My Response to Roger Olson

November 30th, 2015 / 11 Comments

Dear Roger,

Thanks for taking the time to review and critique my new book, The Uncontrolling Love of God.

I have long been a fan of your work, and I read your blog on occasion. I often find your writing commendable and frequently recommend it to my students and friends.  Oord - Uncontrolling Love of God

I consider myself a theologian in the Arminian tradition, broadly speaking. I consider you the foremost Arminian theologian today, in the narrower sense of Arminian theology. Although we disagree on various points, more often than not I find myself on the same team when it comes to arguing sides of a particular issue. For instance, I suspect our views on salvation are identical or only differ “by a hair’s breadth,” to use one of John Wesley’s favorite expressions.

I’m addressing this public letter to you and using personal language, because I consider you a friend. I do not find your recent response to my book threatening. I find it charitably written and I seek to respond in kind. As I see it, good friends can disagree. In fact, disagreeing agreeably is a powerful testament to the transforming love of God at work in our lives! Above all, I intend to love.

You offer a host of important comments in your lengthy response to my book. I will respond to many. For clarity sake, I’ll number and name my paragraphs. This may help in subsequent discussion, should you or others want to engage further.

  1. The God Empowers and Overpowers Model of Providence

You are right to note that my lumping you in with other theologians and philosophers in my brief typology of models of providence glosses over differences you have with them. A thorough exploration of your theology in relation to the others would have revealed this, I’m sure. On the crucial point of whether creatures are free and yet God may sometimes control them, I think your view fits in this category. I quoted your statements about God “allowing” evil to illustrate this. Your statements later in your recent response seem to support my placement of you here. But I ask for your forgiveness for failing to offer the nuance necessary to distinguish your view clearly from others. Such is the inherent limitation of typologies!

  1. You Say God Allows Evil

As you note, my chief criticism of your view is that you claim God allows evil that God could have prevented. You also rightly note that those in the “voluntary self-limitation” model suffer from the same criticism: their view says God could prevent evil that God instead allows.

My chief criticism is that you claim God allows evil that God could have prevented. Click To Tweet

As I say in my book, the difference between these two models is really a difference in degree and not kind. What I don’t say in the book is that most scholars I identify as in the voluntarily self-limitation category do not think God exhaustively foreknows the future. I believe the foreknowledge issue remains a point of difference between you and them. While theologians in both models say God allows evil, you would also say God foreknows from eternity each instance of evil God allows.

  1. Peterson’s Theodicy

I admit to not knowing Mike Peterson’s theodicy, although I know him personally and have read some of his work. Your description of Mike’s view suggests that it follows the general logic we find in Plantinga’s famous free will defense.

I don’t find this defense plausible overall. Some reasons for why I reject this view are sprinkled throughout The Uncontrolling Love of God, especially in my response to John Sanders. If Peterson and others would say God cannot ever entirely ever control others – whether free creatures or others – to prevent evil, our views might coincide. But most free will defense advocates argue from a defensive position that relies upon logic and not also metaphysics. Consequently, they eventually admit there is nothing illogical about God occasionally or ultimately failing to provide freedom and thereby controlling others. And they will usually say God made a promise at creation not to override free will, but that promise at least in theory could be broken. For these reasons, they will agree that, ultimately, their view entails that God allows evil that God could have prevented.

  1. Divine Will vs. Permission

Closely related to the last point is the issue of God’s will vs. permission. If you (Roger) and others would say God’s will is always constrained by God’s love and that God’s love is always uncontrolling, we’d be in agreement. At least the first part of that previous sentence (“God’s will is always constrained by God’s love”) is solidly Arminian, as you know. In this, I’m retrieving an Arminian heritage I don’t find retrieved among many of my fellow open theists.

I’m retrieving an Arminian view I don’t find among many of my fellow open theists. Click To Tweet

The second part of that sentence above seems necessary to overcome questions about God failing to prevent evil that God could prevent through control. That is, many say God could control free creatures, non-free creatures, less complex entities, or interrupt the law-like regularities of existence.  Consequently, they cannot offer a solution to the problem of evil. If you would agree that God’s will is always constrained by God’s love and divine love is always uncontrolling, you would no longer need to say God “allows” evil. We’d be on the same page.

