My Response to John Sanders
In an article published recently in the Wesleyan Theological Journal, John Sanders raises concerns about and criticizes my theological proposals in The Uncontrolling Love of God. In this essay, I answer his criticisms and explain my views in greater depth.
The problem of evil is conundrum for those who believe in God. Unsolved, it leaves belief in God vulnerable to the charge of being implausible. Many atheists cite the problem of evil as their primary reason for not believing a God exists. But believers also wonder why genuine evils occur despite the existence of a powerful and loving God.
Added to the long-known problem of evil is the relatively more recent problem of randomness and chance. In previous centuries, science and philosophy have strengthened reasons for believing that random and chance events are real (ontological) and not merely based on a lack of creaturely knowledge (epistemic). Many now wonder whether it makes sense to believe in a providential God if random and chance events occur in the world.
My recent book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (IVP Academic)[i] offers solutions to these problems (and others). In a recent Wesleyan Theological Journal article, John Sanders explores these solutions. Sanders focusses especially on my theodicy and my view of miracles.
I’m grateful to Sanders for reading my work seriously and pondering its implications. I admit to having mixed feelings as I began reading his article. Part of me worried that perhaps Sanders had discovered a fatal flaw in my arguments. Another part was eager to see if a more viable alternative exists or at least see if Sanders could spark ideas about how I might strengthen my proposals.
After reading Sanders’s Wesleyan Theological Journal article and dialoguing with him at an Open and Relational Theologies session during the 2016 American Academy of Religion meeting, I do not find that Sanders has discovered a fatal flaw in my proposal.[ii] I remain convinced that my essential kenosis proposal solves the crucial aspect of the problem of evil pertaining to God’s love and power. My proposal also solves the issue of randomness and chance in light of God’s providence. I also continue to find my explanation of miracles satisfying. But after reading Sanders’s article and dialoguing with him in person, I can see that my writing is not as clear as I had hoped it would be.
Summary of The Uncontrolling Love of God –
(THOSE FAMILIAR WITH THE ARGUMENTS OF THE BOOK MIGHT SKIP THIS FIRST SECTION)
Before addressing Sanders’s specific concerns, it seems wise to offer an overview of the book’s arguments. The book is part of my attempt to makes sense of life. As I see it, we all want to make sense of life, but evils – whether caused by free will, agency, or random events – make it difficult to do so. Most people give unsatisfactory explanations for God’s role in evil or in relation to randomness.
The Uncontrolling Love of God proposes what I believe are satisfying explanations. Scientists and philosophers describe at least some events in the universe as random, in the sense of their not being entirely determined by anyone or anything. For these reasons and others, I affirm the reality of randomness and chance at various levels of existence. No creaturely agent, factor, or law controls these events. And I argue that God neither foreordains nor foreknows these events. Randomness is both ontologically and epistemically real.
Law-like regularities are also present in the cosmos. Many call these regularities the “laws of nature” and some theologians argue that God created them. I disagree. These law-like regularities, I argue, are the natural expressions or entailments of the all-embracing, all-sustaining love of God not the result of wholly free divine decisions.
God’s self-giving, others-empowering loving activity makes possible both regularity and randomness. God also provides free will, agency, self-organization, and spontaneity, depending on the complexity of the creature. In fact, God’s love makes all these features of life possible. Along with other open and relational theists, I argue that God’s gifts and the flowing nature of time mean that neither the creatures nor the Creator can exhaustively foreknow which possible events will become actual.
Most attempts to describe God’s providence in the universe are not compelling. In a pivotal chapter, I briefly explore seven major models of providence. Some models present God as controlling. They say God always or occasionally controls creatures. Some models deny genuine randomness, saying these events actually follow a preordained divine blueprint. Some models of providence offer little explanatory consistency, which does not help us make sense of life. Some models portray God as unaffected, impersonal, and uninvolved. These models make it difficult to fathom how God lovingly relates to creatures. Some models deny that we can comprehend God in any important way, and some employ elaborate appeals to mystery.
Open and relational theologies, which come in many forms, are well suited to account for the randomness and regularities of our world. These theologies makes sense of our intuitions about free will, agency, self-organization, spontaneity, and other modes of causation. Open and relational theologies support the view that both good and evil events occur. And they typically argue that love resides at the center of the most satisfying answers to life’s questions.
In The Uncontrolling Love of God, I devote an entire chapter to John Sanders’s influential book, The God Who Risks. I mention many things on which we agree. But I criticize his view of a few key issues. I argue that Sanders does not regard love as the logically preeminent attribute of God’s nature. Instead, he believes divine power precedes divine love. His statements about God creating are especially illustrative of the priority in God of controlling power over persuasive love.
Placing sovereignty logically prior to love, as Sanders does, should prompt us to wonder why God doesn’t occasionally control creatures to prevent genuine evils. The God Sanders describes could control others or situations if this God wanted to do so. So we rightly wonder why the God capable of control does not, in the name of love, prevent genuine evil. Sanders admits his view cannot solve the problem of evil. He doesn’t address much the problem of randomness.
