Divine Knowledge Providence Theology Proper

Why pray, if God’s will is going to be done whether we pray or not?: comparing Molinism and hypothetical knowledge Calvinism

Perhaps the most pressing question regarding prayer is whether it makes a difference. That is a question which synergists are particularly likely to put to monergists because, when God’s will is done in meticulous detail (not just as a general permission of libertarian freedom), it can look as though genuine petition is meaningless. In my book on models of divine providence I lay out the models in order of the degree to which moral creatures determine the outcome of events in history. I see Open Theism as the strongest evangelical option in this regard. There the future is open both for us and for God, and God responds dynamically, in the present moment, to creatures’ actions. Since the future is not already fixed, prayer appears to be maximally effective in determining what that future will be. Almost as strong, perhaps, is what I call the “church dominion model,” which asserts that God has in mind what he is going to do but that he is training his people to exercise dominion in the world, under his rule. Consequently, we have the power to actually change God’s mind, to cause him to do something which he had not been planning to do, in response to our request.

Molinism on prayer for the Super Bowl

As we move across the synergistic or “risk” models of providence, the last one is Molinism. In this model, God has given creatures libertarian freedom and much of what happens in this particular world is determined by moral creatures. But, in a (logical) moment of middle knowledge, God is believed to have known what libertarianly free creatures would do in all possible worlds. From among these, God chooses one that is feasible for him and, in so doing God has chosen this particular world with all the creaturely decisions that are made in it and the outcome of those decisions and actions. In regard to salvation, for instance, in this world individuals determine by their response to God’s grace whether or not they will be saved, but God chose the world in which those individuals make that choice.

William Lane CraigProbably the best known evangelical Molinist is William Lane Craig and, when he was interviewed by Christianity Today about Christians praying for the Super Bowl, he made this answer to the question I’m focused on in this post:

CT: What’s the value in praying for God’s will to be done for the outcome of a game if God’s will will be done whether we pray or not?

Craig: Now that’s a question about prayer in general. What good does it do to pray about anything if the outcome is not affected? I would say when God chooses which world to actualize, he takes into account the prayers that would be offered in that world. We shouldn’t think prayer is about changing the mind of God. He’s omniscient; he already knows the future, but prayer makes a difference in that it can affect what world God has chosen to create.

I have learned a lot from Craig and other Molinists, and I find their model very attractive but I consider it incoherent, because the actions of libertarianly free people in hypothetical circumstances are unknowable (that is the “grounding objection”). Unless such a person makes a decision in an actual situation, God could not know with certainty what that decision would be. It is disappointing that this model is incoherent because it paints a beautiful picture: “prayer makes a difference in that it can affect what world God has chosen to create.” Purportedly, God knew in his middle knowledge what every possible person would do in every possible set of circumstances (the totality of which makes up a “world”). So, God knew that in some worlds the Seahawks would win and, in others the Broncos would win, and he knew who would be praying what prayers for each of those teams in each of those worlds. So, when he chose this world in which the Seahawks win, he chose the world in which he answers the prayers of people who asked him to allow or to help the Seahawks to win.

Hypothetical knowledge Calvinism on prayer for the Super Bowl

In Providence and Prayer, I called my model “middle knowledge Calvinism.” Discussion with Paul Helm convinced me that God knows counterfactuals as part of his natural or necessary knowledge, so there is no need to posit a separate logical moment between God’s natural and his free knowledge. The middleness of God’s knowledge was never important to me, so this has scarcely changed my model of providence. I continue to affirm the usefulness to God of his knowledge of the counterfactuals. If creatures are not libertarianly free, however, there is no reason to view God’s knowledge of their actions in hypothetical situations as something other than what he knows naturally and necessarily.

With that critical difference being recognized, I find it interesting that I could also say what Craig said in the final sentence of his answer to the CT interviewer. God is “omniscient; he already knows the future, but prayer makes a difference in that it can affect what world God has chosen to create.” Where Craig and I differ, of course, is the way in which prayer affects “what world God has chosen to create.” Because of his Molinist commitment to libertarian freedom, that statement means to Craig that the petition of particular individuals, who could have chosen not to pray as they did, all other things being equal, is a petition made in the world in which God chose to answer the request. God did this even though there may have been other possible worlds in which, all other things being equal, God chose not to answer the request.

Where hypothetical knowledge Calvinism succeeds, and Molinism does not, is in providing a ground for God’s knowledge of what a particular “type” of morally responsible creature would do in every possible circumstance. But in both cases, God chose this world, and the world God chose is the one in which we make particular prayer requests, and these are effective because it is the world in which God chose to answer them positively. So God does genuinely answer our prayer requests, and thus we have a role in bringing about the history which God purposed eternally. That God, in eternity, sovereignly chose this world, rather than any of the other possible worlds, is confessed by both Molinists and hypothetical knowledge Calvinists. The critical issue between us is that we Calvinists do not believe this would have been possible if God had chosen to make moral creatures libertarianly free.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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