The Myth of “God’s Uncontrolling Love”

The Myth of “God’s Uncontrolling Love”

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John Wesley said God’s providence is a key Christian truth. “There is scarce any doctrine in the whole compass of revelation which is of deeper importance than this” (Sermon 67, “On Divine Providence,” Par. 7). Anyone who reads much Wesley notices how often he mentions providence, both in his sermons and his journals. (I comment on this in The Radical Wesley.)

Now comes a fascinating new book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence, by Thomas Jay Oord (IVP, 2015, 228 pp.). The book has sparked some controversy.

I like many things about the book. For one: Oord helpfully uses the phrase law-like regularities instead of “the laws of nature.” He rightly insists that so-called laws of nature never “transcend God.”

More basically, I am pleased to see a book that deals with the vexing problem of evil forthrightly, no excuses. The book helps us think more clearly about evil and God’s love. The first chapter, “Tragedy Needs Explanation,” offers several stories of horrible evil. Oord’s project is to make sense of genuine evil, randomness, and chance occurrences in a theologically coherent way.

The book is more philosophical than theological, however. The argument is highly rational and speculative. Oord’s principal way of proceeding is through the use of logic. But it is here, at the level of logic, that I find problems.

The central arguments in The Uncontrolling Love of God in fact rest on logical fallacies. Since the book is first of all a work of philosophical logic rather than Christian theology or biblical hermeneutics—and since the validity of the arguments rests upon the soundness of its logic—I discuss the book mainly on the basis of logic and only secondarily on the basis of Scripture and theology.

Three Puzzling Fallacies

I found the book’s central argument—initially very appealing—less convincing the further I went along.

Oord believes a loving, personal God should prevent evil if he can. If God has the power to prevent evil and doesn’t, he is “culpable.” Oord returns to this theme repeatedly. How can one reconcile genuine evil with the love of God? Obviously this is a deeply felt concern. It’s one that troubles me, as well, and I have written briefly about it. (See “When Children and Jesus Suffer” on my Seedbed blogsite).

In his last chapter (on miracles), Oord puts it this way: “The God who could control” events completely “should have miraculously prevented all the genuine evils we encountered in chapter one” (196). The whole book hangs on this concern.

Oord often speaks of what God should do (prevent evil) and what he cannot do (prevent evil). God cannot prevent much of the world’s evil because to admit this possibility would be to deny God’s essential being, Oord says. This would be contrary to God’s “essential kenosis”—the big idea in the book and the focus of his programmatic chapter seven, “The Essential Kenosis Model of Providence.”

But Oord’s central argument involves three fallacies:

1. The adequacy of reason: We can know rationally and judge what God should do and what God can do.

2. Inadequacy of mystery as an answer to evil. Mystery doesn’t provide “explanatory consistency.”

3. Genuine (essential) love and the exercise of controlling power are contradictory, antithetical, mutually exclusive. This is an either/or.

First fallacy: Adequacy of reason. We know (or can know) what God should do.

Unpack the reasoning here, and what do we have? Let’s put it as simplified syllogisms:

Premise a. God of love exists.

Premise b. But evil also exists.

Conclusion: This yields a dilemma that must be solved.

So far so good. Oord then develops this further, in effect employing a second syllogism:

Premise a. God of love exists but evil also exists (dilemma).

Premise b. A God of essential love should and would prevent evil in the world if he could.

Conclusion: Since God does not, God cannot prevent evil in the world.

The book is a philosophical defense of this conclusion. Oord seeks to show that because God is “essential” love, he not only does not but cannot prevent all evil. Oord mounts a finely honed defense of this position.

Underlying his argument however is yet another syllogism, which is unstated:

Premise a. This dilemma of evil in a world created by a loving God must have a resolution.

Premise b. This resolution must be reasonable and rational to humans.

Conclusion: Therefore a resolution exists which is reasonable and rational to humans.

Based on this logic, Oord argues that human beings are capable of determining or discerning what is reasonable or rational with regard to God. (This involves another unstated syllogism that I’ll pass over for now.)

But look at the syllogism above. We have a problem.

Premise a? Yes, OK. Unless the universe is meaningless or fundamentally evil or a mix of evil and good “forces” (à la Star Wars) the problem of evil must have a resolution and one that is not absurd or irrational. This is consistent with Scripture.

