Ways to Think about Providence

May 25th, 2015 / 9 Comments

Christians have many ways to think about how God acts in creation (providence). Each way has implications for making sense of life in light of God’s love, power, and other attributes. But some ways are better than others.

In my forthcoming book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, I identify seven models of providence. Among them is the model I call “essential kenosis,” which I find most satisfactory overall.IMG_3029_30_31-21

One chapter of my book explores the powerful proposals on providence from John Sanders, The God Who Risks. Although I find much in Sanders’s proposal that I appreciate, I also offer some criticisms and counterproposals.

Three Ways

When offering his open and relational model of providence, Sanders seems to think Christians choose among three options when thinking about how God creates and acts 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 (p. 162).

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” (p. 231). Creatures are not really free, and randomness and chance are illusions.

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

The option Sanders prefers says God sovereignly gives freedom but allows evil. Sovereign activity lays the framework of the creation project. “The divine nature is free to create a project that involves loving relations with creatures,” says Sanders (p. 231). But God could have created a world without free creatures. And God could (and perhaps occasionally does) 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.”

Questioning God’s Love and Power

In general, open and relational 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 does.

God’s relationship with creatures, says Sanders, “is not one of control and domination but rather one of love and vulnerability” (p. 71). God “does not force [creatures] to comply” (p. 174). In sum, Sanders believes “love does not force its own way on the beloved” (193).

I agree with the statements in the above paragraph. Most open and relational theologians would also agree.

But these statements invite important questions. After all, if God’s preeminent attribute is love and love invites cooperation without forcing its own way, it makes little sense to say sovereign freedom allows God to create in an unloving way.

It makes little sense, for instance, to say God voluntarily decided against exercising meticulous providence. If love comes first and love does not force others to comply, it makes little sense to say, as Sanders does, that “God is free to sovereignly decide not to determine everything.” If love comes first, God cannot exercise meticulous providence or determine everything.

Why should we think a loving God who “does not force the beloved” is truly 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 exercised that freedom?

If love doesn’t force the beloved and God is love, God can’t force the beloved.

If love doesn’t force the beloved and God is love, God can’t force the beloved. Share on X

A Fourth Way

I prefer a fourth option. We might call my view, “God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with creatures God cannot control.”

My option is part of the essential kenosis model I describe in my forthcoming book. At the heart is the idea that love logically precedes power in God’s nature. To put it differently, God’s love always preconditions God’s creating and providential activity.

In my view, it was out of love that God decided to create a world. And because love is God’s primary attribute, it is necessary that God creates.

Because God’s essential nature is self-giving, others-empowering love, I argue, God cannot control creatures. God cannot, to use Sanders’s language, “sovereignly decide not to determine everything.”  God cannot “force the beloved.” God cannot “tightly control every event that happens.”

This limitation on God’s part does not come from something imposed upon God from the outside. Like Arminius and Wesley, I say God’s limitations come from God’s love. And in God, love comes first.

God’s limitations come from God’s love. And in God, love comes first. Share on X


There is obviously more that must be said. And I offer further explanation in The Uncontrolling Love of God. I hope you look for it this fall.

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Donald Minter

Tom, enjoy your pieces as always. I think the issue some of us have with your approach is that ‘love’ creates a reverse determinism in which God cannot offer sovereignty (or an end game) at all. God will try hard, and is trying God’s hardest in all possible moments, but ‘love’ constrains God, preventing God from bringing about that which is best, or most loving, simply because the ontology of love dictates ‘creaturely freedom’ above all other dimensions of ‘love’ or what is ‘best’. Additionally, God does not ‘will’ the creation to have freedom, but simply cannot create any other way. Hence, the end game is determined to be conditional upon a cooperative creation. Thanks for the article!


