The Preeminence of Love in God

July 23rd, 2014 / 13 Comments

My version of open and relational theology says love is the preeminent attribute in God’s nature. As I read John Sanders’s work, he seems to think sovereignty precedes love in God’s nature.

In two previous blogs, I explored Sanders’s ideas in his excellent book, The God Who Risks. The first blog offers a summary of his thought, and I personally agree with all claims in my summary of his work.

The second blog was critical of one aspect of Sanders’s thought: the way he thinks about God’s power and love in relation to evil. I argued he does not solve the problem of evil. He says God allows evil that God could prevent. Without a solution to this problem, we cannot make sense of numerous events in our world. I believe my version of open and relational theology can retain what I find helpful in Sanders, while also solving the problem of evil.

What (Logically) Comes First in God’s Nature?

In my current book project, I offer a solution to the problem of evil. In particular, I focus on the random events that cause unnecessary suffering and the free will choices creatures make to do evil.

I conclude this blog series on Sanders’s thought, however, by arguing that the reason he cannot solve the problem of evil is…

Sanders does not regard love the foremost and governing attribute in God’s nature.

This charge may seem odd. Like most open and relational theologians, Sanders says love is God’s chief attribute. “Love is the preeminent characteristic of God,” as he puts it. And “the way of God is love.” Sanders talks often of the priority of love in The God Who Risks.

But Sanders’s other statements suggest that when God decides to create, divine sovereignty comes prior to and is preeminent over love. Sanders presupposes that God’s power logically precedes God’s love in divine decision making.

Quotes from Sanders on the Preeminence of Sovereignty

Here are statements from The God Who Risks that reveal the preeminence of sovereignty:

“If God wants a world in which he tightly controls every event that happens, then God is free to do so.”

“God sovereignly chooses not to govern the world without our input.”

“It was solely God’s decision to do things this way instead of exercising meticulous providence.”

“God is free to sovereignly decide not to determine everything that happens in history.”

“God, in sovereign freedom, decided not to tightly control human affairs…”

“In sovereign freedom, God has decided to make some of his actions contingent upon our requests and actions.”

The point Sanders makes is that nothing essentially constrains God’s decisions, at least when initially creating. This fits his view, which we saw earlier, that God has the power to prevent genuine evil but instead allows it.

Three Providence Options

Sanders apparently believes we must choose among three options when thinking about God creating and acting providentially. The first option is a form of process theology. Sanders is wary of process theologies that say, as he puts it, God is “pervasively conditioned by creatures.” He wants to avoid saying God, by necessity or by nature, depends on the world. Sanders believes God can unilaterally act on the world, and he doubts process theologians can affirm this.

Let’s call the first option, “The world conditions God.”

The second option Sanders wants to avoid is a form of Calvinism. He is wary of Calvinist theologies that say, as he puts it, “the divine nature necessarily must create a world in which God is omnidetermining.” This view says God’s ongoing providential control is “a manifestation of the divine nature.” Creatures are not really free, and randomness and chance are illusions.

Let’s call this second option, “God totally controls the world.”

The option Sanders prefers says God’s sovereignly gives freedom but allows some evil. Sovereign activity lays within the framework of the divine project. “The divine nature is free to create a project that involves loving relations with creatures,” says Sanders. But God could have created a world without free creatures. And God could (and perhaps occasionally does) unilaterally control creatures or situations to bring about some outcome.

Let’s call Sanders’s third option, “God sovereignly, not of necessity, decided to create a world with free creatures.” 

A Fourth Providence Option 

I prefer a fourth option to these three.

We might call my view, “God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with free creatures that God cannot control entirely.” This option is part of the essential kenosis model I proffer in my book. But let me explain my preferred option here by comparing it with Sanders’s view that God sovereignly, not of necessity, decided to create a world with free creatures.

God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with free creatures that cannot be controlled entirely. Click To Tweet

In our exploration of open and relational theology, we discovered this theology says a relational God of love collaborates with creatures. God’s love takes risks in relationship, as Sanders puts it. Because love does not control others, the risk model of providence does not offer the guarantees divine determinism offers. God’s relationship with creatures, says Sanders, “is not one of control and domination but rather one of love and vulnerability.” God “does not force [creatures] to comply.” In sum, Sanders believes “love does not force its own way on the beloved.”

