Can God Answer Prayers About the Past?

Roger Olson has recently done a couple of interesting posts about whether or not God can change the past.  He argues that God cannot change the past.  Here are the links:

Can the Past Be Changed (Even By God)? Some Musings about Time

Follow Up to Musings about Whether the Past Can Be Changed

In the second post he suggests that prayers about the past are probably not effective, and don’t have a Biblical precedent:

And I struggle with why the Bible contains no examples of petitionary prayer about the past at all so far as I know—not even prayers about events not yet known as to their nature and outcome but certain to have happened. This is to me a strong indication that such prayer cannot have any effect other than satisfying some psychological need and causing consternation and confusion.

I agree with Olson that God cannot (or does not) change the past.  For example, it does no good to pray that the Holocaust will not have taken place.

Having said that, I do think that prayers about the past can influence what God will have done.  I occasionally pray about the recent past.  For example, I sometimes pray that a loved one who has been traveling will have made it home safe.  I don’t think that God goes back and changes the past because of the prayer, but rather that he will have already done something to have kept them safe because of the prayer.  God knows that I will pray later, and can answer that prayer.  C.S. Lewis argues for something like this in “Miracles”.

When we are praying about the result, say, of a battle or a medical consultation the thought will often cross our minds that (if only we knew it) the event is already decided one way or the other. I believe this to be no good reason for ceasing our prayers. The event certainly has been decided—in a sense it was decided ‘before all worlds’. But one of the things taken into account in deciding it, and therefore one of the things that really cause it to happen, may be this very prayer that we are now offering. Thus, shocking as it may sound, I conclude that we can at noon become part causes of an event occurring at ten a.m. (Some scientists would find this easier than popular thought does.) The imagination will, no doubt, try to play all sorts of tricks on us at this point. It will ask, ‘Then if I stop praying can God go back and alter what has already happened?’ No. The event has already happened and one of its causes has been the fact that you are asking such questions instead of praying. It will ask, ‘Then if I begin to pray can God go back and alter what has already happened?’ No. The event has already happened and one of its causes is your present prayer. Thus something does really depend on my choice. My free act contributes to the cosmic shape. That contribution is made in eternity or ‘before all worlds’; but my consciousness of contributing reaches me at a particular point in the time-series.

So I agree with Olson that God can’t change the past. But I still think it’s worthwhile to pray about past events, especially events where we don’t know the outcome, and that God hears and can use those prayers.

Side note: Here’s an interesting article about praying for the past by Wesleyan/Nazarene philosopher Kevin Timpe.  Prayers for the Past. He calls them PIPs (past-directed impetratory prayers).  He argues that PIPs make logical sense for those who hold to Simple Foreknowledge, the Eternal-Now theory (Lewis’ view), or to Molinism.  But not for those who hold to Open Theism (because in Open Theism God would at best only have predictive knowledge that someone would pray).

What do you think?  Are prayers about the past ever effective?


Filed under Kevin Timpe, Prayer, roger olson

Book Review: Arminian and Baptist, Explorations in a Theological Tradition by J. Matthew Pinson

Arminian and Baptist is a book about the history of Arminian theology in the General Baptist and Free Will Baptist tradition.  It is written by J. Matthew Pinson, a Free Will Baptist, and the president of Welch College in Nashville, Tennessee.

I enjoyed the book, and learned a great deal about the history of Arminianism in the Baptist tradition.  I recommend the book to Arminians and Calvinists alike, particularly to those who are interested in the history of Classical Arminianism.  As a Wesleyan, I came away with a better understanding of the differences between Wesleyan Arminianism and Classical Arminianism (or Reformational Arminianism) and why these differences are important.  I was sometimes irritated by the author’s passionate advocating of Classical Arminianism over Wesleyan Arminianism, however, he represents Wesleyanism fairly for the most part.  Classical and Wesleyan Arminians have slightly different focuses as to what we think is important.  These result in some minor in-house differences (which I’ll expand on at the end of the post).

