Exposing Calvinist Forgery in the Paper Trail of Prophesied Prayers

, posted by SEA

Introduction: I commented (under the screen name “Arminian”) at Justin Taylor’s blog, taking issue with a cited article by John Piper that presents prayer as a cause of God’s answers to prayer in Calvinism/determinism. I responded that Calvinism/determinism is incompatible with the claim that prayer can be a genuine cause of God’s answers to prayer. As I have argued, the person’s request for God to do the thing cannot reasonably be considered a cause of God doing the thing when God first decided to do the thing, then irresistibly causes the person to pray for the thing, and then irresistibly causes the thing. Calvinist scholar James Anderson responded to me in the comments at Taylor’s blog (here) and at his own blog (here) that (following his own summary of his argument) (1) it is correct that prayer cannot be a cause of God’s decision about how to answer prayer, but that Piper wasn’t making that claim in the first place, and (2) it’s hard to see how our prayers could be “genuine causes” in the sense I speak of on the classical Arminian view either. After I responded to his post in the post’s comments section at his blog, he decided to respond with a new post entitled “Arminianism and the Paper Trail of Prophesied Prayers”, which he describes as an elaboration on (2). The present essay is my response to this new essay by James (“Arminianism and the Paper Trail of Prophesied Prayers”).

Let me begin by saying that the term “forgery” used in the title of this post is not meant to imply that James or Calvinists in general purposely give false evidence with this argument that James makes about prophecy implying that our prayers cannot be “genuine causes” of God’s decisions about how to answer those prayers. It is simply used to say that James has created a false problem with his argument that doesn’t exist for Arminianism—to be explained below.

Second, I believe that I have soundly refuted James’ first of two listed major points, essentially that I only addressed something Piper was not talking about. I addressed this in my first comments at James’ blog, but then he provided his latest reply summarizing the exchange as if I had not corrected him on this point. So I responded (under the screen name of arminian1) again explaining this issue in the comments section of his his latest post (here). Since that post is an elaboration of his second major point, the issue is not central to the essay to which I am now responding. But it is strange that James did not acknolwedge my correction of one of his major points. (I would encourage readers to see my refutations of that point in the comments at his two blog posts.) It is almost as if he did not read my reply to him. This comes out at other points as well where he fails to account for responses I have already made to him. Moreover, his failure to address my point that in Calvinism prayer cannot reasonably be considered a cause of God’s answers to prayer derails the conversation somewhat. He has not defended prayer as a cause of God’s answers to prayer in a Calvinistic system.

Third, it is telling that rather than defending that which I challenged, Calvinism’s consistency with the biblical view that prayer is a cause of answers to prayer (or anything, including God’s decisions about how to answer prayer), James has chosen to try and attack the consistency of Arminianism’s view that our prayers are “genuine causes” of God’s decisions about how to answer those prayers.

Now, on to responding to the bulk of James’ essay. I will simply quote his points (marked by JA) and then provide responses with some concluding thoughts at the end. My responses will be marked by asterisks. This response may seem longer than it really is because I quote the bulk of James’ post for convenient reference. SEA’s site does not allow for comments on posts. So Ben Henshaw has agreed to host comments at his site, Arminian Perspectives. Comments on this post may be made here.

JA: 1. Let GC be the claim that human prayers are “genuine causes” of divine decisions. I’ll assume that the modifier ‘genuine’ is designed to exclude any understanding of causation that is far removed from our normal understanding of the term, as found in claims like “The moon causes the tides” and “Frank caused the commotion in the dinner hall”.

****This is fine, except that James’s examples do not serve as good examples of the sphere of relations we are talking about most specifically, i.e., interpersonal relations. In the case of one person making a request of another, the request can only be a geniune cause if it actually influences the granter of the request to grant the request. Or we could use Piper’s definitions: a prayer can only be a genuine cause of the answer to the prayer if the event that was prayed for is contingent on our praying for it to happen; the prayer must be a real reason that the event happens. So to sharpen James’ premise, we could say that the modifier ‘genuine’ is designed to exclude any understanding of causation that is far removed from our normal understanding of the term in interpseronal interaction, as found in claims like “The customer’s request for a napkin was a cause of the waiter bringing her a napkin” and “James’ post is a cause of my reply to that post”. Or if someone were to ask me, “what caused you to write this essay?”, I might very reasonably respond, “James’ essay challenging my comments”.

