Can a merely unitarian God answer prayer?
Andrew Murray said no. In the 17th chapter of With Christ in the School of Prayer: Thoughts on our Training in the Ministry of Intercession, Murray considers “Prayer in Harmony with the Being of God,” and poses these questions:
One of the secret difficulties with regard to prayer,—one which, though not expressed, does often really hinder prayer,—is derived from the perfection of God, in His absolute independence of all that is outside of Himself. Is He not the Infinite Being, who owes what He is to Himself alone, who determines Himself, and whose wise and holy will has determined all that is to be? How can prayer influence Him, or He be moved by prayer to do what otherwise would not be done? Is not the promise of an answer to prayer simply a condescension to our weakness? Is what is said of the power—the much-availing power—of prayer anything more than an accommodation to our mode of thought, because the Deity never can be dependent on any action from without for its doings? And is not the blessing of prayer simply the influence it exercises upon ourselves?
Murray is a Dutch Reformed theologian with a high view of God’s all-determining sovereignty, and he is quite serious about the objection. He goes on:
In seeking an answer to such questions, we find the key in the very being of God, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. If God was only one Person, shut up within Himself, there could be no thought of nearness to Him or influence on Him. But in God there are three Persons. In God we have Father and Son, who have in the Holy Spirit their living bond of unity and fellowship. When eternal Love begat the Son, and the Father gave the Son as the Second Person a place next Himself as His Equal and His Counsellor, there was a way opened for prayer and its influence in the very inmost life of Deity itself. Just as on earth, so in heaven the whole relation between Father and Son is that of giving and taking.
So the fact that God eternally exists as Father and Son (in the unity of the Holy Spirit) means that there is an opening, a space prepared, for the structure of asking-and-granting which is prayer:
Just as the Sonship of Jesus on earth may not be separated from His Sonship in heaven, even so with His prayer on earth, it is the continuation and the counterpart of His asking in heaven. The prayer of the man Christ Jesus is the link between the eternal asking of the only-begotten Son in the bosom of the Father and the prayer of men upon earth. Prayer has its rise and its deepest source in the very Being of God. In the bosom of Deity nothing is ever done without prayer—the asking of the Son and the giving of the Father.
What is crucial, for Murray, is to resist the urge to think of some will of God which is antecedent to the Son and the Father, or some decision which was made behind the back of the Trinity, in the oneness of God which is not already triune. There is no such God, so there is no such divine will. The divine will is trinitarian, and is worked out according to the asking-and-granting structure revealed in the Son:
This may help us somewhat to understand how the prayer of man, coming through the Son, can have effect upon God. The decrees of God are not decisions made by Him without reference to the Son, or His petition, or the petition to be sent up through Him. By no means. The Lord Jesus is the first-begotten, the Head and Heir of all things: all things were created through Him and unto Him, and all things consist in Him. In the counsels of the Father, the Son, as Representative of all creation, had always a voice; in the decrees of the eternal purpose there was always room left for the liberty of the Son as Mediator and Intercessor, and so for the petitions of all who draw nigh to the Father in the Son.
I do not know how unitarian theists pray, or how they think the all-determining God can leave open a space in his eternal counsels to take their wills into account. Murray argues that this a real problem for anyone who would approach such a God with petitions or intercessions. But he finds the solution to the problem in the triunity of God, which, far from being the source of intellectual difficulties, is the solution to many problems:
It is in the daybreak light of such thoughts that the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity no longer is an abstract speculation, but the living manifestation of the way in which it were possible for man to be taken up into the fellowship of God, and his prayer to become a real factor in God’s rule of this earth. And we can, as in the distance, catch glimpses of the light that from the eternal world shines out on words such as these: ‘THROUGH HIM we have access BY ONE SPIRIT unto THE FATHER.’
I am quoting Murray heavily because I’m not ready to make this argument as categorically as he does. I cannot be confident in asserting, as he does, that prayer to an all-powerful but merely unipersonal God is futile. If Murray is right, then non-trinitarian theists have a real problem on their hands. This bears looking into.
Where I’m sure Murray is right, and where I wholeheartedly agree, is in his insight into the way our prayer is taken into the threefold life of the triune God by our high priest and advocate. Not to speak mechanistically, but this is indeed how it works!