Creaturehood, Sonship, and Performed Humanity: Prayer and Theological Anthropology

Thank you to The Rev'd Porter C. Taylor for giving me guidance on this piece. 

In his introductory text on Christian theology, Daniel Migliore evokes John Calvin’s observation that the knowledge of God (theology) and the knowledge of ourselves (theological anthropology) are inseparable.[1] Migliore then provides a brief systematic account of human anthropology in light of our creation by God, our fallen sinfulness, and our redemption in Christ.[2] However, lest we believe our humanity is a fixed state or condition, Migliore emphasizes the dynamic nature of humanity. This humanity is a mode of created freedom characterized by “relationship to and responsibility before God, life in relationship with others, and openness to God’s promise.”[3] I glean this language of ‘mode’ from Karl Barth, as such an embodied identity is not unanchored and essentialist, but reflective of distinctive relations.[4] This dynamic nature of humanity implies that humanity is not merely given or passively inhabited, but performed. While there are several practices which embody this relationality, among the most obvious relational practice between the created and the Divine is the practice of prayer. In this paper I will argue that prayer is a Christian practice which not only epitomizes a Christian anthropology, but is a practice through which humans acknowledge and participate in the fullness of their dynamic humanity. In support of this claim, I will investigate two corollary claims which I see flowing from this central statement: that prayer is both the exemplification and performance of (1) contingent creaturehood, and (2) the endowed Sonship of humanity. In so doing, I will consider the covenantal shape of Christian prayer before proceeding to analyze and appraise these considerations for their significance in regard to the Christian life.

Prayer and Contingent Creaturehood

            At the foundation of all theological anthropological considerations is the assertion that humans are creatures of the Creator. (Gen 1:26-27) Correlative is the affirmation that our existence depends on the will and grace of God, and that Creation as such has no stability apart from that which is continuously imparted by God.[5] To exist at the pleasure of the “Creator of heaven and earth” is to be dependent upon the very Source of all that exists,[6] therefore at the core of any theological anthropology is creaturely dependence. Yet, concomitant to this gift of dependent creaturehood is independent freedom: the freedom to love, to relate, to sin, to kill, to build.[7] Simply put: within the parameters of our created contingent state, humans are free. How might we make sense of this dialectic of autonomy and dependence at the heart of theological anthropology?

            George Hunsinger clarifies that “whatever human freedom may mean, it cannot consist in the freedom to escape God’s lordship.”[8]  Jesus, as the perfected embodiment of humanity and therefore the exposition of the fullness of the redeemed anthropos, reveals this relationship between divine-human agencies. [9] Kathryn Tanner explains this further in writing that divine-human relations are non-competitive “because God… brings about the whole plane of creaturely being and activity in its goodness… [therefore] the creature receives from God its very activity as a good.”[10] Humans, then, are both dependent and free inasmuch as they are dependent in that which God wills them to be dependent and free in that which God wills them to be free. For example, one is free to refuse drinking water, but one does not cease to depend on water to live; we are free within divinely-set parameters.

In this regard, prayer is a locus where humans exist and participate in this tension between divine sovereignty and human freedom, paradoxically affirming humanity’s needfulness before God and the freedom by which the human may approach God. Given the limitations imposed on the human creature by their existence in a relational environment, prayer “begins with acknowledging our unworthiness and need, and affirming trust in God’s mercy as the sole and sufficient source of hope.”[11] This need not be thought as an abstract consideration: for within an exhaustible, material world filled with fellow living organisms in competition for resources, our circumstances as creatures are relational and limited.[12] To reach out to God in prayer from such a context is to tacitly affirm this reality of our creaturely existence. Without digressing into the mechanics of petitionary prayer, I affirm that the practice of petition is a way in which humans dynamically perform their contingent humanity in relation to God and prayerfully acknowledge their status as dependent creatures.[13]

            To that end, the practice of prayer (especially petition) is iconoclastic: it is “tasked with the reframing of what it means to speak of human freedom” and “smash[es] the idolatrous conceptions of the self” – conceptions of the human which would depict her as self-sufficient and autonomous.[14] Indeed, the biblical witness speaks of this supposed self-sufficiency as a chief form of arrogant sin.[15] (Ps 10; Ps 14:1; Lk 12:20) The pray-er rebels against such sinful pride which would position her as somehow self-ruling and self-made, and she rather recognizes her dependence upon God as Gift-Giver and the Source of her and all life. Prayer and petition attack this self-idolatry and the pray-er inhabits true human agency as responsive to God’s grace. To speak of prayer as response to grace, in the biblical view, situates the ‘performance of humanity’ within a covenantal framework. [TPC1] It is to those covenantal relations we now turn.

