Saturday, 5 August 2006

Does prayer change God?

Joe Cathey raises the question: does prayer change God, or does it only change us?

It seems to me that the only way to take the biblical witness seriously is to say that prayer really does “change God.” If we approach the concept of prayer via a philosophical or theological analysis of “the divine nature,” we may well end up concluding that prayer cannot “change God.” But nothing could be plainer about the God of the Bible: he hears prayer, he is moved by prayer, he responds to prayer, he changes his mind when people pray. Nothing is more characteristic of the God of the Bible than his attentiveness and responsiveness to prayer.

We’ll always get into trouble if we start out with a prior concept of what the “divine nature” must be like (e.g. that God must be transcendent, or immutable) and then try to understand prayer. Instead, as Gerhard Ebeling has pointed out, we should start with the reality of prayer, and we should allow prayer itself to determine the way we think about who God is and what he is like.

One of the best discussions of this topic is Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics III/4, pp. 87-115. Barth writes: “If ever there was a miserable anthropomorphism, it is the hallucination of a divine immutability which rules out the possibility that God can let himself be conditioned in this or that way by his creature. God is certainly immutable. But he is immutable as the living God and in the mercy in which he espouses the cause of the creature. In distinction from the immovability of a supreme idol, his majesty, the glory of his omnipotence and sovereignty, consists in the fact that he can give to the requests of this creature a place in his will.... God cannot be greater than he is in Jesus Christ, the Mediator between him and man.... For this God is not only occasionally but essentially, not only possibly and in extraordinary cases but always, the God who hears the prayers of his own” (p. 109).

26 Comments:

Alex Thompson said...

great post, you put into words pretty much what I had been felling. The dichotamy between the Bibibllical witness an the traditional mmutable (read platonic)God can be troubling. As always Barth-man's words cut through and expose the heart of the matter.

kim fabricius said...

Damn, you Ben! When are you going to say something with wich I can disagree? A god who does not answer prayer, who never "changes his mind", is one of principalities and powers.

On Barth: He says that it is always better to pray for something, even if you think it might be inappropriate, than not to pray at all. However he also says that God answers our prayers in their "perfected" form. With that I may have a problem.

Anyway, I suppose the next move, assuming what you say is right, is to head off the charge of the Open Theists.

WTM said...

The next question, and one that has bearin gon the question of Open Theism, is this: Does God "change" in the sense of a modification to God's intentions arrising and incorporated within the flow of time, or is this one way of speaking of how God in the beginning order God's entirely comprehensive plan for the world to include that which God knew God's creatures would pursue and engage of their own free agency?

A further question is how to parse freedom in the Christian sense, and for that a good place it start is over at The Fire and the Rose.

Ray Anderson said...

Ben: A systematic theologian wonders of prayer changes God; a pratical theologian wonders if God changes things around down here in response to prayer? I have no problem with thinking of God as free to interact (Barth); I have more problem with the fact that most prayers aren't answered with respect to healing cancer, protecting children from sexual predators, or even preventing it from raining for the church picnic. What I don't understand is why some prayers do seem to be answered!

dan said...

Two ideas:

(1) The trajectory of Jacques Ellul's thinking leads us to view this topic from a completely different angle (cf. Hope in Time of Abandonment). Prayer doesn't change God, it ensures that God stays the same! That is to say, according to Ellul, it is prayer that prevents God from changing. Thus, in places of godforsakenness, marked by divine silence and divine inactivity, Ellul argues that it is prayer that forces God to be present, to speak and to act -- precisely because God is the God who is present, who speaks, and who acts. Prayer prevents God from changing and becoming like an idol that remains silent and does nothing. From Ellul's perspective prayer is the sort of "blasphemy" that refuses God the right to change into a silent inactive God of stone. I have never had trouble asserting a change-able God over against the notion of an immutable (Platonic) God, but I find Ellul's position to be somewhat intriguing.

(2) Tom Wright, following Ro 8, argues that prayer is actually participation within a conversation that is already taking place within God. Through prayer we participate in the groanings the Spirit directs to the Father aided by the intercession of the Son. Furthermore, through this dialogue between the Spirit, Father and Son, God is making all things new. Therefore, in prayer we participate in the change that overflows from God into the world. In this sense it could be said that prayer changes God in the same way that the incarnation and the outpouring of the eschatological Spirit changed God.

Thoughts on either of these perspectives?

kim fabricius said...

Hi WTM and Dan.

