The Answer is More Certain than Our Prayer: Encouragement to Pray from Question 129 of the Heidelberg Catechism (with commentary by Karl Barth)

Heidelberg Catechism 129

Q. What does the word “Amen” signify?

A. “Amen” signifies, it shall truly and certainly be: for my prayer is more assuredly heard of God, than I feel in my heart that I desire these things of him

[W]e must begin with the end, that is, we must first consider the answer to prayer. We may be surprised at this, for, from a logical standpoint, we should ask first, “What is prayer?” And only afterward, “Do we receive an answer when we pray?” Now for the Reformers the basic and vital point is this certitude: God does answer prayer. That is the first thing we must know. Calvin says it explicitly: We obtain what we request. Prayer is grounded upon this assurance. Let us approach the subject from the given fact that God prayeranswers. God is not deaf, but listens; more than that, he acts. God does not act in the same way whether we pray for not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence. This is what the word “answer” means.

In Question 129 of the Heidelberg Catechism it is stated that the answer to our prayer is more certain than our awareness of the things that we request. It seems there is nothing more sure than the feeling of our desires, but this Catechism says that God’s answer is still more certain. We too must have this inward assurance. Perhaps we doubt the sincerity of our prayer and the worth of our request. But one thing is beyond doubt: it is the answer that God gives. Our prayers our weak and poor. Nevertheless, what matters is not that our prayers be forceful, but that God listens to them. That is why we pray….

Let our prayer not be offered according to our good pleasure; otherwise there would be then on our part inordinate desires. Let it be patterned after the rule [the Lord’s prayer] given by the One who knows our needs better than we ourselves. God has directed us first to submit ourselves to him in order that we may present our requests. So that we may conform to this order, we must eliminate in our prayers all questions like this: Does God listen to us? On this point Calvin is categorical: “Such a prayer is not a prayer.” Doubt is not permitted, for it goes without saying that we shall be heard. Even before we pray we must assume the attitude of someone who has been heart….

“Amen.” It is enough to recall what Luther and the Heidelberg Catechism tell us about this. Luther affirms that it is a good thing to say “Amen”! In other words, it is a good thing to learn not to doubt when we pray, but to believe, because “Amen” means, “So be it.” Prayer is not an undertaking left to chance, a trip into the blue. It must end as it has begun, with conviction: Yes, may it be so! On its side, the Heidelberg Catechism declares that “Amen” means that the certainty of the divine response is greater than the certainty we feel within ourselves of our needs and desires. The most certain element of our prayer is not our requests, but what comes from God: his response.

[Karl Barth, Prayer, 50th Anniversary Edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002). 13, 19-20, 65-66.]

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The Apostles’ Creed and the Election of Jesus Christ: Karl Barth on the Christ-Conditioned Nature of Divine Providence

To begin this post, I would simply like to quote a section from Christopher Green’s book Doxological Theology in which he examines Karl Barth’s formulation of the doctrine of divine providence in strict accordance with the inner theo-logic of the Apostles’ Creed (after which I will conclude with a few comments of my own):

It is germane to Barth’s doctrine of providence that he should argue that the first article of the creed must be read in the light of the second, and so he states this criterion for his doctrine in a number of key places in III/3…

In the second article of the creed one finds the true meaning of the first, that God the Father of Jesus Christ is the “Almighty.” This correction of the creed is the “climax of the whole doctrine of creation.” For Barth, the previous generations that recited the creed in full should have, so to speak, “known better” than to accept a philosophical barthversion of simplicity, as the second article puts Christ’s face on the first. This makes the God of providence, that is, the God of the first article, identifiable as noncapricious. Barth consistently argues in 1949 that, despite the creed, the God of Western theology on the whole is unfortunately a philosophical monad, “the absolute, the general, the digit 1.” In this volume, he states that the most common cause for this dogmatic distortion is confusion between divine unity and simplicity. The default Western position on simplicity, he says, is grounded in an analogia entis which contrasts God with the world by identifying him as a philosophically “simple” being. Barth often raises this complaint about the Western view, which is implicit in his critique of J. P. Sartre, whose concept of man, he says, is a displaced version of the generic god of the West:

