Good News from the Middle East

Bahraini intellectual Dhiyaa Al-Musawi. Heard him years ago, lost track of this recording but have been searching for him since. Thanks to a friend in Beirut who tracked it down. Not something you hear every day from Muslim thinkers. May his tribe increase — quickly — before it’s too late.

Closer to Truth: Sarah Coakley

sarah_coakley_080813_0_450If you haven’t yet discovered Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s wonderful resource at Closer to Truth, let me be the first to encourage you to explore the site. He has done us all a great service. The interviews are excellent and there’s no shortage of topics and views.

I’ve listened to dozens, many of them repeatedly. Not sure how I missed her before, but this week I listened to Sarah Coakley for the first time. She is an Anglican theologian/philosopher, priest and deputy chair of the School of Arts and Humanities at Cambridge. I could listen to her all day. Below are a few suggestions. The first interview the Trinity is simply wonderful. The last one on the list is beyond delightful. If God were incarnate as a woman, she’d be Sarah Coakley.

Sarah Coakley: The Mystery of the Trinity

Sarah Coakley: Christology & Science

Sarah Coakley: What kind of world did God create?

Sarah Coakley: Panentheism: Is the World in God?

Sarah Coakley: Why believe in God?

Praying the open view: prayer and Tango

tango_3_1385-jsThe Tango is a violently passionate exchange, a storm of desire, of invitation and response, a give and take, a request whose granting is increased desire. If the divine-human relationship is a ‘dance’ (as so many like to express it), then surely it’s a Tango — frustrating, unpredictable, dizzying and passionate, both answering and creating questions as it moves along, both fulfilling and enticing, exhausting all the powers of concentration and fueled by fulfilled and ever-expanding enjoyment and desire. And of course what would it be if the furniture wasn’t also kicked over. If that’s the life of faith, the divine-human relationship, then a life of prayer isn’t going to be any different. My reason for examining in this series of posts a bit of the meaning of petitionary prayer within an open worldview has not been to produce a neat list of theorems that tame the Tango and turn it into a Waltz by removing its infuriating ambiguity and passion. It has been to try to express these different aspects of our conversation with God and to discourage any disconnected speculation or abstraction that isn’t done while dancing.

So let me close this series with a few concluding guidelines — some suggested dance steps if you will — arising from the preceding considerations of open theism’s understanding of petitionary prayer within the larger providential framework noted. Some of these points reproduce material taken from my summary of open theist contributions mentioned earlier.

(1) Prayer is that interpersonal communication necessary to the establishing and flourishing of loving relationships in which God achieves his purposes for creation in covenant partnership with us; it is our God-given capacity for responsible partnership with God wherein we shape ourselves and the world through the prodding, asking, pleading, yielding and offering of ourselves in conversation with God.

(2) Prayer is only one of many variables that determine what we and the world become, and much about the complexities of these variables escapes our comprehension. Consequently, we must acknowledge a good deal of ambiguity that characterizes the world and prevents us from being in a position to judge why things happen as they do, why they do not always happen as they might in spite of our faithful and fervent prayers, and where precisely God (and we, or others, or our prayers) can be firmly located on the map of our explanations.

(3) God is love and does all God can do given the contextual variables of every given circumstance to maximize good. He always and everywhere ‘supervenes’ upon/through/in creation, bringing all the influence that he can bring to bear in each circumstance within the creational constraints he sovereignly established to achieve the most lovingly relational state of affairs possible. I suggest this is all the explanation we should require. It’s a fully sufficient ground for ‘trusting’ as opposed to ‘explaining’.

(4) The ‘good’ God seeks in creation is the beauty of loving synergy flowing from our being united with him. Outcomes achieved synergistically represent a greater good than outcomes unilaterally achieved. This provides us with a divine rationale for God’s making his meeting our needs contingent upon our petitions and the petitions of others. Why pray to an omnipotent, omniscient, all good God? Because the beauty and love for which we and others were created is achievable through an interdependence of both divine-human and human-human relations, and that interdependence is free and risky. This means that finite goods (good as experienced by us or those we and others pray for) are co-implicated in their fulfillment, which in turn means that when the greater good of cooperatively achieved outcomes fails on account of a lack of prayer, God does not as a matter of policy settle for the next best thing, viz., bringing about the same outcomes unilaterally and thus somewhat less beautifully. We obviously do not that sort of world. Rather, it is to say the freedom of such partnership has an integrity to it which precludes God’s being able to guarantee the same outcomes minus the cooperative component.

Given (3), God is always maximally involved in seeking to redeem every occasion in the cosmos and to maximize its potential for loving relationality. But given (4), the nature of loving relationality limits both God and humans to a fundamental interdependence that links the ‘good’ of individuals to the larger ‘good’ of creation. Petitionary prayer’s logic is an affirmation of the interdependence of these two upon each other.

(5) The efficacy of petitionary prayer is grounded in the interdependence of God’s purposes for us and the metaphysical constraints those purposes place on the God-world relationship. God is ‘functionally’ finite in some respects with regard to achieving desired outcomes, and the God-world relationship possesses an integrity that cannot be undermined by unilateral divine (or human) action without destroying the very synergy by which God’s aims are to be achieved.

(6) The urgency and motivation for petitionary prayer are grounded in the worth and beauty of God which God created us to reflect.

(7) Prayer involves offering ourselves in answer to our prayers by committing actively to engage the fallen and conflicted structures in which we live. One petitions God honestly when one offers oneself to become the answer to one’s prayers however God may desire.

(8) Lastly, what open theists may justifiably petition God for is limited (as it would be in any approach) by the constraints of their view of God, his purposes, and the nature of divine providence. In open theism God cannot guarantee the morally responsible behavior of free agents. A request to God to “Save Uncle Frank’s soul!” motivated by a belief that Uncle Frank’s choice for God is something God can entirely determine, is not a consistent request). I can think of conversations I’ve had with other open theists precisely about ‘how’ to pray. On the one hand open theists make much of open theism’s giving them a new appreciation for and sense of urgency about prayer because now one can see concretely how prayer ‘makes a difference’. And that’s true. But on the other hand some open theists become a bit paralyzed, not knowing ‘how’ actually to petition God. So much of our prayers and petitions concern the world outside our own relationship with God, a free and risky world, a world God doesn’t exhaustively determine. So exactly how is one to word one’s petition regarding outcomes we know are contingent upon factors God does not determine? How does one petition God with respect to the well-being of free agents? I’ll leave things open-ended right there.

Enjoy your Tango.

(Picture here.)

Praying the open view: why pray to an all-loving God?

2235044_1_OAs noted earlier by Basinger, placing divine love at the center of our understanding of God and his actions in the world leads to a basic tenet of open theism: “God always desires and pursues the highest good and well-being of his creation.” Basinger expands upon this conviction: “An omnibenevolent God is obligated to maximize the quality of life for those beings he chooses to create.” Consequently, Basinger argues, “God would never refrain from intervening beneficially in one person’s life simply because someone else has failed to request that he do so.” This leads to the problem Roy notes(1) and which both Sanders and Boyd address.

For Basinger, the belief that ‘God always seeks to maximize good and minimize evil’ entails the notion that ‘God would never refrain from intervening beneficially in one’s life simply because someone else failed to request that God do so’. But is the latter entailed in the former?(2) One might respond to this as Keith Ward does:

It is not sensible to complain that if I fail to pull my neighbor out of a ditch when I could easily do so, God is responsible for leaving him there. It is no more sensible to complain that if I fail to pray for my neighbor when I could easily do so, God is responsible for not doing what my prayer might have effected.(3)

Good point. But we may need more. Suppose a second neighbor is aware of my first neighbor’s plight in the ditch and has the resources to help but refrains from doing so unless I ask him. Who would excuse this second neighbor for refraining from helping simply because I had not asked him to do so? What possible constraints could my requesting my second neighbor to help place upon him that would excuse him while implicating me? An articulation of a rationale for such constraints, freely entered into by my second neighbor, is what Basinger is after and which Ward’s analogy doesn’t address.

We’ve noted responses to this impasse by Sanders and Boyd. Boyd affirms that God as love entails God’s always doing all God can do — given the creational variables he sovereignly established — to maximize good. Limiting certain outcomes to the petitions of believers is simply part of the morally responsible “say-so” believers must possess and exercise if they are to grow into responsible partnership with God. This growth into partnership would be undermined if God automatically and directly maximized good and minimized evil in all cases without the participation of human cooperation. The ‘partnership’ in question is precisely about the accomplishing of such ends. This implicates (at least to some measure) the good God wishes to achieve and the evil he wishes to prevent in the free participation of others. Sanders adds that if the good we suppose God pursues as a matter of character includes a personal relationship with us, then God is properly speaking incapable of unilaterally achieving it independently.

