Category Archives: divine providence

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.

 

Can God Fail? Six Points of God’s Providence

Theologians speak about God’s action in relation to the world in various ways depending on what aspect they are discussing: creation, providence, reconciliation or redemption. Some writers give the impression that these different aspects are really separate acts each with its own quality and way of acting. In my view, this separation produces many misunderstandings, such as the common idea that after God creates creatures he must change the way he relates to them. In contrast, I consider it very important to understand each of these four aspects as ways to understand the one God-creature relationship. In creation God begins, in providence God continues, in reconciliation God corrects, and in redemption God perfects creation. From beginning to end the same God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, acts toward creation in view of his eternal plan, the perfection and glorification of creation.

Given my view of the unity of God’s action in creation, you won’t be surprised to learn that I define providence as “that aspect of the God-creation relationship in which God so orders and directs every event in the history of creation that God’s eternal purpose for creation is realized perfectly(The Faithful Creator, pp. 209-210). I see six major points in this definition that need explaining in detail.

(1) “Providence is not a totally separate series of divine acts but an aspect of the one God-creature relationship.” God is eternal, his act of creation is eternal, and his providence is eternal. But the results of that act are temporal. We live our lives in time and experience God’s one eternal act of creation and providence in time. God’s eternity encompasses time but is not limited by time.

(2) Providence is God’s own personal action, not delegated to angels or left to impersonal causes. In Christianity, all God’s actions in relation to creation are understood to be from the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit. God needs no non-divine or quasi-divine mediators in order to be our creator and providential guide. God uses creatures, nature, natural law and human agents. God can work through them, and they are real causes of their effects. But God is not restricted by them in what he can do through and with them. Creatures do not stand between God and the work God accomplishes through them. If God uses a physician to heal or a teacher to inform, God is just as close and just as effective as he would be if worked without them.

(3) God “orders and directs” the history of creation, not leaving creation to chance or fate or misguided freedom. The Faithful Creator explains this point in these words:

“That God “orders and directs” the history of creation means that God brings it about that the created world is and remains the world God intended it to be and that in all worldly events, processes, and free acts God brings it about that his will is achieved… When the Bible affirms God as the creator, it does not mean that God created matter and left it to form a universe by pure chance. Nor does it mean that God created matter and the laws of physics and left them to form a universe by a combination of chance and necessity. It does not mean that God created matter, the laws of physics, and an initial order and let them explore their more constrained but still infinite possibilities by chance. No, when the Bible affirms that God is the creator of heaven and earth it means that God created the order we now experience, the ones that came before and those that will follow until God has created the definitive order in realization of God’s eternal plan. God was, is, and will be the creator of heaven and earth. Hence a robust view of divine creation and a robust view of divine providence stand or fall together.” (The Faithful Creator, pp. 217-218).

(4) Divine providence covers every event in the history of creation, great and small, good and bad, contingent and necessary. God is the creator of everything that has being to any degree. And “events” are the coming to be of new states of creation. God orders and directs—indeed God gives being and sustains—every event no matter how it comes to be. Great and small are relative terms. What seems small at one time may grow in significance with perspective, and what seems great may diminish with time. What seems good in the moment may not work to our ultimate good in the long run, and what seems bad in the moment may be the thing we need to set us on the right path to our ultimate glorification. And what seems to originate exclusively in chance or free human acts can be and will be indwelt, ordered and directed by God according to his plan. God cares about the little stuff, and no power can separate us from his loving care.

(5) God’s eternal purpose guides God’s providential work. God does not need to adjust his plan or improvise in response to unexpected events. Many contemporary writers on providence view God as living in time and responding to events as they occur without being able to anticipate fully what will happen next. I reject this idea as inconsistent with the biblical doctrine of creation and with the promises found in the biblical doctrine of providence. God truly relates to us every moment and in every situation and always responds perfectly. God relates to the temporal creation from eternity, and hence is always ready for whatever happens. For us, the future does not exist at all and God’s act of creation is still ongoing. In our prayers we are relating to the eternal God who is not determined by what we call the future. He can answer our prayers without altering his plan. He knows from eternity what we need and what we should want. Who would want God to give them a lesser good just because they used the wrong words to express their anguish? Every prayer should be accompanied by a sincere “Not my will but yours be done!” You will always receive your request, and it will always be the best answer:

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).

6) God realizes his aims perfectly. God cannot fail, even in part. We cannot know the details of God’s eternal plan for creation. But how could God fail to accomplish something God intends to do? Doesn’t God know what he can and cannot do? How could God’s plan fail unless God mistakenly thought he could do something but discovered that he was unable? Take comfort. Though we fail often God will not fail:

28 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. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).

The Message of Divine Providence for an Age of Anxiety

Anxiety is the state of every soul who thinks the future rests in our hands and that the lasting meaning of our lives will be determined by the worth of our accomplishments. Hence paradoxically, despair is the beginning of hope. And disillusionment is the first step to overcoming anxiety. If we are to experience what Paul calls the “hope that does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5) and the “peace that transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), we must despair of every false hope and every illusory good. Not surprisingly, then, we find in the scriptures some statements that seem intent on driving us to despair. They evoke a kind of therapeutic despair. Working like a strong emetic, they provoke nausea to help us expel the poison of misplaced hope:

“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”     says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless!     Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors     at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go,     but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets,     and hurries back to where it rises (Ecclesiastes 1:2-5)

17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied….32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised,

“Let us eat and drink,     for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:17-32).

To say that Arthur Schopenhauer had a nose for sniffing out false hopes would be an understatement! But he is no more pessimistic than the Preacher of Ecclesiastes when he makes the diagnosis below. He is simply describing what everyone sees if you clear your mind of optimistic theories:

“The vanity of existence is revealed in the whole form existence assumes: in the infiniteness of time and space contrasted with the finiteness of the individual in both; in the fleeting present as the sole form in which actuality exists; in the contingency and relativity of all things; in continual becoming without being; in continual desire without satisfaction; in the continual frustration of striving of which life consists. Time and that perishability of all things existing in time that time itself brings about is simply the form under which the will to live…reveals to itself the vanity of its striving. Time is that by virtue of which everything becomes nothingness in our hands and loses all real value.

That which has been no longer is; it as little exists as does that which has never been. But everything that is in the next moment has been. Thus the most insignificant present has over the most significant past the advantage of actuality, which means that the former bears to the latter the relation of something to nothing” (from Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Vanity of Existence”).

When you are young the future stretches before you and disappears over the horizon. It does not present itself as a finite series of evanescent moments but as a timeless, motionless whole. And though we know each present moment passes into oblivion before we can taste it, we experience a sense of continuity and stability in our memory of the past and anticipation of the future. This sense of time’s wholeness is reinforced by the appearance that objects around us possess stability, since they endure from one evanescent moment to the next. Youth views the immediate future as a time of becoming and building and the more distant future as a time of being and enjoying the enduring fruits of our labors. But as you get older, you see supposedly “enduring” objects age and disintegrate. Your accomplishments seem less significant in hindsight. The future no longer stretches out infinitely; the horizon continues to recede but the end of your time line appears short of the horizon. The excitement of becoming and the illusion of stable being are replaced by prospect of disintegration and nonbeing. The fragility of the moment spreads itself over all moments making it apparent that the wholeness and motionlessness of time is illusory. Nothing endures. Everything dies. All is forgotten.

I know the temptation of false hopes and the paralyzing anxiety caused by attempting the make my life significant by my labor. Have I done enough? Am I really making a lasting difference in the lives of my students? Will anyone read my books or “like” my blog posts? Will my labor be in vain? Will anyone remember or care? Will it last? Sometimes, when I get in this mood of despair I remember what I have always known and wonder how I could have forgotten: the answers to these questions are completely irrelevant because they are not the right questions to be asking. The right question is this: will my faithful creator take my work and with it accomplish his will and produce something that lasts, not for a day or a hundred or a thousand years, but for eternity? Will my God remember me? The answer I hear resounding in my ears is a clear yes! When I despair completely of my strength and put my hope in God, in God alone, my joy returns. I regain energy for my work. I do not have to see it. I know it, I feel it: My work will not be in vain!

At the end of his great chapter on the resurrection, Paul expresses the hope beyond the despair of human possibilities:

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

The Lord really does built the house and raise the dead!