The essential problem with Open Theism - as with all "heresies" - is that (a) it tries to tell God, in advance, on the basis of an (often) undeclared metaphysic or undisclosed ideology, what God can and cannot do instead of waiting and courteously allowing God himself to disclose his hand ("Don't think, look!" exclaimed Wittgenstein); and (b) it lacks what Keats called "negative capability", i.e., unable to live with tension and paradox, it rushes to premature theological closure.

So I think both these statements are true:

1. "It is a logical absurdity simultaneously to assert that God is the source of all that is and that God can 'become' something more or other than he previously was" (David Bentley Hart, following Athanasius). Thus, in defence of the divine apatheia: "the experience of the cross does not alter or 'improve' or 'add' to the infinite God: he did not need to learn to love us, and suffering and death are . . . not 'new realities' of which God needs to be 'apprised'." In other words, the cross - or creation - or prayer - does not change God. (Part of the problem, Hart suggests - a point also often made by Rowan Williams - is that "it is difficult for us to avoid imagining God in terms of finite psychological subjectivity, and so thinking of him as someone who 'experiences' a reality set over against him, and who therefore knows things by way of contrast and limits", i.e. it is difficult to avoid thinking of God as having a psyche like ours only huger.) Hart has a go at Eberhard Jüngel on the issue of the divine apatheia, but I think his reading of Jüngel lacks exegetical charity. I think Jüngel's theology of "God's Being-in-Becoming" is not as antithetical to Hart's immutable deity as he alleges.

2. "God is not free and immutable in the sense that He is the prisoner of His own resolve and will and action . . . He is free and immutable as the living God, as the God who wills to converse with his creatures, and to allow Himself to be determined by it in this relationship" (Barth). Robert Ellis, in Answering God: Towards a Theology of Intercession (2005), comments: "'God is certainly immutable,' says Barth, but immutable in taking the side of his creatures, through his grace and mercy. 'The glory of His omnipotence and sovereignty consists in the fact that He can give to the request of this creature a place in His will.' In this way Barth is able to suggest, with great daring, that God allows humanity to 'participate in His omnipotence and work.'" Which takes us to the Trinity, not only to whom prayer is offered but in whom prayer is the modus vivendi.

Does this advance the conversation? - from which I will now more or less bow out as my holidays start, as I will need Her-Who-Is-To-Be-Obeyed's permission to go to the PC!

Bryan L said...

Kim,
You said,
"The essential problem with Open Theism - as with all "heresies" - is that (a) it tries to tell God, in advance, on the basis of an (often) undeclared metaphysic or undisclosed ideology, what God can and cannot do instead of waiting and courteously allowing God himself to disclose his hand ("Don't think, look!" exclaimed Wittgenstein); and (b) it lacks what Keats called "negative capability", i.e., unable to live with tension and paradox, it rushes to premature theological closure."

Can you translate that and flesh it out a little more. Give us some examples to show what you're saying the problem with open theism is. It sounded interesting I just got a little lost there.
Thanks

kim fabricius said...

Hi Bryan I.

I suspect that Open Theism - which says some good and important things, mind - is more bound to process thought than to the totus deus revealed in the scriptures. It is very good with the divine pathos, with a God who cares and suffers and dies, not so good with the divine power a God who raises the dead (granting that how we understand divine "power" is ever in need of radical re-appraisal - as Matthew 4:1-11 reminds us). And the future of the OT's God - well, I'm glad it's not all done and dusted, but it seems somehow eschatologically insecure, quite unlike the eschatology of the Bible. One feels that the God of OT, for all his merits - that he doesn't have a safe pair of hands.

"Negative capability" is required to keep the tension between the impassible suffers and the impassible suffers.

Bryan L said...

Kim,
You said,
"not so good with the divine power a God who raises the dead..."
I'm a little confused. Are you saying open theism denies that God has the power to raise the dead? Maybe I misunderstood this. If so who said this and what does this have to do with open theism?

Also you said,
"but it seems somehow eschatologically insecure, quite unlike the eschatology of the Bible."
Also this isn't one of the implications I'd seen about open theisms. From what I've read from Boyd, the future is settled eschatalogically. The time may not be settled but the outcome is. Open theist usually say that the future isn't completely open just partially and things like God's purpose and grand scheme are some of the things settled and not open.

Anyway hopefully you can elaborate on some of those things. Thanks

Ben Myers said...

In spite of its claims to be daring and radical, the underlying metaphysics of open theism is remarkably unimaginative. The whole open theist system seems to presuppose a naive and antiquated conception of the divine being and attributes, along with a rather crude model of history and temporality, as well as a fairly primitive (and literalist) biblical hermeneutic.

