My Thoughts about a New Proposal about God’s Providence and Power
Below is a paper I presented at the recent (November, 2016) annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Antonio, Texas. This paper was presented as part of a panel discussion of theologian Thomas Oord’s proposal about Christian theology with regard to God’s providence and power in the world. Oord is a Church of the Nazarene theologian who has taught at Northwest Nazarene University. This proposal, expressed most fully in his book The Uncontrolling Love of God (InterVarsity Press), has caused him much trouble, but I will not go into that here. It seems to me that Oord is trying to finally “fix” the theodicy problem for classical theism without falling totally into so-called Boston Personalism or Process Theology.
Response to Thomas Jay Oord’s The Uncontrolling Love of God
Roger E. Olson
Before responding to a concept it’s always helpful to make sure one understands the concept—or at least inform the audience of one’s flawed understanding of it. I often tell my students “Before saying ‘I disagree’ make sure you can say ‘I understand’.”
But, of course, there is a problem with that motto, one I don’t always explain to my students. As every well-informed postmodern thinker knows, or should know, it is not easy, maybe it is impossible, to know for sure what someone else means by a concept. “Meaning” is inherently problematized in postmodernity.
So let me admit immediately that I cannot be certain that I understand Thomas Oord’s concept of God’s “uncontrolling love”—especially in all of its implications. If my evaluation of it is grounded in a misinterpretation of it, I will gladly revise my evaluation—as I am convinced that my interpretation is mistaken.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Let me cite an example with which many of you will already be familiar. During the 1990s especially I found myself in the middle of a maelstrom surrounding the concept of so-called “open theism.” I made a strenuous effort to understand open theism as it is—from the proverbial horses’ mouths. Only after lengthy conversations with Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd, William Hasker, John Sanders and other open theists, and only after reading numerous books and articles by open theists and their critics, did I dare to say “I understand” and offer my firm opinion of the matter. I am convinced that many of open theism’s critics rushed to judgment about it without first thoroughly informing themselves of what it means. In some cases they then made asses of themselves and, when informed of the true meaning of open theism, should have said with the SNL “church lady,” “Never mind.” I hope I do not put myself in that category with them. I admit that I have not had the time or inclination to delve as deeply into Oord’s proposal as I did open theism.
So bear with me as I state my own understanding of Oord’s proposal. It is, I think, that God, whose very nature is love, literally cannot coerce creatures to do anything without their free free consent understood in a non-compatibilist sense. However, the reason God literally cannot coerce creatures to do anything against their free will has nothing to do with a lack of power or ability on God’s part; it has only to do with God’s eternal and unchangeable character of love. And part and parcel of the proposal is that real love, the best quality of love, God’s own love, never coerces the beloved. Oord calls this view “essential kenosis.”
Now, I freely admit that that is an incomplete and inadequate summary of Oord’s view, but I think it is gets at the heart of the matter—what is distinctive about the proposal. It is not Process Theology because it does not deny God’s omnipotence; it is not Classical Theism because it denies God’s unilateral causal interventions even as possibilities—given God’s nature and character. It shares some things in common with Classical Theism, much in common with Open Theism, and some in common with Process Theology.
I applaud Oord for affirming metaphysical realism with regard to God, that is, for eschewing metaphysical voluntarism in theology, and for affirming that God’s love means there are things God literally cannot do. This is a breath of fresh air in an evangelical culture filled with the smoke of divine determinism in which whatever God does is good just because God does it. That makes God unknowable and doubtful as to his promises. I applaud Oord’s courage in unapologetically announcing that there are some things God cannot do because of his eternal, unchanging nature and character.
However, we are not here to form or enjoy a mutual admiration society, so let me move on to areas of disagreement.
To put it bluntly, for me Oord’s proposal is too close to Process Theology for comfort.
Let me stop and say immediately, however, that it is not Process Theology and should not be grounds for expelling him from evangelicalism or the evangelical academy. “Too close for comfort” is not the same as “inevitably leads into” or “is guilty of.”
Let me begin my evaluation by explaining why Oord’s proposal is, by my estimation, “close to” but not “the same as.”
The similarity lies in the denial of unilateral, supernatural divine interventions of a causal nature. The difference lies in the affirmation of God’s omnipotence and empowerment of creatures to bring about states of affairs they are not capable of bringing about without God’s empowerment. In fact, if I am not mistaken, Oord’s proposal includes that, once given consent by a creature, God and creatures can do things together creatures cannot do under their own power.
In my estimation the difference between Oord’s proposal and classical Process Theology is significant and it would be a serious error to dismiss Oord’s proposal as merely Process Theology in disguise.
However, on the other hand, I am convinced that the biblical narrative thrives on unilateral divine interventions, events caused solely by God’s agency and power without any need for consent or cooperation by creatures.
For one thing, I am convinced that the Bible assumes creatio ex nihilo—which is the only alternative to some kind of metaphysical dualism which would undermine monotheism. I take Psalm 33:6 seriously and only expressing expressly what Scripture and the church fathers everywhere assumed—that God created everything other than himself by the power of his own “word” out of nothing. There was, then, nothing to give its consent to being created.
Also, and more existentially, you and I did not give our consent to being here, but here we are. Now, of course, God did not create you or me out of nothing, directly, de novo, but, nevertheless, neither did we consent to or cooperate with out coming into existence and, so it seems to me, Scripture testifies to God’s creatorship, however indirectly, of every individual human being.
There is one miracle, I believe, without which Christianity cannot survive. That is the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now, admittedly, Oord works overtime, very creatively, to explain how God could have gained the consent of the molecules of Jesus’s dead body to raise him from the dead. I have to admit that seems more than speculative to me. In fact, so it seems, this is another point of comparison between Oord’s proposal and Process Theology—“pansychism.” If Oord is right, every actual occasion, every constitutive portion of reality, however, minute, must have some degree of consciousness and free will.
I do not see the need for God, out of his love, to raise Lazarus, to say nothing of Jesus, to gain the consent of the molecules of their dead bodies.
Now, admittedly, Oord sees the problem here and struggles, unsuccessfully, in my opinion, to explain how miracles might happen, how God might work miracles, without “intentional cooperation from creation’s aggregates and systems.” (p. 208) I admit, however, to having no idea what he means when he goes on to say that “God uses randomness and spontaneity when acting specially to provide novel forms and ways of existing” and “God coordinates creaturely elements in ways that bring about unexpected and good results.” The lingering question is, of course, how God does this without controlling anyone or anything unless that process includes some kind of consent and cooperation by creatures. I think to make his proposal work, Oord will have to confess belief in pansychism. But that will be a huge step toward process metaphysics.
The great advantage of Oord’s proposal is, of course, the same as that of Process Theology: the problem of evil disappears. God literally could not halt the Holocaust. I get that; I understand the attraction of it. But I think the cost is too great and that cost is petitionary prayer with confident hope and expectation of results. The God of the Bible, as I understand him, does not need our consent or cooperation every time he wants something to happen.
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