Divine Action as Uncontrolling Love

(system) #1
Does God’s loving nature teach us anything about how God interacts with creation?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blogs/jim-stump-faith-and-science-seeking-understanding/divine-action-as-uncontrolling-love


Forewarning: Haven’t read the book. That said, I don’t understand how essential kenosis/uncontrolling love “solves” the problem of evil. It seems to me that it serves to get God “off the hook” in terms of culpability for evil/suffering, but it also implies that God is helpless to stop it. I don’t feel like that’s any more comforting to the abused, victimized, etc.: “Don’t worry: God loves you! He can’t stop this from happening to you or anyone else, and he can’t bring justice, but he sure loves you a lot!” It makes him out to being nothing more than a vast, immaterial friend, who is able to do about as much for you as any other person except be physically present (being immaterial and all (which is a pretty significant disadvantage)). Yes, he happens to have created the universe, but don’t let that power fool you: it was really just a one-off thing. That and resurrecting his son.

I find much of this view very compelling, but I don’t see how it adequately addresses evil and suffering. Is it just a matter of getting used to a God who is “essentially” powerless?

(Phil) #3

Currently reading C.S. Lewis “The Problem with Pain.” Slow reading as not an easy subject, but he is open about it being a difficult problem. Interestingly, he pretty much affirms evolution in some of his writing there also.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #4

I’m still digesting this article after just one read-through --and it warrants re-reading (which will certainly be a necessary, though perhaps not sufficient condition :slight_smile: for my full understanding of it!).

Taking your reaction, Jacob, and thinking aloud along these lines should help me in that process as well.

I tend to have the same knee-jerk reaction against some of the more “open-theist” approaches, though I don’t want to be superficially dismissive of all that they offer. So you, Jacob, see in all this an essentially powerless God who must just go along for the ride because doing anything else would involve Him being unfaithful to himself.

But I don’t think Dr. Oord goes there with this article. Like I said, I’ll need to re-read, so I’m far from sure, but I don’t think he claimed anything that would deny God’s omniscience over all time, past and future. (I do think of God as omniscient, and unlike some, I do not see any warrant whatsoever for the equation of omniscience with coercion.) And with this in view, God’s sovereign will / divine plan is not going to be thwarted by any of our evil choices, because they were foreseen by God and consequently will be used by him, though he did not will them (we did). Note, I am not trying to “get God off the hook” here, because God, if He exists at all in anything like the form we Christians claim, will always be “on the hook” for evil. Trying to “exonerate/or blame God” is nothing but a fool’s game from both sides (from those who want to ‘save’ a god to those who want to excoriate/or deny Him --in both cases an incoherent activity I think). But if God does know all, then prayer and appeal to that God is far from a useless activity. It will have been a part of His divine plan that you would so passionately (and freely) care about (Love!) something so as to lift your petition up.

I’m not sure I follow [yet] in this author’s seeming commitment to “law-like regularities”. In fact Dr. Oord writes: “Consequently, God provides law-like regularities that are not interrupted.” To me this phrase needs to be tweaked in order to become entirely self-consistent. It seems that any non-interruptable regularity is not just law-like, it is indeed a hard and fast law. To add the hesitant qualifier “-like” is to promote doubt on what the rest of the sentence claims.

As a science educator, I prefer to hold to what must be the more historically realistic (and humble) appraisal that admits of those doubts, and that is always qualifying what we see as “law” as really being “law – so far as we have yet observed.” I don’t think my objection here really subtracts anything substantial from the author’s thesis. But I don’t think he needs to limit himself to the playground of “total commitment to uninterrupted [as we see it] natural law”, in order to successfully put forward his priority of Love over power (and yet not seeing in this any diminishment of Divine power I would add --along with the author, I think) in terms of how God is revealed to us in Christ – a thesis I very much resonate with as an Anabaptist.

(Thomas Jay Oord) #5


Thanks for your response to my post on divine action.

I can see why you find the view troubling. My response does solve the problem of evil as it is commonly understood, because it says God cannot prevent evil.

But you’re right that it also implies that God cannot unilaterally prevent evil done to victims. In my view, saying to victims that God could not have prevented their suffering is better than saying that God could have prevented it but chose not to do so.

I have a friend who sometimes jokes that the God I propose is “just doing the best He can.” I like to respond that the traditional view has a God who could be doing a whole lot better.

Thanks again for engaging.


(Thomas Jay Oord) #6


Thanks for engaging the article. You raise many interesting issues, but I’ll just respond to one: the laws of nature.

I"m am a growing number of people who think the so-called laws of nature should better be understood as law-like regularities and not eternal laws imposed by God. I address this more fully in my book, but I’ll just say here that I propose a third way of thinking about God and these regularities that rejects the idea that God imposes laws but also the idea that the laws are externally imposed upon God.

Thanks again,


(Mervin Bitikofer) #7

Thanks for your response, Tom – Dr. Oord! I wasn’t sure if you were going to interact here at all.

