The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence

Thomas Jay Oord
Published by InterVarsity Press Academic in 2015

Reviewed by James S. Spiegel, Philosophy and Religion, Taylor University

A long-standing criticism of open theism—at least since the emergence of the movement in the 1990s—is its failure to adequately account for God’s permission of evil. Why would God refrain from stopping rapes, murders, and child abuse when he could easily do so? The standard open theist answer is that God voluntarily refrains out of respect for our libertarian free will. But is human freedom really worth all the pain and sorrow? In The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord develops a variation of openness theology that aims to overcome this problem, specifically by proposing that God does not prevent such evils because he cannot do so. God’s power is limited, insists Oord, but not in a way that threatens divine omnipotence. For God is only limited by his own love. Love is the preeminent divine virtue, and this is why God is essentially uncontrolling.

From the outset, Oord rejects most standard theodicies, especially those that suggest God permits evil for greater good. Some events, insists Oord, are simply random and purposeless, despite what passages such as Proverbs 16:33 (“the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision from the Lord”) might seem to indicate. In support of this, Oord appeals to quantum indeterminacy, genetic mutations, and our “natural reactions” to certain events, such as coincidences and chance occurrences. At the same time, Oord emphasizes cosmic regularity, suggesting that the laws of nature are not creatively chosen by God but actually “derive from God’s nature” (49). As with many crucial claims in the book, Oord helps himself to this assumption, not bothering to actually argue for it.

Oord regards his view as occupying a balanced mid-point between extreme models of providence, from the Calvinist doctrine of meticulous providence to apophatic theology and the appeal to mystery. In many respects, Oord’s approach is similar to that of such open theists as Clark Pinnock, William Hasker, and John Sanders, but he departs from these thinkers in a significant way, as Oord himself is careful to clarify by contrasting his view with that of Sanders’s “risk model” of providence. Sanders, like other open theists, affirms that God voluntarily refrains from interfering with creaturely freedom, hence his permission of evil. But Oord insists that “a loving God would not allow genuine evil that is preventable” (68). The way out, according to Oord, is to propose that God cannot stop such evils, and that he is unable to do so because “God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with creatures God cannot control” (146). “God’s preeminent attribute is uncontrolling love,” Oord insists, and for this reason, “God cannot create controllable creatures” (147-48).

Of course, no Christian theologian will dispute the notion that God is love, and most would agree this is the preeminent divine virtue. But why suppose that it must be uncontrolling? Oord’s entire case for this claim rests on a particular application of the “kenosis” passage in Philippians 2, in which the Apostle Paul describes the humility of Christ, noting that Jesus “emptied himself” (kenosis), taking the form of a servant. The primary implication of “essential kenosis” for Oord is that self-giving love “is an essential attribute of God’s eternal nature” (161). Of course, this much is neither a controversial nor novel theological insight. Nor is Oord’s further claim that “God is not free to choose whether to love” (161), as theologians from Jacob Arminius to Jonathan Edwards have likewise affirmed. The notion that God’s love is uncontrolling, however, certainly is controversial and problematic, particularly as Oord develops the idea in terms of the limits this imposes on God’s power. Oord tells us that evils occur in the world because “the time-full and living God of love cannot foreknow and thereby prevent the evil that free creatures do or random events cause” (188). Oord applies this to several concrete historical cases, from rapes to mass murders, noting at one point that “God could not have prevented the Boston Marathon bombing by acting alone” (170).

Here we might ask why God could not perform miracles in such cases to prevent evil. Consistent with his concept of essential kenosis, Oord proposes that miracles are never coercive, in the sense of involving complete and unilateral divine control. Rather, miracles occur in special cases where creatures “cooperate with God’s initiating and empowering love” (200). Oord claims that “the Bible gives no explicit support to the view that miracles require divine control” (201). This strong, and I would say implausible, position is his way of circumventing the “problem of selective miracles”—why would God prevent some evils but not others? It is a problem that vexes thinkers like Oord who refuse to acknowledge the possibility of God’s use of evil for greater good.

