Follow Up to Musings about Whether the Past Can Be Changed

Follow Up to Musings about Whether the Past Can Be Changed July 26, 2015

Follow Up to Musings about Whether the Past Can Be Changed

The immediately preceding post raised the question whether the past can be changed—even by God (July 24, 2015). Therein I asked specifically whether a prayer can influence the past and, if so, why Christians generally don’t pray for God to change the past and why there are no biblical examples of such.

Many people responded that a prayer prayed today can be taken into account by God, in his perfect foreknowledge, such that he acts in response to it when the event prayed about happens even before the prayer is prayed. This was most often offered as a response to my illustration of my mother and her church friends praying that her lost purse, which she knew was indeed lost and had been found by someone, would have been found by a Christian. (In her/their minds that was their best hope for the purse being returned.) They knew it had already been found by someone. Can praying that a lost purse already found possibly influence what kind of person found it (in the past)?

The answer many gave was yes, it can, because God can foresee, foreknow, the prayer and take it into account and cause the lost purse (for example) to be found by a Christian even before anyone prays for that to happen.

Some responded that this kind of prayer is only appropriate for events not yet known—as to how they turned out. In other words, for them, it makes sense to pray that God would have made it be the case that a Christian found the lost purse, which was found by someone, so long as the pray-ers do not yet know who found the purse. Their point seems to be that once the people praying find out the purse was found by, say, a notorious thief, then praying that it would have been found by a Christian is useless.

These responses made me think; I want to challenge you all to think with me about this. The reason is that if prayer can affect the past, surely we should be praying for that—even if only about events the outcomes of which we do not yet know. For example, suppose a church member (of yours or mine, whatever) is known to have had a biopsy for possible cancer but nobody knows the results yet. Does it make sense to pray that it turn out not to be cancer? It already is or is not cancer. If we pray that God cause it not to be cancer, what exactly are we asking God to do? What are we presupposing about God’s providence if we pray that way? And are there any examples in Scripture of people praying that way or being commanded to pray that way?

My friend John Sanders has argued very strongly, almost convincingly (i.e., I’m still thinking it over), that having simple foreknowledge (comprehensive, absolutely infallible, non—predictive knowledge of the future) gives God no “providential advantage” because in that case God cannot change what he foreknows. Remember, and this is crucial, John is saying that every other kind of divine foreknowledge than open theism (partially predictive of the future insofar as the future is not settled), gives God no providential advantage with regard to changing events, intervening to make something other than he always knew would happen happen.

In “simple foreknowledge” God knows the whole of the future in a way no human knows the future—non-predictively. So, according to John (and I assume other open theists), if you believe that God has always known that a person develops cancer on such-and-such a date, he cannot change that. (Remember, the “knowledge” John is talking about is not probability-knowledge; it is infallible and certain knowledge.) The question that remains is: Can God’s knowing that you or I will pray that it turn out to be the case the person does not have cancer influence whether the person has cancer or not in the past? If so, then God would have always known the person would not have cancer. The key word there is “always.” Focus on it. According to John, it makes no sense to pray for God to change anything he has always known to be the case.

The only theologian I know who wrestled with this profoundly and came up with a logical solution not open theism was Friedrich Schleiermacher. The problem is that his solution amounts to divine determinism. He argued that if a prayer affects what God does, God would have had to build that prayer and his response into the entire fabric of reality “from the beginning” or “from eternity.” And then he drew what he saw as the only logical conclusion: petitionary prayer is itself immature because illogical insofar as people believe God knows the entire scope of history—past, present and future—non-predictively.

So this brings us back to what people are thinking (presupposing—consciously or unconsciously) when they pray for something to turn out to be one thing rather than another thing when they know it is already something and not another thing. (This is why I specifically said in my story about my mother’s purse that she retraced her “steps,” as it were, and discovered the purse had already been found by someone. By the time she and her church friends prayer it was already the case that it had been found by someone. The same is the case with the cancer illustration above. What I am asking is whether it makes sense, whatever view of God’s foreknowledge you hold, to pray that God would cause something to have happened in the past.)

I think one reason why this is so difficult is that it is nearly impossible for us to imagine what God’s knowledge of temporal events is like to him. And so, we generally go by what Scripture indicates when it comes to prayer. (Schleiermacher didn’t because he thought Scripture was not supernaturally inspired or in any sense infallible.) Scripture is filled with petitionary prayers and commands to pray petitionary prayers—always only about the future. They all seem metaphysically to presuppose (whether the authors or characters in the stories were conscious of that or not) that God can, indeed, affect the future. That is, some things will be the case in the future if people pray that would not otherwise be the case. Of course, this makes perfect sense if open theism is true because according to open theism the future is partly unsettled even in God’s knowledge and God is omnipotent and interventionist. (I assume that open theism believes both of those things even though I have met a couple people who claim to be open theists who seem to deny them in which case I categorize their belief as closer to process theology.) It also makes perfect sense if divine determinism is true (Schleiermacher and most traditional Calvinists). That’s because God “built in” prayers as “foreordained means to his foreordained ends.”

The question I struggle with is whether asking God to bring it about that something is specifically the case and not something else the case that was already decided in the past—even if I don’t know what is the case—in simple (non-determinative, non-predictive) foreknowledge.

And I struggle with why the Bible contains no examples of petitionary prayer about the past at all so far as I know—not even prayers about events not yet known as to their nature and outcome but certain to have happened. This is to me a strong indication that such prayer cannot have any effect other than satisfying some psychological need and causing consternation and confusion.

If you disagree with me about this and believe it makes sense to pray for some as-yet-not-fully-known past event (e.g., whether a biopsy already done is cancer or not) to turn out to be a certain thing, please explain how you reconcile that with God’s non-predictive foreknowledge. (Note: If you are an open theist, then you don’t believe all of God’s knowledge has always been non-predictive; you believe some of God’s knowledge has always been predictive. In that case, of course, God can easily be conceived as having planned to cause a future prayer to retroactively affect what he decided to do in a particular case. That raises others issues that we won’t get into here, however. Also, if you are a divine determinist, then you believe that a prayer about the past was pre-determined by God as a foreordained means to a foreordained end. Strangely, in this case, open theists and divine determinists seem to agree—that, logically, God can use a future prayer to bring about the past. However, divine determinism has its own problems. If you believe God is non-temporal, that all events are simultaneous to God, you have the challenge of explaining how a prayer in time can affect a timeless God.)


Note to Potential Responders: Please stick to the subject, make sure your comment or question contributes to reflective thought and dialogue about the subject, and avoid sermonizing or testifying. The purpose of this blog is to stimulate thought and dialogue, not give a platform for pontificating or merely asserting without explaining or giving reasons.

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