Premise b? Here’s the problem. The universe has meaning, as Scripture teaches and as we inherently intuit. So the problem of evil must have a reasonable, rational answer. But on what basis do we claim humans have the capacity adequately to understand that answer?

The conclusion is in fact false. For Oord’s argument to hold, he would have to show on biblical and theological grounds that human beings have the capacity to discern what is reasonable or rational with regard to God—and thus what God should do. But Oord does not do this. Human capability to determine what God (a God of love) should, can, and cannot do is a key underlying but never proven presupposition throughout the book.

In fact, it is a fallacy. If we unpack Oord’s argument further, we find yet another unstated syllogism:

Premise a. God created humans in his image, with reason.

Premise b. Human reason is (at least potentially) equal to or greater than God’s wisdom.

Conclusion: Therefore humans can determine what it is reasonable, good, and just for God to do—what God should do.

On strictly logical grounds, the conclusion is incontrovertibly true. If premises a. and b. are sound, the conclusion is certain according to the rules of logic.

Premise a. is fine; fully biblical. Clearly the problem is with premise b. From near the beginning of the book, Oord assumes but makes no attempt to prove that human reason (rationality, judgment), or at least the reason of some people, is not only equal to but superior to that of God. Otherwise the claim to know what God should do is absurd. Oord assumes that God created humans whose reason and ability to provide “explanatory consistency” is equal to or functionally superior to that of God.

This claim is fundamentally contrary to Scripture and Christian theology. I realize there is a process-philosophy answer to how humans can have the capacity to determine what God should or can or cannot do, but it is not the biblical answer.

It is unnecessary to cite here the dozens of relevant Scriptures. Key passages are Isaiah 41–42 and Job 40–41. We need merely recall familiar affirmations such as these: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8–9).

Do we believe this?

This is not proof-texting. I am merely highlighting a central theme of all Scripture.

This deconstruction of Oord’s logic may seem tendentious or tedious or even silly. It is not. Since Oord appeals to logic, to logic we must go. And it does not hold up.

Second fallacy: Mystery is inadequate as an answer to evil.

Repeatedly, The Uncontrolling Love of God rejects all appeals to mystery as possible answers to evil. Oord insists we must have an answer that provides “explanatory consistency.” Appeals to mystery do not. “Models of providence appealing to utter [sic] mystery or an inscrutable divine will are especially unhelpful” (152). (Of course the Christian appeal is not to “utter” mystery but to the mystery of a loving, faithful God’s ways and acts.)

Oord says that an appeal to mystery “is not really an answer at all.” “The mystery card becomes an out when preferred models of providence fail to shed light on dark and difficult questions” (104). “The mystery card spoils the deck” (185, footnote). “Most theologians appeal to mystery when faced with” the problem of evil, but this is invalid (164). “Most often, believers who wrestle with the problem of evil,” Oord says, “appeal to mystery” because they “cannot reconcile their beliefs [in a wholly loving God] with the genuine evil they experience” (64; see also 84, 88, 102).

Oord is thus contemptuous of any appeal to mystery in dealing with evil. This seems to go to the heart of his concern and is something he apparently feels deeply. It seems to motivate the whole argument. Like most of us, he has heard simplistic, facile, superficial, or disgustingly dismissive appeals to mystery in the face of horrendous evil. I fully resonate with the concern. But I find the proposed solution unconvincing.

Oord says appeals to mystery as an answer to evil are irreparably plagued with the problem of “explanatory inconsistency,” a favorite concept (88f, 104, 151f, 218). But who decides what is or is not “explanatory consistency”? Since there is no transcendent or “objective” ground for deciding, clearly each person is left to decide (and in particular, presumably, philosophers). In this book, it is the author alone who decides what is “explanatory consistency.”

There seems no way around this circular subjectivity. This of course relates back to point one, the supposed adequacy of human reason. It should also remind us of the limitations and frequent fallacies of human reason. (Reasonable to whom, and why; on what basis? Has anyone been following U.S. political debates?)

In The Uncontrolling Love of God, “mystery” seems to mean something that is inherently and forever incomprehensible. Thus an appeal to mystery verges upon an appeal to or admission of meaninglessness.

