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Prayer, formation, and scriptural interpretation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 February 2023

Jonathan Rowlands*
St Mellitus College, Nottingham, UK


In this article, I argue for the centrality of prayer within Christian interpretation of scripture. This argument is made in two stages. First, Christ on the road to Emmaus is the interpreter of scripture par excellence, such that scriptural interpretation is fruitfully understood as participation in Christ's interpretation of scripture to and for the church. Second, scriptural interpretation must take prayer as central to an appropriate scriptural hermeneutics, since prayer is one way in which the reader of scripture becomes conformed to person of Christ.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 East, Brad, ‘The Hermeneutics of Theological Interpretation: Holy Scripture, Biblical Scholarship and Historical Criticism’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 19/1 (2017), p. 32Google Scholar. Note also Joel Green's comments: ‘Theological interpretation is not a carefully defined “method” . . . [but] is identified more by certain sensibilities and aims.’ Green, Joel B., Practicing Theological Interpretation: Engaging Biblical Texts for Faith and Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), p. 10Google Scholar.

2 As I note in more depth below, I myself am reticent to speak of theological interpretation of scripture, instead preferring instead to speak of Christian interpretation of scripture. My reasons for this are detailed towards the end of this article.

3 Here and throughout I distinguish between the pray-er (the person praying) and the prayer (that which is prayed).

4 Hays, Richard, ‘Response to Robert Wilken, In Dominico Eloquio’, Communio 25 (1998), p. 256Google Scholar.

5 Webster, John, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: CUP, 2003), p. 86CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Sarisky, Darren, Reading the Bible Theologically (Cambridge: CUP, 2019), p. 284CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Gunton, Colin E., ‘Dogmatic Theses on Eschatology: Conference Response’, in Fergusson, David and Sarot, Marcel (eds), The Future as God's Gift: Explorations in Christian Eschatology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), p. 139Google Scholar.

8 Gunton, Colin E., Enlightenment and Alienation: An Essay Towards a Trinitarian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), p. 104Google Scholar.

9 Lash, Nicholas, Theology on the Way to Emmaus (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005 [1986]), p. 40Google Scholar.

10 Ibid., p. 42.

11 Ibid., pp. 43–4.

12 Craigo-Snell, Shannon, ‘Command Performance: Rethinking Performance Interpretation in the Context of Divine Discourse’, Modern Theology 16/4 (2000), p. 482CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Lash, Way to Emmaus, p. 46.

14 Craigo-Snell, ‘Command Performance’, p. 482.

15 Laytham, D. Brent, ‘Interpretation on the Way to Emmaus: Jesus Performs His Story’, Journal of Theological Interpretation 1/1 (2007), p. 103CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Ibid., p. 104.

17 Green, Joel B., The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997), p. 834Google Scholar.

18 John Webster, ‘Resurrection and Scripture’, in Andrew Lincoln and Angus Paddison (eds), Christology and Scripture: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (London: T&T Clark, 2007), p. 138.

19 Ibid., p. 154.

20 Levering, Matthew, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), p. 37CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Peter Wick ‘“Ahmt Jesus Christus mit mir zusammen nach!” (Phil 3,17): Imitatio Pauli and imitatio Christi im Philipperbrief’, in Jörg Frey and Benjamin Schliesser (eds), Der Philipperbrief des Paulus in der hellenistisch-römischen Welt (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015), 322 (my translation). The original reads: ‘Die Gemeinschaft in Christus Jesus verändert die Identität eines Menschen, auch siene Gesinnung, den dieser Raum ist durch Christus und seine Gesinnung geprägt.’

22 This thought pervades and underpins Cone's work. See, for example the comment in James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, rev. edn (New York: Orbis, 1997), p. 99: ‘The interplay of social context with Scripture and tradition is the starting point for an investigation of Jesus Christ's meaning for today. The focus on social context means that we cannot separate our questions about Jesus from the concreteness of everyday life.’

23 Heringer, Seth, ‘Beginning with the End: 1 Timothy 1:3–6 and Formative Theological Education’, Journal of Theological Interpretation 15/2 (2021), p. 377CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Cocksworth, Ashley, ‘On Prayer in Anglican Systematic Theology’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 22/3 (2020), pp. 383411CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Cocksworth also highlights Ward, Graham, How the Light Gets In: Ethical Life I (Oxford: OUP, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. There are also some affinities here with Zahl, Simeon, The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience (Oxford, OUP, 2020)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Sarah Coakley, ‘Sarah Coakley: Fresh Paths in Systematic Theology’, in Rupert Shortt (ed.), God's Advocates: Christian Thinkers in Conversation (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2005), p. 70.

26 Coakley, Sarah, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: CUP, 2013), pp. 48–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Ibid., p. 59.