If God’s preeminent attribute is love and love invites cooperation without forcing its own way, it makes little sense to say “sovereign freedom” would allow God to create in an unloving way. It makes little sense, for instance, to say God voluntarily decided against “exercising meticulous providence.” It makes little sense to say “God is free to sovereignly decide not to determine everything.”

To put it in question form, why should we think a loving God who “does not force the beloved” is free “to tightly control every event that happens?” Why should we think a loving God is free to control others entirely, even if God never actually exercised that freedom?

Mermaids Can’t Ride Unicorns

Let me illustrate my point: mermaids cannot ride unicorns.

Mermaids cannot actually ride unicorns, because mermaids and unicorns are fantasy creatures. We may imagine what mermaids and unicorns look like and do. But they do not exist in the real world. So while we may dream of mermaids riding unicorns (presumably sidesaddle!) or abstractly conceive of such, it makes no sense to believe mermaids actually ride unicorns. Neither creature actually exists.

Likewise, it makes no sense to say a God whose preeminent attribute is love could tightly control every event. If God’s love cooperates rather than controls and if God takes risks rather than forcing guarantees, love as the preeminent attribute prevents God from determining everything. God cannot force the beloved, because, as Sanders says, love does not force its own way. A loving yet controlling God can’t actually exist.

A loving yet controlling God can’t actually exist. Click To Tweet

To put the analogy succinctly: mermaids cannot actually ride unicorns, because these beings are fictional. A perfectly loving God cannot create controllable creatures, because this God is fictional.

Sanders’s main problem is that he does not take love as the preeminent attribute in God’s nature, at least when he thinks about initial creation. Unfortunately, Sanders believes God’s “nature does not dictate the sort of world God must make.”

By contrast, I do think God’s nature dictates the sort of world God must make. God must act according to the divine nature, and the preeminent attribute of God’s nature is love. For this reason, I think love is God’s ultimate guide when creating any world.

If love seeks collaboration instead of control, takes risks instead of forcing guarantees, and does not force others to comply, a perfectly loving God could never sovereignly control every event, exercise meticulous providence, or absolutely determine everything. God cannot control others entirely, because, as Sanders rightly says, love does not force its own way on the beloved. Rather than saying God sovereignly decided to create a free world, we should say God’s loving nature requires creating undetermined creatures in any world God might choose to create.

Love is God’s ultimate guide when creating any world. Click To Tweet

Conclusion

Although I agree with the vast majority of Sanders’s version of open and relational theology, his ultimate misstep, as I see it, is failing to follow through on his claim that God’s preeminent attribute is love. He believes God’s sovereign will logically precedes God’s loving nature, at least when it comes to initial creation.

Given Sanders’s statements that God sometimes acts alone to bring about outcomes and allows genuine evil, his view also implies the sovereign will logically precedes love in the history of creation. Love does not come first.

My criticism of Sanders leads to my alternative version of open and relational theology, which I call essential kenosis. I have outlined some of aspects of essential kenosis in my book, The Nature of Love. I develop it further in my new book project.

 

 

A few footnotes for those who care about some additional issues:

(1.   Sanders is aware of the possibility that God’s nature may prevent God from doing some things. He notes biblical passages supporting this view. But in response to such passages, Sanders says, “although there is no attempt by biblical writers to reconcile the notion that God can do anything with the idea that God does not get everything he wants, it must be remembered that both sets of statements occur within the framework of God’s relationship with the people to whom these particular statements are made.” This seems to mean he believes such statements are relative to certain times and places. At the least, it means he believes statements in scripture pertaining to God’s inabilities do not describe conditions in God’s eternal nature.)

(2. My view, “God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with free creatures that God cannot control entirely,” can apply either to the traditional view that God initially created something from absolutely nothing (creatio ex nihilo) or the view that God always creates from that which God previously created because God’s nature is love (creatio ex creatione a natura amoris). I explain the latter view in my essay, “God Always Creates out of Creation in Love: Creatio ex Creatione a Natura Amoris,” in the forthcoming book, Theologies of Creation: Creatio Ex Nihilo and Its New Rivals [New York: Routledge, 2014], 109-122.)

