Tom Oord is a Nazarene, and I’m a Presbyterian – A (slightly) more critical engagement

I previously posted about Oord’s recent book (bibliographic information below) in which he undertakes a reconception of divine providence. Furthermore, he reconceives providence by reconceiving the doctrine of God on intellectualist ground in an attempt to take seriously what it means to say that God is love in the sense of kenotic self-giving. Oord's book is a stimulating work that is accessible to laypeople and should be one of the first recommendations made for the theologically curious fellow church-goer. That said…

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

…Tom Oord is a Nazarene, and I’m a Presbyterian. Now, I get it: we live in an increasingly post-denominational world. I don’t know Oord’s ecclesial biography, and I’m not a cradle Presbyterian, so chances are that we’ve got quite a few different traditional influences kicking around between us. But at the very least it is significant that Oord approaches matters from a broadly Arminian / Wesleyan perspective and I approach them from a Reformed / Augustinian perspective.

“Sure,” you might say, “that’s all well and good. But why does it matter?” I’m glad you asked, gentle and perceptive reader! The nettle to be grasped between Oord and myself is this: Does God’s providential agency – indeed, all God’s agency – proceed in a noncompetitive manner, or not?

[Ridiculously self-serving note: I've been trying to elaborate the benefits of non-competitive thinking in terms of "paradoxical identity" for a while now. You can find more formal reflections on this in my book on Barth and baptism, my article last year on Barth and baptism, and a forthcoming article on T. F. Torrance and Barth and baptism. (Note within a note: see a thematic trend here?)]

The question of noncompetitive understandings of divine and creaturely agency has lurked near the center of most significant theological controversies throughout the Christian tradition. In short, a noncompetitive account says that divine and creaturely agencies are different in kind such that the relationship between them is not a zero-sum game. The theological locus classicus for this approach is the Chalcedonian Definition, which affirms that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine without confusion, change, division, or separation. In other words, the God-ness and the human-ness are both there in their entirety but in such a way that neither crowds the other out and the integrity of neither is compromised. Jesus and his history can be described according to human modes of explanation, and he / it can be described according to divine modes of explanation. And neither is exclusive of the other because they are different kinds of explanation.

How does this matter for Oord’s book? The first place I noticed it was in Chapter 4, where Oord discusses different models of God’s providence. Model #1 is God as “omnicause.” Oord's description of this model is somewhat flatfooted (or maybe he’s just been reading poor representatives of it), using phrases like “it makes no sense” and it “makes little, if any, sense” (pp. 85–86). He can’t seem to conceive of God working providentially in a way that does not compete with created agency, instead tending to see God in this model as overruling or coercing created agencies. To be fair, that’s sometimes how it gets talked about (especially at more popular levels), but there is more here than meets the eye. B. B. Warfield, for instance, argued that evolution is not a problem for Christian providence precisely because divine and creaturely causes do not compete. That hardly makes one think of coercive providence.

The issue arises most clearly in the book’s last two chapters. Oord develops an interactionist picture of God such that God is involved in influencing creaturely causality, working by way of both created randomness and regularity to produce good ends as determined by the self-giving love that God essentially is. Because God is this sort of love, God’s interaction with creaturely agency cannot be coercive and must remain only influential. Think about this either / or of coercive / lovingly influential. This pattern of thought only works when presupposing that divine and human agency is competitive.

And Oord makes a revealing comment when he says that “God acts as a necessary, though partial, cause for all creaturely activity’ (p. 171). The hallmark of competitive thinking is thinking in terms of parts rather than wholes. Chalcedon did not say that Jesus was part human and part divine such that the divine lovingly influences the human and the human responds positively to that influence. Instead, it uses a logic of wholes: Jesus is wholly human and wholly divine.

Oord’s position ultimately makes God one causal agent among many. Granted, Oord thinks of God’s agency as almighty. But he defines this in terms of being “mightier than all others,” “the only One who exerts might upon all that exists,” and “the ultimate source of might for all others” (p. 189). These are all competitive definitions. God is harder, better, faster, stronger (to quote Daft Punk lyrics), but God’s agency is not here different in kind. God is a being among other beings, albeit the most significant of beings. And given that God only exerts influence and cannot be coercive on Oord's account, we have to at least wonder whether God will ultimately succeed in God's aims. To paraphrase the title of a Rob Bell book: For Oord, we can be sure that God is love, but we're not so sure that love wins.

