Earley states, “God does nothing in ministry apart from prayer.” Certainly, God responds to His servants when they pray, but is Earley’s statement too encompassing and simplistic? Does God act only in concert with His servants’ prayers? Must He wait until prayer occurs, or is God free to act as He chooses? Discuss and support your answer well; include additional source information as necessary. Use parenthetical reference to cite your sources.
The conundrum of providence and prayer has precipitated a longstanding debate. On the one hand, if human prayers limit God’s freedom to act, then God’s sovereignty is at risk. On the other hand, if God’s sovereign plan is fixed, then what would be the purpose of prayer? Some assert that the purpose of prayer is primarily to change human hearts to align with God’s intentions. Although the idea has merit, examples in Scripture, such as the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13, appear to focus more on entreaties than reflection. Thus, this brief analysis will provide a possible, but not dogmatic, explanation as to how prayer can make an eternal difference, while simultaneously upholding God’s sovereignty.
Scripture provides numerous examples of the extent of God’s knowledge. In 1 Samuel 23:1-13, David asks God whether the people of Keilah would turn him over to Saul if he decided to travel to the Judean city. God responded in the affirmative. However, the event that God foreknew did not actually happen. Michael Heiser (2015, 64) asserts that David’s account “clearly establishes that divine foreknowledge does not necessitate divine predestination.” In other words, 1 Samuel 23 provides an example of God’s hypothetical knowledge, where He knew what would happen given a certain set of circumstances, though it did not actually happen. William Lane Craig (Helm, Craig, and Brierley 2014, 65) explains that God’s hypothetical knowledge is a knowledge of counterfactuals, also called middle knowledge, because it is knowledge between the range of two possible worlds, between “what could happen” and “what will happen.” The view that Craig espouses is a form of Molinism, which is named after Louis de Molina, a Jesuit counter-Reformer (Helm, Craig, and Brierley 2014, 64).
An understanding of God’s hypothetical knowledge may assist in resolving the conundrum of providence and prayer. First, within a doctrine of hypothetical knowledge, individual freedom is maintained because God knows all alternative possibilities, but simultaneously allows individuals to freely choose. For example, David chose not to be turned over to Saul by traveling to Keilah, which significantly impacted his life. Similarly, individuals are free to choose to pray or not to pray, which will significantly impact their lives. Second, within a doctrine of hypothetical knowledge, God’s sovereignty is maintained. Craig (Helseth, Craig, and Highfield 2011, 82) explains that if God has knowledge of every set of potential circumstances, then “by employing His hypothetical knowledge, God can plan a world down to the last detail and yet do so without annihilating creaturely freedom, since God has already factored into the equation what people would do freely under various circumstances.”
The direct application of God’s hypothetical knowledge to the subject of prayer is now possible. God has known all of humanity’s potential prayers from the beginning of time, and He has incorporated them into His providential plan. Thus, current prayers do not control, manipulate, or change an immutable God, but they do have an impact by being incorporated into God’s providential plan. Accordingly, Kirk MacGregor (2015, 123) explains that because God knows “how each individual would freely pray in any set of circumstances, God uses this information…as part of the cornucopia of free decisions God makes in his decree to create this world,” and “decides to respond to some of our prayers in such a way that prayers change the course of the future.”
In sum, David Earley’s (2008, 10) statement, “God does nothing in ministry apart from prayer,” is too simplistic because, without further explanation, it risks undermining God’s sovereignty. Regarding whether God acts only in concert with His servants’ prayers, the answer is yes, because His servants’ prayers are incorporated into His created order. Finally, regarding whether God is free to act as He chooses, the answer is also yes, because God freely chooses His decrees in the creation of the world, which simultaneously incorporates His servants’ prayers.
Earley, David. 2008. Prayer: The Timeless Secret of High-Impact Leaders. Chattanooga, TN: Living Ink.
Heiser, Michael S. 2015. The Unseen Realm. Bellingham, WA: Lexham.
Helm, Paul, William Lane Craig, and Justin Brierley. 2014. “Calvinism Vs. Molinism.” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry 11, no. 1 (Spring): 62–77.
Helseth, Paul Kioss, William Lane Craig, and Ron Highfield. 2011. Four Views on Divine Providence. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
MacGregor, Kirk R. 2015. Luis de Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.