I propose a model of providence I call “essential kenosis.” This model draws from the broad themes of Christian scripture, especially those pertaining to divine love, creaturely agency, and the God-creation relationship. It says God’s almighty love graces all creation, all the time, and God’s love never controls. Uncontrolling love is the mode by which divine providence always operates, because uncontrolling love logically comes first in God.
The distinguishing feature of essential kenosis is its claim that God cannot deny God’s own nature of self-giving, others-empowering love. This means that God necessarily gives freedom, agency, self-organization, or spontaneity to creatures, depending on their complexity. Because the divine nature is this kind of love and because God “cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13), God cannot withhold, override, or fail to provide these gifts to creation. In other words, the Creator necessarily self-gives and others-empowers, and God’s gifts and call are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29).
Essential kenosis solves both questions raised at the outset of The Uncontrolling Love of God. To the question of why a loving and almighty God does not prevent genuine evil, essential kenosis says God necessarily loves by self-giving and others-empowering. Consequently, God cannot prevent the genuine evil that creatures cause.
To the question of how God can be providential despite randomness and chance, essential kenosis says such events are possible because of God’s existence-giving love. Random events emerge from the generative capacity God gives creatures to act and be. God cannot foreknow with certainty which possible random events will become actual. And God cannot prevent random events from generating negative consequences. But God works for the good with no matter whatever occurs — the results of random events or free will – with those who respond well to the call to love (Rom 8:28).
God’s kenotic love enables complex creatures to act freely. When free creatures respond well to God’s uncontrolling love, well-being is established. The kingdom of God is present. When they respond poorly, they sin. Evil results. God cannot prevent free creatures from sinning or prevent the evil that results from such sin.
God’s kenotic love provides agency and self-organization to simpler creatures and entities. When they respond well to God’s uncontrolling love, well-being is established. When they respond poorly, evil occurs. God cannot control the agency and self-organization of simpler creatures and entities that cause evil.
God’s kenotic love is expressed to all creation, all the time. Because of this steadfast love, law-like regularities emerge in the world. God cannot interrupt these regularities to prevent evil, because they are the natural outcomes of God’s necessary and omnipresent love.
In all this, God’s essential kenosis comes before and makes possible creaturely response. In other words, essential kenosis is one way to talk about what the Wesleyan tradition calls “prevenient grace.” But essential kenosis insists that God necessarily expresses prevenient grace to all creatures and all creation, and God cannot control creature or situation.
The God of essential kenosis has plans and purposes. This loving God invites, commands, and empowers creatures to respond well to those plans and purposes. But God does not operate from a foreordained or foreknown blueprint. Instead, God enables creatures and creation, and God works moment by moment to establish the kingdom of God.
The uncontrolling God of essential kenosis is both faithful to provide the regularities of existence and to initiate miracles. Miracles are good and unusual events that involve God’s special action to provide beneficial forms of existence to the world. God does not supernaturally intervene in, control, or violate creation. But through God’s persuasive love, both law-like regularities and the special action in miracles express divine providence. Creatures must cooperate with God’s activity for miracles to occur. Or appropriate conditions among non-agential creation must exist for miracles to take place.
Essential kenosis offers an adventure model of reality. Adventures have general goals not predetermined designs. Adventures involve calculated risks, free decisions, and sometimes random occurrences. A life of love – for both the Creator and the creatures – is an adventure without guaranteed results.
I believe the essential kenosis model of providence fits well the world in which we live. And if we read the Bible through the lens of God’s self-giving, others-empowering, and uncontrolling love, we will find the essential kenosis model fits the broad biblical witness. In my view, essential kenosis helps us make sense of life, especially God’s relation to evil and randomness.
With an overview The Uncontrolling Love of God in mind, I turn to John Sanders’s concerns. Sanders believes that the essential kenosis model “cannot affirm both 1) a complete solution to the problem of evil and 2) traditional belief in divine authorship of miracles.” He says that although it “provides a successful theodicy, it cannot realistically support miracles such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus” (174). He offers other criticisms, but he identifies this as his overarching argument.
I will argue that essential kenosis both offers a solution to the central aspect of the problem of evil and supports belief in miracles, including the resurrection of Jesus. I will also address many other concerns and statements from Sanders’s journal article.
I had difficulty knowing how best to structure my responses to Sanders. Given the diverse claims in Sanders’s article, I was unable to imagine an overarching framework for my response. Consequently, I will address Sanders’s statements more or less in the order they arise in his text.
I affirm open theism.
Sanders begins his article with several summary statements, most of which I think fairly represent my argument. His first surprising statement, however, is this: “Though Oord has much in common with open theism, he rejects it as well” (175). In this section and elsewhere, Sanders pits my theory of essential kenosis against Arminianism and open theism.
Sanders’s statement here surprised me, because I do not reject open theism. I affirm it. It is true that I don’t find Sanders’s version of open theism as plausible as other versions. In light of Sanders’s claim and my response, perhaps the question underlying our disagreement is this: “What comprises the essence of open theism?” A related question also emerges: “Who gets to decide the essence of open theism?”
Answering these questions proves difficult, at least in terms of gaining agreement among self-identified open theists. In my view, Sanders should have 1) argued for an essence to open theism and tried to show how my view doesn’t fit or 2) simply compared essential kenosis to his own version of open theism. I took the latter approach when I devoted a chapter in The Uncontrolling Love of God to exploring and critiquing his version of open theism before presenting essential kenosis.
