Piper on Predestined Prayers

Uber-blogger Justin Taylor recently posted an excerpt from an online article by  John Piper in which he explains, by way of a fictional dialogue, how God’s foreordination of all things doesn’t imply that petitionary prayers are pointless. One commenter going by the moniker ‘Arminian’ took the opportunity to fire some shots over the fence. I pointed out that this brother was in danger of shooting himself along with the Calvinists, which inevitably drew some more shots in response.

I later posted some follow-up comments, but for some reason they haven’t appeared, even after re-posting them. Since I took the precaution of saving a copy, and since I think Piper’s point is important and worth defending, I’m going to post them here for anyone who might be interested (including ‘Arminian’, whoever he may be). But they’ll only make sense after reading the original post and comments.


Arminian,

Thanks for the reply. Addressing your three points:

(1) It’s hard to see how this resolves the problem I raised. As Paul Helm explains in Eternal God, appealing to divine timelessness doesn’t resolve the problem of divine foreknowledge of libertarian free choices. In fact, divine timelessness would seem to make your position even more problematic, for now you have temporal causes (human prayers) causing timeless effects (divine decisions) — an idea of very dubious coherence. So your reply here raises more problems than it solves.

(2) Again, it’s hard to see how this addresses the problem. I pointed out that on your view, God’s decisions about how to answer prayers are settled from eternity. Do you deny this? I’ve made no claims about the necessity or otherwise of the events that God foreknows.

(3) Once again, this misses the point. I’m well aware of the distinction between certainty and necessity, but you don’t explain how that is relevant. The point I raised doesn’t make any reference to necessity. It’s a point about causation, not necessity. I’m simply observing that, on your view, all God’s decisions are settled prior to the occurrence of human prayers. So, according to your own assumptions, it’s hard to see how those prayers could be “genuine causes” of those decisions.

You claim that my response “falters on attempting to attribute internal inconsistency to the Arminian view by applying Calvinistic presuppositions.” But on the contrary, I haven’t presupposed anything distinctly Calvinistic (and you haven’t shown otherwise). I’m merely observing that your criticism of Calvinism also applies to your own classical Arminian position.

I should also have pointed out earlier that you’ve misinterpreted Piper’s dialogue (at least as I read it). Piper isn’t suggesting that our prayers are the causes of God’s decisions about how to answer those prayers; that would indeed be inconsistent with Calvinism (and with your Arminianism, as I’ve argued). Rather, our prayers are the causes of the answers to those prayers. For example, my prayer that Betty recovers from her illness is a cause of Betty’s recovery (but not of God’s eternal decision to foreordain that Betty recover as a result of my prayer). This is a crucial distinction, but it’s one rightly reflected by Piper’s analogies.

On a counterfactual theory of causation, this analysis makes good sense. My prayer temporally precedes Betty’s recovery, and if I had not prayed then Betty would not have recovered. None of this is inconsistent with Calvinism.

11 Responses to Piper on Predestined Prayers

  1. My comments also went missing. I’m guessing that the moderators are either a bit vacant, or just not approving new comments because the thread is now old. It’ll be interesting to see whether Arminian responds here.

  2. Pingback: God’s Providence, Our Prayers – Part 2 « ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ

  3. Excellent follow up. I’ve linked to it here.

  4. “…for now you have temporal causes (human prayers) causing timeless effects (divine decisions) — an idea of very dubious coherence.”

    That logic doesn’t follow. It’s perfectly coherent for a divine reaction within the context of time to be based upon a temporal contingency, assuming that God’s transcendence allows Him complete perception of every contingency within time.

    • J.C.,

      A “divine reaction within the context of time” is not the same thing as a divine decision. If God is timeless, then his decisions are also timeless. There’s no getting around it.

      If I understand what you mean by “divine reaction within the context of time”, you’re confusing the temporal effects of a divine decision (or perhaps our temporal perception of a divine decision) with the divine decision itself.

      My impression is that Arminians who hold to divine timelessness are a dying breed, and understandably so. Once you grant that humans have libertarian free will, the metaphysical pressure to temporalize God is hard to resist.

      • “A “divine reaction within the context of time” is not the same thing as a divine decision. If God is timeless, then his decisions are also timeless. There’s no getting around it.”

        Irrelevant to my point. This still produces no difficulties with God basing some decisions upon contingencies within time. I am speaking of decisions themselves, not effects or perception.