The book starts with a history of Jacob Arminius and his theology.  Arminius’ theology was thoroughly Reformed.  He regarded Calvin highly.  Arminius’ theology was “a development of Reformed theology rather than a departure from it.”  In the time of Arminius there was also diversity on the doctrine of predestination in the Reformed church.  Both contemporaries of Arminius and some of his Reformed precursors held to non-Calvinistic views of predestination.  Pinson notes that “There was no consensus on the doctrine of predestination in the Dutch Reformed Church of Arminius’ time.”  While Arminius was Reformed, he disagreed with Calvinistic predestination.  He thought that Calvinism “inverted the Gospel” and that predestination did not properly focus on the work of Christ.  “It was as though Christ and his work were an afterthought”.

Chapter 2 deals with the view of the Atonement in Arminius’ theology, where again Arminius remained Reformed.  He was fully committed to the penal substitution (or satisfaction) view of the Atonement.   This is the view that Jesus went to the cross in order to fulfill the demands of God’s justice.  While God is merciful, he also is committed to justice.  A price had to be paid for our sin.  Jesus individually paid the price of each person’s sin.  So God imputed our sin to Jesus, and he also imputes the righteousness of Jesus to each person who believes in faith.  The  penal substitution view is contrasted with the Moral Government view (developed by Remonstrant Hugo Grotius, and held by many Wesleyans).  In this view Jesus suffered on behalf of humanity, but not individually for each person.  As Governor, God was displeased with the sin of man. By accepting the suffering of Jesus, God is able to forgive those who believe, reconcile them to Himself, and maintain justice and order.

Chapter 3 gives a historical sketch of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys – the founders of the General Baptist movement.  Both came from a Calvinistic Puritan background, and both adopted anti-Calvinist views.  They spent time in the Netherlands, as did many Puritans.  Around 1611 they separated because of differences.  Smyth wanted to adapt the views of the Dutch Mennonites, including a rejection of original sin, and a focus on imparted righteousness.  Helwys maintained an Augustinian view of original sin and held to imputed righteousness (Imputed righteousness is a forensic righteousness before God provided by Jesus.  Imparted righteousness is where Jesus makes us more like himself).

Chapter 4 is an overview of Thomas Helwys’ treatise “A Short and Plain Proof”, which was a criticism of Calvinistic predestination.  As all Arminians agree, Helwys argued that the atonement is for all – Jesus died for everyone.  Helwys was particularly concerned about where evil came from, and that it could not have come from God.  He argued that the original cause of the fall was Adam and Eve’s freedom, and that if it was instead decreed by God, then the fall was a deterministic necessity.  Describing Calvinism and it’s impact on God’s character he wrote: “Can men make freedom and bondage in one and the same action, all in one man, and at the same time? How will men be able with any good conscience make things so contrary hang together?

Chapter 5 is about the the General Baptist Thomas Grantham.  Pinson contrasts Grantham’s theology with that of John Goodwin.  Grantham was more conservative than Goodwin both doctrinally and politically.  Whereas Goodwin argued for the Governmental atonement view, Grantham held to penal substitution.  Grantham also didn’t care for the term “Arminian” because of the baggage that can be associated with the view.

Chapter 6 is about the theology of John Wesley, and the areas where Wesley differed from the Classical Arminian view.  Wesley’s theology is described as an amalgamation of views that cannot be pigeonholed (I agree).  Wesley’s theology is also described as more in the mold of John Goodwin and Hugo Grotius than that of Jacob Arminius.  For example, Wesley rejected the idea of forensic justification, and called the view a cover for unrighteousness.  “He (Wesley) found it difficult to conceive of a gospel that would allow a believer to commit sin with impunity because he has been imputed with the righteousness of Christ”.  Pinson also argues that even though Wesley technically held to the satisfaction view of the atonement, he was influenced heavily by the governmental view: “[Wesley’s] theory of atonement relies on the logic of penal satisfaction but on the spirit of governmentalism.”

Chapter 7 is about the Free Will Baptist movement.  It is described as confessional, Baptist, and Arminian.  In contrast to most Baptist groups, FWBs have a high regard for historical Christianity and the creeds.  Also in contrast to most other Baptist groups, FWBs believe that apostasy is possible.  When apostasy occurs, it is permanent, and comes about because of a loss/rejection of faith in Christ, and not because of sin in the life of the believer.  This is in contrast to most Baptists, who believe that apostasy is impossible (once saved always saved), and the Wesleyan view – who believe that a continued pattern of sin can also result in separation from God, but it’s still possible for the person to repent / be restored again.

