God’s Love Isn’t Neat and Tidy (The Uncontrolling Love of God, Review)

ocean vision

Evil—it’s a problem that asks, demands, cries out for explanation. The psalmist grasps the nettle when he asks, “How long, O Lord?” In the Western philosophical tradition, the question has been, “Why?” If there is a God who is all-powerful and all-loving, then presumably he’d make sure there is no evil. Yet a quick Google search shows you that evil is there all the same.

Of course, the sensible atheistic option is to admit there is no God. Historically, Christian thinkers have tried to reconcile these tensions by appealing to the existence of free will or divine wisdom, or clarifying the nature of goodness and power. Some, though, have opted to radically redefine the terms of debate.

That’s what theologian Thomas Jay Oord does in his book The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. Coming from the stream of recent theology called “open” or “relational” theism (which holds that God cannot predict or predetermine the choices we make), he’s not satisfied with traditional accounts of God’s providence. They don’t help him make sense out of life, especially the problem of “genuine” (purposeless, gratuitous) evil. At some point, they all have to appeal to mystery, and so they offer no “explanatory consistency.” In their place, Oord offers a winsome, clear, and charitable exposition of his own providential framework, drawing on philosophy, the sciences, and biblical wisdom to fill the gap.

You can read the rest of my review at Christianity Today.

Soli Deo Gloria

10 thoughts on “God’s Love Isn’t Neat and Tidy (The Uncontrolling Love of God, Review)

  1. The most remarkable irony that emerges from your review is your certainty of those beliefs you use to undermine the book and Oord’s position while simultaneously chastising him for his failure to appeal to mystery. Why don’t you have to play by the same rules of mysterious engagement? Once again we have a Christian whose uncritical self-assurance of his own beliefs knows no limits–they are tidy and neat and are wielded like a sword against the inferior thinking of others. But when his other affirmations are shown to be inconsitent, he quickly eschews his certainty, makes bedfellows with mystery, and criticizes another’s failure to do the same. If the problem of evil is the number one reason folks give for their skepticism about Christianity, Christians who insist their beliefs are right and then ride, Captain, ride on their mystery ship when their other beliefs are shown to be contradictory might be a close second.

    • Jeremy,

      Thanks for engaging. I think you have misunderstood my point, though. My point isn’t to advocate for a lack of certainty in general. My point is the argue that mystery is appropriate at certain points. One of them is the activity of God in the problem of evil. I appeal to Scripture, to revealed theology, and so forth, in order to critique Oord’s rejection of mystery in a place that I think Scripture points us to mystery. I may be wrong, but I’m not being inconsistent that I can see.


      • It seems scripture as a whole convincingly describes a God who must necessarily love (though how that God chooses to love leaves a variety of options for God). Here is the rub: you get to decide when mystery is appropriate and you at least seem certain in your review about having correctly drawn that line. In other words, the gospel according to Derek Rishmawy allows you to critique and explain all that YOU understand and can clearly explain based on YOUR limited understanding. But at the point that your understanding is faced with limitations and contradictory assertions, you comfortably turn to mystery. But it is less clear why someone else should be scolded for not appealing to mystery at the same point as you and forced to stop short of a more thorough explanation that also happens to be supported by scripture and revealed theology. Often this pattern of appealing to mystery feels like a cop out: “I interpret this to means A,B, and C. It would seem D is next logically but that doesn’t fit with my ABCs, which I refuse to reaxamine even in light of the fact that D ought to be next, ergo E! This is fun–we’re building a mystery!” This inability or refusal of Christian thinkers to reexamine their presuppositions when they’re shown to be contradictory and instead appeal to mystery is very unsatisfying for many Christians and would-be Christians. I think one of Oord’s primary objectives was to address this dissatisfaction. Why do you get to decide where the mystery line is rightly drawn? Oord might be wrong (and his humble approach implicitly leaves room for that mystery), but I applaud his efforts, and success, at creating a cogent, satisfying answer where the church has historically dug in its stubborn heels and said “no, we are right about this. God’s ways are simply higher and mysterious. Deal with it.”