I might be wrong, but it seems to be the case that the pendulum of how freedom is described swings in a very funny way between Arminianism and Calvinism. I definitely prefer your description of providence to Calvinism, but it looks a bit like, in the effort to preserve human choice (and a worthy theology of love), your concept has seriously limited the freedom of God.

Calvinists, often in an attempt to preserve God’s unlimited freedom and sovereignty, will say that he can do absolutely anything (e.g., divine command theory)—while humans are, of course, restricted by the confines of compatibilist freedom (i.e., God controls everything people do). Arminians, on the other hand, tend to describe God’s freedom as intentionally self-limited—and, depending on how far the explanation goes, this can sometimes feel like we are severely restraining God.

In short, it looks like Calvinists often preserve God’s unrestricted libertarian freewill and sacrifice human libertarian freewill in the process. Arminians, though, tend to preserve the libertarian freewill of humans while restricting God’s freedom and making it almost seem compatibilistic.

In the essential kenosis model, you say, “it is necessary that God creates.” While this may not eliminate God’s libertarian freedom (perhaps he could have created the world very differently), it does seem to limit it excessively (he, by his nature, was REQUIRED to create). If creation is NECESSARY doesn’t this appear to “undermine grace” as Roger Olson wrote?

“Somehow one must admit the possibility that God might not have created at all. Otherwise the world becomes necessary even for God which undermines grace.” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/07/why-is-jonathan-edwards-considered-so-great/

I’m sorry if this is an ignorant question, but do you think the best way to describe God’s freedom is as libertarian or compatibilistic—determined by his strongest inclination, which is always love? Do you think there is a way to balance it so that God has a kind of libertarian freedom while humans have a certain kind of libertarian freedom as well?

Thomas Jay Oord

Don and Steven – You raise similar issues. I’ll focus on Steven’s, because I think his questions reflect Don’s as well.

My essential kenosis view does mean that God’s freedom is limited. But it is limited by what it means to be God, not be some external force or factor. In this, I’m more Arminian than most open theists, because like Arminius I think God’s nature logically precedes God’s will.

As to whether God’s necessarily creating undermines grace, I don’t think it does it all. In fact, I think essential kenosis better supports the notion that God’s grace is the primary force behind God’s creating. But I suppose if you define God’s grace in terms of God’s sovereign freedom preceding divine love, you’ll think my essential kenosis view limits God too much. So… I disagree with Roger on this issue (and some others), while sharing with him a great deal as those who find the general Arminian/Wesleyan tradition helpful.

As to your last question, I think God’s freedom is libertarian but not unlimited. Because God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign choice, I don’t think God is free to be unloving, is not free to sin, is not free to control others entirely, etc. Creaturely freedom is also libertarian but not unlimited.

Sorry to sound like a broken record, but these are the kinds of issues I address head on in the book. Thanks for your interest!



Thanks for the response, Tom. I’ve been thinking about Roger’s description of grace (as something that is, by definition, not necessary) since I commented earlier and it has been bothering me a bit. For example, is there a possible scenario, post-fall, where Christ would NOT die to save sinners?
Perhaps grace is better described as an unmerited blessing but not necessarily something God could avoid doing because of his loving nature? I’ll keep thinking about it.

I hope to learn more from your book “The Nature of Love.” I’ve had it on my kindle for quite a while but I’m still only in the section critiquing Nygren. I find many of your points compelling and I hope to get a hold of “The Uncontrolling Love of God” eventually. I think about providence and free will very often (perhaps too often–so many questions!) and your work on the subject is some of the most interesting.

Tom Evans


I look forward to reading your new book. As you know, I fully support your essential kenosis theory. I look forward to see how you develop God’s love for us. This is the key to understanding how God works in our lives. Our relationship with God is based on love. Love is the key to all encounters. Humans seem to resist love when it comes to other humans. We need to develop love where it overcomes our evil tendencies. Jesus stated clearly that we needed to love God above all and then our neighbors as we love ourselves. I believe that the greatest hurdle that humans have is loving themselves and other humans. This can be overcome if we love God fully and completely.