I want to close with what I see as the key differences between Classical Arminianism and Wesleyan Arminianism.  As noted earlier, Pinson is passionate about Classical Arminianism.  Since I’m Wesleyan, I want to comment on these differences as seen from a Wesleyan perspective (for more details, see this post: A Comparison of Wesleyanism and Classical Arminianism).

Wesleyans tend to be less scholastic.  An example of this is views of atonement (but it extends to other topics too).  Classical Arminians always hold to penal substitution as the primary view of the Atonement.  Wesleyans tend to hold to the governmental view, but also see value in the penal view, as well as the “Christus Victor” view (that Jesus defeated Satan at the cross).  I personally lean to the penal substitution view, but I think all the views of the atonement add value and understanding to what Christ did for us on the cross, and even weak views (like the moral example theory) add to the tapestry.

Wesleyans are more ecumenical. We really like the saying “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  We downplay doctrinal distinctness, and focus more on Christian unity.  Even when reading about the history of Smyth and Helwys, I found myself identifying more with Smyth than Helwys.  I admired his desire to find commonality with the Dutch Mennonites.

Wesleyans have more of a focus on the Holy Spirit.  Another way of putting it is we are more Pietistic.  We believe that the Holy Spirit fills us, speaks to us, and works in our lives.  It’s the difference again between imputed and imparted righteousness.  Wesleyans believe that not only are we forensically right before God, but as the Holy Spirit lives in us, he begins to change us deep inside, and we become more like Christ.

Lastly, Wesleyan theology tends to be more pastoral.  We are interested in how the application of theology applies to our daily walk with God.  I think all Arminian theology tends to be more pastoral than Calvinist theology.  That’s because we all believe God is relational and loves us.  But at the same time, Wesleyanism takes this a step further.  Wesley himself was this way, and it’s why his theology was an amalgamation.  Wesleyans are skeptical of theology that detracts from our daily walk with Christ.


Disclosure:  I was provided a copy of the book, and agreed to write a  review.


Filed under Uncategorized

Ben Witherington – A Review of Rachel Held Evan’s Book – Searching for Sunday

Ben Witherington recently wrote a review of Rachel Held Evans’ book “Searching for Sunday”.  He captures very well both what I like and dislike of Rachel’s blog.  He writes:

“What her book fails to really grapple with however is the major difference between unconditional love and unconditional acceptance of us as we are.

Frankly put, God doesn’t ‘accept’ us as we are, because what we are is fallen and flawed sinful people. God loves us as we are, but God is insistent that we all change, repent of our sinful inclinations and ways, and become more like Christ. A loving welcome by Jesus does not exclude incredible demands in regard to our conduct, and indeed even in regard to the lusts of our hearts. As it turns out, God is an equal opportunity lover of all humanity, and also an equal opportunity critiquer of all our sin, and with good reason— it is sin that keeps separating us from God and ruining our relationship with God. This is why the only proper Biblical approach to everyone who would wish to be ‘in Christ’ and ‘in the body of Christ’ is that they are most welcome to come as they are, and they will be loved as they are, but no one is welcome to stay as they are— all God’s chillins need to change. Welcoming does not entail affirming our sins, much less baptizing our sins and suddenly calling them good, healthy, life giving.”

Witherington’s review can be found here: A Searching Book – Rachel Held Evans’ ‘Searching for Sunday’

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Filed under Ben Witherington, Rachel Held Evans

Why Polygamy is Wrong

This post is about why I believe polygamy is wrong.  A while back I was speaking with a fellow believer who holds that polygamy is acceptable.   That conversation is why this is on my mind.

I also believe that homosexual sexual relations are wrong.  It’s not the point of this post to address that issue, but I do think that some of the arguments for the two issues overlap.  Another issue that may have some overlap and Biblical relevance is the issue of slavery.  I will get into that later in the post.

Marriage was designed by God to be between one man and one woman. It started that way with Adam and Eve. Genesis 2:24 states that “…a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

Jesus made the assumption that marriage was between a man and a woman.   When the Pharisees questioned him about divorce, Jesus quoted from the same passage from Genesis:

It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mark 10:5-9)

Jesus says that “they are no longer two, but one.” Like divorce, polygamy was tolerated in the Old Testament.  Like divorce, it was never God’s design.