But the Christian appeal to mystery is not that. When Christians speak of mystery with regard to evil, they mean (or should mean) mystery in the biblical sense. Mystery in Scripture is not an ultimate conundrum. It is not fatalism. It is not an appeal to meaninglessness, nor a form of escapism. In the Bible, mystery is a truth only partly revealed or disclosed or “uncovered” at present, later fully to be revealed. This is a basic aspect of biblical revelation. Note how both Jesus and Paul use the word mystery.

In other words, the Bible itself repeatedly invokes or appeals to mystery—not as an abstract or philosophical concept, but as wisdom; as a necessary corollary of the fact that human beings are creatures, not the Creator.

We might remind ourselves that in the final analysis, the mystery of evil is no greater than the mystery of why God (or anything) exists in the first place. That’s a question I suppose we’ll never know, not in this age nor in the age to come. But “underneath are the everlasting arms” (Dt 33:27 KJV)—“The almighty power of God, which protects and comforts all that trust in him, in their greatest straits and distresses” (Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament).

Third fallacy: Genuine (essential) love and the exercise of controlling power are mutually exclusive.

Oord does not state the claim in this way, but this is his meaning. He insists, rightly, that love is the primary, preeminent, essential reality in the character of God. Here is argument is basically that of Mildred Wynkoop in A Theology of Love: The Dynamic of Wesleyanism (1972).

But Oord goes beyond this. He argues that since God’s love is essential (his view of “essential kenosis”), it excludes the exercise of controlling power. Oord comes very close to arguing that love is God’s only attribute, the sole truth about his nature or character.

Here’s the key fallacy: Oord puts (essential) love and power in antithesis. Essential love does not and in fact by definition cannot control, according to Oord.

This is not biblical, nor is it logically defensible. In any case, it is an unnecessary antithesis.

Oord is adamant about what he believes God cannot do and what God should do. In various ways he repeats the claim that if God can prevent evil (and does in some cases), then he should do so much more often.

There is no necessary reason to put love and control, or love and power, in absolute antithesis. It is in fact a fallacy, both biblically and logically. Oord does not adequately make the case that love and power (in the sense of power to control or “intervene”) are mutually exclusive. His argument here lacks explanatory consistency. (What is more powerful than love, after all?)

Oord sometimes uses family and parental analogies, as do I. I know as a parent that when raising our children, control was at times absolutely necessary in order to express or enact love.

My children did not always experience such control as loving. Of course I could not fully explain it to their satisfaction, as children. (Oord argues on a process-philosophy basis that parental control is not really “control,” but the argument is unconvincing.)

To extend the analogy: Oord believes that as God’s children we are fully mature enough to understand that love and control are mutually inconsistent. Since we can’t understand (or accept) that God can both love and control, it is not true. You can’t both control and be loving (in the biblical sense of God’s love). Hence God cannot control.

In order words: Oord believes that because true love does not control, God, who is essential love, cannot control.

This is a false conclusion, as I partially showed above. It is a fallacy that love and power, or love and control, are mutually exclusive. It is not true that true love does not or should not control, and it is a false premise that God’s essential love cannot control. As essential love, God does in fact exercise a measure of control as an expression, not contradiction, of his love. (Here also Oord has a process-philosophy proof of the incompatibility of love and control, but I found it highly speculative and unpersuasive.)

God, it seems, has greater power and greater wisdom because God has greater love. Love gives knowledge, so that God, who loves perfectly, has no need to control in the way Oord objects to. God’s “preeminent,” surpassing (yes, sovereign) love is in the end more effective than control-that-is-contrary-to-love.

Is God Sovereign, Transcendent, Almighty?

Is the Lord God immanent, transcendent, or both?

Oord’s argument is strongly overweighted on the immanence side of the transcendence/immanence pairing of God’s being and acts as pictured in Scripture.

Oord says repeatedly that God is “almighty,” though he never affirms God as transcendent. This is defensible on the grounds that almighty is biblical language and transcendent is not. But by almighty, Oord does not seem to mean God’s sovereignty and transcendence as witnessed in Scripture.