Open theism makes good sense if you approach it via the categories of 17th-century Arminian theological discourse -- but if you approach it via the categories of modern theological thought and biblical scholarship, it simply seems rather childish and naive.

In any case, it's helpful to remember that when we talk about prayer "changing" God, we're thinking in relational categories (not in the categories of a substance-metaphysics). Prayer "changes" God in the way that one person changes another through conversation and petition.

Thus the simple, surprising force of Jesus' parable: just as a man changes his neighbour by pounding relentlessly on the door in the middle of the night, so prayer changes God!

Bryan L said...

Ben,
You said,
"The whole open theist system seems to presuppose a naive and antiquated conception of the divine being and attributes, along with a rather crude model of history and temporality, as well as a fairly primitive (and literalist) biblical hermeneutic."
Huh? What does that mean and what does it look like for those of us who don't know?

You said,
"Open theism makes good sense if you approach it via the categories of 17th-century Arminian theological discourse -- but if you approach it via the categories of modern theological thought and biblical scholarship, it simply seems rather childish and naive."
Again I think I'm a little lost. Could you elaborate a little for those of us who aren't aware of what the "categories of 17th-century Arminian theological discourse" are and what the difference is between them and "modern theological thought and biblical scholarship"? I'd be interested how they are "childish and naive" in light of that.
Thanks Ben.

byron said...

Thanks Bryan for askig the questions most of us are probably thinking but feeling too intimidated to ask! :-)

And thanks Ben and Kim for continuing to explain yourselves! :-)

Ben Myers said...

Hi Bryan -- thanks for your query. Sorry if my rather opinionated comment sounded too polemical -- I certainly mean no offence to anyone who admires open theism!

Perhaps a couple of clarifications will help to explain what I mean:

(1) Hermeneutics: The whole North American open theism debate seems to me to rest on a pre-critical literalist hermeneutic. For example, OT proof-texts are assembled to show that God responds to prayer; and this is put forward as theological evidence -- as though any serious theological position can rest on a mere collection of proof-texts! Of course, the opponents of open theism are often just as bad: they accept the same crude hermeneutic, but simply disagree about which proof-texts should be assembled and how they should be interpreted.

(2) Doctrine of God: Most major modern theologians would agree with open theism's critique of "classical theism" (e.g. the ideas of divine impassibility and divine timelessness). But open theism responds to classical theism merely by developing a different doctrine of God which still rests on the same basic essentialist assumptions as classical theism -- for open theists, God still seems to have an abstractly-posited "essence" which stands over against God's life and act. And so open theism is really just a variation on a pre-modern, pre-Barthian metaphysical doctrine of God. (Bruce McCormack argued this point in detail in his excellent paper at the 2005 Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference.)

Although this is a hasty summary, I hope it helps to clarify my earlier comment. And I hope it explains why, for me, open theism is fundamentally an uninteresting theological position -- it shows little awareness of the radical ways in which the doctrine of God has developed since the 17th century, and little awareness of the profound ways in which 20th-century theologians have already critiqued and revised the metaphysics of "classical theism".

Personally, then, I don't think open theism really deserves the kind of intensive debate that it has generated -- and I suspect it is no accident that this debate has taken place precisely on the soil of conservative American evangelicalism (which can also tend to be hermeneutically pre-critical and theologically pre-Barthian!).

dan said...

Kim,

It's rather unfortunate that you seem to include my comment in your critique of open theism. However, your response does allow me to clarify that I am in no way interested in being associated with open theism. As Ben suggests, it is possible to critique "classical theism" without then becoming an "open theist."

Ben,

I think that your comment about thinking through prayer in relational categories fits well with the perspective Wright takes from Ro 8, and I think your reference to the parable of the relentless neighbour fits well with Ellul's perspective.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Dan -- yes, thanks for adding Ellul's voice to the discussion. I haven't read Hope in Time of Abandonment, but I'll have to get a copy -- this view of the relationship between God and prayer sounds fascinating.

kim fabricius said...

Dan,

Sorry if you took my response to imply that you yourself are an Open Theist; that wasn't my intention. It was your reference to the incarnation indicating a change in God that allured my comments.

Brian I,

Of course OT does not deny God's power to raise the dead and to secure the eschatological future, but I am not sure that it actually follows from their premises, from picture of God they have painted, which, again, following Ben, relies on a suspect metaphysic.