The Apostle Paul wrote that a man should have only one wife.  Writing about the qualifications for a deacon, he states:

If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. (1 Tim 3:1-3)


appoint elders in every town as I directed you.  If anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.  He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:6-9)

The Greek phrase that Paul uses here is “mias gunaikos andra“.  It literally means “a one-woman man”.  Polygamy fits into the same category as cheating on one’s spouse.  Or put differently, polygamy disqualifies one from leadership in the same way that drunkenness, arrogance, greed, and rage do.

Christian consensus has always advocated monogamy.  Polygamy has never been considered acceptable by any orthodox Christian group.  Christian consensus has always been that marriage is between a man and a woman.  We should be wary of arguments that disregard the “rule of faith” (Things that nearly all Christians at all times have agreed on).  People like Muhammad and Joseph Smith have advocated polygamy.  But Muhammed was non-Christian, and Joseph Smith was heterodox.  That ought to be a warning to us.

Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s preferred by God.  Polygamy took place in the Old Testament.  But that didn’t make it okay.  Like slavery and divorce, polygamy seems to have been something that God permitted because of the hardness of hearts, but it was not ever something he preferred or designed.

Polygamy always causes hurt and division.  In the Bible whenever polygamy took place, it caused hurt to others.  Abraham’s polygamy was due to his and Sarah’s lack of faith in God’s promise, and it caused division in his family (Genesis 21).  This division still exists among Jews and Arabs today.  Samuel’s mother Hannah was grieved because of having to compete with the other wife of her husband who ridiculed her (1 Samuel 1).  David’s polygamy resulted in murder and family division.  Solomon’s polygamy pulled his heart away from God.

The idea of polygamy is perverted.  The possibility of multiple sexual partners takes a man’s thoughts to places he should not go.  As Christians, we need to take our thoughts captive (2 Cor 10:5).  This is especially true of our sexual thoughts.  It is easy to imagine having sex with another woman.  And it is wrong to do so.  Jesus says that if a man even looks at another woman with lust, it’s the same as committing adultery in his heart (Matt 5:28).

Wisdom on this issue  requires consensus with other believers.  Sometimes those of us in the Protestant tradition think we can peruse a few Bible verses on our own, and come up with our own original doctrines.  However, when we come up with our own innovations and ideas, we ought to discuss them with other mature Christians.  And if they disagree with us, we need to take their wisdom into consideration.

We can’t expect God to give us wisdom if we are sinning.  If a man is actively looking at pornography, he cannot expect that the Holy Spirit will guide him to truth on this issue.   Does our motivation to justify polygamy come from a heart that seeks after God?  Or from a desire to satisfy our flesh?


Filed under General Interest

[Link] Why I Left the Church of the Nazarene

As a person who loves the Church of the Nazarene (COTN), it hurts when I run across stories like this one. But this is a well written and graceful account that needs to be shared. It’s by a former Nazarene pastor named Ric Shewell, who now serves in the UMC.

Link here: Why I Left the Church of the Nazarene

He rightly points out that his experience was unique, however, he mentions something that I have also noticed: Among COTN members and some pastors, there is growing distrust of Nazarene colleges, and a fear that those institutions have become “liberal”. I don’t think that distrust is warranted, and it makes me sad. I don’t always agree with Nazarene theologians and professors, but I have never doubted their love for the Lord, and their love for the students they teach. In fact, several of the professors wrote replies to the blog and apologized.


Filed under Nazarene

Did God Fix the Outcome of the Seahawks/Packers Game?

The Seattle Seahawks (my team by the way, go ‘Hawks!) have been in the news recently because of their improbable last minute win over the Green Bay Packers.  With four minutes left in the game, the Packers had a 99.9% statistical chance of winning.  But the Seahawks pulled it out.

Russell Wilson, the QB for Seattle, is a vocal Christian.  After the game he prayed and gave glory to God (which is awesome).  He also seemed to imply that God caused the improbable outcome of the game.

“That’s God setting it up, to make it so dramatic, so rewarding, so special. I’ve been through a lot in life, and had some ups and downs.  It’s what’s led me to this day.”(link)

Some other Seahawks gave credit to God too, but without implying God determined the outcome.

“We fought.  Playing football it’s awesome.  God is so good.  It don’t get no better than this.” – Earl Thomas, Facebook.

“To God go the glory!” – Richard Sherman, Facebook

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Aaron Rodgers, QB for the Packers (and also a Christian) had a different view.

