Thomas Jay Oord offers an original account of providence in the tradition of the open view of God, but going beyond it in significant ways. The account is set out to provide an answer to the problem of evil. Over and over again, Oord returns to the existence of genuine evil in the world, which forces on us a renewed understanding of God’s power and love. The book presents real life tragedies, which serve as test cases for different accounts of providence throughout the book (ch. 1). Chapters 2 and 3 provide useful definitions and clarifications of concepts such as randomness, laws of nature, agency, free will. In chapter 4, Oord provides an interesting classification of the major accounts of providence, before focusing in chapter 5 on open theism, which he calls “the open and relational alternative.” Chapter 6 presents and critiques one major account in this tradition: John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007). Chapter 7 is the heart of the book, explaining Oord’s own understanding of God’s relation to the world. Chapter 8 then applies his account to the question of miracles.
The book is extremely well-structured and readable. From the outset, the reader understands the author’s project and easily follows the exposition as it unfolds. A figure on p. 83 is helpful in showing how the major accounts of providence differ. The particular features of Oord’s own account are clearly explained. Throughout the book, Oord’s pastoral concern for people suffering from evil is obvious.
The very readable character of the book comes with a number of unjustified claims. Here I shall point out just two of them. First, Oord conflates different levels or forms of chance. Calvin is quoted as rejecting chance. Oord provides a quote from the Institutes in which Calvin opposes fortuna, that is metaphysical chance, events without any divine control and causation (pp. 30–31). But Oord does not point out that Calvin allows for “scientific” chance, that is fortuitous events as far as any inner-worldly explanation is concerned (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, rev. ed. [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008], 1.16.9):
As the order, method, end, and necessity of events, are, for the most part, hidden in the counsel of God, though it is certain that they are produced by the will of God, they have the appearance of being fortuitous, such being the form under which they present themselves to us, whether considered in their own nature, or estimated according to our knowledge and judgment.
The indeterminism of contemporary scientific theories does not contradict this view of chance. Nor does Oord distinguish between epistemological and ontological randomness. He considers coin flips to be determined neither by “God above or the atoms below” (p. 33). For the first part of this statement, science has nothing to say about this (whereas Oord seems to think otherwise, p. 41). For the second part, the laws of classical physics are sufficient to describe coin flips, thus these are deterministic happenings. We can still use them in games of chance, because the outcome is outside of our control.
Second, Oord is not a very reliable guide when it comes to the history of Christological thought. Commenting on the Chalcedonian Declaration of Faith, he writes that “theologians thereafter pondered which divine attributes Jesus retained in human life” (p. 154), as if this was a common quest among theologians after Chalcedon. In fact, we have to wait for the 19th century and kenosis Christology, in order to see the question raised. Instead, historic Christianity stayed with the Declaration which had stated: “the difference of the natures being in no way removed because of the union, but rather the properties of each nature being preserved.”
But let us turn to the core of Oord’s book—his original account of providence. Here’s the summary he provides:
Because of love, God necessarily provides freedom/agency to creatures, and God works by empowering and inspiring creation toward well-being. God also necessarily upholds the regularities of the universe because those regularities derive from God’s eternal nature of love (p. 94).
He describes this model as “essential kenosis.” It “considers the self-giving, others-empowering love of God revealed in Jesus Christ to be logically primary in God’s eternal essence” (p. 160). How does Oord arrive at this understanding?
Not surprisingly, Philippians 2:4–13 is invoked as support for this model of divine providence. Oord is aware that there are differing understandings of the passage and that it speaks about the Incarnation and not God’s essence. But these scruples are brushed aside, as “all Scripture requires interpretation” (p. 154). Preference is given to readings which have arisen “in recent decades” and which emphasize what Jesus’s kenosis reveals about God’s nature (p. 155). Such an understanding flows from the “a priori truth . . . that love . . . does not control.” “Love by definition is noncoercive,” therefore “God cannot control others entirely” (p. 181). And it receives confirmation a posteriori by what we observe in the world: God’s love must be of this uncontrolling kind, otherwise we would not observe so much genuine evil (pp. 183–85).
