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Prayer in the Reformation

Today is the first day of the Reformation Spirituality Conference at Beeson Divinity School. Credo is pleased to release Gerald Bray’s message, “Prayer in the Reformation.”

Gerald Bray (M.Litt., D.Litt., University of Paris-Sorbonne) taught full-time at Beeson Divinity School in the areas of church history, historical theology, and Latin from 1993 to 2006. In 2006, he was named research professor, and is currently engaged in writing and speaking on a variety of theological issues. A prolific author, Bray has published many scholarly articles and books, including The Doctrine of God in the Contours of Christian Theology series (of which he is also the general editor) and Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present. Bray is also a contributor to Credo and will be featured in this January’s issue of Credo Magazine, “In Christ Alone.”

Check back in with us this week as we will also be releasing the audio from Timothy George’s message on Luther and Scripture.

Bray begins his message,

It may seem strange to think that arguments about prayer played a central role in the Protestant Reformation. We know that people did not have the Bible in their own language and that the institutional church suffered from defects that had to be put right, and we think that was what the Reformation was mainly about. Prayer, on the other hand, strikes us as having been much the same after the great upheaval of the sixteenth century as it had been before. It is hard to believe that people did not cry out to God before the Reformation, and since human needs do not change, it is equally hard to believe that their prayers did either. But prayer is at the heart of our devotional life as Christians, and because that devotional life was deeply affected by the movement of reform, questions surrounding the nature and practice of prayer were bound to be raised sooner or later.

To understand what happened and why, we must step back into the medieval world in which Martin Luther grew up. The French historian Georges Duby (1919-96) classified medieval society into three distinct orders – those who prayed, those who fought and those who worked.[i] These orders, better known to us as the three estates of the realm, were clearly demarcated from each other by a series of laws, customs and taboos which extended even to what each of them was allowed to wear. The praying order was the first, or spiritual estate, consisting of priests, monks, friars and other people who were officially recognised as ‘religious’. It was their duty to connect society to God, a task which was thought to be aided by imposing a semi-heavenly lifestyle on them. Like the angels, they were required to be celibate and they spoke, wrote and prayed in a language that was not in common use. They lived by their own laws, in their own quarters and were as cut off from the world as they could.

 This way of life seems strange to us now, but it had a logic of its own. The Bible tells us to pray without ceasing, but how is that possible if we have to earn a living? The medieval answer was to set certain people aside and let them do the praying, often on a continuous basis, while the rest of the population got on with its daily tasks. Just as the civilian population was not expected to fight in the way that the warrior class was, so they were not expected to pray either – others would do it for them. They did not think that this was unreasonable, and it can even be said that it bound society more closely together. After all, if I need prayer in order to perform my daily tasks but cannot pray myself, I am going to make sure that there is someone available to pray for me, and if I have to pay him to do it, so be it. This system worked fairly well until the mid-fourteenth century, when the crisis brought by the bubonic plague caused it to be questioned. Not only did the plague carry off up to one third of the entire population, it struck more virulently at the clerical order because the priests had to care for the dying and were more exposed to infection than others were.

But how could this happen, if they had been praying faithfully for the preservation of God’s people? Why had God so clearly not answered their prayers? Was there something amiss in the spiritual estate, some secret sin or corruption that was preventing its prayers from being heard? There was no easy answer to that question, but it was from this time that discontent with the traditional order began to rear its head and spread in a way that could not be ignored or overcome. Lay people began to develop a new kind of spirituality known as the ‘modern devotion’, and the belief that it was not only possible, but necessary for individuals to make their own supplications to God gradually took root in some circles. We must not exaggerate this tendency of course – it remained an alternative lifestyle and might eventually have died out, as almost happened with the Lollard followers of John Wycliffe in England. We do not know. What we can say however, is that it proved to be a forerunner of something that would become popular and public in the wake of the Reformation, which is the subject of our present concerns.

Read the rest of Gerald Bray’s article “Prayer in the Reformation.”


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