Basinger is unconvinced. He does “not believe that a perfectly good God could justifiably refrain from granting any believer’s essential needs, even if she has consciously decided not to request God’s help.”(4) In his response, Michael Murray argues Basinger’s position is problematic. Murray:

If Basinger means to adopt this as a general principal which follows from the conceptions of God’s obligations he endorses, then serious trouble looms. And the reason is simply that if (a) God exists, and (b) the principal is true, it would follow that (c) no believers would ever die from starvation, exposure, or, presumably, death on a cross. Since they do, we have an argument against not only efficacious petitionary prayer, but theism itself!(5)

Basinger’s claim does seem excessive. It makes it difficult to affirm with James that believers “have not because they ask not” or any number of other essential goods we know God is desirous to grant but for which we are told to petition God. Basinger objects that none of the rationales offered thus far describe the sort of goods that would justify a divine policy of making provision of essential needs sometimes dependent on our petitioning God for them.

I submit that Basinger’s concern is based on a sound conviction but that he has failed to take relevant possibilities into consideration. That is, let us view God as ‘maximally involved’ at all times, in all circumstances, seeking to bring about the most good possible given the variables that define each circumstance. Thus, it is never the case that God “refrains” from doing or achieving some desired good simply because he was not petitioned. Where I believe Basinger is mistaken is in limiting the “good” that an omnibenevolent creator would pursue to the good of “the individual” understood independently of other considerations. I suggest that there is a “good” to be had in synergistically achieved aims that cannot be achieved by unilateral divine action, that such good is that for which the cosmos has been designed, and that our individual ‘goods’ are implicated in the interdependence necessary to achieving this consummate “good,” which is simply the consequent beauty of loving relationality, the relational (divine-human and human-human) synergy reflected in outcomes cooperatively achieved. As noted in our last post, some good G achieved synergistically is essentially different than G achieved unilaterally. The cooperation of freely offered petitions shapes the identity of outcomes and makes them more aesthetically pleasing or beautiful to God.

Consider the accomplishing of any task a person may want to undertake and introduce personal relations into the context, so that the task is transcended by the relations. An example from my personal experience may help. Some years ago I moved with my wife and children into a new home, and my daughter’s room needed painting. My daughter (then 12 years old) loved art and wanted to paint the room, or at least be a part of painting the room. But I was pressed for time and preferred to do the job myself. I knew I could get the room done quicker, more efficiently, and more neatly if I did not have to accommodate my daughter. I knew involving her would mean greater risk of spillage and a less professionally looking job. But I also loved my daughter and valued relationship more. So painting the room with her and not just for her or through her, allowing her to hold the brush in her hand and not determine its every movement to insure a neater job, would (a) accomplish something between us that could not be gotten were I to paint the room in any other way, and (b) give definition to the room that reflects this relational intimacy.

This analogy suggests a way of understanding how nurturing the divine-human relationship as the ultimate task at hand transcends the specific creational contexts and limitations in which that relationship is pursued. If God’s purposes and agency in the world prevent us from understanding individual goods independently of ‘how’ they’re achieved (unilaterally vs synergistically), synergy must be sought. It increases the beauty and thus the value of the outcome. This just is the good which open theists ought to insist God necessarily pursues.

It is not as if God “refrains from intervening beneficially” when we fail to petition God. God is doing all God can do given the failure of prayer, so there is no “refraining” from doing what perfect love by definition does, viz., seek the highest possible good in every circumstance. Nor is “intervention” an appropriate description of God’s part of the divine-human venture we call prayer. That assumes that God is sometimes not fully engaged until we petition him. On the contrary, however, God doesn’t ‘intervene’ in this sense. God ‘supervenes’ as it were. He actively ‘inhabits’ every occasion and is thus always maximally involved, seeking to bring about the most beautiful state possible given what he has to work with. But that’s just the point — how much maximal divine involvement is able to achieve depends upon a synergy that includes creaturely freedom. As noted earlier, Boyd’s and Sanders’ essential point is that our petitions create avenues, “space” (to use Fretheim’s word), wherein “all that God does” in that instance is able to achieve more, not less, good. But this means that on occasion “the most that God can do” fails to achieve what it might have had we prayed. But this is not to say God “refrained” from anything.

In conclusion then, Stephen Roy’s objection that open theism provides an inadequate basis upon which to engage meaningfully in petitionary prayer because open theists affirm a notion of divine love that is incompatible with God’s making the provision of a person’s ‘good’ depend upon the prayers of others proves to be false. We have noted that there are conceivable circumstances and conceivable goods that justify God’s making his involvement in securing these goods sometimes dependent upon his being petitioned to act.

(Picture here.)


(1) The problem has been around at least since Origen, who writes of some who refused prayer claiming “What need is there to send up prayer to him who knows what we need even before we pray?…And it is fitting that he…who loves all…should order in safety all that has to do with each one, even without prayer.”
(2) This debate goes back to Eleanor Stump’s “Petitionary Prayer,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979): 81-91. It is developed in Basinger, “Why Petition an Omnipotent, Omniscient, Wholly Good God?” Religious Studies 19 (1983): 25-41; Joshua Hoffman, “On Petitionary Prayer,” Faith and Philosophy 2 (1985): 21-29; Michael Murray and Kurt Meyers, “Ask and It Will Be Given to You,” Religious Studies 30 (1994): 311-330; and Basinger, “Petitionary Prayer: A Response to Murray and Meyers,” Religious Studies 31 (1995): 475-484. See also Keith Ward, Divine Action (San Francisco: Torch Publications, 1991), 156-158.
(3) Ward, Divine Action.
(4) Basinger, “God Does Not Necessarily Respond to Prayer,” in Michael Peterson, ed., Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 264.
(5) Michael Murray, “Reply to Basinger,” in Peterson, ed., Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, 265.

Praying the open view: responding to objections

The end is in sight! Just a couple of posts left. Here I summarize responses to the objections introduced in the previous post. Next post we’ll take up the specific problem (noted by Basinger and Roy in particular) of praying to an all-loving God. Then lastly I’ll make my own concluding remarks. Enjoy!

Response to Bruce Ware
Ware’s three criticisms of open theism’s effect upon one’s prayer life were: (1) It issues from our modern western consumerist’s mentality that fosters an unrealistically high view of the self, (2) it cannot represent the kind of mutually reciprocal and interpersonal relationship open theists claim since our petitions offer nothing to God in the way of new ‘information’, and (3) not knowing how future contingents will turn out, God cannot now know how best to answer our petitions. He also offers comments on the Lord’s prayer and Moses’ appeal to God in Exodus 32.

It is difficult to know how to respond to Ware’s first charge. Undoubtedly western consumerism exerts its influence on us all. But has Ware actually argued his point or has he simply claimed that it is so? One could argue that open theism’s insistence upon individual responsibility and the value of a person are rooted in biblical concerns — Ezekiel’s emphasis upon the ‘individual’ (Ez. 18.13, 18, 20) and Jesus’ overwhelming declarations of God’s love for humanity (Jn. 3.16). One could also reply that much of non-openness Evangelicalism, including Ware’s articulation of the gospel, is the result of western consumerism’s influence as well. After all, Ware does not deny that believers enjoy a ‘personal’ relationship with God, and his emphasis upon the ‘individual’ can be as easily attributed to western consumerism as Ware insists is the case with open theism. How does Ware distance the personal dimensions of his own faith from such consumerism while implicating open theism’s personal dimensions? Ware doesn’t say. And then lastly, Ware’s criticism could apply to his own theology in another sense. One could argue that Ware, unable to live with the truth that God’s will is sometimes not accomplished, has embraced a theology that feeds the consumer’s craving for personal security and hence offers as a ‘product’ a risk-free creation and the all-controlling God.

Regarding Ware’s second criticism, it seems to misconstrue what open theists believe to be at the heart of mutually reciprocal personal relations. Ware makes such relationships entirely about ‘information’ and assumes that two persons cannot transact personal loving relationality unless one is ‘educating’ the other by introducing information previously unknown to the other. But in fact open theists have agreed that petitioning God cannot be about ‘informing’ God. Ware’s assumption about information’s relevancy to personal relationships is entirely unfounded and without analogy. Even human-human relations can be mutually reciprocal in a fully personal sense without one party having to ‘educate’ the other.

One line of thought that sheds light on this point is speech act theory. The fundamental insight of speech act theory is that the paradigmatic function of language is to ‘do’ things (not to ‘say’ things). We all intend our speech to do something, to accomplish something. Likewise with prayer. To petition is to perform some ‘act’, an act that is not reducible to a transfer of information from the petitioner to another party. Information doubtless counts for something. We are, after all, communicating with language. But we perform a linguistic “act” in terms of speech act theory. Thus Ware’s objection that since we are not ‘educating’ God of our needs, our petitioning God cannot amount to the kind of personal act wherein we engage God and God in turn responds, is ill-conceived.

For open theists, the “act” of petitioning another creates its own reality. It transcends information per se. Open theists thus do not suppose God responds to our prayers because they believe they have brought to God some new bit of information about the world which they believe God did not already know. On the contrary, it is the “act” of engaging another through petition that creates its own reality, a personal reality beyond the propositional content of the words uttered in the prayer. Consequently, outcomes are defined in terms of this personal exchange. Take some specific good G. God may provide G independently of our requesting it or God may provide G in response to our undetermined prayers. I submit that G is not identical in both cases. God’s acting ‘in response to’ our undetermined request “gives definition to” G or “makes something of” it that is unique. Thus G achieved synergistically is more complex and so a more beautiful (more ‘good’) or more lovingly relational state of affairs. If the beauty of such loving relationality is at least part of what God is after in creating, then it is simply not available to God via unilateral action.

