The Uncontrolling Love of God by Thomas Jay Oord

A review, commendations and recommendations

One of the things I love most about Tom Oord’s work is that it causes me to approach an old topic in fresh, new ways. His latest book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence, continues this trend.

Thomas Jay Oord

Rather than provide an incredibly long and critical review, I would instead like to highlight a few of my favorite ideas mixed with commentary.

Overview

First, Tom begins by anchoring his proposal in real life. Any model of suffering, evil and divine providence that wishes to do justice to this triad must always begin precisely at this point. If not, we run the very serious risk of approaching the topic purely from a theoretical perspective, which will help no one. Tom is wise enough to bypass this common error.

Tom’s ultimate goal is to address life’s biggest questions surrounding the problem of suffering and God’s role within it by proposing a new model that flows quite naturally from the open or relational view of God’s nature. From this vantage point, Tom seeks to make better sense of faith and life.

As a proponent of open theism, I appreciate any attempt that seeks the maturation of what I believe to be one of the most faithful and honest appraisals of God’s nature and character available today. As a result, proposing a new model of divine providence that flows naturally out of a relational understanding of God is both welcomed and necessary.

Utilizing the latest theological, philosophical and scientific research available, Tom intentionally seeks to approach the topic of suffering and God on a multidisciplinary platform. This is critical because it provides space to create a real-life proposal from within a wide arena of thought and experimentation. Tom’s writing has followed this multifaceted approach for some time, which is a quality I’ve come to admire in his work. It is a style that provides his readers with a more balanced and thorough perspective.

I also deeply appreciate Tom’s humility, which is sometimes difficult to find in the academy. He is confident in his research and findings, but is well aware that his ideas are a work in progress and open to revision. Confident humility is written all over this work. I appreciate that.

Highlights

Love at the Center

Tom has labelled his proposal essential kenosis. I’ll allow you to investigate the proposal in more detail by reading his book, but the essential theory is that love, not freedom, lies at the center of God’s nature and character. That is, God’s freedom flows out of and is determined by God’s love. If God is love, as John wrote in 1 John 4:8 and 16, this makes the most sense of the story of scripture and proves its rightful place in Tom’s order.

Love at the center of God’s nature is a common, though not unilateral, belief within the open and relational model. I’m immediately reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Richard Rice in The Openness of God, a book co-authored with other leading proponents of open theism, Clark Pinnock, William Hasker, John Sanders and David Basinger.

Love is central, not incidental, to the nature of God. Love is not something God happens to do, it is the one divine activity that most fully and vividly discloses God’s inner reality. Love, therefore, is the very essence of the divine nature. Love is what is means to be God. (Pg. 19).

God is essentially self-giving, others-empowering love who bestows love first and then from this love, freedom to all of creation. As a result, the priority of love determines what freedom looks like. It is a love that grants genuine freedom to creatures to choose from among viable options. It is essentially self-determining and cannot be coerced or manipulated to choose one way over another.

Therefore, God works by persuasion, moving us along towards His best ideals, while never pushing us to choose one way or another. To force one’s will against another would remove love from the equation.

Love at the center of Tom’s model of divine providence determines how God interacts with the world and helps us to better understand the place of evil and suffering in the world, including natural evil. God’s love, therefore, as Richard Rice once wrote, is not unilaterally directive, but dynamically interactive.

Love and Freedom

If freedom, and not love, lies at the center, it would not only move against the biblical evidence that places love at the center of God’s nature, but would also define love in an entirely different way.

Freedom at the center would mean that God is defined first by the unilateral power to determine everything as He wills. Freedom at the center would remove any real sense of choice from creation, including humans, thereby making God solely responsible for everything that happens in the world, including the presence of evil.

Both Tom and I find the latter approach irresponsible and lacking the ability to do proper justice to evil, suffering and creaturely involvement.

God’s love, therefore, respects the integrity of human freedom so much as to not intervene, even when bad things could happen.

John Stackhouse says it this way:

Were God to compel us to make only good choices, then we would not be making choices at all, but merely following God’s directions as a computer executes a program. Were God to allow us to make choices but then constantly intervene to prevent anything bad from resulting from those choices, it is difficult to see how those choices would have integrity and significance. (John Stackhouse, Can God be Trusted? Pg. 72).

