Fifty Prayers

by Karl Barth, trans. David Carl Stassen. Westminster John Knox, 2008. 80 pages.

Karl Barth was one of the most profound and challenging Protestant theologians of the twentieth century. He devastatingly critiqued the liberal theology of his day and inaugurated a counter-movement that came to be known as “neoorthodoxy,” forcing the theological world of Europe and North America to consider anew what it would mean to take a sovereign God seriously and respond to him in the present day.

Barth was also a genuine servant to those in deep need. He regularly preached strong but simple sermons both in Swiss prisons and in congregations in the Swiss Reformed Church. This little book consists of prayers Barth offered before and just after his sermons.

Barth admits that he did not have a good sense for liturgy—indeed, he had a profound suspicion of a too-elaborate packaging of worship. He noted that a friend once “graded” one of his church services as follows: “Preaching: A; Liturgy: D.” Even so, Barth found it important to write out prayers to use before and just after the sermon—roughly, the “prayer of illumination” or “prayer for guidance” and the “prayer of application” or “prayer of response.”

This collection offers twenty-five pairs of these prayers arranged, ironically, according to the seasons of the church year (a pattern Barth found, given his own predilections, amusing but appropriate). The prayers fit together well as packages, but regrettably neither the Scripture passage nor any summary of the sermons with which they were used are given.

Nevertheless, these prayers exude humility, intense devotion, and total dependence on our merciful God. Crying out continually for divine grace and confessing our failings to live as faithfully as we know we should, they exude a wonder at God’s patience and an utter reliance on it. The prayers also show Barth’s deep awareness of and openness to the needs of others; beyond picking up on the theme proclaimed in the sermon and bringing it relevantly before God, Barth prays regularly for the leaders of cities and nations, for the poor and the imprisoned, for those in physical and mental ill health, and for the grace we need to walk in God’s ways.

Reading these simple and direct prayers allows us to listen in as a great theologian comes humbly before God with his brothers and sisters in Christ—an unusual privilege. This book deserves to be savored—and to be used as a stimulus for us to pray—both in personal devotions and in preparing prayers used in corporate worship. I warmly recommend it.

—Reviewed by James R. Payton, Jr, professor of history, Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario

Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation,

by Allen P. Ross. Kregel, 2006. 592 pages.

This significant new work attempts “a thorough study of all the biblical material [concerning worship] in sufficient detail to formulate the basic principles and patterns of worship” (p. 64). The study spans the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation and treats worship as a reminder of the glory that humanity lost in the Fall and as a foretaste of its restoration and fulfillment in the future kingdom. Impressive in scope and depth, it is sure to become a standard reference work.

The book has many strengths:

  • It is thoroughly based on and saturated with Scripture. The Scripture index consists of fifteen three-columned pages, indicating the careful exegetical work that has gone into the book.
  • The book is skillfully unified around the central theme of glory in the context of creation, sin, redemption, and restoration. Ross emphasizes God’s gracious provision for mediated access to himself until the blessing of immediate access (lost in the fall) is restored in the new creation.
  • Showing himself to be “well-churched” in addition to well-schooled, the author does an admirable job of bringing out the doxological implications of the subjects and passages he expounds. He includes both insightful observations about the text and incisive applications to our present situation.
  • The structure and layout of the book are very clear, conceptually and visually. It includes excellent subject and Scripture indices and a massive bibliography (55 pages!) made up of twenty thematic sections.
  • As a renowned Old Testament scholar, Ross’s treatment of Old Testament material is particularly rich in interpretive detail and spiritual insight.

However, the book also has some weaknesses:

  • The treatment of the Old Testament material is stronger than that of the New Testament. Important passages such as John 4; Romans 1:18-25; Romans 12:1; and Hebrews 10:19-22 are dealt with scantily, if at all. The present priestly ministry of Christ is barely touched on, though it is crucial for understanding the dynamics of New Covenant worship (Heb. 2:12; 8:1-2; 10:21; 2 Cor 1:20).
  • Ross sees corporate worship as primary, giving little attention to the internal, whole-life, and lifestyle worship that is such an important emphasis of Jesus and the New Testament writers (John 4:21, 23-24; Rom 12:1; 1 Cor 10:31).
  • The author is consistently negative about most contemporary developments, forms, and practices of worship.
  • Many important recent treatments of worship are not considered at all: there is no acknowledgment of the work of James Torrance, D. A. Carson, or John Piper, and most of Robert Webber’s many contributions to the field of worship studies are neglected as well.
  • At times the book’s organization seems a little forced. For instance, the inter-testamental period is strangely lumped together with the New Testament period as a time of purportedly positive worship change (more focused on the Word), though Jesus did not seem to have such a positive view of worship in Israel at the time of his earthly ministry!
  • The publisher inexplicably decided to use shortened footnotes in conjunction with a sectioned bibliography; that means that to find the publication data for a cited article or book one must search through the twenty sections of the bibliography.

In spite of these reservations, Recalling the Hope of Glory is an important and valuable contribution to the field of worship studies. It is a mixture of exegetical rigor, theological depth, and reflective piety.

—Reviewed by Ron Man, director of worship resources for Greater Europe Mission

Reformed Worship 90 © December 2008, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.