The Preeminence of Love in God
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
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.)