Bilbo, Peter and Paternoster

Blogger “Bilbo” is a veteran of BioLogos, Uncommon Descent and other faith/science sites, as well as a subscriber here on the Hump. He has just posted a short piece on the Lord’s prayer, suggesting it is evidence that God’s will is not done here on earth. The timing and subject suggest he may possibly have picked up the idea from Peter Hickman’s “parting shot” comment to me here, to the same effect.

I don’t want to contradict either of these friends, except in the sense that iron sharpens iron, but they got me thinking about the prayer in general and what it teaches not only about the extent of God’s will, as we were discussing it here recently, but also about the “hands-off” theology of Creation against which I continue to argue on Biologos  (#81269), characteristically to a silent house, so far. It seems the “freedom of nature” theology is vital enough to be repeatedly shouted out as the whole basis of creation, but not vital enough actually to be defended by anyone against biblical criticism. That’s another story, though.

Regarding the Lord’s prayer and “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”, my first observation is that neither phrase necessarily implies the failed ambition of God’s kingdom or of his will. The sense of the Greek in Matthew 6.10 is “Let it come, your kingdom; let it come about, your will, as in heaven also on earth.” So one could equally understand the phrases as the slow, but not necessarily opposed, fruition of God’s plan.

He establishes his kingdom on earth in Christ, and brings it about gradually. As for his will, it could imply God’s final purpose, gradually but inexorably coming to be. We know from the Bible that his will is the uniting of all things together in Christ: that is already so in heaven, and God is working it out here through the gospel.

A second, related, possible understanding is the “philosophical” interpretation we discussed here of distinguishing God’s permissive and prescriptive will. To allow human rebellion on earth might well be part of his overall purpose for the present, actually being necessary to bring about his “will on earth”. Indeed Scripture says as much in passages like Romans 9.22-24; and Jesus, when speaking of deceiving false Messiahs, wars and rumours, famines and earthquakes, says “These things must happen,” the implication being not that God is helpless to prevent them, but that they are determined within his mysterious purpose: “The end is still to come” (Matt 24.4-8). The prayer “Thy will be done on earth”, then, would be that God hasten to fulfil his stated will to defeat evil finally.

But I’m happy to concede the interpretation offered by Bilbo and Peter, that other wills here currently hinder the coming of God’s kingdom and of his will being done on earth. And that’s because there is one other, to me decisive, factor. And that is, that this is a prayer. That is it’s a request, or petition, directed to God (Eph 6.18).

To consider this, let me start with Luke’s short version of the prayer, in ch11.2-4. The reason for this is that Luke follows the prayer immediately with a parable about a man meeting his importunate neighbour’s need because of his boldness: Ask, he says, and it shall be given. So the prayer’s purpose, we find, is to teach us the right way to ask for things that God both wants, and is able, to give. That, rather than some more subtle idea like helping us to interpret life as if there were an active, caring God (the old liberal view) or simply changing ourselves through our prayers (which is an important element of prayer, but merely a deeper level of this particular prayer). We need to learn what God wants, but we only pray for what he can deliver.

Father [in heaven], let your name be hallowed.

“Father” clearly indicates our intimate relationship of family trust in God, but what of “in heaven” (in Matthew and some mss. of Luke)? Surely it’s not to contrast God’s distance with his Fatherhood. Is it not more likely to allude to passages like Ps 115.3: “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him”, as opposed to false gods who can do nothing for us. So unless “Let your name be hallowed,” is just a pious wish, meaning “If only your name were hallowed!” it is a prayer that God himself will glorify his name. This indeed was, according to Deuteronomy, his purpose in calling Israel, and echoes other prayers in the Psalms for God to come down and vindicate his name. Accordingly:

Let your kingdom come

is not an apology that so many people don’t acknowledge God’s kingdom here, but a plea with God to make it come, sooner rather than later. At very least it voices our “Amen” to God’s intention to bring it anyway, as he has promised. Praying according to God’s express promise is good, for his promises never fail, as he expressly assures us.

Let your will be done

is absent from Luke’s prayer, which maybe suggests he considered it parallel and equivalent to the prayer for God’s kingdom. But it too, is a prayer – a prayer for something that God has both the will and the power to do, however we understand the actual meaning of God’s will on earth. So if, pleading with our heavenly Father as the man in Luke’s parable pleads with his neighbour for groceries, we still see rebellion against God in the world, does Jesus mean us to say that God is doing all he can, but can’t get his will to prevail? What good, then, would be our prayers, except to accentuate his failure to be almighty, as he claims to be? Does not Jesus rather mean that the reason our prayer about this seems not yet answered is that God has Fatherly reasons for not yet granting it?

