May We Pray To All Three Members Of The Holy Trinity? (Revised)

A regular and thoughtful reader of the HB writes to ask whether it is proper in Christian prayer to address the Son and the Spirit in prayer as well as the Father. This is a difficult question for a couple of reasons. First, though we have a number of prayers in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament), the doctrine of the Trinity was certainly embedded and implied in the Scriptures it was not revealed with the same degree of clarity we find in the New Testament. See Belgic Confession (1561) articles 8–9 for more on this. So, most of the prayers in Scripture do not specify a Trinitarian person. Second, when the disciples asked our Lord to teach them to pray, the pattern he gave them addresses the Father.

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
(Matt 6:9–13; ESV).

Thus, at the same time that the truth of the Trinity is being made more clear for us by our Lord himself, the eternally begotten Son of God (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, 381 AD) was teaching us to address the Father. So, we take this as our baseline. As Calvin (with the great Christian tradition) notes in Institutes 3.20, in his wonderful discussion of prayer, we use the Lord’s Prayer—contra those Dispensationalists who deny that it is for today—but not slavishly so, as if those are the only words that we may use.

The general rule then is that we address the Father, in Christ (John 14:13; 15:16; 16:23, 24; Eph 5:20) and more fundamentally, beyond merely saying Christ’s name, praying to the Father in Jesus’ name is something we do, whether or not we actually say the same. An ambassador represents his nation. He comes to another government in the name of his government. At every meeting he may not say, “I come in the name of my government,” but insofar as he represents his government, he comes in the name of that government. The question is one of stance, of one’s an attitude in approach to God.

It is a great privilege to come to our Father (Abba) as adopted sons, in the name of the Son and on the basis of his mediation for us (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6). To come to God apart from Christ as representative is, as Owen notes, a terrifying prospect:

God, therefore, on a throne of grace is God as in a readiness through Jesus Christ to dispense grace and mercy to suppliant sinners. When God comes to execute judgment, his throne is otherwise represented. See Dan. 7:9, 10. And when sinners take a view in their minds of God as he is in himself, and as he will be unto all out of Christ, it ingenerates nothing but dread and terror in them, with foolish contrivances to avoid him or his displeasure, Isa. 33:14; Mic. 6:6, 7; Rev. 6:16, 17. All these places and others testify that when sinners do engage into serious thoughts and conceptions of the nature of God, and what entertainment they shall meet with from him, all their apprehensions issue in dread and terror.1

As we come to the Father through Christ, as Owen argues, we do so with the Holy Spirit working within us, energizing us to pray. When we pray, we are praying “in the [Holy] Spirit” (Eph 6:18; Jude 20). So that Christian prayer is nothing but a Trinitarian enterprise. We are not deists. We do not image an divine monad but we think rightly of the One God in three, distinct, consubstantial, co-eternal, co-glorious persons, simple, and immutable, who nevertheless condescends and is pleased to hear our prayers for Christ’s sake. In this respect, prayer is a great mystery is it not? God knows from all eternity what we need and what we shall pray and yet it is God the Spirit, eternally proceeding from the the Father and the Son who works in us, who energizes us to pray in the name of Jesus, the eternally begotten Son incarnate, to the eternally unbegotten Father, who loves and actively cares for us constantly and always hears our prayers.

Further, though, as Graham Cole notes, we have no clear example, in Scripture of prayer addressed to the Holy Spirit (the 9th-century prayer of Rabanus Marus, Veni Creator Spiritus, is widely said or sung but it is obviously non-canonical), we do have a clear example of the invocation of our Lord Jesus in prayer.

But he [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:55–60; ESV).

Stephen’s was a Trinitarian prayer and a model for us.

On the ground that each of the divine persons is consubstantial it seems difficult to say with certainty that we may not pray to the Holy Spirit and yet the absence of any such explicit prayer in Scripture and the role of the Spirit to unite us to Christ, to point us to Christ and to glorify the Father in Christ, suggests that prayers addressed to the Spirit ought to be less frequent than prayers addressed to the Father, does it not?

On the other hand, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83), the principal author of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and authorized commentator on the catechism, in his lecture on Q. 120, posed an objection regarding praying to the Holy Spirit and answered it:

Objection. 1. We call upon the Father according to the command of Christ. Therefore we are not to call upon the Son and the Holy Spirit.

