WHITE PAPER #3 part one: Concordia’s Treasury of Daily Prayer: The Psalms in Daily Prayer and the Practice of Daily Prayer

Our look at the formative thoughts behind the development of Treasury of Daily prayer continues by hearing the foundational report of Rev. Dr. Rick Stuckwisch to the Good Shepherd Institute in November 2002. Rev. Stuckwisch, was the primary architect for the Daily Lectionary, and public spokesperson for the Lutheran Hymnal Project Lectionary Committee on the subject of the Daily Lectionary and the proposed Prayer Book. His paper continues with a presentation of the use of the psalms in daily prayer and a historical and theological look at the practice of daily prayer. Rev. Stuckwisch:

Now, what has not yet been mentioned—but of particular importance among the daily Readings and Propers of the proposed Prayer Book—is the Psalmody to be included. The intention of the Lectionary Committee is that a Psalm will be chosen and appointed for each day of the year—in some cases, an entire Psalm; in other cases, a selected portion of a particular Psalm. These daily Psalms will be selected in a variety of ways: to coordinate with one of the Readings, for example, or perhaps to reflect the time or season of the church year. In general, the Committee envisions a small (manageable) portion of Psalmody—typically between four and ten verses—chosen deliberately for each particular day. By this approach, some of the Psalms will naturally be used more frequently than others over the course of the year, but most likely all of the Psalms will be represented, at least to some extent, at one point or another.

This selective approach to the use of the Psalms in daily prayer is typical of the way in which the Psalms were used (apparently) in the worship of the early church, but it is strikingly different from the way in which the Psalms came to be used in the Middle Ages and have continued to be used into the present day. By way of one recent example, the very fine four-volume prayer book published by the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau in 1994, entitled For All the Saints, does not include any Psalmody among the Readings and Propers for each day; rather, it includes the entire Psalter in the middle of each volume, with indication given for the systematic reading of the entire Psalter over the course of each month (thus following the example of the Anglican Church since the time of the sixteenth-century Book of Common Prayer). By this approach, a block of several Psalms are read in the morning, and another block of Psalms in the evening, in consecutive order from one day to the next: beginning with Psalm 1 on the first day of each month, and concluding with Psalm 150 on the thirtieth day of each month. One might recognize a similarity between this way of using the Psalter and the semi-continuous reading of the Holy Scriptures (lectio continua); so there is, in that respect, much to commend the practice. However, there are also some important differences to be taken into account, and some disadvantages to be considered. First, the Psalms—collectively and individually—have a different character than most of the rest of Holy Scripture, and that difference in character invites a different sort of use. Second, no other portion of Scripture, not even the Holy Gospels, are read in such large blocks or with such frequent repetition. Third, in the interests of a Prayer Book intended for the laity, it presents a burden upon the time, patience, and understanding of the Christian to be confronted with such a large amount of Psalmody every morning and evening, especially when the particular Psalms on any given day have no direct or deliberate connection to the other Readings and Propers of the daily prayer.

It is largely due to such concerns that the Lectionary Committee has envisioned a different approach to the Psalter in its proposed Prayer Book, whereby (again) a small portion of Psalmody will be chosen specifically for each day of the year. It should also be noted, however, that some provision will also be made (perhaps in the form of a brief appendix to the Prayer Book) for those who desire a method for the systematic reading of the entire Psalter over the course of each week or month.

These two different approaches to the use of the Psalms in daily prayer represent (and coincide with) two very different ways of understanding both prayer itself and the Psalter as such. Thus, to understand the place and purpose of the Psalms in the proposed Prayer Book, we must first of all have in mind a theological understanding and practice of daily prayer: What is it for? What does it do? And how does it do that?

To begin with, then, consider what a rich variety of things are encompassed by the word “prayer.” For example, the prominent third-century theologian, Origen, on the basis of 1 Timothy 2:1, distinguished between four different sorts of “prayer.” “Thanksgiving,” he defined as “a statement of gratitude made with prayers for receiving good things from God.” “Intercession is a petition for certain things addressed to God.” “Supplication is a prayer offered with entreaty to get something a person lacks.” And finally, “prayer,” properly so called, according to Origen, “is something nobler offered by a person with praise and for greater objects.” (Origen, On Prayer XIV.2). Along similar lines, though much simpler, is the fourfold division of prayer with the acronym, “ACTS,” that is, Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, which is actually a pretty good summary of prayer from the side of its human response to God.

