My Response to Howard Snyder

February 29th, 2016 / 3 Comments

My friend, Howard Snyder, has written a review of my new book, The Uncontrolling Love of God. I thought it might be helpful if I responded.

I have great respect for Howard and his work. Although we disagree on several theological issues, I count him as an important voice in Wesleyan Theology.

Howard’s review is 5,000+ words long. While I appreciate the time he has given to reflecting on my book, I’ll offer a response only half as long. My response roughly follows the headings of his review, which can be found at this link.

Logical Fallacies?Oord - Uncontrolling Love of God

Howard accuses me of committing several “logical fallacies.” When reading what he means by “fallacy,” however, one finds he has neither the typical examples of fallacies nor formal fallacies in mind. Howard’s use of “fallacy” is unusual.

Howard says my book “is first of all a work of philosophical logic rather than Christian theology or biblical hermeneutics.” I agree that my book is not primarily about biblical hermeneutics, although I refer to Scripture for many key issues. But I suspect the vast majority of scholars would put my work squarely in the theology domain. As we read through Howard’s lengthy review, we discover this claim about a philosophy is a way for him to (mis)characterize my view and set up his own as more biblically or Wesleyan oriented. (See the final sections of the review on this issue.)

The first “fallacy” Howard says I commit is the notion that “we can know rationally and judge what God should do and what God can do.” Of course, this is not a fallacy in any usual sense of the term. But more importantly, the opposite of this claim would be that we cannot know rationally and judge God’s actions. Should Christians claim they cannot know or judge the nature of God’s actions?

I do think we can know something about who God is, what God does, and what God can do. As I argue in the book, I think we can know these things – in part – because of the revelation of Jesus Christ, Scripture, science, experience, tradition, etc.

The emphasis Howard seems to have in mind here is on the word “rationally.” This seems to be his attempt to begin luring his readers toward the mystery views he will soon endorse. The crux of Howard’s concern seems to be summarized in this sentence: “Human capability to determine what God (a God of love) shouldcan, and cannot do is … a fallacy.” Howard seems to think I believe we can know fully or with certainty what God should, can, and cannot do.

I clearly reject such full-scale knowledge and certainty in The Uncontrolling Love of God. I talk about the role of humility, uncertainty, and partial knowledge at the beginning of chapter four, for instance. And I make several references to the plausibility, not certainty, of the essential kenosis view I propose.

Howard goes on to make a claim I don’t make and would not make. He says I presuppose that “human reason is (at least potentially) equal to or greater than God’s wisdom.” But I do not believe this. I do think human reason is somewhat trustworthy and not entirely undone by sin or finitude. But I do not claim to have equal or greater wisdom than God. Furthermore, my arguments don’t require such claims.

Logical Fallacies? 2

Howard turns to the second “fallacy” he says that I commit. He summarizes it as the “inadequacy of mystery as an answer to evil.”

I am surprised Howard would claim that I commit a logical fallacy when I say appealing to mystery is unsatisfactory. This is not a fallacy in any typical sense. More importantly, logicians are usually troubled when arguments appeal to mystery rather than avoid it!

In this section, Howard rightly points to my insistence that a satisfactory theory of providence have explanatory consistency. He rightly sees that I do not find appeals to mystery satisfying (as I suspect most people do not). And here Howard raises a good question: “Who decides what is or is not explanatory consistency?”

The Uncontrolling Love of God is my attempt to persuade readers that the model of providence I offer has more explanatory consistency than other models. After reading Howard’s review, it’s clear I have not persuaded him. I’m happy to say, however, that the majority of many reviews written thus far indicate that my proposals are persuasive. In other words, many readers say the essential kenosis model of providence offers more explanatory consistency than alternatives. So the “who decides” question is in the process of being answered.

Howard also offers here his view of what counts as mystery. I agree when he says truth has only been partly revealed. I agree that we cannot (fully) know why God or anything exists in the first place.

Why God doesn’t prevent evil, however, is something Howard supposes “we’ll never know, not in this age nor in the age to come.” A number of Christian theologians follow Howard’s line of thinking here. To them, offering a solution to why a loving and powerful God fails to prevent evil is futile.

I disagree. As I see it, part of giving an account of the hope we have in God involves offering plausible explanations to difficult problems. Leaving the problem of evil unsolved does little to bolster the intellectually-grounded convictions of believers and even less to persuade unbelievers for whom the problem of evil compels them to atheism. Accounts of Christian hope that appeal to mystery are, I believe, unsatisfying to many more people than just me.

Logical Fallacies? 3

The third “fallacy” Howard says I commit is the view that “genuine (essential) love and the exercise of controlling power are contradictory, antithetical, mutually exclusive.” Again, notice that this is not really a fallacy in any usual or formal sense.

