Introducing The Lord’s Prayer: A Brief Reception History
For more than sixteen hundred years from its founding, all major traditions of the Christian Church acclaimed the Lord’s Prayer as the ideal Christian prayer. The reason was obvious: Jesus composed, prayed and instructed his disciples to likewise pray His prayer. The Lord’s Prayer was new wine for new covenant wineskins.
The Lord’s Prayer is recorded in two of the Gospels: Matthew Chapter 6 records the long version of His prayer, consisting of seven petitions; and Luke Chapter 11 records a shorter version, in which His prayer is compressed into five petitions and contains other variations from Matthew. The pattern of the prayer is the same in both Gospels.
An early non-canonical reference to the Lord’s Prayer is in a late first century treatise known as the Didache (or Teaching of the Apostles). In the Didache, the Lord’s Prayer (based on Matthew’s Gospel) is recited in full, followed by the instruction: “Three times in the day pray ye so” (Trans. J.B. Lightfoot). The Didache is evidence that the Lord’s Prayer was considered integral to Christian worship from the Church’s founding.
This book uses the popular version of the Lord’s Prayer from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1928). It closely follows the King James Version (1769) translation of Matthew Chapter 6:9-13. There is nothing sacrosanct about this translation of His prayer; it was selected because of its popular usage and familiarity among traditional American churches.
“[I]n the Prayer is comprised an epitome of the whole Gospel.” (Tertullian, 160-220 A.D.)
While the Church Fathers and Reformers disagreed with one another on other points of doctrine, they were remarkably unified in their devotion to the Lord’s Prayer. They consistently praised His prayer for both its words (i.e., as the words of Jesus) and as the appropriate pattern for any Christian prayer.
It is not surprising that the Church traditionally gave the Lord’s Prayer such high acclaim and reverence. The Gospel writers did not record His prayer to be a mere historical artifact. Neither did Jesus compose His prayer as an option for his disciples to take or leave as they saw fit. He preceded His prayer with the following commands: “Pray then like this” (Matt 6:9); and “When you pray, say” (Luke 11:2). The Church traditionally took Jesus’ instructions at face value and considered it a blessing to be able to pray to our Father using the words of His Son.
In the remainder of this article, I have provided several excerpts from my survey of Church Fathers, the major Reformers and a few contemporary theologians regarding the Lord’s Prayer. I hope you will profit from reading the insights of these theologians in their own words.
From the Church Fathers:
“In summaries of so few words, how many utterances of the prophets, the Gospels, the apostles— how many discourses, examples, parables of the Lord, are touched on! How many duties are simultaneously discharged! The honor of God in the Father; the testimony of faith in the Name; the offering of obedience in the Will; the commemoration of hope in the Kingdom; the petition for life in the Bread; the full acknowledgment of debts in the prayer for their Forgiveness; the anxious dread of temptation in the request for Protection. What wonder? God alone could teach how he wished Himself prayed to. The religious rite of prayer therefore, ordained by Himself, and animated, even at the moment when it was issuing out of the Divine mouth, by His own Spirit, ascends, by its own prerogative, into heaven, commending to the Father what the Son has taught.” (Tertullian, 160-220 A.D.)
“Already He had foretold that the hour was coming ‘when the true worshippers should worship the Father in spirit and in truth’; and He thus fulfilled what He before promised, so that we who by His sanctification have received the Spirit and truth, may also by His teaching worship truly and spiritually. For what can be a more spiritual prayer than that which was given to us by Christ, by whom also the Holy Spirit was given to us? What praying to the Father can be more truthful than that which was delivered to us by the Son who is the Truth, out of His own mouth?” (Cyprian, ~ 200-258 A.D.)
“And if you were to run over all the words of holy prayers, you would find nothing, according to my way of thinking, which is not contained and included in the Lord’s Prayer. Hence when we pray, it is allowable to say the same things in different words, but it ought not to be allowable to say different things.” (Augustine, 354-430 A.D.)
From The Reformers:
“Here there is comprehended in seven successive articles, or petitions, every need which never ceases to relate to us, and each so great that it ought to constrain us to keep praying it all our lives.” (Martin Luther, 1483-1546)
“For he has given us a form in which is set before us as in a picture everything which it is lawful to wish, everything which is conducive to our interest, everything which it is necessary to demand. From his goodness in this respect we derive the great comfort of knowing, that as we ask almost in his words, we ask nothing that is absurd, or foreign, or unseasonable; nothing, in short, that is not agreeable to him.” (John Calvin, 1509-1564)
“The Lord’s Prayer in particular is a marvel of compression, and full of meaning. It is a compendium of the gospel (Tertullian), a body of divinity (Thomas Watson), a rule of purpose as well as of petition, and thus a key to the whole business of living. What it means to be a Christian is nowhere clearer than here.” (J.I. Packer)
“The Lord’s Prayer is a lifelong act of bending our lives toward God in the way that God has offered – ‘thy will be done, thy kingdom come.’” (William H. Willimon and Stanley M. Hauerwas)
“We live, as Jesus lived, in a world all too full of injustice, hunger, malice and evil. This prayer cries out for justice, bread, forgiveness and deliverance. If anyone thinks those are irrelevant in today’s world, let them read the newspaper and think again.” (N.T. Wright)
Next week we will turn to the text of the Lord’s Prayer, beginning with the invocation: “Our Father who art in heaven”.
“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.” (2 Thess 3:16) Amen.
Copyright © 2016 Jean Dragon – All rights reserved.