JA: 2. Let CA be the conjunction of the two distinctive claims of classical Arminianism, viz., that humans have libertarian freedom and that God has exhaustive infallible knowledge of all human choices (past, present, and future). The question before us is whether CA and GC can both be true.

JA: 3. I take it that God is either timeless or temporal, that is, either (a) God transcends time altogether and therefore does not exist in a series of moments or (b) God inhabits time therefore and exists in an endless series of moments. In the latter case, God may or may not be time-bound prior to the moment of creation. Arminians take different views on this point, but both variants can be treated together for the purposes of this discussion.

****James’ view (a) does not seem right to me. If God transcends time, that is not to say that he “therefore does not exist in a series of moments”, but that he is not bound by any series of moments. That is, he can exist partially in a series of moments, yet he goes beyond them, is not limited by them, and can also be outside of them. He . . . transcends them. Thus, the second view he mentions (b) is also not quite right. The issue is really whether God is bound by time or not. One could use “timeless” and “temporal” to represent the two basic views on this question. But I am not sure that is helpful. The differenmces between us on this will probably come out more as I proceed through his comments.

JA: 4. Consider first the case in which God is temporal. On this view, God infallibly knows at the moment of creation not only every future human prayer but also every response He will make to each prayer. It follows that God’s decisions take place prior to the prayers. After all, it makes little sense to say that God only makes the decision at the time of the prayer, given that He already knows what He will decide! (Just try to imagine yourself in that situation: “I always knew infallibly what I would decide to do today, but now, at long last, the time has come. So, what shall I do?”)

But if God’s decision is an effect, the cause of which is a future human prayer, then the effect temporally precedes the cause. The Arminian who takes this position is thus committed to backward causation. Backward causation is counterintuitive at best and metaphysically impossible at worst; it certainly raises a number of paradoxes that are very difficult to resolve. If Arminianism commits one to backward causation, then so much the worse for Arminianism.

****While I do not hold to the supposition that God is temporally bound, this reasoning runs up against modern scientific theories that can actually explain how a being like God could know the future without causing it, and even act contingently based on such knowledge, i.e., with information he gathers from the future. While not necessarily committed to divine temporality, physicist Hugh Ross has shown how God could use extra dimensions (there are at least 11 dimensions that we know of scientifically, and there could be many more) in such a way (see his book Beyond the Cosmos). (William Lane Craig, who acknowledges Ross as “evangelicalism’s most important scientific apologist” and enthusiastivally supports his work, has criticized Ross severely for his view, charging that he limits God too much by binding him to time and space, but Ross responded by pointing out that he did not mean that God is bound by time and space, but that he could use time and space for his purposes. Craig’s critique can be found here and Ross’ response here). Now, I am not necessarily advocating Ross’ account of how God might know the future free acts of human beings. But the fact that non-causal foreknowledge of future free human actions is scientifically possible for a being like God even within the limits of our current scientific understanding should be more than enough to assure us that the majority of Christians have not been foolish for thousands of years to believe in God’s exhaustive foreknowledge of the future without embracing determinism. What’s more, our confidence should be all the stronger since this is to speak only of what is possible within current scientific thought. But God is not bound by the physical laws of the universe. In fact, he created them! Our God is an awesome God who transcends both time and space. But I suppose I have now gone beyond the view that God is time bound. I betray my view that he is not. But my point here is that even if he were to some extent, modern scientific theory would support the idea that a being like God could still know the future without causing it and also act contingently based on information of the future. (Remember, God is omnipresent.)