(3. In a footnote, Sanders admits he engages in speculation when he talks about whether or not God’s nature requires God to create a world. He says he bases his speculation on his prior doctrine of creation. Because Sanders affirms creation ex nihilo, I assume he is referring to this theory of initial creation when he speaks of his prior creation doctrine. My alternative position to the three I outlined is essentially neutral on this issue of creation ex nihilo. One can affirm creation out of nothing or deny it, while agreeing with me that God’s love is the preeminent attribute of God’s nature, and therefore God could not create a world devoid of freedom and/or agency.)

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Comments

Mike

Great series. I’m glad you added that last part about creation ex nihilo.  I’m no theologian but you could almost say I believe creation from nothing in love.  It is the love of his nature that lead him to create our wonderful universe. But its also that love that let’s us screw it up.


Bev Mitchell

I agree with Mike’s point re creatio ex nihilo. It is good to learn that you see essential kenosis as fitting within this view – though I’m intrigued and not repelled by the way you put it originally.

You make it clear that God’s love is not something that we, or God, can consider in operation only some of the time. The same thing prevails with “God is Spirit”, as you point out in a later blog article (I’m obviously catching up here).

This insistence on no exceptions to “God is Love” is probably the idea that spoke most loudly to me on reading your book “Nature of Love” a few years back. With God necessarily loving (and creating) the issue of redemption becomes clear as well. If our limited understanding of perfect love is adequate, this essentiality also means redemption is also essential. God knew all along that acting according to his nature would require a confrontation with evil and a means of redemption from evil. In fact, acting without fail according to his loving nature would require God to acknowledge, confront and ultimately absorb (thus nullify) evil.

I suppose some might argue, in fact some do argue, that we don’t know enough about perfect love to really know what “God is Love” means. I think that is the direction critics will have to take to counter your argument. It certainly is a better option than on again off again love – or mermaid stables full of unicorns. Why didn’t Tolkien think of this?

I do think that the reality of spiritual opposition to God has to be addressed for this all to work. And, addressing this opposition while denying dualistic thinking is a challenge, though probably not insurmountable.


Matthew

Looking back at my theological formation, descriptions of God as love and God Almighty did not seem incongruent. However, with further reflection on your arguments here and elsewhere, I am beginning to understand the incongruence.
Although I have been taught and have experienced God as love, the prevailing notion in my mind is often still in many ways of God all-powerful. God can do what ever God wants. Omnipotence and transcendence are descriptors of God. In my experience this seems to be the common default. Jesus perhaps was and exhibited perfect love, but God is more distant. (Yet is this not the point of the incarnation?)
Having a God who’s nature is that of love foremost though is, to me, a much better god in whom we can love and trust our whole lives with. It pains me to think of many who may have never heard that God’s nature is love and truly loves them and all creation. Could a lack of understanding of the nature of God as love be what is contributing to a decline in church membership? How can we as Christ-followers better relate this “powerful” notion of the true nature of God to others more effectively?


Dylan

I wonder at some of the sovereign language about God: I think sometimes we forget that much of this language comes from ancient societies and periods of history where the notion of God as sovereign was perhaps quite comforting–much as we balk at that and gravitate toward the idea of God being love. For example, when the ancient Israelites were in exile, no longer with a God-appointed king, would it not make sense that one of the most meaningful images of God for them would be a sovereign, kingly God, ADONAI–the LORD–who, in fact, does control everything? Who is steadfast? Who will vindicate the people of Israel against their enemies?

I guess my point in all this is just that it’s interesting to see how the debates about the nature of God are shaped by time, by circumstance–even by privilege in some way, shape or form. To dispossessed people who once had a strong king, who are now exiled and kingless, the image of God as King might in fact mean much more to them than other analogous images.