Lastly, Ware’s claim that if God were not to know future contingents he would not know how “best” to answer our petitions begs the question. Ware is doubtlessly assuming a notion of “best” that entails his own beliefs about the meticulous sort of providence he believes God exercises. “Best” for Ware just is his way of viewing God’s relationship to the world. But where there are real indeterminacy and risk in the world, “best” is to be understood in probabilistic terms. Does this mean God’s will is sometimes thwarted? Yes. Does this mean, as Basinger explains, that sometimes even God’s attempts to secure our petitions may fail to produce the desired outcomes? Yes. But it is no argument against this that it fails to satisfy a definition of “best” on some other construal of providence. That is rather to be expected.

Before moving on, let us consider the two biblical passages Ware introduces, the Lord’s prayer (Mat. 6.9-13) and Moses’ petition of God (Ex. 32.11-4). Ware argues from the Lord’s prayer that (a) God’s will predates our petitions and that this therefore precludes our “contributing to God” in the sense argued by open theists, and that (b) since God knows what we need “before” we ask, our prayers do not inform God and so cannot be the means of the sort of mutually influential relationship open theists believe prayer represents.

Given what we have seen thus far, an open theist response to Ware here is not difficult to imagine. Open theists do not suggest that God’s mind and will are entirely undecided until we settle them through prayer. On the contrary, open theists assume God has desires for every occasion and that he pursues them regardless of human contribution. The question is whether or not the fulfillment of the aims God pursues are ever at risk because their fulfillment depends upon the free prayers of believers. Far from precluding such a view, Jesus’ admonition, open theists argue, expressly makes fulfillment of the will of God contingent upon our requesting it. It is not the determining of God’s will that open theists here suggest is our contribution to God. It is rather the accomplishing of his will. And open theists argue (Basinger excluded) that some purposes of God for us are of metaphysical necessity dependent upon our free cooperation.

There is then Ware’s suggestion that since God knows our needs before we petition God, prayer cannot be about informing God of our needs. But no open theist argues that we ‘inform’ or ‘educate’ God when we present our needs to him. The efficacy of petitionary prayer for God is not information driven, and to construe exhaustively definite foreknowledge from God’s knowing what we need before we pray is to misread the passage. All that is implied by Jesus is God’s perfect knowledge of our present needs. He knows our needs “before we ask,” not “before we need them.”

Lastly, what of Ware’s comments regarding Moses’ prayer to God in Ex. 32? He objects to open theists’ use of this passage to argue a genuine response on God’s part to Moses’ appeal. Again, Ware grounds any possibility of response in Moses’ informing God of something God did not previously know. Ware cannot imagine any other basis upon which personal responses to requests can be made. But we every day respond to requests that introduce no new information to us simply because the request presents us with an opportunity to value others and realize states through cooperative agreement rather than unilateral action. Consequently we adjust a course of action in response to requests in order to pursue a future that yields more relational complexity and love, and so more beauty, by virtue of being achieved interdependently. We do so because we value the aesthetic satisfaction of relating and working synergistically.

Response to Stephen Roy
Roy presented four problems facing the open theist’s understanding of prayer, the first two of which are identical to Ware’s second and third criticisms which I have already addressed. Let us then consider Roy’s third and fourth objections, which are: (3) God’s commitment to respect our libertarian freedom means that with regard to prayers whose answer depends on the free exercise of wills other than God’s, God has limited himself to whether and how he will answer those prayers, and (4) open theists cannot affirm both God’s universal and impartial love (by which Roy believes God would not make his provision for some good dependent upon our petitioning him) and the efficacy of petitionary prayer (by which God’s actions in maximizing good in the world are sometimes dependent upon our prayers).

In response it should be obvious that open theists plead guilty to (3). Roy has simply accurately stated the open view position, not argued against it. Given the providential contours of open theism (genuine indeterminacy with its consequent epistemic openness, risk, and ambiguity), it is indeed the case that God has limited himself to whether and how he will answer some of our prayers. But for open theists this arrangement is just the metaphysical price-tag for the sort of loving, personal, and morally responsible world God wishes to achieve.

Roy’s fourth objection is more serious and deserves attention, but I’d like to dedicate the next post to it. So you’ll have to stick with us to get that.

Response to David Ciocchi
William Hasker has responded to Ciocchi’s argument(1) for the religious inadequacy of open theism based on PDI (the ‘presumption of divine intervention in response to appropriate petitionary prayer’) and SR (the ‘supplementary requirement’, namely, that is the assumption that ‘it is impossible for God to be prevented from granting a petition he wants to grant’). It is clear that SR must be true if PDI is to be satisfied. “If there is any significant class of requests that are ‘appropriate’ in terms of PDI, but that God could be prevented from granting,” notes Hasker, “then the satisfaction of PDI cannot be guaranteed.” Hasker has only to demonstrate that relatively few believers upon reflection would affirm anything like SR, and this he does by showing how equally problematic SR is for other views of providence (simple-foreknowledge, timeless knowledge, Molinism, and determinism). Ciocchi’s argument is equally problematic for understanding petitionary prayer within these views on the assumption of SR. PDI and SR are, in Hasker’s words, “excessively strong claims,” not at all implicit in the practice of ordinary believers.

Moreover, Hasker notes biblical examples of cases in which God’s desired outcomes are both pursued by God and yet fail to obtain. Jesus prays regarding Jerusalem, “How often I have longed to gather your children together…but you were not willing.” (Mat. 23.37) Other presumably “appropriate” prayers go unanswered. What of the petitions for “peace on earth” in the Gloria or that “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” in the Lord’s prayer? Hasker concludes:

…while some of those who pray the Gloria and the Our Father may for various reasons be insufficiently pleasing to God, this can hardly be true of all. On the contrary, some of the most devout believers have also been most assiduous in the use of these prayers. And given the very extensive use of both the Gloria and the Lord’s Prayer, petitions of this sort probably constitute a significant fraction of al the prayers that are offered; they are by no means exceptional. Yet we must confess that peace of earth—especially the spiritual peace that is primarily intended—and the doing of God’s will are rather the exception than the general rule. The reason, of course, lies squarely in the wills of creatures such as ourselves, who in very many cases are far from desiring what God desires and from willing to do God’s will. Examples such as these constitute compelling evidence that PDI as stated [by Ciocchi] is overly strong….

Without SR, Ciocchi’s argument fails. Open theists can agree with Ciocchi, of course, that religious adequacy requires a certain existential “fit” between belief and practice and that this practice ought to be the shared experience of a community and not of an isolated individual (as I earlier argued). Indeed, this is urged by open theists themselves. Whether or not the required shared experience must constitute the ‘majority’ of believers before it can be considered ‘religiously adequate’ for a community is doubtful. Open theists will gladly admit, though, that open theism cannot meet the requirements set out by PDI and SR. But this is hardly fatal to the religious adequacy of open theism for those who reject SR, as Hasker argues, and these may in fact constitute a great many, perhaps the majority, of ordinary believers.

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(1) Hasker, “Is Free-Will Theism Religiously Inadequate: A Reply to Ciocchi,” Religious Studies 39 (2003): 431-440.

Praying the open view: objections

With the exception that we keep our clothes on, these wrestlers represent the general state of the debate between open theists and their opponents for more than twenty years now. The objections to open theism cover a wide range of issues (including biblical/theological questions, philosophical objections, the question of church tradition, and of course the practical effects), but little new has advanced the practical-existential aspect of the debate since the earliest publications.

Objections on the basis of practical effects generally claim that open theism results in a loss of trust and therefore of hope in God and his word. Consequently our confidence in God with respect to guidance, prayer, and suffering is undermined and faith is eventually shipwrecked. John Piper has been unambiguous in his opposition to open theism, having listed fifteen grounds for dismay, which include claims that open theism undermines the Church’s “common vision of…God,” holds that God “makes mistakes,” attributes ignorance to God, is pastorally harmful, and undermines the believer’s hope.(1) Thomas Ascol has similarly criticized the pastoral implications of open theism, urging that open theism undermines confidence in Scripture, God, faith in Christ, the efficacy of prayer, and confident living.(2) If God does not know what the future holds in every respect, and if God’s will is not always triumphant, then prayer at best is only accidentally efficacious, nothing like a robust biblical portrait of prayer.

There is much such anti-openness rhetoric in the literature, all of which constitutes a contrary existential argument for the religious inadequacy of open theism. I’ll here examine three authors who have offered more sophisticated arguments against open theism based on the perceived adverse effects it has upon petitionary prayer and then respond to them in the following post.

Bruce Ware: Their God is Too Small
Bruce Ware’s 2003 (Their God is Too Small) response to open theism is concerned entirely with the practical implications of the view. Ware lists three difficulties with open theism and its view of prayer.