(By the way, I should mention that the notion of the possibility of backward causation is a live debate among contemporary philosphers and scientists. See e.g., Jan Faye, “Backward Causation”, who seems positive towards the possibility and whose treatment of the state of the philosophical question leaves the impression that philosophers now tend to favor the possibility of backward causation, or at least that philosophical arguments against it have not been successful.)

JA: 5. Some Arminians, following the lead of Boethius, have appealed to divine timelessness to resolve the tension between divine foreknowledge and human libertarian freedom. ‘Arminian’ seems to take this route in his first reply: “God can do this [i.e., foreknow free human acts] because he is not bound by time.”

Does this move help explain how CA and GC are compatible? I don’t think so. In the first place, our normal understanding of causation is that effects are events, that is, they are temporal occurrences. An effect is what happens because of its cause (or causes) — and happenings are events. Events, of course, take place in time. But if God is timeless, His decisions are also timeless; therefore His decisions cannot be effects (since they cannot be events). Alternatively put: if God’s decisions are effects then God isn’t timeless after all.

****First, I specifically said by way of reply that I was not specifically appealing to a notion of divine timelessness. But if James wants to define divine timelessness as God transcending time, then so be it. But that could get messy if he then ties other aspects of timelessness to the issue in order to cite them as inconsistent with my view. We’ll have to see if that arises. As I said, one could appeal to a notion of divine omnitepmorality. If I had to name my view, I might call it supratemporality.

James makes a fundamental error here by defining “events” in such a way as to build his view into the definition, or in other words, beg the question. The notion of time is not necessarily inherent in normal definition of “event”. An event is normally defined as “something that happens: occurrence” (from Merriam-Webster Online) or something similar (American Heritage paperback edition: “An occurrence or incident”). Now temporality can be involved, as when occurrence refers to an instance. But it is not necessary to the notion of event or occurrence, the basic sense of which is something that happens. James might want to say that he is talking about our normal experience of events, which happen in time since we are time bound creatures. But the problem is that we are specifically talking about the question of a timeless being, a rather abnormal case that inherently defies any temporal connection. And there must be a way to speak of events for a timeless being. Timeless or not, God still does things, making events. Indeed, James refers to God deciding. How else are we to speak of God’s decision? Is it not an event? If not, then it never happens, which is to say God never decides, which renders talk of God’s decisions absurd. If it is not an occurrence, then it does not occur. So James illegitimately defines “event” so as to preclude the very word as having any applicability to a timeless being, a move that collapses into absurdity by implying that God never does anything, ever. At the very least he begs the question. This first run at proving GA and CA incompatible fails right out of the gate.

JA: 6. Here’s a slightly different route to the same conclusion. According to our normal understanding of causation, a cause either temporally precedes or temporally coincides with its effect. So we expect both cause and effect to be temporally related in a certain way, such that both take place in time.

This raises an immediate prima facie problem for Christians who hold that God is timeless. How then could a timeless God cause the world (including time) to come into existence? Now, I’m not raising this as an objection to classical Arminians who understand divine eternity as timelessness. After all, I agree with them on this issue! My point is that we must both concede that some causes can be timeless, even though their effects are temporal. I’d argue that our intuition that causes must be events is not nearly as strong as our intuition that effects must be events, although in this dialectical context I don’t need to. (Notably, many defenders of libertarian freedom make a point of denying that causes must always be events.)

So let’s grant that there can be timeless causes with temporal effects. The more relevant question is whether there can be temporal causes (human prayers) with timeless effects (divine decisions). If the former is coherent, why not think that the latter is equally coherent?

Here’s one reason why not. For those who take God to be timeless, time-boundedness is typically considered a limitation. (This is, after all, one of the main reasons we take God to be timeless.) It makes considerable sense, I think, to hold that a unlimited, time-transcending being has the power to affect limited, time-bound beings. Does it make just as much sense to hold that limited, time-bound beings have the power to affect an unlimited, time-transcending being? The greater has control over the lesser, but does the lesser have control over the greater? God can “reach into” a time-bound universe with His causal powers. But can I “reach out” of a time-bound universe with my causal powers?

