To pray to someone is an act of worship. Most essentially, prayer is transcendent communication with someone who does not, during the communication, share your “plane of existence.” In other words, it is an expression of fellowship with someone with whom you are in a non-empirical relationship. Let me put it another way: I don’t pray to my wife, friends, co-workers, or parents. I have fellowship with them, but this fellowship takes place in the same dimension. We pray to God not only because we believe that he exists, but because we believe that he listens from a “place” of transcendence. We believe he has the power to hear and respond to millions of people at once. It is an act of worship, not only because we believe he is transcendent, but because of the power we must ascribe to him to assume that he hears, engages, and responds. Indeed, it is the power of divinity that must facilitate such an act as prayer.
We believe that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, but they are not each other. We call this “the Trinity.” But when we pray, to whom do we pray? Do we pray to the Trinity (as an ontological unit)? I start prayers out this way all the time: “Dear God, ….” I can see the members of the Trinity looking at each other in confusion as they attempt to figure out which one I am praying to. “Ummm, I think this one is for you, Jesus,” says the Holy Spirit. “No, it is for the Father,” Jesus responds. “Not me! He just said ‘God.’ That could be any one of us. Rock, paper, scissors?”
Forgive my blasphemous humor here. But I think this illustrates an often unspoken issue for those of us who are Trinitarian. To whom do we pray?
In seminary, Dr. Jeffery Bingham, chair of theology and professor of historic theology (an Irenaeus madman), made it clear what the traditional formula was: We are to pray to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. Did you get that?
TO the Father
THROUGH the Son
BY the the Spirit
Christ, when asked by the disciples about how to pray, starts his prayer with, “Our Father…” (Matthew 6:9). Seems to be quite a slam dunk. We are to pray to the Father. Origen backs this up when he says that we pray to the Father alone “through Jesus” (ANF, Chapter XXXVII). As well, Christ is called the “high priest” who intercedes for us (Heb. 4:15). To whom does Christ intercede? To the Father. Therefore, we enter into the Father’s presence “in his name,” not our own – through the Son (John 15:16).
And there is nothing in the Scripture about praying to the Holy Spirit at all. In fact, the ministry of the Holy Spirit is one of empowerment (Acts 1:8) whose ministry is to point to Christ (John 16:14).
So, it seems pretty clear. We are to pray to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. Right? Not so fast . . .
While I think this is a fine way to think about it, I don’t think we can necessarily go wrong, pragmatically or theologically, when we pray to any member of the Trinity or to God as Trinity alone.
First, concerning Christ’s model prayer to the Father: it could be that Christ was telling us we are to pray to the Father and not to him, but we may be reading too much into the phrase “Our Father.” It may not be exclusive prayer to the first person of the Trinity, but speaking of God (including all members of the Trinity) as a “fatherly” figure. David Turner says about this passage: “One may think of 6:9-10 as indicating the person to whom prayer is addressed […] and the priorities by which prayers are formed […] This person to whom prayer is addressed is characterized as “Father,” a term inevitably colored by one’s relationship to one’s human father” (Matthew, BECNT, 184). As well, Isaiah speaks of the Messiah/Jesus as “eternal father” (Isaiah 9:6). This is not in the sense of the “first person of the Trinity” (as that would be reading too much into the text, not to mention a promotion of modalism), but in the sense that Christ is an eternal “father figure.” So I am not too comfortable reading our Trinitarian categories into the “our father” of the Lord’s prayer.
Even if we did read “our Father” as meaning the first person of the Trinity, does this exclude a belief that we can pray to Christ? Of course Christ, as our example of prayer, never prayed to himself, so praying to the Father by Christ is on par with his mission. However, once “all authority” was given to him (Matthew 8:28), did some things change? Yes, Christ did say to ask for anything in his name and the Father would do it. However, in John 14:14, he says, “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (emphasis mine). There, he is both the agent of representation and the agent of action.
There are other important issues to consider. We are told to call upon the name of the Lord (Romans 10:13). In the context, it is Christ upon whom we call. It is his reputation and his activity that we beseech. Stephen clearly prays to Jesus upon his death when he says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). In Revelation 22:20, we have the great “Maranatha!” which means, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (see also Acts 1:24).
We also have our relationship with Jesus to consider. Being a high priest whom we are to love and find encouragement and support from, it is hard to imagine that we don’t foster this relationship through conversation. After all, how can we have a “friend” (John 3:29; John 15:15) to whom we have never directly spoken? I think the Scriptures testify to a relationship with all three members of the Trinity, including the Holy Spirit, with whom we have “fellowship” (2 Corinthians 13:14; Philippians 2:1).
So while I do find that most of the prayer in the New Testament seems to be directed toward the Father, and I like the theological astuteness of the whole “to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit” (it just sounds like you know what you are talking about!), I don’t think we should be too theologically legalistic about this. We should think deeply about these things and be intentional in our relationship with God, but this intentionality should not cause us too much anxiety as God – our Trinitarian God – loves us deeply and understands the difficulties involved. When you worship, worship the Trinity. Worship the Father. Worship the Son. Worship the Holy Spirit. When you pray, follow the same pattern.