Providence and Prayer (1) » The Semi-Deist Model

We begin our discussion on Providence and its implications for Christian prayer with the “semi-deist” model.

On this model, God created an orderly universe, placed people in it, and allows them to exercise their God-given libertarian freedom in morally responsible ways. He gives people the intelligence needed to gain an understanding of both the physical and moral order he established and he expects them to act wisely and harmoniously with those “laws” of nature. In this well-ordered system, God doesn’t intervene to protect some people from harm because he would responsible for allowing others to suffer if he did.

God is certainly not inactive; rather, the history and progress of the universe is one big act of God and within that act (history as a whole) creatures operate and bear complete responsibility for their actions.

God can’t be responsible for Evil. Can he?

On a fundamental level the semi-deist view is driven by moral concerns. On this model, if we assume God’s involvement in the details of our everyday lives then we must also assume his direct involvement in evil: “One person’s providence is another person’s downfall” (Maurice Wiles, “Divine Action: Some Moral Considerations”, 1994).

If God can influence the course of events, then a God who is willing to cure colds and provide parking spaces but is not willing to prevent Auschwitz and Hiroshima is morally repugnant. Since Hiroshima and Auschwitz did occur, one must infer that God cannot (or has a policy never to) influence the course of worldly events” (Nancy Murphy, “Of Miracles” 1990).

Toward navigating this moral conundrum, Gordon Kaufman offers a philosophical distinction – hang with me here – between “acts” and “subacts.” As the argument goes, not all acts are subacts of God. Only those events that move creation toward the realization of God’s purposes are God’s subacts. Finite agents may act contrary to God’s purposes and acts, evidenced in Jesus’ crucifixion, but “the temporal movement of the whole, including the particular developments of our individual lives, is under God’s providential care” (“On the meaning of ‘Act of God’, 1968).

Miracles, most pointedly the Incarnation and Resurrection, test the model on its insistence that God is uninvolved in the everyday acts of the world. Regarding the Ressurection, Wiles stays true to the model:

One action of so different a kind would be sufficient to call into question the claim that the absence of divine intervention in relation to so many evils and disasters in the world is because such direct action is logically incompatible with the kind of world that God has chosen to create” (God’s Action in the World: The Bampton Lectures for 1986)

In other words, calling the Incarnation and the Resurrection divine “acts” would put into question God’s apparent “inactivity” in the midst of rampant evil.

Implications for Prayer

We’ll keep our discussion running close to the ground by applying each model directly to petitionary prayer – both corporate and private. Let’s use Tiessen’s scenario: Your friend’s son, Richard, has been kidnapped by a terrorist group who is demanding ransom for his release.

On the semi-deist model, prayer isn’t special pleading on the assumption that “God plays favourites.” Rather, prayer should increase our awareness that God is present with us but we do not expect him to act in response. Praying “Give us this day our daily bread” doesn’t indicate that God provides us with bread but that he established a world in which the sun shines, the rain falls, and crops are cultivated to make bread. We are the ones responsible to order society in such a way that all people – us included – receive bread. We don’t pray in order that God might actually change something, but to strengthen our resolve to be an agent for change. With these assumptions, praying for Richard might sound like this:

Dear God, you are the Creator of our world and all live in it. We acknowledge your wisdom and love in making things as they are, given the limitations that you have placed upon yourself by creating human beings and giving us freedom to act within your master act. We desire to act in ways that are consistent with your own good purposes, but this is not true of everyone, and it certainly is not true for those who have abducted Richard. Though we do not know when or how, we are confident that your purposes will be accomplished in the end. In the meantime we shall do what we can to bring good out of this evil and to further your purposes for the world. In Jesus’ name, whose life so well modelled what you wish us to be, Amen. (50-51)

Questioning the model

How does this model either align with or diverge from your view of Providence or prayer?

What are the gains and losses of this view?

What might be some direct implications for our doctrine of God?

What examples from the scriptural witness would be difficult to reconcile with this view (each model will have some)?

Or, what are some other questions you think we should be asking of this model?


2 thoughts on “Providence and Prayer (1) » The Semi-Deist Model

  1. First of all – excellent post Kent and thanks for your usual thought provoking examples. Here are some of my thoughts on your questions.

    How does this model either align with or diverge from your view of Providence or prayer?

    I will be upfront and say that I believe that God does respond to prayer and sometimes amazingly enough in ways in which we expect. This model diverges from my personal view because I believe in both God’s conditional and unconditional will. Some events (the cross) are testimonies to God’s unconditional will – it was going to happen regardless of people’s will. Other events are conditional upon our faith and perseverance in prayer – examples like the persistent widow, the lack of miracles in an area by Jesus due to people’s lack of faith, Sermon on the Mount and the teaching on prayer.

    I don’t know how this fits into the acts and subacts of God. Maybe it is similar but I don’t know.

    What are the gains and losses of this view?

    The gains of this view is that it gets God off the hook for anything bad that happens. We can shift it from God to the affects of sin in the world. Faith and trust in this way becomes easier to hold onto as our consciences are not troubled. However, the losses are many: 1. God cannot enter into our pain or engage us where we are. 2. Christian spirituality becomes one of defeatism instead of victory as we are left bereft of any ability to respond constructively to bad situations. 3. Questions centering on God’s promise of love, care, and presence teeter on the brink of lies. 4. We have no ability to respond to acts of divine intervention – the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, cancer going into remission, barren women becoming pregnant – all we can say is that either the doctors or experts were wrong or simply that sometimes mysterious things occur without any agent responsible.

    There are probably others, but these come to mind.

    What might be some direct implications for our doctrine of God?

    A belief in a “semi-deist” model directly challenges a few basic tenents of our Doctrine of God: 1. His Omniscience, Omnipotency, and Omnibenevelence are called in question in how they are realized in history as well as if they are integral to who He is. 2. His Kingship over His creation as well as His ability to govern His creation is called into question. 3. His “personalness” and imminence is lost as he maintains an arms distance from our pain and need in times of distress.

    Again there are others as well.
    What examples from the scriptural witness would be difficult to reconcile with this view (each model will have some)?

    Or, what are some other questions you think we should be asking of this model?

    Another question to think about concerning this model is how to explain when things do happen that we can’t explain – Richard escaping from the terrorists without harm and being reunited from his family. Or to put it more plainly, how do we explain modern-day “miracles”?

  2. Derek, there are several great insights here but I was most struck by this consequence you identified for the doctrine of God: “God cannot enter into our pain or engage us where we are.” I hadn’t considered that. Thanks.

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