What does Oord mean when he says God is “almighty”? He deals with the question directly in a section called “The Almighty God” (188–91). Oord sees God “as the almighty creator, sustainer and source of miracles who always acts through uncontrolling love” (189). However, “Scripture is not clear on what it means for God to be almighty” (189), so Oord provides his own explanation. He says that God is (1) “mightier than all others,” (2) “the only One who exerts might upon all that exists,” and (3) “the ultimate source of might for all others” (189, Oord’s emphasis). “To put it philosophically,” he says, “God is a [sic] necessary cause in the being and becoming of all actual entities. Loving grace creatively makes possible the existence of all creatures, and divine power upholds all creation (Heb 1:3)” (190). “God’s power is maximal” (191).

Here Oord briefly mentions Wesley and prevenient grace. Oord takes prevenient grace to mean that “God acts first in each moment to provide the fundamental energy creatures need to act or be”; “God’s loving power precedes and makes possible creaturely responses. In this grace-shaped enabling, creaturely abilities have their wellspring in God (2 Cor 3:5)” (190).

But this process-philosophy way of speaking is not what Wesley meant by “prevenient grace.” For Wesley, prevenient grace is more than such a vague “energy.” It is a personal drawing toward a personal relationship with God by grace through Jesus Christ by the Spirit, offered to all but resisted by most. This is spelled out lucidly by Christopher Payk in Grace First: Christian Mission and Prevenient Grace in John Wesley (Toronto: Clements Academic, 2015).

Oord affirms God as gracious and almighty, but by almighty he appears to mean a kind of quasi-personal energy in the universe which is greater than any other energy. It is not clear that the God presented in The Uncontrolling Love of God is really transcendent or that he truly acts in the biblical sense. Here God is more the God of “events” than of “acts.”

What really is providence?

Oord seems to use providence to mean the essential way God acts—essentially collapsing all God’s acts into a sort of indirect providence. So all God’s activity is put in the category of providence. In doing so, he apparently means by “providence” something quite different from what (for example) John Wesley meant, who distinguished between God’s “works of grace and [works of] providence.” Obviously works of grace and of providence are not mutually exclusive categories. But God’s “uncontrolling love” in Oord’s book seems to be all providence; there’s very little grace in the biblical sense. This is a mistake.

Oord likes the views of physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne; in fact he edited a Polkinghorne reader. In his concept of providence, however, Oord takes a crucial step beyond Polkinghorne to embrace the God of process philosophy.

Consider Polkinghorne’s book, Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World (Templeton Foundation Press, 1989, 2005). This book actually provides the essential critique of Oord’s book. Polkinghorne calls process theology “the most sustained modern articulation” of a philosophy that by analogy with human behavior “attribut[es] a rudimentary, if unconscious, mental pole to all matter” (which Oord does). Polkinghorne notes that in such a worldview, “God’s action is by way of enticement at the subjective stage, the lure . . . which he exerts on persons and protons alike. Concrete reality lies with the world; God can only hope to influence its creative process by being the reservoir of its past experiences, the presenter of present possibility and the persuader of future development.” Polkinghorne notes that the result is “a curiously passive deity.” Some have described process theology as “a sophisticated form of animism,” Polkinghorne observes (Science and Providence, 18–19).

This is precisely the kind of thinking that runs through The Uncontrolling Love of God. Oord tries to build a hybrid between process philosophy and the Bible. In the end he shows, I believe, that this is impossible. The Uncontrolling Love of God does not escape Polkinghorne’s criticism of a process-philosophy view of providence. Polkinghorne clearly believes in a truly personal God in the biblical sense (7f). It is not clear that Oord does, at least as depicted here.

Acts or Events?

Polkinghorne notes that in A. N. Whitehead, the father of process philosophy, “the fundamental metaphysical category is that of event. What we think of as continuing objects are for him chains of events. Each event has both a subjective and an objective phase—the selection of a possible outcome followed by its actual realization” (Science and Providence, 18).

Note here the language of “event.” Event is defined most simply as “a thing that happens, especially one of importance.” This definitely is not the language of Scripture. The Bible is not about things that happen, but about God’s acts. Any theology or philosophy which starts with “events” of unspecified origin immediately clashes with the Bible, in which things don’t just “happen.” This point was driven home years ago by Robert Blaikie in “Secular Christianity” and God Who Acts (Eerdmans, 1970).

Oord often speaks of God’s “acts” or “action,” but it is not clear that he means this in the biblical sense—that God truly acts in a personal, conscious, volitional way consistent with the biblical picture of the will, love, justice, holiness, and lovingkindness of the one true Lord God.

