Monthly Archives: August 2016

Are Darkness and Evil Rooted in God’s Nature?

 

This is the third and final installment of my review and critique of Thomas Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God. In the previous two essays I described and analyzed Oord’s argument and criticized three of his crucial assertions. Today I will address a fourth assertion.

4. God’s Nature Limits God.

For Oord, the problem of evil focuses on absolving God of responsibility for the evil that plagues our world. Oord argues that the problem of evil cannot be dealt with as long as we view creation as a voluntary divine act. If God voluntarily created our world then God either allows or positively wills the evil that occurs within it. And no being that allows or permits, much less positively wills, the horrible evils that happen in our world can be considered loving. Oord “solves” the problem of evil by concluding that God did not choose to create a world with randomness and freedom, which are the necessary conditions for evil. Because God is love by nature, God creates our world by necessity.

Oord contends not only that God is love by nature but also that love is the preeminent divine attribute and limits the other attributes. God’s power extends only as far as his love. God cannot act contrary to his loving essence and must express that essence by creating. Let’s listen to some of Oord’s claims:

“God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with creatures God cannot control” (p.146).

“By contrast [to John Sanders], I do think God’s nature dictates the sort of world God must make” (p.148).

“God’s love is uncontrollable, not only in the sense that creatures cannot control divine love but also in the sense that God cannot stop loving” (p. 161).

“Essential kenosis says limitations to divine power derive from God’s nature of love” (p.164).

“Essential kenosis says God’s self-giving, others-empowering nature of love necessarily provides freedom, agency, self-organization and lawlike regularity to creation. Because love is the preeminent and necessary attribute in God’s nature, God cannot withdraw, override or fail to provide the freedom , agency, self-organizing and lawlike regularity God gives. Divine love limits divine power” (p. 169).

Is God a Prisoner of His Nature?

For many readers, the familiar idea that God cannot contradict his nature seems correct. God cannot lie or sin or die. We could add that God cannot act in an unloving or unjust way. I too agree with these statements. But Oord goes further.  He contends that God’s nature limits God, which in effect makes God a prisoner of his nature. The traditional teaching that God cannot contradict his nature was never understood as “limiting” God, that is to say, depriving God of an option that God might otherwise have willed to use for some good purpose. On the contrary, the idea that God cannot die or sin or act unlovingly expresses God’s unlimited perfection! It would be silly to say that there is something good or great in dying or sinning that God is missing because he cannot do it. Dying is not something you. It is something that happens to you. Nothing just happens to God!

But Oord insists that “Divine love limits divine power”? In the traditional doctrine of God, God’s power is thought to be unlimited, which means that God’s power extends to everything that is logically possible. Oord adds a further qualification by excluding some logically possible things. Specifically, Oord wants to exclude God using power to control or coerce his creatures. These actions are, according to Oord, logically possible, but given the priority of divine love in the divine nature, are impossible for God. It is logically possible for God to prevent evil actions but impossible for God actually to do this. God cannot act contrary to his loving nature, and his loving nature demands that he give irrevocable randomness and freedom to creatures.

Darkness and Evil Within the Divine Nature?

Our suspicions are rightly raised when we hear a thinker using one divine attribute to limit the others. Oord speaks as if God were essentially love but not essentially power or eternity or justice or others. It seems to me that we ought to reject out of hand the attribution of incoherence and disharmony to the divine being. Instead we ought to allow all the divine attributes modify and enrich each other. If we believe God is perfect in every respect, we should also assume that there is no tension much less conflict between divine love and divine justice or power or eternity or omniscience. God’s love is just and his justice is loving. And God’s love is powerful and his power is loving.

Oord, to the contrary, defines God’s love independently of the other essential attributes and seems to base his definition of divine love on a human conception of love. He then uses this human conception to restrict divine power. Consequently his conception of divine power is likewise distorted. Oord seems to think of divine power as force and coercion, which must be limited by divine love. Divine power is obviously conceived as the possibility for evil as well as good. Amazingly, this move grounds the tension in creation between love and evil in a tension within the divine being. Hence to escape rooting evil in the divine will Oord places its possibility in the divine nature! The problem of evil has infected the divine being. And God must continually overcome his possibility for evil. Evil has been eternalized.

