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Monday, 7 September 2020

Unitarians and the Offering of Prayer to Jesus

Adorantist and Non-Adorantist Christologies in Unitarianism

The other day I came across a discussion on a Christadelphian Facebook page on the topic of praying to Jesus. Christadelphian participants alternatively expressed strong support and strong opposition to this practice. In fact, the debate is not a new one, but goes back to the dawn of Unitarianism in 16th-century Europe. Among the Unitarian congregations of Poland and Transylvania, two distinct positions emerged that are known to historians as adorantism and non-adorantism.1 The adorantists, such as Marcin Czechowic, Fausto Sozzini (Faustus Socinus), and Giorgio Biandrata, believed that it was appropriate to worship, adore, and pray to Christ. The non-adorantists, such as Jacobus Palaeologus, Ferenc Dávid, and György Enyedi, believed that this was wrong, since Jesus is not God and God's majesty is not shared with another. Dávid argued that prayer to worship of Christ set one on the slippery slope to the Papist polytheism (as he saw it) that had necessitated the Reformation, while Sozzini saw non-adorantism as a slippery slope to Epicureanism and atheism. Sozzini spent months in 1578-79 trying to persuade Dávid to change his mind, and after he failed, he advised his followers to have nothing to do with Dávid. Shortly thereafter (at whose behest is not clear), Dávid was charged with having violated a law against religious innovation, and thrown in prison, where he died. The non-adorantists were gradually suppressed and had vanished from Transylvania by 1638, while the (adorantist) Unitarian church in Transylvania survives up to the present day. 

As for Christadelphians (the sect to which I formerly belonged), no clear position has been taken on this issue,2 but my experience suggests a hybrid liturgical practice: non-adorantism in prayer and adorantism in song!3 Public prayers—which are spontaneous as opposed to formulaic—typically end with words such as "in Jesus' name, Amen" or "through Christ we pray, Amen," but it would be atypical to address a public prayer to Christ, and doing so would ignite controversy in many ecclesias. On the other hand, Christadelphian hymn books contain numerous hymns addressed to Christ, and these are sung without controversy.

In Trinitarian ecclesiastical traditions, the question of whether or not it is appropriate to pray to Jesus does not arise. The practice is universal. In Evangelical circles, the "sinner's prayer" that is believed to secure salvation takes various forms, but the addressee is usually Christ. In Roman Catholic liturgy, prayers to Christ are recited at every Mass.4 The appropriateness of praying to Jesus is an obvious corollary of his deity. The historical relationship between belief in Jesus' deity and practices of worshiping/praying to Jesus is a matter of debate among scholars of earliest Christianity.5

In Unitarian circles, arguments against praying to Christ (for non-adorantism) may emphasise the implications of the first of the Ten Commandments, read against the backdrop of Unitarian monotheism.6 Whatever and whomever is not God cannot be adored, worshipped, or addressed as God is addressed; otherwise the uniqueness of God's deity is compromised. Non-adorantist Unitarians allow for Jesus' role as heavenly high priest and mediator, but stress that our prayers to God are offered through Christ but not to him. Dr. John Thomas, the founder of Christadelphians, offered an argument against prayer to Christ that relied more on scriptural precedent. For instance, Christ functions as our high priest, so it is as unsuitable for us to pray to Christ as for the Israelites of old to pray to Aaron.7

Unitarian arguments for praying to Christ (for adorantism) typically stress the relational aspect of Christ's role in the ecclesia and in the life of the believer. If Jesus Christ is our Lord, Saviour, and Advocate, if he is alive and in heaven, how can we love and serve him without communicating with him? Moreover, if Jesus Christ is the Son of God, in a perfect union of love with the Father, how could God feel threatened or slighted by prayer or worship being directed to Jesus? When we glorify Christ do we not in so doing glorify the Father? As one Unitarian apologetic work states, 
It is our contention that any Christian can ask the Lord Jesus to do for him anything that would help him do the works that Jesus did... You might look at it as having both a Father and a 'big brother'... whenever one glorifies, exalts, confesses, looks to and calls upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, it is God who ultimately gets the glory.8
Adjudicating the Adorantist Controversy