            The Covenantal Shape of Prayer

            The ‘grammar’ of human-divine relations is covenantal. By humanity’s being grafted into the vine of Israel in Christ, [TPC2] our relationship to God (and therefore any Christian anthropology, to echo Calvin’s dictum) is one marked by divine promise and grace. (Rom 11:11-31; Heb 7:22) In terms of prayer as a performance of contingent creaturehood, we do not only pray from our need but fundamentally because we are permitted to do so.[16] (Jer 5:6-13) Through Christ’s continued vicarious, priestly action, we are empowered to approach and be approached by God in prayer.[17] As such, prayer is not only the dynamic performance of our contingent creaturehood – it is also the embodiment of our identity as redeemed creatures through Christ and as those reconciled to God. (2Cor 5:19) In daring to speak to the One who spoke existence into being (Gen 1:3; Jn 1:1-2), the pray-er tacitly witnesses to the reconciled nature of humanity through Jesus Christ. This reconciled humanity does not negate humanity’s still-contingent character, but rather qualifies it; through prayer, humanity is brought into conformity with the life, designs, and cause of God.[18] Therefore, through our redemptive relations by God’s covenant faithfulness (chesed), humanity is made more creaturely rather than less. D.J. Hall is emphatic that we are not saved from, but for creaturely life.[19] Thus, in prayer reconciled humans participate in “the new freedom toward God’s future in which we live in the expectation of the fulfillment of the gracious promise of God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.”[20] However, this assertion raises a question: what is the content of this “new freedom toward God’s future”?

            Prayer and Sonship

            Thus far, I have argued that prayer is a site for the human performance of contingent creaturehood in covenant relations with God. While this is true, the danger in this manner of speaking of prayer is that it may inadvertently present prayer as a human achievement. However, Ashley Cocksworth is correct in stating that “prayer, in all its religiosity, is transformed from within to participate in the one true prayer: Christ’s prayer, that is being prayed on our behalf.”[21] In this way, prayer is a result of our incorporation into Christ. Instead of our initiative, the prayer of the Word (Logos) is already happening within us and we are enabled to respond to and partake in it by the Spirit.[22] Just as Christ grafts Gentiles into the covenant between YHWH and Israel (Rom 11), so the Spirit grafts us into the Son such that we might cry ‘Abba’ and be incorporated into the inner life of the Trinity.[23] (Rom 8:15-29; Gal 4:6) Prayer is not an act which humans perform to which God responds, but the converse. To pray is to operate in the mode of Sonship which Christ communicates to humanity in his saving act. Thus, to pray in the name of Jesus is to pray to the One Jesus called ‘Father’ as an adopted child of God through Christ. (Eph 1:5; Gal 4:5; Rom 9:4) Prayer, then, exposes prayer as the performance of humanity’s endowed Sonship (a sort of communicatio idiomatum) by virtue of their incorporation into the Divine Life in Christ (theosis). I affirm, then, that Sonship is a foundational element of human anthropology.

            Kathryn Tanner expertly elucidates this communicatio idiomatum between the Son and humanity (which I have called ‘Sonship’) which is enacted and acknowledged in prayer. It is worth quoting her at length:

“Indeed, in all our acts of prayer, praise and service together, we direct our lives to the Father as Jesus did, in a return to the Father that reflects the Father’s own acts of giving to us. Jesus becomes in this way our access to the Father in addition to being the medium and mediator of the Father’s gifts to us. Through the Spirit we gain Christ and in and through Christ, with whom we are united, we go to the Father. With Christ, for example, we are able to pray to the Father, the very prayer that Jesus prays to his Father as the Son of the Father in human form.”[24]

Simply put (and to use classical language) the Spirit incorporates us into the Son through whom we pray to the Father. Far from negating human agency, the Spirit conforms our humanity to the humanity of the Son such that it might be free as he is free – a topic which I will explore below. Yet, I must reassert that divine and human agencies are not in competition: rather, the divine initiative in prayer enhances the human ability to pray. The pray-er performs her humanity which has been exalted into the mode of Sonship through Christ’s salvation; thus humanity is renewed and rejuvenated as life “in Christ and towards the Father.”[25] To pray in the mode of the Son is to pray in the fullness of the reconciled, covenantal relationship I described above.

