Answered prayer and creation

This is not a new discussion so much as a closer focus on one that I’ve raised a couple of times before, in thinking about the issue of whether God would be “expected” to be active in the natural world, including the process of evolution. To certain kinds of theistic evolutionist, God is definitely not expected to act in nature apart from by sustaining laws he has established, perhaps even very fine tuned laws with emergent properties. This is because of the theology of autonomy, in which nature “ought” to be free to create itself. Of course, the more fine tuning you have, the less like autonomy it looks and the more like computation, but we’ll leave that consideration aside here. Such TEs weigh in with arguments from natural evil and so on to support their presupposition, so it’s not just a question of “wait and see what the science shows.” There’s a prior commitment there, which since it cannot be adjudicated by the science can only be appraised as theology and philosophy, whence it arose anyway.

At the same time, many of the same Evangelical TEs will accept the likelihood and divine “propriety” of the biblical miracles, especially Christ’s resurrection, and also (in very many cases, it seems), the value of prayer in the life of the believer, and it’s this last point I want to address here.

I’m told that one common theory of prayer in the old theological liberalism was that it is no more or less that an example of the radical divide between subjective (but personally valuable) faith and objective reality. The Christian prays, and interprets the sequelae as God’s activity, though in fact it is just the ongoing business of undirected nature, plus wishful thinking. The Christian deludes himself factually, but faith is worthwhile independent of any grounding in harsh reality, so it’s OK. This form of religious non-realism reminds me a bit of the quantum QBism that pngarrison pointed us to in a recent post. As it takes a certain kind of mental gymnastics to embrace it I certainly doubt it’s what the TEs to whom I allude have in mind.

There’s a saying in Reformed circles that prayer does not change God, but it changes us. Now there is deep truth in that in at least some instances. The prayer of Jesus in the garden was that the cup of his passion and sinbearing might pass from him if it were possible for God. God did not, however, change his plan, but in submitting to God’s will Jesus was strengthened in his courage, conviction and commitment. That kind of prayer should be our experience too, and is an important part of our whole approach to prayer as the means of our acceptance of our dependence on God in all things.

Perhaps though on some lips the adage is used with some additional agenda. That might be, for example, to safeguard the immutability of God, in the light especially of some Charismatic and Open Theism claims that prayer actually does change God’s mind – almost, it seems, as a duty on the part of God if sufficient faith is exercised. If you ask in faith, God is duty-bound to change his mind and do things your way. The latter theology is execrable, but theologians have always held that for God to change circumstances does not mean any necessary change in him, so any restriction of prayer to our attitude alone is unwarranted.

One use of the saying I’ve heard more commonly comes from the thinking of cessationists, those who believe that miracles were the signs for very special biblical times, and especially the ministry of Christ and the founding of the Church. Such miracles, they say, passed away with the apostles. The majority of the Magisterial Reformers held to  some kind of cessationism, largely I suspect in reaction to exaggerated Catholic claims of miracles used to support praying to saints and the Virgin Mary.

But additionally we can easily forget nowadays that later Humean skepticism  so affected even the Evangelical Church that in my youth the biblical miracles themselves were more often explained away than believed, and cessationism was of a piece with the “modern” view. You would, in many circles, be discouraged from praying for healing, the weather, or other “miracles.” Nowadays, since the Charismatic Renewal brought spiritual gifts and signs centre stage, it is actually quiote novel that the possibility of modern miracles is no longer seen in the churches as superstitious (unlike biblical ethics and scriptural infallibility, for example, which are so last century).

The Enlightenment connection is most clearly seen, though, in the fact that the only categories these practical cessationists had to work with were those of “natural” and “miraculous.” And that, at least, is still very prominent in current TE thought. Miracles belong to salvation, and so were appropriate in biblical times, and maybe under certain circumstances still are today. But because they are interventions against the normal course of nature, they would be inappropriate within nature. And they must therefore be pretty rare now.

