Does Love Ever Coerce? My Response to “The Uncontrolling Love of God” by Thomas Jay Oord

Does Love Ever Coerce? My Response to “The Uncontrolling Love of God” by Thomas Jay Oord November 28, 2015

Does Love Ever Coerce? My Response to The Uncontrolling Love of God by Thomas Jay Oord

The book’s whole title and publication information is: The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence by Thomas Jay Oord (InterVarsity Press, 2015). I title this post “My Response” because in the book Oord specifically mentions me as someone with whom he disagrees. I hope readers will keep this in mind when I disagree with Oord. I do not take Oord’s disagreement with me personally, nor do I suspect he is in any way attempting to harm my reputation or career. Nor is it the case, when I disagree with him, that I am in any way attempting to harm his reputation nor career. And I hope he will not take my disagreement personally. Unfortunately, all that has to be said because of two facts: 1) In today’s evangelical theological environment it is difficult to separate disagreement from heresy-hunting, and 2) Disagreement is often misunderstood as attack on one’s intelligence or acumen. I know Oord and respect him as a serious, intelligent, biblically-committed evangelical theologian. The fact that I disagree with him says nothing about my regard for him. I’m sure he would say the same if I asked him about his disagreement with me.

Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God represents his attempt to articulate a new Christian interpretation of God’s providence. When briefly summarizing his view, which he labels “God is essentially kenotic,” Oord says “I find this providence model most convincing. Actually, I created it….” (94) So what is Oord’s new model of God’s providence? Here is his nutshell summary of it: “The model of God as essentially kenotic says God’s eternal nature is uncontrolling love. Because of love, God necessarily provides freedom/agency to creatures, and God works by empowering and inspiring creation toward well-being. God also necessarily upholds the regularities of the universe because those regularities derive from God’s eternal nature of love. Randomness in the world and creaturely free will are genuine, and God is not a dictator mysteriously pulling the strings. God never controls others. But God sometimes acts miraculously, in noncoercive ways. God providentially guides and calls all creation toward love and beauty.” (94) (italics added)

This brief summary of Oord’s new view of God’s providence appears in Chapter 4: “Models of God’s Providence” in which the author also mentions me as an advocate of a model of providence he labels “God empowers and overpowers.” He says this is probably the most common view of God’s providence among “average” believers. (86) (One does have to wonder what “average” adds to this claim. Is he suggesting thereby that “non-average” believers—whatever that might mean—hold other views? It’s only one word, but its use raises unnecessary questions. I think it would have been better to say it is the most common view among Christians which I think is probably the case.)

So what view does Oord attribute to me—along with, among others, Alvin Plantinga? Here is the paragraph where Oord specifically mentions and quotes me: “Roger Olson…appeals to the notion that God permits evil without willing it. ‘Nothing can happen that God does not permit,’ says Olson, ‘but that is not the same as saying he causes or renders certain everything and certainly not evil, sin, or innocent suffering.” (87) (The source of these quotes is “What’s Wrong with Calvinism?” which I posted here on March 22, 2013: rogereolson/2013/03/whats-wrong-with-calvinism.)

Now, notice please that in this section of Chapter 4 Oord lumps me and my view into a category with others—namely Marc Speed, Jack Cottrell, and Alvin Plantinga. We four are apparently Oord’s chosen exemplars of this model that he calls “God empowers and overpowers.” I am certain that my view is not exactly the same as theirs and is, at some points, inconsistent with theirs. I know, for example, that I do not agree with Cottrell’s view in detail. I have used his book What the Bible Says about God the Ruler (Wipf & Stock, 2000) as a text in a seminar on divine providence and the problem of evil (among others). Here I will not go into our differences but only note—with good reason relating to my disagreement with Oord—that Cottrell’s view of God’s providence and mine are not exactly the same. Whether they are close enough to fit into a single category is a moot question. I won’t take it up here.

I mention this only because when I categorize Oord’s view together with that of process theology I am not suggesting he would agree with every point of process theology or with any particular process theologian’s view of God’s providence completely. If it is fair for Oord to place my view of God’s providence in the same category as Cottrell’s and Plantinga’s, then it is fair for me to place his in the same category as that of process theology without suggesting they are all identical. It only means that, on certain crucial points, they are similar enough to belong in the same category.

Ultimately, at the end of the chapter section in which I appear together with Cottrell and Plantinga, Oord criticizes my view, and theirs, insofar as he sees them as one model, by complaining that it suffers from “explanatory inconsistency.” (88) Here is his summary explanation of this criticism: “Although this model may allow its advocates to say God is not the source of evil, its view of divine power makes God responsible for failing to prevent genuine evil. It is hard to believe God loves perfectly if God is capable of total control but fails to prevent genuine evil. God remains culpable.” (89) Of course I have heard that criticism before—mostly, in fact exclusively (so far as I can remember), from process theologians.

