I had the great honor of asking Craig Blomberg (distinguished Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary) five questions concerning God’s sovereignty in relation to prayer. Blomberg has given extensive answers to questions many Christians have great difficulty with. Below is the interview.
What does it mean that God is “all sovereign?” In your experience, does the Bible’s view of God’s sovereignty line up with what Christians mean when they use such terminology?
Craig: Most of the places English translations of the Bible use the word it is in contexts that are talking about God as an all-powerful master, one who is in charge of everything in the universe. In my experience, Christians typically use the word fairly similarly. Where there can be interesting conversations is when people try to determine how God’s being in charge of everything plays out. Are certain things unconditionally determined by God? Are all things so determined? How does God’s sovereignty fit in with human freedom? At this point answers can differ.
Do we “partner” with God when we pray? Is his activity in the world dependent on our prayers? Some use the language of God bound or limited by our prayers?
Craig: It depends on the prayer. James 4:2b-3a explains that there are some things God wants to give us that he has determined to do so contingent on our asking for them and asking with right motives: “You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives. . .” The plural “you” and the plural verbs combine with the ongoing aspect of the Greek present tense to suggest that multiple people praying and praying repeatedly might have an effect as well. But there are other things God determines to do whether we ask him or not. And there are other things God determines not to do even if we ask him. Theologians distinguish these last examples from the James 4 kind by speaking of God’s unconditional and conditional will, respectively.
If God knows all things then why should we pray? Isn’t the future already pre-scripted by God? Doesn’t the fact that God is sovereign undermine the urgency of prayer?
Craig: It depends on who you ask this time. Not all Christians believe every detail of the future is pre-scripted by God, only the main or most important events. But most would say that he does know everything that is going to happen but knowing something is going to happen is different from pre-scripting it. I may decide that I will give my daughter a certain present on her birthday if and only if she asks for it. If I don’tknow whether she will ask for it, I certainly haven’t pre-scripted the future. But if she is very predictable and I have a strong sense of what she will do, I may actually know the future. But I still haven’t pre-scripted it. If God is so wise that he recognizes how his creatures will act in every situation they find themselves in, that still is not the same as actually arranging thing.
Of course, some Christians take a stronger view of God’s sovereignty and say that he has arranged every last detail. But then it’s important to distinguish the means from the ends. Some people harmonize their belief in “eternal security” with the passages in Hebrews that warn against total apostasy by saying the warnings are God’s means to ensure that true Christians never completely chuck it all. Whether or not that’s the case, it’s a helpful analogy for the question about prayer. God may have “decreed” that you receive something desirable that you would like in response to your prayer. Here’s where one’s view of free will comes into play also. Some people believe that true freedom is only if one has the power to choose “to the contrary”—the opposite of what one desires. Others believe that true freedom is simply the power to choose what one most truly desires. It’s a philosophical debate that goes far beyond anything you can quote chapter and verse on from the Bible. But even those who hold the latter position would say that if I really want something and pray for it and God has already decreed that he will give it to me contingent on my asking that doesn’t violate my freedom.
Can we change God’s mind through prayer? Isn’t this what the Ninevites did? Didn’t Moses do this? Do our prayers have the potential to affect God?
Craig: This flows directly from where we left off on the last question. If by “change God’s mind” we mean “be the means by which God does or does not act a certain way, given that he has already decreed both the means and the end,” then even the staunchest seeming determinist should be able to affirm that we change God’s mind. But if by “change God’s mind” we mean “present God with information that he never knew, couldn’t have anticipated and doesn’t know how to respond to, other than to capitulate to our request,” then even the staunchest defender of human freedom should say that we can’t change God’s mind. In the case of the Ninevites, it’s pretty clear that God wanted them to repent (cf. Matt. 12:41/Luke 11:32). So when Jonah preached that Nineveh would be overthrown in forty days (Jon. 3:4), the implicit condition in the threat was “if you don’t repent.” Most all ancient near Eastern cultures had prophets and one of their common tasks was to warn their societies of judgment from God or the gods when people were being too disobedient. So it’s hardly a stretch to envision the Ninevites making this assumptions too.
As for Moses, I’m not sure which of several possible episodes in his life you might be thinking of. But if “affect God” means that God will act differently after we pray than he would have if we hand’t, the answer is surely yes, our prayers affect God. The question that is harder to answer and that divides some Christians from some others is whether or not humans can do things that surprise God—that he genuinely had no idea would happen. Traditionally, most Christians have answered that question no; in recent years, some have made a strong case for answering it “yes,” but not strong enough to have convinced the majority.
If God knows the evil of the future, then why doesn’t he stop it? How are we to respond from a biblical perspective to those who are hurting and pose this very question to us? Why wasn’t their prayer answered?
Craig: It’s interesting to try to envision the universe if God stopped every or even most evil. Billions of people commit evil acts, however small or large, multiple times daily. What would it take for God to intervene in every single one of those situations to ensure that no evil was ever committed in the first place and that no consequences of our actions ever turned out to be evil? It shouldn’t take a lot of thought to realize that it would be a universe radically different from the one we know. If there were never any evil, it could only be because he created a scenario in which people had no freedom to do evil acts and that the consequences of any good or neutral acts that might turn out to be evil would always be prevented. This, beyond the shadow of any doubt, would be a universe without human freedom as we know it.
The most common Jewish and Christian answer to this cluster of questions down through history also addresses the question of why God created any creatures made in his image with the possibility of knowing good and evil and choosing good or evil: he wanted a freely offered love relationship that automatons could not provide him with (or plants or animals either). If we succeed in programming robots in so sophisticated a fashion one day that they can simulate human beings and their actions the way they do in some science fiction but we still know that they are doing only what we have programmed them to do, we will not appreciate relationships with them the way we do with other human beings. But once there is the freedom to choose evil, what the Bible calls sin, then there is the likelihood that some will choose evil and that the consequences will spread until all of God’s creation is infected, so to speak.
An interesting question I have sometimes been asked is why then do we so look forward to new heavens and new earth where the opportunities to rebel against God and everything good apparently no longer exist, and we are transformed into the perfect, glorious beings we were originally intended to be, if not even something better? Here the answer has to do with the difference between moral innocence and moral transformation. Again, different thinkers, novelists and philosophers have not all agreed on all the details, but there is profound agreement among them over the centuries that humans are profoundly different for having experienced evil—both in bad and good ways. We can now appreciate why evil is so bad in ways that can make us never again want to choose it, even though in this life we never do overcome it—we only take some strides in that direction.
Thank you for your time!
*Craig Blomberg (PhD, Aberdeen University, Scotland) is the author of numerous books including The Historical Reliability of the New Testament (2016) and Christians in an Age of Wealth (2013) and has contributed to numerous academic journals and articles. A main interest of his is the historical reliability of the Bible. He has been a part of the Denver Seminary faculty since 1986.