I’ve already given something of a full review of Thomas Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God over at Christianity Today. Oord has very charitably responded to it and I’ve responded briefly in the comments. I wanted to follow that up, though, because there were a number of important points that I couldn’t make given reasonable space and genre constraints at CT. I want to be clear, though, that this is not about ill-will or picking on Oord’s work. He seems like a fine man and who can fault his pastoral instinct? But the work of theology is often carried out through critical engagement–indeed, Oord himself is quite sharp in his critique of many theological traditions in order to forward his significant revision of the doctrine of God. It seems necessary and appropriate, then, to engage it in this fashion. In the rest of this, I’ll assume knowledge of my prior review and the thesis of the book. Also, this will be far more of a ramble.
Experience and Compatibilism
First, a small point. Oord makes great hay about the intuitive nature of our possession of a certain form of libertarian or “genuine” free will against determinism. He notes that free will is key to our general self-understanding as responsible agents able to choose right and wrong, and so forth (55-56, 60). We experience ourselves as free and make many judgments in the moral life on that basis, so why doubt it on the basis of faulty brain science and so forth?
All of this is fine as far as it goes. Actually, much of it is quite helpful. What I’d simply like to point out is that the arguments in these sections might work well as a defense of genuine freedom against physicalist conceptions of determinism, where biology, physics, and so forth, are in the metaphysical driver’s seat. That said, they’re not much in the way of evidence against a theologically compatibilistic understanding of genuine freedom. On that view, God’s foreordination of all that passes isn’t dependent on physicalist determinants.
Actually, if you really think through a compatibilist view of freedom, our experience of reality would feel pretty much the same. God’s sovereignty isn’t thought to be experienced as some outside compelling force, “pushing on us”, so to speak. So, the “powerful” argument from experience or the phenomenology of freedom doesn’t tell that strongly against theological determinism.
Mistaking Physics and Metaphysics
On that note, I’d also like to register a complaint about Oord’s fairly constant quick movement from physics to metaphysics. Though he affirms the distinction between the two disciplines, things can get slippery in the midst of the argument. For instance, after reviewing a number of lines of evidence for randomness and chance in the physical universe from chaos theory, etc. as a way of refuting the idea that it’s a closed, causal system (34-41), he says, “If dominant views in science and philosophy are correct in their affirmation of randomness and chance, theologians such as Augustine, Calvin, and Sproul are wrong. God does not control all things; randomness is real.”
At that point, I just scratch my head and think, “You do realize that none of these classical theologians ever based their theological determinism on whether the universe was a closed, causal (in the physicalist sense) system, right?” That may have been the case with certain philosophers or theologians in the Modern period when Enlightenment rationalism began to creep in, but read any classic Augustinian theologian of the Medieval, Reformation, Post-Reformation Scholastic period, and down into the contemporary period, and you’ll see that most are quick to deny any kind of physicalist necessity or Stoic fate. Providence has never been something you can put under a microscope or measure using computer models.
Oord’s description of most of these theologians, then, is guilty of a category mistake, treating God’s activity as if it were one cause among others, on par with natural causes, only bigger, and invisible. But on their view, God’s causality is not just one cause among the others. God’s causality is in its own category, non-competitive with ours. God is the logically and metaphysically prior, creating, maintaining, and sustaining cause of all of our activity. In other words, God isn’t on the same, metaphysical playing field with us. Many of those theologians would affirm randomness as a physicalist level, all the while denying it with respect to God’s decree. Failing to appreciate the way that the Creator/creature distinction informs the relationship between God’s activity and natural and human causality is like imagining Shakespeare’s pen-strokes and Hamlet’s sword-thrusts are occurring on the same plane of activity.