I remember one instance when my cessationist medical partner referred a Christian (Pentecostal) friend of mine to the gynaecologist for some as yet undiagnosed but painful condition. The friend, at a church meeting, was prayed for and felt immediately better. Next day she told her non-Christian friend at the school gate, which led to a conversation that resulted in the friend deciding to attend church. A good result all round, I thought when I heard about it. When I told my partner, though, she replied, “I don’t call that a miracle.” I’m not sure I did, even back then, and it certainly wasn’t a well-documented miracle. But it was, in point of fact, an answered prayer. Nowadays I’d classify it under God’s special providence, and using the concurrentist framework, in no sense a divine intervention at all, but an instance of how God is always at work within in all events, but in some cases more obviously than others.

The New Testament is soaked in the business of prayer, but contains remarkably little systematic teaching on it. This is partly because, like creation doctrine, prayer is “basic” theology covered thoroughly in the Old Testament. But it’s also such basic theology that even pagans coming to Christ had a fair idea of what it was about in practice. It was a universal of the ancient world, as studies show it to be of the modern, even amongst those calling themselves unbelievers.

Excavate votive offerings from any classical temple and there are prayers for healing, for fertility, for good harvests, prayers for friends, relatives or oneself to prosper in love, business or politics (and equally prayers for the opposite fortunes for enemies, undetected criminals and so on). This much at least (bar the curses) was common ground held with both Jewish and Christian prayer.

Much of what is said about prayer in the New Testament is to do with the furtherance of the gospel, simply because that is the subject matter. Some is simply assurance that the writer is praying for the readers, or requests that they pray for him, not stipulating what is actually being requested.

But despite the lack of a detailed prayer manual, certain presuppositions shine through. There are many admonitions to pray about anything and everything, and conversely no blanket suggestions about any classes of things to avoid as being off-limits. In the Lord’s prayer the totality of our personal need is covered by “Give us this day our daily bread,” and it is worth reflecting about what God needs to do to answer such a prayer for any particular situation – a missionary in a hostile country, a prisoner in a mediaeval jail, a western academic on his way to the shopping mall… unless we give house-room to the liberal “wishful thinking” view of prayer, we are acknowledging at least that our daily food is secured by God’s hand, and are in many instances asking for specific physical providence in difficult situations.

Jesus also taught about moving mountains by prayer – which undoubtedly has an element of hyperbole about it. But the context in which he says it is his cursing of a very physical fig tree with a very physical result. Moving mountains may be a rare exigency, but we should certainly, according to Jesus himself, expect God to move molecules in sizeable numbers in response to our prayers.

James famously teaches us to pray for healing, or forgiveness, or both. Paul asks for prayer that he will receive a good hearing in his preaching, or that his service to the Jerusalem saints may be acceptable to them (what must God do to answer such prayers? It cannot be done unless he is either messing miraculously with people’s minds, or if he is always working concurrently and by grace in their hearts.) Paul also prays that he will be able to preach the gospel before Caesar – and the book of Acts tells us just how many events, human and natural, it took for that to happen – which we must surely treat as the answer Paul’s prayer received. Come to that, we are to pray for Caesar and other rulers, in order that their people (including us) may have peace. Now, it only requires us to think in what ways rulers tend to get into trouble to know what answering such prayer necessarily entails on the part of God.

The bottom line of this is that the New Testament really recognises no separate categories of “natural” and “spiritual” with regard to prayer. Everything we might ask is within God’s gift, because it is in God’s world, whether it be recovery from (natural) disease, calming of (natural) storms or simply their absence on a voyage, or the timing of wars (not a natural event) as when Jesus tells the disciples to pray that their flight from the future fall of Jerusalem may not be in winter or on a Sabbath (just think of the specificity and scope of that prayer for a moment: “Lord, I know the Romans are going to break through, but please avoid Saturday”).

Now, as any pastor will tell you, our heavenly Father does not answer all our prayers as we would wish. But that is manifestly not because areas of activity are excluded for him, nor because he has used up his quota of miracles for the year. He works all things according to his purposes, and that might include using a tempest and a shipwreck rather than a magic carpet to get Paul to Rome, and it might include the prisoner dying under torture rather than getting an angelic rescuer as Peter did.