First, it issues from a modern psychologized culture which encourages an inordinate estimate of personal self-importance. Modern culture caters to what we want and places the “customer” first. Open theism is infected with this consumerism which in turn distorts prayer’s purpose and role. The view has only managed to grow in popularity, Ware insists, because of the immensely low view of God and the unrealistically high view of self that characterizes Christian culture in the West. Second, because God knows the past and all my present thoughts and desires that go into the formation of my petitions, there is no sense in which God can interact with me in them. They cannot represent the sort of reciprocal relationship open theists claim they do. And third, since in open theism God does not know how future contingents will actualize, God lacks the knowledge he needs to know best how to answer our prayers. Ware is here responding to Basinger’s explanation of the general providential contours of open theism. Basinger explained in The Openness of God that divine guidance from an open view perspective cannot mean discovering “exactly what will be best in the long run” but rather a means of determining what is “best for us now,” because within the providential contours of open theism “it is always possible that even that which God in his unparalleled wisdom believes to be the best course of action at any given time may not produce the anticipated results in the long run.” This is intolerable for Ware, who responds:

On the one hand, because God knows the past and present exhaustively and accurately, he is simply too knowledgeable and wise to learn anything from our prayers. But on the other hand, because he lacks exhaustive definite knowledge of the future, he is not knowledgeable and wise enough to answer our most urgent and pressing prayer in the ways that are, in fact, best.

Ware also offers four points toward understanding prayer more biblically. First, he considers the Lord’s prayer (Mat. 6.9-13). Ware believes this prayer assumes God’s mind is “made up” regarding God’s will. We are not asked to pray “Your will be formed,” Ware interprets, but rather “your will be done.” The assumption is that the God-world relationship assumed by Christ here precludes our prayers affecting God in the sense open theists claim they do. God’s will predates our prayers. Thus, “we must never approach prayer,” urges Ware, “or think of God in terms of what we contribute to God.” Second, Jesus teaches us that “your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask him” (vv. 7-8). Before we bring our requests to God, Jesus says, God knows what we need. It follows that we can never tell God something God does not already know and did not anticipate. Ware believes this contradicts open theists’ claims. Third, Ware argues from Exodus 32.11-14 (a favorite open theist text used to show that God “changes his mind” regarding destroying Israel in response to Moses’ petitions) that God need not be thought of as having changed his mind. Could Moses have brought God some new insight or perspective that caused God to change his mind? Ware shows that all the points Moses offers to God as reasons for not destroying Israel are believed by open theists to be known by God independently of Moses’ petitions. Ware then inquires:

On which of these points would God have responded to Moses and said, “Say, Moses, good point. I just didn’t understand it that way. Thanks for the insight—and for the reminder! I can hardly believe that I almost forgot about the covenant!”? But isn’t it clear that, to understand this text in a way in which God literally changes his mind, something like this must be envisions?

Fourth, Ware presses in questioning how our prayers might “make a difference” to God. It cannot be that God ever changes his mind in response to human actions or that we “contribute” to God. In what sense then do our prayers make a difference? Ware proposes:

Simply put…God has designed that his good and perfect will be accomplished, in some respects, only as his people pray and first ask for God so to work. The role of prayer, then, becomes necessary to the accomplishing of these certain purposes, and our involvement in prayer, then, actually functions to assist in bringing these purposes to their fulfillment.

Stephen Roy: How Much Does God Foreknow?
Stephen Roy offered a comprehensive engagement (How Much Does God Foreknow?) of the open view that makes a substantive attempt to establish the religious inadequacy of the view based on four problems that result from an open view approach to prayer. The first regards how the God of open theism decides whether he should answer my prayer in the way I ask. Various crucial events in the future that would, Roy supposes, make a particular answer to my prayer wise and loving are unknown to God. Roy cannot see how, given divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents, God can know how best to answer our prayers. Second, Roy objects that since there is nothing we can tell God in prayer that he does not already know, our prayers contribute no new information to God, in which case it is difficult to see how our prayers make a genuine contribution to God.

More specifically, it is difficult to see how prayer contributes to a “genuine and mutually responsive relationship between God and his children as open theists claim.” The point is that God knows too much about us for his relationship with us to be genuine and real (presumably in the open theist’s sense of ‘genuine’ or ‘real’). Since what we contribute in prayer is the present product of our past experience and present understanding, and since God knows these infallibly, the sort of “mutually interactive, mutually instructing relationship with God in prayer that is often promoted by open theists would seem to demand not only that God not have exhaustive foreknowledge but also that his knowledge of the present and past be limited as well.”

Third, God’s commitment to respect our libertarian freedom means that with respect to prayers whose answer depends on the free exercise of wills other than God’s, God has limited himself to whether and how he will answer those prayers. This is unacceptable to Roy. Lastly, Roy suggests that open theists who insist God’s love is universal and impartial (admittedly a core value for open theists) have a hard time squaring this with their belief in the efficacy of petitionary prayer. Roy wonders how a God of such love is justified in withholding any good gift simply because he has not been asked to bestow it. If open theists place a high value on the efficacy of petitionary prayer so that God’s actions in maximizing good in the world are sometimes dependent upon our prayers, it becomes difficult, insists Roy, to consistently claim that God’s love is genuinely universal and impartial. On the other hand, if open theists do justice to the universality and impartiality of divine love by insisting that God always actualizes the greatest possible good, then it becomes difficult to consistently maintain an efficacy to petitionary prayer.

David Ciocchi: open theism religiously inadequate
A logically formal argument for the religious inadequacy of open theism is offered by David Ciocchi.(3) Ciocchi challenges the claim that open theism supports a rich religious life. He advances an understanding of ‘religious adequacy’ and then argues that open theism fails to be religiously adequate with regard to petitionary prayer because it fails to honor beliefs implicit in the way ordinary Christian believers pray. Ciocchi first defines religious adequacy. A position is ‘religiously adequate’, Ciocchi suggests, “to the degree that it comports with the common beliefs and practices of ordinary believers.” Religious adequacy is thus, in Ciocchi’s view, a measure of the “intellectual fit” of a position vis-à-vis “the actual lived faith of most believers.”

Ciocchi then makes two central assumptions. First, the implicit belief of common believers that Ciocchi believes open theism fails to honor is the presumption of divine intervention in response to petitionary prayer (PDI). Furthermore, Ciocchi argues, prayers must be ‘appropriate’. Thus PDI is the presumption of divine intervention in response to the petitions of appropriate prayer. In Ciocchi’s view, a position’s religious adequacy requires accommodating PDI. Second, Ciocchi defines “petitioning God” as “mak[ing] a request of an agent who may say ‘no’ but who cannot be blocked from granting the petition if His answer is ‘yes’.” William Hasker, whose response I’ll note in responding to all three authors, terms this second assumption of Ciocchi’s the supplementary requirement, or SR, and formulates it as follows: “(SR) It is impossible for God to be prevented from granting a petition he wants to grant.”

Given PDI and SR, then, Ciocchi’s basic argument follows rather simply: Many (most) ‘appropriate’ petitions depend for their fulfillment upon the free actions of persons other than the pray-er. And since libertarian free will is such a value to open theists, and since open theists allow for the possibility that God may act in view of granting a petition only to have his will frustrated by free agents, open theists cannot affirm PDI, in which case their view fails Ciocchi’s test for religious adequacy. Open theists should acknowledge that their views on prayer diverge dramatically from the beliefs and practices of ordinary believers and that open theism is in fact religiously inadequate.

(Picture here.)


(1) John Piper, “Grounds for Dismay: The Error and Injury of Open Theism,” 371–384 in John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth eds., Beyond the Bounds (2003).

(2) Thomas K. Ascol, “Pastoral Implications of Open Theism,” in Douglas Wilson, ed., Bound Only Once (2001), 173-190.

(3) David Ciocchi, “The religious inadequacy of free-will theism,” Religious Studies 38 (2002): 45-61.

Praying the open view: partnering with God (2)

flat,550x550,075,fOpen theist views on prayer
Continuing on from the previous post summarizing open theist views on petitionary prayer, consider four more contributions. And I should remind readers that quotes from each author are from that work which is linked to in highlightened text.

Samuel E. Balentine: prayer as dialogical divine-human relationship
Professor of Old Testament Samuel E. Balentine (Union Presbyterian Seminary) has offered a very thorough review and commentary on prayer in the Old Testament, a work that deserves to be much discussed by open theists. Balentine argues that prayer in the Old Testament is a means of delineating divine character. He points to prayers that appear in the text not merely as an individual’s prayer on this or that occasion (insignificant in terms of the theology that motivates it), but as prayers “put into the mouths of certain pray-ers for the purpose of conveying the ideological and theological concerns of the editors.” (One wonders why they couldn’t be both.) Balentine further shows how prayer reveals the dialogical nature of the divine-human relationship. God chooses to engage humanity in a relationship of reciprocity. “The texts I have examined,” concludes Balentine, “repeatedly present God with reality-depicting metaphors as speaking and acting toward humanity and as listening for, hence inviting, human response.” Balentine further concludes:

The central point here is that covenant relationship is fundamentally dialogical. Two parties are mutually bound to one another in a relationship that is desirable and important to both. Both parties have a voice and a role to play; neither can disregard the appeals of the other and maintain the relationship as it is intended to be. If either God or Israel does not participate in the dialogue, then communication fails and the relationship is impoverished by silence.

To sharpen this point, covenant partnership means that God cannot and does not use the divine prerogatives of power to reduce Israel’s response to monotones of praise, submission, or silence. Such limitations on human response effectively eviscerate genuine covenant relationship, substituting instead enforced obedience and passive devotion. Thus, for Balentine, prayer is a constitutive act of faith that creates the potential for newness in both God and humanity. Neither party in the relationship can remain unaffected after prayer is offered. The view of God that emerges from the Old Testament is of a God who is personal, accessible, loving, powerful, and compassionate.

Vincent Brummer: what we do when we pray
Three issues concern Brummer’s (retired Dean of the Faculty of Theology, Utrecht, and founding director of the Netherlands School of Advanced Studies in Theology and Religion) treatment of prayer: the nature of impetratory prayer as constitutive of personal relations; issues involved in praying to an omniscient God, and problems faced by claiming a perfectly good God would make his performance of some good dependent upon the prayers of less than perfectly knowledgeable and perfectly good agents.

Regarding the first, Brummer argues a two-way contingency that characterizes the relationship between us and God. Petitionary prayer makes sense as a free engagement occurring between personal agents. Brummer places petitionary prayer’s efficacy in the space between those actions impossible for God to perform (because they are logically impossible or incompatible with God’s holy character) and those which God performs inevitably by virtue of his nature and character. Constitutive of impetratory (petitionary) prayer is the presupposition that:

God does what is asked because he is asked. In this sense the petition itself is a condition for God’s doing what he is requested. On the one hand, however, it is not a sufficient condition making it inevitable for God to comply with the request. In that case prayer would become a kind of magical technique by which God could be manipulated by us…On the other hand, although the petition is not a cause which makes God’s response inevitable, it is the reason for his response.

Thus we must reject divine immutability as understood by Aquinas, for:

…not only would all events in the world be inevitable and therefore not the sort of things that could meaningfully be objects of petition, but God would not be the sort of being to whom petitions could meaningfully be addressed. If his intentions are immutably fixed from all eternity, he would not be able to react to what we do or feel, nor to the petitions we address to him. He could not be said to do things because we ask him to do them.

Second, Brummer considers the problem of petitioning a God who is believed to know precisely how future contingents will obtain. Were God to infallibly foreknow every event and human choice, “no event could take place differently from the way it in fact does, and no human agent could act differently from the way he in fact does, for that would falsify God’s infallible foreknowledge.” So far as we know, Origen was the first Christian to take up this question. And his answers were not novel. He adopts standard Stoic explanations. Boethius also urged, “If God foresees all things and cannot in anything be mistaken, that which his Providence sees will happen, must result.” (Boethius V, quoted in Brummer, What Are We Doing When We Pray?). Brummer declines Boethius’ own solution to this problem (divine timelessness) and instead concludes:

God…could of course have created a deterministic universe, in which case there would have been only one possible course future events could take. In that case it would have been coherent to claim that he knows with absolute certainty what course all events will take—since there would be only one. However, we all know from personal experience that this is not the sort of universe which he has in fact created. He has rather created a world with an open future in which various possibilities could be actualized.

Prayer cannot, then, be approached with the understanding that God is somehow informed by his knowledge of future contingents in determining how best to answer our prayers. That is quite impossible on a presentist, indeterminist cosmology.

Brummer’s third concern is the problem generated by supposing both that God is perfectly loving and that God makes the provision of our good dependent upon our petitioning him. I shall only mention here that Brummer’s reply is similar to that which I will give in a separate post upcoming. The problem with many of the proposed solutions to the problem, claims Brummer, is that these aim petitionary prayer at stimulating either God or the petitioner himself to action. This is misleading in that it does not take into account the “relational character of prayer” or the “mediate nature of divine agency.” God acts through the actions we perform. While I agree with Brummer on this last issue (that both the relational and mediate nature of divine agency is where we find a solution to the problem posed by praying to a perfectly good God), what is needed moreover is a sufficient rationale for justifying a perfectly loving God’s making his loving provision dependent upon our prayers.

Robert Ellis: prayer as participation in the acts of the Trinity in the world
Let us further consider the work of Robert Ellis, Principal of Regent’s Park College, Oxford. After summarizing both the Old and New Testament evidence regarding prayer, Ellis has a helpful review of the history of interpretation on relevant texts and issues. It is when he discusses prayer and the doctrine of God, however, that Ellis makes very fruitful contributions, arguing the link between our doctrine of God and our understanding of prayer. Ellis also focuses on Christ as the definitive word on what God is like. Thus, a Christocentric theology of prayer views God as “Christlike.” In drawing together the evidence from both the Old and New Testaments and the contributions of history, Ellis concludes that prayer is fundamentally a “participation in the action of the Trinity in the world.” The Trinity is crucial for Ellis because it suggests that prayer is not so much something we offer to God as it is something that takes place within God. God draws us into himself, into an experience of his triune love and purposes. Furthermore, God’s being complex (triune) suggests that God values synergy and sociality (both crucial elements in an open view theology of prayer). For prayer to reflect these trinitarian values God and humans must mutually engage one another; humans must be sufficiently autonomous persons in their own right.

Terrence Fretheim: creating space for God in the world
Terrence Fretheim, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary (St. Paul) has had an enormous effect on open theism. He describes prayer as “creating openings (relational space) for God in the world.” In his review of prayer in the Old Testament, Fretheim notes that “silence on the part of the people means that God is not able to be God for them in a way that God would like to be.” Likewise, “what is possible for God in responding to prayer in a way that is in the interests of all concerned may vary from one situation to the next.” With Boyd, who describes prayer as “creaturely empowerment,” Fretheim notes that “prayer has to do with that which brings the human and the divine factors into the fullest possible power-sharing effectiveness.”

The tabernacle provides an example in physical terms of creating space in the world for God. Likewise, the prayer that is offered in this house of prayer creates space wherein God dwells and acts in the world. J. Gerald Jenzen, agreeing with and summarizing Fretheim’s approach, comments:

It is of the utmost significance for both theological reflection and the practice of prayer that this mystery of unity [between God and humankind] as mutual indwelling is embodied in an act of prayer, the prayer of Jesus as high priest bearing on his shoulders and his heart the names of his followers and, ultimately, of his whole creation. To pray as a Christian, then, is to enter with Jesus into that space, as the space God has freely opened up for the world to be, a space within which it is safe to invite God, and the company of God, into the space of one’s own internal freedom.(1)

Fretheim’s fundamental insight into prayer as our “creating space for God in the world” expresses well what is at the heart of open theism’s approach to prayer. Prayer is that “relational space” we create in response to God’s invitation and in so doing create an opportunity, a space, for God to move in the world. Fretheim also summarizes his views here.

Summary of contributions
There are other contributions we could include, but the foregoing eight contributors will have to suffice for now to represent what open theists generally perceive to be the nature of divine action in the world and the role of petitionary prayer. So to summarize these contributions, we can say that open theists:

  • view the God-world relationship as a covenant in which God pledges to achieve his loving purposes for creation in partnership with human beings.
  • understand that our shaping the world with God through prayer is constitutive of the order and synergy required by the sort of loving relationship for which we were created.
  • define prayer as God-given “creaturely empowerment” and “say-so” by which we “create space” in the world for God to act.
  • see prayer as one of many variables that determines what we and the world become, part of the morally responsible potential God grants us in making possible the sort of free and responsible world that reflects God’s own triune loving personhood and that is required for us to develop the capacities necessary to our reigning with Christ throughout eternity.
  • acknowledge the necessary ambiguity that characterizes the world and limits our ability to judge why things happen as they do or why they do not always happen as they might.


(1) J. Gerald Janzen, “Praying in the Space God Creates for the World,” in Gaiser and Throntveit, Essays, 117.

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Praying the open view: partnering with God (1)

Open theist views on prayer
Having summarized a bit of the foundation for an open theistic theology of prayer (the nature and limits of existential arguments, the defining claims and convictions of open theism, and the general contours of God’s providential actions in the world), I’d like to consolidate what open theists have written about petitionary prayer in the hope of distilling the key components toward and open theistic theology of petitionary prayer. There is general agreement among open theist writers/thinkers regarding what prayer is and how it functions within an ‘open’ worldview, but as I hope you’ll see each gives us a unique way to imagine and articulate things. To keep length down, I’ll cover Basinger, Boyd and Sanders and Pinnock in this first post and Balentine, Brummer, Ellis and Fretheim in a second.

David Basinger: We have not because we ask not
Let us begin with David Basinger (professor of philosophy at Roberts Wesleyan College), because his contribution (quotes of him here are from his chapter) in The Openness of God marks the official beginning of the modern debate over open theism. Basinger sketches the practical implications which follow from an open worldview. He notes that most Christians believe that whether God directly intervenes in our world depends at times on whether we petition God to do so. “We have not because we ask not” in the sense that “certain states of affairs that God can and wishes to bring about do not occur because we have chosen not to request that he intervene.” (italics mine) For open theists, how we understand this “because” is what sets an open worldview and its approach to prayer apart from other views. Sanders will emphasize the important of this “because” as well.