From a Catholic perspective, there are some good and true instincts behind both the non-adorantist and adorantist positions. Non-adorantists rightly highlight the absolute uniqueness of God over against all other reality, and the implications of this uniqueness for worship and prayer. Honour and glory must be given in proportion to the nature and merits of the recipient; otherwise it is mere flattery. In Paul's words, "Honour to whom honour is due" (Rom. 13:7). Who would liken the reflected brilliance of the moon to the radiated brilliance of the sun? Or, to borrow an analogy from the Book of Hebrews, the builder of a house deserves more honour than the house.9 If Christ is merely the foremost creature of God, clear distinctions would have to be maintained between the honour ascribed to Christ and that ascribed to God. Otherwise, it is not just a question of God feeling threatened or slighted as though God were petty and insecure. It is rather a question of denying the nature of reality, of blurring the absolute distinction between Creator and creature. Moreover, if the line between "worthy of worship, adoration, and prayer" does not pass through the infinitely large gap between God and his foremost creature, why should it pass between the foremost creature and another wonderful creature (e.g., an archangel)? Thus, non-adorantists are right: there is a real danger that adorantist Unitarian Christology could devolve into idolatry.

On the other hand, adorantists rightly emphasise the relational intimacy between God and Christ and between Christ and his disciples. If believers in Christ on earth communicate with one another to mutual edification, how much more fruitful might communication between disciple and Master be? (In fact, this analogy is fundamental to the Catholic practice of offering prayers and veneration—not worship—to angels and saints.10 Thus, adorantists are right that deity is not a requirement for being prayed to. We can pray to Christ qua our heavenly and yet human high priest, mediator, intercessor, and advocate. To rule out all prayer to Christ as dangerous and unprofitable on the grounds of his not being God would be unjustified, and thus adorantists have a valid point.

To draw together the dialectic, under a Unitarian worldview it seems that adoration and prayer offered to Christ is justifiable in light of his high and heavenly office, great virtue, and closeness to God. At the same time, praise and prayer to Christ must be carefully qualified so as not to blur the ontological distinction between creature and Creator. It must always be clear that the honour given to Christ is not of the same character and quality as that given to God. Prayers offered to Christ are brought in his capacity as mediator in the hopes that he will then intercede with God; prayer to Christ is not an end in itself. The situation is analogous to how Catholics view the angels and saints versus the Trinity. Catholics venerate Mary but do not worship Mary; Catholics pray to angels and saints as intercessors but not as sovereigns who could grant their petitions outright. In short, praise, honour, and petition offered by Unitarians to Christ is not finally offered to Christ but only through Christ to God.

A Trinitarian Evaluation in the Light of the New Testament

The orthodox view of God and Christ that has been normative among Christians for well over sixteen centuries, since the great ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, holds that Christ is by nature both God and man. Because Christ is a human high priest and mediator, much of what adorantist Unitarians believe and practice can be affirmed by Trinitarians. We can follow Jesus' example by praying to the Father (for instance, using the words of the Lord's Prayer). We can offer prayers to the Father through Christ as mediator and intercessor. Moreover, even in his deity, Christ is a Son whose identity derives from the Father: "born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made."11 By virtue of their shared nature and unity with the Holy Spirit in perfect love, all honour and glory given to Christ does bring honour and glory to God the Father.

However, here is the key distinction: from a Trinitarian perspective, prayer, worship, and adoration offered to Christ is also an end in itself. That is, honour given to Christ does not leave Christ to attach to the Father. It attaches to the Trinity because of their perfect unity. For this reason, Trinitarians can praise, worship, and pray to Christ without any limitation or qualification. In the fullest possible sense, they can "honour the Son just as they honour the Father" (John 5:23). In light of what we observed earlier about honour being necessarily proportional to merit, we cannot say that we honour the Son only because we want to honour the Father and the Father commands us to do so. An imperative to honour the Son just as we honour the Father is only possible if the Son is worthy of that honour. The true God does not ask us to honour the Son above his due, that is, to flatter him.