There clearly isn’t a parity between the two. So the burden of proof, I suggest, remains firmly on the one (such as ‘Arminian’) who claims that temporal causes can bring about timeless effects.

**** While time-boundedness is a limitation, any power that time-bound beings have to affect an unlimited, time-transcending being are rooted in the unlimited, time-transcending being himself. Time-bound creatures are able to effect the transcendent God only because he grants them that power, or more precisely because he decides to take account of their time-bound actions and make them part of the basis of some of his decisions and actions. It is worth noting that, as J.C. Thibodaux said in the comment section of James’ post, “our prayers don’t ‘control’ God. They’re not logically sufficient conditions in and of themselves to compel a response from God”. Prayers serve as resistible causes to God’s answers to prayer; they might influence him to decide in a certain way and to act in a certain way, but they do not irresitibly cause him to do so. I assume you agree, unless you want to hold that our prayers irresistibly cause God to do what we ask when our prayers are answered. (I found it interesting to see Piper using the terminology of causation in a resistible sense. That is typical use of language with respect to interpersonal relations, but Calivinists so often assume a mechanistic cause-and-effect model so that they mistakenly think any talk of “cause” supports their determinism.) So in any event (pun intended), there is no idea of us “controlling” God in the sense James’ comments give impression of. But plenty of examples could be given of a lesser affecting a greater because the greater decides to respond to the lesser (e.g. a mother responding to the cry of her baby; a king granting his subject’s request).

We could use your own example of “reaching” to illustrate how sensible the Arminian view is. If someone is stuck in a time-bound universe, unable to reach out of that reality and impact God, it makes perfect sense that if God is able to reach into that time-bound universe, then he can allow himself to be affected when he reaches in. God in effect serves as the bridge between time and eternity. So it is not a matter of us reaching out of our time-bound universe with causal powers, but of God reaching in to our time-bound universe with his unlimited power and choosing to act based on his taking account of our reality .

JA: 7. Here’s a final argument against the claim that CA and GC are compatible. I’ve already noted the difficulty in reconciling CA and GC on the assumption that God is in time. But the problem doesn’t go away merely by placing God outside time, since a timeless God still has the power to cause events within time, which once again raises the specter of backward causation.
Consider this scenario. Suppose I offer a prayer to God today that somehow causes His (timeless) decision to respond in a certain way. (Remember that this is what our commenter ‘Arminian’ claims actually happens in practice.) On this view, God not only knows (timelessly) about my prayer, but His response is caused by the prayer.

Since God transcends time, it is possible (given CA) for God to have revealed both my prayer and His response to some person, S, who lived 100 years ago. Thus it is possible for God to cause S to believe some proposition like the following:

(FP) Someone in 2009 will pray X, and God will do Y in answer to his prayer.

But in that case, my prayer would be a partial cause of S’s coming to believe FP. There would be a causal chain beginning in 2009, passing through eternity (via God’s knowledge and will), and ending in 1909. We’re faced with the possibility of backward causation again.

**** I don’t see the problem. This is grounded in God’s omnipotence and eternity. God is so great that he can encompass time and eternity and make something like this happen if he so chooses.

JA: 8. The scenario can be extended so as to make the problem even more acute. Suppose that God not only reveals FP to S, but also commands S to write it down. We now have a physical piece of paper in the year 1909 with the details of my prayer and God’s response written on it. Suppose further that this piece of paper is copied again, and again, and again.
The upshot is that if human prayers can be “genuine causes” of God’s timeless decisions, then my prayer today could be (or could have been) the partial cause of dozens of written records of that prayer existing 100 years ago. In fact, one of those papers — even the original written by S — could make its way through history into my hands today. Imagine the scene as I look down at the paper in my hand which tells me about the very prayer I will offer today and God’s answer to it. I wonder, would I feel at that moment that I had libertarian freedom to not offer that prayer?

