Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Molinist Solution to the Problem of Prayer

I normally don’t post a whole lot about Molinism (this is just the third out of 42 posts to do so), but I feel the idea has great applications and scope to problems in theology. One of the so-called problems mentioned from time to time is the problem of prayer.

The simple fact is that we are commanded, biblically, to pray. Philippians 4:6 instructs, “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.” In addition, Paul goes on in another letter to say, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians ). Jesus assumed prayer would take place by his followers when he instructed his disciples as to the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9. Clearly, prayer is to be a normative part of the Christian experience.

There are some apparently troubling problems with prayer, however. First, there is the problem of God’s sovereignty and immutable plan. Since most people believe God is sovereign and he has had a plan even “before” the creation of the world and time, how is it prayer makes any difference? Had one prayed another way, the logic goes, it wouldn’t have mattered: God would still have done what he wanted to do.

Another problem is the problem of “post-action prayers.” It’s a quick prayer we all say when we hear of something occurring. “James just got in a horrible car accident,” you hear. Instantly, you pray a silent prayer begging God he is alive. If James were killed on impact, however, your prayer would come too late. That is to say, whatever has happened in terms of injuries and/or damage to the car has already happened, so why pray?

Molinism is the basic teaching that God holds counterfactual knowledge of what any free creature would choose to do in any fully-specified set of circumstances. A proffered answer from some quarters to the first problem is that God simply looks ahead to what you will do and if the request of your prayer is in his plan, he will grant it. A Molinist solution could say God doesn’t just have simple foreknowledge but exhaustive knowledge of all possible choices and what every free creature would do. In this way, God could meticulously plan every detail, including truths and details of how he himself would act in any situation, so that he knows, and plans completely in eternity, “In circumstances C Jim will pray for X, and in circumstances C where Jim prays for X, God will answer that prayer affirmatively.” It may well be in such a scenario that a true counterfactual for God would be that “were Jim to be in circumstances C and not pray for X, God would not act in the same way as an affirmative answer to the former prayer.” In other words, prayer makes a difference to how God would act in varying circumstances (something simple foreknowledge can only scratch the surface of, in my view).[1]

The answer to the second problem lies also in counterfactual knowledge. Without this knowledge, it would seem quite silly indeed to pray for something that already took place. You suddenly remember your brother had a job interview an hour earlier, and pray hastily “Lord, please, I pray it went well.” But what has happened has happened. Do we expect God to turn back time and change the event? Not really. But suppose that God knew in the exact circumstances you were in you would forget to pray until the interview was over; but you would indeed pray. In that case, God may choose on the basis of his counterfactual middle knowledge to grant the request of your prayer, even in the case that the answer comes before the request![2]

While this may strike some as very interesting, others may have already embraced a similar view. This goes to show that I believe Christians generally hold to the basic principle of Molinism (that is, God knows what every free creature would do in any set of circumstances) intuitively; it offers a solution for prayer which holds God-given freedom and God’s freedom and power itself.

                [1] Want biblical evidence? Try Genesis 18:16-33. Abraham implored the Lord several times to get a “bargain” for the prayer to save the lives of the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah. That there were not ten righteous is irrelevant to these purposes; it’s enough to show that each individual counterfactual was true in accordance with the request of Abraham (50, 45, 40, 30, 20, 10).

                [2] I was exposed to this solution by William Lane Craig’s work, though I cannot remember (nor find) the citation.

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  1. hi Randy, I'm with a doubt on this because I think it works with human knowledge, but not with God's... I think my view is more reformed..

    The main reason why we say a rock is a rock is because God wishes it to be a rock, so before I said the rock is a rock God would already know it. And if the rock turns out to be a house, it was God's will and so, He already would know that's true before it turns to be a home. So God's will is always the truth. You cannot separate both. Is like when Jesus said I am the Truth.

    Also a preacher and a blogger give a cool theory about God and Time:

    "So I told him of the "journey" of Einstein. One in which Einstein said that if a being be so great, but so great that could place the toe in the the sun, whether that be saw the sun faded out, he would, immediately, what the residents of Earth would only see eight minutes later. That is, for this being, past, present and future would be the same .

    Of course, if this Being was "great" enough to cover the distances of the whole universe, everything I say, everything happens at the same time to this Being"

    I'm not trolling, and I am not passionate about this view, so I really want to see if fits. Great blog, your review of Craig-Harris debate teached me a lot!

  2. Hi Charles thanks for your comment! Don't worry about disagreement; I don't think you're a troll at all. :)

    While I find your comments very interesting, I'm not so sure they are applicable to the Molinist solution to the problem of prayer. I suppose in some sense this could be applied to the problem of prayer in general, and it just be said that if we pray, it is because God caused us to pray. Is that what you are saying?

  3. I was not adressing the problem of prayer, which I think a God that is unnafected by man (self-suficient), who lives in eternal and unchanged happiness would not change things because all happen accordingly to his will, prayer for me is less to ask to do our will than ask God to have strenght to do his will. I'm a soft determinist, I think God determines what the elected do, but not the sinners. And a christian doesn't have much affection when troubled with temporal sadness, for example, if you loss a brother in Christ, you gonna fell saddened, but you know you gonna rejoice with him in paradise, this is a consolation. All this is logical, but if the premisse "God isn't affected" is false all I said comes to be false.

