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.”
(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.