  5. arminian1

    Arminian here. It took some time before I noticed your response, and then I thought I might post my response elsewhere, partly because I didn’t have a WordPress account and did not want to cvreate one just to post here. Well, I decided to create a WordPress acount, which took a little while actually and was part of the reason I was reluctant to do so (I actually read the user agreement). But now that I have an account, I can post a response here:

    James said: “(1) It’s hard to see how this resolves the problem I raised. As Paul Helm explains in Eternal God, appealing to divine timelessness doesn’t resolve the problem of divine foreknowledge of libertarian free choices. In fact, divine timelessness would seem to make your position even more problematic, for now you have temporal causes (human prayers) causing timeless effects (divine decisions) — an idea of very dubious coherence. So your reply here raises more problems than it solves.”

    ****I disagree. (1) I did not specifically refer to divine timelessness, but the fact that God is not limited by time. Nevertheless, (2) even if I had appealed to divine timelessness, what you say here does not follow. You mostly seem to appeal to Helm’s argument without identifying specifics, except for the assertion that temporal causes causing timeless effects is of dubious coherence. But that does not follow in the least. Since God is not bound by time and can work in it and outside of it, there is no problem with the idea that he can take into account future actions/events in eternity past. Moreover, one could appeal to a notion of omnitemporality to the same effect. Furthermore, Helm has been forcefully criticized for deficiencies in Eternal God. William Craig’s review takes him to task for a number of flaws in his arguments while appreciating various aspects of his work. Most directly relevant to our discussion here are these observations of Craig’s:

    **Begin Quote: Most amazingly, however, Helm appears to concede in the end that divine foreknowledge “perhaps . . . can be reconciled with human indeterministic freedom and logical . . . fatalism likewise disproved” (p. 142), which seems to give away his whole case!

    What Helm winds up arguing is that foreknowledge which is based on God’s foreordination of the future is incompatible with indeterministic human freedom. But only Thomists (and perhaps some Augustinians) should care to dispute that claim! The point is that Helm has offered no justification at all for adopting such a model of foreknowledge (unless he is confusing the future’s being determinate with its being determined). Thus, it is not the existence of a timeless, omniscient God which is inconsistent with libertarian freedom, but the model of foreordination adopted by Helm. –End Quote**

    So with respect to this conversation, the material you point to from Helm essentially begs the question.

    James said: “(2) Again, it’s hard to see how this addresses the problem. I pointed out that on your view, God’s decisions about how to answer prayers are settled from eternity. Do you deny this? I’ve made no claims about the necessity or otherwise of the events that God foreknows.”

    ****Honestly, I am surprised that you don’t see the relevance of the certainty/necessity distinction, which I see you agree is valid in itself. The point is that in the A view God’s decision being settled from eternity does not keep it from being a cause since his decision is contingent on those prayers, which are not necessitated and so freely offered. But a prayer asking God to do the thing can hardly be considered a cause if God decides to do it and then irresistibly causes someone to ask him to do it and then does it. The problem is not that God decided beforehand (that he did goes without saying in view of God’s omniscience and foreknowledge), but that his decision is not contingent on the prayer. The prayer does not influence his action in the least on the logical implications of the Calvinist/deterministic view.

    James said: “(3) Once again, this misses the point. I’m well aware of the distinction between certainty and necessity, but you don’t explain how that is relevant. The point I raised doesn’t make any reference to necessity. It’s a point about causation, not necessity. I’m simply observing that, on your view, all God’s decisions are settled prior to the occurrence of human prayers. So, according to your own assumptions, it’s hard to see how those prayers could be “genuine causes” of those decisions.”

    ****You have misunderstood my argument, thinking my point was merely temporal, that God decides from eternity. But that’s not it. It’s that in the case of a request, for the request to be a genuine cause of an action, the action must be a response to the request and contingent on the request. Determinism does not provide this. If I decide I would like to open the door in response to a request for me to open the door, and then put a sock puppet on my hand and have it ask me to open the door, and then I open the door, the sock puppet’s request is not a genuine cause of my opening of the door. It is just something I wanted to have done before I opened the door. Assuming I have the power to irresistibly control people, if I want to give my friend some money in response to him asking me to give him money, if I irresistibly cause him to ask me to give him money and then give him the money, his request cannot reasonably be considered a cause of me giving him the money. It is just something I wanted done before I would give him the money. His request did not genuinely influence me to give him the money, all the more so with God since there is nothing that could stop his plan.

    James said: “You claim that my response “falters on attempting to attribute internal inconsistency to the Arminian view by applying Calvinistic presuppositions.” But on the contrary, I haven’t presupposed anything distinctly Calvinistic (and you haven’t shown otherwise). I’m merely observing that your criticism of Calvinism also applies to your own classical Arminian position.”