**** I would.

JA: In fact, it gets worse. For I might well decide to offer that prayer today because I know I will anyhow and because I know what God’s response will be (assuming it’s favorable). But then I’d be involved in a causal loop: my prayer would be the partial cause of itself! It seems that GC and CA together commit us to the possibility of circular causation as well as backward causation.

**** Again, I don’t see the problem since God is involved, providing a factor that transcends the circle. If he is making this happen from outside the circle, then it is not fully circular. It is as if there is a conduit from eternity connected to the circle providing outside information and causality that renders this all perfectly reasonable given the supposition of an infinite, transcendent, omnipotent God.

JA: Furthermore (and this may be the crowning oddity) if I have libertarian freedom, as CA maintains, then at the point I freely offer my prayer I have the power not only to cause all those paper records to exist (or to have existed) but also to cause them not to exist (or not to have existed) — even though, due to the very pastness of the past, whether or not they existed has already been settled.

**** The way James frames this is another instance of invalidly building his view into the scenario so that it supports his argument, begging the question. We come yet again to the critical difference between certainty and necessity, a distinction which James acknowledged as valid but thought irrelevant. But just as before, it again turns out to be quite relevant. On this, see see e.g., Robert E. Picirilli, “Foreknowledge, Freedom, and the Future”. The logic on this distinction is definitive, which is probably why James accepts it as valid. With respect to James’ example, while in this case, the pray-er will certainly pray the prayer, there is nothing necessitating him to do so. In fact, if he will not pray the prayer, then God’s foreknowledge would have been different, since it is contingent on what the free human agent will actually do, and God would never have said that he would pray the prayer, and there would never have been any paper trail. James rigs the deck here by framing the scenario as the prayer already being certain as to its occurrence, and so the prohecy of its occurrence also being certain. But then he alleges that the pray-er (= the person who prays) would have the ability to cause the things already known to happen, not to happen. This is absurd, but it does not tell against the Arminian view, since again, God would foreknow whatever outcome would actually happen. While the potential pray-er would have the ability to not pray (there is no necessity), he certainly will pray (there is certainty in God’s foreknowledge). (There are further considerations that would counter James’ point here even more forcefully, but they could open up a whole other avenue of discussion, and so might better be left unmentioned for now, since I think these observations already counter James’ argument adequately.)

JA: 9. It won’t do to say, by way of objection, that in the scenario above I would only have the power to make false the propositions expressed in writing on the papers. The idea here, presumably, is that if I opted to pray otherwise (or to refrain from praying) the papers written in 1909 would be physically unaltered but would turn out to express falsehoods rather than truths. The problem with this claim is that it involves the falsification of divine revelation, something no classical Arminian would want to countenance. Remember that ex hypothesi these papers were written at God’s command, as a record of God’s revelation. If I have the power to falsify divine revelation, then Judas had the power to falsify Psalm 41:9 (cf. John 13:18). This way lies Open Theism, not classical Arminianism.

**** This is essentially answered in my last response above (under # 8). Certainly divine revelation cannot be falsified. It is just that there would never be a case in which it could be. If by his ability to transcend time God foreknew that the guy would pray based on the fact of his actually praying, then he will pray, not by necessity, but certainly. (Again, see Picirilli.) God would not foreknow that the papers of infallbile prophecy would be unless they would be.

JA: 10. Neither will it do to say that while my hypothetical scenario is possible, it would never actually happen (perhaps because God just wouldn’t act that way) and therefore there would never actually be a causal chain from the present to the past. There are two reasons why this response is inadequate.

The first reason is that the mere possibility of the scenario is enough to show the problem in reconciling CA and GC. If the conjunction of CA and GC implies the possibility of backward/circular causation, then (by modus tollens) the impossibility of backward/circular causation implies that CA and GC cannot both be true.

**** But all things (that are logically possible) are possible with God, and such causation appears to be logically possible with him given his ability to transcend time. See earlier comments above.