I was disappointed that Howard thinks I come “very close to arguing that love is God’s only attribute, the sole truth about his nature or character.” He apparently misses the times I argue that love is logically prior to power in God’s nature. This doesn’t mean love is God’s only attribute. I also affirm the other attributes of God in the book.

Howard says that “Oord puts (essential) love and power in antithesis.” I do not, however, make this claim. I say divine love shapes or constrains divine power, because love is logically prior to power in God. And I say I cannot make sense of evil and divine love if God has controlling power.

Howard is correct that I believe God’s love is uncontrolling. But he claims this view is “not biblical” nor “logically defensible.” I find no good evidence in the Bible nor does Howard offer good biblical evidence in his review that his claims are correct. I find no biblical passage that explicitly says God controls others entirely. And my view breaks no rules of logic. Howard may not like my proposal, but that doesn’t make it illogical or unbiblical.

Howard apparently did not read the section of my book that addresses the parenting analogy he uses as a way to say he can control his children. In my section on God being a Spirit without a localized divine body, I address the parenting analogy.  I offer an argument for why humans like Howard can use physical bodies to exert bodily impact and God cannot.

The key issue separating Howard and me is whether divine love can control. I believe we are wise to say God’s love is uncontrolling. I make this argument in large part because it makes sense to me and many others that a steadfastly loving God would prevent genuine evil, if that God could control others. Howard seems to disagree. But the best he can offer as an alternative is an appeal to mystery.

A careful reader will notice that my argument is not that, a priori, love is uncontrolling. Some people make this claim. But my claim is different; it is an a posteriori and inductive one. I claim that given the problem of evil (and other issues), the dominant view of God’s love and power in scripture, and the revelation of God found in Jesus Christ, it makes most sense to believe God’s love is inherently uncontrolling.

God’s Attributes

Howard moves on to address God’s attributes. Although I believe God is transcendent, Howard rightly notes that I don’t develop a thorough case for divine transcendence in my book. He seems not to remember, however, that I appeal to God’s transcendence at the conclusion of chapter three as an argument for values in God.

Throughout his review, Howard likes to call my view a “process philosophy” view. This is not what I claim for it. But Howard repeatedly returns to a label I do not place on myself. I have to wonder if Howard does this to “alert” his readers to this as a possible reason they should reject my view. I don’t find such tactics helpful or fair. I would hope my proposals were evaluated on their own grounds, not on some appeal to friend or foe.

Howard notes that I affirm prevenient grace. He wrongly implies, however, that my view of prevenient grace amounts to “vague energy.” He wrongly implies that I think God does not act. I often say in the book that God acts (and later in his review, Howard agrees). In this segment of his review, Howard so distorts my view that I have difficulty knowing how I should respond.

Providence

When Howard addresses the issues of providence he continues to misunderstand and therefore misrepresent my view.

Howard says my view “essentially collaps(es) all God’s acts into a sort of indirect providence.” I have no idea what he means by “indirect” providence, and it’s not a phrase I use in the book. In The Uncontrolling Love of God, I often speak of God’s active, direct causation.

Howard claims I take “a crucial step beyond (John) Polkinghorne to embrace the God of process philosophy.” He then launches into Polkinghorne’s criticism of process thought, a criticism that applies to some forms of process theology but not all.

More importantly, Polkinghorne’s criticisms don’t apply to my own proposals. Howard is unable to see how my view supports a personal God, despite my arguments to the contrary (see chs. 5-7). This is another weak segment of the review.

God Acts

One of the more bizarre parts of Howard’s review is a section he titles “Acts or Events.” This seems to be Howard’s attempt to criticize process philosophy. Because he (wrongly) thinks my views are the same as most self-identifying process thinkers, Howard seems to think his criticism of process thinking applies fully to me.

In opposition to what he claimed earlier, Howard says “Oord often speaks of God’s ‘acts’ or ‘action.’” But Howard says that he is not clear that I mean, as he puts it, God “truly acts in a personal, conscious, volitional way consistent with the biblical picture of the will, love, justice, holiness, and lovingkindness of the one true Lord God.”

I do affirm this way of speaking of God’s action. I’m sorry that Howard was unable to discern this from the book. I wonder if Howard’s presumptions about my relation to process thought led him down this false road.

Howard distinguishes between God “nudging” and more “overt, direct, and dramatic” acts. I affirm both kinds of acts for God. But I simply say neither is action that entirely controls creatures.

Howard appeals to Polkinghorne and the chess master analogy of providence. I like the chess master analogy, but I would need to know better what Howard means when he approvingly quotes Polkinghorne that creaturely actions “cannot ultimately thwart” God. I don’t think creatures can thwart God’s love. That is, I think God loves no matter what creatures do. But I also think creatures can act in ways other than what God wants/wills. Most Wesleyans I know would agree.