  1. Appealing to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

I also work to employ the Wesleyan quadrilateral. As you know, it doesn’t decide all issues. But it’s a good general tool for theological construction and critique.

  1. Creaturely Cooperation and/or Consent

I appreciate your attempt to put in a nutshell my views. Your own summary of my position is this: “God never acts to make something happen that would not otherwise happen without the consent, even hopefully cooperation, of the creatures(s) involved.” I’d tweak and shorten it a little: God cannot entirely control any creature or situation.

In your critique, you often use the word “consent” to describe creaturely response. As far as I know, I don’t use that word in the book. My preferred word is “cooperation.” This is a nuance, but it matters in light of some of your other concerns. “Consent” connotes to me conscious agreement. I don’t think the small entities of existence are conscious, so they wouldn’t be capable of consent. But “cooperate” literally means to operate with or alongside of.  Although I think God always acts without needing creaturely assent, I don’t think God can make something occur in the universe without creaturely response of some kind, whether positive or negative. This is co-operation. It is similar to the Wesleyan and Arminian views of cooperant grace, except I extend such co-operation to the nonhuman domains of existence.

  1. Explaining Coercion

You wonder whether it makes sense to say love never controls or coerces. But you agree that “love does not ever exhaustively control the beloved.” As I explain in my section on coercion, I mean by “coerce” and “control” what you describe as “exhaustively control.” As I say in the book, to control is to act as a sufficient cause. I don’t think God ever acts as a sufficient cause.

I don’t think God ever acts as a sufficient cause. Click To Tweet

In first drafts of the book, I occasionally used the phrase “completely control” to emphasize this notion of sufficient cause or unilateral determination. In later drafts, I dropped “completely” and just used “control.” I had hoped readers would carry over my explanation from previous chapters when the word “control’ appeared in later chapters.

  1. Issues of Intervention and Unilateral Interference

In your response to my book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, you use an illustration about a suicidal person who wants to jump off a Caribbean cruise ship. You (rightly) say a loving spouse would interfere, if possible, to prevent this suicide. You then note that it would not always be loving to interfere with a person’s freedom. It would not be loving, for instance, to lock someone in a basement against the person’s wishes.

You’re raising an important and complex issue here. I want to offer several responses, many of which are found in the book. Your comments make me think I did a less than adequate job explaining these points there. So I’ll give it another shot here.

     a. Intervention: As I say in the book, I don’t like the word “intervene.” It suggests God isn’t always already present. But you seem to be using it here in a way that suggests a person would use his or her body through bodily impact to prevent something from occurring. So I’ll work with that understanding of “intervene” below.

     b. Bodies: As I say in the book, I don’t think God has a localized physical body with which to exert bodily impact. Consequently, while it is sometimes loving for us to use our bodies to constrain others (grab someone attempting suicide, for instance), God doesn’t have that capacity. God is a universal spirit without a divine hand or body with which to intervene or interfere in the way we can sometimes intervene or interfere. (By the way, whether you ultimately agree with me that God cannot control others, I hope you see the wisdom in saying that God is a universal spirit without a localized divine body with which to exert bodily impact. I suspect we share reservations about the view that the world is God’s body, for instance. Without proper qualifications, the idea confuses.)

     c.   True Love: You argue that a person with the capacity to interfere to prevent a suicide would, in the name of love, want to prevent this evil. To use your words, “there are certainly possible circumstances we can all imagine where true love intervenes unilaterally to control the beloved without his or her consent.” But this leads directly to the problem I have with your view of God, at least as I understand your view. Your God could prevent the suicide without the person’s consent. But your God fails to control the situation or person, with or without the creature’s consent, and instead allows the evil. By your own logic, God would not be expressing true love. As a result, we are left to wonder how the God you present is perfectly loving. It seems to me the best you can do is appeal to mystery, which, as I argued in the book, is an appeal that undermines explanatory consistency. But perhaps, all things considered, this is a price you’re willing to pay.

