Tag Archives: relational theism

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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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).