also a Mother.

Of course, even carefully referring to God as God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit can still lead to error. Some Christians come alarmingly close to modalism which probably the most common theological error concerning the nature of God. Modalism denies the Trinity by stating that God is a single person who, throughout biblical history, has revealed Himself in three modes, or forms. Recently I read a doctrinal statement by an Indian church leader whose doctrinal statement said that he believed that the one true God reveals himself in three persons; The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The correct teaching of the Trinity is one God in three eternal coexistent persons: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is not biblical Christianity.

I am often reminded of John Stott’s observation in his book Knowing God that we are not free to think of God any way that we like, but only to the extent that He has revealed Himself to be. Only God can reveal God. I would suggest that in our prayer to God, that perhaps it might be wisest to address Him as we find God’s people doing so in His revelation to us, the Bible. We may happily and with confidence refer to our heavenly Father as “Father” knowing that this is exactly what the Son commanded us to do under the inspiration of the Spirit (see Matthew 6:8 and Luke 11:2). And when we do, we are sure to thank Him for sending His Son to die for us and for sending the Spirit to guide us into all truth and to conform us into the image of His Son. Trinitarian prayer is a privilege for the child of God; one that can be emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually transforming as we enter into fellowship with the triune God.

No comments: