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.

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(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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