JA: The second reason this response won’t fly is because, as a matter of historical fact, a scenario very similar to the one I’ve described has in fact happened (minus the assumption that human prayers are “genuine causes” of divine decisions). Consider this prophecy from Jeremiah:

“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Jer. 29:10-14)

Here we find:

An infallible prediction of a future human prayer.
An infallible prediction of the divine response to that human prayer.
A physical written record of those predictions, with (most likely) multiple subsequent copies of that written record.
The possession of that written record by some of the humans who would eventually offer the prayer (see Daniel 9).

The one thing we don’t find here is the suggestion that the human prayer is a “genuine cause” of a timeless divine decision. But it’s precisely that claim which introduces the philosophical problems I’ve spelled out above. So it seems that if the classical Arminian has to drop one claim to maintain coherence, it should be GC.

**** Well, this again is rendered irrelevant by earlier comments (see under # 8). And the observation that, “The one thing we don’t find here is the suggestion that the human prayer is a “genuine cause” of a timeless divine decision” is something of an argument from silence. What we do find in Scripture, recognized by Piper, is that prayer is a cause of God’s actions. Therefore, I think we can rest assured that they are a genuine cause of his actions, including his decisions. There is no need to drop either Arminian claim.

JA: 11. The last argument can be adapted, of course, to apply to the case in which God is time-bound. In other words, the problems arise whether or not one takes God to be “bound by time.” The difficulties arise not because of the relationship between God and time, but because of the implications of CA and GC taken together.

JA: 12. None of this raises any problems that I can discern for Piper’s original claim that our prayers can be the causes of the answers to those prayers, even if those prayers are foreordained. The same claim holds for classical Arminianism, with its weaker notion of foreordination.

But what doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, in light of the arguments I’ve offered above, is the claim that classical Arminianism has an advantage over Calvinism in that it can accommodate the idea that our prayers are “genuine causes” of God’s decisions about how to answer those prayers.

**** By way of conclusion: It is interesting that rather than try to defend Calvinism directly as consistent with being a genuine cause of God’s actions (or decisions as James would have it), James attempts to drag Arminianism down into the same pit of opposition to Scripture concerning prayer as a genuine cause of some of God’s actions that Calvinism is stuck in with its adherence to exhaustive determinism. He concedes that in Calvinism prayer is not a genuine cause of God’s decisions about how to answer prayer. As I have pointed out, in my comments at his blog, he has ignored my direct challenge to prayer being able to be a genuine cause of God’s answers to prayer in Calvinism. But the problem still remains, and James has effectively tried to sidestep it. A predestined prayer cannot reasonably be said to be a cause of God’s actions when God decided to do something, then irresistibly causes someone to ask him to do it (in prayer), and then does it. James wants to try and disallow the Arminian view by claiming it is philosophically or logically impossible for a God that is not bound by time to be affected by time-bound beings. But this does not follow in the least. God himself, in his transcendent power is the source of the possibility of human actions being able to affect him. Moreover, current scientific understanding can even explain how a being like God could know the future without causing it, and God is not bound by the physical laws of our universe! He created them. Furthermore, as Gregory E. Ganssle has said, “Questions about God’s relation to time involve many of the most perplexing topics in metaphysics. These include the nature of the fundamental structures of the universe as well as the nature of God’s own life. It is not surprising that the questions are still open even after over two millennia of careful inquiry. While philosophers often come to conclusions that are reasonably settled in their mind, they are wise to hold such conclusions with an open hand” (“God and Time” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). It is unwise to base an objection to God’s ability to base his decisions to some extent on the actions of human beings performed in time on one’s view of God’s relationship to time when our understanding is so limited, God is so immense, and there are various models that can conceivably account for this. James might argue that the Arminian view is based on a certain relationship of God to time. But it is not so. It may demand that God is not bound by time (not necessarily timeless). But the Arminian view is actually based on Scripture and Scripture’s incompatibility with determinism and its attestation of free will among other things. In this case, the Arminian view is based on the fact that Scripture presents prayer as a cause of God’s answers to prayer, a fact Piper and Anderson agree with. Calvinism, on the other hand, still seems inconsistent with this biblical truth given petitionary prayer’s nature as requesting God to do something.

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