According to Oord, the following model, which he labels “God is voluntarily self-limited,” suffers the same fault. His two prototypes of this model are John Polkinghorne and Philip Clayton. The difference between this model and the “God empowers and overpowers” one seems to lie primarily in whether God ever intervenes to override creatures’ free will and coercively (unilaterally with power) make something happen that otherwise would not happen. In other words, the issue is divine intervention. After expressing a greater degree of sympathy with this model Oord ultimately finds it too flawed for him to accept and the reason comes down to the same one (as with the “God empowers and overpowers” model): “Claiming that a God capable of control nevertheless permits evil leaves crucial questions unanswered.” (94)

Sprinkled throughout The Uncontrolling Love of God are some rather startling statements. One appears in Oord’s critique of the model he attributes to Polkinghorne and Clayton: “I find it difficult if not impossible to obey in good faith—let alone worship—a God who, to keep a promise, allows genuine evil.” (93) Oord expresses agreement with John Calvin that there is no distinction between God’s will and God’s permission. (92) Of course, Oord disagrees with Calvin about much else. The “promise” of God Oord rejects is not to interfere with free will even though he could.

One evangelical philosopher-theologian Oord does not mention, but should, is Michael Peterson. I have mentioned him here before and strongly recommended his book Evil and the Christian God (Baker, 1982). Peterson is a fellow Wesleyan with Oord (at least as to their ecclesiastical and theological traditions). Peterson taught for many years at Asbury College; Oord teaches at a Nazarene university. Peterson’s whole project in that book is to answer Oord’s challenge that a God of love must intervene powerfully to stop evil and innocent suffering if he has the power to do that. Peterson provides sufficient explanatory consistency to dispel Oord’s complaint about the two models mentioned above. Peterson explains, using modal logic, among other tools, that a God of perfect love with absolute power cannot give creatures genuine, libertarian free will and intervene to stop all misuses of that free will. In other words, Peterson cogently argues, the possibility of gratuitous evil is necessary in a project such as God chose to engage in by creating human beings with genuine free will. In other words, in light of Peterson’s (and others’) explanations of the models that distinguish between God’s will and permission, Oord’s criticism fails. Given God’s will that his human creatures have genuine free will sufficient to obey or disobey him freely, and given the fall of humanity and creation into corruption by the misuse of that free will, God, perfect in love and ability, cannot simply prevent all even gratuitous misuses of free will (or natural disasters) without destroying the whole project.

I really do wish Oord had read and responded to Peterson’s argument in Evil and the Christian God (or Greg Boyd’s similar one in Is God to Blame?) I believe they satisfactorily dispel the critique of “explanatory inconsistency.”

Now I will present my disagreements with Oord’s own model of divine providence as “essential kenosis”—that perfect love, including God’s love (which may be the only perfect love)—never coerces anyone or any situation.

My own theological method, as I have explained here several times (as well as in The Mosaic of Christian Belief) is a version of that attributed to John Wesley by Wesley scholar Albert Outler: the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” It is that a theological proposal is to be tested by (in this order): Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

So what exactly is Oord’s model? Rather than explain it in detail here, and rather than quote more from the book, I will focus in on what I consider to be the core issue he raises and attempts to answer. According to Oord, as I understand his proposal (and I am open to correction, of course), God never acts to make something happen that would not otherwise happen without the consent, even hopefully cooperation, of the creature(s) involved. Admittedly, these are my words attempting to summarize in nutshell fashion the essence of Oord’s proposal insofar as it contrasts with other models of God’s providential action in the world. I believe it is the most controversial claim he makes, underlying all others.

Two “c” words appear often in Oord’s book—“control” and “coerce.” He argues throughout that these types of activity are inconsistent with true love such as forms God’s own essence. Thus, because he is perfect love, God cannot intervene in the world to cause things to happen without creaturely permission and, hopefully, cooperation. God’s limitation of power, then, is not voluntary; it is essential due to his nature as love.

Several questions immediately come to mind. It is important first to mention that Oord, unlike many process theologians, believes the Bible. Whether he interprets the Bible correctly is another question.

My first question is whether it is necessarily true that love never controls or coerces the beloved? I question that assumption. I can think of numerous instances in which true, perfect love would, if it could, control, even coerce, the beloved. I agree that love does not ever exhaustively control the beloved, but I doubt, even deny, that love never intervenes or interferes unilaterally to control or coerce the beloved. Imagine a suicidal spouse who, during a cruise in the Caribbean, demonstrates desire and intention to “go overboard.” Who would question the love of a spouse who prevents it without the suicidal spouse’s consent or cooperation?