  1. Miracles

You say in your response that you find my explanation of miracles fanciful, tortuous, and obscure. After offering some examples of miracles in the Bible that you believe difficult for my theology to explain, you say “God does not need creatures’ consent or cooperation to act powerfully – even with miracles.” As I say above, I don’t think God needs creaturely consent or cooperation to act, even when initiating miracles. But I do think God needs creaturely cooperation for miracles to occur as they do. But this gets us back to the cooperation issue I’ve already addressed.

I’m especially sympathetic to your questions on this point. I once had the same questions. For much of my life, I read the biblical miracles (and thought of miracles today) as at least sometimes requiring divine control. We all bring presuppositions to the biblical text, of course. Like most people, I simply presupposed God had the capacity to do miracles without creaturely cooperation.

For a number of reasons, I began to question whether this presupposition about divine control was needed. I began to read the biblical miracles and put them in one of three categories:

1) those miracles that clearly speak of creaturely cooperation,

2) those miracles that clearly speak of God acting alone without creaturely cooperation,

3) those miracles which do not clearly say God acted alone nor say creatures cooperated.

To my dismay, I could find no biblical miracles that fit in category 2 – miracle accounts that clearly speak of God acting alone. There were definitely some I had previously interpreted as being in that category. But upon looking closely at the biblical text, I discovered that none clearly said God determined an event acting alone without creaturely cooperation. Even the famous “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” doesn’t explicitly appeal to divine control. Leading biblical scholars offer interpretations of this that do not require us to interpret God as leaving Pharaoh without any freedom or agency.

I find no biblical miracle accounts that clearly say God acted alone, without any creaturely co-operation. Click To Tweet

The miracles of Jesus easily fit my essential kenosis explanation of miracles. But as I admit in the book, the nature miracles are not quite as easy. It’s not that they don’t fit at all. But I admit they’re not easy.

I offer some proposals based in theoretical physics as possible ways to account for nature miracles. I find these theories plausible. But I admit that more work needs to be done to help us grasp how God’s work at the micro levels of existence can be so incredibly consistent and expresses law-like regularity, yet God on very rare occasions initiates dramatic events that involve creaturely cooperation but have unexpected and good results. (As an aside, I love the stuff you quote from Tupper about God doing all God can do considering the circumstances. That’s what essential kenosis would say too.)

At the end of chapter eight in The Uncontrolling Love of God, I list a half dozen or so advantages my essential kenosis explanation of miracles provides. Many are important. One of the most important is that essential kenosis solves the problem of selective miracles. The problem of selective miracles asks why God doesn’t do more miracles, apparently choosing only occasionally to answer prayers requesting the miraculous. I appreciate that you admit that you appeal to mystery on this issue. Essential kenosis does not appeal to mystery and therefore offers more explanatory consistency.

Given that essential kenosis 1) solves the problem of selective miracles, 2) solves the problem of evil more generally, 3) fits easily with the majority of miracle accounts related to Jesus’ miracle working, 4) finds no biblical account of a miracle that explicitly says God controls creatures or creation to enact the miracle, 5-9) see other advantages I mention in the book…. I think we have good reason to start bringing to the biblical text our assumption that God’s miracle-initiating activity is always done through uncontrolling love.

We have good reason to assume that God’s miracle-initiating activity is always done through uncontrolling love. Click To Tweet
  1. Process Theology

You are right to wonder whether my view is a version of process theology. Like many process theologians, I think we need to reconceive of God’s power. But other theologians outside the process tradition also say this. And some theologians of yesteryear, such as Edgar Brightman, called for a new understanding of God’s power that required essential limitations.

There are many versions of process theology. And I have generally stopped worrying whether the label applies correctly to me. A past editor of Process Studies did not regard my view process theology. He would not allow a review of my book, The Nature of Love: A Theology, because he did not regard essential kenosis as compatible with process thought. Perhaps other self-identifying process theologians would disagree. I don’t know. But I prefer the label “open and relational theology” for my general theological view and “essential kenosis” for my view more specifically.

CONCLUSION

Let me end by affirming what I said at the outset. I admire your work and appreciate your friendship. I appreciate your grace-filled response to my book, even though you noted sharp disagreement with my view. I’ve tried to be both gracious and clear in response.

