When Blueprints Fail
In 15 years of full-time Christian ministry, I had not presided over a funeral service until yesterday. The funeral was for a 24 year old man who was brutally stabbed to death a few days before Christmas by a complete stranger.
He died mere hours before he was due to enter an expensive in-patient rehab program, to which he’d miraculously gained admission, after years of battling alcoholism. And from what I can gather from the police report given to the family, the young man’s murderer was an L.A. school teacher.
The sheer absurdity and brutality of his murder continues to deeply sadden and confound me. How could something like this have even happened?
The day before the funeral, I met with and listened to the victim’s mother as she told me just how completely devastating his death has been for her. She is a single mother of three and he was her oldest son. While I was listening and praying with her, she asked me a critical question that should give any sincere minister pause. She asked, “Do you think he was destined to die this way or do you think it was just bad luck?”
How would you have answered her?
As I imagine how pastors and ministers all over the United States would engage with that question, I’m deeply concerned that many are shamefully ill-equipped. They’ve been sold a model of divine providence that is not only biblical unfounded but also ethically bankrupt. Far too many well-meaning Christian ministers in the United States today would actually tell this grieving mother it was God’s will that her son die the way he did. Others, aware of how cruel such a statement would be, would attempt to find some creative way to avoid answering her directly, while secretly believing her son was predestined to be murdered.
John Piper, a famous Calvinist pastor revered by thousands of American Christians, was once asked his thoughts on the brutal violence depicted in the Hebrew Bible—particular the killing of women and children noncombatants in holy wars. His response was chilling and grotesque:
“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.”
Yes, pastor Piper claims that when someone dies because they’ve been murdered (shot to death, for example), that is necessarily God’s will because, well, “God governs.”
Some will write Piper’s statement off as an extreme example. But, I’m afraid the reality is, this type of theological determinism is far more common than many American Christians are either aware of or willing to admit. This type of “blueprint theology,” the conception of divine providence as meticulous omni-causality, has grown in popularity due to the ministries of Neo-Puritans like John Piper, John MacArthur, and Mark Driscoll. And, if the next generation of ministers are trained with this view, the pastoral ramifications are potentially disastrous.
A Timely Book from a Well-qualified Thinker
It’s tragedies like the murder of this 24 year old man that make Dr. Thomas Jay Oord’s latest book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (hereafter, ULG), so important and timely. Dr. Oord is one of the most well-known and prolific American theologians in the Wesleyan tradition. He has written and contributed to over twenty books on philosophy, theology, science, and more. He has served in academic moderator roles and consulted for groups including the American Academy of Religion (AAR), Biologos, and the Wesleyan Philosophical Society.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing Tom since 2007, when we met at a conference he co-directed in Quincy, MA (just outside of Boston) called the “Open Theology and Science” conference. I was a bright-eyed seminary student excited to meet the authors of the ground-breaking 1994 book The Openness of God. Since then, I was honored to co-direct an Open theology conference with Tom that focused on the implications of Open theology for the church in 2013.
I haven’t always agreed with all his views, but Tom has consistently challenged and inspired my thinking over the years and I am very grateful for his scholarship and friendship.
Seeking a Better Solution to the Problem of Evil
ULG opens with several accounts of events Oord calls “genuine evil.”
Oord recounts the story of a woman who was killed when a stone was flung from a truck, came through the windshield of her car, and killed her instantly. He also tells the story of a Congolese woman who was raped and brutalized by militiamen who also killed her husband and children in front of her.
One of these chilling stories hit particularly close to home for me. In 2013, I lived in West Cambridge and saw the police in paramilitary uniforms and armored personnel units rolling through Watertown during the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. It terrified my wife and children. We also personally knew runners who missed being in the blast radius of the bombings by minutes, if not seconds.
Oord uses these chilling accounts to establish the reality of evil, and the urgency of a more plausible solution to the problem of evil. As an Open and Relational theologian, he’s already part of a tradition of thought that has made significant progress in this regard. The “Free Will Defense,” as it’s sometimes called, provides a not insignificant amount of relief. However, Oord contends it remains nevertheless insufficient. In this book, he will propose a more radical solution—one that will make many uncomfortable, but will provide much needed comfort to others.