Bavinck, Turretin, and the “Reformed” Omnicausal View
Which brings me to a point about Oord’s explanation of the “Reformed” view of providence. He labels it “omnicausality” and says this is the view where: “Although humans may seem to act freely and other creaturely causes exist in the universe, in some unfathomable way, God totally causes every event” (84). Now, admittedly, he is able to cite a couple of recent, Calvinistic theologians who adopt the terminology of “omnicause”, but Oord’s description is simply not the traditional Reformed view. Most classic Reformed theologians operate with a notion of primary and secondary causality, or concursus, which means that while God is a necessary sustaining cause of all acts, he is not the only necessary cause for all things. He does not, then, “totally cause” everything in every way. That would be monocausality or sola causa. God exercises his causality through secondary causes like human free choices, natural laws, and so forth.
While this might not be as apparent in the less technical, but pastoral Heidelberg Catechism he cites, it’s explicitly articulated in the equally (if not more) prominent Westminster Confession 3.1:
God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
One may disagree with this, but not by caricaturing the Reformed view, for it is abundantly clear that the freedom, contingency, and secondary causes are all affirmed. This is not a crass, blatantly illogical “omnicausality” as Oord paints it. Again, you may find it illogical in the end, but I think you at least have to do a lot more work than Oord does to show it.
What’s more surprising about this is that he cites both Herman Bavinck and Francis Turretin as representatives of the “omnicausal” view (84) where other causes and humans only “seem to act freely” and have efficacy, but God really “totally causes” everything. In point of fact, they both clearly operate with careful distinctions of primary and secondary causality, permission, and complex, scholastic distinctions in the will of God and so forth. Bavinck, for one, goes on for pages distinguishing providence from the sort of physicalist, divine determinism taught by some of his liberal, theological contemporaries. Heck, even on the couple of pages Oord does cite, Bavinck is in the process of explicitly affirming secondary causes as “true and essential causes”, not “inanimate automata”, but with their own “nature, vitality, spontaneity, manner of working, and law of their own” (RD, Vol. 2, 614). In which case he’s saying something almost exactly the opposite of what Oord is citing him for. Passages like this could be multiplied ad nauseum in Bavinck, and Turretin does so as well, explicitly delineating the various senses in which contingency in creation and the human will could and should be rightly affirmed.
When Oord somewhat dismissively writes off the Reformed view as “making little if any sense” (85), then, despite the citations, it appears he made little if any effort to make sense of it.
God of the Gaps 2.0: Just as “Mysterious”, but in a New, Pocket-Size
Continuing in this vein, when Oord does get around to discussing the primary and secondary causality distinction advocates by Barth and Aquinas (his representatives), he eventually writes it off as an elaborate appeal to mystery because, in the end, everybody who deploys it can’t give an adequate account of how God is at work in these causes. In response, I’d note two points of defense: First, some actually have recently tried to give an account of sorts along the communicative dimension. Second, trying to pin down the causal joint has been a problem for most of the theological tradition throughout the whole of church history. Again, at times, I think an appeal to mystery makes sense.
(Oh, and on this point, I’d like to clarify something about my comments on mystery. In his response, Oord has charged that I seem quite certain without an appeal to mystery on a number of things like the Trinity, miracles, etc. and so I am being inconsistent in my criticism of his allergy to mystery. But I have to say I think that largely misses my point. I believe that God has revealed those various truths I reference in Scripture, so I am confident in them–though not ruling out mystery around them. That said, I also think that God has actually revealed that his ways are mysterious in respect to the issue of providence and suffering. In that regard, I think Oord’s allergy to mystery is also a failure to pay attention to revelation. I see not inconsistency there, since both my confidence on some issues and my appeal to mystery on this issue is grounded in revelation. I think that Oord’s drive for one explanation to rule them all, causes him to reject the variety of answers, including some mystery, that the Scriptures give on this issue. )
But even coming back to causality, more positively, I’d point out that I think Oord’s own account of divine agency is just as fuzzy as that of the primary and secondary causality distinction. For instance, in his section on nature miracles, instances of God’s active power in the world, Oord speaks of God being present and introducing creative possibilities, new forms of creation, and so forth, in places where there are instances of quantum randomness, and so forth. Now that might seem promising and even “scientific” at first, but try as I might, searching high and low throughout the text, I couldn’t locate a clear explanation of how God does this introducing or what that even means. Those gestures I did find could easily be co-opted by advocates of a primary-secondary causality distinction. This is no advance over the earlier apophatic distinctions of Barth or Aquinas.
