Arminians are not deists, we believe prayer works

Adrian WarnockAdrian Warnock has written an interesting post asking Are you an Arminian on your knees and a Calvinist on your feet? The point I think he is trying to make is an important one: Do we believe God will answer our prayers? But it is unfortunate that in making it Adrian perpetuates a caricature of Arminianism which has nothing to do with what was believed and taught by Arminius, by other famous Arminians of the past like John Wesley, and by at least the majority of today’s evangelical Arminians.

To be fair, Adrian realises what he is doing, for he writes:

Now, to my Arminian friends please don’t hear me wrongly. For this blog post to work we have to accept a bit of a stereotype on both ends of the spectrum.

The problem is that not everyone will accept this. I really don’t think it is helpful to misrepresent other people’s theological position for the sake of a nice soundbite or post title, even with a disclaimer like this one. Bearing false witness is still wrong if you say it wasn’t meant seriously.

Adrian’s error seems to be based on a tweet he quotes from Mark Driscoll:

Every Christian who prays is functionally a Calvinist who believes in the sovereignty of God.

I’m sorry, Mark and Adrian, but that is complete nonsense. Indeed Adrian seems to recognise this when he writes:

I know that most Arminians do believe in God’s sovereignty.

Now I don’t take the line, mentioned by Adrian, about how

a Calvinist is rumored to pray…ie not at all because he just leaves everything to the sovereignty of God.

But there is as much truth in that slur as there is in Driscoll’s implication that Arminians don’t pray, or that they are hypocritical when they do.

Driscoll’s, and Adrian’s, error is to confuse God’s activity with his sovereignty. It is possible to believe that God works powerfully in the world today, in answer to prayer, without believing as Calvinists do that God predestines every detail of what happens. God can be an actor within the world that he has created without being the puppet-master who pulls all the strings.

Adrian seems to write as if Arminianism is equivalent to deism, the position that God does nothing in the world in the present age. It certainly is not equivalent. Many who believe that God is very closely involved in the world today, in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and in working miracles, are Arminians – and it is as Arminians that they pray for these miracles and see them happening.

Now I accept that there are things which consistent Arminians will not pray for in confidence that God will answer them. These are things which God could only make happen by violating human free will. Foremost among these is that God cannot make any individual become a Christian. So consistent Arminians are more likely to pray that God opens someone’s eyes so that they can see his truth – at which point that person can make their own informed decision about their eternal destiny.

But Adrian seems to imply that Arminians pray like deists. That is, when they pray they don’t believe God actually does anything in response to prayer.

Now there are indeed many people who pray like that. Some of them would be liberal Christians, who might say that the only point of praying is to make oneself feel better, and might also call themselves Arminians. Others would be Bible Deists, as Jack Deere wrote that he used to be, who don’t believe that God does anything real and verifiable in the world today, but acts only in invisible spiritual ways – perhaps rather like Harold Camping’s invisible spiritual judgment day! And I suspect quite a few of these Bible Deists would call themselves Calvinists, and argue that God doesn’t answer prayer today because that would mean him changing plans which were set in stone before the foundation of the world. Now that may be a caricature of Calvinism, but there is surely enough truth in it to show that deism is not the same thing as Arminianism.

Chris Fenstermaker is wise in writing, in a comment on Adrian’s post,

I’ve learned that our praying is not as much “changing God’s mind”…but rather aligning our spirit with what God is already doing.

Indeed that is an important aspect of prayer. But it should not be taken as implying a Calvinist understanding that God’s mind was made up long ago, and the only point of prayer is to find out what God is going to do anyway and then pray for it to happen. That would be about as pointless as praying that the sun will rise in the morning – and then claiming that God has answered our prayers when it does.

I can only conclude that Adrian and indeed most other Calvinists have rejected Arminianism because they have completely misunderstood it. But I also have to agree with John Charles Brown in another comment on Adrian’s post:

the greatest hindrance to prayer is not one’s systematic theology but simply neglect.

And on that point I have to plead guilty.

0 thoughts on “Arminians are not deists, we believe prayer works

  1. I think “prayer” has too many facets to generalize this was… You seem to be focusing on petitions…. But prayer also includes thanksgivings, adoration, etc…

  2. My Name, you are right of course. I am focusing on petitionary and intercessory prayer, the kinds for which it is meaningful to look for specific answers. Other aspects are also important, but not I think controversial in the same way.

  3. Daniel Kirk (no close relation) makes a similar point in his post That’s What Prayers Are For, when he rejects the following statement which I wish I had had to quote in my own post:

    The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.

    This was written by the philosopher Kierkegaard; it is not his own position, but the one he ascribes to the deists he is arguing against. Sadly far too many so-called Christians today have this kind of deistic understanding of prayer. Kierkegaard’s own idea of the Christian faith was rather different, as illustrated by his story Flying like wild ducks which I posted here last year.

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