Seminar 3: Prayer
By Steve Jeffery, 25 May 2017
Module T1.1 Introduction and the Doctrine of Revelation
Seminar 3: Prayer
This is the third of the three introductory sessions, which are designed to pave the way for the programme of theological study that follows. Here’s an outline of the first three weeks:
Session 1: Approaching theological study (Thielicke, A Little Exercise)
Session 2: Godliness and theological study (Calvin, Institutes)
Session 3: Prayer (Calvin, Institutes)
The reading for week 3 is from Calvin’s Institutes, III.xx, on the subject of prayer – arguably one of the most profound and thought-provoking pieces of writing on this subject within the Reformed tradition.
This is quite a long chapter, so please don’t worry if you don’t have time to finish it all. I suggest that you focus your attention on the first part of the chapter, up to section 33 (p. 897). Don’t worry so much about the exposition of the Lord’s Prayer from sections 34 to 49 – it’s great stuff, and well worth reading, but we can’t do everything
As ever, I encourage you to let the questions help you with the reading. Don’t try to read through the whole of the chapter of Calvin and only then come back and look at the questions! Instead, keep both the study questions and Calvin’s Institutes open in front of you at the same time, and use the questions to help you to focus your attention in the appropriate places of the book. The questions are there to guide you in your reading, so that you know what you’re looking for.
If you find yourself running short of time, then I suggest you omit the questions marked with an asterisk *.
Questions to think about
Before you begin reading, take a few minutes to think about the following questions:
a. What teaching (from sermons, books, etc.) have you encountered in recent years on the subject of prayer?
b. How and when do you pray?
c. What aspects of your prayer life are you most happy with, and which are you most dissatisfied with?
d. Does prayer need to be spontaneous, or is it good to use set forms of prayer? Why?
e. Does God answer the prayers of unbelievers?
1. How does Calvin seek to persuade us of the importance of prayer (III.xx.1-2)?
2. How would Calvin respond to the claim that prayer is superfluous since God already knows what we need (III.xx.3)? What do you think of his counter-arguments?
3. What would Calvin say to a believer who found it hard to concentrate during prayer (III.xx.5)?
For reflection: Have you ever found this yourself? Do you find his advice helpful?
4. Why, in Calvin’s view, must prayer be accompanied by “an earnest—nay, burning—desire to attain” what we pray for (III.xx.6)?
For reflection: Do you ever neglect prayer because you don’t feel any immediate or pressing need to pray?
5. Why is prayer for forgiveness so important (III.xx.8-9)?
6. Should we be sure that God will answer our prayers? Why or why not (III.xx.11-14)?
7. How does God regard imperfect prayers? Why (III.xx.15-16)?
8. What does it mean to pray in Jesus’ name? Why is this so important (III.xx.17-19)?
In sections 21 to 27 Calvin critiques the Medieval Catholic belief in the intercession of the saints.
9. Why is it wrong to seek the intercession of the saints (III.xx.21, 27)?
10. What dangers should we be alert for in public prayer? What steps should we take to avoid them (III.xx.29)?
11. What does Calvin think about singing (III.xx.31-32)? Do you agree?
12. Why should prayer be “in the language of the people” (III.xx.33)?
The next few questions (qus 13 to 22) focus on Calvin’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer (sections 34 to 49). I suggest that you omit these if you’re pressed for time.
*13. Why is the Lord’s Prayer useful (III.xx.34)?
*14. How, according to Calvin, is the Lord’s Prayer structured (III.xx.35)?
*15. What is the significance of addressing God as “our Father in heaven” (III.xx.36-39)?
*16. What does “hallowed be your name” mean? Why is this petition important (III.xx.41)?
*17. How does Calvin understand God’s “kingdom”? What should be our priority in praying “your kingdom come” (III.xx.42)? How is this related to the following petition, “Your will be done” (III.xx.43)? Do these priorities shape your prayers?
*18. What does it mean to pray for our “daily bread”? What attitude should underlie this petition (III.xx.44)? Do you find it easy to maintain such an attitude at all times?
*19. How, in Calvin’s view, are the fifth and sixth petitions related to Jeremiah 31 (III.xx.45-46)?
*20. What does it mean to “forgive our debtors” (III.xx.45)? Have you done this?
*21. How should we envisage that God will answer the sixth petition (III.xx.46)?
*22. “This prayer is in all respects so perfect that any extraneous or alien thing added to it, which cannot be related to it, is impious and unworthy to be approved by God” (III.xx.48; cf. III.xx.49). What does Calvin mean by this? Do you agree?
These final few questions focus on some of Calvin’s valuable practical advice in sections 50 to 52. They’re well worth looking at.
23. What do you make of Calvin’s practical advice about times of prayer (III.xx.50)?
24. What does Calvin advise in order that “we shall easily learn to persevere in prayer” (III.xx.51)? How is this related to Calvin’s advice in the case of unanswered prayer (III.xx.52)?
For reflection: What aspects of Calvin’s teaching on prayer have challenged you most strongly? Are you planning to introduce any changes to your habits of prayer?