But divine power is not the possibility for good or evil, love or coercion. Divine power is the power of being; it is unambiguously good. God is the power of his own being and consequently the power for the being of creatures. God’s power always manifests itself in creation as giving being. There is no reason to see any tension between God’s power and his love. Every act of love is also an act of power. God loves by giving being in all its richness to creatures.

Conclusion

In sum, Oord solves one problem of evil only to create an even worse one. He succeeds in absolving God of any responsibility for evil by transferring the possibility for evil from the divine will to the divine nature. However, the price of this transfer may be greater than many are willing to pay. If the suffering we endure in this world is somehow rooted in the unfathomable divine will and purpose, we can still hope that evil will be overcome and “every tear will be dried.” But if evil is rooted in the eternal divine nature, God has no place to stand to pull us out of the pit. How can he sympathize with our pain when he is distracted by his own suffering? How can God “lead us not into temptation” when he must continually overcome his own temptation?

Coming Soon: Eschatology. What can we know about something that hasn’t happened yet?

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God and Evil: Three Steps to the Wrong Answer

In my previous post I began a review of Thomas Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God. I focused mostly on describing the argument of the book as fairly as I can. Today I want to explain where and why I disagree. Allow me to summarize what I said last time: Oord “solves” the problem of evil by limiting divine power and freedom in favor of divine love. According to Oord, love is the dominant divine attribute, and it limits the scope of the others. God cannot refuse to love, for that would contradict his nature. Hence God must create a world of creatures and give them freedom. God has no choice. When creatures misuse their freedom by doing evil and when the randomness of physical processes produces suffering, God is not to blame. As I said in the last lines of the earlier post,

“At no point is a divine decision involved actively or passively in the occurrence of evil or even in bringing about the conditions that make evil possible. Hence God cannot be blamed for genuine evil at any point in its genesis or history.”

According to Oord, this understanding of the divine nature solves the problem of evil. (For a fuller explanation, read the previous post, which bears the title, “Must we Limit God’s Power to Solve the Problem of Evil?”)

I will organize my comments around several of Oord’s presuppositions and assumptions, which, if you accept, will lead you to accept the conclusions of the book. If you do not accept Oord’s assumptions you probably will not accept his conclusions.

“Tragedy Needs an Explanation”

This assertion forms the title of Oord’s first chapter. Of course everyone feels the need to ask “Why did this happen?” when tragedy strikes us or those we love. We want an explanation, and not having one intensifies the suffering of injury and loss. But what kind of “explanation” counts as a satisfactory explanation? Reading his first chapter shows that for Oord, “explanation” means a coherent harmonization of the facts of nature, human experience of evil, and the idea of God. Oord excludes any “appeal to mystery” or expressions of trust as simplistic, if not irresponsible (p. 64, p. 89). He says,

“Simplistic responses to life’s difficult questions—“I just trust God”—leave many of us unsatisfied. We need better answers. Believers want to reconcile randomness and evil with the idea that God acts providentially” (p. 27).

Apparently, for Oord adequate explanations must make all things clear.

If you accept this thesis you will need to look for rational clarity in your explanation of tragedy. And Oord’s doctrine of God makes things clear. We understand perfectly why every evil event happens. God had to create a world where evil was possible, and God bears no responsibility for any genuinely evil event. God did not cause it or permit it. Crystal clear! But will such clarity really satisfy? For some people, perhaps it will. But others may find a loving but effectively powerless God very unsatisfying. Why can’t God be both powerful and loving! And why should we shy away from divine mystery? Should we expect the ways of God to be clear to us always? Hence I reject the presupposition that we should look only for “clear” explanations and refuse to consider those that resolve the problem in the depths of the divine mystery. Could a non-mysterious God be the Creator and Lord of the Bible?