I don’t speak about “physical control.”
Early in his article, Sanders tries to summarize my statements by identifying four kinds of coercion. He invents the phrase “physical control” to describe one form of coercion. “[Oord] gives four senses of what it means to ‘coerce’ an entity,” he writes. The third sense, he says, is “Physical control: for example, when a parent places a toddler in a crib even though the child does not what to be there” (178). But in this, he wrongly summarizes my view of coercion, and this leads him to misunderstand other aspects of essential kenosis.
Nowhere in my book do I use the phrase “physical control.” But Sanders seems to coin this phrase to account for a paragraph in which I say others might call the act of picking up a child to “coerce or control” it. I say, “we might call this the bodily impact sense of coerce, because it involves bodies exerting force upon other bodies and things in the world.”[iii] But the important point that Sanders does not seem to realize is this: I’m not endorsing this meaning or use of the word “coerce.” I say “some” people use the word this way.
Because this seems to be the basis for other misunderstandings Sanders has, I want to relate what I actually say about coercion. I begin exploring possible meanings of “coercion” by saying “coerce has multiple meanings,” and it “is especially vulnerable to confusion.” I note that in “everyday language,” coercion is sometimes used in a psychological sense. In the following paragraph, I say “others equate the word coerce with violence.” Notice that I’m not personally endorsing this equating; I’m simply talking about how some other people use the word.
I begin the paragraph from which Sanders coins the phrase “physical control” by saying “a third way some use coerce pertains….” Again, I’m not endorsing this use of the word; I say “some” people use the word this way. I say the parent who picks up a child “may be said to coerce or control.” Again, I’m not saying that I use “coerce” in this way; this activity “may be said” to be coercion. What some people call coercion, I say, is what I call “bodily impact.”
The very next paragraph begins with my understanding of coercion. “I am not using coerce in the psychological, violence, or bodily impact senses,” I write. “I’m using it in the metaphysical sense. In the metaphysical sense, to coerce is to control entirely. This involves unilateral determination, in which the one coerced loses all capacity for causation, self-organization, agency, or free will. To coerce in the metaphysical sense is to act as a sufficient cause, thereby wholly controlling the other or the situation. To coerce is to control.” (182-183).
Sanders later notes in his article that I define coercion in the metaphysical sense. But he also suggests that I endorse what he calls “physical control.” By contrast, I argue often in the book that I don’t think God has a localized divine body and I don’t think God controls others. I never use the phrase “physical control” to describe the bodily impact even of creatures.
Just before the section on coercion that Sanders tries to summarize, I argue that God is an omnipresent spirit without a localized physical body. God doesn’t have a divine body with which to make divine bodily impact upon creatures. “While we may sometimes be blameworthy for failing to use our bodies to prevent genuine evils, the God without a localized divine body is not culpable.”[iv] As we will see, Sanders’s misunderstanding of this issue is the source of many other misunderstandings.
Creaturely bodily impact can be good or bad.
In a section he titles, “Essential kenosis and evil,” Sanders moves to what he thinks are potential errors in my theodicy. My view says, as Sanders puts it, “the reason God is not culpable in any respect for evils is that God neither metaphysically controls nor physically controls any entity or event” (178). Notice that Sanders uses the phrase “physical control” here, which again is not my phrase.
Sanders continues, saying that “Oord clearly admits that not all types of control are bad.” To be precise, I say exerting bodily impact can be good or bad. Sanders would have correctly represented me had he used “bodily impact” language rather than “control” or “physical control” language.
Sanders concludes that “if love sometimes requires us to control others in certain respects then it is false to say ‘love never controls.’ Hence, genuine love is not necessarily uncontrolling” (178-179).
This is a strange argument. It’s strange, first, because I never say that love sometimes requires us to control others. Sanders invents and uses the phrase “physical control” in this argument, then attributes it to my view, and finally criticizes me for it.
It is also strange that Sanders places quotation marks around the phrase “love never controls” and adds a footnote. The quotation marks might give the reader the impression that he’s quoting me. But I use the phrase “love never controls” only once in the book. And when I use it, I’m describing an intuition that some people have. I don’t claim this intuition is mine or that it tells us something true. And when we read the text in Sanders’s footnote, we find that he doesn’t reference my book.
Perhaps even strangest of all is that what Sanders takes back his criticism of me in the footnote: “To be consistent,” says Sanders, “Oord can only mean this in the sense of metaphysical, not physical, control, but he fails to adequately explain this” (179). Of course, I don’t use the phrase “physical control.” So I shouldn’t be expected to explain what it means and why it may or may not be loving. I explain the meaning of bodily impact in four pages prior to my book’s discussion of coercion and, as we’ve seen in the quotes above, what I mean by metaphysical coercion.[v]
God never coerces.
Sanders begins a new paragraph and new line of argumentation in his article by incorrectly saying, “Oord agrees with his fellow freewill theists that love does not ordinarily coerce someone but that there are times when love requires such actions” (179). I say often in the book, however, that God never coerces. I also don’t think creatures can coerce in the metaphysical sense of the word. So Sanders is wrong to say I agree with those freewill theists who say love sometimes coerces. (Later in the article, Sanders says freewill theists deny metaphysical coercion but affirm physical coercion . It’s not clear which form of coercion Sanders means in the quote above.)