It is as man that man assumes the functions of deity, and in spite of the strangeness of his form is clotted with the attributes of at least the conventional Western conception of God, existing of and by and for himself, constituting his own beginning and end as absolute actuality without potentiality, unique, omnipotent, and certainly omniscient […] All that is lacking is the slightest trace of the biblical concept of God. [CD III/3, pp.342-343]

It is the Apostles’ Creed that points to God’s election in Jesus Christ in its summary of the whole of Scripture, safeguarding the God of providence as the triune God. According to Barth, the doctrine is commonly obscured when God’s power as “Father” is abstracted from his revealed work in Christ. Thus, the God who reveals himself in an undivided way is slighted, severing the One who is the Son from his constitutive relation with the Father. Against this, Barth states at the beginning and end of his writing the Church Dogmatics that “the theological rule with respect to the Trinity [… is] opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa.” For Barth, his commitment to the unity of the triune God means an approach to divine providence will not be grounded in a metaphysical concept of the simple. Rather, he apprehends the work appropriated to the second person of the Trinity (i.e., election, reconciliation) as a context for understanding the variegated unity of the triune Subject who acts providentially. It is not hard to see, then, why Barth chides his opponents in III/3 for not “deducing” providence from the doctrine of the Trinity. As Barth sees it, his predecessors lost the programmatic role that should be played by the triunity of God because they failed to understand the doctrine of predestination in the context of the person and work of Christ. This is the purpose of the second article of the creed, which should have been sufficient for pointing to the centrality of Christ, and consequently, to the triunity of God. It is in the second article that the hidden God becomes manifest.[1]

What I find immensely helpful about this is the way in which Barth, via Green, uncovers the fundamental “theo-logic” (i.e. the unique logic that accords with the way of God’s self-revelation in Christ) that underlies the various affirmations of the Apostles’ (and one could say the same of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan) Creed. This underlying theo-logic is signalled in the very first words of the Creed that recognize God as “Father” before identifying him as “Creator”. This is highly significant in that it gives a distinctly trinitarian and christological shape to the Creed’s reading of Scripture. The Creed interprets the “God” who “in the beginning…created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) not as, in Green’s words, a “philosophical monad” but rather as God already existing as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. On this basis, Barth rightly discerns that a proper understanding of the Creed, and through it a proper interpretation of the biblical witness, is that the first article – that affirms God as Creator and Sustainer of creation – must be read strictly in accordance with the second article concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ. Another way of saying this would be that the Creed affirms the trinitarian election of Jesus Christ – the divine determination to not be the Father of the Son and the Son of the Father through the Spirit apart from enlarging that communion to include, through the incarnation of the Son, human creatures in the overflow of the triune life, love, and light – as the beginning of all the ways and works of God.

Thus, if we are to remain (apart from compelling reasons not to do so) faithful to the universal consent of the early church, set forth in the Creed, regarding the essential content of the Christian faith, we must learn, as Barth did, a rigorously Christ-centered hermeneutic that does justice to the election of Christ as the ground, means, and goal of all that Scripture teaches. In relation to the doctrine of providence, this means that we do not merely have a God as Creator who rules over creation and governs it according to his will, but a triune God who relates to his creation and exercises his providence over it primarily as loving and gracious Father who orders all things by his Spirit towards their intended summation in Christ (Eph. 1:10). To know this is to rest secure, as question 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism states:

That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ the Son. I trust God so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends upon me in this sad world. God is able to do this because he is almighty God and desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.

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[1] Green, C.C., 2011. Doxological Theology: Karl Barth on Divine Providence, Evil, and the Angels J. Webster, I. A. McFarland, & I. Davidson, eds., London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.36-38.

Our only comfort in life and death

As I write this I am preparing for another round of medical tests to try and determine the health issues that have been plaguing me, sometimes to a debilitating extent, for the last couple of years. I do know that I already have a potentially life-threatening condition, but there are elements of this that still remain a mystery and thus far have evaded successful treatment. I say this not to garner sympathy but to use it as a platform for reflecting on how the effort to think deeply and precisely about theology is not an exercise in mental gymnastics but a well-spring of life-giving assurance.