Some Evils are Gratuitous.

This assertion is central to the argument of the book. Without it the argument fails. Throughout the book, Oord refers to some evils as “genuine” or “gratuitous.” Other evils are “necessary” and may produce good results in the long run. Pain, for example, warns of physical damage and danger. But “genuine” evils never produce anything good; or not enough good to outweigh the evil suffered. Oord defines genuine or gratuitous evil as

“events that all things considered, make the world worse than it might have been…Genuine evils happen, and they have no greater overall purpose” (p. 68, 65).

In other words, some evils are so outrageous and horrendous that not even God can redeem them or turn them to the good—not in a million years, not in all eternity! Now, if you admit that there are evils so destructive that not even God can redeem them, Oord has won the argument. For a loving God would not allow such evils if he could prevent them, and if God’s allows irredeemable evil when he could prevent it, he cannot be the loving God we believe in.

In response to these assertions about “genuine” evil, we must ask Oord how he knows that some evils cause so much damage that not even God can repair or redeem them? His answer is simple. He knows it because of the way it makes him feel. He says this:

“I cannot imagine, for example, any instance of rape to be necessary to promote greater good. Genocides are genuine evils too” (p. 66).

What he “cannot imagine” cannot be true. In the book’s first chapter, Oord does what almost all of the advocates for gratuitous evil do. He recounts horror story after horror story and banks on the emotional appeal of such stories dissuading us from trying to explain them as redeemable in some way. It is what I call in my book, The Faithful Creator, the “rhetorical argument from evil.”

He does not show that a particular evil is irredeemable. How could any mortal do that? How could he know that the final resurrected, redeemed, and glorified state of rape victims or the victims of genocide will be worse than it could have been had not these evils affected them. Only God knows what God can do. So, no human being can know whether or not some evils are irredeemable unless God reveals it.  Instead of demonstrating rationally or on the basis of revealed truth the reality of irredeemable evil, Oord in effect silences us with the thought “How dare you justify this evil by making it redeemable!” Or, “What kind of person could “imagine” rape and genocide making the world a better place!”

I admit that just as he cannot show that some evils are irredeemable, I cannot show clearly that all evils are redeemable. I would not presume to try. But I can hold on to this hope because it is grounded in the resurrection of Christ.

Some Events are Truly Random.

This thesis also is crucial to Oord’s argument. Oord begins his argument for randomness by giving examples from common experience. The outcome of a coin toss, the timing and landing place of a leaf that falls from a tree, and the time and place of a lightning strike seem to common sense to be random. And Oord argues that we ought to trust our common sense to tell us the truth in this case. He explains,

“Most of us are realists, in one sense or another. And the way we act presupposes our belief in the reality of genuine randomness…If we are to make sense of life, we need to take everyday experiences of randomness seriously. We should believe our intuitions regarding randomness tell us something true about reality” (pp. 32-34).

The author then appeals to modern natural science’s incorporation of randomness into its theories. Quantum physics has discovered no way to determine the future state of certain subatomic particles from their previous states. Biology assumes randomness in the process of mutations that bring about variety in the biological world.

(Note: I would argue that one cannot prove that a particular event is truly random. To “prove” something is to show that it follows from the preceding conditions. But the very definition of true randomness or chance is that it does not follow from the preceding conditions, that those conditions do not determine the outcome. Randomness as a concrete event is unknowable.)

I agree that certain events seem to be random as far as we can determine. But this is a rather trivial conclusion. The real question is “Are some events random to God?” Only if Oord can show that the randomness we experience is also experienced by God in the same way, will his argument work. But his only arguments for this conclusion derive from extrapolation from our experience in common sense and natural science. Because we cannot know the full causes of some events, neither can God. He says it this way:

“If the dominant views of science and philosophy are correct in their affirmations of randomness and chance, theologians such as Augustine, Calvin and Sproul are wrong” (p.41) in their contention that God knows and, in a special sense, causes all things.