I fully support you Tom. I pray now for you and your family.

Bev Mitchell


Glad to hear that you are following up with a new book on essential kenosis. I read “The Nature of Love” shortly after it came out and it contained one of the sets of ideas/interpretations that set me on a wonderful five-year journey to understand better the wealth of connections between my professional field, biological sciences, and that other great, life affirming study, Christian theology. Along the way I’ve come to better see theology and biology as two complimentary ways to study life – two ways that are absolutely essential to any reasonable celebration of our creator’s work and his purpose. BTW, the other books that provided initial inspiration for this quest were read within weeks of reading your book. They were: Pete Enns’ “inspiration and Incarnation” and Nick Lane’s “Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution”.

To me your argument that if God is essentially love, and if love is what Scripture says it is, then it’s difficult to imagine Got not actually creating out of love and making possible the freedom biblical love demands. To insist that such a loveless alternative must be possible, though unimaginable, may be seen as honouring God, but perhaps it only honours a view of God rooted in Platonic thinking, however traditional this may be.

I encourage anyone who is interested in what you say about essential kenosis on this blog or elsewhere, to read thoroughly “The Nature of Love”. The essential arguments of books like this can never be properly grasped without wrestling with the full text. Tom’s follow-up book will likely be the same. The Internet offers us so many wonderful opportunities and much freedom to easily share ideas, but the temptation of discuss complex books without having read them is one of the downsides. The other day, on another blog, we were even ‘blessed’ with a reviewer’s recommendation to read his review of a controversial book, along with bold statements from the reviewer that he had not read the book and didn’t have to!

Donald Minter

Tom, great reply to Steve and I as usual. You continue to suggest that God can only act as the nature of God mandates (We all get that so let it go, we agree with you, and that is about as fundamental an affirmation as any theologian can make. So obvious it doesn’t need to be said over and over). The problem with your system is that when you have finished redescripting the nature of God, what you have left over is a try hard impotent being, who can’t getter done unless the creation which spewed out of God (God didn’t choose to create) cooperates. This is the fundamental fatal flaw to your system. Me thinks you do better to just suggest, “God is a good loving God who tries as hard as a God can try. Let’s cheer God on as God tries to getter done, And let’s cooperate so God has a better shot at this!”. And with that you can let sovereignty go bye-bye and live with the new trying really hard God you have presented. That my friend is why so many of us struggle with your position. Sorry, I didn’t respond earlier but I confess I never think to look here again unless somethings sparks my mind. Keep up the good work! I’m cheering for you to figure this out… :o)

Buford Edwards

My take on “The Uncontrolling Love of God.”

Why is there evil in the world? Why do tragic events occur? Why do the young die? As Christians we often hear and respond to these questions with responses such as “God is in control,” “God’s ways are not our ways,” “We cannot see and know what God sees and knows.” While we will offer these types of responses in an effort to provide comfort to the suffering and to attempt to make sense of the events we see going on around us, when things hit home these explanations seem less than satisfying. Do they really answer the questions we are trying to ask? Many will say that “we shouldn’t question what happens!” Why not? Can God not handle the hard questions?

Face it, God can handle the tough questions and Scripture gives us many examples of when God’s people asked the hard questions. In fact, we have been trying to make sense of the world around us and how our lives intersect with God for as long as we can trace. Thomas Jay Oord’s new book The Uncontrolling Love of God, due to hit the shelves in December 2015, is no different. In this newest work by the noted theologian and educator, Dr. Oord does not back down from the hard questions. In fact, he begins to unpack the very questions many are afraid to ask. Not only does Oord ask the questions, but he also begins to offer an answer to those questions. However, be forewarned, if the reader is not comfortable with tradition being challenged, then this book is not for you! For the rest, you will find that you probably will not agree with every point, but for the reader who approaches the book with an open mind and a learning spirit, you will find Oord’s concepts very thought provoking.