Bryan L said...

Thanks Ben and Kim,
A few more questions if you don't mind.

Ben you said,
"it shows little awareness of the radical ways in which the doctrine of God has developed since the 17th century, and little awareness of the profound ways in which 20th-century theologians have already critiqued and revised the metaphysics of "classical theism"."
Do you have any suggested reading so that I can get caught up on this change that I wasn't aware of?

Ben and Kim,
Also since open theism seems to be about whether the future is partially open or not and whether God experiences it and knows it as open, do you think it is or isn't and whether God experiences it as such? Do you believe God can change his mind or not? Do you think that God can change his plans from now and then without changing his overall plan?

Oh yeah and Ben if you have time one more question. You said,
"The whole North American open theism debate seems to me to rest on a pre-critical literalist hermeneutic. For example, OT proof-texts are assembled to show that God responds to prayer; and this is put forward as theological evidence -- as though any serious theological position can rest on a mere collection of proof-texts!"
Do you have any suggested reading in terms of what a better hermeneutic would be? Any books that explain and guide in the type of hermeneutics you are advocating.
I'm not one who goes for proof-texting but at the same time when developing a view as to whether God responds to prayer or not what other choice do we have than to look for places in the Bible that have to do with God and prayer and then assembling them all together and working out what they mean and whether God does or doesn’t answer prayer? Is there a better way forward? And when developing any particular theological position do we ever really move beyond proof-texting. Even from people who rail against proof-texting (like me) when they are caught in a debate or disagreement you'll see scripture references thrown out like they'll solve the disagreement. Sometimes it just seems we'll never really get past proof-texting even if we can't stand it ourselves. Anyway your thoughts on this would be appreciated.

Thanks for your help.
Bryan

kim fabricius said...

Hi Bryan I.

Thanks for your persistence! It could even make one change one's re-thinking mind. Rather like the guy knocking on his neighbour's door at midnight to get a sandwich for a late-arrival (Luke 11:5-8) (mentioned by Ben above)!

Which parable suggests, of course, that God can indeed change his mind. I do not dispute that. Indeed (in my first post way above) I insist on it. Only idols are prisoners of their own decisions.

Karl Barth - who would be no friend of Open Theism - might be helpful here. Barth goes so far as to claim that God is "conditioned " by prayer, indeed God is "determined" by his creatures - something you wouldn't hear from an unreconstructed Calvinist!. However some Open Theists suggest that God's change of mind results from his being surprised by something he didn't expect. Barth's God can change his mind - but he cannot be blind-sided. Again, some Open Theists suggest that God can even make mistakes, which is inconceivable for Barth's God. I think Barth would support a distinction between God being responsive without being reactive. God is always in control. I take a correctly understood doctrine of the divine impassibility to be making precisly this point. Even in reply, the initiative is always God's.

Again, I think a good deal of the problem lies not with anthropomorphic imagery as such, but with a naive undestanding of this imagery that supposes that God has a psychology like ours only bigger, as if humans share the same space as God and indeed compete with him for it, so that freedom becomes a zero-sum game - the more I have, the less God has (and vice-versa). Thus Rowan Williams, to make the point starkly, says that God is "not an individual" - by which is not to abandon personal terms in our God-talk, but to insist that God is not an individual like us.

The problem, really, is one of modern theology's own making. Following Martin Buber I-Thou paradigm, we have over-colonised our thinking with the language of encounter. Trinitarian doctrine is thus marginalised - and with it the notion of participation - and so too is Christology - and with it the fact that prayer is always "through Jesus Christ our Lord".

Forgive me if I am explaing the obscure by the more obscure, but I trust that some readers will understand what I'm driving at in my own ham-fisted way. There is nothing like the subject of prayer to evidence what Barth called the "brokenness" of all theological language.

Bryan L said...

Thanks Kim,
I'm seeing a little better what you and Ben mean by the way Open Theists talk about God metaphysically.
One the biggest criticisms I've seen raised against Open Theist is how they interpret the Bible. Many Open Theist critics say that when the Bible speaks about God repenting, being surprised, regretting decisions that these are anthropomorphisms that Open Theist are interpreting too literally when the should be interpreting them metaphorically. But I’ve seen Boyd raise a couple of points/questions regarding these criticism and I haven't seen a good response to them yet so maybe you can help me with these 2 questions.