The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism asks: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” It responds: “That I am not my own but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ”. I love this response. It is a beautiful yet succinct reason for the hope that is in me: I belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. But why is knowing that I belong in this way to Jesus Christ my only comfort in life and death? Of the many answers that could be given, I think that the rock-bottom foundation of this comfort lies in the fact that, as the Nicene creed says, Jesus is homoousion (i.e. consubstantial) with God the Father.Nicaea_icon

What?

Let me briefly explain. In the fourth century, controversy erupted over whether Jesus as God’s Son was a created being or whether, as Athanasius insisted, Jesus belonged to the very identity of God, to his very essence and nature, equal to and one with the Father in all things save only that he is not the Father. The reason that this was such a critical truth for Athanasius and the other pro-Nicene theologians was because if Jesus is not “very God of very God”, then the gospel falls apart. Imagine what would happen if Jesus was not God in the flesh. How could we know that his life, death, resurrection, and ascension would have any redemptive value beyond just serving as a moral example? Sure, Jesus could tell someone like the paralytic in Mark 2 that his sins were forgiven, but how could that man, or anyone else for that matter, truly know that the words of Jesus carried the grace and truth and power of the Word of God himself?

On the other hand, if Jesus is truly homoousion with the Father, then everything changes. To see Jesus is to see the Father. To hear Jesus is to hear the Father. To know Jesus is to know the Father without remainder or distortion. Isn’t this what Jesus meant by what he said to Philip in John 14:9-10? Lurking behind Philip’s request in verse 8 for Jesus to show him the Father was the idea that behind the back of Jesus there was still a hidden God not yet fully revealed. This is why Jesus responds as he does: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” It is not hard to hear a bit of lament in Jesus’ response over the fact that apparently Philip had not yet fully comprehended who Jesus was. In essence Jesus tells him: “Philip, why after seeing me would you think that you have not seen the Father? Do you think that you can know me and yet not know the Father? Do you think that there is some dark, obscure God hidden behind my back that I have not fully revealed in myself? Do you not know that since I and the Father are one, there is no God other than the one you see and hear and know in me?”

The upshot of this is infinitely reassuring. How so? Here is Michael Reeves from his book Rejoicing in Christ (p.15) quoting and commenting on the Nicene Creed and T.F. Torrance (“The Christ Who Loves Us in A Passion for Christ, p.17)

[Jesus] is, as was enshrined in the stirring words of the Nicene Creed, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father.” And no wonder they loved this truth, for through it the sunshine bursts in upon our thoughts of who God is, and what all reality is about: there is no God in heaven who is unlike Jesus. Capturing the happy spirit of the creed, T.F. Torrance was drawn to be quite lyrical as he wrote:

There is in fact no God behind the back of Jesus, no act of God other than the act of Jesus, no God but the God we see and meet in him. Jesus Christ is the open heart of God, the very love and life of God poured out to redeem humankind, the mighty hand and power of God stretched out to heal and save sinners. All things are in God’s hands, but the hands of God and the hands of Jesus, in life and in death, are the same.

Let us then be rid of that horrid, sly idea that behind Jesus, the friend of sinners, there is some more sinister being, one thinner on compassion and grace. There cannot be! Jesus is the Word. He is one with his Father. He is the radiance, the glow, the glory of who his Father is. If God is like Jesus, then, though I am sinful like the dying thief, I can dare to cry, “Remember me!” (see Lk 23:42). I know how he will respond. Though I am so spiritually lame and leprous, I can call out to him. For I know just what he is like toward the weak and sick.

This is why knowing that we belong to Jesus is our one great comfort. The hands of Jesus are the hands of God himself, and the fact that they bear the scars of crucifixion demonstrates once and for all and unequivocally what is the infinite love of God toward us and what is the incomprehensible extent to which he went in order to lay hold of us. In the incarnation and the atonement of Christ, God has pledged himself to us in such a way that to deny us would be to deny himself, and thus we can be assured that body and soul, in life and in death, he will never let us go.

As I go to my tests, this truth is unspeakably comforting. I hope it is to you as well.