Consequently, Oord’s attempt to articulate an account of miracles that is consistent with his account of God as self-giving love also falters. He problematically (from the perspective of a non-competitive account) makes God a partial cause for discrete “unusual” and positive occurrences, and asserts that scientific (or world-historical, or creaturely) descriptions / explanations of these events are not exhaustive without the added theological explanation. This can be taken in two ways. It could be that theological explanation and scientific explanation are meant to be different kinds of description, but Oord’s penchant for partialist thinking belies that reading.

Now, the reason I framed this all in terms of Oord being Nazarene and my being Reformed is this: the Arminian / Wesleyan tradition is predicated on a competitive account of the relation between divine and creaturely agency. This is the whole point of talking about “free will” and rejecting “predestination.” The Reformed / Augustinian tradition, on the other hand, has (arguably) always been about a non-competitive account, even if proponents of that tradition haven’t always lived up to it. Now, as Presbyterians and Nazarenes go, I suspect that Oord and I are much closer together than most. But we come at those similar affirmations by very different roads.



You have done a lot of reflection with Barth. My first thought was that dialectical thinking is competitive, but within a "whole" that is restless and dynamic. My other thought was that the Bible seems quite comfortable in thinking of many competitors to the El/Yahweh of Israel, including that at times the people of God are competitors. I think I understand that you are focused upon predestination/free will. However, the notion of some kind of interaction between the divine/human, as over against the divine will determining all things, is a good way to think of the respect the divine has for the human realm, and thus, the independence of the creatures God has made.
On your first thought: No. :-)

On your second thought: this is to be expected from within the mythological world-pictures of the folks who wrote the biblical texts.

A non-competitive account does not necessarily rule out interaction in favor of an abstract over-ruling (which can sound like Deism); it simply rules out interaction as competitive, or conceiving of it partially.
Matthew Frost said…
Nicely done. I think this is a category difference that doesn't frequently get made, and without which quite a lot of confusion results. From my perspective in Barth work, I would attribute it to a kind of naturalism: that the world after the Fall is simply creation, degraded but not discontinuous with its origination, and so therefore that we can use the situation post-Fall as of a piece with our origin and fate.

In this case, the fact that our agencies as creature and Creator are in competition—that we strive against God toward our own goals, and that God strives with us toward different ends than we choose—leads to the notion that they are naturally so, and that this competition ought to be read into protology and eschatology.

Barth does the clever thing of bracketing this period, our "lost" time between Fall and final eschaton, as discontinuous with created time/creation history, decisively breaking that assumption. We don't get to appropriate creation as the basis for our demiurgically-ordered worlds, or our theologies of order that justify them, and we don't get to use creation to turn ourselves into the norm that God has to respect. We live in the realm of covenant history, which is the sphere of reconciliation as God's action against our freely-self-chosen alienation from our covenant-nature as the creature. We live in a time we broke off from creation, and which is by the same means disconnected from God's redemption of the creature.

If creation had lingering deterministic hooks into the state of the world, if as a doctrine we could still use it to say that world order was the result of providence, we would have to uphold the conflict narrative by which salvation is a process from creation through history to God's eschatological triumph over evil. God would have to win through a logic of parts. But that logic credits our agency simultaneously too little (making sin small in the determination of the world) and too much (making us large in the determination of the fate of the creature). The competition is a small but ultimately decisive one, instead of a total but ultimately meaningless one, on the path from creation to redemption.

On the competitive model, God has to overcome it through history, bringing history to an end that indicates God's victory. But on a non-competitive model, there's no reason history has to have such a teleological end. It can just end, and God can redeem as God sees fit without being bound to the outcomes of the "lost" time over which we have claimed ownership.
Matthew Frost said…
Tweaking George's assumptions: if the dialectic has to issue in synthetic outcomes, then there is in some sense a competition between the antitheses for determination of those outcomes. And it's the same if the dialectic is contained within a singular whole. But the dialectic between God and the creature is not a dynamism of parts!

The dynamism of world history is an internal dialectic running in contrast to our intended, covenantal relationship to God and one another. We cannot be assumed to be working out the covenant; covenant is a very particular relationship of responsibilities. Covenant relationship therefore presents the criteria of judgment of our actions and orders. And in full awareness of this—that relationship with God is one thing and not every thing—the Bible is indeed perfectly comfortable recognizing the competition of others with/against God. But it does not affirm that competition as right or natural.