Sanders’s confusion seems to be, again, that he thinks I use “coerce” in a way that I say others use it. Consequently, we should not be surprised that Sanders thinks he’s found an “astonishing conclusion that runs counter to much of the book.” The conclusion is only astonishing if one confuses my use of “coercion” with the way Sanders uses it or how others use it. I argue that God never coerces.
God is a spirit without a localized divine body.
In a subsequent section of his article, Sanders addresses my statement that God is an omnipresent spirit without a localized divine body. Here he sees what he seems to have missed in earlier statements. He correctly identifies as my position the view that God is uncontrolling in the metaphysical sense and does not possess a localized divine body with which to exert bodily impact. This is why God cannot exert what Sanders earlier calls “physical control.”
Sanders goes on to say, however, that the incorporeal God I describe is not “capable of bringing about physical states of affairs” (179). I disagree. If bringing about a physical state of affairs means that God controls others, Sanders would be right about my view. After all, I don’t believe God can control. But I do believe God is capable of bringing about a physical state of affairs in the sense of being a necessary cause for physical states of affairs. What we mean by “bring about” makes all the difference. I use the phrase in causal ways that don’t require it to be understood as sufficient causation.
Sanders doesn’t build on this “physical states of affairs” criticism. But this is one place I could have elaborated in my book. Because this has bearing for my later comments in response to Sanders, let’s look at what I write on this issue in The Uncontrolling Love of God: “To say that God is an omnipresent spirit does not need to mean that God has no physicality whatsoever. I believe there is always a physical dimension to the divine presence, although we cannot perceive it with our five senses. Describing God’s omnipresence and physicality in God has always been difficult for Christians, because God is not locally situated and not perceptive to our five senses.”[vi]
For methodological and metaphysical reasons that I did not have space in the book to explain, I think God is an omnipresent spirit with physical and mental dimensions. I also think God causally influences creatures with physical dimensions. But saying God is an omnipresent spirit with physical and mental dimensions is different from saying God has a localized physical body with which to exert bodily impact. I affirm the former and not the latter.
Sanders moves from his statement about “physical states of affairs” to erroneously say “[Oord] says that a parent putting an infant into a crib is a case of bodily coercion but is not a case of metaphysical coercion” (180). I do not call the act of putting an infant into a crib “a case of bodily coercion.” Just as Sanders’s phrase “physical control” appears nowhere in the book, his phrase “bodily coercion” also never appears. Sanders seems to be misunderstanding again the book’s statements about common uses or the way some people use the word “coerce.” But these are not meanings I endorse.
Sanders then writes that “Oord never explains why it is the case that if a parent puts a child in a crib then it is not metaphysically coercive but if God brings the same about event about then it involves totally overriding the agency freedom and self-organization of the person” (180). I don’t need to explain this, however, because I don’t think God can bring about any event through metaphysical coercion or by using a localized divine body. I say a parent puts a child in a crib using “bodily impact” not bodily coercion.
To be clear, I do believe God can call upon a parent to use her body to put a child in a crib. But this divine call doesn’t require overriding a person’s freedom and self-organization. It doesn’t require coercion in the metaphysical sense. And parents can reject God’s call. So no explanation is necessary for what Sanders (wrongly) thinks is a problem.
God loves people and their cells.
Sanders addresses my example of an infant born with severe genetic mutations. In my description, I say God loves the child and all the entities that comprise her body, including her cells, genes, and organs. Because of divine love, God must provide self-organizing and agential capacities to her cells, genes, and organs. These bodily entities sometimes mutate or form, however, in ways that prove harmful.
Sanders concludes from this that “a loving God necessarily empowers cancer cells and genetic mutations to harm creatures.” This wording suggests that God wants cells to become cancerous and wants genes to mutate in ways that harm us. But I don’t believe this. And my view doesn’t require us to think such harm is God’s desire.
Perhaps an analogy would help Sanders understand my view that God empowers and gives agency to simpler entities. As a fellow freewill theist, Sanders would likely agree that God necessarily gives freedom to humans. Of course, humans can use their God-given freedom wrongly or rightly. But we wouldn’t say “God necessarily empowers rapists and murders to harm creatures,” as if God wants rape and murder. We’d say God necessarily empowers people who in turn may choose rape and murder. Analogously, God giving agency and self-organization to cells that become cancerous and to genes that harmfully mutate is like the idea that God gives freedom to humans who then choose to use that freedom wrongly.
Sanders goes on to say that “many Christians will be unable to swallow this, because it means not only that God cannot prevent cancer cells, it means that God can’t even want to prevent them” (180). As I show above, the last phrase mischaracterizes my view. We can say God necessarily gives existence and agency to cells while also saying God does not want cells to become cancerous.
Sanders continues his criticism by saying that according to my view, “God must love all entities equally so God cannot love [a human] more than God loves the cancer cells in [its] body.” He adds that loving parents ought to “show favoritism to their children over cancers and viruses,” and “most of us do not think we act immorally when we take antibiotics, but Oord says it is immoral for God to destroy [bacteria]” (180).