We’ve both been engaged in enough good debates to know that established theologians rarely make wholesale changes to their views in light of debates like the one we’re having. Sometimes a little change occurs. But such debates are useful mainly to those reading them. I hope what I have offered in response is helpful in some way to you and others.

In any case, I appreciate your addressing the material in the book. I pray God’s blessings on you and your work. And while we both see through a darkened glass, let us endeavor to see as clearly and as charitably as we can.

In love,

Tom

READER: In case you missed the link above, click here to access Roger Olson’s response to my book.

While we both see through a darkened glass, let us endeavor to see as clearly and as charitably as we can. Click To Tweet
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Comments

Charles Christian

I enjoy this dialogue between two world class scholars whom I respect. I think that Tom’s view still make resurrection from the dead difficult to articulate, and that happens to be a pretty big miracle. Secondly, I think that the problem of evil can be solved when one edits parts of the equation, and I think at times that is what a process-leaning theology like Tom’s does. I will say that I think Tom is correct in moving beyond Arminius in ways that Roger does not always do. Thanks for the interesting and helpful dialogue.


Curtis

Thanks for the clarifications Tom. I still have questions that I hope are resolved by reading your book again. Either way, thanks for adding a new perspective to this most important conversation.


Jesse

Hey Dr. Oord,

During your response you said this,

“For a number of reasons, I began to question whether this presupposition about divine control was needed. I began to read the biblical miracles and put them in one of three categories:

1) those miracles that clearly speak of creaturely cooperation,

2) those miracles that clearly speak of God acting alone without creaturely cooperation,

3) those miracles which do not clearly say God acted alone nor say creatures cooperated.

To my dismay, I could find no biblical miracles that fit in category 2 – miracle accounts that clearly speak of God acting alone.”

I don’t presume to “butt in” to this conversation between you and Dr. Olson, but I would like to hear your thoughts on the miracle of creation in light of this statement. I suppose that, at the beginning, there were not any other beings to “cooperate with God” so the conversation may be moot.


thomasjayoord

Thanks for the good question, Jesse. According to most biblical scholars, Genesis says creaturely entities were present at the initial creation of our universe. Here and elsewhere in Scripture, we find no explicit endorsement of creation out of absolute nothingness (creatio ex nihilo). According to biblical authors, God always creates out of something (e.g., water, void, chaos, unseen things). So even at the initial creation of our universe, God was creating in relation to others.

I’ve developed a whole doctrine of initial creation that takes this into account, as well as the reasons many theologians have been reluctant to reject creatio ex nihilo. See the last chapter of a recent book I edited called, Theologies of Creation: Creation Ex Nihilo and its New Rivals (Routledge).

Thanks for your good question!


Don Viney

Tom, I am one of those who happily embrace the label of “process philosopher,” and while I’m not a trained theologian, I would call myself a process theist. As you know, it was Hartshorne who used the expression “divine openness to creaturely influence” long before this became a catchphrase for certain types of “open and relational theologies” (see Hartshorne’s Wisdom as Moderation, p. 92; the essay I’ve just quoted was first published in 1963 in Wesleyan Studies in Religion). Of course, throughout his career Hartshorne identified “God is love” as his guiding intuition in philosophy. Process theism is a type of openness or relational theology, one that makes divine openness to the creatures an essential property of God. I have no objection to the expression “essential kenosis,” although I think one gets something different in name only from Abraham Heschel’s God as “most moved mover” or Hartshorne’s addition to this, “God as the most and best moved mover.” Don Viney