            This christological and pneumatological understanding of prayer is thus a fruitful window into the new humanity with which we are endowed in Christ. Prayer as Spirit-led participation in Christ’s vicarious, priestly prayer exemplifies the pray-er’s exaltation by virtue of her [TPC3] perichoretic communion with the triune God. James Cone’s account of prayer as a site of union between Black suffering and Christ’s suffering is an example of how this perichoretic communion might be understood.[26] Cone tells of an incident at the height of the Civil Rights Movement when a beleaguered and spiritually-faltering Martin Luther King Jr. cried out to God and was met with this response: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”[27] This anecdote offers a glimpse into humanity in the mode of Sonship as the reciprocal sharing of gifts and burdens between us and God – for in our conformation to Christ, we are befriended by God. (Jas 2:23) Martin Luther (the German Reformer) famously spoke of this relationship between Christ and humanity in nuptial terms: “the most intimate and reciprocal relationship of love one can imagine.”[28] In terms of Cone’s example, this would mean that in this perichoretic relationship the triune God receives and bears the burdens of the pray-er while reciprocally communicating divine gifts of love and “alien righteousness” to her.[29] Sonship, as performed in prayer, is a sheer act of grace.

            Thus far, I have laid out how humanity is practiced through prayer in two ways: (1) in the affirmation of our contingent creaturehood, and (2) as our exalted Sonship through our incorporation into Christ by the Holy Spirit. I have shown how this twofold theological anthropology as approached through the practice of prayer is fundamentally a dialogic, covenantal relationship with God. I will now further my study by developing how this prayerful anthropology might be construed as a paradigm for Christian action.

            Prayer, People, and Performative Service

            Often, prayer can be pitted against “action” as though prayer is an individualistic, escapist activity which prevents the pray-er from agential, relational living.[30] To this charge, I quote William Placher who insisted that “obedience to God doesn’t distract Jesus from other relations” and if our humanity is modeled upon that of Jesus’, as I have contended above, our obedient prayer also does not distract us from other relations.[31] It is this counterclaim that I will investigate in this section as we consider how the above-stated twofold theological anthropology of prayer takes on flesh in Christian living.

            We have affirmed that in prayer, the pray-er participates in their humanity as contingent creature and exalted Son. The performance of this twofold dynamic humanity is the result of and results in the renewal of the mind in Christ. (Rom 12:2; Eph 4:23-24; Col 3:10) I intimated this ‘benefit’ of prayer earlier by expressing the way petitionary prayer attacks the idolatrous notion that the human is self-sufficient and sovereign. In prayer,

“faculties of thought are reordered and the possibilities for divine knowing are expanded and enlarged… It leads the pray-er on a darkly difficult path of unlearning all that one has been schooled, or socialized, into thinking about the good life (based on potentially distorted ideologies of power and unjust power relations) and a relearning, in the darkness of Gethsemane, what it means to be prayerfully reshaped as a creature of God.”[32]

By the work of the Spirit and in the communion of the Godhead, the performance of prayer submits the pray-er to a humanity which is directed and upheld by the Sovereign God. In this way, the anthropology seen through the practice of prayer does not bifurcate between divine and created poles, but enmeshes them. (Jn 15:4) The question may arise, why are some pray-ers transformed in prayer and others not? Why are some hearts softened and others hardened? To that, we must reassert that within our contingent state we have freedom: even in prayer we may repress suggestions and commands of the Spirit. As Leonardo Boff notes, human life is not a fait accompli but rather an event which must be built and guided (or, to continue use of my chosen term: performed) which necessitates an open, dialogic spirit.[33]