The Science of Randomness and Free Will
One of the best features of ULG is it’s integration of science, philosophy, theology and pastoral sensibilities. When I was a seminary student in Boston, I learned an approach to urban ministry that differs from the traditional approach taught in many evangelical seminaries. Instead of viewing the city as a machine, like a toaster, that can be disassembled and reassembled without harm, the city is conceptualized as an organic, “living system” more like a cat. While a toaster may be able to be repaired with conventional mechanical tools, a cat must be operated on by a surgeon using delicate instruments, because the subject is alive.
What this approach did for me was provided a framework for understanding the complexities of the city. Linear, cause-and-effect approaches to urban ministry are relics of a bygone era. We now know that the world is far more complex than we previously thought.
This is where Oord’s thinking future-proofs Open and Relational theology. It combines the latest in philosophy and science on the subjects of randomness and indeterminacy. While Newtonian physics was easily compatible with “blueprint theology,” it falls flat when confronted with the “world of true becoming” that has been discovered by quantum physics.
Oord has worked with some of the world’s leading thinkers in this area, including Sir Dr. John Polkinghorne, who is perhaps the most prolific and profound thinker on science and faith alive today.
Oord argues that randomness is real. Indeterminacy is not a lack of sufficient data, but an actual aspect of reality. This is an important part of Open and Relational theology. In this broad category of theologies, the world is conceptualized not a static place, but a dynamic one. Dr. Polkinghorne calls it a “world of true becoming.”
If this is the case, as Oord argues, then the way is opened for genuine agency—“free will.” The conception of free will Oord, as an Open and Relational theologian, proposes is called “Libertarian.” It contrasts with “Compatibilist” free will. Libertarian free will is the power of choosing agents to deliberate between and actualize real options which emerge in a world populate by moral, rational, and sentient beings. Compatibilist free will does not recognize the power of contrary choice, that options are legitimately open to choosing agents other than what they in fact actualize. As he succinctly writes, “A free being is an agent who chooses among options.”
In ULG, Oord argues that the world is made up of both choices and constraints on our freedom. Agents are not free to choose anything they can imagine, but agents are free to choose between the available options. This conception of free will, and only this one, provides the necessary framework for moral and ethical outcomes. Once again pinpoint precise in his language, he writes, “We cannot be morally responsible unless we are freely response-able.”
This is a cornerstone of Ood’s argument. Unless we understand moral responsibility, we will misunderstand God’s providence.
Problematizing Divine Permission
When God is brought into the puzzle of evil, often this formula is used to make providence problematic: if evil is real, either God is not all-loving or God is not all-powerful. Classical theism has snubbed its nose at this problem in one way or another and continued to assert both the omni-benevolence and omnipotence of God. Some simply say that evil is necessary for God’s goodness and power to be displayed. This would be John Piper’s answer. Evil is as much under the control of God as goodness. God decrees evil. Problem solved, he thinks. Others construct appeals to mystery. Oord cites the Bible verse commonly quoted out of context, “God’s ways are not our ways.”
But Oord, like many others, is unsatisfied with either approach.
Oord is perhaps just as unsatisfied with the language of divine “permission.” Some theologies, in an attempt to salvage God’s omni-benevolence, have proposed that God is not responsible for evil because creaturely agents have free will. God merely “permits” evil to exist. But one of Oord’s main goals in this book is to show that even this approach is ethically dubious and problematic. He sets out to problematize even the “permissive” approach to providence to which many in his own Open and Relational camp ascribe. He writes,
“Careful readers may have also noticed I have often talked about God failing to prevent evil. Some people think they solve the problem by simply saying God gives freedom and agency to creatures, and, therefore, God does not cause evil. Creatures effect evil, they say, so God should not be blamed.
I also believe God is not the primary cause of evil. But to solve the problem of evil, we must say more than this. After all, a perfectly loving individual would do whatever possible to prevent—not just fail to cause—genuine evil. A person does not have to cause evil directly to be morally culpable for failing to prevent it.”
By holding the feet of those who use “permission” language to the fire, Oord has upped the ante. This sets a much higher standard of moral righteousness on our model of providence. This was what actually made the book exciting for this reader.
How will Oord solve the problem?
The Landscape of Providence
Every attempt to “solve” the problem of evil entails an implicit model of providence. In ULG, Oord makes explicit his model of providence in his proposal for a solution to the problem of evil. But, before he does that, he provides readers with a very helpful overview of the theological landscape. “Models of Providence” is perhaps the most helpful chapter in all of ULG.