So this is my response to Bilbo’s post: nothing in the Lord’s prayer leads to the conclusion that his will is in any way frustrated. Rather the fact that Jesus makes the doing of God’s will the subject of the prayer he commanded us to pray means that the situation is entirely within his providential power, and amazingly his implementation of his purpose to bring his will on earth is actually affected by the prayers of the saints – and that’s certainly not because we can offer effective help to offset God’s deficiencies!

For reasons of space, I’ll look at the rest of the Lord’s prayer in a separate post.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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19 Responses to Bilbo, Peter and Paternoster

  1. seenoevo says:

    “Let you will be done
    is absent from Luke’s prayer…”

    Yes. And thanks to proper grammar, and attentiveness, it’s also absent from the rest of the Bible.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for pointing out the typo – corrected. The meaning itself, however is accurate, if awkward (though about 4 English translations use it). So of course is “May your will be done”. The same verb appears four times more in the NT, and also in the Septuagint Greek of Genesis 1.3: “Let there be light” (γενηθήτω φῶς).

      For any linguists out there, its a 3rd person singular aorist imperative passive (!), and about the only thing that tells you that the translations don’t is that the aorist imperative “calls for a SPECIFIC, DEFINITE, DECISIVE choice. “DO THIS NOW, AT ONCE, ONCE FOR ALL and in one quick action (in contrast to present imperative which commands a habitual action). Often expresses a note of URGENCY.”

      The passive, “Be it done…”, “May it be done…” etc has the same note of decisiveness, finality and possible urgency. Of course, it might only be typos that interest you…

  2. seenoevo says:


    Perhaps you could ask Bilbo and the folks over on BioLogos how they feel about this:

    It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Obama soon tries to issue an executive order to satisfy these petitioners.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      It’s been mentioned over at Uncommon Descent, I see. Fortunately US petitions don’t affect us much here, and Obama’s only influence is getting GCHQ to spy on us all for the benefit of your security services. Dang – now I’ll go on the monitoring list for suspicious dissent.

      Somebody at UD points out that he can’t really afford to lose the votes of Christians over there who are Creationists, which I take to be a majority even before you add ID sympathisers.

      Anyway, I thought teaching those things in science classes was already illegal over there, so what would change?

      • Bilbo says:

        “…Obama’s only influence is getting GCHQ to spy on us all for the benefit of your security services.”

        Careful, Jon. Next thing you know you’ll become one of those 9/11 Truther Nuts.

  3. I look forward to your next post.
    This prayer is recited on a regular basis in some churches and by some people in their private devotions. Perhaps you might include a comment on whether you think this remains a desirable or necessary practice.
    It was a prayer given to the disciples. It is one thing to say that it is of teaching value (2Tim3.16), another to say that it is an appropriate prayer for today.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Peter

      #2 to follow soon, roofing duties allowing in a rare period of dry weather.

      Your point occurred to me as I was writing. The Lord’s prayer is worthy of study as a pattern for all prayer. But by that token it’s also in itself an ideal prayer that covers what, in many cases, we fail to ask for.

      How many people, for example, in extempore prayer in churches, say, actually pray for God’s Kingdom to come and his will to be done? They’re too busy praying for sick relatives (not that that’s wrong, either).

      So some churches/people pray it by rote without thinking about it, and others fail to use it or model their prayers on it. Both need remedying, it seems to me!

  4. seenoevo says:


    You wrote that the Our Father “is recited on a regular basis in some churches and by some people in their private devotions. Perhaps you [Jon] might include a comment on whether you think this remains a desirable or necessary practice. It was a prayer given to the disciples. It is one thing to say that it is of teaching value (2Tim3.16), another to say that it is an appropriate prayer for today.”

    Can you [or Jon] list any reasons why it would NOT be DESIRABLE and APPROPRIATE for a Christian today to recite a prayer given to his followers by Jesus Christ himself?

    • Seenoeveo,

      Firstly, I’m sure you will understand that not every instruction Jesus gave his disciples applies directly to us. How about everything in Matt 10 for example – ‘heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons’, etc. etc). We need the Spirit’s guidance, and to be able to ‘accurately handle the word of truth’.

      At first sight ‘the disciples’ prayer’ would appear an appropriate one for us to pray. I would point out, however, that Jesus was talking to Jewish believers living under the Old Covenant. Christ had not yet died and the Spirit had not yet been poured out. So what was required of them may not be required of us under the New Covenant.