            What are the marks of such a spirit? To begin, I must acknowledge the communal quality of prayer. To say, as I have, that prayer is a work of the triune God in which we participate is to prima facie acknowledge the sociality of prayer. Yet even more concretely, prayer is an act of inter-human sociality. We are commanded not to pray to “my Father”, but “our Father” (Mt 6:9); not for “my bread” but “our bread. (Mt 6:11; Isa 58:7) Just as in our exalted Sonship we participate in the intra-divine society of love, so in our creaturely contingency do we embody the relationality in which we were created. (Gen 1:29-30; Gen 2:18-24) As I stated above, prayer is the nexus where these poles are enmeshed, such that even our solitary prayer is a participation in the continuous prayers of the saints through time and space.[34] Boff, like Placher, insists that “a genuine relationship with God calls for maintaining a relationship with others. When we present God with our own needs, he wants us to include those of our brothers and sisters. Otherwise the bonds of fellowship are severed and we live only for ourselves.”[35] [TPC4] Indeed, Martin Buber’s famous “I-Thou” philosophy presupposes a relationality whereby the “I” and the “Thou” are not isolated abstractions but social referents.[36] Here, however, we acknowledge that Christian prayer has a necessarily “We-Thou” shape. To pray as “we” is to perform a humanity that is relational. It is to reject any idolatrous notion that God is a god other than the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ as God for us. (Isa 41:10; Rom 8:31) To return to Migliore, the new freedom toward God’s future which we perform in prayer in one that is corporate in character.[37]

            By that logic, should we not inhabit our freedom in Christ to produce and distribute bread rather than pray for it? Indeed we should work for such aims – for trusting God does not negate activity![38] – yet a prayer for daily bread acknowledges that God is “Lord of creation, a creation that we may modify by our labor but which we cannot produce. In each piece of bread God’s hand is more present than is the human hand.”[39] Far from pious sentimentality, this reality has tangible repercussions for the privileged pray-er – which I of course am. Boff insists that the petition for bread in the Lord’s Prayer “has a direct, immediate meaning… to those millions who sort through garbage piles in search of food.” Conversely, “the words recall, to those whose hunger is satisfied, the admonition of God himself: ‘Share your food with the hungry.’ (Isa 58:7)”[40] Psycho-socially, human petition is a reinforcement of our codependent solidarity with one another by our shared existence in an exhaustible material environment; an identification of our common frailty and our divinely-mandated responsibilities to one another.

            Prayer, as a performance of the divine-human covenantal relationship, is one that provides the basis for human-human (and human-creation) covenantal living and transports it into the Divine Life. The practice of prayer acknowledges humanity’s inability to labour fruitfully apart from God’s labour. (Ps 127) Prayer (orare) is not the avoidance of ‘work’ (laborare), but the way in which laborare becomes orare; the way in which the human may do her work “under the illumination and, consequently, under the rule and blessing of God.”[41] This was precisely Solomon’s petition: a plea for wisdom so that he might govern God’s people faithfully and fruitfully. (1Kings 3:9) Daniel appealed to YHWH for the sake of his people. (Dan 9:16-18) Indeed, the Church in Acts devoted itself to “prayer and serving the world.” (6:4; emphasis mine) Being conformed to their twofold humanity in prayer, humans are conditioned to be a royal priesthood in creation (1Pet 2:9): summoning up the prayers and offerings of all creation to God (priesthood) and participating in God’s self-sacrificial reign through the distribution of divine gifts; not hoarding grace, but becoming givers in return (royalty).[42] Far from being escapist in nature, a prayer-informed theological anthropology is profoundly christological in shape: it acknowledges that God fuses the human and the divine together for our good and God’s glory. Lest such an anthropology drift toward triumphal hierarchicalism, a prayer-informed anthropology is one that emphasizes the created, contingent, and codependent character of humanity as subordinate to God (creaturehood) yet corporately and liberatively exalted into Sonship where human hierarchies are abolished. (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11)

 