Besides being a gifted philosopher and teacher, Dr. Oord is also a very talented photographer.
From surveying his work over many years, it appears that one of his favorite things to capture is a beaming sunset over an beautifully textured landscape. He goes on long hikes into deserts and mountains to compose the perfect shot at the perfect moment. Dr. Oord’s photographic instincts mirror his theological proposal in ULG in many ways. In a timely and winsome way, he has composed a snapshot of providence that is a shining ray of light in the very textured landscape of theologies of divine providence. Chapter four frames the terrain in a way that allows Oord to distinguish his model from its closest comrades. On one end of the landscape are the rocky mountains of omnicausality. They are jagged, treacherous, and inhospitable for human residence. Besides the obvious way this model calls into question the goodness of God since it makes God the “ultimate cause over every rape, torture, disease and terrorist attack,”
Oord also points out its logical inconsistency. He writes, “…it makes no sense to say that God totally causes something and that creatures also cause it.”
On the other side of the frame are the Weeping Willow trees of appeals to mystery. Appeals to mystery are comparable to Weeping Willows because they appear sad and are frail. I loved what Oord said about this model: “…we should be wary of worshipping the entirely inscrutable God because we never know who the devil he may be!”
Most models of providence occupy the center of the frame. But even toward the center of the shot, there is much texture. The closest comrade to Oord’s proposal is the one employed by most Open theists. It is the model of divine providence Oord calls “God is voluntarily self-limited.”
Oord helpfully summarizes the pros and cons of this model:
“In sum, I find the model of providence as voluntarily self-limited attractive in many ways. I like that it says love motivates God to give freedom/agency to others and to uphold the regularities/laws of the universe. But I can’t embrace the model fully because its view of voluntary divine self-limitation leads to a major problem: If God has the ability not to give freedom/agency or not to uphold the regularities/laws of the universe, God should sometimes use those abilities, in the name of love, to prevent genuine evil. A loving God would become un-self-limited, if God were able, in order to stop evil. Claiming that a God capable of control nevertheless permits evil leaves crucial questions unanswered.”
This criticism of the voluntary divine self-limitation view is powerfully damning. How can one claim that God is love, has the ability to prevent evil if God so chose, and yet has not prevented such horrifying evil as have been described? As Oord indicates, this model leaves too many people scratching their heads asking, “what kind of love is that?”
A Friendly, Open Debate
One proponent of the voluntary divine self-limitation model of providence is a friend of Oord’s. He and Oord have collaborated on a number of projects, including the OPEN 2013 theology conference at which Oord and I were co-directors. Dr. John Sanders was a fellow keynote speaker with Oord (along with Greg Boyd) at that conference, and has was also a participant in the 2007 Open Theology and Science conference where I first met both of them. Dr. Sanders is one of the few Open theists who have written a full-length monograph on Open theology. His is entitled The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, and it’s one of the most comprehensive.
Both Sanders and Oord are committed to a conception of God that is centered around God’s dynamic relational love for the world. Both Sanders and Oord also agree that the future is partly ‘open,’ meaning partly made up of possibilities/contingencies that are yet to be actualized. Both Sanders and Oord agree that God’s nature is love and that Jesus reveals God fully. However, as Oord shows in chapter six, “Does Love Come First?”, Sanders and he differ on the logical priority of God’s nature of love and God’s sovereign will.
“Up to this point in my summary of Sanders’s version of open and relational theology, I completely agree with him. I might articulate some points slightly differently, but we both endorse main themes of open and relational theology. We agree on so much!
I disagree, however, with Sanders’s view of how God’s love and power relate. I also disagree when Sanders says God allows or permits genuine evil. These disagreements matter when it comes to thinking about how God acts providentially in a world of randomness and evil.”
Oord’s critique of Sanders’s view is weighty. He follows Sanders’s logic to its end and arrives at the conclusion Sanders excludes. Both Oord and Sanders agree that God’s nature of love is the kind of love that does not coerce. As Sanders puts it, “love does not force its own way on the beloved.”
