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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Prayer-Test

This was a proposal anonymously put fomrth in the name of science in the Contemporary Review for July, 1872, with the strong endorsement of Prof. Tyndall, and couched in the following terms:

"I ask that one single ward or hospital, under the care of first-rate physicians and surgeons, containing certain numbers of patients afflicted with those diseases which have been best studied, land of which the mortality rates are best known, whether the diseases are those which are treated by medical or by surgical remedies, should be, during a period of not less, say, than three or five years, made the objects of special prayer by the whole body of the faithful; and that at the end of that time the mortality rates should be compared with the past rates, and also with the rates of other leading hospitals similarly well managed during the same period."

This proposal is open to several grave objections.

1. It is not warranted by the Scriptures nor by the nature of prater. Neither religion nor science is under any obligation to accept all challenges. No system of truth does that. The true man of science comes to nature, not as a dictator, but as the humblest of learners. He does not invent, tests and demand that she shall accept them; he ingeniously finds out what tests she proposes to him. It is his office, not to alter nor to criticize, but to interpret her hieroglyphics.

In the same spirit we must study Christianity. The Bible is our text-book. We compare its parts with each other, and the whole with human consciousness and experience. We come to the book as learners. We are to accept and try the tests it offers, and not to set up tests of our own. It teaches a doctrine of prayer; it makes prayer to be a real and mighty power-a power producing physical results-but efficient only under prescribed conditions. These conditions, so far as they relate to the special case before us, are sufficiently indicated in these words: "The fervent, effectual prayer of a righteous man availeth much;" "the prayer of faith shall save the sick." The promise is attached only to the earnest, importunate supplication of a righteous man, offered with full faith in God. The prayer proposed to us vacates the essential conditions of prayer. It aims not directly at the result it asks, but indirectly to test God. It says, "Will he?" Faith says," He will." The thing it seeks is not really the healing of the sick, but "to confer quantitative precision on the action of the supernatural in nature."

This sort of challenge is not new in substance, if it is in form. How do the Scriptures treat it? On a certain occasion a personage of very acute intellect and large intelligence conducted the perfect man to a precipitous height, and challenged him to prove his claims by casting himself down. trusting to be borne up on angels' wings; and he quoted Scripture to enforce the test. The reply was simply, "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." When that perfect and divine man hung on the cross the minions of the arch-tempter proposed another test, "Let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in him;" but he came not down. When once a miracle was demanded of Jesus he said, "You have already more convincing proofs than sufficed for the Ninevites and for the queen of Sheba; an evil and an adulterous generation seeketh after a sign." A lost spirit, himself convinced at last by the resistless argument of hell-torment, prayed for the resurrection of a dead man to convince his brothers, but was assured on the highest authority "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead."

2. The test proposed would be nugatory. Suppose it were admissible, and that the Christian world should gladly accept it, and that the results should be all that believers could desire. The hospital is selected-St. Luke's, the west wing; one hundred patients of the kinds indicated are entered. The same surgeons, physicians and nurses have charge of both wings; the temperature, treatment, and diet are the same; there is perfect scientific exactness in all the conditions, except that the patients in the west wing are made the subjects of daily prayer wherever prayer to the God of the Bible is offered. After three or five years the hospital records are inspected and compared with other records, and it is found that twenty-nine and a half percent more recoveries have taken place in the wards which prayer has overshadowed than, in similar cases, anywhere else in the world.

Now, what will the skeptical men of science say? "The Lord, he is the God; prayer is vindicated forever; we have found a new force?" Not at all. We should hear such suggestions as these: "It may be the morning sun is bad, or the clatter of wheels and hoofs on the avenue has injured the patients in the east wing;" "We more than suspect some of the nurses and physicians in the west wing have a bias towards Christianity;" "Probably some new remedy has been secretly used; at all events, though there is something mysterious about it, this we know, nothing can contravene the laws of nature." Let not such a supposition be thought slanderous. The prototypes of such men were not convinced by miracles. Some of the persons who witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus went about from that very day to kill Jesus yes, and to kill Lazarus too, lest the sight of him might convince others.

The test proposed would be nugatory for another reason-prayer could not be so offered. It is impossible so to dam up Christian sympathy. It would burst over all such artificial banks like a spring freshet. Such forms of prayer would be mere magical incantations, impious shams, which would either be dinned over with no thought of their scope, or else would paralyze the lips that uttered them. Imagine the whole Church on earth thus to pray, "Grant, O Lord, thy special mercy to the one hundred sick persons in the west wing of St. Luke's Hospital. New York, U. S. of America." If any influence could move the Church to begin a three years' course of such prayer, long before the time was up the Spirit of God would be searching many hearts with questions like this. "Who taught you so to limit your petitions?" "Professor Tyndall." "Why do you confine such supplications to one hundred of my needy millions, individuals towards whom you have no reasons for special sympathy?" "To prove thee, Lord, whether thou hearest prayers for the sick." "If you doubt it, you cannot offer such prayers acceptably; and if you believe it, why test me thus at the dictation of unbelievers? Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God."

Answers are promised only to sincere, single-minded prayer, which looks simply for the object it asks. Such prayer must be double-minded-one eye resting faintly on the hospital, the other intently scanning the scientific world. Under such circumstances faith would be impossible; for faith rests solely on God's promise, and God has nowhere promised to answer any prayer offered as a test of himself.

3. Our final objection to the proposition before us is that it proposes an unnecessary test. There are allowable experiments which afford abundant proof of the mooted point. What these are must be determined by the Word of God and the experience of praying men. For a scientific atheist, or pantheist, or deist, or mere nominal Christian to insist on other tests is as unscientific-we say not as irreligious, but as unscientific-as it would be for us to say, "If electricity be so powerful as you assert, let it run along this hempen cord as you claim it does along the telegraphic wires," or, "Make your magnet attract copper." The prompt reply would be, "The laws of nature forbid." Our reply is, "The economy of grace forbids."

We can conceive of a strictly scientific test which might have been proposed by the author of this inadmissible, nugatory test. He might have sent out a circular letter to ten thousand of the ablest, most experienced and most devout ministers of the Gospel and other Christians in all lands, explaining his object, and inviting careful answers to these questions: How many cases have you ever known of persons desperately sick who were made the subjects of fervent, importunate prayer? What were the particulars and what the results? The candid and unbiased collation of the facts so obtained from witnesses whose capacity and honesty would give their testimony on all other matters the highest credit, might or might not cast some light upon tie subject. But it would not convince unbelievers, for Unbelief is a matter of the heart more than of the intellect; and very probably the secret and unsearchable workings of the divine providence would remove the whole business beyond the range of the laws of induction. The scientists discard faith, while the Bible tells lus that only by faith can we know either the person or the providence of God. A scientific test, in whatever pertains to the divine action, is impossible and absurd-a truth that Christians need to understand scarcely less than skeptics. (See PRAYER); (See PROVIDENCE).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Prayer-Test'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/p/prayer-test.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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