Can Prayer Change God (Yes and No)

Roger E. Olson | 7/20/2018 | Staff
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If I were to write another book about Christian clichés (folk religion) I would include a chapter on this very popular one: “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me.” Or sometimes it goes like this: “Prayer doesn’t change God; prayer changes me.” Over the years, but very often recently, I have seen or heard this cliché—in sermons, on Facebook, in casual conversations. It has become a kind of stock cliché that rarely receives any pushback or criticism. Most people who hear it nod their heads solemnly as if it’s obviously true.

But there’s a problem with this cliché. The Bible is full of examples of prayer changing things and even God! No, not changing God in his nature or character, but changing God’s plan and bringing it about, because someone prays, that God does something he would not otherwise do. Jesus seemed to teach this about prayer in some of his parables.

Idea - Folk - Cliché - Well - Clichés

So where does this idea, expressed in this common folk cliché, come from? Well, I don’t know. Like most popular clichés its origin seems to be lost. I will say, however, that it is completely consistent with the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher who, his great systematic theology The Christian Faith, argued that petitionary prayer is an immature form of prayer because it implies a dependence of God on us and the essence of religion is our dependence on God.

Schleiermacher was a divine determinist. He was also the “father” of modern, liberal Protestant theology. Most liberal Protestant theologians followed Schleiermacher’s view of prayer, even if not his view of God’s absolute, deterministic sovereignty. Most liberal Protestant theologians were and are naturalists in their view of finite reality; the universe is a closed causal network and miracles and divine interventions do not happen—except in the inner spiritual life of an individual or...
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