What Am I Reading? Thomas Oord’s “The Uncontrolling Love of God”

I first became aware of Oord and his work when a year or so ago he landed in the middle of one of the many faculty vs. administration showdowns that have been happening in Christian higher education lately. Well, the nice folks over at IVP Academic asked if I would like to read his book and offer some reflections on it for the benefit of yourselves, gentle readers, and I was only too happy to oblige.

Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015).

Oord in the midst of professing.
This book wasn’t written for people like me. It was written to communicate with thoughtful and theologically curious laypeople. Oord does a wonderful job in making his thoughts and ideas accessible when they are anything but simplistic.

The primary goal of this book is to communicate a doctrine of providence that can account for the reality of genuine evil while also not making God responsible either for causing that evil or for failing to prevent it. Chapter 4 sketches a set of models that have been used to make sense of divine providence in the past but that fail to account for these critical points. The model that Oord proposes, which he introduces here and advances in the remaining chapters, is called the “essential kenosis model.”

Now, those who are familiar with theological terminology will read that designation and immediately think that Oord proposes that God somehow gives up or gives away or otherwise denies aspects of the divine essence. This could not be further from the truth. For Oord, kenosis is best interpreted as “self-giving,” such that God understood by way of Jesus is, essentially, “self-giving and therefore others-empowering love” (p. 159).

Critically for Oord, this kenotic love of God is not merely one aspect of the divine essence that needs to be balanced with other aspects. Rather, it is the core of God’s being and therefore cannot be overridden by other attributes. Still further, God does not decide when to love in this way:

The vast majority of theologians fail to take uncontrolling love as God’s logically preeminent attribute. We see the logical prioritizing of sovereign choice, for instance, when theologians say God is free to choose whether to love. Choosing whether to love implies that choice logically comes first for God. If divine love logically precedes divine choice, God necessarily loves because love comes first. (p. 163)

What Oord supplies here is an intellectualist rather than voluntarist account of divine being. God acts as the one God is, and does not first decide whether to do so. Thus loving in this way becomes necessary for God not because some outside force constrains God, but because God is the God that God is, and God is faithful to Godself.

I’ll leave you with Oord himself from the volume’s Postscript:

Essential kenosis solves both questions raised at the outset of this book. To the question of why a loving and almighty God does not prevent genuine evil, essential kenosis says God necessarily loves and consequently cannot prevent such evil. For God to prevent such evils unilaterally, God would have to deny himself, which cannot be done.

To the question of how God can be providential despite randomness, chance and luck in the world – especially those events with negative consequences – essential kenosis says God gives existence, including spontaneity, to all things. Random events are possible because of God’s existence-giving love. God cannot foreknow with certainty or prevent random events from generating negative consequences.

God’s gifts provide being to creatures in each moment, and God is ever active in giving and receiving relationship with each creature. Kenotic love empowers creatures to be and to act, and this love enables complex creatures to act freely. When creatures and creation respond well to God’s uncrontolling love, well-being is established. The kingdom of God is present. Love reigns in heaven and on earth. All that is good derives from God’s essential kenosis, which comes before and makes possible creaturely response. (p. 219)

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* My thanks to IVP Academic for providing me with a review copy.

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