Sunday, 29 January 2017

Providence and Prayer, by Terrance Tiessen



Terrance Tiessen, Providence and Prayer: How does God work in the world? 2000 IVP


There are many books about prayer, but most of them are devotional rather than theological. There are a lot of books on providence, but they do not always spend much time talking about prayer. This book examines how prayer works on different theological models of God's providence.

Tiessen places the range of views on a spectrum of how much control they see God as exercising. At the lowest view of providence is the Semi-Deist view, held by some liberal Christians. At the other end of the scale is the Fatalist view. While no theologians explicitly teach Fatalism, he uses it to draw the contrast with Calvinism and because some untaught Christians might fall into the trap of that kind of thinking. The two major Catholic views, Molinism and Thomism are placed in the middle of the spectrum, Thomism on the high end and Molinism on the low end. I liked the way Tiessen reserved his critique of the different models until the end, when he presents his own view. In the individual chapters, he presents each model in the best possible light. This is a very irenic approach. As an Evangelical, I got into a lot of debates over Calvinism, something a friend of mine calls 'Punch and Judy theology.'

Our author illustrates how the models work with a case study. An emergency prayer meeting in a church is called after news that a missionary has been kidnapped by a rebel group. Tiessen represents each theological model with a character who attends the prayer meeting. He explains how each of them came to their view and quotes the prayer they make at the meeting. It seems surprising that a church would hold such a broad range of theological views. I suppose an affluent and well educated Anglican parish in the UK might have such diversity. The first person to pray at the meeting is the person holding the Semi-Deist view, who denies any intervention of God in the world, a lady of liberal Christian views. What struck me was how the prayer she prays would come across as very encouraging to the people at the meeting:

"Dear God, you are the creator of this world and all who are in it. We acknowledge your wisdom and love in constituting things as they are, given the limitations that you have placed upon yourself by generously creating human beings and giving them freedom to act within your master act. We ourselves desire to act in ways which are consistent with your own good purposes, but this is not true of everyone and it is certainly not true of those who have abducted Richard and his two fellow missionaries. We express our confidence that in the end of all things, your purpose will be accomplished, but we do not know when that will be true. In the meantime we know that Richard and his colleagues are committed to serving you, and we too shall do what we can to bring good out of this evil and to further your benevolent purposes for the world. In the name of Jesus, who so modeled the life that you wish us to be, Amen."

What I take from this is that even people who have really stinking bad theology can still be inspired by the love of Christ and be a blessing to others.

One of the models that is included is the Church Dominion model. This holds that the Church is called to participate in Christ's reign, so when we pray, we are exercising dominion in Christ's name. Tiessen places this as slightly higher than Openness theology on his spectrum of providence. I feel it is slightly awkward to see this as a model, as it's advocates, such as Paul Billheimer do not seem overly concerned to articulate a consistent model of divine sovereignty. It seems more concerned with the function of prayer. I have greatly enjoyed reading and benefiting from Billheimer's Destined for the Throne, both as an Evangelical Arminian (before) and as a Thomist, or maybe a Scotist (now). I think aspects of the Church Dominion model are compatible with an high view of divine sovereignty. In fact, Karl Barth seems to have spoken in those terms when he said that prayer is a 'participation in Christ's kingly office.' I liked the fact that Sandra, the character representing Church Dominion, is always getting asked to pray for others. Whenever I read Destined for the Throne, I am encouraged to pray more.

Tiessen's own view is a combination of Calvinism and Middle Knowledge. His thinking is very similar to the position advocated by Bruce Ware in God's Greater Glory. I would agree with those who argue that Middle Knowledge does not add anything to Calvinism. If counter-factual decisions exist, they either arise from the free-will of the creature, which would not really be acceptable to Calvinists, or they are exist by divine decree, which adds nothing to the Calvinist belief that God moves the human will. I think he identifies Calvinism too closely with Jonathan Edward's deterministic position and does not engage with the problems inherent in Edward's thinking. Most disappointingly of all, Tiessen doubts that God is timeless and rejects divine impassibility. He gives no acknowledgement of the problems of rejecting classic theism. I am also not sure about his handling of Thomism. I think Thomism is closer to Calvinism than Tiessen allows.

The back cover blurb makes reference to people praying for parking spaces. There are some Christians who think that this is unacceptable for differing reasons. Tiessen seems to think it is fine, but I'm sure that some readers would have liked him to address that question in more detail. I particularly liked a point our author makes about God's provision. He says that God has never promised that we will not go hungry. I have heard a lot of Christians say that God will never allow us to lack our basic needs. This is easy to say when you are a middle-class person inn England. However, sadly there are many Christians in the world who do go hungry and cannot always put food on the table. What God does promise is that even if we suffer, God's ultimate purposes will be fulfilled and we can look to Him for that.

I think this is a very edifying read and Christians who take differing views of divine providence will gain much from reading it.

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