If we return specifically to the issue of prayer, we find that there is considerable precedent in the New Testament for praying to Jesus. As discussed above, the bare notion of praying to Jesus as heavenly human intercessor is consistent with both Unitarian and Trinitarian Christologies. However, if we look closely at the New Testament precedents for praying to Jesus, we find that not all of them fall into the category of asking him to intercede with the Father. Jesus' mediatorial role in the context of prayer is certainly in view in passages such as 1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 4:14-15, and 1 John 2:1. However, there are numerous instances where it is clear that Jesus, when addressed in prayer, is not merely a conduit to the Father's throne but is himself being petitioned to answer the prayer. Both aspects of Jesus' role in prayer are on display in John 14:14 and 16:23. In the latter text, Jesus promises his disciples, "Whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you." Here Jesus is the intermediary whose name grants access to the Father. In the former text, however, the best reading is probably, "If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it."12 

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is addressed with pleas for salvation from death. During a violent storm at sea, the disciples "came and woke him, saying, 'Lord, save us! We are perishing!'" (Matt. 8:25). When Peter attempted to walk on water and then began to sink, "he cried out, 'Lord, save me!'" (Matt. 8:30). Christadelphian founder John Thomas dismissed such "petitions to Jesus for temporal favors in the days of his sin-flesh" as irrelevant to the issue of praying to Christ.13 However, the Gospel narratives are not merely journalistic, biographical accounts; they are theological compositions intended to convey heavenly realities. These two stylised narratives both lead to profound questions or pronouncements about Jesus' identity. Many thousands of sermons or exhortations have been based on them down the ages, and most of these have not focused on the perils of sea voyages, but have rightly seen in the cry, "Lord, save me!" the universal cry for deliverance from human weakness, from sin and death. Besides this, no biblically literate Jew could have failed to connect these petitions with the cries to the Lord for salvation that saturate the Book of Psalms.14 In a similar "petition for a temporal favour" in Luke 5:12, a leper addresses Jesus as Lord. Remarkably, both his "prayer" and Jesus' response operate on the premise that the outcome hinges on what Jesus wills.

In Acts 1:24 the disciples pray, "You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which of these two you have chosen..." While the author has left the addressee ambiguous—itself a significant point—the wider context suggests that it is Christ.15 The prayers of the dying Stephen unambiguously identify the "Lord" he addresses as "Jesus" (Acts 7:59-60). These prayers, like that in 1:24-25, display no intercessory character but directly petition Jesus to exercise the lofty prerogatives of receiving the spirit of the dying disciple and forgiving sin.

The letters of Paul characterise Christians as "those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours" (1 Cor. 1:2) and declare that salvation is predicated on confessing "that Jesus is Lord," the "Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him" (Rom. 10:9-12). To justify this scripturally, he quotes from Joel 3:5: "For 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'" (Rom. 10:13). Yet "calling on the name of the Lord" is a stereotypical Old Testament expression for praying to the one God of Israel. Indeed, the kyrios ("Lord") of Paul's quotation from Joel 3:5 translates the divine name YHWH from the Hebrew. Unmistakably, Paul places prayer to Jesus in the same category as prayer to God. Paul's letters also provide evidence that liturgical prayers to Jesus date back to the earliest days of the church. In 1 Cor. 16:22, he writes, "Marana tha." This transliterated Aramaic prayer means, "Come, Lord." That Paul could assume the Greek-speaking, Gentile congregation in Corinth would understand him probably indicates that he had handed on to his Gentile converts a piece of the earliest Jewish Christian liturgy.16 In 2 Corinthians 12:8-10, Paul describes having "begged the Lord" thrice to remove some difficulty in his life. Paul's description of the answer he received makes it clear that "the Lord" here is Christ. And the text depicts Christ as answering the prayer (albeit not in the way Paul hoped).

We could write more of doxologies addressed to Christ in the epistles and in Revelation,17 or of a prayer in the psalms addressed to God that Hebrews says is addressed to Christ.18 We could also write much on the biblical idea that prayers—even those offered to Christ—are analogous to the incense offerings to God prescribed in the Torah (Rev. 5:8-14; cf. Ps. 141:2; Ex. 30:1-10, 34-38). However, enough has been written to accomplish our main aim: to show that New Testament witness concerning prayers offered to Christ cannot be explained in terms of the role of priestly human intercessor alone. Prayers are addressed to Christ that Christ himself answers.