Bruce Clark

As a result, we are left to wonder how the God you present is perfectly loving. It seems to me the best you can do is appeal to mystery, which, as I argued in the book, is an appeal that undermines explanatory consistency. But perhaps, all things considered, this is a price you’re willing to pay.
I think this is the nub of the issue i.e. where we decide to place the line of demarcation beyond which we can only say “It is a mystery. We just do not know. We can only trust” Those who have moved the line further (or even removed it altogether) regard those who have stopped further back as “undermining explanatory inconsistency” while those from the other side of the line in return regard their protagonists as those who have explained away mystery in a dismissively un-biblical fashion. The former tend to rely more on reason – the latter on revelation. It seems Tom and Roger are trying to remain faithful to both but making compromises to support their own position.
The knock on problem is what do we mean by ‘biblical’? This term is bandied about usually by those who selectively want bible passages to support their own view. In this 21st century we really need to explore fresh hermeneutic approaches in order to be relevant – otherwise we are going to be just stuck in medieval approaches that do little to advance whatever the Gospel means in today’s world.
Also – why do we have to lock God into any one of these two conflicting viewpoints? Could it be chronologically that God self limited himself in becoming a man (Philippians 2- kenosis) but at the Cross the weakness of God is such that it could beonly be considered absolute – i.e. the Process view. Could it be that while there is free will and while this free will exerts itself contrary to love and relational responsibility omnipotence is impossible … but we dare to look towards a day when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” not by coercion but by total willing devotion when then and only then God can be deemed to be omnipotent? I am suggesting that of necessity the the issues of necessity and contingency are in flux but will ultimately be resolved eschatologically and this is the Christian hope. … I reckon


dmasshardt@gmail.com

After reading Olson’s most recent post on this subject, I entered this thought as a comment there and thought I’d throw it out here as well. Just some speculative thinking for a few of the instances in the Bible where God seems to act unilaterally – because the person isn’t living to cooperate or otherwise…

The concepts of coercion vs. cooperation are very interesting to think about. However we come down, I wonder whether if the God who knows us as completely as possible in every moment is able to perceive our own deepest desires in a way that goes beyond our normal ideas of cooperation and consent. For example, Lazarus was dead the moment before Jesus resuscitated him. Yet it seems plausible that God would know (doesn’t seem like a stretch even for us to know there) that he didn’t want to die and would have preferred to remain on earth longer. Heck, if you believe that ‘to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord’ God could easily have gotten Lazarus’ full consent in some meaningful way. Similarly Jesus’ resurrection. More difficult in a sense is Saul/Paul, who actively wanted to pursue and stop followers of Jesus, not become one of those followers. Surely God acted against Saul’s will by knocking off of his horse and blinding him. Yet, if God knew his heart and knew that Saul’s ultimate desire was to serve the Lord, even though he was opposing him currently, God is still acting according to Saul’s deeper desires to be faithful to God and thus in some odd way it might not be completely unilateral even though it seems that way.

Granted, those are speculative thoughts. Just thinking out loud..


lige jeter

Dr. Oord, I respectfully disagree with your response to Jesse concerning creation. You stated that “So even at the initial creation of our universe God was creating in relation to others” (I take to mean creaturely entities that co-existed with the Creator at the time of creation). If that were the case, could you explain how God could delegate his omnipotence to another? If possible, he to whom, His omnipotence is delegated would in reality become GOD. He from who delegated would cease to be God, for it is impossible that there should be two omnipotent beings.

John wrote in [1:3] “All things came into being through Him, and without Him not even one thing came into being that has come into being.” The Psalmist affirms in [33:6] “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.” Genesis [1:1], “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” The word Create literally means to bring into existence that which had no previous being. This can only happen by a Creator God, who is omnipotent.

In Isaiah [55:8-9] bears a truth of separation of absolute truth that humankind is unable to fathom in his finite wisdom. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” No matter how we may measure God by our limited finite understanding, the fact remains, God’s thoughts, and disposition are not like ours. God knows all that will happen from beginning to the end as promises in verse 11, “so shall My word be, which goes out of My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall certainly do what I sent it to do.”

In Isaiah [46:9] validates this when quoting God. “Remember the former things of old, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me.” We are reminded that God and God alone knows the future evidenced by His prophecies of future events and justifies Himself by those miraculous works coming to past proving His absolute Knowledge, Power, and Presence over all His creation.

Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3: 22 concerning Jesus, he wrote; “who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.” Here Peter declares that Jesus has all power in the heavens and the earth. Both good and evil spirits are under His absolute control. He has power to save and He has power to destroy. Those who put their trust in Him have nothing to fear because He has been given this power over all things. He created the world; therefore, He can also destroy it and can create anew.


thomasjayoord

Cool. I’ll check it out when I get a chance, Tom.


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