But how does God act? In the Bible God no doubt sometimes “nudges” or employs other forms of gentle persuasion. But many other times his acts are much more overt, direct, and dramatic. Biblically speaking, God did not nudge or persuade the universe into existence.

While Oord says that “God is personally involved in giving and receiving relations with all creatures” and says this “personal God” is involved in “reciprocal relationships” with his creation (166), it is not clear that Oord means “personal” in the biblical sense. Nor that such human relationships with God through Jesus Christ are truly personal in the way the Bible pictures them. (I recognize the philosophical problems with the concept “person,” but I use it here simply to mean the full response-able humanness of man and woman as created in the image of God.)

When picturing how God might act providentially, I like many others find the analogy of God as Chess Master helpful. Polkinghorne quotes one version of this, by logician Peter Geach:

God and man alike play in the great game. And God is the supreme Grand Master who has everything under his control . . . God, like some grand master of chess, can carry out his plan even if he has announced it beforehand. “On that square,” says the Grand Master, “I will promote my pawn to queen and deliver checkmate to my adversary”; and it is even so (Science and Providence, 111).

Polkinghorne rightly says “Geach overstates the case, for he makes God’s control too tight.” Polkinghorne prefers “to think of a God who does indeed improvise in response to his creatures’ free actions, but who is not ultimately thwarted by them” (111–12). This is closer to Scripture and to John Wesley’s view, leaving room for a fully biblical view of God and his “works of grace and providence.”

In the back of my mind here is the philosopher Michael Polanyi’s concept of “personal knowledge” and “the tacit dimension.” “We can know more than we can tell.” The deepest, most authentic human knowing is neither “objective” nor “subjective.” It is personal—a reality that combines and transcends the subject/object distinction. Since human personhood derivers from God’s Triune Personhood, as Christians we should know that any currently sufficient answer to the plaguing problem of evil will be neither exclusively objective nor subjective. It will be personal, relational, and on that basis deeply satisfying. (Process philosophy actually says something similar, but it does so by reducing the meaning of “personal” well below the biblical meaning.)

Providence is personal, not impersonal. It is an expression of sovereign essential love, not evolutionary process. God’s providence and “act-ual” promises go together. We can trust God’s providence because we trust his promises—or more essentially, the Promiser.

Because of God’s good providence we can be at peace, paradoxically, even in the face of horrendous evil. At peace, yet certainly not passive or inactive. All because of Jesus and God’s promises.

Biblical and Hermeneutical Problems

In this assessment I have chosen to focus mainly on the logical problems with the model of providence proposed by The Uncontrolling Love of God. Much could be said also about biblical and hermeneutical problems. Oord reinterprets a number of texts in order to harmonize them with his process-philosophy presuppositions (as Oord’s biblical citations quoted above show). The book in fact has many examples of redefining key biblical and Christian theological terms so they fit process-philosophy categories.

To flag some of the hermeneutical problems:

Oord extends the key kenosis passage in Philippians 2:4–13 far beyond Paul’s meaning. This passage is about the uniqueness and deep meaning of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection. It is true that “Jesus’ kenosis tells us [much about] who God is and how God acts” (155). But there is no sound hermeneutical basis for extending the kenosis concept to the essential being of the Triune Lord God in the way Oord does.

Notably, Oord has only the most passing references to the Trinity and the Holy Spirit. Any fully adequate doctrine of God’s providence should be explicitly Trinitarian and pneumatological. It ought also to engage the way Jesus spoke of what he understood God the Father to be doing in his own life and mission, especially in the Gospel of John.

There is virtually nothing in the book about how a biblical theology of the cross might illuminate the problem of evil or the meaning of providence.

Several times Oord cites Romans 11:29, “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” He takes the statement out of context, however, interpreting it to support his thesis.

In dealing with the fact of evil, we have to deal with the whole of Scripture—and remember that Scripture transcends mere human reason. If Oord wishes to make his case persuasively to Christians, he will have to do so on sound inductive biblical grounds. The arguments presented in this book suggest that this probably is not possible.

The Final Solution to the Problem of Evil

The final solution to the problem of evil is not philosophical. It is personal and eschatological, something to be lived in hope and confidence.

We are to live the solution. This demands faith, obedience, willingness to suffer, Christian community, and full trust in God and his promises.