The validity of Oord’s extrapolation from human experience to divine experience is crucial to his case. Note that he uses the same method here he used when he argued in thesis two that our experience of evil as “gratuitous” and irredeemable shows that it is also gratuitous and irredeemable to God. This assumption was also evident in thesis one where he rejects “appeals to mystery” and seeks rational clarity. We are beginning to see a deep presupposition of Oord’s perspective come into view. Oord and thinkers like him assume that the methods of common sense, natural science, and philosophy can see reality as God sees it, at least with regard to evil and physical laws. This presupposition is well articulated by Alfred North Whitehead, the founder of Process Philosophy:

“In the first place God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification” (Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1929), p. 521).

For process thought, God and the world fall under one grand system of metaphysical principles. And if they are subject to the same laws they must be simply two aspects of the one eternal reality. God is a part of the world or the world is a part of God.

Traditional thinkers such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and others assume a radical difference between God and the world, Creator and creation. Hence they never extrapolated directly from human experience to divine experience. The laws and limits that define and delimit creation do not apply to God. For God created all things and determined their laws and limits.

The most fundamental reason I reject Oord’s detailed arguments and conclusions is that I reject his fundamental assumption that God and the world can be understood under the same categories and laws and concepts.

Next time, I will discuss the fourth thesis: “God’s Nature Limits God.” I am sure you have heard this idea many times. Perhaps you thought it self-evident. Nevertheless, it is false. And next time I will explain why.

 

Must We Limit God’s Power to Solve the Problem of Evil?

 

Something Different

Today, I am doing something I don’t usually do in this blog. I am reviewing a book, a very provocative, sometimes infuriating, book. Let me explain why. Last October InterVarsity Press published my book, The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety. A few weeks later InterVarsity Press published Thomas Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. These books could hardly be more opposed to each other. After some communication with Oord, he graciously invited me to join him on a panel with two other theologians that will meet at the annual meeting of the Christian Theological Research Fellowship in San Antonio, November, 2016. The theme of the discussion is the problem of evil. My presentation will bear the title, “Faith, Hope, And The Rhetoric Of Despair: Providence And Evil After Ivan Karamazov.” In preparing for this paper I read Oord’s latest book. And I thought I would share some thoughts on the book. I cannot summarize or respond to every argument in the book. But I hope to give you the heart of its central argument. I am sure you have heard these ideas even if you are not familiar with the books, authors, and labels.

Open and Relational Theology

Let me give you some background. Within the past 30 years, certain evangelical theologians have begun to advocate a view of God and providence called “open” or “relational” theism. I have written articles and sections of books explaining and criticizing this movement. John Sanders, Gregory Boyd, William Hasker, Clark Pinnock, Terence Fretheim are well known exponents of this view. Thomas Oord places himself broadly within this school of thought. But he also criticizes many of his fellow open and relational theologians for not following the basic logic of the position consistently to its end. In The Uncontrolling Love of God, Oord presents a modified open and relation view he calls the “essential kenosis” model of providence. Even if you know nothing of the general open and relational model, I think you can pick it up as I review Oord’s modified open and relational model of providence.

Oord’s Argument For a Limited God in Context

Oord’s argument in its simplest form contends that the problem of evil can be answered only by giving up the traditional doctrine of omnipotence. God’s power is not unlimited but limited. So, God cannot control all things. Hence God is not responsible or culpable for the horrendous evils that occur in the world. But Oord knows that this simple solution raises a host of questions for Christian believers, and he devotes most of the book to addressing them: How limited is God? Are God’s limits natural or self-imposed? What thing or things limit God? And does this limited God measure up to the God of Christianity?

First, let’s set the argument of Oord’s book into the larger context of argument from evil to atheism or some form of modified theism.

The General Philosophical Argument from Evil (Simple Version)

  1. An omnipotent God could prevent every instance of genuine evil
  2. A perfectly good God would want to prevent every instance of genuine evil.
  3. Genuine evil exists

Therefore:

  1. Either God is omnipotent but not good.
  2. Or, God is good but not omnipotent.
  3. Or, God is neither omnipotent nor good.
  4. Or, there is no God at all.