      Let me give one example: ‘Bring us not into temptation but rescue us from the evil’ (Matt 6.13). Under the Old Covenant God’s ordinary people were limited in what they could do about the powers of evil. They could pray. They depended on God to deliver them.
      Under the New Covenant we have the blood of Jesus (Rev 12.11) and a complete set of weapons including the sword of the Spirit at our disposal (Eph 6.17) to enable us to fight the good fight of faith and to overcome the powers of evil.
      Take a look at what else the epistles teach about this. ‘Submit to God, resist the Devil and he will flee from you’ (James 4.7). And there are other similar scriptures. This has a different flavour from ‘Pray to God and ask him to deliver you’, does it not?

      I could make similar comments about the rest of the disciples’prayer, in relation to the influence that the New Covenant should have on the way we pray.
      Do we need to confess our sins to God every day? Does He want us to be ‘sin conscious’? Are we not already forgiven? Would it not be better rather to believe this and to thank God for our forgiveness?

      What am I saying? Pray the disciples prayer if you want to – but perhaps review whether it should be used as *the* template for prayer.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


        Sounds a bit Dispensationalist to me. Remember that what we have in Matthew and Luke are not interesting contemporary records of Jesus’s developing ministry, but accounts written some years later to win people to Christ and instruct them in the faith. In particular the sermon on the mount, from which the prayer comes, is one of five teaching blocks in Matthew which, in all probability, formed the basis for pre-baptismal catechism.

        To me the Dispensationalist idea that the sermon is not for Christians because it precedes Jesus’s passion takes insufficient account of the fact that it is a “Gospel”, in Greek, written for Christians.

        As for praying for forgiveness, James again seems to be off message in 5.16, John in 1 Jn 1.9 and Hebrews appears to be a chip off Luther’s block too in 12.4-13.

        (Luther’s 1st thesis on the Wittenberg door: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”)

  5. seenoevo says:


    You wrote to me: “Of course, it might only be typos that interest you…”

    I take that to be an attempt at humor.

    For anyone here knows I’m interested in more than typos.

    Most recently, I’m interested in why you haven’t responded at all, let alone substantively, to the solo post on “What’s the point of anything?”

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      “I take that to be an attempt at humor.”

      Well, yes – assuming your post was also such an attempt.

      As to your other point, I was hoping that someone else would reply to your comment on “What’s the point” to say how they could square your “summary” definition of predestination and human will with the Catholic teaching I cited.

      Frankly I can’t, as they seem to contradict it directly, so I haven’t anything to add. Maybe I’m missing the subtlety of your reasoning.

  6. Bilbo says:

    Hi Jon,

    Actually, my post came about from a discussion I had a Deist at Randal Rauser’s blog. It wasn’t about evolution, but it was about human and animal suffering. The Deist found it difficult to believe that God cared about individual human suffering. If He did, then why allow it to happen? I offered a two-part anwer:

    “(1) God does cry every time a child dies of cancer, but allows it to happen for good reasons, that we do not understand. Part of God’s redemption of this obvious evil situation will be raising the child from the dead.

    (2) The New Testament seems to see the Earth as being enemy held territory, which God has invaded and is in the process of winning back; which is why it teaches people to pray that God’s kingdom will come. Obviously there would be no need to pray for it to come if it were already here. While the enemy is in charge, we shouldn’t expect God’s will to be done here as it is in Heaven. We might complain and ask why God allowed the enemy to take over Earth to begin with. And I think that takes us back to (1). But at least we now have slightly more information to go on. Not a complete answer, but at least more information.”

    I realize that you don’t think animal suffering is a bad thing (or have I misunderstood you?). But many of us Christians do think it is, and demonic influence in evolution seems like a live option for us. God wouldn’t allow it unless it conformed to His greater plan. But I wouldn’t say He was happy about it. And when His kingdom does come, I don’t expect there will be anymore eating of animals.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      An interesting coincidence, then, which I’ll take as God’s providence in promoting our discussing the issue … not to prejudge anyone’s conclusions.

      Both your points to the Deist are worthwhile. In the context of the “Why would God allow…” type of discussion, I’d try to be very wary of trying to uncover the “psychology” of God, unless he’s revealed it: that’s based on my conviction that God is not “just like me”.

      So (1) is absolutely in accord with what we know from Scripture of God’s care for the hepless and suffering, and what we equally know of his soverign purposes. We get into trouble when we say, “I don’t see how those fit together. Ergo God either doesn’t care, or is helpless to change things.”