Theologically, this means the final solution to evil is indeed “yet to come.” “No, children, we are not there yet!”

N. T. Wright argues in Surprised by Scripture that the solution to the problem of evil is to be enacted, not explained philosophically. We, God’s people, are to be the solution to the problem of evil. Wright argues, “The suffering love of God, lived out again by the Spirit in the lives of God’s people, is the God-given answer to the evils of the world” (Surprised by Scripture, 124).

Our calling is to live the solution to evil, even when we can’t explain it. If in our living we, or some of us, can also partially explain it rationally, wonderful! God may give some that gift, that charism.

But explain only partially! We will know fully only when in the New Creation “we shall see [God] as he is” (1 Jn 3:2).

So this is philosophically powerful: “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:12–13). That’s the love that leads to true knowledge of good and evil and sees how the evil is finally annihilated by Jesus Christ.

The Bible answers “the problem of evil” eschatologically, whereas we desperately want it answered philosophically in an emotionally and conceptually (logically) satisfying way.

God is indeed “open and relational,” and that is assuring and comforting. But he is also well beyond us. As we read in Isaiah 57:15, “Thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” The Most Nigh God is also the Most High God.

The “problem of evil” is not solved by proscribing God’s sovereign power to act but by expanding our biblical understanding of God and history.

But ultimately and wisely, we trust God, knowing that he is fully able to fulfill all his good promises. We accept the gospel invitation to be coworkers with him in the great work of reconciliation in the earth now. We remember the assurance, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). We trust God’s Word—his quiet, reassuring, sustaining voice.

Ahead to Wesley?

Oord occasionally invokes Wesley, but moves a key step beyond Wesley into speculative philosophy.

In my book Yes In Christ I suggested that Wesley’s view of God’s wisdom, knowledge, and providence is more profound than that of Clark Pinnock. Similarly here: Wesley’s understanding of God’s providence and essential love is more profound, and more personally satisfying, than the proposal offered in The Uncontrolling Love of God.

Wesley goes as far in the direction of “open and relational theism” as it is biblically legitimate to do. In the process (so to speak), he implicitly offers a profound critique of classical Greek theism. Further than this, one moves into an essentially passive and impersonal deity quite different from what we find in Scripture or our own experience.

Preaching before assembled judges, officials, and attendants at Bedford in 1758, Wesley spoke on “The Great Assize”—that is, the Last Judgment. He assured his hearers of the final outcome of history:

And then only when God hath brought to light all the hidden things of darkness, whosoever were the actors therein, will it be seen that wise and good were all his ways; that he “saw through the thick cloud,” and governed all things by the wise “counsel of his own will”; that nothing was [ultimately] left to chance or the caprice of men, but God disposed all “strongly and sweetly,” and wrought all into one connected chain of justice, mercy, and truth. (Sermon 15, “The Great Assize,” in Works, 1:365).

For the present, of course, that is a position of faith, not a philosophical argument seeking “explanatory consistency.” But it is not irrational. It is not inconsistent with either reason or revelation.

I don’t think Wesley adequately answered the problem of evil. At points I find his theodicy unconvincing. But he had keen insight into the character of God and the meaning of love and suffering as we confront the very troubling reality of evil in the world.

Allowing proper space for metaphor, analogy, condescension to finite human understanding, and what Wesley himself sometimes calls biblical hyperbole, I find the biblical picture and narrative of God’s sovereign acts in history more personally satisfying than the arguments of speculative philosophy. Oord’s approach is too fundamentally philosophical and insufficiently appreciates the nature and power of biblical narrative. In considering providence (or any other doctrine), we must be deeply attuned to the language and rhythms of Scripture—and of philosophy or the academy only secondarily. (See helpfully here Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature [1981, 1983] and Words with Power [1990].)

Wesley was deeply attuned to biblical language and narrative. He goes as far in the direction of “open and relational theism” as is biblically legitimate. “Open and relational theism” is in fact an apt descriptor of Wesley’s profound view of God.

Wesley’s theology is in effect a biblical critique both of process theology on one side and Greek-flavored classical theism on the other.

The End of the Matter (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14)

The God described in Oord’s book is the God of speculative process philosophy, not the God of the Bible. The book’s appeal to Scripture is selective and one-sided. It is more deductive than inductive, coming close to prooftexting.

