Friday, May 04, 2007

Objections to Petitionary Prayer 1 by Greg Boyd

This is from a Greg Boyd's blog that he updates pretty often anymore. I think that he makes a good point concerning the origin of many Christian's view of an immutable God. Read on...

"Objections to Petitionary Prayer 1"
by Greg Boyd

For the last two years I’ve been immersed in ancient Greek philosophy, reading as many original sources as I can (e.g. the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, etc.). It never ceases to amaze me how so much of the issues philosophers confronted more than 2000 years ago continue to be relevant issues today. For example, lately I’ve been studying The Philosophical Orations of a certain second century A. D. platonic philosopher named “Maximus of Tyre.” In one “oration” (Oration 5, “On Prayer”) he presents several rather cogent arguments against the idea of petitionary prayer – arguments that are still worth wrestling with today.

One argument Maximus brings up is that when people petition a god, they’re trying to get the god to change his mind (repent) about something. Against this Maximus argues: “Change of mind and repentance are … unbecoming to a good man, let alone to a god.” The reason change is unbecoming, Maximus adds, is that change can only be for the better or for the worse. But a god, he holds, can neither be improved or diminished.

The argument that all change can only be for the better or for the worse and thus that we can never ascribe change to God (or gods) goes back to Plato’s Republic (book II). This premise quickly became a standard argument among philosophers. We even find it echoed in a multitude of early Christian writings. It actually lies at the foundation of the classical Christian doctrine of “divine immutability.” But, as Maximus is pointing out, there seems to be an inconsistency in holding to this understanding of the changelessness of God while also engaging in petitionary prayer. If God can’t change in any respect, then God’s will can’t be affected in any respect. In fact, even God’s experience of the world can’t change in any respect – which is why the classical Christian tradition ended up following the platonic tradition’s view that God must be timeless (devoid of sequence). God experiences the totality of history as one utterly unchanging “eternal now.” If this is so, what possible difference can petitionary prayer make? Nothing can possibility be altered. The facts of what will come to pass are eternally settled in the unchanging mind and experience of God.

The problem with this argument, as I see it, is with the standard platonic assumption that all change must either be for the better or for the worse. It seems to me this assumption is simply wrong. Some kinds of change don’t improve a person’s character or wisdom, but simply express the character and wisdom of a person. For example, a perfectly loving parent would certainly alter their happy disposition in response to their child’s sorrow and would (within wise limits) alter their plans in response to their child’s requests. This change would not improve their character or wisdom– for their character and wisdom, we are supposing, are perfect. Rather, this change would express their perfect character and wisdom. In fact, if they refused to change in response to their child, we wouldn’t say they were perfect in their wisdom and character.

So too, if we believe that God is perfect, unchanging love, it seems we must accept that God is perpetually changing in response to his children. His ability and willingness to be genuinely affected by us doesn’t improve or diminish him: it simply expresses his perfectly loving character and his perfect wisdom. And in this conception of God, there’s no problem whatsoever with the concept that our communicating with God impacts him and makes a difference in the world.

Yet, this was simply the first of several arguments Maximus raised against petitionary prayer. Check out the blog in the next few days if you’re interested in seeing my response to some of his other arguments.


  1. The problem I see with Greg's post is that Greg founds his argument on a humanization of God. While we see in scripture that God is made to seem human-like (He is described with hands, a heart, mind, etc.), these are narrative descriptions not meant to show who God is but rather to simplify a way of speaking about God.

    When we make God in our own image instead of realizing we are made in God's image, we do the ridiculous: we attempt to make our Maker. And this is where our minds start to become at ease with God, and our God becomes easier to understand.

    While God desires that we understand Him, we are not instructed to make him understandable. With this presupposition (that God must be understandable) comes prescription for the reinterpretation of everything written by God in scripture.

  2. However, is the description used 'humanizing', though? Clearly scripture describes God differently than us in many ways, and in ways that are clearly not as scripture describes humanity. But at the same time, God in His inspiration to people hasn't given us any other description of Himself than what we have in scripture.

    Where in scripture are we told that we are not to use and understand these descriptions that God gave man inspired in scripture?

    There is a doctrine about the way scripture describes God and His actions as 'baby-talk' to humanity that exists in many churches today. But the question arises quickly: Where did they get this revelation that God does not want to be related to in the manner that He inspired people to write about Him?

    Since the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are our primary revelation and tradition concerning God...why add the notions that by trusting what scripture says, that it is actually anthropomorphizing God? Concerning Jesus, who is the incarnate anthropomorphizing of God, are you sure that isn't how God wanted us to have relationship with Him?

    There is no reinterpretation necessary here. Just an acknowledgment that scripture can be trusted at face value both contextually and historically. And there is a move against bits of Greek philosophy that has been present in some Christian theologies for far too long. There is no reason not to understand the things that God lays out right before our eyes in scripture.

    Again, this isn't about reinterpretation. It is about taking off a philosophy that colors people's theology by identifying where it came from so that it can be exposed, and then hopefully people can understand that the scriptures are contextual works, and not poetry to be sliced-and-diced and then meaning to be reassembled (interpreted) out of the disassembled verses, as most churches love to do.