Open 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.