Freedom flows from God’s love and is defined by love. Love determines the kind of freedom God bestows on creation. Such love is not unilateral control, but dynamically interactive, working with creatures, while giving space to choose from available options.

According to Tom, Love respects the integrity of the freedom given and does not or cannot intervene, even when something bad is about to happen. To intervene would cheapen the freedom God has given; a freedom rooted in and defined by love.

This makes creaturely decisions, both human and otherwise, ultimately responsible for our own actions and decisions, as well as for the consequences those decisions create. God cannot be blamed for our choices.

Final Thoughts and Recommendations

While God cannot be blamed for creaturely decisions, God is still indirectly responsible for creating a world where the possibility of evil could exist. Tom’s model would like to completely remove responsibility for evil from God, but I don’t believe this is possible as one who believes that God is the first cause in all creation.

Therefore, I don’t believe we can make the claim that essential kenosis solves the problem of evil. While it certainly does provide clarity and helps us to make better sense of the world we all live in, it does not completely absolve God of all responsibility. God is not directly responsible for the presence of evil and does not determine creaturely decisions, as models that place freedom and not love at the center of God’s nature, postulate. God, however, cannot be removed from the suffering equation.

My second recommendation would be to give Jesus, God’s enfleshed icon, a more prominent place in the essential kenosis model. While Tom certainly did mention Jesus periodically throughout the book, his references were light and peripheral, rather than central and defining.

When speaking of God’s nature and character, Jesus essentially needs to lie at the center of our discussions. As the one in whom all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form, and the one who is the image of the invisible God, Jesus needs to hold the prominent place in our models of divine providence. Jesus reveals what God has been like all along and needs to assume his role as primary revealer as we contemplate God’s nature and character and the problem of evil and suffering.

I think Tom has given us a great start in The Uncontrolling Love of God, but I would like to see a move towards expanding and moving his ideas forward by incorporating a more pronounced place for Jesus in our conversations. This would bring even greater clarity to God’s love, the problem of evil, creaturely freedom and God’s interaction with the world.

All in all, I really enjoyed reading this book. It is a timely, appropriate and a highly accessible contribution to the field and deserves a wide reading. Those struggling to make better sense of our world and the place of evil, suffering and God’s providence, will benefit greatly from placing this text on their reading list.

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  • Hey Jeff, I appreciate this post. I wanted to chime in on just a couple of your objections to Tom’s “essential kenosis” position. First, I’m not sure that considering God the world’s first cause is precluded by essential kenosis. Knowing Tom’s arguments elsewhere, I know that he rejects creation ex nihilo. But I didn’t find that argumentation to be necessary for his proposal in this book. As far as I can tell from my reading of this book, I can affirm both Tom’s essential kenosis view as well as creation ex nihilo. Here’s how I’d do it. I’d argue that creation ex nihilo is compatible with God’s nature of uncontrolling (i.e. kenotic) love. Since the persons of the Godhead exist in an eternal relationship of kenotic love (perichoresis), the creation could be viewed as an overflow of that love, rather than an interruption. If creation is viewed this way, it would not contradict Tom’s essential kenosis proposal. And that’s how I conceptualize it.

    Second, I thought the centrality of Jesus (and even more importantly, Jesus’s Cross) was more central to Tom’s argument than you do. It seems to me that Tom’s entire argument rests on whether Jesus’s kenotic life perfectly reveals the nature of God. And I think that’s precisely what Tom claims. Here are a couple direct quotes from the book that I used in my review:

    “…theologians today use kenosis primarily to describe how Jesus reveals God’s nature. Instead of imagining how God may have relinquished attributes when becoming incarnate, many now think Jesus’ kenosis tells us who God is and how God acts.” (p.155)

    And here:

    “We especially see God’s noncoercive power revealed in the cross of Christ, which suggests that God’s power is cruciform…” (p.155)

    I think one of the strengths of Tom’s proposal is that it is Cruciform-centric in the same way that Boyd’s proposal for reading the violence of the Old Testament is Cruciform-centric. And, if I’m not mistaken, I think you’re in favor of the Cruciform-centric hermeneutic Boyd is proposing.

    Again, thanks for this post. I’m happy to see you engaging with Tom’s work.

    Shalom!