I agree with Howard when he says “providence is personal, not impersonal. It is an expression of sovereign essential love.” But as I say often in The Uncontrolling Love of God, I believe there are strong reasons to say God’s providence love is uncontrolling.

Bible

On my use of the kenosis passage in Philippians 2:4–13, Howard claims “there is no sound hermeneutical basis for extending the kenosis concept to the essential being of the Triune Lord God in the way Oord does.” Of course, I disagree. Many biblical scholars find my proposal sound as well, although I readily admit there are other ways to interpret the passage.

Sadly, Howard says, “there is virtually nothing in the book about how a biblical theology of the cross might illuminate the problem of evil or the meaning of providence.” He is right that I don’t have a huge portion of the book that addresses the cross. But I refer to the cross in chapter 5 and in my explanation of the kenosis passage. In my view, the cross of Christ powerfully illustrates that God’s love is uncontrolling. Perhaps in a future book I will elaborate.

Howard concludes this section saying, “In dealing with the fact of evil, we have to deal with the whole of Scripture—and remember that Scripture transcends mere human reason.” I agree that we must look to the whole tenor and scope of Scripture.

In The Uncontrolling Love of God, I often claim that the themes of love dominate the whole of Scripture. I propose a view of God’s love as uncontrolling, and I admit that this language is not explicitly endorsed in the Bible. But neither is it rejected. I think God’s uncontrolling love is consonant with Scripture, however. And it stands to reason that Christians who have interpreted the Bible through a lens that says God can be controlling will need to try on the uncontrolling love lens to see how consonant it is with the biblical witness.

Final Solution, Wesley, and the End

In the final sections, Howard moves to a variety of topics. In the first section, Howard appeals to eschatology and living in faith while awaiting a solution to the problem of evil. I agree with Howard that evil has not yet been overcome. I also await and hope for such overcoming in the future.

But the work to overcome evil need not conflict with finding an answer to why God doesn’t prevent evil here and now. To put it differently, eschatological hope need not conflict with present-day work to answer well why God doesn’t stop evil now.

I was happy to read Howard thinks Wesley did not adequately solve the problem of evil. I agree. Like Howard, I nevertheless think Wesley had “keen insight into the character of God and the meaning of love and suffering as we confront the very troubling reality of evil in the world.”

In his section on Wesley, Howard restates his charge that my views are philosophically speculative. He subtly suggests that I’m affirming process theology. In his criticism, Howard seems unaware that any view or interpretation of life or the Bible is shot-through with philosophical assumptions. When it comes to philosophy and the Bible, I’m with John Wesley: it’s both/and.

In his conclusion, Howard comes out directly with a view indirectly or subtly implied earlier: “The God described in Oord’s book is the God of speculative process philosophy, not the God of the Bible.” My book never makes this claim, nor do I think it true. But Howard seems bent on labeling my work with language I do not endorse in the very book he is reviewing. Odd. Have contemporary theologians resorted to labeling any attempt to rethink God’s power – even in light of love – as “process theology?” For love’s sake, I hope not!

Conclusion

In a key sentence near the end of his review, Howard says, “I find it much more comforting and more satisfying both intellectually and emotionally to trust the character, faithfulness, lovingkindness, and promises of God than to rest confidence in an essentially philosophical accounting for evil—even if that explanation were to be fully sound logically…”

Howard completes this lengthy sentence by adding the charge I find unsupported throughout his review: “the concept of ‘uncontrolling love’ is not (fully sound logically).”

Notice what Howard is admitting in this lengthy sentence. He is saying his particular view of God would be more comforting to him than a solution to the problem of evil that is, to use his language, “fully sound logically.”

This sums up well the basic differences between Howard and me. Although we share much in common as Wesleyan theologians, Howard is not willing to give up his view of God’s controlling power even if someone were to present a rational solution to the problem of evil. Of course, I and many others think my book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, offers such a solution.

Apparently even if Howard were to be acknowledge the logic of love I offer, he would not give up the vision of God he currently holds. This vision, he readily admits, appeals to mystery on crucial issues of God’s love and power in the face of evil.

In this blog response, I have tried to be fair to Howard and his review. I consider him a brother in Christ and an important Wesleyan theologian. We agree on many things. But as his review and my response show, we also differ.

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Comments

Glen O’Brien

Thanks for this helpful set of clarifications.


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Todd Holden

I would wholeheartedly agree that merely applying labels does not do anyone any good at all. It most certainly does though continue to polarize people apart crucially separating us instead of drawing us together where we can openly discuss things and allow us to more fully love each other more completely day by day.

Human beings have had far too many things separating us from each other. It has always certainly been God’s intent for us to draw together and it seems to me that God has gone so far as to openly say that He would be the Light of the world drawing us to Himself and together.

I think there is plenty of room for us all to disagree and still love each other with great passion as God loves each of us every day!


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