    What I was adressing was a Craig's interview ( ) by Kuhn in which he said God can learn. He was absurdly logical and if his theory isn't right about God, it would be still working for men's knowledge. But I think God is more than that, as God created light he knows what light is before light comes to be, and we, his creation can only say that light is truly light because God wished light to be light. He cannot learn over time because as the preacher said, He is present in all times, He is a being who is above time, past and future are for his perspective present, but this didn't work for us.

    As I have these insights right after seeing the video, I would't say is error free... I myself am just speculating, but is amazing how theology can affect our relashionship with God.

    I loss my comment before, I have to shorten a little because I didn't remember totally.. You study at Biola and Craig is your professor?

    And sorry for not adressing your post, but I was anxious to talk about these things with a molinist.

  4. I do not study at Biola, and Craig is not my professor, but I would love both of those things! :)

    I think Craig's view of God's learning of facts is tied up not in Molinism, but in his view of God's relationship to time (as you mentioned), as well as the existence of so-called "tensed facts." If we grant the existence of tensed facts, such as "Christopher Columbus will sail across the ocean in 1492," as being true before 1492 but false afterward, then it seems God does "learn," but only in a trivial sense. Otherwise, we say God does not know the truth of "Christopher Columbus will sail the ocean in 1492;" or just as absurd and possibly worse, this would have God believing "Christopher Columbus will sail the ocean in 1492" in 2011; God would believe that which is false! The only way around this is to deny that temporal becoming is real; nothing begins to exist or comes into being at all; it is just a model in our minds.

    As far as God's "learning" being trivially true, it's important to note Craig is not saying that God did not know the tenseless fact; i.e., God always knew the fact "In 1492, Christopher Columbus sails across the ocean," was true; it's simply the tensed features that change, and hence God believes at a moment just prior that Columbus will sail is true, and a moment after that Columbus will sail is false!

  5. It sure envolves theory of time (A-B), and I am a little deterministic here, because of God's capabilities of giving prophecies He would know the future as we know the present, besides some personal prophecies are dependent of men's response (Jonah), some general prophecies sure will happen independently (John and revelation, or the first coming of Christ).

    This capability of seeing the future is intringuing, because in His perpective my salvation and yours are already truth, we are already saved even before the judgment, as we were once elected in the very beggining of the world. This make me think if God is living only the present time with us, or already living multiple times like the future¹, and I still at the present time because I can't be at the future because I am just finite. How He experience time since time began to exist with him? How would He experience time before creating it? Maybe time is a limitation to all universes? And if God exists in time and in universe would time and universe be bigger than him?

    I have a problem with creation of time too, because God didn't create only this world, maybe was the mormon influence in my conversion, but I believe God can create a great number of worlds (besides keeping logical rules and the same Laws that reflects his Good Nature), so, Time maybe or maybe not existed before, dependently if He created multiple universes at the same time or creating each one separately and each one with his own time.

    Is a lot of questions and confusions (oh God, the headache awaits laugh), maybe because I am just a lay person with limited intelectual resources. I want to have a Theology PhD too (maybe I'm trying too hard laugh).

    As a molinist, do you know any debate between a molinist and a reformer?

    1- I will try to rebuke but I don't promise nothing (laugh). If He can live in multiple times, it would not be wrong to say Columbus will sail in 1492 in 2011, since He is above time it is part of one of his truths, it would be wrong for us to say, because we already experienced it, but He still there in the past, and therefore is not actually wrong, it just irrelevant to say it to us.

  6. So it seems, from your footnote comments, that you are a B-theorist of time? In that case, it wouldn't be objectively wrong for me to say any tensed fact is true or false; only relatively true (but nonetheless ontologically vacuous with respect to tense or time).

    I do not know of an actual, formal debate between a Molinist and a Reformed theologian. However, I would recommend reading Ken Keathley's book Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach. In it, he deals with salvation both from Reformed and Molinist perspectives. It's very interesting!

  7. Hmm, I would'n say I am a B-theorist, but if what I said in the first comment is correct, It would have no other option as to accept B-Theory of time, and get your conclusion.

    It's very improbable but I like to play devils advocate sometimes and try to defend the most hardest things (laugh), you know, I study law and love to exercise a little.

    It appears that Craig is adressing "God knowledge and will" at his reasonable faith podcast, so let's see what Bill himself said.

    I thank you a lot for your time, I've already signed your feed and share your review at my twitter. Peace of God be with you!

  8. Ey, look what I've found, exacly what we have talking about!

  9. Thanks Charles! I saw your blog and used Microsoft Translator, so I got the basic idea of what you said. I appreciate your kind words. :)

    One thing I did want to clear up, however: I was not saying in this article that I believe we can change the future from what it will be, but that the prayer figures into what the future will be versus what it would have been without the prayer. So, if it is true for God to say, "If Charles prays for money for new clothes, then I will give him money for the new clothes," and if it is also true that "If Charles does not pray for money for new clothes, then I will not give him money for new clothes," then your prayer has a part in bringing about a different future than what would have been had you not prayed. Now I think it is evident that we should praise God for this, since he is the one who decided he would answer the prayer. I am just illustrating how one scenario could play out. Thanks for commenting!

  10. Also, I wanted to express my thanks to Ravi Zacharias for footnote 1. I probably read the description of Abraham as a Middle-Eastern haggler in his "Can Man Live Without God?" :)


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