What happens when we pray? Does it move God, who classically has been seen to be immutable and impassible? In the previous post, describing classical theism’s response, we explored how the categories of classical theism require us to also hold to a strong sense of God’s sovereignty, ordaining even the means (prayer) of the ends he seeks to accomplish. That move, however, raises the serious problem of evil because of this strong sense of sovereignty. In light of this new problem and question, free will theists attempt to counter the problem of evil with a solution of their own.
Recall what we said about classical theism (CT) in the last post. To make prayer meaningful in the face of a strongly sovereign God, classical theists refused to weaken the sense of sovereignty, claiming that prayer was also part of the divine order as the way he would accomplish his divine will. CT then holds that prayer has more to do with changing us and involving us in the divine economy (ordering of the world). CT does not shy away from the logical implication then that even the evil that takes place in this world is under the divine, sovereign control (hence responsibility) of God.
In response to that horrific reality, free will theists (FWT) step up to rearrange the deck chairs to prevent the ship from sinking. Free will theists, of which Arminianism is included, believe that humans were created with a radically libertarian free will. God in his freedom chose to make a world in which his sovereignty was redefined or limited to accommodate creation. For the relationship between the divine and humanity to be authentic it had to be freely chosen by both parties. After all isn’t love a choice? As such, we were created totally free, and only after the Fall was that freedom limited. But in Christ, our freedom is restored, according to FWT. The evil in this world is then no longer God’s direct responsibility. It is human choosing and willing that is the problem.
So what does this account of the God-World relation look like in terms of prayer? FWT believe that God is still immutable, but he is only immutable in his essence, being or the stuff that makes him God. In other words, he will never cease being God because that is WHAT he is, but he can change in response to human choices. His relationship with humanity is dynamic while remaining unchanged in WHAT he is.
He is also impassible in a redefined way. God feels and emotes when we suffer, celebrate or pray, but he is not surprised, overwhelmed or penetrated in his being with emotion. His engagement with us is authentic relationship, but he does not suffer the way humans do. So a majority of FWT still hold to the classic categories for WHAT God is (immutable, impassible, etc.), but they slightly redefine them to fit their presupposition regarding radical, libertarian freedom for human beings.
So what happens when we pray? God moves. He is sovereign, and he has a plan. However, he does not determine exactly what and how all things will take place in the divine economy. Think of God as a master’s master of chess, and think of humans as being cognitively developed to the age of two. How do you think that chess game would go? Is God in control? Yes. Is humanity playing a real game with real choices? Yes. Is the outcome in doubt? Nope.
While sovereignty for the CT means God must have ordained every move of the chess game, the FWT holds that God’s sovereignty only means he ordained the outcome of the game and that he merely knows about each move that will be made. FWT hold to God’s foreknowledge as the key to understanding his sovereignty, but CT hold to God’s pre-ordaining as the key to understanding sovereignty.
It seems we have a winner. FWT theism with their notion of radical, libertarian free will allows for real relationship, real prayer and avoids the problem of evil. Problems solved. Or are they?
While the tension of the problem of evil appears to be less, it is nevertheless still very real. Let me use an illustration to make my point. According to Illinois law, first degree murder involves what we would typically think of as intentional murder. For example, I am angry at someone for cutting me off in traffic, I get out of my car at the next stop light, and I shot the offending driver, killing them. That’s murder in the first degree.
In Illinois, and many other jurisdictions, there is a second definition of first degree murder. Illinois law states a person is guilty of first degree murder when “they know that such acts create a strong probability of death or great bodily harm to that individual or another.” In other words, if I do something, while not intending to murder someone, that nevertheless does result in their death and there was a strong probability that my actions would cause that death, I have committed first degree murder. For example, if I speed excessively down a residential street and run over a young child, killing them, I will be charged with first degree murder, even though I did not intend to kill a child.
Macabre discussion, I know, but so it the problem of evil. As you might see, CT is like classical first degree murder. Divine sovereignty is such that God’s finger is on the trigger, metaphorically speaking. But in FWT, God’s finger may not be on the trigger but he nevertheless left a loaded gun in a room full of toddlers. I don’t see how FWT does a much better job of escaping the problem of evil. Moreover, if God knows all our choices before we make them and God cannot be wrong then are we truly free in the radical libertarian why that FWT describe?
It may be that one more option should be explored before settling on a model that attempts to answer the question of what happens to God when we pray.