Preaching about the Prayer
Every minister preaching through the Heidelberg Catechism will end with the beautiful Lord's Days on the Lord's Prayer. This section of the Catechism is, however, not only beautiful, it is also very original. In my opinion the preaching on these Lord's Days will have to follow the pattern set by the Catechism.
The unique approach of the Heidelberg Catechism
Let us use the explanation of the first petition in the Heidelberg Catechism as an example:
Q. What is the first petition?
A. Hallowed be Thy Name
That is: Grant us first of all that we may rightly know Thee … Grant us also that we may so direct our whole life … that Thy name is not blasphemed because of us but always honoured and praised. (122)
The remarkable thing in the answer is that God is addressed. The Catechism does not teach us how to speak about God, but how to pray to God. The answers of the Heidelberg Catechism are in the form of prayers.
This is exceptional within the Heidelberg Catechism itself. Usually God is referred to in the third person. That happens in the explanation of the Creed:
Q. Since there is only one God, why do you speak of three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
A. Because God has so revealed Himself in His Word that these three distinct persons are the one, true, eternal God. (25) Here we learn to speak about God, not to speak to God.
This happens in the explanation of the Ten Commandments, too:
Q. What does God require in the second commandment?
A. We are not to make an image of God in any way nor to worship Him in any other manner than He has commanded in His Word. (96)
The commandments teach us how to obey God. The Catechism speaks about God and teaches us how to live before Him. In the explanation of the petitions of the Lord's Prayer, however, the Heidelberg Catechism uses the second person for God: Thee, Thy work, Thy name.
This way of explaining is even more remarkable when it is compared to the catechisms of Luther and Calvin. Luther, in dealing with the first petition, mixes explanation and address. I translate the second question and answer from the first petition:
Q. How does this happen?
A. When the Word of God is taught honestly and purely and we, as the children of God, live holy according to it; help us for this, dear Father in heaven!
But he who teaches and lives otherwise than God's Word teaches, profanes the name of God among us. Keep us from this, heavenly Father!
In the explanation of the other petitions, however, God is not addressed.
Calvin's explanation is all in the third person. His first question and answer on the first petition is:
Teacher: Repeat to me the substance of the first petition.
Student: By the name of God, Scripture understands the acknowledgment and fame with which He is honored among men. We ask therefore that His glory may be promoted everywhere and in all things.
Neither is the second person used for the explanation of the Lord's Prayer in other catechisms that are traditionally seen as the background of the Heidelberg Catechism, those of Zürich and London. The Heidelberg Catechism, on the contrary, is so consistent in its addressing God in the explanation of the Prayer, that we must assume that this was done on purpose.
Explanations on the Heidelberg Catechism
This approach is not consistently followed in explanations on the Heidelberg Catechism, however. Several books on the Heidelberg Catechism begin to speak about our prayer but end with a different kind of explanation. Here follow three examples.
- Rev. J. Van Bruggen's final remark on the first petition is:
Finally, we ourselves must live in such a manner, that is, we must so order our lives (all our thoughts, words and actions must be so directed) that God's name is not blasphemed because of us, but is honoured and praised instead.
We notice some subtle changes. Instead of “Thy name” he uses “the name of God” and instead of “Grant that we…” “We ourselves must…” These are slight changes, but they indicate that the character of this sentence has changed from petition to command. The Lord's Prayer is explained as if it were the Ten Commandments! Rev. Van Bruggen is not the only one who does this.
- O. Thelemann, a theologian from the last century, wrote that God's name must be hallowed, first, by us, and second, through us. In the first part he speaks particularly about the knowledge of God's name. In the second part he explains that all our thoughts, words, and works are to be an act of praise to God, that through us His name may be hallowed.
We must, therefore, “so order and direct our lives:”
That the name of God may never be blasphemed on our account, which would happen if we confess the name of the Lord and do not live according to His Word …
That through our conversation and life others also may be incited to turn to God, and thereby to honor and to praise him …
Striking is that the words “so order and direct our lives” are given as a quotation but the preceding words are not. This is a giveaway for the change from petition to command: “Grant us” of the Heidelberg Catechism has been changed to “We must.”
Thelemann makes the same transition in the explanation of the third petition. The third section speaks about the fulfilment of our calling. He says here, among other things:
We are not to think that we are to do God's will only in particular acts… Everyone is to be contented in his station and calling … He is to perform willingly, cheerfully, faithfully and carefully.
This is different from what the Catechism says: “Grant that everyone may carry out his duties as willingly …”
- This was an example from the last century. A fairly recent example can be found in the explanation of Dr. F. Klooster on the Heidelberg Catechism, published under the title A Mighty Comfort. He notices a striking relation between the catechism's explanation of the Ten Commandments and of the requests of the Lord's Prayer. He makes a correct observation when he adds: “What God commands for our life of gratitude should be echoed in our prayers so that he may equip us for the obedience of thanks.”
In his explanation of the second petition, however, Klooster speaks sometimes differently:
Any “good” that we do must conform to God's law.
Not only ministers and missionaries and Christian school teachers but all of us are called to do Christ's work.
Praying for the kingdom means that we must labour in the kingdom every one of us.”
We see, then, that the petitions of the Lord's Prayer are often explained as if they are commands.
If the same approach is followed in the preaching of the Lord's Prayer, this will mean that the sermon begins with telling us how to pray but ends by telling us what we should do. A command is tacked on to the sermon on one of the petitions.
Prayer, a category in its own right
We should, however, not deal with the petitions as if they were commandments. I would like to continue in the line of the “redemptive historical approach.” One of the main things that this method of preaching taught us is that we should not paint all of Biblical revelation with the same moralistic brush. The Bible contains different types of texts which each require a different approach. The proponents of the redemptive historical method concentrated on the historical sections of the Bible. They noted the fact that events were often used for giving ethical directions: You must do as Abraham did here, and: You should not do as Isaac did there. History is, however, not the same as a commandment. History should be treated as a category in its own right. When the text shows what God is doing, and how He moves history forward, that should be central in the preaching.
I would like to see the same principle applied to prayer. A petition is neither a commandment nor a part of history. Prayer is again a different matter. A petition is not something we do but something we ask. We should, therefore, not preach on a petition as if it is a commandment. The Heidelberg Catechism already recognized the fundamental difference between a commandment and a petition. Even though it deals with the Lord's Prayer, together with the Ten Commandments, in the section on our thankfulness, it clearly distinguishes the prayer from the preceding commandments. It calls the prayer the most important part of our thankfulness. And it uses the command form for the Ten Commandments but the prayer form for the Lord's Prayer.
There is good reason for the preaching to pay specific attention to prayer. Thankfulness does not come automatically to us, sinners. If we were left on our own, we would not even pray correctly. God, knowing our needs, has not only included many prayers in Scripture, He has also given us a specific model for prayer, in the Lord's Prayer. Through this prayer we have to learn how to pray. That means, we have to learn how to address God, what to pray for, etc. To overcome our own limitations, our sloppiness, our selfishness in praying we need separate instruction in prayer.
The preaching on the section on the Lord's Prayer in the Catechism should not be used to teach the congregation how to live, rather, to teach them how to pray. The preaching on the Lord's Days 45-52 should be used to help the congregation to live closer to God in their daily prayers. The Heidelberg Catechism shows us the way by explaining the petitions as prayers to God.