      • Jeremy,

        I still think you’re confusing the point about general certainty, epistemology, and hermeneutics, with the point about this specific area where I am claiming an appeal to mystery is appropriate. Of course I am appealing to my interpretation. Necessarily so. And of course I think I’m right in this regard. That’s just how belief works. But I have yet to see an argument forthcoming that Scripture does not point to mystery about God’s providence and purpose for evil, say, in the book of Job or the prophets that would be a challenge to the sort of argument I’m making. I’m not challenging Oord’s ability to do theology, come up with new ideas, etc. I’m saying he’s done so in a way that fails to reckon with the outline of Scripture. And you know what? That’s exactly what he’s done to the entire theological tradition. He’s arguing that they have gotten it wrong on the basis of his interpretation of Scripture, etc. and so forth and that they shouldn’t have appealed to mystery at this point because he’s got an answer. My argument is simply that he’s wrong, his answer doesn’t work, and that Scripture supports a more classical view. It’s not an assault, or an attack, it’s an argument from someone who is unconvinced. That’s kind of how these things work.

        As for the rest of your comments about Christian thinkers unwilling to examine their ideas and so forth–you seem to be operating with the unspoken premise that if we would only be intellectually honest, examine Oord’s argument, then we would obviously agree with him and you. But since I don’t, I can’t have examined things properly as you have. But I have examined it. And I found it unconvincing. That happens in theological writing. People disagree even after they try to read an argument carefully and charitably.

        Alright, man, this is probably my last reply. Thanks for commenting.

  2. There doesn’t seem to me to be any substantial difference between saying that God can’t “halt natural processes that randomly result in pain and suffering (genetic mutations, rock slides, tsunamis, etc.)” and saying that he “permits” it as per prior open theists. Open theists I’ve read don’t believe in ” a God who permits pointless evil” as being “a God who only decrees evil for good.” Decreeing evil for good would be a consequence if not an explicit expression of decretal monergistic Reformed type of theology, not that of openness theology.

    • Here is the difference: a self-limiting God is a God who can also choose not to self-limit and yet apparently repeatedly fails to do so. And this, Oord argues, undermines the loving nature of God. I would liken it to a parent who can choose to snatch a young child out of harm’s way but instead chooses to be self-limiting ala “I want her to be able to make her own decisions” (as a passing car mows her down). This is categorically different than a parent who does not fly up to a tree house to keep the same girl from falling to her death. Here, the parent is not self-limiting. The very nature or essence of the parent as human being (and not bird) dictates that certain options for action do not even exist as possible. The first describes a God who is culpable for failing to prevent that which that God could choose to prevent. The second describes a God who simply cannot act contrary to God’s nature (unilateral control, hatred for people etc).

  3. “…the self-giving [kenotic], other-empowering love of God revealed in Jesus Christ…[may be]… primary in God’s eternal essence,” but that doesn’t mean it is by “nature, uncontrolling,” since that would appear to abandon all aspects of providential control of events. Saying that “God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with creatures God cannot control” seems to put a human perception in control of the nature of God. (that was a bit tongue in cheek). If it were true that God’s nature ‘prevents him from interrupting the “law-like regularities” of the natural world’ it would be hard if not possible to affirm that he has done just that in the miraculous healings accomplished through Christ! Saying God can’t do something scripture declares that he has doesn’t appeal to me.

    Saying that God can’t ” halt natural processes that randomly result in pain and suffering” doesn’t seem to adequately acknowledge his power. He could halt them but what would be the consequences? The end of the created order? In any case, saying that God would be “revoking the gifts he has given” by overriding natural processes or “stopping natural evils” may be saying the same thing. God is not equal to humans in their limitations, so saying that “if we don’t hold people responsible for things they can’t stop, then God’s off the hook for evil and suffering” is a _non-sequitur_.

    I’m not convinced Thomas Jay Oord’s view is superior to the idea that God permits evil events personal or naturally caused; it does seem superior to the Reformed view that God decrees evils to exalt his glory, however.

    • But what is praiseworthy in a God who permits evil? How does that square with God’s loving nature? An all powerful God who can stop evil certainly does not also need evil to accomplish good of any sort because that God could accomplish any good with requiring evil as a precursor to good. And this renders evil senseless and certainly unnecessary. It is unclear, then, why permitting evil is superior to the notion that God’s nature precludes God from eradicating evil from the world.

  4. Great review and biblically solid, Derek. I recently posted on my blog (reformednazarene) an article which referenced this very topic. Dr. Oord’s teaching of open theism ans well as evolution and process theology has had a great influence in the Nazarene colleges and seminary. May I have permission to re-post part or all of your article on my blog?
    Manny Silva

    • I think it would be fine too quote a small portion and then link it. But this original article was written for Christianity Today, who paid me for the review so it is theirs and should not be reprinted in full. Thank you

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