Answering God: Towards a Theology of Intercession.
Robert Ellis, Paternoster, 2005, 220pp £16.99 ISBN 1 8422 7340 X
This is a remarkably lucid and helpful book, offering a positive approach to intercession that reflects wide knowledge of the history of the topic.
Ellis begins with a survey of biblical material and faces the question of whether God can ‘change his mind’ in response to intercession. A further question is whether the prayers that God promises to answer are concerned only with major, spiritual matters or also with affairs of ‘daily bread’, and with this goes the problem of prayers that appear to be unanswered.
Already at this stage he finds ‘the beginnings of a Trinitarian theology of intercession’ and ‘the deep mystery that our prayers may be initiated by God in us’. Clearly Ellis is concerned with the problem that God’s response to intercessory prayer may not be a genuine answering of his people’s petitions because, in reality, he willed and caused them to ask for what he wants them to ask for.
This setting of the stage is followed by an account of the history of intercession, referring to Augustine, Kant, Schleiermacher, Aquinas, Calvin, Barth and Origen. There are then discussions of ‘The Answering God’, the relationship of God to the world and the extremely difficult questions of God, time and omniscience. Ellis tries to move towards an account of God as persuasive rather than coercive, yet ‘almost compellingly persuasive’.
The final chapter pulls the threads together with a theology of intercession, including prayer as something that affects the pray-er and the question of unanswered prayer. Ellis also picks up the point that by the Spirit God can perfect our prayers and answer them in their perfected form.
As one who is not familiar with the technical discussions of prayer, I am deeply grateful for this book which has helped me to a fresh understanding of the rationale of intercession as sharing in and aiding the purposes of God for the world. Most discussions of prayer at the simple level that I have come across do not discuss how prayer ‘works’, why it should be necessary before God can accomplish his will in the world. Here we have a coherent account of how prayer involves us in a real way in the work of God and takes account of us as persons who can actually contribute to the salvation of humankind. Prayer becomes a real persuasion of the God who is simultaneously persuading us, without the uneasy feeling that, at the deepest level, God is not actually responding to what we say but working out a pre-arranged plan.
Although I would not include this book among what I have called ‘technical discussions’, it has to be said that the nature of the subject matter does mean that it is not a book for the bedside. It demands close attention, but it is quite outstanding in its quality and rewarding to those who are prepared for some hard work. A realization that our intercessory prayers not only aid our own sanctification but also and above all involve us in the work of God for the good of his world and his people through sharing in the life of the Trinity has the power to reinvigorate the prayer life of the church and to change the world!
This is a condensed version, reproduced by kind permission of the publisher, of a review that first appeared in Evangel, 24.2 (Summer 2006). See Evangel: The British Evangelical Review, Ed. Stephen Dray, Paternoster/Authentic Media, ISSN 0265–4547,www.paternoster-publishing.com.
Reviewed by Dr I Howard Marshall, Circuit Steward in the North of Scotland Mission Circuit and an Honorary Professor in the University of Aberdeen.
Headline Autumn 2007 p.26