My Response to Roger Olson
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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