As I see it, there are two mistakes here. The first is that Sanders’s view implies that God wants to destroy creation instead of heal it. Instead of seeking the good of all creatures and creation, Sanders seems to suggest God seeks only the good of some. By contrast, I think God’s love seeks to heal and transform all creation – including cells that become cancerous and bacteria that harm – rather than destroy any of it.
The second mistake pertains to misunderstanding the implications of bodily impact. Most if not all creaturely entities exert bodily impact. Antibiotics, for instance, are comprised of chemicals that exert impact at the micro levels of existence. Just as humans cannot control others in the sense of being a sufficient cause, chemicals also cannot control other entities. They cannot control cancerous cells or viruses (although we may wish they could!), although they often influence them.
As I say often in the book, I don’t believe God cannot control any aspect of creation. God neither coerces in the metaphysical sense nor has a localized divine body to exert bodily impact upon microorganisms, cells, or other micro-entities. God loves people, their cells, and even bacteria.
Some Open theists and Arminians say God coerces (in the metaphysical sense).
Sanders says he’s not aware of an open theist or Arminian who says God coerces others, in the metaphysical sense of coercion. “What freewill theist would say that God ‘totally’ controlled the child if God brought it about that the child was placed in a crib?” he asks (181). Arminian and most open theists “are going to affirm physical coercion not metaphysical coercion,” Sanders adds (181).
To remind us, I define metaphysical coercion as acting as a sufficient cause or unilaterally determining. In The Uncontrolling Love of God, I quote self-identified Arminian theologian Jack Cottrell, who says God can “remain in complete control” and can “intervene if necessary.”[vii] Perhaps I’m wrong, but that sounds like metaphysical coercion. When writing the book, I didn’t spend much time looking for more examples of self-identifying Arminian theologians who talk about God’s control. So perhaps Cottrell is a rare case.
More importantly, Sanders own statements sound like he affirms metaphysical coercion. In The God Who Risks, Sanders says that “God sometimes decides alone what will happen.”[viii] That sounds like metaphysical coercion, in the sense of unilaterally determining. Sanders says “sometimes God unilaterally decides what shall be…”[ix] The phrase “unilaterally decides” also sounds like metaphysical coercion, and there is no mention of physical coercion. Sanders also says “there are some things that the almighty God retains the right to enact unilaterally.”[x] The phrase “enact unilaterally” also sounds like metaphysical coercion to me. Given these statements, Sanders should not be surprised when I and others interpret him as believing God sometimes coerces in the metaphysical sense.
It would be interesting to know what Sanders means by his phrase “physical coercion.” If this is similar to what he calls “physical control?” If so, does it require God to have a localized divine body? I can see how our Mormon friends could affirm physical coercion, because they believe God has a localized body. But I’m not sure what Sanders means. He doesn’t define “physical coercion” here, and I don’t recall him defining it in his work.
The essential kenosis view affirms miracles.
In my chapter on miracles in The Uncontrolling Love of God, I offer an overall framework for understanding miracles in light of my belief that God never controls. I suggest possible ways God and creation work in tandem and the miraculous thereby occurs. Sanders begins his article’s discussion of miracles by rightly pointing to the role that creation plays in my understanding of miracles. He rightly says my view involves God providing forms, possibilities, and ways of being in situations. These are essential if miracles are to occur. He rightly notes that I believe God never suspends law-like regularities. God acts in uncontrolling ways.
I begin explaining my theory of God’s special action in miracles by focusing on the most common miracles in scripture: healings. These are also the most commonly reported miracles today. Healings are person or organism oriented miracles.
In his article, however, Sanders begins addressing my view of miracles with a discussion of nature miracles and my speculations about them. When concludes, Sanders says “Oord does not discuss the narratives of Jesus’ healing people” (184). This is not true; I spent several pages in the book talking about Jesus’ healings.[xi] It is unfortunate that Sanders missed my discussion. He may have understood my overall explanation of miracles better had he followed my progression of arguments about miracles, which started with healing miracles.
No one knows exactly how God does each miracle.
Sanders voices a concern early and often in his discussion of my view of miracles. When criticizing me, he asks, “Exactly what role does God have in a miracle?” (182) “Oord does not provide any concrete examples,” Sanders complains, “but does say that God invites creatures to “cooperate to enact a future’” (182). He says similarly, “Oord fails to say exactly what God did to bring about [feeding thousands with fish and bread]” (182).
Sanders asks me to meet a standard no one can meet: stating the exact way God does each miracle. Not only was I not present when the miracles occur, but no one present could give an exact explanation of how God acts miraculously. In fact, I doubt exact explanations are possible for any events, let alone the dramatic events involving Someone most Christians believe is an omnipresent spirit not perceivable by our five senses. Sanders sets a standard that neither he nor I nor anyone could meet.
Essential kenosis provides an overall framework for understanding miracles.
What I can do and what I think at least some theologians should attempt is provide an overall framework for how best to think about miracles. This framework will necessarily make metaphysical claims meant to describe divine and creaturely activity, or the absence of one or both. I provide such a framework in The Uncontrolling Love of God.