28 Coakley notes: ‘what is striking … is the relative lack of extended reference to Romans 8’ in ante-Nicene patristic literature outside of Origen's ‘On Prayer’. Sarah Coakley, ‘Prayer, Politics and the Trinity: Vying Models of Authority in Third–Fourth-Century Debates on Prayer and “Orthodoxy”’, Scottish Journal of Theology 66/4 (2013), pp. 382–3. Maurice Wiles describes her reading of Romans 8 as ‘somewhat idiosyncratic’: ‘Review Article: Marching in Step?’ Theology 90 (1987), p. 462, a point Coakley concedes in ‘Why Three? Some Further Reflections on the Origins of the Doctrine of the Trinity’, in Sarah Coakley and David Palin (eds), The Making and Remaking of Christian Doctrine: Essays in Honour of Maurice Wiles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 49. I am grateful to Dr Ashley Cocksworth for highlighting this to me.

29 My use of the term ‘binitarian’ is taken from Hurtado's work on early Christian worship describing early Christologies incorporating Jesus into the life of YHWH. See Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (London: SCM, 1988); and Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003). Coakley calls this the ‘linear’ revelatory model in God, Sexuality and the Self, p. 111.

30 Coakley's terminology (see God, Sexuality and the Self, p. 112).

31 On the experiential foundation on Romans 8, see Mark Wreford, ‘Diagnosing Religious Experience in Romans 8’, Tyndale Bulletin 68/2 (2017), pp. 203–22. Cf. Coakley, ‘Why Three?’, pp. 37–8.

32 Andrew Davison, Participation in God: A Study in Christian Doctrine and Metaphysics (Cambridge: CUP, 2019), p. 297.

33 In marketing material for vol. 2, she writes: ‘as I worked at the first volume, I came to see that my time at prayer, especially with Holy Scripture, was as important – as formative and instructive – to a systematics as is historical and conceptual analysis of texts. I came to trust that insight more and more as I worked on volume 2’. Fortress Press Fall 2020 Academic Catalogue,, p. 3; accessed 6 July 2021. However, whilst prayer remains central methodologically, it is mentioned even less in vol. 2. As such, the present discussion focuses on vol. 1.

34 Cocksworth, ‘Prayer’, p. 400.

35 Katherine Sonderegger, The Doctrine of God, vol. 1 of Systematic Theology [hereafter ST] (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2015), pp. xx–xxi.

36 Her systematics is perhaps best understood as ‘confession’. See Cocksworth, ‘Prayer’, p. 402. Cf. John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (London: T&T Clark, 2005), p. 69.

37 Brad East, The Doctrine of Scripture (Eugene: OR: Cascade, 2021), p. 7.

38 Sonderegger, ST, vol. 1, p. xiii.

39 Ibid., p. 291.

40 In the second volume, ‘not persons but rather Processions are the foundation of the dogma of the Trinity’ marks another subversion. Katherine Sonderegger, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons, vol. 2 of ST (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2020), p. xx.

41 Sonderegger, ST, vol. 1, p. xvii.

42 Sonderegger, ST, vol. 1, p. 289 (emphasis added).

43 Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 72.

44 Sonderegger, ST, vol. 1, p. 294.

45 ‘There must be real distinction in God, not, indeed, according to that which is absolute – namely, essence [quae est essentia], wherein there is supreme unity and simplicity – but according to that which is relative [sed secundum rem relativam].’ Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae [hereafter ST] 1.28.3, Blackfriars edn, 61 vols (London: Eyre & Spottiswood, 1964–81).

46 Even if one rejects a Thomistic metaphysics of subsistence per se, one may still distinguish the divine persons according to their relations. See John Lamont, ‘Aquinas on Subsistent Relation’, Recherches de Théologie et Philosophie Médiévales 71/2 (2004), pp. 260–79.

47 On the renewed interest in deification in the West, see Paul L. Gavrilyuk, ‘The Retrieval of Deification: How a Once-Despised Archaism Became an Ecumenical Desideratum’, Modern Theology 25/4 (2009), pp. 647–59.

48 Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), p. 190.

49 Thomas F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM, 1965), p. 242.

50 Colin E. Gunton, Becoming and Being: The Doctrine of God in Charles Hartshorne and Karl Barth (London: SCM, 2001), p. 165. In many ways, this is highly congruent with Levering's notion of ‘theological wisdom’, central to his conception of theological pedagogy, wherein he notes: ‘by practicing theological wisdom, the believer is enabled to anticipate, and to live in accord with, the ultimate end of deification that marks the transition from grace to glory’. See Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics, pp. 37–8.

51 Paddison, Angus, Theological Hermeneutics and 1 Thessalonians (Cambridge: CUP, 2005), p. 23CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 Ibid., p. 24.

53 Gunton, Colin E., The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), p. 157Google Scholar.

54 Gunton, Colin E., Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Essays toward a Fully Trinitarian Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2003), p. 81CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

55 See Cocksworth, ‘Prayer’, pp. 406–11, building upon Karl Barth as well as Winner, Lauren F., The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

56 Sonderegger, ST, vol. 1, p. 294.

57 Here Nicolas Berdyaev's infamous footnote – ‘this was once revealed to me in a dream’ – springs to mind as an example of precisely the kind of uncritical appeal to the contemplative that ought to be avoided; see his The Divine and the Human (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1949), p. 6, n. 1.

