Brunner on prayer

The prayer of the Christian is made possible by Jesus Christ. Apart from Christ — or the covenant, more generally speaking — prayer can only be a speculation (a hope without certitude) that something or someone will care for us. In Christ, prayer is a knowledge and certainty that Someone has cared for us and will care for us.

As I’ve said in the past, the best theologians have the best things to say on prayer: Forsyth, Baillie, Barth, and von Balthasar. Here is a nice short presentation from Emil Brunner, with his characteristic focus on the prior necessity of a particular revelation (the God who saved/saves) in order to even pray:

The world often seems like a monstrously sinister machine, blind, insensible, destroying everything that man builds, fosters, loves, hopes. Why should the world concern itself about your wishes, little stupid man? What does your sigh mean in the midst of a universe where suns grow and age in billions of years? Such a thought makes prayer die upon the lips. Is there any sense in praying the roaring avalanche to spare the babe yonder in the path of its downward rush? O fate, blind, awful, senseless fate!

When we look beyond ourselves out into the world, prayer fades away. Man’s tragic lot robs one of the courage to pray. Everything appears to be senseless, disorder, chance, confusion. Who then has a mind to pray? The world can at most permit us dimly to perceive a mysterious Power; but to make us trust ourselves to this Power, calling upon it as children do their father: “Help us!” the world is unable. How then can we pray? What gives us the courage, the confidence, the assurance?

As children lost in a woods, are fearful of the sinister darkness — and then, suddenly, hearing a sound from the sombre blackness, a familiar voice, a loving, seeking, helping voice, their mother’s voice — so prayer is our reply to the voice from the Word of God in Jesus Christ which suddenly cries out to us in the mysterious, dark universe. It is the Father calling us out of the world’s darkness. He calls us, seeks us, wants to bring us to Himself. “Where are you, my child?” Our prayers mean “Here I am, Father. I was afraid until you called. Since you have spoken, I am afraid no longer. Come, I am waiting for you, take me, lead me by the hand through the dark terrifying world.”

Because they do not know this God and this revelation so many men of our time no longer pray. True prayer is possible only as an answer to God’s real revelation. True prayer, that is, prayer in which a man really believes he will be heard, is possible only when one believes in the living God. What is meant by the “living God”? The God to Whom you can pray trustfully, because He has previously revealed to you His trustworthiness. That is the living God.

(Emil Brunner, Our Faith, trans. John W. Rilling, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954 [1936], pp. 110-113.)


    • Btw, another Scot on prayer, is David “D.M.” M’Intyre’s classic book: The Hidden Life Of Prayer. My copy is old (simulated leather) and has a ribbon-marker in it. I have unlined it in many places in pencil with a ruler. It is one of the best on prayer! My copy also has a memoir of the author by the Rev. Francis Davidson, D.D.

      I think it is in re-print on Amazon?

      • Thanks for the tip on M’Intyre. I’ll have to check into it.

        My favorite Brunner book is The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption (Dogmatics vol. 2), which covers a lot of the same ground that The Mediator covered.

  1. I always thought neo-orthodoxy tended toward gnosticism. Just look at this thing:

    “The world can at most permit us dimly to perceive a mysterious Power….”

    “….so prayer is our reply to the voice from the Word of God in Jesus Christ which suddenly cries out to us in the mysterious, dark universe.”

    “As children lost in a woods, are fearful of the sinister darkness….”

    • Gnosticism is definitely not the right category, despite some points of similarity. This is run-of-the-mill existentialism, not gnosticism. Of course, this is not existentialism as an exhaustive system but, rather, as one part of a dialectic…a dialectic where the evangel is triumphant. The definitive word for this world is the good news of Christ, thus we ultimately have a positive note to sing about creation. This creation is not truly lost and subject to evil, as Gnosticism teaches; it only appears that way until we receive the revelation that this is our Father’s world (Mt. 10:30, “And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered”).

      The point of the dialectic is to preserve the fact that we still live under the curse, in a state of utter dependence; thus, nothing in this world definitively proves the fatherly care of God or the mercy of the Son — that is pure grace, pure revelation.

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