Oord agrees. But Oord questions why Sanders is unwilling to follow his own logic to its end. If God’s nature is love, and love does not “force its own way on the beloved,” then how can Sanders conclude that God sometimes intervenes to control creatures against their will? Would this not be an action precluded by the constraints of God’s nature? Here’s how Oord puts it:
“If God’s preeminent attribute is love and love invites cooperation without forcing its own way, however, it makes little sense to say ‘sovereign freedom’ allows God to create in an unloving way. It makes little sense, for instance, to say that God voluntarily decided against ‘exercising meticulous providence.’ If love comes first and love does not force others to comply, it makes little sense to say ‘God is free to sovereignly decide not to determine everything.’ If love comes first, God cannot exercise meticulous providence or determine everything.
To put it in question form using Sander’s [sic] own language, why should we think a loving God who ‘does not force the beloved’ is truly free ‘to tightly control every event that happens’? Why should we think a loving God is free to control others entirely, even if God never exercised that freedom? If love doesn’t force the beloved and God is love, God can’t force the beloved.”
Oord has a strong point. What value has it to say God is love, and that love is noncoercive, if we also say that God can be coercive any time God wants? The proposition that “God is love” is stripped of all meaningfulness. What kind of “love” would that be?
God’s Kenotic Essence
While the voluntary divine self-limitation model of providence is the closest to Oord’s own, he nevertheless makes it clear where the two differ. In his model, God’s nature is in fact the constraint on God’s power and will. God is essentially kenotic. So, understandably Oord calls his model of providence “Essential Kenosis.”
While those already familiar with kenosis may recognize it as a subject confined to christology, the history of theological exploration does not bear that out. For example, in his book The Paradox of a Suffering God,
African theologian Amuluche Gregory Nnamani highlights the development of kenotic theology throughout church history. In particular, Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov, American philosopher Geddes MacGregor, Catholic theologians Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, and even German theologian Jürgen Moltmann espoused forms of the “essential kenosis” view. Each affirm Oord’s central thesis, that God’s nature is “uncontrolling” (i.e. kenotic) love, and that God cannot deny God’s own kenotic essence.
However, Oord does offer a unique formulation of this view and makes it far more accessible to the layperson. Oord uses common parlance to explain esoteric theological concepts better than most theologians. For example, he writes,
“God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will. This means that God’s self-limiting kenosis derives primarily from God’s eternal and unchanging nature of love and not from voluntary divine decisions. Because God’s nature is love, God always gives freedom, agency and self-organization to creatures, and God sustains the regularities of nature.”
What’s important to note about the logic of Oord’s proposal is that God’s nature of love constrains what God is capable of doing. This is where those with leanings toward classical theism will begin to feel very uncomfortable. They will want God to be unlimited, even by God’s own nature. But Oord’s case is sound biblically and logically.
What the Bible Says God Can’t Do
It may come as a shock to classical theists, but it’s true that Scripture says God’s actions are constrained by God’s nature. Scripture says that God cannot lie because God’s nature is truth (Numbers 23.19; Hebrews 6.18; John 1.14, 14.6, 17.17). Scripture also says that God cannot be capricious because God’s nature is faithful (I Samuel 15.29; Psalm 89.35). Scripture also says that God cannot change like shifting shadows because God is light (James 1.17; I John 1.5). What all these constrains imply is what Oord makes explicit: “God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will.”
In fact, as Oord makes explicit, Open theism, like all Christian theology, looks to Jesus as the fullest revelation of God’s character and nature. Oord quotes the late Clark Pinnock, whose Open and Relational theology was explicitly Christ-centered and Cross-centered.
“ ‘God’s true power is revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ,’ says Pinnock. ‘In this act of self-sacrificing, God deploys power in the mode of servanthood, overcoming enemies not by annihilating them but by loving them.’ This means that ‘the power of love is the power that wills genuine relationships.’ and this view ‘is certainly not a diminished or inferior view of power.’ ”
Oord’s proposal follows in the tradition of postconservative evangelical theologians like Pinnock in allowing Scripture to challenge the models of providence that have been constructed by classical theism. Jesus breaks these models wide open.
“…theologians today use kenosis primarily to describe how Jesus reveals God’s nature. Instead of imagining how God may have relinquished attributes when becoming incarnate, many now think Jesus’ kenosis tells us who God is and how God acts.”