This having been said, I believe that our images of the Divine evolve and adapt depending on what we need. Does this fundamentally change the nature of God or the Gods or the Divine? No. But it has a profound impact on how we experience the Divine; to Matthew’s point, I think it’s going to take a large amount of work for Christians to convince the unchurched that God is love–or is even something better than what we call love, since many might be wary of such analogies due to bad experiences with love which disillusion them to it (much as it would take a great deal for someone for whom the image of God as King is a comfort to convince the God-is-love-first-and-foremost sayers that God as King or Sovereign is a “better” way of looking at things.)


Lian

3. Before I read this article, what I have an idea on the sovereignty of God is like Sanders. However, when I read this article I could imagine that how God is acting his sovereignty rule upon creatures and also what is the nature of God’s love. As we find in the article, “Love is the preeminent characteristic of God,” as he put it. And “the way of God is love.” God’s power and sovereignty is acting in love every time and everywhere upon his creatures but not in the way of controlling. Therefore, I really appreciated this article because its gives me a new idea, which is how the love of God is acting upon his creatures as kenosis.


B. V.

To say that we have solved the problem of evil, through any theological line of thought, seems outlandish to me. Perhaps I am not well-versed enough in what we are calling “the problem of evil,” but this whatever we mean by it, it just seems like too much for a human to conquer. And yet, did not Jesus already conquer the problem of evil on our behalf? Maybe I am not understanding this correctly, but it is a complex topic. I believe that love is God’s primary feeling toward God’s creation. I feel God’s love toward me stronger than I feel anything else from God. And, I also believe God is sovereign and almighty. Those things do not seem in-congruent to me at all…. I am actually quite glad that the One who loves me so much is sovereign over all, and that the One who is sovereign over all loves me so much! Just think if God operated out of hate and loathing for God’s creation–the consequences of such a thing is unthinkable and unimaginable, because we only can imagine a world in which God loves us. That is all we have ever known. Thanks be to God for that!


Eric S

God is a God of risks and to what extent is what this discussion is about. God cannot be dependent on creatures as creatures did not exist prior to the point in which God created them. Even after creating them, we clearly offer no tangible benefit via objects as God can create whatever is needed. This leave the question if we have no objects which we can offer God, is there anything which can be offered? I do believe God created the world out of love, otherwise there would not have been any motivation to do so. Your theory of a God who out of love creates a world with creatures given freedom that cannot be controlled entirely raises some interesting perspectives. The caution would be taking too much power away from God who could use power in a parent/child like relationship. On the other hand, having a God who gives freedom to creatures and acts out of love does begin to address the concern over evil in the world.


Denise Rode

In my Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod upbringing many years ago, I recall memorizing descriptors of God such as immortal, omniscient, omnipresent, immutable, invisible. In my elementary school brain, I’m not sure I knew what each of those terms meant, but now I see that they all feed into a “sovereignty of God: framework, probably growing out of a Neoplatonic worldview. However, I also grew up with a strong sense of God as loving and good, and it is this lens on God that I choose to embrace. I resonate with the idea that a “relational God collaborates with creatures.”
A “headline” for Dr. Oord’s blog might be “Keepin’ Em Honest” (stolen from Anderson Cooper’s CNN nightly news broadcast). He takes John Sanders to task a bit for not staying faithful to the principle that “love is the foremost attribute in God’s nature.” I appreciate the critiques offered by theologians on each other’s work and believe that this contributes to the continuing sharpening of theology as a whole.
Denise Rode


Christephor Gilbert

I continue to appreciate Relational Theology (as Open, Process, or ultimately your Essential Kenosis) as a revelation that connects my un-churched understanding of God with the formal elements of theology. In my early, short, and odd faith formation with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I got the message that God was to be feared and obeyed. God was King. God was Sovereign. God was All-powerful. But the love came with Jesus. In the ultimate holy monogamous pair-bonding (and I can say that because the JW’s are not Trinitarian in their theology), Jesus was the loving mom and God (the Father, Jehovah) was the powerful dad. I could be in direct relationship with God-dad, but the best thing to do was model myself after Jesus-mom to get the best results. But as I left that religious experience to wander in the desert of spiritual choices, I would see the divine acting in love in my life: rehabilitated siblings, miracles of sudden health, opportunities that were blessings. My life experience was of a God that was co-creative and cooperative, not coercive and domineering. I think we need that today, a God that starts with love. Our relationship with God can be one of mutuality and cooperation. God will always be more than we are, but that doesn’t mean we have to affirm that those with more power will use their power in coercive ways. That is an old model. That is old theology. That is a theology that says power can be love. I want to affirm that love holds the most power.