      Incidentally that’s the same kind of tension I want to maintain between God’s sovereignty and our human choices (because it’s the tension Scripture and historical theology maintains).

      (2), I think, needs very careful theology to avoid dualism. Clearly God’s will isn’t “done on earth as it is in heaven” or the request wouldn’t be in the prayer. But the relationship of God to Satan, as well as to human sin, is described biblically in various nuanced ways.

      At one end, Satan in Job is part of God’s “council” and seems to act as an employee under God’s limiting authority. His “job” seems to be to test the saints to refine them, though to him it’s to harm them. There are some hints of that in the New Testament descriptions of Satan’s temptation in relation to God.

      At the other end, Satan is the enemy to be destroyed, the Prince of this world, who seems to have some legitimate warrant for offering Jesus the kingdoms of the world … even when the rest of Scripture clearly says that God appoints whoever he chooses over the nations (see Daniel, Rom 13.1).

      One way I try to resolve it, I think without contradicting Scripture, is that man, as God’s appointed ruler of earth, by sinning and falling into bondage to Satan, thereby gave him the “car keys”.

      To deal with Satan, therefore, man needs to reclaim his rightful authority, and that can only happen by dealing with sin – and Lo, that’s exactly what the second Adam has done, as so graphically described in the letter to the Hebrews. In our age the kingdom is built as God’s people are one-by-one freed from Satan’s bondage.

      When that is complete, Christ can oust the usurper for good.

  7. seenoevo says:


    “I thought teaching THOSE THINGS in science classes was already illegal over there, so what would change?”

    By “those things” I assume you mean Creationism and ID.

    No, I don’t think they are illegal in science classes in the U.S.

    What SHOULD be illegal in the U.S., or anywhere else, is to allow legislation based on FALSEHOODS such as those stated in the petition:
    – “scientists all around the world have found monumental amounts of evidence in favor of the theory, now treated as SCIENTIFIC FACT by 99.9% of all scientists.”
    – “teaching the controversy” is unacceptable and should be forbidden in science classes.
    – “Intelligent Design…[has] no basis in scientific fact…absolutely zero evidence”
    – “… partially to blame for our dangerously low student performances in math and science.”

    Nobody has anything to say about this? Just some jokes about completely unrelated NSA and GCHQ issues?

  8. seenoevo says:


    “Firstly, I’m sure you will understand that not every instruction Jesus gave his disciples applies directly to us. How about everything in Matt 10 for example – ‘heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons’, etc. etc).”

    No, I do not understand that, at least not completely.

    Yes, certain “instructions” are now anachronistic (e.g. Mat 10:10), certain are specific to one individual (e.g. Mat 16:19; Luke 22:31-32)), certain could be seen as a time-limited sign, a sign which is not nearly as important as the truth it represents (e.g. Mat 10:8; Mat 9:5-6). [Although casting out demons is still essential and still performed even today. But only by some, or by one Church: ]

    So, I would disagree with you. In general, I understand that the SUBSTANCE of Jesus instructions to his disciples DO APPLY directly to us.
    “We need the Spirit’s guidance, and to be able to ‘accurately handle the word of truth’.”

    Don’t you mean we need the CHURCH’S guidance, that is, the Spirit’s guidance working THROUGH and/or CONFIRMED BY the Church?

    Peter, do you believe the church of the New Testament (cf. Mat 16:18-19; 1 Tim 3:15) exists today?
    “Christ had not yet died and the Spirit had not yet been poured out. So what was required of them MAY not be required of us under the New Covenant.”

    Are you telling me that you’re content with “MAY”?
    “Do we need to confess our sins to God every day? Does He want us to be ‘sin conscious’? Are we not already forgiven? Would it not be better rather to believe this and to thank God for our forgiveness?”

    Please read again Jon’s response to this, specifically the last 2 paragraphs
    of his 3:54 p.m. post. They are particularly problematic for your view. I think they are also particularly orthodox, traditional, catholic and Catholic. [You might also ponder John 20:23.]

  9. Jon/Seenoevo,

    Thanks for your comments. Can’t respond in detail to them now.

    Just briefly, it is repentance and belief in Jesus that leads to forgiveness, salvation and the knowledge of the truth – not regularly requesting forgiveness from God.
    I reject the idea that our forgiveness depends on our confession keeping pace with our sins. Do you really believe that??
    However, I agree that James teaches that we should confess our sins to one another and pray for one another’s healing.
    I also think that it is good to acknowledge sins, when they occur, to God – He is our Father with whom we have a relationship and it helps us to do so.

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