For this coming Sunday afternoon’s sermon, the Catechism lesson will be Lord’s Day 46. This deals with the beginning of our prayers, “Our Father in heaven.” As part of my preparatory study, I was looking through some sermons of colleagues. One of them was quite insistent that the words of the Lord’s Prayer mean that we must not direct our prayers to Jesus himself or to the Holy Spirit. We must only pray to the Father, which is to say, the first person of the Trinity. I have never been convinced by this and still remain unconvinced. There are serious exegetical problems with that position and also a fundamental category error.
The category error is explained in some detail by Richard Muller in his excellent Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms. Under the definition of “essentialiter,” Muller writes the following:
essentialiter: essentially; Latin equivalent of ousiados as opposed to personaliter or hypostatikos; specifically, one way of predicating names of God. Thus “Father” can be predicated of God either essentialiter or personaliter. “Father,” predicated of God essentially, indicates the entirety of the Godhead or divine essence, which stands over against the finite order as Creator and Regenerator, i.e., “the one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6). In this sense, “Father” indicates, according to the scholastics, Father, Son, and Spirit, since the whole of the Triune Godhead is over all and through all and in all. When “Father” is predicated personally of the Godhead, however, it refers to the First, Unbegotten Person of the Trinity, not in relation to creatures as such, but rather in relation to the Son and to the Spirit… (106)
This is a crucially important distinction and losing sight of this results in theological imprecision and misguided prayer practices.
When Muller refers to “the scholastics” above, he is referring to Protestant scholastic theologians of the post-Reformation. Among those would be Zacharias Ursinus. Therefore, we should not be surprised to find Ursinus using this distinction in his commentary on Lord’s Day 46. Let me quote the entire section and please note the objection to which Ursinus is responding:
Obj. 1. We call upon the Father according to the command of Christ. Therefore we are not to call upon the Son and the Holy Ghost. Ans. We deny the consequence which is here drawn; for it is no just conclusion which infers that certain attributes are withdrawn from the other persons of the Godhead, when they are attributed to one of the persons.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 [emphasis added here, WB]; and where it is used in connection with the other persons of the Godhead, it must be understood personally [emphasis added again]. 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 (Is. 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 ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23). 5. Christ gives the Holy Ghost. It is therefore, he himself from whom we are to ask the Holy Spirit.
The use of the distinction between essentialiter and personaliter could not be more clear than here! The primary author of the Catechism asserts that, on the basis of the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, one cannot forbid Christians to pray to Jesus or to the Holy Spirit. That prohibition cannot be justified on the basis of Scripture or our Confessions — and yet somehow it has embedded itself in some of our Reformed churches. It would be interesting to research how that happened and trace its origins. Was it imported from the Netherlands or did it somehow develop here in Canada?