Basinger points out the difference between petitionary prayer as viewed by theological determinists and process theists on the one hand and open theists on the other:

…it is also possible for proponents of the open model to conceive of petitionary prayer as efficacious in the crucial sense in which it is not possible for proponents of either specific sovereignty or process theism to maintain that it is. Since proponents of specific sovereignty believe that God always ensures that we freely make the exact decision that he would have us make, and since process theists deny that God can ever unilaterally intervene in earthly affairs, those in neither camp can justifiably maintain that petitionary prayer initiates unilateral divine activity that would not have occurred if we had not utilized our God-given power of choice to request such divine assistance. However, since we who affirm the open view deny that God can unilaterally control human decision-making that is truly voluntary but affirm that God can unilaterally intervene in earthly affairs, it does become possible for us to maintain justifiably that petitionary prayer is efficacious in this sense — that is, to maintain justifiably that divine activity is at time dependent on our freely offered petitions.

Not all open theists agree on just how God is to be viewed as “intervening” into the lives of those for whom they pray. All open theists would agree that God as a general rule does not override a person’s freedom to determine that she perform some action. But what if we assume, Basinger asks, that what is being asked when we pray that God intervene on behalf of someone in a troubled marriage, for example, is that God only “influence their lives in such a way that it will be more likely that things will work out for the best”? Basinger answers:

The answer depends on what we who affirm the open model mean when we say that God loves all individuals in the sense that he is always seeking the highest good for each. For some of us this means that God would never refrain from intervening beneficially in one person’s life simply because someone else has failed to request that he do so. And, accordingly, we naturally find prayers requesting even non-coercive divine influence in the lives of others to be very problematic. (italics mine)

Whether and if so why God would make his own actions on behalf of the essential needs of individuals dependent upon the free (and thus risky) prayers of others is an issue I’ll address in a separate blog post. But for now I’ll just note that proponents of the open model other than Basinger see no necessary incompatibility in affirming that God always seeks what is best for each of us and that God may at times make his own (non-coercive) influence dependent upon requests of others. And thus they readily acknowledge the potential efficacy of prayers of this type.(1)

Greg Boyd—prayer within warfare
In the second of his trilogy on evil, Boyd develops his view of prayer within an open-warfare worldview, beginning with the affirmation that “God miraculously intervenes in world history and responds to the prayers of his people.” Given this conviction, and the thesis that God’s exercise of power to direct events as he wishes is restricted by free agency, what can petitionary prayer contribute? Boyd explains:

One could argue that [petitionary prayer] is pointless, for if what a person prays for is something that is best for God to do, it seems God would already by trying to do it whether or not that person prayed. On the other hand, if one naively prays for something that is not best for God to do, then it seems that a God who always does the most good he can would not do it, regardless of the prayer. In other words, if what one is praying for is best, praying for it seems either unnecessary if God can carry it out or pointless if he cannot. Moreover, if what one is praying for is not best, God would not carry it out even if he could. So what is the point of petitionary prayer?

We shall consider how others have addressed the problem of petitioning a perfectly good God. For now we can summarize Boyd’s own answer:

I submit that the problem is solved if we understand prayer to be part of the morally responsible potential, the spiritual say-so that God gives free agents in his desire to have a creation in which love is possible. I have argued that God is restricted in terms of what he can unilaterally carry out by the domain of irrevocable freedom he has given to agents. I have further argued that this entails that the short- and long-term implications of agents’ behavior for all other agents must be allowed to unfold, for better or for worse. We may understand prayer as a central aspect of this moral responsibility. By God’s own design, it functions as a crucial constituent in the ‘givens’ of any situation that makes it possible for God more intensely to steer a situation toward his desired end.

Thus Boyd defines prayer as “creaturely empowerment” and sets it within those “variables” that define the “givens” of any particular situation, givens that just are that situation to which God relates and within which he must work. Among all the variables God respects in relating to the world (God’s loving purposes, the irrevocable freedom they require and which God endows, the laws of nature, the specifics of any actual situation, and many other variables we can’t possibly fathom), prayer is fundamental. It is a variable that, along with other variables, defines the contexts in which God sometimes gets what he desires and other times does not. This, Boyd argues, makes sense of prayer as we see it in Scripture, as an activity that influences God and contributes to outcomes that might otherwise not have been. In Boyd’s words, “the effectiveness and urgency of petitionary prayer as it is commanded and illustrated throughout Scripture only makes sense if we are asking God to do something he would not otherwise do and if God at least sometimes does this.”

But why should God design the world this way? What is the divine rationale for such an arrangement? In Satan and the Problem of Evil, Boyd suggests three reasons. First, such prayer “preserves our personhood.” Interpersonal relationships require that the persons involved be empowered over and against one another. Where one party exhaustively determines the other, the dominated party is depersonalized. Thus, we must possess the capacity to determine and shape ourselves and the world we live in if our relationship to God is to possess personal integrity. Second, mutual interdependent relationships are maintained and encouraged through personal communication. By making much of the good God truly desires for us and the world dependent in part upon our petitioning God, God weaves into the fabric of the cosmos the sort of interdependent communication necessary to the thriving of divine-human relationships. Third, Boyd suggests that prayer is an essential part of our learning to reign with God. God wants us to share in his universal reign by being vice-regents through whom his loving jurisdiction is mediated throughout the universe. Thus, this life is a kind of probationary training grounds, as it were, where we learn to employ those gifts and authorities by which we will forever rule with God. God could not have the desired result without endowing us with the required capacities and leaving us free to mature into their proper use. Petitionary prayer, freely offered, is an exercise of creaturely power fundamental to our growing into God’s eschatological aims for us.

John Sanders—a ‘risk’ model of prayer
In describing his understanding of prayer within a “risk” model of providence, John Sanders emphasizes the sense in which God acts in the world “because” we request him to do so. “Does it make sense,” asks Sanders, “for proponents of specific sovereignty to claim that God grants something because of or in response to the request made?” He notes Paul Helms’ understanding of prayer within a deterministic worldview. Helm comments that in a “no-risk” model of providence “intercessory prayer is not one means of settling God’s mind on a course of action, but one of the ways in which the already settled mind of God effects what he has decreed.” Thus, though God has unconditionally determined outcomes and the means (prayer) by which they are to come about, Helm claims we can still agree that God answers ‘because’ we pray. Petitionary prayers are efficacious in the sense that God wills them as the means by which determined ends are to be actualized. Sanders argues that this sense of ‘because’ is clearly different than the sense of ‘because’ which attributes contingency to our requests and God’s responses. Sanders argues:

…the God of specific sovereignty is not actually prevailed on by prayer. God never responds to us or does anything because of our prayers because this would imply contingency in God. In this model it is difficult to make sense of James’s statement that ‘you have not because you ask not’ (Jas 4:2) because if the God of specific sovereignty wanted you to have it, then he would ensure that you asked for it. If God’s will is never thwarted in any detail, then we can never fail to receive something from God because we failed to ask for it.

And Sanders goes on to summarize the “risk” model of prayer:

Our prayers make a difference to God because of the personal relationship God enters into with us. God chooses to make himself dependent on us for certain things. It is God’s sovereign choice to establish this sort of relationship; it is not forced on God by us….Our failure to practice impetratory prayer means that certain things that God wishes to do for us may not be possible because we do not ask.

Sanders also addresses the question among open theists (to receive its own upcoming post) over the objection that God, being omnibenevolent, must always act to bring about the best possible state of affairs in any given situation whether or not he is requested to do so. Sanders makes two points in reply to this objection. First, he points out that it is not clear that the notion of a “most valuable state of affairs” is coherent. God, Sanders suggests, would have any of several alternative actions to pursue. Second, if what God holds to be “most valuable” is the personal relationship with other persons, then his actualizing all possible goods independently of our asking him to do so (at least on occasion) would undermine the integrity of the sort of relationship God wishes to have with us. The first of these two seems less than convincing. Surely it is coherent to suppose that on occasion there is one best, most loving option to pursue even if there is no one best possible world to create. So the question remains, what are we to expect of perfect love in such instances? Sanders’ second point, however, provides what I think is a most fruitful way to understand why God would sometimes make his actions in realizing good in the world contingent upon our petitioning him.

Clark Pinnock: prayer as interpersonal dialogue
The open view approach to prayer is further argued by Clark Pinnock who holds petitionary prayer “to be a good indicator of the interactive nature of our relationship to God.” In his words:

In prayer the practicality of the open view of God shines. In prayer God treats us as subjects not objects and real dialogue takes place. God could act alone in ruling the world but wants to work in consultation. It is not his way unilaterally to decide everything. He treats us as partners in a two-way conversation and wants our input….

Thus prayer validates the open view of God because it so adequately reveals the interactive nature of the God-world relationship. Pinnock argues this is crucial to providing a proper sort of motivation for prayer. “People pray passionately,” he says, “when they see purpose in it, when they think prayer can make a difference and that God may act because of it.”

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(1) Basinger would classify himself among those open theists who find prayers requesting non-coercive divine influence in the lives of others to be problematic. He counts Hasker and Sanders as examples of those who do not find such prayers problematic. Among open theists that I have researched, Basinger is alone is his view. All other open theists agree that there are times that God fails to bestow some good he is otherwise willing to bestow because humans fail to request it of him. Basinger believes God would not make the provision of one’s essential needs dependent upon God being asked to do so by some third party. I’ll address this question in a separate post.

