Bill Long 11/13/04
A Legal, Historical and Theological Feast
Precarious is a good and sturdy word used today mostly to signify something that is either uncertain or perilous. If we say that someone is perched precariously on a chair while studying, we mean that she is in danger of falling. If you find yourself in a precarious situation, the outcome is uncertain. "The fisherman's life is a precarious life; he becomes hardy, resolute, self-reliant." Usually no one goes any further in understanding the term because there seems to be no need to do so nor any advantage in so doing. But with only a little scratching beneath the surface, precarious yields up a rich harvest of meaning to all who have ears to hear. This mini-essay will focus on the theological meaning of the term, while the next will turn to its historical and legal significance.
The Latin prex, precis, meaning prayer or entreaty, underlies precarious. "Prec" (the root of the Latin noun is in the genitive singluar) has come into English in such words as "precatory," "precation" and "imprecation." There may be precatory words in a will. These are words that "pray for" or express a desire for certain things to be done. Even the final words in a formal legal complaint in America today are called the "prayer for relief," i.e., an entreaty to the Court to respond to the following requests.
While precation really doesn't appear in English usage now, imprecation does. An imprecation is a curse, a "praying in" or "praying against" someone. For example, Old Testament form critics have identified one of the formal categories of Psalms as "imprecatory Psalms," where David calls down curses on his opponents. Thus, when we see the root concept of "prayer" or "entreaty" behind prec, we are ready to see precarious as having something to do with an entreaty or "prayer" also.
It really isn't a long distance from "prayer" to "uncertainty" or "risky/perilous." Many people think of prayer as an activity taken on when things are uncertain or risky; that the result of the prayer offered is not assured; and that therefore something "precarious" is an "uncertain" situation. Knowing that precarious is rooted in prayer gives it an added dimension of vividness.
But here is precisely where my theological problem with the term arises. Certainly we say in common usage that we pray because things are uncertain and, even after prayer, things remain precarious--uncertain. But in fact there are numerous New Testament passages on prayer that emphasize directly the opposite--that even the mere placing of a request to God in faith assures the outcome. Thus, for the New Testament, prayer is not a precarious activity, if precarious is to mean uncertain in result. Prayer is the least precarious of activities.
A Theological Problem
Let me illustrate what I mean. In Jesus' long (six chapter) final discourse to his disciples in the Gospel of John, just before he takes his leave from them, he urges on them some words of advice about prayer.
"On that day [when he is no longer with them], you will ask nothing of me [because he will not be with them]. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete (John 16:23-24)."
According to Jesus' words, there is nothing "precarious" about prayer at all. Prayer is a sure thing, a means to joy because asking means receiving. This appears to be the Johannine equivalent of Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount (recorded in Matthew and Luke), "Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find (Matt. 5: 7)."
A similar idea is expressed by James in his Epistle. In the closing verses of the letter he urges prayer over the sick, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. "The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up." He goes on, "Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righeous is powerful and effective." He closes the book by citing the example of Elijah who prayed that it might not rain, and it did not; Elijah then prayed for rain and the heaven gave rain (James 5:14-18)." Faithful prayer assures the desired result.
An interesting window into an obsolete definition of precarious is also provided by the new Testament. OED Definition 5 says precarious means "suppliant, supplicating; importunate." That last word is the word used by the older New Testament translations to tell the story of the persistent (importunate) woman who "prays" for justice from a judge who "neither feared God nor had respect for people (Luke 18:1ff.)." He didn't want to grant her request but "because the widow keeps bothering me" (the older translations have "because of her importunity"), he relents. Her prayer was precarious or importunate, and it was heard.
While I suppose there is no need to try to dissuade people from using precarious to mean risky or uncertain, those who want to try to be faithful to the biblical text in articulating their faith should avoid the word. Prayer, at least for the New Testament, is a sure thing. Ask in faith, and it is yours.
Yet, even as I write this, I am tempted to think that the New Testament has oversold the doctrine of prayer. That is, it has promised more than can be delivered by it. I have known more than one person who has silently given up faith because God doesn't seemingly respond as clearly as He promises to answer. Politicians aren't the only ones who promise what they may not be able to produce.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long