“I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome, He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think he’s a big football fan.”(link)

Here’s what I think:

It’s really cool that so many football players are vocal about their Christian faith, and that they give God the glory.  I admire that in their character.  Through their platform they can be a positive witness for Christ.

And God certainly does help us to do our best in all we do as we honor him.  In  the case of athletic events, he does that for Christians on both teams.

But there are some problems with the idea that God fixes the outcomes of games.

First, God can be glorified with either outcome of a sports event.  God didn’t need the Seahawks to win in order to bring about his plan. If the Packers had won, God would be equally glorified.  It is really a small view of God to think that he has to make sure a certain team wins.  God is bigger than that.

Second, it implies that God honored the request of players and fans of one team, but not the players and fans for the other teams.  Does God love Russell Wilson more Aaron Rodgers?  No, he loves them both.  And for a player to claim that God favors him over others is a little selfish.

I agree with Aaron Rodgers.  God cares less about the outcome of a game than he does the people who are involved in it.


Filed under determinism, free will, God's love

Does Romans 10:13-14 Rule Out Inclusivism?

In the past I’ve written several posts about why I’m an Inclusivist.  Inclusivists hold that it’s possible that some who haven’t been evangelized can still be saved through Christ.  For a more complete explanation of the view, see this post.

Exclusivists, on the other hand, hold that the unevangelized will not be saved, since they do not know of Christ.  This is a view that I respect (since I’m not certain of my view).  Recently a fellow Arminian named Brendan Burnett wrote a good post advocating for the Exclusivist view.  Even though we disagree, I appreciate his challenge to my thinking and his gracious tone. You can see his post here.  I wrote a comment on his blog, and this post is an expansion of those thoughts.

One of the passages that Exclusivsts refer to is Romans 10:14-15.  Brendan references it in his post.

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

On the face, this text would appear to rule out Inclusivism.  Paul seems to be saying that someone can’t believe or call on Jesus unless they have heard the good news preached to them.  However, I think that is an over-reading.  That’s not Paul’s argument.  To understand what Paul is talking about, it’s necessary to take a wider look at Romans 9, 10, and 11.  Paul’s concern in these chapters is is with the physical descendants of Abraham, the nation of Israel. Most of the Jews of Paul’s time did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah.  Paul was grappling with that fact.  Israel is God’s chosen nation.  How then can it be that so many Jews do not believe?  That is the background for Romans 10.

Arminians generally agree that Romans 9 is about the unbelief of Israel.  It is not about Calvinistic election.  The problem with the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 is that they initially acknowledge that it’s about Israel, but when it gets down to the particular examples of Romans 9 (Jacob, Esau, Pharaoh, etc), they forget that it’s in reference to Israel, and claim it’s about individual election and reprobation instead.

I think Exclusivists make a similar jump in conclusions with Romans 10. Romans 10 is not about the unevangelized (who are not addressed at all), it’s about the Jews who actually have been evangelized, and who still don’t believe.  Israel is still in focus.

Specifically in chapter 10 Paul asks if the the reason Israel does not believe is because they have not heard the good news or do not understand it. But he comes to the conclusion that Israel has heard the good news and does understand it. He writes, “But I ask: Did they [Israel] not hear? Of course they did…” (Romans 10:18)   Paul’s argumentation in Romans 9-11 follows this line: he repeatedly presents possible reasons why Israel doesn’t believe in Jesus, and then he shows how each of those possible reasons is not the actual case.

For example, are the Jews in their predicament because…

God has failed? No, God hasn’t failed (Romans 9:6).
God is unjust? No, God is just (Romans 9:14-15).
They haven’t heard the good news? No, They have heard the good news (Romans 10:18).
They haven’t understood the good news? No, They have understood the good news (Romans 10:19)
God has rejected them? No, God hasn’t rejected them (Romans 11:1)
They have stumbled too far to be redeemed? No, they haven’t stumbled too far (Romans 11:11).

Romans 10 is not about the unevangelized, even though it initially looks like that on the first reading. Rather, Paul is asking if the reason the Jews haven’t believed is because they haven’t heard or understood.  But he then comes to the conclusion they have.  In other words, the Jews had been evangelized but still didn’t believe.  So, I think the exclusivist interpretation of Romans 10:14-15 is a misapplication and an over-reading.



Filed under Inclusivism