The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.
Summary: Proposes a way of addressing God’s goodness and providence in the light of randomness, pointless suffering, and genuine evil by arguing for uncontrolling love as the cardinal attribute of God.
Random accidents where a tumbling rock kills a motorist. Terrible suffering that results from a random genetic mutation. Genuinely evil actions resulting in injury and death with no evident intervention of God. It is often said that as difficult as these things are to understand, they are all part of God’s sovereign and providential plan. Thomas Jay Oord finds these explanations unacceptable, and not just the trite versions of these explanations, but also those more theologically nuanced. They end up being susceptible to making God the cause of evil, or raise questions of why God fails to prevent evil, including random events if God is capable of doing so. Either God is sovereign but seems unloving; or God is loving but ineffectual.
In this book, Oord argues for a better account of the providence of God, rooted in an open and relational theology of God. He begins with an exploration of both the randomness and regularity that seems to exist even in the physical world for which our understanding of providence must account as well as the existence of both genuine evil and good in the world. He then outlines seven models of God’s providence that have been proposed, briefly critiquing each, except for model four, which he proposes as the most plausible:
- God is the omnicause.
- God empowers and overpowers.
- God is voluntarily self-limited.
- God is essentially kenotic.
- God sustains as impersonal force.
- God is initial creator and current observer.
- God’s ways are not our ways.
He then offers an overview of open and relational theology (and antecedent theological corollaries) for those who may not be familiar with this, since it is foundational to his argument. In brief, open and relational theology contends that God and his creatures relate and his creatures make a real difference to God; that the future is open and not determined and neither God nor his creatures know all that will occur; and that love is God’s chief attribute and primary lens for understanding God’s relations with his creation.
This last is crucial to Oord’s argument as he contends in the following chapter. Traditionally, theology begins with the primacy of the sovereign power of God over all creation, an error he believes even John Sanders, an open theologian falls prey to. Oord would argue that the love of God that is preeminent must be understood as uncontrolling love, and that this uncontrolling love governs God’s relations with his creation. He would contend that God has created a world with creatures (and he would extend this to the fundamental building blocks of the world) that he cannot control. It is not a question of whether or not God will intervene to control but that God will not act contrary to his character as a God of uncontrolling love. This accounts for randomness and for genuine evil in the world without making God either the cause of these, or implicating God for failure to prevent genuine evil.
Oord goes on to describe and elaborate this as the “essential kenotic model of providence.” Oord contends that Philippians 2:4-13, and indeed the gospels, are not about what attributes of God Jesus relinquished in the incarnation, but rather how the incarnation reveals the very nature of God, and that in his humbling even to death on a cross reveals the God who works through uncontrolling love to serve and redeem. Christ does not prevent the evil done against him, the evil choices of human beings, but through love works to accomplish our redemption. And in this, something is revealed of God’s essential character in which God works non-coercively. This raises the question of miracles, which Oord would define as God’s unusual, good, and special actions in relation to creation. His explanation recognizes the ways God often works in cooperation both with natural elements and human agents in these works for good and non-coercively. This was least convincing in considering the plagues of Egypt, including the death of Egypt’s first-born, or even Jesus’s cursing of the fruitless fig tree. In other instances, I felt Oord was in danger of explaining the miraculous in natural terms. I would propose this part of his case needed strengthening.
There is much in Oord’s account to consider, particularly in offering a strong account of how we may speak of the goodness and love of God in light of both random and genuine “evils” without reverting to trite platitudes that do not comfort, and actually make light of human suffering. I also appreciated the clarity of writing and argument I found in Oord. I do hope for a serious engagement of his ideas, particularly because of the important pastoral implications of these discussions.
I personally wrestle with fully embracing this view for some of the reasons that I wrestle with openness of God theology more generally. It situates God within time, and also seems to make “uncontrolling love” a kind of law God must obey that doesn’t allow for God to be more “complicated” in the exercise of God’s power (Oord does allow for God to be “almighty,” although within the constraint of “uncontrolling love”). In Narnian terms, it feels to me that the Aslan of open theology is a tame lion. I happen to think there are too many “messy counterfactuals” that this apparently logical and compelling argument inadequately address. Likewise, those who uphold traditional understandings of providence must address the unsatisfying character of their explanations. Might this be an instance where iron could sharpen iron?
This book won a 2016 IVP Readers Choice Award.