The essential kenosis framework says miracles are good and unusual events in which God specially acts in relation to creation. Miracles occur when creatures cooperate well with God or when the creaturely conditions are right for the miraculous to occur. I make the metaphysical claim that miracles always involve actions from both the Creator and creatures/creation.
The essential kenosis view of miracles typically uses words like “invites,” “commands,” “calls,” “coordinates,” “persuades,” “organizes,” “woos,” “directs” and more to talk about God’s action in miracles. These words suggest that God never controls when initiating miracles. Essential kenosis also incorporates major theories in the social and natural science theories. It speculates about how these theories, along with uncontrolling divine action, account for the miraculous.
God can be responsible for miracles without being their sole cause.
Sanders addresses three proposals I make with regard to nature miracles. The first strategy affirms that random events occur at the quantum level. I suggest that God might identify opportune events and coordinate them in ways that produce the incredible results we call miracles.
In response to this proposal, Sanders says that this strategy is “vague.” It fails to show how God “was responsible for these miracles.” I would reply that if by “responsible for these miracles” Sanders means “God controlled creation to cause a miracle,” he’s right. I don’t argue for this. After all, I don’t think God can control. But if God being “responsible for these miracles” means God coordinated random events, this strategy identifies one way God can be responsible for nature miracles.
To remind us, no one can know what God does exactly in any miracle. But I am proposing a general theory that identifies God’s working with creation at the quantum level. My strategy here is similar to the work done by leading science and religion scholar and physicist Robert John Russell.[xii]
The second strategy I suggest for how God might do nature miracles in conjunction with creation says, as Sanders rightly quotes, “God offers novel possibilities to intentional agents and calls them to respond in ways that subsequently affect inanimate objects and natural systems.” I mention chaos theory when addressing this strategy, but chaos theory could also be a factor in the other strategies I mention. My strategy here is similar to the work done by leading science and religion scholar and physicist John Polkinghorne.[xiii]
Sanders complains that “once again, no details are provided and we are left wondering what role God had in these events, since Oord says it was brought about by human actions causing nature to respond in these ways” (183). Sanders seems to be wanting details that no one could provide. He also oddly wonders what role I think God played in these miracles. But he quotes my view that God offers possibilities and calls agents to respond. This is God’s initiating and information-providing role in miracles. And I am not saying humans alone enact miracles.
The line that might best summarize Sanders’s concern is this: “In this model there is no genuine way to affirm that God is responsible for miracles” (183). For Sanders, the word “responsible” seems to mean “sole cause.” But if “responsible for miracles” means that God initiated and played a necessary role in miracles, I have suggested ways God acted and is responsible: “offering and calling.” I could suggest other ways God acts in relation to inanimate objects, such as coordinating, organizing, sustaining, and more. But none of these ways say God controls as their sole cause.
Sanders looks briefly looks at the third strategy I offer to explain nature miracles. This strategy says that God can perceive what’s going on in the world and communicate to freewill creatures in light of that information. Sanders says “this strategy doesn’t explain other nature miracles, such as turning water to wine and feeding the multitudes.” It may not. But I do not claim this strategy as a way to explain those miracles.
The biblical narrative I do use when illustrating this strategy is the parting of the Red Sea. I suggest that God could have called Moses to guide the Israelites across the sea at the opportune time. God could have known weather patterns and predicted the opportune time for passage. I also believe God directly influences and communicates to minds, including the mind of Moses, without controlling neurons. God can be responsible for miracles such as this without being their sole cause.
God loves people with disease and wants to heal them.
In a series of strong criticisms, Sanders returns to issues he’d addressed earlier in his article. “A key problem for Oord,” says Sanders, “is that he says both that God wants to change entities such as viruses and cancers and also that God must empower cancer cells and viruses to be all they can be” (184).
But this is not a problem for my view. Sanders seems to have not seen the difference between entities causing evil and inherently evil entities. God can empower humans, want them to do good, but those humans act badly. Likewise, God can empower entities, want them to be healthy and do good, and yet those entities do harm.
Continuing this line of argumentation, Sanders says “it is contradictory to claim that God must love the integrity of cancer cells and also claim that God wants to destroy the cancer cells” (184). But I did not claim that God wants to destroy cancer cells. I would claim God wants cells that have become cancerous to be transformed into healthy cells.
He continues, saying that if I believe “God necessarily loves and sustains diseases, then it does not make sense for Oord to claim that Jesus healed people of such things” (184). It makes little sense to talk about diseases as entities that are loved and sustained. But it does make sense to talk about people with diseases that God loves, sustains, and wants to heal. And this helps us make sense of Jesus’ healings.
I affirm the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Sanders concludes his criticism with thoughts on the bodily resurrection of Jesus. His summary of my view of Jesus’ resurrection position is mostly correct, at least in his article’s first paragraph addressing the subject. I affirm the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I say Jesus’ spirit and body cooperated with God’s raising activity.
Sanders wonders what it means for Jesus to cooperate with God’s resurrection power. He wonders if inert molecules can respond to God. He speculates that I must be thinking that “God somehow presented the dead molecules of Jesus’ body with a novel possibility of returning to life and these molecules somehow activated themselves back to life.” (185).