I’m not sure I’ll be reading your book any time soon though this is an intriguing introduction. I do share in this growing skepticism about laws, though it sounds like you could say a lot more on that subject than what blog exchanges may allow for here.

It probably could go without saying that you will encounter a bit of resistance here if you haven’t already over the concept of a limited [in any way] God. That seems to be high-temperature turf with well-attended, and deeply historical orthodoxies at stake; even when those orthodoxies are themselves necessarily vague or lacking in details. My initial impression is that I probably don’t come down where you do on some of this, though I never want to let my own dogmatisms (as important as some of those may be!) to prevent me from pondering all that you have offered. Thanks for sharing here.

(Jay Nelsestuen) #8

Being a Reformed Christian, I tend to agree with the doctrine of divine impassibility, although I haven’t done much study on that particular subject. One book I have heard of that defends divine impassibility is this work, the purpose of which is stated as such:

The primary purpose of the material presented in this book is to familiarize the reader with sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English language sources pertinent to the doctrine of divine impassibility, particularly for those who confess with the Reformed confessions that God is “without body, parts, or passions.” If this material is studied carefully, the reader will encounter an excellent and diverse array of writings that touch on this subject.

Again, I haven’t done much study into this area of my tradition’s theology, but I hope to someday. For now, I’ve got creation to think about. :slight_smile:


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #9

The relational approach that Tom takes to understanding God is a good one, and there is much that is positive in this post and I am sure in his book.

However the problem with what he says is that it sets up a false dichotomy, Must God be controlling or loving?

Part of the problem is the question, What do we mean by controlling? When God created the universe God established a number of laws or controls which give the universe order, the speed of light for instance. These laws constitute the framework in which we live and they include moral laws.

In that sense they control us, but they do not predetermine what we do. We must eat to live, but that controlling law does not determine what we eat. It just means that if we do not eat for whatever reason, we will die. God also tells us not to murder. That means that if we do murder someone we must face the legal, social, and spiritual consequences, not the God prevents us from murdering others.

What this tells me is that God the Father Creator uses divine power to control the universe so that is a cosmos, and orderly home for human beings, not to control individual molecules and human. God is interested in controlling processes, not individuals. This does not mean that God is not interested in individuals, particularly humans. Because God lovers us, God wants us respond to God’s love and to love others and benefits from God’s love.

God is not only God the Creator, God is also God the Holy Spirit of Love. God the Spirit of Love does not control in the sense of predetermine, but there still is the push/pull of love which attracts the good, and rejects the evil aspects of life.

God is not only God the Creator, and God the Spirit of Love, God is also the Son/Logos. God provides order which is loving and also rational. While humans cannot make themselves good, they can choose to reject selfishness and choose to accept God’s forgiveness, se we can love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.

God works through history, not through nature. The universe is the framework for history, not the driving force of history. The Bible is about God’s salvation history, not about science or nature. This does not mean that the framework of the universe is not important, it is but not determinative.

(Thomas Jay Oord) #10

Thanks for your response, Jay.

On impassibility, I think God is one and God’s nature is unchanging and unaffected.

But I think God is also an experiencing being, the Living Lord of history. In that sense, God’s experience changes and is affected by relations with others.

I hope that helps as you think about impassibility.


(Thomas Jay Oord) #11

Thanks for your comments, Roger.

I encourage you to read my book. I address the issues you raise in the book and offer ways forward on each.

As to the choice between love and control, I think I see what you’re getting at. But as I see it, a God who could control ought to do so more often to prevent genuine evil. But because I think God is loving and so much evil occurs, I don’t believe God has controlling power. Of course, I also explain this in much greater detail in The Uncontrolling Love of God.

In appreciation,


(Thomas Jay Oord) #12


I always feel a little strange talking about God’s “limits.” As I see it, an absolutely unlimited God is absolutely unbelievable. God must have some limits if we are to have any idea of who God is. As I see it, for instance, God cannot be unlimited in sin or unlimited in nonexistence.

The best way forward, I would suggest, is to seek a way of understanding God that makes best sense of all the majestic and wonderful ways we think God acts. And if we start to see contradictions, we should rethink some of the attributes to avoid such contradictions.

Thanks again for your comments,


(Mervin Bitikofer) #13

I don’t think very many (if any) of those who keep at least an eye to orthodoxy would disagree with you about these ‘soft’ limits on God – that God cannot make a square circle, cannot choose to not exist, … in short, cannot be unfaithful to himself, etc. But it still seems to me that this is categorically different than insisting that God (apart from the incarnation) does not even bring about effects in this world that would interfere with what we recognize as regularities. In that sense it would seem you are willing to think of creatures (who interfere with regularities on a regular basis) as having more power than God.