58 Webster, John, The Culture of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2019), p. 143Google Scholar.

59 She writes, ‘[the orthodoxy of spiritual transformation] comes with cost; its orthodoxy therefore, paradoxically, sits at the edge of what is more generally regarded as “orthodoxy”’. Coakley, ‘Prayer, Politics’, p. 399.

60 Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self, p. 20.

61 Webster, Culture of Theology, pp. 145–7, lists three characteristics of a prayerful theologian: fear of God; patient teachability or deference; and freedom from self-preoccupation.

62 Aquinas, ST 1/

63 Aquinas, ST

64 Cited in Lawrence Feinberg, The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas and His Interpreters (Rome: Apollinare Studi, 2001), p. 628. Milbank describes ‘Henri de Lubac's core theological belief … namely that there is no spiritual, intelligent being (angelic or human) that is nor ordered by grace to the beatific vision: that is, to deification.’ See John Milbank, The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate Concerning the Supernatural (London: SCM, 2005), pp. ix–x. Milbank's theology of gift draws from the nouvelle théologie and Marcel Mauss. See John Milbank, ‘Can a Gift be Given? Prolegomena to a Future Trinitarian Metaphysic’, Modern Theology 11/1 (1995), pp. 119–61; and Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London: Routledge, 2003). Milbank remains influential on this topic, prefiguring much of Barclay, John M. G., Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2015)Google Scholar, which has itself proved hugely influential within mainstream biblical scholarship.

65 Desmond, William, Is There a Sabbath for Thought? Between Religion and Philosophy (New York: Fordham University, 2005), p. 130Google Scholar.

66 Sonderegger, ST, vol. 1, p. 510.

67 On the ‘reader’ of scripture qua reader see Sarisky, Reading the Bible Theologically.

68 Sonderegger, ST, vol. 1, p. 528.

69 Gunton, Colin E., ‘“Until He Comes”: Towards an Eschatology of Church Membership’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 3/2 (2001), p. 200CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

70 Webster, Holy Scripture, p. 123–4.

71 Yuen, Alfred H., Barth's Theological Ontology of Holy Scripture (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014), p. 45Google Scholar.

72 Thus, Eco rightly points out that responsible readers consider linguistic nuances at the time of composition. See Umberto Eco, Interpretation and Overinterpretation, ed. Stefan Collini (Cambridge: CUP, 1992), p. 68.

73 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald Marshall, 2nd rev. edn (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 302.

74 Paddison, Theological Hermeneutics, p. 32.

75 Lash, Way to Emmaus, p. 44.

76 Williams, Rowan, On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 13Google Scholar.

77 East, ‘Hermeneutics of Theological Interpretation’, p. 52.

78 Milbank, John, ‘Theology and the Economy of the Sciences’, in Mark Nation and Samuel Wells (eds), Faithfulness and Fortitude: Conversations with the Theological Ethics of Stanley Hauerwas (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), p. 45Google Scholar.

79 So Tonstad, Linn Marie, ‘(Un)Wise Theologians: Systematic Theology in the University’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 22/4 (2020), pp. 494511CrossRefGoogle Scholar (esp. pp. 501–2). See also the similar argument made in Rowlands, Jonathan, ‘Reception History, Theological Interpretation, and the Future of New Testament Studies’, Journal of Theological Interpretation 13/2 (2019), pp. 147–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

80 Webster, Holy Scripture, p. 116.

81 For example, see Avalos, Hector, The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007)Google Scholar; and Berg, Herbert and Rollens, Sarah, ‘The Historical Muḥammad and the Historical Jesus: A Comparison of Scholarly Reinventions and Reinterpretations’, Studies in Religion, 37/2 (2008), pp. 271–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Despite their diverging approaches and focuses, both Avalos and Berg/Rollens call for the ‘de-theologising’ of biblical scholarship as an unquestionably desirable aim.

82 One could reference an enormous amount of literature here, but the most influential texts arguably remain Milbank, John, Theology and Social Theory, 2nd edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2007)Google Scholar.

83 A draft of this article was presented in the New Testament and Christian Theology seminar at the British New Testament Conference (Durham University, 19–21 August 2021). I am grateful to Dr Jamie Davies and Dr Erin Heim for allowing me to present, and for the participants for their incisive and helpful feedback, especially Prof. Katherine Sonderegger, Prof. Philip Ziegler, Dr Jennifer Strawbridge, and the Rt Revd Dr Dagmar Winter. I am also grateful to Prof. Roland Deines, Dr Alex Irving, Dr Ashley Cocksworth, and Dr Mark Wreford for comments on a draft of this article, and to the anonymous reviewers at SJT for their helpful comments.