1.Anthropomorphisms intend to communicate something about God, such as when you speak about his arm you're talking about his strength, and we don't believe God actually has physical ears or a physical nose and so on but these intend to communicate things like how he hears us and how something is either pleasing or displeasing to him by speaking of it’s scent in his nose. But then if passages about God repenting, changing his mind, being surprised or even having something not turn out the way he wanted are supposed to be treated as anthropomorphism then what is the deeper truth about God that we are supposed to come away with? Since metaphors are pictures we use to communicate a deeper truth what is the deeper truth that is supposed to be communicated about God through these supposed anthropomorphisms? And kind of related to that is do we stop there or do we speak about God's emotions the same way, like love and anger and so on, as anthropomorphisms?

2. Did the people who wrote the Bible and spoke of God changing his mind, being surprised or even regretting a decision believe that God was really doing that? And if they did and God was fine having his attributes and nature communicated in that way and having his followers believe that about him, then who are we to say that it's wrong or we must believe something else because obviously we no better thousands of years later that God is really not like that. If God was fine with people believing that about him then who are we to say it’s wrong?

Anyway those are just some of the questions I've seen put forth by Open Theist like Boyd that I think are good questions and haven't been given good answers. So I was hoping maybe you or Ben might have some good answers for those.
Thanks I appreciate y'all dealing with my persistent questioning and not just blowing them off. I hope to learn some new stuff and be directed into some new paths in my learning that I was unaware of before.
Bryan

Jackson said...

I can't help but think of the book of Jonah when I consider God's ability to change his mind. When the Ninevites cried out to God, he "relented" (aka - "repented"). God was going to destroy them, but He changed his mind. To say that God knew all along that He was going to let them live only cheapens the impact of the story (at least that's my opinion).

On another note, you have really sparked my interet in Barth. I'm saving my pennies until I can buy a few volumes of the Church Dogmatics. Where should I start?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Jackson: where to start with Barth's Church Dogmatics? Well, first of all, I wouldn't start with I/1. I usually advise people to start at the end, with Vol. IV, and then work back through the earlier volumes.

One of the best ways to start is with the little fragment on baptism (IV/4) -- it's short, the argument is easy to follow, and Barth is writing in his fully-developed style of theological narrative (where theological exposition and biblical exegesis become almost inseparable). Many of Barth's deepest concerns and commitments are brought out in this little volume.

After IV/4, it's probably best to go back to IV/1 and IV/2 -- probably the most beautiful and most powerful volumes of the whole CD. From there, you'd be ready to take up any other volume.

Anyway, I hope that's helpful -- and good luck with this new (ad)venture!

D.W. Congdon said...

For what it's worth, I agree with starting at the end, but I would not wait on IV/4 until the very end. It is the one volume that I think displays some of Barth's least convincing theology (second only to his discussion of male-female roles). If theologians as great as Webster and Hunsinger think Barth was quite wrong in IV/4, then it probably is not wise to start there and get the impression that this is his best work ... because it isn't. But IV/1 and IV/2 are superb. In my opinion, the best two volumes of theology ever written.

D.W. Congdon said...

Oops, I WOULD wait on IV/4 until the end.

Shane said...

I don't think this [the original post] is a very convincing argument. Ben has said that he isn't an open theist because open theists rely on a pre-critical proof-texting approach to scripture, but then he turns around and says (more or less) that God can change his mind because the Bible says God changes his mind. On Ben's logic, God must also have a hand (i.e. that fleshy thing at the end of your arm). Now, I certainly don't think there is anything-- naive or pre-critical on the one hand, or "scholastic" and "platonizing" on the other--about saying that these are figurative expressions which are literally inaccurate since God doesn't have a body. Rather, Scripture speaks to us about God on the basis of human analogies. Likewise, God does not really 'change his mind' like humans do, even though perhaps it appears that way to us, because God does not exist in time.

If you say that God does exist in time, a la Hegel, you have bigger problems than whether God changes his mind or not.

Anonymous said...

Scripture does seem to speak on occasion of God as corporeal (and some early christians and their Jewish contemporaries certainly thought so).

Timot said...

"We’ll always get into trouble if we start out with a prior concept of what the “divine nature” must be like (e.g. that God must be transcendent, or immutable) and then try to understand prayer. Instead, as Gerhard Ebeling has pointed out, we should start with the reality of prayer, and we should allow prayer itself to determine the way we think about who God is and what he is like."

-This line just simply does not add up. To pray to God without considering the very God you are praying to is illogical. God shows His nature on many occasions throughout scripture, and if you ignore the character God, you may as well be praying to a character-less idol.

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