Oord’s methodology deserves attention. His starting-point is not what Scripture explicitly teaches about God’s nature, his love and power, and his dealings with the world. He even recognizes that some biblical passages “seem” to favor a more robust view of divine sovereignty. He vaguely points to a “better interpretation of most biblical passages and the overall drift of Scripture” (p. 85), without providing any clue for how this better interpretation can be reconciled with the significant number of biblical texts that stress God’s control and sovereign action in history. Instead, Oord draws conclusions from central events in salvation history, in particular Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, while barely interacting with the interpretations Scripture itself offers of these events. He approvingly quotes John Sanders that “Jesus’s life, death and resurrection reveal that ‘God is not the all-determining power responsible for sending everything, including suffering, on us’” (p. 136). Not much is offered in terms of an argument on how Jesus’s life, death and resurrection reveal such a thing. And what should we make of Jesus’s teaching about God’s sovereignty (Matt 10:29)? What about his prayer at Gethsemane, understanding the cross as the cup of God’s wrath (Matt 26:39)? What about Peter’s contention that Jesus was nailed to the cross “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23)?
Scripture does not occupy center stage for Oord when it comes to knowing who God is. It is merely one source among others: “We can know something about God because of the revelation we find in Scripture, the natural world, tradition, reason, the arts, sciences and our personal experiences” (p. 82). The reader is thus not surprised that the problem of evil provides a significant argument in favor of Oord’s view of God’s nature: traditional accounts of his power and sovereignty can’t be true because they don’t explain why genuine evil happens in the world.
Let no one underestimate the revolutionary character of Oord’s proposal. His is not a cautious, half-hearted revision of traditional accounts of God’s nature and action in the world. Not only is the future open, so that God does not know future contingents, as other advocates of the open view consider (p. 175). In opposition to other open theists, God’s self-giving, others-empowering love is not a voluntary self-restriction, but part of God’s nature. Otherwise, God would still be responsible for evil, as it would result from his free decision to restrict himself (p. 140–144, 164). The consequences are far-reaching. Not only does the act of creation become necessary, but specific aspects of our world are required by God’s nature: “freedom, agency, self-organization and lawlike regularities” (p. 169). God does not have the power to prevent evil from occurring, as he is uncontrolling love. In particular, God cannot directly act in the physical world, for example by blocking “a bullet before it projects from a rifle,” because God has no body (p. 178; no argument is provided as to why bodily action would be the only causal process available).
Oord wants to allow for miracles. Given God’s uncontrolling character, they only “occur when creatures . . . cooperate with God’s initiating and empowering love” (p. 200). But what does it mean to claim that “organs and cells of our bodies can resist God’s offer of new forms of life that involve healing” (p. 213)? And is such a view faithful to the biblical authors’ own understanding of miracles? They regularly stress the manifestation of God’s mighty power in these acts, quite to the exclusion of creaturely cooperation, too corrupted by evil to assist God (Isa 63:5; John 11:39–44; Rom 4:17–19).
Does Oord’s account solve the problem of evil? At first sight yes, but at a very high price. Evil becomes metaphysically unavoidable. This is a tragic view of reality. And can we really consider that Oord’s God is exclusively good (as Oord maintains)? Evil essentially flows from his nature. For example, he necessarily upholds lawlike regularities including chance and “gives . . . self-organization to the . . . organs of our bodies”, from which illnesses, such as birth defects and cancer follow (pp. 172, 174). He may not be “culpable for the evil that less-complex entities cause” (p. 172); but traditional theology has always considered that goodness does not only pertain to God’s voluntary acts, but characterizes his very nature and all that flows from it (Jas 1:17).
On closer inspection, I am not even sure that Oord succeeds in solving the problem of evil. He is right to consider that we experience genuine evil in this world (p. 185). But does his model provide any grounds for being scandalized by evil? After all, if genuine evil is necessarily part of reality, a direct consequence of God’s nature, why call evil evil?
If you want a readable presentation of models of providence in the vicinity of open theism, Oord’s book is a good place to start. It will make you think about such crucial issues as God’s nature, his relation to the world, and how to explain (and not to explain) evil in the world. But beware, in this book you will not encounter the Lord answering out of the whirlwind. For all those interested in the problem of evil on existential and pastoral grounds (as is the case for Oord), may they remember that it was only this God who brought comfort to Job’s heart and finally relieved him of his suffering.