Sanders seems to be making an assumption that the creaturely entities in a dead body are unresponsive substances, or what Alfred North Whitehead called “vacuous actualities”[xiv] But for a host of reasons, it makes betters sense to say the entities that comprise a body have spontaneity, interiority, and can be affected by others. It doesn’t make sense to say molecules “live” or “die.” The molecules that make up a body continue existing and changing long after the heart stops beating.
My theory says Jesus’ bodily members retained responsiveness after his spirit/mind/soul departed. His bodily members could respond to God’s continued omnipresent activity and to the re-initiating activity of Jesus’ own spirit/mind/soul. (I use “spirit/soul/mind” to account for the animating agency we typically think humans and perhaps other creatures possess.)
In what I’m not sure are earnest speculations or mocking questions, Sanders asks, “So what happened? Was [Jesus’ resurrection] a random event for which God was very grateful?” “Did a butterfly flap its wings in Australia, which set off a chain of chaotic events that resulted in the dead body of Jesus returning to life at just the right time and place?” Sanders concludes, “Oord speaks of God’s resurrecting action on Jesus’s body, but none of these three ways of explaining miracles plausibly has a role for God to play in this event” (186).
The “three ways” Sanders refers to in this quote are the three strategies I suggested for thinking about God’s actions in nature miracles. The explanations I would give for the resurrection of Jesus, however, are similar to those I would give for healing miracles. Crucial in my account but unmentioned by Sanders is my claim that Jesus’ mind/spirit/soul played a cooperating roll in Jesus’ resurrection. It could also exert causal influence over Jesus’ bodily members, which it had been doing of the prior thirty-three years. Psychosomatic relationship can play a crucial role in miracles alongside divine action.
Sanders says I have a problem, because I think that “since God necessarily love the self-organization of entities and never wants to make changes to the regularities of nature so God cannot even want to resurrect the dead body of Jesus.” But as I’ve shown in my responses previously, God can provide self-organization to entities and also want them to cooperate. God could have done so in Jesus’ resurrection.
Oddly, Sanders claims that I offer a “just-so story of the resurrection and other miracles.” But I have offered a metaphysical explanation for miracles that says both God and creatures play a role. This is not a “just-so” account. Admittedly, I cannot nor can anyone provide all the specific details of miracles. But I can and do provide a metaphysical model for how God does miracles, including the resurrection of Jesus.
I have answered the questions from Sanders’s conclusion.
In his article’s conclusion, Sanders says “the amount of control sufficient to bring about miracles would be sufficient to prevent evils. If God cannot prevent evils, then God cannot author miracles” (186). I claim and provide arguments, however, for the theory that God “authors” miracles using creaturely cooperation or in light of creaturely conditions and God cannot prevent evils unilaterally. The two ideas in the theory are consistent. I can have it both ways. Miracles occur through both creaturely and divine action, but God cannot prevent evils by acting alone.
I was struck by the word “author” Sanders uses to describe God’s action in miracles. It reminds me of the claim some make that God “authors” the Bible. If this means “God alone determines what we find in the biblical text,” I doubt many Wesleyan, Arminian, or open theists would affirm this. But if the idea that God “authors” the Bible can mean God inspired humans to write it, we have a nice analogy for what I think happens when God does miracles.
Sanders also concludes saying I must “explain a couple of items.” He asks four questions that arise from issues I have already addressed in this response. The first question (about parents picking up children) rests on his error that I affirm what he calls “physical control.” The second (Jesus calming a storm) relies on his mistaken view that I think God sometimes does miracles by violating the law-like regularities of nature. The third (Jesus’ resurrection) relies on his wrongly thinking that I believe God must “change the self-organization” of entities. I don’t know what he means. The last question which pertains to God loving cells with disease. I claim that the diseases derive from cells and organisms that have gone awry, and God wants to heal rather than destroy them.
In his final paragraph, Sanders says “the book claims to solve all aspects of the problem of evil.” I don’t make that claim in the book. In fact, my full solution to the problem of evil involve four other dimensions that I don’t address in any detail in the book. I briefly sketch out my five-fold solution in my contribution God and the Problem of Evil: Five Views.[xv] But in this book I do claim to have offered a solution to a crucial aspect of the problem of evil: we best understand God’s almighty power in terms of essential kenosis.
God cannot coerce, but God does miracles.
In the roughly one year since The Uncontrolling Love of God was published, I’ve heard significant praise and criticism. The conversations have been helpful. I have not yet encountered arguments that make me think I should rethink substantive aspects of my book. But I have noted ways in which I could have written more clearly or elaborated my ideas.
My basic arguments for essential kenosis have been well received. The most questions come on issues of miracles, which is the source of many of Sanders’s questions. Although I feel good about the heart of my proposals and arguments about miracles, I wish I had developed them to a greater extent.
I’ve also learned that two issues hinder some in making sense of how God does miracles in cooperation with creaturely response or in light of creaturely conditions. I suspect both issues are at play in Sanders’s criticisms.
The first issue is less commonly acknowledged but I suspect widespread. This is the idea that with the exception of humans, other creatures and creation in general are vacuous actualities with no real capacity for freedom, agency, self-organization, or responsiveness. This seems to be an issue for Sanders’s difficulty in fathoming how God can resurrect Jesus or do nature miracles.