Conclusion

I have argued that prayer is a performance of our dynamic humanity insofar as it acknowledges and participates in our ‘covenantal mode’ as contingent creatures and exalted children of God. (Ps 8:5-6) Attendant to this claim has been its corollary: that the practice of prayer and the twofold humanity the pray-er inhabits does not distract her from the demands of creaturely relationality and co-dependence. The humanity which is performed in prayer is one that is transformed by the Spirit to reflect Jesus’ commandment to love God and neighbour. (Lk 10:27) This humanity is marked by its redemptive reformation in the person of Jesus Christ, who married together the human and the divine in a foretaste of creation’s refashioning. The new humanity in him, accessed and embodied through prayer, is a humanity made more dynamic and attendant to the needs of one’s codependent creatures, not less. Thus, it was on these grounds that Augustine of Hippo famously prayed Domine Iesu, noverim me, noverim te (“Lord Jesus, let me know myself and let me know Thee”) – and it is by grace that we may join him.[43]

 

[1] Daniel L. Migliore. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014.) 143.; John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. trans. H. Beveridge. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008.) 1.1.1.

[2] Migliore, 143-167.

[3] Ibid. 153.

[4] See: Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4 vols. (New York: T&T Clark, 2009). I/1, 367.

[5] T.F. Torrance. The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church. 2nd ed. (Bloomsbury: T&T Clark, 2016.) 99.

[6] Sallie McFague. Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.) 18

[7] Ibid., 62.

[8] George Hunsinger. Evangelical, Catholic, and Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015.) 248.

[9] Elizabeth A. Johnson. She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1992.) 156-158.

[10] Kathryn Tanner. Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.) 4.

[11] Thomas Reynolds. Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008.) 162.; Elsie Anne McKee. “John Calvin’s Teaching on the Lord’s Prayer” in The Lord’s Prayer: Perspective for Reclaiming Christian Prayer. ed. Daniel L. Migliore. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993) 93.

[12] Reynolds, 162.

[13] See: Mercy Amba Oduyoye. “The Empowering Spirit of Religion” in Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside. ed. S. Brooks Thistlethwaite & M. Potter Engel. (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1990.) 246-258.

[14] Ashley Cocksworth. Karl Barth on Prayer. (Bloomsbury: T&T Clark, 2015.) 64-65.

[15] For an account of the sinfulness of human use of UAVs as a “salvation which [one] can prepare and make for [oneself],”, see: Kara N. Slade. “Unmanned: Autonomous Drones as a Problem of Theological Anthropology.” Journal of Moral Theology 4, no. 1 (2015): 111-130.

[16] Barth, CD, III/4, 92.

[17] Barth, CD, III/3, 288.

[18] Karl Barth. Prayer According to the Catechisms of the Reformation. trans. Sara F. Terrien. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1946.) 38.

[19] Douglas John Hall. Professing the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.) 340.

[20] Migliore, 165.

[21] Cocksworth, 5.

[22] Simon Chan. Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.) 128.

[23] Rowan Williams. On Christian Theology. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000.) 126.

[24] Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity. 62.

[25] Williams, 124.

[26] James Cone. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011.) 68-69,

[27] Ibid., 78.

[28] Else Marie Wiberg Pedersen. "Luther and Justification." Dialog 56, no. 2 (2017): 136, http://resolver.scholarsportal.info/resolve/00122033/v56i0002/133_laj.

[29] Ibid.

[30] McFague, 62.

[31] William Placher. Jesus the Savior: The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.) 40.

[32] Cocksworth, 65.

[33] Leonardo Boff. The Lord’s Prayer: The Prayer of Integral Liberation. trans. Theodore Morrow. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983.) 99.

[34] John Ellerton. “The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended” in Voices United: The Hymn and Worship Book of the United Church of Canada. (Toronto: United Church Publishing House, 1996.) 438.

[35] Ibid., 77.

[36] Martin Buber. I and Thou. trans. Walter Kaufmann. (Toronto: Simon &Schuster, 1970.) 18.

[37] Migliore, 165.

[38] McKee, 93.

[39] Boff, 84. Emphasis mine.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Karl Barth. Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1963.) 161-163.

[42] Kathryn Tanner. Economy of Grace. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.) 24-25.; See: Kimberly L. Penner. 2017. “Discipleship as Erotic Peacemaking: Toward a Feminist Mennonite Theo-ethics of Embodiment and Sexuality.” PhD diss., University of St. Michael’s College. 21.

[43] Augustine of Hippo. The Soliloquies. trans. Kim Paffenroth. (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing Co., 2005.) 2.1.1.