Prayer is Theology

Theology and prayer… what a combination.  To many people today, “theology” is what smart people study in seminary, and seldom makes much sense to the ordinary Christian.  “Prayer” on the other hand, is something we all do individually according to our own styles and customs.  Theology and prayer could hardly be any more far apart to such a mind.

the false dichotomy

But this divergence and split between “theology” and “prayer” is not the way things have always been.  In the late Medieval era, when a movement known as Scholasticism began, “theology” came to be more and more associated with the formal academic study of doctrine.  Theologians were scholastics – scholars – people who had studied this stuff and were therefore experts in the field.  Theology had become a discipline alongside the sciences, literature, mathematics, and music.  The Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment didn’t change this at all, and to this day most Christians in the Western tradition associate “theology” with some sort of formal study.

Before the rise of Scholasticism (and in a few breathes of fresh air throughout the past near-thousand years of history since then), theology and prayer were inseparable.  They were almost two sides of the same coin, you could say.  In fact, they were part of a single continuum or process that was (and remains) a central part of Christian spirituality.

reading, meditation, and prayer

This Lent I will be reading a collection of prayers written by St. Anselm in (roughly) the 1070’s.  His prayers are representative of Early Medieval spirituality, where theology and prayer are still fully bonded together.  In the Introduction written by Sister Benedicta Ward, it is explained:

Reading was an action of the whole person, by which the meaning of a text was absorbed, until it became prayer.  It was frequently compared to eating: (1) Taste by reading, [2] chew by understanding, [3] swallow by loving and rejoicing.

Prayer, in other words, comes from the digesting of Scripture.  Once you’ve taken some part of the Scriptures into your mind and heart, you’ve now got material to pray.  This is especially true with the Psalms, being themselves prayers in the Bible.  As you grow familiar with God’s prayers, the Psalms, you become more able to pray them as your prayers.

This analogy of eating survives in Anglican liturgy via one of our Sunday Collects:

BLESSED Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such a way hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of your holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

So prayer is rooted in theology – the understanding of the Scriptures.

The other side of the same coin is seen in writings of the Fathers: their theology is continually rising up into prayer, or rather, there is no distinction between the two.  In Cyprian, Irenaus, and especially Origen, prayer welled up spontaneously as they wrote their commentaries.  Their theology, in the ancient sense of the word. was a hymn, a prayer, the point where knowledge and and love become praise.  The Sanctus, the Te Deum, were therefore called theologies and conversely theologians were those whose prayer is true.

If a Bible Commentary today suddenly went from explaining part of the Scriptures to a prayer, that would throw off most readers today.  It would seem like an inappropriate change of writing style or genre.  It’d feel out of place.  But before Scholasticism changed the way we think of theology and prayer, they worked together much more fluidly.  The Sanctus and Te Deum mentioned above are considered songs or hymns today, but they’re also works of theology.  They both express truth about God (and particularly Christ) and are expressions of praise to Him.  In a sense, they were the “best” sort of theological works, because they simultaneously proclaimed Truth and praised Him.  Similarly, it’s why the Creeds both end with the word “Amen.”  They’re both statements of theological belief and prayerful acts of worship.

the meaning of orthodoxy

Let’s revisit the end of that last block quote.

… theologians were those whose prayer is true.

This may be an odd statement for some people today to wrap their minds around.  Shouldn’t it say “those whose prayer comes true”?  First we have to remind ourselves that prayer is far more than our intercessions and petitions.  There is also prayer of confession – confessing our sins and confessing our faith!  There is also prayer of oblation, adoration, praise, and thanksgiving.  When we speak to God, we make assumptions about who God is.  When we thank and praise and adore Him, we’re identifying aspects of who and what God is, or what He has done for us.  When we confess sins and offer ourselves before Him, again we’re operating on certain “theological” assumptions about what sin is, where salvation comes from, and what our place and value is before God.  With that in mind let’s repeat the quote one more time:

A theologian is one whose prayer is true.

This is what it means to be “orthodox.”  Normally when people use the word “orthodox” today, they mean “right teaching” or “correct doctrines.”  But that’s not quite what the word really means.  Ortho means “right” or “correct,” but doxa is Greek for praise, not teaching.  Orthodoxy means “right praise” or “right worship.”  It means prayers that are true.  So yes, the “correct faith” is implied here, but it’s part and parcel with “correct prayers”.

This is a challenging and important lesson that we get from this ancient mindset: correct prayer and correct doctrine go together.

Before anyone freaks out, don’t worry – if you “mess up” when you’re praying out loud with others, you’re not in danger of suddenly turning into a heretic and losing your salvation.

But here is an example of how this can be very important.  In a time of prayer, how do you open: do you address God the Father or Jesus?  Do you address “God” in general, or do you address the Holy Spirit, or perhaps invoke all three persons of the Trinity?  Now think about how that prayer continues: do you keep repeating “Father God” as has become popular lately or “Lord Jesus”?  And finally, at the end, a lot of folks include “in Jesus’ name, amen.”  Is there coherence through all those pieces?  If you’re praying to Jesus, and then you say “in Jesus’ name,” you’re suddenly talking about Him instead.  Popular spontaneous prayer frequently reveals the deep confusion that Christians have about one of the most basic doctrines of all: the Trinity.

Orthodoxy, or right worship, provides a powerful antidote to that kind of issue.  By providing us with a set of “right prayers” we get both theology and prayer in one super bundle.

it keeps coming back to liturgy

As I often write here, this is why worship has always been liturgical.  Since at least Mount Sinai in the Exodus, God’s people have had God-given forms for worship that simultaneously teach us about God and express our prayers to Him.  Churches that retain the traditional liturgy in one form or another tend to produce Christians less confused about how to pray.  (Yes, when the liturgy is left a complete mystery and never explained then individuals can become disillusioned and miss the whole point, but that’s a fault of raising up believers, not a fault of the liturgy itself.)

The union of theology and prayer happens in every kind of Church, though, not just “liturgical” ones.  Even the “non-liturgical” churches present an implicit theology through their forms of worship and prayer.  Whenever we speak to God or about God, some sort of theology is always assumed.  The question is whether that theology has been thought through ahead of time such that it is translated accurately into prayer and praise.  Rock concert churches tend to communicate Jesus your buddy a lot better than the Judge of heaven and earth.  Stiff and unemotional churches tend to communicate the Judge better than the Friend.  And yet God is both Judge and Friend to us; a good liturgy takes both extremes into account.  The Gospel makes us cry (weeping over our sins) and smile (rejoicing in God’s forgiveness), therefore “right worship” should also instill both fear and joy in their proper proportions and times.

What does your private life of worship and prayer look like?  Can it be better-informed theologically?  Or are you academically-minded and well educated but struggle to express or use your knowledge in worship and prayer?  All too often, we tend to split theology and prayer apart.  Let’s see if we can heal that rift somewhat.  This is something I am passionate about at the level of congregational worship, but have yet to explore very deeply on an individual basis.  Food for thought (and prayer), I guess!

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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