Miracles don’t require that God control creatures or creation.
The other issue making it difficult for some to grasp that God does miracles without controlling pertains to God’s power. When some readers hear my claim that God always does miracles in relation to creation rather than accomplished by God alone, they are surprised. To many, miracles by definition are be events done by God alone.
I know of no miracle described in the Bible that explicitly denies all creaturely contribution and appeals to divine control or God acting alone. Of course, sometimes biblical writers only mention God’s action when miracles occur. But this is not an explicit denial of creaturely action in the miraculous event. Most often, biblical writers speak of God and some creaturely action both occurring in relation to the miracle identified. Numerous healing miracles mention the faith of those healed, for instance. Sometimes biblical writers even talk about miracles and do not mention divine action (e.g., some miracles done by Peter).
Often in his criticism of my views on miracles, Sanders uses the phrase “bring about” to describe God’s action in miracles. To cite one example: “Does the God of essential kenosis have the ability to bring such events about?” And Sanders writes, “Oord’s explanations do not allow us to ascribe genuine responsibility to God for nature miracles” (184).
The phrases “bring such events about” and “ascribe genuine responsibility” suggest to me that Sanders presupposes that God must control creation to do miracles. That’s a metaphysical claim on his part, and he’s certainly entitled to it. My argument, however, is that miracles occur when both Creatorly and creaturely causation are at play. I’m making a metaphysical claim that is fundamentally different from Sanders’s claim. I don’t think the Bible settles our difference about which metaphysical framework is best.
My claim that miracles involve both divine and creaturely causation offers numerous benefits, however, and I list a half dozen to conclude my chapter on miracles in the book. Not least, of course, is that my view of miracles says God is not culpable for failing to prevent evil. And yet God does miracles when creatures respond appropriately or when creaturely conditions are apt.
Sanders doesn’t mention a major problem with believe God controls creation when doing miracles. I call it “the problem of selective miracles.” This problem asks why a loving God who controls when doing miracles fails to do miracles far more often. In fact, I suspect failing to have a solution to the problem of selective miracles is the primary reasons many believers from more liberal Christian traditions no longer believe in the miraculous.
In the book I list other advantages of the essential kenosis way of thinking about miracles. It helps us make better sense of God working alongside health-care providers, for instance, to bring healing. It allows us to blame uncooperative cells and organs when healing doesn’t occur, instead of blaming faith-filled believers for failing to have enough faith. It provides a framework for understanding the relation between science and theology. Etc.
Essential kenosis is prevenient grace “all the way down.”
There is value to thinking of essential kenosis as expanding the usual view of prevenient grace. If “prevenient grace” is God acting first and enabling humans to respond, essential kenosis says God’s expresses prevenient grace to and seeks uncoerced responses from all creatures, not just humans. Essential kenosis affirms responsible or cooperative grace instead of irresistible grace, and says God lovingly interacts with but never controls any of the world’s features and creatures. Essential kenosis is prevenient grace all the way down the creaturely complexity scale.
Wesleyans have grown accustomed to explaining how prevenient grace makes a huge difference in understanding salvation. This explaining must often be done in the face of presuppositions about divine control and sovereignty others bring to the discussion. But when God’s action is understood in the light of love, prevenient grace makes sense to many.
Essential kenosis faces a similar challenge. It expands the notion of God’s prevenient grace for salvation to speculate that God’s expresses uncontrolling love for all creation. Because this way of thinking is new to many, I’m not surprised that it is susceptible to misunderstanding.
As I say throughout this response, Sanders has misunderstood many things I write in The Uncontrolling Love of God. Some of this misunderstanding may have emerged from the presuppositions about God’s power he brought to the book and its topics. But I’m sure I also could have written more clearly and in greater explanatory detail.
I consider John Sanders a friend with whom I agree on many things but with whom I also still have some disagreements.
[i] Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (Downers Grover, Ill.: Intervarsity Press Academic, 2015).
[ii] John Sanders, “Why Oord’s Essential Kenosis Model Fails to Solve the Problem of Evil While Retaining Miracles,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, 51:2 (Fall 2016): 174-187.
[iii] Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God, 182.
[iv] Ibid., 178-179.
[v] Ibid., 176-179.
[vi] Ibid., 177.
[vii] Jack Cottrell, “The nature of Divine Sovereignty,” in The Grace of God, The Will of Man, Clark H. Pinnock, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1989), 112.
[viii] The God Who Risks, 174.
[ix] Ibid., 198.
[x] Ibid., 247.
[xi] Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God, 202-205.
[xii] Robert John Russell, Cosmology: From Alpha to Omega (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2008).
[xiii] Polkinghorne has written many books, and several address this issue. For a collection of his major ideas in one volume, see Thomas Jay Oord, The Polkinghorne Reader: Science, Faith, and the Search for Meaning (Philadelphia: Templeton, 2010).
[xiv] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, corrected edition, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978; orig. ed., 1929), 167.
[xv] Chad Meister and James K. Dew, Jr. eds., God and the Problem of Evil: Five Views (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press Academic, 2017.