 

Answer. We deny the consequence which is here drawn; for it is no just conclusion which infers that certain attributes are withdrawn from the other persons of the Godhead, when they are attributed to one of the persons. Again: the name of the Father, as the name of God, when it is opposed to creatures, must be understood essentially; and where it is used in connection with the other persons of the Godhead, it must be understood personally. The name Father must, therefore, here be understood essentially, the reasons of which are evident:

 

  1. Because the name of Father is not here put in opposition to the persons of the Godhead, but in opposition to creatures by whom he is called upon. It is in this way that Christ is called by the prophet Isaiah the everlasting Father (Isa 9:6).
  2. Because when one of the persons of the Godhead is named, the others are not excluded, when mention is made of their external operations or works.
  3. We cannot think of God the Father, and draw near to him, except in his Son, our mediator. The Son has also made us the sons of God by the Holy Spirit, who is for this reason called the Spirit of adoption.
  4. Christ commands us to call upon him likewise, saying “Whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23).
  5. Christ gives the Holy Spirit. It is therefore, he himself from whom we are to ask the Holy Spirit.

So we can say with confidence that our Lord Jesus, God the Son incarnate, taught us to address his Father and ours. We know that Stephen, a holy martyr for the gospel, invoked our Lord Jesus at his death. We see no clear pattern in Scripture of invoking the Spirit but we do have a significant argument from Ursinus on the basis of the distinction between God considered essentially and God considered personally in favor of addressing the Spirit in prayer.2

NOTES

1. John Owen, “A Discourse of the Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer, in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 4 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 291.

2. Thanks to Wes Bredenhof (see comments below) for reminding us of this section of Ursinus’ lectures on the catechism.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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13 comments

  1. Scott sorry to be a nit picking OCDist but I thought that the Lord’s prayer included verse 13,
    whilst some manuscripts (the Traditional/Ecclesiastical Text) even included, For thine is
    the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory!

  2. Interesting that William Kelly, leader of the exclusive brethren in the later c19th, and editor of J N Darby’s works, invoked Owen to justify his position on not encouraging Christians to use the Lord’s Prayer:

    “From these bold and bitter, but powerless words, [he was responding to a hostile reviewer] in the face of our Lord’s declaration and the evident facts of scripture, it is refreshing to turn to the excellent and learned Dr. John Owen. None can say that Cromwell’s Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Plymouthized; none can deny that for spiritual judgment he is incomparably beyond any of the adversaries of the “Brethren.” His orthodoxy and his piety are unimpeachable; yet his doctrine (as far as it goes), and no doubt his practice, as to the Lord’s prayer, accords with ours. “Let it therefore be taken for granted that our Saviour did command that form to be repeated by His disciples, and let us then consider what will regularly ensue thereupon. Our Saviour at that time was minister of the circumcision, and taught the doctrine of the gospel under and with the observation of all the worship of the Judaical church. He was not yet glorified, and so the Spirit was not as yet given; I mean that Spirit which He promised unto His disciples to enable them to perform all the worship of God by Him required at their hands, whereof we have before spoken. That, then, which the Lord Jesus prescribed unto His disciples for their present practice in the worship of God, seems to have belonged unto the economy of the Old Testament. Now, to argue from the prescription of, and outward helps for, the performance of the worship of God under the Old Testament, unto a necessity of the like or the same under the New, is upon the matter to deny that Christ is ascended on high, and to have given spiritual gifts unto men eminently distinct from and above those given out by Him under the Judaical pedagogy.” (Works, Vol. xv., p. 14, Goold’s ed.) Of course, I attach not the smallest authority to Dr. O.; but it suffices to evince the abuse and lack of knowledge on our accuser’s part.”

    http://www.stempublishing.com/authors/kelly/8_Bt/achill2.html

    • Thank you Crawford. This is interesting.

      Wouldn’t it help to distinguish the different horizons in view here? The early Dispensationalists were asking rather different questions than Owen, who, in his context, was reacting (I should think) to the church-state imposition of the BCP/written prayers and liturgies. That’s the context of the quotation from vol. 15. So, a Dispensational appear to Owen would seem somewhat inappropriate.

      The earlier Dispensationalists were invalidating the use of the Lord’s prayer as appropriate for this dispensation. That’s surely not what Owen was thinking or saying, was it? In his discussion of prayer, which I cited, he discusses the use of the Lord’s Prayer. In vol. 4 he wrote:

      It is true, that whatever we ought to pray for is declared in the Scripture, yea, and summarily comprised in the Lord’s Prayer; but it is one thing to have what we ought to pray for in the book, another thing to have it in our minds and hearts,—without which it will never be unto us the due matter of prayer. It is out of the “abundance of the heart” that the mouth must speak in this matter, Matt. 12:34. There is, therefore, in us a threefold defect with respect unto the matter of prayer, which is supplied by the Holy Spirit, and can be so no other way nor by any other means; and therein is he unto us a Spirit of supplication according to the promise (John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 4 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 272.).

  3. Another data point, LC178 says:
    Q. 178. What is prayer?

    A. Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit; with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.

    This is followed by questions dedicated to each of the three. This structure is not apparent in SC because of omissions.

    Interestingly, it never says “God the father“, so it could still be ambiguous whether they meant to allow the full trinity, or be exclusive to the 1st person

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