Kyle Seibert

“If love seeks collaboration instead of control, takes risks instead of forcing guarantees, and does not force others to comply, a perfectly loving God could never sovereignly control every event, exercise meticulous providence, or absolutely determine everything. ”

I’m following this argument given the working fundamental assumption that love does not control. Yet, in relation to this, I have two directions of questioning. First, if love does not control and can’t force humans to a particular outcome, what are the possible ways in which God and God’s love interacts with humans? Is there something less than control that is operative? Leading, guiding, calling, etc? And we also can’t just provide a kitsch-word like “call” to explain this. I’m interested in how God and love are operative, then.

Additionally, it seems like great care is taken to ensure that the words selected are all-encompassing. For example, great lengths are taken to always include “every event” or “everything.” Does this implicitly mean that God can control some, but not all? Or none?


Jaeymes Childers

In reading this I could understand and find some value in both Sanders’ theories and in those you present in contrast to them. To start with the preface that you two seem to agree upon, “If God’s love cooperates rather than controls and if God takes risks rather than forcing guarantees, love as the preeminent attribute prevents God from determining everything. God cannot force the beloved, because, as Sanders says, love does not force its own way.” If we start from this place I can agree with your assertion that, “A loving yet controlling God can’t actually exist.”
If we are to look at God as a cooperative, engaged God who does not force anything upon us for the sake of being loving and as an expression of that love I would say I whole heartedly can agree with your understanding that Sanders’ places God’s sovergnte before God’s loving nature. Sanders preferred model, “God sovereignly, not of necessity, decided to create a world with free creatures.”, and yours “God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with free creatures that God cannot control entirely.” These two clearly show the difference between a love first model and one that is not, and support the assertion that Sanders does allow sovergienty to come before love in the action of creation.

I would say that under the premace of your understanding we can also see why good and bad happen without blaming God. If we are to believe that God chooses when to act and when not to, we fall into a place where every time a bad thing happens it is going to be a misgiving on a comunity directly from God because there was inaction, rather than an understanding that God does not act in anything due to freewill which we have come to know as a loving act, even when it hurt or harms beause it does not limit any.

I struggle with the idea of freewill and why there is not limits to it and recognize that there is good in not having limits to it and that there is good in knowing God will never intervien rather than wondering when or if God will. It’s a hard subject to really come to terms with and I have to think that there is something good that comes of every thing that looks to be bad, God sees a greater good that is served by not interviening and allowing humanity to live out its free will, calling us to loving deeds but not reaching out to curb us from misdeeds. I suspect this will never be something I can rest well with any answer to but this has helped me to wrestle a little more with some new ideas about the topic.

Why should we think a loving God is free to control others entirely, even if God never actually exercised that freedom?


Katie

I find myself questioning why love and sovereignty are set up as competitors from the very beginning of this article. Is God not not capable in holding the two in balance?
The difference between the third providence option and the fourth seems almost artificial. I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. I think that by saying God can’t have the capacity to be controlling and also be loving, you’re missing out on the love that knowingly chooses to sacrifice control over the beloved.
There is a beauty in an all powerful God that chooses to interact gently with the creation rather than overpowering the creation.


Esther Buck

I am honestly curious how you will solve the problem of genuine evil – because so far I do not know any (convincing) solution, rather I decided that it is not for me to know…
When I got it right, God has no freedom to chose to love because it is his nature – at any time he has to act according to his nature which is love. But could it not be one difference between God and human, between Creator and creation, that once he decided to love he remains faithful. For me, that God’s nature is love is mirrowed in the Trinity – God is a se, and he is a se love. And as he decided to create the world, he chose to love the world. In other words: is creation not an act of love?


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