Praying the open view: providential contours


In addition to embracing a pragmatic/practical approach to evaluating ‘adequacy claims’, open theists also construct their understanding of prayer upon three core theological convictions:

  • love with respect to purpose
  • freedom with respect to agency
  • risk with respect to outcomes

One can see almost immediately how these would inform why and how open theists pray. And since they have been defended at length by open theists elsewhere, I only briefly summarize them here so we have them in mind as we move on to consider their effects upon our understanding of petitionary prayer. In addition to these convictions, I’ve commented on three additional commitments I believe they imply.

(1) Love: The divine purpose for creation
All open theists share the conviction that “God is love” constrains both our understanding of God’s being and self-relatedness on the one hand of the nature of creation and God’s purposes on the other. Whatever else open theists might go on to conclude about the God-world relationship, it proceeds from the fundamental conviction that God is love and that God’s relationship to creation is defined, motivated, and directed by love. We are created to be and live as one in him, knowing and reflecting the triune love.

(2) Freedom: the necessary context for creaturely love
It is the metaphysics of our becoming loving persons which necessitates libertarian freedom. Very much has been said (philosophically and theologically) on the possibility of libertarian free will. Once God determines to purpose us for loving relations with God and others, endowing us with an appropriate capacity to determine ourselves is the metaphysical price-tag. We must freely become what we are purposed by God to be. Again, this is not the place to defend arguments already popular. I’m exploring only how these core convictions shape an open theist’s understanding and practice of petitionary prayer.

(3) Risk: The implications of freedom
If love requires freedom, what does freedom entail? It entails ‘risk’. And so the reality of ‘risk’ becomes the third in a trinity of convictions that inform open theism’s view on prayer. The existence of creaturely freedom has important consequences for the God-world relation — for the world because freedom constitutes the indeterminacy which open theists argue is incompatible with exhaustively definite foreknowledge, and for God because such freedom is also incompatible with it being the case that God can always guarantee that his will is fulfilled.

However, divine risk is a complex issue and is not understood and applied uniformly by open theists. All agree that there is genuine ‘risk’ in the sense that the fulfillment of divine purposes is sometime conditional upon the free agency of creatures. Certainly there are grave risks. But not all risks, arguably, can apply to God who by definition cannot take metaphysical risks. And open theists are not all in agreement on what counts as the sort of metaphysical risks God cannot take. What Dwayne and I understand by ‘divine risk-taking’ is simply the conditionality of the fulfillment of God’s purposes. That is, we may be at some risk, and the fulfillment of many of God’s purposes may be at risk. But God cannot be at risk. Differences among open theists on these points, however, do not (we think) affect our understanding of petitionary prayer as a means by which open theists freely partner with God in shaping themselves and the world as God desires.

The belief that divine providence is compatible with divine risk-taking even in the minimal sense just noted, however, does have serious consequences for our approach to prayer. There may be occasions when we pray as we ought and God responds to secure some end, and still the desired outcome may fail to actualize because of factors outside the determination of God and those praying. The shock which this claim alone has had upon objectors to open theism is well-documented, and yet there is no getting around it. On the open view, God does not get everything God wants or aims to achieve even when we pray and intercede as faithfully as we may and God acts in the interest of achieving some end, and yet this does not empty prayer as a meaningful and effective means by which God brings his will to pass. What possible factors outside our prayers and God’s response would combine to make this the case? The answer open theists have given is that there are more factors determining outcomes than just our praying and God’s favorably responding.

(4) Rules of engagement: the creational variables
What sort of conditions would obtain if the world is in fact the sort of place where God can act with a view to bringing about some desired state and that state fail to obtain? And does this not decimate any hope that prayer is efficacious? Boyd begins his answer by appealing to the multifaceted nature of the conditions or “creational variables” under which we live and pray. We might say these constitute “rules of engagement” sovereignly established by God to see the world through to its fulfilled end.

What interfaces between a predictably loving God and the complexities of an unpredictable and fallen world that might account for the occasional failure of God’s will? Boyd represents open theists in general when he suggests that we understand God’s sustaining presence within creation to be guided by conditions God freely set in place when he created, the integrity of which he honors in the bringing of creation to its fulfilled purpose. The entire project of creation is thus providentially governed in its becoming from beginning to end by overarching loving purposes and a corresponding free and risky context appropriate to their fulfillment. These creational variables are this context, including our natural capacities, the integrity of our freedom and its consequences, the capacities of the physical universe to behave freely, angelic wills which may be, and other factors we may have no understanding of. Several of these can be known by us, but there’s no reason to think we have an exhaustive understanding of all the relevant variables. However, one creational variable, open theists believe, is prayer. Prayer (or the lack of it) is one of the influencing factors which constitute the totality of relations that determine outcomes on any specific occasion, but it is not the only factor. This is at the heart of what makes faith and prayer both comforting and frustrating.

(5) Consequent ambiguity: letting go the need to know
Once we posit a universe of intersecting and sometimes competing divine, angelic, and human wills, together with genuine risk and warfare under a myriad of creational factors we cannot comprehend, we have an entirely different approach to the problem of an evil world and our place in it. We can know that for any given evil, God, being perfectly loving, always does all God can do to maximize good and minimize evil, but we also know that given the metaphysics of freedom and risk, how much good God is able to actualize on any given occasion is conditioned by these creational factors. Thus, we can never know enough about the complexities of creation and the contributing factors that determine specific outcomes to judge precisely which variables played which determining roles. Consequently the world presents us with a good deal of ambiguity, not with respect to the divine character or intention (which open theists insist is loving and good), but with respect to the intersecting creational variables.

Open theists generally admit that God can and does on occasion guarantee outcomes. They also generally admit that God can and does on occasion make compatibilistic use of evil. Consequently, given our ignorance of the complexities and the hidden variables, we are consigned to ambiguity regarding specifics. We can never know whether some specific evil was opposed by God as such, given all the variables that are part of any event in the world, or whether God was specifically permitting or making use of agents in their evil intentions in a larger attempt to minimize evil and maximize good in the world. We must wean ourselves of the need to know and therefore of our tendency to judge.

(6) Consequent assurances: learning to rest
This ambiguity just considered relates to creation, however, and not to God’s character or his loving purposes. We can never comprehend the totality of divine and creational influences under the rules of engagement established by God, but we may, Boyd encourages, enjoy profound assurances. First, we may know that God always does all God can do given his purposes and the context in which God finds himself, to maximize good and minimize evil in the world. Here “all God can do” does not equal something like “flex all the muscle God has” or “exercise all the power God possesses.” It rather means God always exhausts all the available avenues for achieving his highest glory and the good and perfection of creation within the constraints he freely put in place to achieve the desired relationship with creation. Within this context, God does all he can to maximize good and minimize evil. That is his nature.

A second assurance is that however grave may be our suffering, however at a loss for an adequate explanation of the place our prayers have in shaping things, we rest in the confidence that God is resourceful enough to redeem our circumstances when we cooperate with him (Rm. 8.28-29). There is no horror so great that God cannot redeem good and beauty from it. God is always redemptively engaged in every occasion seeking to bring about the highest good and most loving state of affairs.

A third assurance we have in a risk-filled world is in the entrusting of our souls to God. With respect to our final state and our eternal enjoyment of God’s presence, we have an unconditional divine guarantee that those who trust God cannot possibly be disappointed whatever else may occur in this life.

With these convictions in mind, we’ll try to move on to what open theists have said about the what, why and how of petitionary prayer.

(Picture here.)

Praying the open view: adequacy claims

smoke“The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.” (Rev 8.4)

It’s no secret that Dwayne and I like conversations that wade out into the speculative and the theoretical. But that can get a bit wearisome (can I get an ‘Amen’?). A less speculative aspect of the debate over open theism has to do with its practical effects, something both open theists and objectors use to argue their respective positions. My graduate studies took me in this direction and I ended up proposing a thesis toward an open theistic theology of petitionary prayer. It’s less accessible than your average blog post, so I’d like to break down a few of the more important points.

Prayer is the primary existential stage upon which any theology may be examined and judged. Given the open theist’s core claims, how are we to understand the purposes and place of petitionary prayer? If one cannot divorce the question of what God is like from the question of how we pray, then open theism’s proffered revision of aspects of the traditional view of God is most relevant and deserves continued and rigorous consideration. In focusing on the implications which open theism has for our understanding of prayer, we bring belief to bear upon one of the most practical every-day concerns of religious persons and thus have an opportunity to judge the existential case for open theism.

Open theists have claimed that their views of the God-world relationship provide a religiously adequate basis upon which to live life, more specifically that the open view makes best sense of petitionary prayer as an act by which believers freely participate in fulfilling God’s purposes through shaping themselves and the world. Treating the ‘practical’ or ‘existential’ pros and cons of believing in something is not a simple task. There are several moving pieces. In this first in a series on petitionary prayer, I’d like to reflect upon the nature and difficulty of adequacy claims.