Oord rightly anticipates that readers will ask how his account can square with what seem to be clear biblical narratives of miracles displaying unilateral divine control. The parting of the Red Sea is a paradigm case, and Oord offers three strategies for dealing with it and other nature miracles. One approach, he says, would be to say that God used random or spontaneous events at the quantum level to bring about this macro event. Here he hedges his view somewhat by granting that “God coordinates creaturely elements in ways that bring about unexpected and good results” (209). Just how “coordination” of natural events differs substantially from “control” he does not make clear. Another strategy he proposes appeals to the involvement of free agents. Thus, Oord surmises, “the actions by Moses, the wandering children of Israel, Pharaoh’s army or others may have triggered a chain of sequences that affected inanimate objects, entities and systems of nature,” producing a chain reaction culminating in the parting of the Red Sea. A third strategy is to appeal to God’s foreknowledge that “winds would push back the water leaving ground dry enough for passage” through the Red Sea. Other scholars have hypothesized along these lines, though typically as a way of denying the event was actually miraculous.

While Oord aims to improve upon the account of providence offered by standard openness theology, I would suggest that his model actually takes a step in the wrong direction, both in terms of logical coherence and faithfulness to Scripture. I will address examples of problems in each of these categories in turn.

The book is plagued by numerous logical fallacies. For example, Oord reasons, “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” (169). But this is a non sequitur. The preeminence of love does not imply these things. Rather, only Oord’s peculiar construal of divine love as essentially uncontrolling has these implications. Elsewhere, he tells us,

If love is not the logically primary [divine] attribute, we have no reason to believe that God does not sometimes choose to hate us. If sovereign choice precedes self-giving love, we have no reason to think that God will not sin. If God’s nature is not first and foremost love, nothing prevents [the] deity from choosing to break bad. (164)

This is a false dichotomy that mistakenly assumes we must choose between affirming love as the primary divine attribute and affirming that a bare sovereign will is primary. But such a stark divine voluntarism is not the only alternative to the primacy of divine love. One may maintain, for instance, that there are no primary or “preeminent” divine attributes, such as by affirming a Thomistic account of divine simplicity. On such a view one can be just as assured that God will never sin.

Biblically, Oord’s book is no less problematic. First, his model cannot account for many biblical miracles. He insists that “creaturely cooperation plays a necessary role in miraculous action” (204). But do we see such cooperation in the divine destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? Or the Egyptian plagues? Or in Jesus’s walking on water or turning water into wine? Even the divine intervention on the road to Damascus resulting in the conversion of Paul is arguably coercive, though in a very loving way. And this is a key point. Oord rejects without argument the very possibility of loving control.

Secondly, Oord’s model cannot account for predictive prophecy in Scripture. If God cannot foreknow or control the future actions of free human beings, then how can he predict with perfect accuracy the choices of so many people hundreds of years in advance? Open theists such as Sanders, Basinger, and Hasker compensate for their denial of exhaustive divine foreknowledge by emphasizing God’s capacity to control situations strictly in order to fulfill his predictions, at least in some cases. By insisting God is uncontrolling, Oord surrenders this option, along with any prospect of maintaining a coherent account of predictive prophecy.

Finally, Oord has a peculiar view of love. Throughout the book, Oord insists that God is unable to prevent genuine evil because love does not coerce. But how could it possibly be unloving to force someone out of, say, a deadly or morally corrupting situation? If I encounter a man molesting a child, the loving thing for me to do is to coerce him to stop. This is obvious. So why could it not be loving for God to do the same?

In terms of biblical support, Oord’s view of providence hinges entirely on his particular reading of Philippians 2:5-11. Despite the exegetical difficulty regarding this passage, as reflected in the diverse interpretative positions scholars have taken on it, Oord is unhesitant in his interpretation and, more significantly, his extension of the concept to the Godhead and, in turn, the doctrine of providence. This is problematic because the passage refers only to Jesus Christ, the bodily incarnation of God, not to the Triune Godhead. Oord refers vaguely to the fact that “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” (155). Which theologians? And what are their arguments? In a footnote, Oord cites the likes of John Dominic Crossan, James D. G. Dunn, and Michael J. Gorman, but he does not offer us any evidential grounds for accepting this interpretation that is so decisive for his entire project.

These are some of the more significant difficulties with Oord’s model of providence and how he defends it. While he is to be commended for his concern to resolve the tension between the love of God and the presence of evil in the world, his approach does not provide a solution, but, unfortunately, only compounds the problem.

Cite this article
James S. Spiegel, “The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:1 , 93-96

James S. Spiegel

Taylor University
James S. Spiegel is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Taylor University.