This is an important question that people of a more Calvinistic or Reformed perspective need to answer. The best and most edifying explanation I have heard to date is given by Richard L. Pratt, Jr. I cannot commend to you enough his lecture “Predictions and Historical Contingencies – 01” in his series “Lectures on Prophecy.” Whether you are Calvinistic or not please please go and listen to the audio of that lecture! 🙂 [FYI: I am not able to upload MP3 to my blog. To my knowledge, you won’t find this MP3 by searching online, but it is on iTunes U for free. Just look up “Pratt Historical Contingencies.”] I want to quote a few extensive sections from his writings to expose my readers to what I believe is a very rich understanding of God’s sovereignty, prayer, and human action in the world more broadly conceived.
Here is what Pratt has to say about the sovereignty of God and prayer:
Whenever we ask God to grant something we need, we are asking Him in effect to direct the events of the world. In one way or another this motivation raises several important questions about our petitions. Do we try to change God through prayer? Are our requests intended to compel Him to act in ways He did not already intend? If God is unchanging, why do we bother to pray at all?
To answer these questions, we must look at prayer from two vantage points. In one sense petitions certainly do not change God. In another sense, however, prayers are ordained by God Himself as a means of moving Him to action. Unfortunately, many Christian groups tend to emphasize one of these viewpoints to the near exclusion of the other.
On the one hand. Scripture clearly teaches that God has a comprehensive and unchangeable plan for His creation. His designs for history have been set and cannot be altered. In Ephesians 1:11 we read that God has a purpose that extends to all creation:
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.
Similarly, Proverbs 16:4 says that God sovereignly ordains a purpose for every event in history:
The Lord works out everything for his own ends — even the wicked for a day of disaster.
Beyond this, God has not only set a course for the world, but has done so immutably. In Isaiah 46:9-10 we read:
Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand. and I will do all that I please.
The plans and purposes of God are not subject to approval. What He decrees will stand firm:
But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases. He carries out his decree against me. and many such plans he still has in store (Job 23:13-14).
In this ultimate sense, therefore, it is folly to think that prayer changes God. Trying to alter the eternal decrees of God through prayer is like trying to reach the moon on a trampoline; it is impossible. Our petitions cannot interrupt God’s plan for the universe any more than a trampoline can break the power of earth’s gravity. This fact should comfort us greatly. The Lord’s decrees reflect His wisdom and goodness. When evil wreaks havoc in our lives, we can take solace in the knowledge that our holy God has ordained the events of history. As the Lord of creation, God is able to take evil in this life and transform it into good:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).
Thankfully, nothing can thwart God’s sovereignty over His world. In this sense, therefore, it is impossible for prayer to change God.
On the other hand, however. Scripture teaches that prayer has been ordained as a way by which God may be moved to action. We must be careful to understand this dimension of prayer correctly. In the first place, God’s plan is so comprehensive that it not only includes the final destinies of things but also includes the secondary, creaturely processes that work together to accomplish these ends. For instance, God does not simply ordain light to shine on the earth each day; He also employs the sun, the moon, the stars, and countless other things to accomplish that end. God does not merely determine that someone will recover from a disease; He uses doctors and medicine to accomplish the healing. As the playwright of history, God did not simply write an ending for the book of time. He wrote every word on every page so that all events lead to the grand finale.
Furthermore, on those pages of history, God wrote a part for Himself. God is dramatically involved in the course of the world. He delights in personally directing and guiding events. He does not sit back and watch the world go its own way; He involves Himself with creatures one way at this moment and another way at that moment. He allows certain patterns to develop for a time and then reverses those patterns to accomplish another end. From a divine perspective, God’s plan is clear and sure, even though His plan unfolds in ways that cannot be fully understood from a limited human perspective.
But still the inevitable question arises. Why pray when God already knows and controls everything? The same question may be asked of other areas of life. Why go to the doctor? Why work a job? Why spread the gospel? The reason we do all these things is that God has established these actions as vital creaturely means for accomplishing His purposes. The same is also true of prayer. Prayer is one of the many secondary causes through which God fulfills His plan.
Unfortunately, however, many Christians treat prayer as an impotent human activity. “If you want something done,” we tend to think, “stop praying and go do it.” To be sure, prayer and action must be kept in balance, but we must stop viewing prayer as so much wishful thinking. Communication with God is our way of tapping into the power of the Lord of the universe. It is something we can use to move history toward its end more effectively and dramatically than any other human effort. In His sovereignty, God has made prayer a wonderfully powerful means by which we may interact with Him and effectively shape the course of history. When we petition God, we approach Him on the plane of His involvement with secondary causes. We seek to change the world by calling on the One who actively orders the world day by day. (Richard L. Pratt, Jr., Pray with Your Eyes Open, pp. 107-111).
