Praying with the Patriarchs
by Derek Thomas
Does God take risks? The question is not as silly as it sounds, and in present-day discussions regarding what is called “open theism,” it is the pertinent question to ask. But let’s ask the question again, from a different perspective. Is God’s knowledge of the future certain? Certain in the sense of being unchangeable, set down by an unalterable divine decree that cannot be changed?
The answer would seem, to orthodox Christians at least, obvious. But recently a flood of literature has emerged suggesting that the future is “open.” The so-called open theists take as one of their key texts Abraham’s prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18:22–33. On the face of it, Abraham’s prayer seems to change God’s mind over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah on the basis that fifty, then forty-five and eventually ten “righteous people” are to be found there. More pertinently for Abraham, his nephew Lot and his family lived there. The prayer is bold, even audacious! Frankly, if it wasn’t right here, in the Bible, we would not even think that such haggling (for that is what it sounds like) would emerge from the one whom the Bible calls “the friend of God” (2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8).
The “God takes risks” proponents of providence have a field-day:
“The divine decision was yet open, and God invited Abraham into the decision-making process.… Because God desires a genuine relationship, he is open to his creatures, especially through prayer” (John Sanders, The God Who Risks, IVP, 1998, p. 53). The author continues, “Through these prayers we see that God sovereignly chooses not to govern the world without our input. Whether it is wise for God to do so is another question” (p. 54).
The passage certainly looks and reads (and is intended to read) as though God changes His mind. But at least two things must be considered before drawing such a conclusion. A reasonable principle of interpretation of Scripture is that difficult passages ought to be interpreted in light of those that are clear. Additionally, historical narrative passages should be placed under the grid of didactic passages. If we engage these two ideas, what emerges is that the Bible is resolutely committed to a view of God’s omniscience (that he knows everything there is to know) and that he knows it (both in itself and in its relationship to other things) because he creates, sustains, and governs everything. The idea that God knows everything but doesn’t control everything is nonsensical. God’s plan is perfect and inviolable (Eph. 1:11).
Secondly, when the Bible employs “human” ways of speaking about God (anthropomorphisms), we must interpret these for what they are. If, as open theists suggest, God’s seeming change of heart is evidence that He does not totally know the future, then we must be consistent and interpret other features of this story in the same way. When it states that God must “go down” to Sodom and Gomorrah to discover the extent of its rebellion (18:21), it is not only God’s omniscience that is under question; His omnipresence is equally threatened. On this line of thought lies the denuding of God of many of His attributes — qualities that define for us the essential nature of God. Without them, God is no longer God in any meaningful sense of the term.
So what exactly is being taught in this passage? This: that God is condescending to our human weakness and frailty, allowing us to think for a minute or two that our tiny voices can move Him, impart Him some information that He otherwise does not know, or hasn’t taken sufficiently under consideration — in order to encourage us. But the truth is, God knows what He intends to do all along. As Augustine said long ago, “So, too, prayers are useful in obtaining those favours which He foresaw He would bestow on those who should pray for them” (City of God, 5.10). This way, intercessory prayer is not a way of settling the mind of God on what He, as yet, has not decided to do. Rather, they are ways of settling our mind to that which He has already decided to do. The reason, therefore, why God seems to answer some prayers and not others lies in His sovereign will.
Abraham, of course, hardly thought along these philosophical lines when he prayed, and neither should we. It is enough for us to know that God asks us to pray, and to pray with boldness and conviction believing that He will answer us when we pray according to His will and purpose. That should not limit our asking at all. It should rather make us bold knowing that a greater wisdom than ours will prevail and that we have not, somehow, pressured God into doing something that is less than wise simply because we have appealed to His benevolence. At the end of the day, Abraham’s intercessory pleas on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah are an example to us of praying boldly. As the parable of the unmerciful judge teaches (Luke 18:1–8), Abraham’s action teaches us that we may properly press God hard with fervent persistence when we bring our desires before Him. And He will always answer according to His sovereign will.