Now, having said that, I must say, in order to prevent this being raised against me, that there are also circumstances where love would not control or coerce the beloved. I do not think, for example, that it would be loving for one spouse to lock the other one in the basement to keep him or her from abandoning the marriage—whatever the reasons may be.

All I am saying, in contrast to Oord’s presupposition, is that there are certainly possible circumstances we can all imagine where true love intervenes unilaterally to control the beloved without his or her consent. So I depart from Oord at the beginning, at the presuppositional level.

My second question is whether the God of the Bible in whom Oord believes (both God and the Bible as his inspired Word) ever intervened, interfered, powerfully and unilaterally, without the creatures’ consent, to control a creature—to make something happen to him or her that would not otherwise have happened? Oord does not think so. His final chapter (8) is “Miracles and God’s Providence.” Let it be noted that Oord affirms miracles. What he denies is that any miracle of God was or ever is unilateral, controlling and coercive. Let’s go right to two main miracles in the biblical narrative—both which Oord believes happened: the exodus and the resurrection of Jesus. Oord believes, and attempts to explain, that both involved creatures’ consent and participation. In neither case, Oord claims, did God act to control, without some level of cooperation from the things, persons being affected.

This is where I find Oord’s explanations frankly tortuous (not “torturous”). In fact, they become so fanciful and obscure that I cannot even imagine them as true. For example, in the exodus of Israel from Egypt, Oord suggests, God foreknew the wind that would separate the waters of the Red Sea and directed Moses to lead the Hebrew people to that spot at just the right time to walk across the Sea on dry land. One wonders how often that phenomenon happened! For example, in the case of Jesus’s bodily resurrection, God raised him back to live, to new life, immortal life, with Jesus’s own consent. True enough, I suppose one could argue and believe, but one still has to wonder about all the other circumstances surrounding and included in the resurrection event. But let’s turn to another “resurrection”—the resuscitation of Lazarus. Did Jesus gain Lazarus’s consent before raising him back to life? At one point Oord mentions that someone else’s consent can occasionally stand in for the consent of the person directly being affected by the divine act (when their consent is impossible). This would apparently be a necessary case of that. But is that really consistent with Oord’s overall thesis? What if Lazarus didn’t want to be resuscitated?

Whose consent did Jesus get to turn water into wine?

Then there are all the biblical events in which God apparently acted (or will act as prophecied) with the result of great harm to creatures: the flood of Noah’s day, the striking dead of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), the judgment and punishment of rebellious angels and human sinners in the eschaton.

Enough. Frankly, I simply do not think Oord’s view of miracles works in light of all the miracle stories of the Bible. As I read Scripture, God does not need creatures’ consent or cooperation to act powerfully—even with miracles. In the end, it seems to me Oord’s critique of my view—“explanatory inconsistencies”—turns back on his own insofar as he believes all the miracles of the Bible or even just of the New Testament and insofar as he believes God will act powerfully in the end, at the eschaton, to defeat evil and bring about his kingdom rule.

I respect Oord’s intentions; I simply do not think his explanations work as a model of biblical providence. Nor do I think they are necessary. I admit that why God intervenes to heal a person, for example, in some instances but not in others, is ultimately mysterious. But I do not believe God is arbitrary. I agree with E. Frank Tupper in his magisterial A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God (Mercer University Press) that in every instance of innocent suffering and tragedy God does “all that God can do” given the particularities of the circumstances. And I would add with Greg Boyd (in Is God to Blame?) that only God knows the rules that govern his interventions, but there are rules which, if we knew and understood them, would explain everything.

Clearly, I disagree with Oord’s proposed model of divine providence, just as he disagrees with mine. And just as he places my view together with Cottrell’s and Plantinga’s in one model he labels “empowers and overpowers,” so I would place his view in a category (were I limiting myself to seven categories as he does) I would call “process theology” even though it is not exactly the same as those of the leading process theologians (viz., Cobb, Griffin, et al.). I do suspect Oord has drunk too deeply at the wells of process theology and is trying to carve out a view of divine providence that does not go as far as process theology but satisfies all its basic concerns. The major “basic concern” driving both Oord’s view and process theologians’ is why God does not intervene powerfully to stop gratuitous evils from happening. But for both Oord and process theologians, the answer they settle on costs too much in terms of God’s freedom and power.

Having said that, however, I will also say that I do not consider Oord’s view heretical. He stops just short of what I consider heretical about process theology—panentheism, God’s dependence on the world for his very actuality of being (as opposed to potentiality of being). If asked, I would “vote” for Oord’s view as consistent with biblical-evangelical Christian theology even if I think it goes too far in the direction of process theology and is mistaken. To me, it is just a baby step from Oord’s view into full blown process theology, but it is not “guilty” of the heresy that makes process theology unbiblical, unevangelical and even unchristian.

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