Adoration may be understood as praise of the Holy Triune God for Who and What He is, simply for His own sake, because He is worthy of such praise (“it is meet, right, and salutary so to do”). Confession is to say back to God—before the world—what He has said to us in His Word. To confess our sin is to say what is true about ourselves according to His Word; to confess the faith is to say what is true about Him and His forgiveness, life and salvation, according to His Word. Thanksgiving is to then praise the Holy Triune God for all that He has done for us—from Creation through Redemption—especially in and through Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. And Supplication is finally to stake our claim on Who and What God is, and on what He has said and done throughout history, and thus to pray for His continued faithfulness and blessings toward us and all the world (according to His gracious Word and promise, for Jesus’ sake).

There are two important points to be made on the basis of these characteristics of prayer. First of all, it is impossible to know Who and What God is apart from His own Self-revelation through His Word. Likewise, it is impossible to confess or give thanks apart from His Word of revelation. Thus, it is necessary for prayer that one must first of all hear and receive what God has to say. Second, the prayer of the people of God, which arises out of the hearing and receiving of His Word, is unselfish and all-encompassing; that is to say, it praises God for His own sake (simply because of Who and What He is), and it intercedes for the neighbor (indeed, for the entire world) for the sake of God in Christ and for the sake of the neighbor. In other words, Christian prayer is not a selfish or self-serving enterprise, but a priestly-sacrificial service (precisely because it is derived from and governed by the Word of God, and not by the sinful human heart).

These two fundamental aspects of Christian prayer have, unfortunately, in the history of the church, often competed with each other, as though they were opposing poles and “either-or” alternatives. The result has been a vision and practice of two (broadly speaking) rather different sorts of daily prayer. On the one hand, there has been what might be called a “Bible study” approach to daily prayer, characterized by meditation on the Word of God as an exercise in personal piety for the sake of individual growth in faith. On the other hand, there has been an understanding of daily prayer as a “priestly service” of the entire church, offered as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, confession and intercession.

Historically speaking, these different sorts of daily prayer have been described and distinguished as “monastic” and “cathedral” types of prayer (though neither of these terms is likely is to appeal to Lutheran sensibilities!). Here, “monastic” prayer refers to the individual-centered “Bible study” approach, while “cathedral” prayer refers to the corporate church-centered “priestly-sacrificial” approach. To put these distinctions into more familiar terms, the one might include and characterize personal or family devotions, while the other would be akin to the fairly common practice (among Lutherans) of Wednesday evening Vespers during Advent and Lent. Regardless of how the distinctions might be described, they are not in fact mutually exclusive (nor hard and fast distinctions in any case). They identify differences in focus and degrees of emphasis, which should not—properly—be set at odds with one another. As already indicated, though, a tendency to move too far to the one side or the other, without a necessary balance and tension between the two, has been detrimental to the piety and practice of daily prayer in the history of the church.

In the Middle Ages, especially in the West, prayer became too “monastic” or “devotional” (and even the corrections of this problem operated with variations of the same sort of piety and approach to daily prayer). Not surprisingly, given that Western Medieval background, Lutherans—beginning with Luther himself—have also tended to fall more heavily on the side of personal devotion to the detriment of priestly-sacrificial prayer. Hence the typical emphasis of Lutherans on Bible study over worship; their insistence upon preaching at Matins and Vespers; and their highly didactic approach to catechesis and the Catechism.

Somewhat in contrast to this typical Lutheran piety and devotion are Luther’s well-known comments regarding the Catechism as a prayer book, and his encouragement to pray the Catechism regularly. These ways of thinking and speaking of the Catechism are generally pretty foreign to most Lutherans, who are more likely to think and speak of learning the Catechism, and/or memorizing the Catechism, etc. A certain amount of confusion arises, because neither prayer nor the Catechism are understood as Luther understood them.

It becomes clear what Luther meant and what he intended by “praying the Catechism,” if one considers a number of his other writings and contributions. There are two such writings, in particular, that demonstrate the point well: Luther’s “Personal Prayer Book,” first published in 1522, and his instructions for “A Simple Way to Pray,” written for his dear friend, Master Peter the Barber, in 1535. In both cases, Luther provides examples of the way in which one prays the Ten Commandments and the Creed, as well as the Our Father in a much fuller and more extensive way than the simple recitation of that most familiar Christian prayer. Without going into detail here, there are a few general points that may be made, which shed light on the practice of daily prayer and on the place and purpose of the Psalms within that practice.

