Reforming Prayer: Martin Luther and the Heart of the Reformation

We often think of the Reformation as being primarily theological in nature, as a rediscovery of the gospel of Jesus Christ summed up in the five solas. Certainly this is true, as far as it goes, but we can forget that the Reformers were just as concerned with the reformation of piety, that is the practice and discipline of godliness. In reality, I think that it is doubtful whether the Reformers would have made much distinction at all between the head and the heart, between a theologically-formed mind and a piety-formed life. William R. Russell, in fact, goes so far as to say that the heart of Luther’s reforming program was the reformation of prayer which the reformation of theology was meant to assist. Russell writes:

[T]this heart of the Lutheran Reformation beats with two chambers. In addition to the informational dimension of the Lutheran reform of catechesis, there is a second, intimately related aspect of Luther’s reform strategy. This aspect of Luther’s work has likewise been neglected or devalued by common interpretations of Luther’s life and work. In addition to the educational content of Lutheran catechesis, there is an experiential and practical aspect. This other chamber of the heart in Luther’s theology cannot be separated from the informational dimension of the catechism. The second chamber is the emphasis on the interplay between theology and practice, between ideas and ritual. Specifically, Luther sought to reform how the church prays. For Luther, the act of Christian prayer “enacts” doctrine, just as doctrine “informs” prayer. They are inseparable in Luther’s understanding of catechesis. Indeed, for 116174745_martinluthertischgebet_34041_2235223_epdneetz_i01Luther, informed prayer is the goal or purpose of catechesis.

From his earliest public statements and writings onward, Luther makes a strategic move to integrate instruction in the basics of Christian doctrine with the basics of Christian prayer. There is an early and sustained theological connection between catechesis and prayer in Luther’s reformation program. For example, already in October of 1516, fully a year before he posted the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther preached on the Lord’s Prayer and published both a Latin and German exposition of it. The reformer returned to this theme again five months later, when he preached a series on the Lord’s Prayer during Lent of 1517….

Beyond these early works, three writings in particular emerge as programmatic in Luther’s mission to use catechesis to reform the prayer life of the church: the 1522 Personal Prayer Book, the 1529 catechism, and the 1535 treatise, A Simple Way to Pray for a Good Friend. When these three additional documents are interpreted together as part of Luther’s overall reformation strategy, catechesis and prayer can be seen as the “heart” in Luther’s theology….

In A Simple Way to Pray, Luther uses the catechism of 1529, as he turns the various parts into prayers. For Luther, the content of catechesis is also the content of Christian prayer. Ultimately, then, the primary goal of catechesis is to instruct Christians in the basics of prayer. From Luther’s perspective, prayer is the response of the faithful to the relationship initiated by God in Jesus Christ. This relational dimension of Luther’s understanding of prayer is evident in the metaphors the reformer uses to describe prayer, the majority of which are personal in character. For example: God is the physician, the believer is the patient; God is the King, the believer is the subject; God is the groom, the believer is the bride; and, preeminently, God is Heavenly Father, the believer is child. With this in mind, Luther apparently sought to reach at least two interrelated goals with respect to his catechetical emphasis on prayer. His first goal was to teach believers about the one to whom they were to pray. This goal would involve a proper theological understanding of the basics of Christian theology, summarized in the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Second, Luther taught believers what and how to pray. He therefore chose a catechetical strategy that delineated the basics of theology in a manner that could be grasped by what he called “the simple laity”—and had informed prayer as its end result. This emphasis, evident throughout Luther’s life and career, led him to develop a catechetical approach that stressed a vital interplay between theology and piety. For Luther, catechetical instruction was intended to communicate more than mere intellectual knowledge or right information about God. He also sought to assist the student with the practice of prayer as a fundamental feature of the Christian life. This emphasis on prayer in the context of Lutheran catechetical instruction is the heart of Luther’s reformation theology.

For Martin Luther, the reformation was about how the church prays. And in this connection, the primary goal of catechesis was to teach believers to pray. Luther sought to instruct parishioners regarding the one to whom they were to pray, to know what to pray, and to know how to pray. In order to attain this goal, he developed a rather unique educational strategy. Both this goal and the strategy used by Luther to reach it are at the theological core of the Lutheran Reformation. Indeed, a, if not the, distinctive feature of the Lutheran Reformation program is its consistent emphasis on reforming the way Christians pray. [William R. Russell, “Luther, Prayer, and the Reformation” in Word & World 22, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 50-51, 53-54]

My conclusion from this is simple: if we truly want to honor the legacy of Martin Luther, let us dedicate ourselves now more than ever to the practice, privilege, and power of prayer!