The overarching theme that Dr. Oord begins to unpack is the idea of Essential Kenosis, the idea that God’s love is self-giving instead of being self-limiting. In other words, since God’s nature is love then God is compelled to give of God’s self, which Christ is the ultimate manifestation of. God’s love is complete in what Dr. Oord refers to as “full orbed.” God does not choose to limit involvement in our lives, but rather is relational with creation, desire reconciliation and relationship with creation through God’s self-giving nature. In order to build up to this crescendo though, Oord first has to work through the hard questions of evil, free will, randomness, and evolution.

Oord begins to look at the problem of evil in the world through the lens of free will. Oord maintains that evil exists because of the wrong choices that creation has made. Oord maintains that we have freedom and that a God that loves completely is unable to create creatures that do not have the freedom to choose evil. Therefore, Oord maintains that God is not responsible for evil. The hard pill to swallow here is the idea that God is not in complete control and the idea that God cannot do something. However, Oord maintains that we cannot maintain the idea of free will and also maintain an idea of God being all controlling, because the two cannot coexist. Oord also continues this discussion of free will when discussing the seemingly randomness that takes place in the world and balances this with how other things happen through regularity. The big question is really though, is God all knowing? Is God in complete control?

Oord’s stance is that God knows, only what is knowable. In other words, Oord maintains that the future from beginning to end is not completely laid out and that each moment in time is determined by the free choices made in the previous moment. With each choice we make, there are a number of additional choices and options opened up and the course history takes is only determined by the choices we make. God’s foreknowledge is limited to knowledge of all the possible choices based on what we freely decide to do. Otherwise, we would be forced to believe in God predestining all things, including the evils that occur as well as some being destined to die alienated from God. This would leave a level of responsibility for these things with God, thus negating God’s loving nature as well as free will. While this is a logical argument, I admittedly am still working through my own ideas with this!

With all the issues of evil, evolution, randomness, and regularity that The Uncontrolling Love of God addresses, Oord still finds space to address the issue of miracles. While, Oord’s explanation of miracles is counter our traditional understanding, what is refreshing is that Dr. Oord does acknowledge miracles in terms of God’s uncontrolling love and offering new possibilities. However, what is less than satisfying is a good answer as to why everyone who prays for healing is not physically healed. To gain a fuller understanding of Oord’s position though, I will leave that up to the eventual reader of the book.

As for some concluding thoughts, essential kenosis is a very viable and reasonable approach to revitalizing the theological framework for the current generations of post-moderns who are seeking God no less than generations that preceded them, only looking for answers on a different level. As Wesleyans we try to use experience, reason, and tradition weighed against Scripture to inform our theology. However, what we have witnessed is a move from Scripture as the ultimate authority to a position where tradition from the 18th and 19th century church has reigned supreme. What may have been reasonable 100 years ago is no longer reasonable today. Essential kenosis does not reinvent theology, only seeks to return to a Scripture centered approach, using our experience, reason, and tradition to build a theological framework that answers many of the tough questions about God, good, evil, and the universe. Is essential kenosis perfect? Absolutely not, but in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

Rev. Buford Edwards II
Lead Pastor, Stanford Church of the Nazarene


“God’s limitations come from God’s love. And in God, love comes first.” Thomas Jay Oord

This statment really sums up what I was thinking as I read through this blog. God did not create us to be creatures under God’s control but God did create us to have the choice to love God. God loved first so we know deep within us that love is the first and most commanding of emotions and needs in our lives. Love is what gives us hope. I think that when we ask questions like why would God let this happen or how can a loving God seem evil or angry, it is because we are hurting or trying to understand something that is beyond our own understanding and because we do not understand God fully, it is easy to try to excuse our way out of understanding by putting the ball back in God’s court, so to speak.

I am encouraged to read the rest of the book and discover a better understanding of God’s providence.

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