The first and most important point to be taken from Luther is that the Six Chief Parts—precisely as the Word of God—provide the foundation and the heart, the source and the summit, of Christian prayer. Which is to say, as previously noted, that prayer is impossible apart from the prior Word of God; for true Christian prayer is, from start to finish, derived from and guided by the Word of God. Conversely, as Luther understood it, that Word of God is given to be prayed in the fullest sense of that terminology. In other words, it is to be heard and considered, taken firmly to heart, then lived and confessed, and truly echoed in all that one says to and about God (so that one’s entire life becomes a prayer of both words and deeds).

The second point to be taken from Luther’s writings on prayer and the Catechism is the way or process by which the Six Chief Parts are prayed. In his “Simple Way to Pray,” Luther explains to Master Peter that he takes one part after another and frees himself as much as possible from distractions in order to pray. He divides each part into four aspects, that is to say, first, as instruction; second, as thanksgiving; third, as a confession; and fourth, as a prayer (cf. LW:AE 43:200). It is in such a way as this that the Word of God becomes the prayer of faith—not simply in a mechanical sense, but in a profoundly theological sense.

It is also in this way and precisely in this sense that the Psalms find their own place and purpose in daily prayer. Indeed, a third point from Luther’s contributions on this subject might well be his references to the Psalms in relation to the parts of the Catechism. For example, in his “Personal Prayer Book,” Luther identifies certain Psalms to coincide with each of the Petitions of the Our Father (cf. LW:AE 43:31ff). And in the Small Catechism itself, when Luther instructs the Head of the Household as to how he should teach his family to pray before and after meals, each of those prayers begins with a confession of the Word of God from the Psalms ([*references*]). (In much the same way, Luther’s morning and evening prayers are preceded by the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed, both understood as the Word of God.)

While the Psalms are collectively unique within the corpus of Holy Scripture, they are also richly diverse in their variety, not only with respect to the specific content of each Psalm, but also with respect to the particular genre of each Psalm. They are likewise as rich in their variety as are the different aspects of “prayer,” in much the same way, in fact, as those different aspects of prayer have already been discussed: that is, broadly speaking, as both a Word of God and as a response of faith. The variety goes well beyond that basic twofold distinction, however, as both the Word of God and the voice of faith take on many forms of expression. Especially helpful in that regard is a little book on the Psalms by the twentieth-century German Lutheran Pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was put to death under Adolf Hitler. Although it is more pastoral than scholarly, and not a lengthy work, his book—appropriately entitled, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible—goes into greater detail than possible here. Briefly stated, he classifies and arranges the Psalms according to the following categories or subjects: “the creation; the law; holy history; the Messiah; the church; life; suffering; guilt; enemies; the end” (Bonhoeffer 27ff), and this diversity of content is reflected in a variety of other characteristics, which ultimately result in a quilt or tapestry of Psalms.

In fairly simple terms, if one considers the Psalms to be—first and foremost—the Word of God (a portion of the Holy Scriptures), they may be further categorized as History, Prophecy, Instruction, and Remembrance. The historical Psalms (78, 105, and 106) are chiefly a record of God’s dealings with His people, like miniature summaries of those first dozen or so Books of the Old Testament—and similar, in that respect, to the sermons of St. Stephen and St. Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. This sort of “holy history,” as well as those Psalms that focus on the Creation (8, 19, 29, and 104), and various other such Psalms, also function as a kind of remembrance (not unlike that sacred “remembrance” of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper), which is the way in which God gives Himself to His people, on the one hand, and constitutes His people as the Church (as a kingdom of grace) on the other hand. This historical Word of God is more than simply information about the past; it actually bestows the fruits and benefits of that which it describes. (The same sort of remembrance, in turn, becomes the primary way in which the people of God return thanks to Him; but that point is jumping the gun.) Of course, as the Word of God, the Psalms are also His instruction in the righteousness of faith and life. Several of the Psalms (1, 19, and 119) refer to this sort of instruction as “the Law,” which is properly understood as both the Law and the Gospel, to use our Lutheran terminology. It should finally be noted that—in the New Testament, and in the writings of the early church fathers—the Psalms are most often cited as Prophecy, especially as Messianic Prophecy (for example, Psalms 22 and 69, but also many others.

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