You can see clearly from the two arguments below how Oord’s overarching argument is driven by the general argument from evil:

Oord’s General Argument #1

  1. A God of love would want to prevent all genuine evil.
  2. Genuine evil occurs in the world.
  3. Hence, either there is no God of love or God cannot prevent all genuine evil.

Oord wishes to affirm the existence of a loving God, so he accepts the conclusion that “God cannot prevent all genuine evil.” But why can’t God prevent all evil? This question leads us to the next argument:

Oord’s General Argument #2

  1. If genuine randomness in physical processes and genuine creaturely freedom exists in the world, God cannot control everything that happens.
  2. Genuine creaturely freedom and randomness in physical processes exist in the world.
  3. Hence God cannot control everything that happens (including events that are genuinely evil).

In relation to the general philosophical argument from evil, we can see that Oord accepts conclusion #5 (God is good but not omnipotent) and rejects #4 (God is not good), #6 (God is neither omnipotent nor good, and #7 (There is no God).

Oord’s Critique of Other Open and Relational Thinkers

But now Oord faces a barrage of questions. It is not enough to say that God is loving but not omnipotent. One can imagine many loving but totally powerless beings. Why should we consider this loving but not omnipotent being “God”? Many thinkers who agree with Oord’s argument so far take this question very seriously and give this answer: God is not intrinsically, that is, by nature, limited. God limits himself. God freely decides to create a world where randomness and creaturely freedom exist. Once they exist, of course, God cannot determine the outcomes that randomness and freedom produce. But they do not exist by necessity. They exist only because God chose to create them. God was unlimited before creation but after creation God limits himself to give creation room to exercise freedom to love or hate, to choose good or evil. God chose to allow the possibility of genuine evil for the sake of the possible good. The ground of the possibility of good and evil is the same: creaturely randomness and freedom. But God never does evil or approves of evil. God does everything he can—other than reverse his decision to create creaturely freedom and randomness—to prevent genuine evil from occurring. In this way, these writers think they’ve preserved the deity of the loving but limited God…and solved the problem of evil.

Oord disagrees. He argues that the divine self-limitation theory does not do justice to the love of God. It makes God’s love for creatures a choice for God instead of the chief attribute of his nature. It implicitly makes God’s omnipotence the chief attribute because God could have chosen never to create and could yet reverse his decision if he wanted to do so. God could choose not to love, even if he never actually does so.

The Essential Kenosis Model of Providence

Oord offers an alternative to the divine self-limitation theory: “The Essential Kenosis Model of Providence.” According to Oord, if “God is love” in his essential being, he always loves and cannot refuse to love. God cannot contradict his essence. “God must give freedom and cannot override the gift given” (p. 171). God does not choose to limit himself. God is essentially self-giving, or self-emptying. Though he never explicitly says this, it seems to me that Oord thinks God creates the world by necessity, that creation is implicit in the inner nature of God. And if God creates by necessity, God has always been creating the world. I will pursue the consequences of this line thought in the next installments of this review.

Oord considers his model of providence superior to the models proposed by other open and relational thinkers (e.g. John Sanders) for two reasons. (1) The “essential kenosis” model possesses an inner coherence not present in the others. It makes love the master divine attribute in a radical and consistent way. Divine love judges and limits the exercise of all other divine attributes. (2) It really solves the problem of evil. In the “essential kenosis” model of providence, God cannot interfere with creaturely freedom and can never coerce creatures. God must create and give freedom to creatures. God has no choice. We know God does not desire or even allow evil because he does not even choose to create free creatures. God has no choice about this. They exist by necessity of the inner logic of divine love. Hence the problem of evil is solved. At no point is a divine decision involved actively or passively in the occurrence of evil or even in bringing about the conditions that make evil possible. Hence God cannot be blamed for genuine evil at any point in its genesis or history.

Next Time: I will offer some critical reflections on the fundamental presuppositions, central arguments, and implications of this book.