In short, this is the god of the philosophers, not the Lord God of the Bible. The argument for the “uncontrolling love of God” is ultimately uncompelling.

Personally, I find it much more comforting and more satisfying both intellectually and emotionally to trust the character, faithfulness, lovingkindness, and promises of God than to rest confidence in an essentially philosophical accounting for evil—even if that explanation were to be fully sound logically, which the concept of “uncontrolling love” is not.

Meanwhile we wrestle against evil, with principalities and powers, wrestling with God in intercessory prayer for the suffering, for the victims and the perpetrators of evil—praying for God’s providential acts and nudges, praying God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven, “[giving God] no rest until he” fulfills all his kingdom promises (Isa 62:7).

Is it finally a choice between rational explanation on one hand and an appeal to some broader ground of explanatory consistency on the other? This is not an either/or. But the final answer is trust in God’s promises, God’s future, while we live and deepen our relationship with God, God’s people, and live redemptively and hopefully in our present world.

There is more truth and comfort in a parent’s arms than a parent’s arguments.

Note on syllogisms:

A syllogism is a key tool of logic. Since few people now seem to know what a syllogism is, I add this comment.
We use syllogisms as a means of testing arguments. This can be tedious but also highly enlightening (no pun intended). For the sake of clarity, I have here simplified the syllogisms I use, leaving out some steps that would be necessary to make the argument airtight on a strictly logical basis.

Any good handbook on logic explains what a syllogism is and what makes a syllogism valid or invalid. For example, S. H. Mellone, Elements of Modern Logic, 2nd ed. (London: University Tutorial Press, 1945, 1966).

John Wesley learned logic at Oxford. He often employed syllogistic reasoning in deconstructing fallacies, especially in works such as An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion. (Note the very intentional title. This was the Age of Reason.)


10 Responses

  1. Thank you Howard for this excellent, detailed, and penetrating review. As you know I am working on Wesley’s political writings and what I find there is a very strong doctrine of providence. Of course ‘Wesleyan theology’ is much more than ‘John Wesley’s theology’ but I do find appeals to process or open theism as ‘more Wesleyan’ a little bemusing in light of JW’s classical theism. Steve Wright has cogently assessed ‘essential kenosis’ in a book review in Aldersgate Papers 9 (2011); 135-38 as throwing grace into the shade since if God MUST love and CANNOT control, how is love a gift? Grace is always something freely given. Thanks again.

    1. Thanks for noting this, Glen. I address the issue more directly in my new book. Steve apparently sides with Calvinists on this issue, whereas I side with Arminius. It was Arminius who claimed that the idea God is freely good is blasphemous! I simply take the logic of Arminius and the intellectualist tradition (rather than voluntarist) tradition and apply it to God’s love.

  2. Howard, I strongly believe your honest review of Tom Jay Oord’s “The Uncontrolling love of God.” I think that your critique is valid and objective and provides a better understanding and illumination on key issues to those of us who might not see the things you saw in Tom’s work. However, I do have a question: do think that Jay Oord is trying to answer a genuine biblical concern (God’s providence) using philosophical reasoning – process philosophy as you put it? If so, what are the implications on a Christian’s view of God?

    1. Thanks, Chisomo. Yes, I think that is precisely what Oord is attempting to do. But I’m not quite sure what you mean by your second question. However, I think Polkinghorne’s “Science and Providence,” which I quote in the review, gives a fairly good philosophical explanation (though I don’t agree with him 100%).
      Through the ages, many have in fact written on this topic, attempting to explain God’s providence. I think John Wesley is quite profound on this.

  3. Question not based on your review of Oord’s work:

    Prof. Howard, would you say that there is a double resurrection expectation in the Easter narrative? 1. Spiritual resurrection in that Paul, writing in Romans 6:4, “do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in NEWNESS of life (resurrection language – dead to sin and alive to God – cf Romans 6:11, “so you also consider your self dead to sin and alive to God in Christ.” Also Romans 4:25, “he died for our sins and was raised for our justification — once we were dead in our transgression but now are alive in Christ (again resurrection language). And 2. Physical/bodily resurrection – a future resurrection of those who will have died in Christ – 1 Corinthians 15:42-44. What would John Wesley sound like on such a conceptualization of a double resurrection narrative?

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