You place a high and seemingly absolute value on freedom in nearly all creation, including its non-living inanimate atoms and objects. It’s hard to see how this wouldn’t descend into a caricature of imagining that God must plead (lovingly) with any suddenly unsupported object to go ahead and obey the inverse square law – sorry; the inverse square suggestion – and accelerate downward (fall) as it should; but since it would be unloving of God to coerce anything – the rock, pencil, whatever – is free to have the last word and should by all means, do as it pleases. [and this very much would not get God off the hook for evil, if the so-persuaded rock was about to hit my head!] Picturing it thus, it is hard to see how freedom in creation generally could have any real meaning apart from minds which have been gifted with free will.

Doesn’t it make at least as much sense to trust that God transcends our understandings (and even the limits of what we can find credible!) as opposed to thinking that our understandings and limits of credibility must necessarily circumscribe God?

(Thomas Jay Oord) #14


Thanks for the continued dialogue. I’m beginning to realize that you have yet to read my book. Several of your worries and objections are addressed in it, including the relation between God and law-like regularities, my denial that rocks are free, and the proper role of mystery. May I recommend that you read it before we continue our conversation much further? I think your doing so would save us both much time.

In appreciation,


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #15


Thank you for the response, Tom. I certainly plan to read your book.

I must firmly disagree with your statement. While God does not control people, that is, individuals, God does control situations and makes sure that they do not get out of hand. So God is still in control of God’s Creation.

If God ought to do more to control evil, then that is putting the onus of evil on God, and not where it belongs, which is on people, including you and I. God cannot and must not take away the responsibility of those who are responsible for the outrages of ISIS, Boko Haram, the murder of the Mother Emanuel 9, and many other outrages going on today.

You are right there are many too many, but that does not mean that our time is necessarily worse than other times and humanity has survived, although not because of our own doing, but the love of God.

Evil is not eliminated by control. Evil is eliminated by changing our hearts and attitudes. Evil is eliminated by Taking Control of our lives, helping others to do the same, and standing up to those who would tear us down. Power and control are not evil, but must be used with love and respect. Black lives matter!

God has given Christians a wonderful new understanding of God as the Trinity through Jesus Christ and the NT, One God in Three Persons. Life that God has created is too complex to be fulfilled by a Unitarian, One Trick Donkey God, even if that one trick is as great as Agape Love.

If existing as the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is good enough for God, it must be good enough for us to take seriously.



(Mervin Bitikofer) #16

Indeed not! Though I’m flattered by how quick you must think I am!

Meanwhile thanks for sharing some of your thought here in this venue and interacting with us to the extent that you have on top of that.

(Thomas Jay Oord) #17


Thanks for your comment and desire to read my book.

If God has the power to control situations, this must mean God could have controlled and therefore stopped holocausts, rape, murders, genocide, torture, etc. They seem perfect examples of things “getting out of hand.” But God did not prevent them.

I agree with you that creatures, not God, do evil. But a loving person with the power to stop genuine evil would prevent it. Because God doesn’t prevent it, I believe God cannot stop it.

To put it another way, I can’t believe that black lives really matter to the God capable of protecting such lives.

Do you see the problem with saying God has the capacity to control?


(Andrew M. Wolfe) #18

Hello Dr. Oord,

I look forward to reading your book one of these days! I commented on an initial blog post you made about it on your site, gosh, a year and a half ago, so I’ve been anticipating its release for quite a while by now.

When you say that God could not prevent torture, what does one do about the times he is said to have prevented torture — for instance, when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were thrown into the fire? (Of course, one can say that this particular incident was mythologized, but it gets tricky to say that for every miracle in the Bible, so the question has to be posed one way or another.)

If I can get my mind around your reformulation here in which love is primary and not power or ability, it seems you might say that his loving nature compelled it in that case, but that in some other case involving torture, it would not have been the loving thing to do. Am I on the right track there? Of course, please feel free to say, “Hello AMWolfe, yes I address this in my book, go ahead and read it and see if you still have any questions.”

Thank you for engaging so thoughtfully with this article and in the comments here.

(Thomas Jay Oord) #19

Great question and post, AM Wolfe (what is your first name, by the way?)!

I had not considered the fiery furnace story. I’d say, however, that God does miraculous things when creation cooperates. So if that story should be read literally, I’d say creation cooperated with God to make it happen.

The torture and other evils were mentioned in the context of the idea that God can control. As you know, I reject that idea. But those instances in which dramatic, unusual, and good things occur (miracles), I say God acted and creatures cooperated. So these are not instances of divine control.

Thanks for your interest in the book. I address the miracles issue in the last chapter.


(Andrew M. Wolfe) #20

I’ll mull on that one for a while. Thanks. And I’ll be sure to read through to the last chapter. :slight_smile:

I keep my first name confidential on here because I feel I have to. (I admire your willingness to discuss these things publicly, and hope someday to have similar boldness!) But I did use my first name (with last initial, that time) on the above referenced comment on your blog, which I posted a couple of weeks after you had largely wrapped up discussion there.