And, once again, Oord points to the cross of Jesus as God’s supreme self-disclosure in history:
“We especially see God’s noncoercive power revealed in the cross of Christ, which suggests that God’s power is cruciform…”
Oord’s model of providence is cruciform-centric, and that makes Oord’s model both thoroughly biblical and thoroughly Christian.
The Distance from Process
Some of Oord’s more well-read and studied readers will wonder what, if anything, separates Oord’s “Essential Kenosis” view from Process theology, which is adamantly rejected by conservative evangelicals who believe it limits God to an unbiblical extent. Oord answers this concern in a very brief statement—perhaps too brief.
“The other view standing near essential kenosis says external forces or worlds essentially limit God. This view gives the impression that outside actors and powers not of God’s making hinder divine power. Or it says God is subject to laws of nature, imposed on God from without. God is caught in the clutches of exterior authorities and dominions, and these superpowers restrict sovereignty.
This view seems to describe God as a helpless victim to external realities. Some criticize this view as presenting a ‘finite God’ because outside forces or imposed laws curb divine activity. While I think we have good reasons to think God’s power is limited in certain respects, this view places God under foreign authority. This God is too small.
Essential kenosis stands between these two views. It rejects both voluntary self-limitation of God and the view that external powers, gods, worlds or laws limit God. Essential kenosis says limitations to divine freedom derive from God’s nature of love.”
Conservative evangelical readers who find Process theology repulsive may not find Oord’s disclaimer sufficient. They may demand more distance. However, I think Oord does sufficiently detail the specific distinction between his view and Process: from where derives the limitations on divine sovereignty. Process says the laws of nature external to God; Essential kenosis says from God’s own nature.
Those Pesky Miracles
All of this talk of constraints on the sovereign will of God and limitations on God’s ability to intervene in the world naturally lead to the question that will be stirring in the minds of any knowledgable reader by this point: What about miracles?
Traditionally, miracles have been conceptualized as divine “intervention” in the world. In fact, some have defined a miracle as the violation of the laws of nature by God. But Oord’s model of providence will not allow such definitions. But neither are such definitions logically necessary or biblically warranted. Theologians like N. T. Wright constantly remind us that the distinction between what is called the “natural” world and the “supernatural” is an artificial divide invented during the so-called Enlightenment. Scriptural theology knows no such distinction. In fact, Wright and others would argue that such a distinction is a heresy in the same vein as Gnosticism. It is dualistic, and runs the risk of denying the goodness of creation or the reality of the Incarnation. However, Oord does not heavily lean on this kind of argumentation. Instead, he chooses to argue positively for the cooperative nature of miracles by pointing out that all the miracles detailed in the Bible involved willing agents who cooperated with God. Even the miracle of the Incarnation famously involves the “yes” of Mary to God’s plan.
In chapter eight, “Miracles and God’s Providence,” Oord works hard to assuage readers’ fears that he has cut miracles out of his model of providence. He clearly hasn’t. However, when it comes to how God providentially works with inanimate matter, it was not always clear why God could not coercively control it. In all the strong argumentation this book provides, this chapter felt the least strong.
Conclusion: Deepening the Discussion
Open and Relational theology has long provided adherents a more coherent model of divine providence than theologically deterministic models. In fact, Open theism in particular has provided many Arminians with a much need dose of logical consistency. However, Open theism has long struggled with its familial relationship to conservative evangelical theology, which has caused it to seem defensive at times. Perhaps this is an expected response to the alarmist classical theists who loudly condemned it as heresy. But Tom Oord’s project is not defensive. He is willing to follow the logic and the biblical data to the most consistent conclusion. He will no doubt receive criticism from both conservative evangelicals who wish to preserve their view of divine sovereignty as unilateral coercive force, and from Process theologians who will find his proposal insufficient for other reasons. Regardless, what is clear is that The Uncontrolling Love of God furthers the conversations and confronts all sides with important questions about our models of divine providence and their implications for the problem of evil. I’m very grateful for this contribution to that on-going discussion, and highly recommend this book to anyone exploring these subjects.
If I had one criticism for Oord, it would be that Open and Relational theologies like this “Essential Kenosis” continue to conceptualize providence and the problem of evil apart from important aspects of human life like community (ecclesiology), politics, missions, and social justice. I would have liked to see Oord at least point in those directions. Essential kenosis has the potential to be a liberating model for those who have all too often been the victims of societies that are emulating a “sovereignty” of coercive and violent control.