If that providence in prayer means anything worth knowing, it includes providence over nature. To pray for God to bless a journey means to assume that God already influences all the factors that determine that journey, and not just that he diverts freak lightning strikes or wrests the wheel from careless truck drivers miraculously, but otherwise does nothing. One cannot imagine God saying “Don’t thank me for a safe journey – it was all going smoothly on its own anyway.”

What prayer implies is that God controls the world as a king rules a country; a king who, in response to the petitions of loyal subjects, may vary the nature of his rule to provide for them. The king who judges the plea of a poor widow simply prioritises her case – he would be busy judging other disputes anyway. It’s not that he only rules when asked for favours. The scope of prayer implies that God’s involvement routinely involves the decisions of people (such as those Paul prays will accept his message), but also necessarily the natural world, from which comes the daily bread for which Christ commanded us to pray.

That being the case, it is incumbent on the TE who prefers to think of God as not being directly involved in evolution is to provide some rational theological basis on which to do make it an exception. What makes the natural world that God governs and directs providentially now, and especially in interaction with the prayers of his people, different from the natural world of the past, in which he is not (they say) thus providentially involved? The world is just as natural with people in it as without. Nothing in theology leads us to suppose that God altered his way of running the universe as soon as mankind arrived on the scene: mankind is, after all, an integral part of God’s universe.;

The only significant difference I can think of is that God is said to be creating through evolution, whereas day by day he is governing an already-created world. So free-process theology implies that God is less active in creation than he is in maintaining the creation? That scarcely makes sense, apart from being a reversal of the Scriptural description of creation as the sign of God’s personal power and wisdom par excellence.

Why should the God of prayer be different from the God of creation? I don’t think he is.

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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4 Responses to Answered prayer and creation

  1. You say that, ‘using the concurrentist framework’, the lady’s healing was ‘in no sense a divine intervention at all’.
    Is it not an intervention at least in the sense of how we describe our perception of God operation? The Scriptures encourage us to believe that God both is intimately involved in all of the details of our lives and also intervenes in response to prayer, and our perception is that He does intervene, regardless of the underlying providential framework.

    You start your blog on concurrentism with the words, ‘more by chance than intention I’ve been examining some classical philosophical ideas’. You might have started it by saying, ‘I see that God ordained that I would be examining ….’. But your perception is that it occurred by chance, and that’s a fair description.
    In our theologising we can and should stay in touch with how we experience life and the colloquial use of words.

    • Jon Garvey says:


      Fair points. Our daily experience is the first port of call in real relationship both with the world and with God.

      But concurrentism doesn’t say that “chance” is an illusory category, but only that it is covered by God’s providence (read Aquinas on this). So the Scripture says of the man who accidently kills someone that “God delivered him into his hand.” Both are true, but the Bible encourages us to see behind the experienced accidental to the divine underpinning. But it’s not the same as reducing all categories of event to divine diktat: it was not that chance was “really” God, but that God is working in “chance”.

      It’s not that I didn’t make a certain choice, but God determined it instead, but that my choice is somehow intertwined with God’s providence. In fact, colloquially, both “extremes” are legitimate theologically – when Jesus tells his disciples “you did not choose me, but I chose you” he is emphasising his divine sovereignty and grace, not actually denying their volition in the matter.

      That’s why I put the stress on “intervention” in your first quote. As experienced, my friend was headed towards a surgical operation, maybe, was prayed for, and that situation was changed. It’s legitimate in that sense to say God acted, because he did. But behind it, God was just as involved before the prayer as after – he changes the circumstances, but not by becoming involved for the first time.

      However, the defenders of free process theology see “intervention” as God’s interference with a status quo doing quite well without him – or at least, with its bare exitence sustained by God. “Intervention” is a pejorative based on an absentee idea of God’s activity (and one, remeber, that the historic Church consistently rejected as inadequate).

  2. Edward Robinson says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful column, Jon. I will look back at it from time to time, as I try to appropriate it on both intellectual and personal levels.

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