People inevitably want to know what relevance a belief has for their day to day concerns. What difference does it make? is ultimately the question believers put to theological issues. And where believers fail to see the practical relevance such questions have for life’s relationships, decisions, etc., they fail to engage those issues for any length of time. Opponents of open theism have claimed that the effects of the open view are ruinous and will inevitably shipwreck faith in God for those who embrace it (concrete examples in upcoming posts). Open theists on the other hand have argued precisely the opposite, that their views make better sense of our existential intuitions, provide a better existential fit, and that of all the available views of providence on the market, that espoused by open theists is already assumed in practice by the manner in which Christian believers actually live their lives.

Adequacy claims reducible to personal preference?
The underlying question regards the relationship between ‘faith’ and ‘praxis’, i.e., how we relate what we believe about God and the God-world relationship to the practical concerns of daily life. Theology matters, so all theists seem to agree, and open theists have confidently made ‘adequacy claims’ about the practical advantages of their beliefs. At the same time, opponents equally object to the open view on existential grounds, insisting that the view undermines one’s confidence and trust in God, God’s word, and God’s ability to achieve his purposes. The existential matrix (the inter-relating intuitions, a priori beliefs about the world, experiences, decision-making processes, etc.) by which we evaluate the truth of a claim is a complex and fallible guide.

Think about what sort of question we are dealing with. When one argues that a belief is best believed to be true (or not) because of the practical effects of believing it, a particular sort of claim is being made, one that is notoriously difficult to evaluate. Professor of religion Christopher Heard has attempted to assess the evidentiary status of the effects that follow from believing or disbelieving in open theism, a form of argumentation he calls an appeal to outcomes or argument from affect.(1) After reviewing the debate, Heard concludes that God’s defining attributes are independent of human desires and opinions. Simply put, “God is what God is, whether humans like it or not.” Heard argues that outcome oriented arguments reduce to arguing one’s “personal preference” and thus are ultimately useless in determining truth. He writes:

This points to one of the weaknesses of outcomes-oriented argumentation: the larger debate lacks an objective, consensual framework within which individual outcomes can be assessed as relatively worse or better than other possible outcomes. Because outcome-oriented arguments are inextricably linked to human preferences, and because human preferences differ, outcome-oriented arguments will typically succeed only with those who already agree with the arguer’s implicit value system which allows the arguer to categorize certain outcomes as good or bad, beneficial or harmful, and so on. Even if such an objective, consensual framework were available, however, outcome-oriented arguments would still suffer from a fatal flaw, in that human preferences do not determine the divine reality.(2)

Even if it is true that God is responsive in the sense of adapting to us, Heard says, it would still not be the case that “we can reshape the reality of God simply by proclaiming one theological alternative ‘better’ than another and assuming that God conforms to what (some!) humans consider to be ‘better’.”(3) Agreement or disagreement on which divine attributes are “better” than others, Heard argues:

…would not prove that those attributes actually characterize God. If God’s foreknowledge is in fact exhaustive, then it is exhaustive, whether or not we judge that state of affairs to be better, more comforting, more helpful, or more exciting than some other possible state of affairs; and if God’s foreknowledge is in fact limited or probabilistic, then it is so, whether or not we judge that state of affairs to better, more comforting, more helpful, or more exciting than some other possible state of affairs. God is who God is, and human beings do not enjoy the privilege of defining what God ‘must’ be and assuming that God lives up to that definition.(4)

Heard suggests that the principle “God is what God is, regardless of human value judgments about the quality of the divine nature” undermines the evidentiary force of existential arguments proposed in the debate over open theism. At best, such arguments can show what practical implications a particular theological approach on this question may have.

The difficulty with adequacy claims
Three observations in response to Heard seem appropriate. First, perhaps, we should note that neither side in the debate suggests that our views of God actually “shape the divine reality.” God doesn’t turn into what we believe he is. And open theists agree that God’s self-determining existence and nature are prior to and independent of all non-God actualities. Undermining belief in God’s aseity is not what existential arguments for (or against) open theism are about. What such arguments are believed to do is offer a kind of argument from design. That is, assuming God has purposed and designed us for truth, it is at least safe to reason from our experience of ourselves and the world at least to the plausible truth or falsity of those beliefs responsible for life’s functioning as it does. So although outcome oriented arguments involve a subjective element that makes them difficult to assess, they simply cannot be dismissed given our assumptions regarding the unity of truth and its role in our properly relating to God and the world.

Second, if the best outcome based arguments can legitimately do is establish what the practical implications of a view are, and if these practical implications have no part in determining the truth of the view in question, as Heard appears to claim, then one wonders whether or how the implications matter at all. Surely what is ‘legitimate’ about the implications of a belief is their contributing something to the determining of the truth of the claim. Heard, however, appears to affirm the importance of a belief’s implications while denying that the implications impinge on the truth-value of the belief in question.

Lastly, with Heard we can agree that it is a weak argument which claims simplistically that since believing some claim seems at the moment to meet a perceived need, the claim is therefore true. On the other hand, Christian believers will hardly want to deny the intuition that what is true about God and the God-world relationship will best explain our experience and best enable our existing in the world with and for God. Truth is, on a Christian account of things, intended to enable, enrich, and verify our living for God. This conviction grounds the usefulness of outcome based arguments or adequacy claims. Doctrine must prove itself by demonstrating its power to transform life. It is a kind of living that God is after. So the truth about God and the world, I shall assume, ought to secure belief states that enable our living our lives in the honor and enjoyment of God.

481The relationship between ‘faith’ and ‘praxis’
We can agree with Heard, then, that existential arguments are difficult to evaluate. But we disagree that the lines of influence travel in only one direction — from doctrine to how we live. Theological truth cannot be determined independently of pragmatic concerns. We simply do not function this way. The lines of influence move in both directions — from doctrine to how we live as well as from how we live to verifying what is true.

Heard argues that both sides in the open theism debate should spend less time on existential arguments and return to the role of Scripture in revealing truths about God. To learn what God is like, Heard suggests that we “move from biblical statements about God to theological statements about God” and then undertake the “careful exegetical and theological studies necessary to elucidate God’s character as revealed in the Bible.”(5) In response, I submit that while Scripture is of primary importance, it is at the same time the case that Scripture’s truth is a truth designed for our living and to which our living best conforms. Thus the practical/existential dimension informs our interpreting and theological systematizing by limiting the set of possible interpretations or claims to existentially meaningful ones.

Finally, while outcome based arguments are somewhat subjective, they can be more than mere arguments from “personal preference.” The ‘praxis’ for and from which open theists argue is that of shared experience. An individual experience that remains the experience of a single person can hardly be the grounds upon which a community understands and expresses itself. But shared human experience cannot but be the basis upon which a community understands and expresses itself. And it is a shared human experience that open theists offer as the basis of the existential fit of their views.

We have good reasons, then, to conclude that outcome based, or existential, arguments, while limited and fallible by virtue of their individual subjectivity, can be useful in determining truth by grounding meaningfulness in the shared experience of a community. This is a fundamental pragmatic insight. The point of existential arguments is not to say that whatever I find ‘convenient’ is therefore ‘true’, but rather to say that (a) whatever are the natural consequences of a belief, those consequences are that belief’s meaning for us, and that (b) whatever beliefs are true (theologically in our case), they will make possible a truly livable existence on the assumption that God has designed us to function best in truth. In the end, all of us conclude the truth or falsity of claims based on the difference that believing or not believing makes.

Granted, we are finite and fallible. With Heard we can agree that our experience itself can neither determine the divine reality (aseity) nor alone establish truth for a community. But these are not necessary to existential arguments per se. The usefulness of such arguments does not require an infallible individual subjectivity that makes individual experience an absolute judge of truth. Rather, as suggested here, we best look to the shared experience of a community to tell us what a belief ‘means’ and then admit this into whatever other arguments (exegetical, biblical/theological, traditional) are at play in order to determine theological truth-value. We do not, with Heard, first establish truth on grounds that admit no influence from shared experience and then seek to accommodate ourselves to it.

Four guidelines
To conclude our survey of issues related to the nature of adequacy claims, I offer the following four guidelines for evaluating such claims. First, the pragmatic maxim grounds the meaning of a belief in the practical effects that belief has and so makes it impossible to determine the truth-value of claims apart from their practical effects. Second, the practical effects must constitute the shared experience of a community before they can be admitted into the hermeneutical process by which that community understands and expresses its identity and mission. No one individual’s experience should be elevated to the status of being the measure by which the community is defined. Third, Scripture possesses a God-given authority that makes it an ultimate judge of human beliefs and experience, not visa versa, and this conviction must guide our reading of experience. This is easier said than done, however, for by our first guideline above, the practical effects a belief has in our life are what that belief can be said to ‘mean’. We are bound to live in the tension of this dialectic. Lastly, adequacy claims are still subject to the rules of logic and meaningful argumentation. No ‘experience’ in itself constitutes an ‘argument’. It remains for us to argue the place that some shared experience has in our larger theological framework in a coherent manner.

(Picture here and here.)


(1) R. Christopher Heard, “‘I AM WHAT I AM’: Inputs, Outcomes, and the Open Theism Debate,” Christian Scholars Conference, Malibu, California, presented July 22, 2005.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid.