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)
- An omnipotent God could prevent every instance of genuine evil
- A perfectly good God would want to prevent every instance of genuine evil.
- Genuine evil exists
- Either God is omnipotent but not good.
- Or, God is good but not omnipotent.
- Or, God is neither omnipotent nor good.
- 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
- A God of love would want to prevent all genuine evil.
- Genuine evil occurs in the world.
- 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
- If genuine randomness in physical processes and genuine creaturely freedom exists in the world, God cannot control everything that happens.
- Genuine creaturely freedom and randomness in physical processes exist in the world.
- 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.