In other words, Oord’s account is just as “mysterious” as any primary and secondary causality account. Indeed, the only advantage it has is of reducing God’s agency so as to squish it into the randomness gaps that interrupt or coexist with the law-like regularities that God dare not cross or interrupt on pain of being labeled an “interventionist” in his own creation. I have to admit, this feels like something of a God of the gaps 2.0. Only here, if you find some cracks in the interstitial spaces of the universe and you just might find some room for God to work.
And while we’re on the subject of miracles, I’ll be honest, while a couple of his attempts to reconcile the big nature miracles with his non-interventionist God were helpful, others strain credulity as exegesis. For instance, take Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea. That seems like a fairly big interruption of the natural order of things. An intervention, if you will. Oord will have none that, though. Instead, what he speculates that what possibly happened is that God—because he’s omnipresent and knows the natural flows of wind, waves, and so forth—knew that the sea was going to be parted at that time. Then, he, in a still small voice, whispered for Moses to lead the Israelites to the Red Sea at just the right time when it was naturally splitting open (210). God’s mighty act of deliverance of the Nation of Israel through the waters of Chaos through to the dry ground freedom is reduced to instance of God’s great timing and some quirky wind patterns.
Now, I have no doubt that sometimes God’s providence looks like a still small whisper at the right time, but that is simply not how Exodus 14-15 depict the event, both in prose and song (go ahead and read the account here).
Finally, I briefly touched on this, but I really want to expand on the eschatological point. Oord touts his view as an “adventure model of providence” that “fits our world”, but this isn’t an assuring doctrine of providence. The God who is unable to fully and finally put his foot down and stop evil, stop rape, stop war, stop tyranny, and all the horrors of this world, cannot fulfill the visions of John the Revelator who promises that God will wipe every tear from our eyes after he has made war on the Beasts who devour the saints. The God who has trouble healing cancer sometimes because our genomes are uncooperative, cannot usher in the New Jerusalem into a world that is as corrupt, non-responsive, and recalcitrant as ours. Biblical eschatology hangs or falls on the God who is the Lord of history, not one of its subjects. A God with enough metaphysical flex to intervene.
To put it another way, Pannenberg criticized certain forms of voluntary kenoticism as threatening our ultimate faith in God alone. What goes for voluntary kenoticism applies a fortiori to involuntary kenoticism. Because the limited God Oord proposes is not the only being or reality on which our hopes must lean. Instead, we have to hope in “God + the right set of cooperative circumstances for him to coordinate.”
Some Better Options
I could keep going, but I’ll just wrap-up by offering a couple of alternatives. First, on the problem of evil, suffering, and providence, I’d commend J. Todd Billings’ book Rejoicing in Lament. Written in the midst of his struggle with cancer, the work is at once more pastoral as well biblically-saturated and theologically-careful. He also has a very helpful discussion of a Reformed view of the doctrine of permission, which, contrary to some reports is compatible with Reformed theology. (Incidentally, I’m always nonplussed when I read criticisms of Reformed doctrines as immediately crumbling in the face of life. It’s as if they’re under the impression no Calvinist in history has ever suffered and been comforted by their doctrines, or even adopted them precisely because of suffering). In any case, I reviewed it here, but I can’t praise it enough.
Second, on the general issues of providence, the doctrine of God, and so forth, Kevin Vanhoozer’s big book Remythologizing Theology is very generous in his engagement with varieties of open theism, panentheism, and process theisms (and now in a cheaper paperback that is totally worth it). Actually, Vanhoozer critiqued related, nearly-identical versions of this sort of involuntary, relational, kenotic theism in the book some five years ago. What’s more, he engages the issue of the nature of love extensively, which I have not done, in a way that addresses some of Oord’s presuppositions and proposals.
I’ll wrap up by saying, even though I really do sympathize with Oord’s instincts and pastoral care, I remain unconvinced that this is a helpful way forward in the doctrine of providence.
Soli Deo Gloria