Any reasonable examination of “intercessory” prayer admits of two explanations: either we are seeking to bend God’s will to ours — or seeking to change the mind of God — or we are merely aligning ourselves with God’s will in the act of communing with God.
John Goldingay, in his new book Key Questions about Christian Faith: Old Testament Answers, is not afraid of what the Bible says about intercessory prayers and seeks to construct a theory of intercession on the basis of what the Bible says — not on the basis of theories about God like his immutability or impassibility or omniscience.
How real is intercession with God for you? How do you explain what we do? Do we change God’s mind? Or are we changed toward the mind of God (alone)?
A paradigmatic text for Goldingay is Genesis 18:17-33, which I have provided in full after the jump. However you explain intercessory prayer, this prayer by Abraham is a non-negotiable.
“God created us as God-like and commissioned us to share in God’s work in the world. The Abraham story suggest that intercession is one of the ways in which human beings do that” (183).
Furthermore, “Human words can have the power and effectiveness of God’s own words.”
His study includes the intercessory work of the prophet, and I have tended to see priests and prophets on opposite ends of the cycle: God speak to us through prophets and we speak to God through priests, but prophets were also intercessors. Samuel (1 Sam 12:19, 23), Amos 7, Moses in Exod 32-34, Ezekiel’s famous “stand in the breach” in Ezek 22:30 … and Goldingay sees God appointing people to trouble God.
Here’s his big conclusion:
“If God invites human beings … to take a share in the making of decisions concerning what happens in the world, this implies a markedly different understanding of God and of God’s relationship with the world from the one implicit in much Christian theology and piety” (185).
His proposal is that God is not only King and Father, but also “rector” who participates in collaboration with humans. I would say Goldingay sees God as semi-sovereign; God has ultimate aims and our prayers are part of finding alignment with God’s aims. But these “discussions are real and issue in real change” (186).
One more point: he sees Christ’s intercession to be objective and the Spirit’s role to be subjective. It’s not that simple in his sketch, but these are two big ideas.
17 Then the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.[a] 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
20 Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”
22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD.[b] 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare[c] the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
26 The LORD said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”
“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”
29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”
He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”
30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”
He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”
He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”
32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”
He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
33 When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.