Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Praying for the past

Turretin Fan recently did a post on prayer:


Turretin Fan is an erudite, logical, and thorough apologist. In many respects a model apologist, both in style and substance.

I agree with everything he says about prayers to and through the dead. I agree with almost everything he says about prayers for the dead.

However, the final paragraph of §1 raises an interesting question:

Thus, there is no third category - no third option that exists, where prayers for the deceased would have any value. Accordingly, we reject prayers for the dead as vain and superstitious, and we do not engage in such prayers.

This goes to the larger question of whether it’s ever appropriate to pray for a past outcome.

Keep in mind that God is timeless. At an ontological level, nothing is past, present, for future to God. At an epistemic level, God is, of course, aware of past, present, and future since he himself decreed the entire history of the world.

One unspoken assumption of TF’s denial is that God cannot change the past. What’s past is immutable. Over and done with.

I agree with that assumption. As such, it would be improper to pray for a past outcome if you know the outcome. That would be asking god to do something that even omnipotence cannot do. Asking him to perform a pseudotask.

But that leaves another scenario to deal with. What if the outcome is past, but we don’t know the outcome? Is it permissible to pray for a past outcome under those circumstances?

Offhand, I don’t see why not. That reflects a limitation, not on what is possible, but on what is known. We’re not asking God to change the past.

Rather, we’re asking a timeless God, who knows what we ask before we ask it, to have brought about a particular outcome.

Although it’s not possible to change the past, it’s possible to affect the past. Not to change what was, but to change what would have been–absent prayer.

I don’t think this scenario is that unusual. We hear about a loved one who was involved in a life-threatening accident or natural disaster. A plane crashing. A coalmine caving in. A tornado striking a small town.

By the time we hear about it, the life-threatening event is past. Our loved one is either dead or alive.

We learn about the event after the fact. We see it on the news. Or receive a frantic phone call.

What do we do? We pray for him. We pray that God spared him. We do so even though, at the time we pray, the outcome is a fait accompli. And we do so knowing that, at the time we pray, the outcome is a fait accompli.

But we also know that God’s answer to prayer isn’t always constrained by our timing. For God doesn’t have to wait until we pray for something to know what we’re going to pray for. And although the result of answered prayer is ordinarily subsequent to the prayer, the answer isn’t subsequent to the prayer. Rather, God answered our prayer from all eternity.

Offhand, I don’t think it’s wrong to pray for the fate of a loved-one in case his fate is unknown to us–even if his fate is sealed. Of course, that would need to be a qualified prayer. We’re not asking God to change the postmortem status of our loved one. That’s irrevocable.

But we’re timebound creatures praying to a timeless God. And there are some situations where time is not a barrier to prayer. Our ignorance of the outcome is not, of itself, a reason to refrain from praying for a particular outcome, even though the outcome is a done deal by the time we pray.

1 comment:

  1. As Steve knows, in Calvinistic theology, 1. it's sin to pray contrary to God's known decree (past, present or future) or 2. contrary God's past providence. To do either would be to call into question God's wisdom.

    But if what Steve is saying is true, then when the guests on "The Maury Povich Show" pray that such a such a man is or isn't the father of a baby, it may not be too late.

    That is, unless something in Scripture would suggest that God will only answer prayers for the present and the future. I can't think of any Scripture passage that would suggest either a prohibition or allowance (via teaching or example). The whole thing hinges on whether God is really timeless or not. If He is (and I lean toward that), then it's not a matter of whether God could, but whether God would.

    While earlier I said it's wrong to pray contrary to God's decree, there are instances where, amazingly, God answered the prayer of someone who apparently (but not ultimately or in reality) was praying contrary to God's decree. In these instances I'm using the word "decree" in the sense of "policy" or "declared will". But the point still applies since both senses are related and used by Calvinists for the word.

    One case is that of Moses. Moses seems to be extremely "cheeky" (or impudent) to pray that God would forgive the Israelites for having made the golden calf. EVEN THOUGH God told (in essence commanded) Moses not to pray for them and that He would create a new people through him (Moses). This goes to show the amazing efficacy of, and privileges that go along with, intercessory prayer.

    A second example would be when the Syro-Phoenecian woman continued to petition Jesus to heal her daughter, EVEN AFTER our Lord said He didn't come but to preach and minister the Gospel to the tribes of Israel. Yet her boldness and faith got the answer anyway. Along with the greatest of all compliments, "Great is your Faith!"

    btw, in a latter post I presented a hypothetical situation that involves this very idea and the preservation of Scripture.