Book Write-Up: The Uncontrolling Love of God, by Thomas Jay Oord

Thomas Jay Oord.  The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

If there is a loving, omnipotent God, why is there evil in the world?  Theologian Thomas Jay Oord finds many proposed answers to this question to be inadequate, or to be non-answers.  Some solutions posit that God sometimes interferes to stop evil, which invites the question of why God does not do so at all times.  Some solutions inadvertently trivialize evil by suggesting that God has a righteous purpose for permitting it; I agree with Oord, however, that it would have been better had certain human evils not occurred.  Then there is the appeal to mystery, which does not really advance the discussion.

Oord steps to the plate and offers his own solution, which is essentially a version of the free-will defense.  For Oord, God, out of the love that is a part of God’s nature, cannot compel or violate free will.  God can seek to persuade people and can call people to try to stop a problem, however.  Oord takes a similar approach towards natural evil: that God established regularities and randomness in nature, and that God lovingly allows things to unfold rather than seeking to compel.  Oord attempts to deal with the issue of miracles, and he presents a model of miracles that is reconcilable with his view of God’s loving non-compulsion.

Oord does provide food for thought.  Obviously, the problem of evil is a troubling issue for many who believe in God.  If God is loving and can step in to stop or prevent evil, and even does so on occasion, why does evil so often occur?  Some, such as Harold Kushner and, in a sense, Thomas Jay Oord go the route of saying that God cannot directly stop or prevent evil.  They would prefer to believe in a God who is limited in power, than to believe that God can stop evil and chooses not to do so.  This is understandable.  In addition, Oord’s model may resonate with those who would like to believe in God and evolution at the same time, since one can take Oord’s insight in the direction of saying that God allows evolution to unfold rather than micromanaging.

Oord’s model does not make God look that much better than the models that Oord rejects, however.  Why would it be loving for God to prioritize free will or freedom over safety and shalom?  I also question whether Oord’s model makes the problem of evil go away.  Oord believes that God can call people to step in and stop incidents of evil.  Does God consistently do this?  Does God do all that God can do to stop evil, within the parameters of the limitations in which Oord believes?  If a crime is being committed, for example, does God inform someone about this so that he or she can go to the scene and stop it?  I suppose that one can say that God may act in ways that we cannot see, but that does not sound too different from the appeal to mystery that Oord criticizes.  (I am open to saying that God’s approach is to educate people about why a crime is wrong and to encourage people and society to try to stop crime in general, as opposed to stepping in and trying to put out individual fires.  This may be where Oord is going, but that was not entirely clear.)

Oord’s interaction with Scripture has positives and negatives.  Oord argues that certain passages of Scripture make sense in light of open theism, the view that God does not know the future.  Oord presents examples in Scripture of God loving God’s enemies and cooperating with people rather than resorting to compulsion.  Oord’s serious wrestling with the issue of miracles also deserves favorable note: Oord notes examples in the Gospels in which people’s faith or lack thereof plays a role in whether miracles occur, which favors a model of cooperation rather than compulsion.  Oord also wrestles with nature miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea, and his effort does deserve commendation, whether or not one finds his argument convincing.

In terms of negatives, Oord does not wrestle with some of the passages that appear to contradict his position, passages that suggest that God takes a more active role in influencing events or in shaping people’s decisions.  Oord is aware of these passages because he refers to them in summarizing and critiquing various theistic views on God’s providence, free will, and the problem of evil.  Unfortunately, he does not present a way of interpreting them that accords with his model.  Oord also should have addressed how his model accords with heaven, or eschatology.  If God permits evil because God cannot do otherwise, does that mean that God will never step in to stop or prevent evil?  How would one reconcile that with biblical passages about God’s punishment of people and nations, either historically or in the eschaton?  Does God respecting free will or autonomy mean that evil has to exist, or can it be consistent with the existence of a perfect place that is free from evil, such as heaven?  Fruitful discussions about this can occur, so, even if I am not entirely satisfied with Oord’s solutions, I do respect what he says as a starting point.

There were also apparent contradictions in Oord’s book.  Is God intimately involved in nature, or does God maintain a hands-off approach and let nature unfold?  Does the non-human natural world have the agency to respond to God?  Oord seemed to go both ways on these questions.

I have been wrestling with how many stars to give this book, wavering between three and four.  I am settling on four because Oord does raise profound possibilities that can serve as a foundation for future discussion.  Plus, even if I do not treat Oord’s model as an absolute, there may be some truth in what he is saying.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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