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Objections to Petitionary Prayer 1

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.


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