Teach Us to Pray (Justo L. González) -- A Review

TEACH US TO PRAY: The Lord’s Prayer in the Early Church and Today. By Justo L. González. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020. Vi + 185 pages.

                For much of the past six decades, I have recited the Lord's Prayer during Sunday Worship. As a result, this prayer is ingrained in my life experience, and I’m not alone. At one point in my life, I thought that this prayer like other rituals was nothing more than vain repetition that we should dispense with. The prayer might have value as a model, but not as something we should recite from week to week. I don’t hold that opinion anymore. Years of pastoral experience have convinced me otherwise. 

One of the reasons this prayer has proven so valuable is that it speaks to the central concerns of life and sets us into a proper frame of mind and heart. Although reciting the prayer has value, meditating on the meaning of the words that make up the prayer will give it even greater value. It was for that reason that I decided years ago to offer a sermon series in which I broke down each element of the prayer. That series later became the basis of a book, which I titled Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord's Prayer. In that book, I suggest that the prayer serves as a pledge of allegiance to God. Of course, it is much more nuanced than that. My book isn’t the only one out there that explores the meaning of the prayer. In fact, they emerge regularly, which suggests that people want to deepen their understanding of the prayer. The latest contribution is Justo González’s Teach Us to Pray.

González is a well-known and highly respected church historian, who has written books on church history, theology, biblical studies, and the spiritual life. He is a scholar and a pastor. That combination is present in all his books, including this one.

In Teach Us to Pray, González offers us a book that is designed to be used in a group study, as signified by the study guide that can the found at the end of the book. It is oriented to a lay audience, but it is also rooted in scholarship. This is where this particular book has staked out a particular niche. It is reflective of biblical scholarship and speaks to the contemporary church, but González takes the reader to places they might not ordinarily go. Thus, we are introduced to the interpretations of early Christian theologians like Tertullian, Cyprian, and Origen, all of whom wrote treatises on the prayer. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press has even published an English edition of those texts if one is so interested.

While there is a trend to set the prayer aside because it could become formulaic, Gonzalez both acknowledges that trend, why it might occur, and offers us a reason why we should make it the center of Christian spirituality. in doing so, he notes that the charge that it can become formulaic is not new. Cyprian faced this charge in the mid-3rd century, and offered a response suggesting that we should "pray as God our Teacher has taught us" (p. 3). González reveals that the early church held these words to be so sacred that they weren’t taught to catechumens (persons preparing for baptism) until right before their baptisms. This was the last element taught them before their baptism, which prepared them to attend and participate in the Eucharistic service, which included the Lord’s Prayer. We need to remember that in the early centuries, one did not attend the Eucharist until after baptism. It is for this reason that early manuals and discussions of the prayer link the prayer to the Eucharist.

González also takes note of the different wording of the prayer as presented in Matthew, Luke, and the Didache, which led Origen to be concerned. He resolved his questions by suggesting that Jesus taught two versions, the one in Matthew and the briefer one in Luke. Concerning the Didache, González suggests that the version in the Didache, which may date to the first century, reveals that the prayer was widely used in the early church. In that regard, there is a helpful chapter that lays out how the prayer was used in the Early Church, especially in worship.

After setting the foundations to the origins and uses of the prayer, all of which is very helpful, Gonzalez takes us step by step through the wording of the prayer, drawing from church history to give definition and explication to each word and phrase. There are twelve chapters in all, beginning with the word "Our." This word reminds us that the prayer is intended to be understood communally even if recited in private. He deals with the challenge of the declaration that God is in heaven, though he notes that Tertullian skipped this phrase when writing of the prayer moving directly from Our Father to "hallowed be thy name," as did Cyprian somewhat later. This suggests that the question isn't a new one.

The author notes that when we get to "hallowed be thy name," we get to the actual petitions of the prayer. He notes that the first three statements speak to the nature, will, and promises of God. These are followed by four petitions, to which we can ascribe the term petition in the strict sense. In these petitions, we ask God to give us daily bread, forgive our debts as we forgive debtors, that we not be led into temptation, and finally that God would deliver us from evil. Each petition is explored in turn, offering insight, often from the early church before turning to contemporary implications.

The penultimate chapter deals with the doxology that is not found in the oldest manuscripts of Matthew and Luke but is found in the Didache. He also notes that the doxology is not discussed by early theologians until John Chrysostom. That being said, according to Gonzalez, the doxology is the foundation for the entire prayer. He writes: "We are able to pray as we do because the kingdom, the power, and the glory belong only to this our Father to whom we pray. If it were not so, our prayer would be in vain. But because it is so, our prayer is efficacious, and we can confidently pray. . . ." (p. 157).

He concludes the book with a chapter looking at the word Amen, which the Greek simply transliterated from the Hebrew. While it is commonly understood to mean 'so be it," Gonzalez notes that the meaning is much stronger than that. It is rather the affirmation of the truthfulness of the statement made, as in an oath. So, amen it is!

If, as it appears, there is a growing trend toward setting aside the prayer because it seems too formal and predictable, then perhaps we need to take a closer look at what it is saying. When we do, we might even discover something subversive and transformative. As I noted there are several good studies, mine included, but this one is unique in its attempt to draw on Tradition so that we can learn from those who went before us. There is value in this, for our spiritual development but also for the good of the church and beyond. So, take and read, and pray with deeper insight than before. Amen and Amen!


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