    **** I believe that I have shown that your the criticism does not apply to the classical Arminian position. I also believe you misunderstood the argument.

    James said: “I should also have pointed out earlier that you’ve misinterpreted Piper’s dialogue (at least as I read it). Piper isn’t suggesting that our prayers are the causes of God’s decisions about how to answer those prayers; that would indeed be inconsistent with Calvinism (and with your Arminianism, as I’ve argued). Rather, our prayers are the causes of the answers to those prayers. For example, my prayer that Betty recovers from her illness is a cause of Betty’s recovery (but not of God’s eternal decision to foreordain that Betty recover as a result of my prayer). This is a crucial distinction, but it’s one rightly reflected by Piper’s analogies.”

    **** This distinction that you find crucial is a distinction without a difference. First, let me say that in the thread I also spoke of Calvinism/determinism precluding prayer as able to be a cause of God doing something, e.g.: “In such a case, the person’s request for God to do the thing cannot reasonably considered a cause of God doing the thing.” I did also talk of the issue in terms of God’s decision. In fact, I even said “it is illegitimate to claim that in a Calvinistic/deterministic system that prayer is a cause of anything.” So I did talk of decision and action and anything God might do. So given my comments, that distinction is meaningless. But second, you seem to be missing the specific and special character of prayer, asking God to do something. Your position seems to imply some power present within the prayer itself, as if God gave some independent power to the prayer like a doctor doing surgery or a man punching another man (in these cases the actions of the people directly accomplish/cause something). But prayer does not work like that. It is asking God to do something, and he responds by doing it (when he grants the request). So in your example, the prayer itself is not what cures ‘Betty’. God cures Betty in response to the prayer. In the Arminian view, the prayer can be considered a cause of what God does because his answer to the prayer was partly contingent on the prayer, and so it can be considered a genuine secondary cause of the actual healing (since it was a cause of God’s healing action). But in Calvinism/determinism, the prayers themselves don’t ’cause’ anything; for it it doesn’t ‘convince’ or influence God to do what He has decided to irresistibly cause to happen and it certainly does not directly effect the healing.

    James said: “On a counterfactual theory of causation, this analysis makes good sense. My prayer temporally precedes Betty’s recovery, and if I had not prayed then Betty would not have recovered. None of this is inconsistent with Calvinism.”

    **** That statement of contingency is misleading and masks Calvinism’s deficiency IMO. With your example, the Calvinist can say that “if I had not prayed then Betty would not have recovered” only because if he had not prayed, that would mean that God’s plan failed, and so God’s irresistible causation would be undone. It does not proceed from any necessary connection between the two events (the prayer and the healing) except that they are part of the same plan and God wants them to be especially associated. On this line of thinking, if anything ever were different, then Betty would not have recovered. Every other event that ever happens has just as much causative impact on Betty’s healing as does the prayer, which is to say nothing. Now if God were to prewdestine Betty’s healing as the result of the administration of medicine to her which cures her, then that would be a predestined cause of her healing. But a predestined prayer cannot reasonably be considered a cause of her healing as I have explained above.

  6. J.C.,

    “Irrelevant to my point. This still produces no difficulties with God basing some decisions upon contingencies within time. I am speaking of decisions themselves, not effects or perception.”

    Let me get this straight. You admit that on your view temporal events (human prayers) are the causes of timeless effects (divine decisions) — and your response to the suggestion that this is of dubious coherence is to insist, without further explanation, that this “produces no difficulties”.

    And that’s all there is to it? ;)

    As for the relevance of my remarks, I think you’ve now demonstrated their relevance by directly affirming (but making no serious attempt to resolve) the tension I originally highlighted.

  7. “Let me get this straight. You admit that on your view temporal events (human prayers) are the causes of timeless effects (divine decisions)”

    As I stated before,

    “It’s perfectly coherent for a divine reaction within the context of time to be based upon a temporal contingency, assuming that God’s transcendence allows Him complete perception of every contingency within time.”

    “— and your response to the suggestion that this is of dubious coherence is to insist, without further explanation, that this “produces no difficulties”.”

    I believe the burden of proof is on the one making the charges of incoherence, which you’ve not been forthcoming in providing. Merely stating that it’s ‘dubious’ with no real explanation isn’t ‘highlighting tension.’

    • Fair enough. God willing, I will elaborate on this point in a separate post next week, which will serve as a response both to you and to Arminian.

  8. Pingback: Arminianism and the Paper Trail of Prophesied Prayers « Analogical Thoughts