Conlusion

The best resolution, it seems, to the adorantist/non-adorantist dilemma among Unitarians is to embrace the fullness of Christian orthodoxy. The doctrine of the Trinity embraces what is good in both horns of this dilemma. On one hand, God's unique majesty and sovereignty cannot be compromised or diluted in favour of a creature. On the other, the instinctive Christian practice of worshipping and praying to Jesus—one that has persisted from the apostles' days in Jerusalem down to the present—is of God, and cannot be toned down, restrained, or qualified. Only orthodoxy truly upholds this great "Both/And."

  • 1 For a brief history of this controversy, on which this paragraph is based, see Mihály Balázs, "Antitrinitarianism," in A Companion to the Reformation in Central Europe (ed. Howard Louthan and Graeme Murdock; Leiden: Brill, 2015), 172-194.
  • 2 As I've discussed elsewhere, there is arguably no such thing as an official doctrinal stance among Christadelphians, because of their lack of any centralised or representative decision-making structure outside the local ecclesia. The closest thing one can get to official doctrinal positions are those laid out in statements of faith that are used widely in the sect, such as the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith. This statement says nothing for or against praying to or worshipping Christ.
  • 3 This statement reflects my own quarter century of experience of Christadelphian public worship (spanning several countries, fellowships, and degrees of formality).
  • 4 These include the Kyrie ("Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy"), the Gloria (addressed to the Father and the Son), the Mysterium Fidei (in all three of its forms), the Rite of Peace, and the Agnus Dei.
  • 5 For an overview of different views, see chapter 1 of Larry W. Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).
  • 6 As in the arguments of Palaeologus, referred to above.
  • 7 Thomas addresses the matter in answer to a reader's question, "Is Prayer to Christ Scriptural?" The argument rests more on scriptural precedents than theological principles; Thomas seeks to show that "the scriptural procedure" consists of praying to the Father in the name of Jesus. To the extent that it is theological, the argument focuses less on the uniqueness of God's nature and prerogatives than on Christ's role in the drama of salvation, which is that of Elder Brother (an example to follow) and priestly mediator. He is our example, so we pray to the Father because he did. He is our mediator, so we pray to the Father through him. See The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, December 1855, pp. 282-83 (quoted here but misattributed to April 1855).
  • 8 Mark H. Graeser, John A. Lynn, and John W. Schoenheit, One God & One Lord: Reconsidering the Cornerstone of the Christian Faith (3rd ed.; Indianapolis: Christian Educational Services, 2003), 290-92.
  • 9 See Heb. 3:3. Of course, in Hebrews the analogy is used to infer the divine Christ's superiority to Moses.
  • 10 If the "communion of the saints"—as the Apostles' Creed calls it—cannot be broken by any earthly power, either by death or height (Rom. 8:38), then surely communion can exist between believers on earth and the holy ones (angelic or human) in heaven. (Of course, Christadelphian readers might object to the notion of human saints in heaven, but would surely allow for the presence of at least Enoch and Elijah there.) Communion requires communication; hence prayers to the angels and saints.
  • 11 English translation of the Nicene Creed used in the Roman rite of the Mass.
  • 12 "Either the unusual collocation, 'ask me in my name,' or a desire to avoid contradiction with 16.23 seems to have prompted (a) the omission of με in a variety of witnesses... or (b) its replacement with τὸν πατέρα... The word με is adequately supported... and seems to be appropriate in view of its correlation with ἐγώ later in the verse" (Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [2nd ed.; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994], 208). The commentary classifies this reading "B," meaning almost certain.
  • 13 op. cit., 282.
  • 14 For a few examples, see Psalm 3:8; 6:5; 7:2; 55:17; 106:4; 106:47; 107:13; 109:26; 116:4.
  • 15 The disciples have addressed Christ as "Lord" in 1:6 and 1:21 refers to the "Lord Jesus"; God is not referred to as "the Lord" unambiguously until two OT quotations in 2:25 and 2:34. Accounts of Saul's conversion and other visionary experiences involving Stephen, Ananias, and Paul have persons addressing Jesus directly as "Lord." Only in the prayer of Acts 4:24-30 is God unambiguously addressed as "Lord."
  • 16 The Greek translated form of the prayer occurs in Rev. 22:20 ("Come, Lord Jesus"), reinforcing the idea that this is a liturgical form.
  • 17 E.g., 2 Pet. 3:18; Rev. 1:5-6; 5:12.
  • 18 Heb. 1:10-12 cp. Ps. 102:25-27.