In other words, God is both sovereign over all things, and involved relationally in the world. We will get messed up if we focus on one of these dimensions to the exclusion of the other. In another place, Pratt explains these two dimensions further:
Despite these widespread tendencies [of critical interpreters denying God’s omniscience], interpreters of the prophets who stand in continuity with historical expressions of the Reformed tradition must strongly affirm the immutability of God’s character and eternal decrees. The immutability of divine decrees is particularly important for our study, and Calvinism is remarkably uniform in this matter.
Calvin himself spoke in no uncertain terms about God’s decrees:
God so attends to the regulations of individual events, and they all so proceed from his set plan, that nothing takes place by chance.
In Calvin’s view, God has a fixed plan for the universe. This plan includes every event in history in such detail that nothing takes place by happenstance.
Calvinistic scholastics in the seventeenth century often echoed Calvin’s language. As the Westminster Confession of Faith put it,
God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.
Reformed theologians in America two centuries later also used similar language. Charles Hodge, for instance, insisted that God is:
Immutable in his plans and purposes. Infinite in wisdom, there can be no error in their conception; infinite in power, there can be no failure in their accomplishment.
As this sampling suggests, the Reformed tradition has summarized the teaching of Scripture on this subject with one voice. From eternity past, God’s immutable decrees fixed every detail of history. Nothing can alter these decrees, nor any part of the history they determined.
In line with these formulations, we must approach prophetic predictions with full assurance that historical contingencies have never interrupted the immutable decrees of God. No uncertainties ever lay before him, no power can thwart the slightest part of his plan. Yahweh spoke through his prophets with full knowledge and control of what was going to happen in the near and distant future. Any outlook that denies this theological conviction is less than adequate.
Up to this point, we have mentioned only one side of the theological framework that surrounds the subject of prophecy and intervening historical contingencies. To understand these matters more fully, we must also give attention to the providence of God, that is, his immanent historical interactions with creation. The Reformed tradition has emphasized the transcendence of God, including his eternal decrees. This theological accent has many benefits, but it also has a liability. An overemphasis on divine transcendence has at times obscured the reality and complexity of divine providence.
We need only to review historical expressions of divine providence in the Reformed tradition to correct this problem. Calvin, for instance, not only spoke of God’s immutable plan; he also acknowledged God’s real involvement with history. To be sure, he often described biblical accounts of God contemplating, questioning, repenting, and the like as anthropomorphisms. Yet, Calvin also insisted that God is actually engaged in historical processes. As he put it, the omnipotent God is “watchful, effective, active … engaged in ceaseless activity.”
Beyond this, Calvin viewed divine providence as a complex reality. Providence is “the determinative principle of all things,” but sometimes God “works through an intermediary, sometimes without an intermediary, sometimes contrary to every intermediary.” God did not simply make an eternal plan that fixed all events. He also sees that his plan is carried out by working through, without, and contrary to created means. Calvin balanced his affirmation of the immutability of God’s decrees with an acknowledgement of God’s complex involvement in the progression of history.
The Westminster Confession of Faith also displays a deep appreciation of divine providence. The fifth chapter speaks to the issue at hand.
Although in relation to the decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly, yet by the same providence he often orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes.
This passage acknowledges that all events are fixed by eternal decrees, but secondary causes play a vital role in the providential outworking of those decrees.
How do secondary causes interact? The Confession affirms that they work together “either necessarily (necessario), freely (libere), or contingently (contingenter).” It is important for our purposes to point out that contingencies are acknowledged as historical realities. The Westminster assembly did not view the universe as a gigantic machine in which
each event mechanically necessitated the next. On the contrary, in the providence of God, events take place freely and contingently as well.
In this sense, belief in God’s immutability does not negate the importance of historical contingencies, especially human choice. Under the sovereign control of God, the choices people make determine the directions history will take. If we make one choice, certain results will occur. If we choose another course, other events will follow. To be sure, God is “free to work without, above, and against [second causes] at his pleasure,” but “in his ordinary providence, [he] maketh use of means.” That is to say, human choice is one of the ordinary ways in which God works out his immutable decrees. In accordance with his all encompassing fixed plan, God often waits to see what his human subjects will do and directs the future on the basis of what they decide.
Divine providence provides a perspective that complements divine immutability. Old Testament prophets revealed the word of the unchanging Yahweh, but prophets spoke for God in space and time, not before the foundations of the world. By definition, therefore, they did not utter immutable decrees, but providential declarations. For this reason, we should not be surprised to find that intervening historical contingencies, especially human reactions, had significant effects on the way predictions were realized. In fact, we will see that Yahweh often spoke through his prophets, watched the reactions of people, and then determined how to carry through with his declarations. (Richard L. Pratt, Jr., “Historical Contingencies and Biblical Predictions,” pp. 2-5).
I think Pratt is right to point out the complementary nature of divine decrees and providence. If we will embrace the biblical teaching of both, not only our prayer life, but also our understanding of all of our action in the world should be enriched by both a confidence in God’s overarching plan as well as the motivation to act in a godly manner in light of the significance of our actions.