Travis is right; if we view the dual agencies at work (God's agency and our notionally singular agency as the creature, however horribly muddled) as in an unnatural competition, a false competition that God is under no obligation to accept or respect, we will see our objections to the divine "over-ruling," the rightful lordship of the Creator over the creature, fail as parts of our attempt to compete against a God who isn't interested in submitting to our terms. God doesn't need to defeat our resistance by competing in a competition we devised in the first place. God wins by wholly other, non-competitive means—which is how it works that time after time God is willing to lose, and graciously keep playing by breaking rules that imply loss is decisive.
Alex DeMarco said…
"...on Oord's account, we have to at least wonder whether God will ultimately succeed in God's aims."

It seems to me that we also have to question whether competitive perspectives like Oord's don't inevitably offer a weaker account of human freedom than intellectualist perspectives. Sure, voluntarist/competitive perspectives can claim that their accounts of human freedom include the power of contrary choice--but doesn't that ultimately boil down to an account of human deliberation as (at least partly) arbitrary? I don't see that as a benefit. And on which perspective is the exercising of our will as humans more restricted? On the perspective in which the exercising of our will is limited by other secondary causes but not by God (intellectualism)? Or on the perspective in which the exercising of our will is limited by both other secondary causes and God (voluntarist/competitive)? I think if you really want to be a champion of human freedom, you have to go for the former.
Wyatt said…
I liked this quote:

>>> B. B. Warfield, for instance, argued that evolution is not a problem for Christian providence precisely because divine and creaturely causes do not compete. That hardly makes one think of coercive providence.

The non-competitive analogy is helpful. Many reformed theologians have appealed to "Mystery" when talking about this analogy. John Calvin seemed less likely to appeal to mystery, because if the bible does teach something, in his view, it would be wrong to say we don't know what it teaches.

Great post!
Great post, Chief -- and I'm not saying that just to get a raise, though I wouldn't object ;-)

Question, a propos of your critique of Oord's "partialist" account of miracle. What if one were to come at the problem, say, from a Thomist perspective? In this case, God's "normal" mode of interaction with the created world preserves dual causality. But what if, on certain occasions, God might supervene this framework and act as a direct cause within the natural world. Take, for example, Jesus' turning water into wine in John 3 (apologies to the Nazarenes; my choice of miracle is strictly fortuitous). Prescinding from the debate about whether the story recounts an actual historical event, if one were to hold this up as an example of God acting directly within the "natural" world in an event that is, empirically speaking, strictly inexplicable, would such an account violate your noncompetitive model? Presumably, on this account, God is the free Creator who would not be bound by any metaphysical constraints to act directly within the realm of God's own creation.
Matthew Frost said…
Scott, how should such a miracle contradict creaturely agency? In what way is God at odds with the creature by acting directly upon it? Non-competitive agency is not the same as your assertion of dual causation. Why should God be unable to act directly in the world, in a Thomistic framework in which God is already and at all times acting directly upon the creature to determine and inform its existence, which is God's right as Creator?
Matthew Frost said…
We might frame the whole category of Jesus' miracles as jointly divine-human in causation, of course. But bracketing that, if you really want dual causality at Cana, the obedient servants did the human work. Jesus just gave the orders.

Or do we object that, there being no natural way for water to become wine, the water had nothing to offer to the miracle?
First off -- egads! I meant John 2 of course (not John 3, for goodness sake! This lapsed Baptist has become perhaps *too* lapsed).

Matt, I'm not arguing that direct divine, miraculous action violates creaturely agency; rather, I'm asking Travis whether he thinks it would. It's not a question he's engaging directly here, as I read the post, but something of a tangent I'm drawing out.

The Christological question, of course, interests me too. But my question is not so much about Jesus and the servants; rather, it's about Jesus, the water and the wine. C.S. Lewis somewhere proposed the theory that some of the "nature" miracles in the Gospels represent a case where some otherwise natural process is somehow "sped up." I take it, from his comments above, that such an account mixes up natural and divine causality in a way that offends Travis' basic framework. Barring something like a Star Trek sort of food replicator device, water isn't going turn into wine, by any known natural account of how wine is made. So yes, the water has nothing to add to the party, except being a placeholder for the best that's yet to come.
Matthew Frost said…
Ah. In that case, I'm going to pivot and (mostly) agree with you, having dug a bit more into Oord on miracles and being inspired by your invocation of the Thomistic frame.

Clearly, the miracle is not a natural act in the Thomistic sense of the water being directed toward its end, because wine is not the final cause of water ... unless it happens to be taken up by a grape vine and turned by means of the plant into grapes that then are juiced and fermented. OK, so wine is not generally the final cause of water; wine is generally a product of human proximate causality in cooperation with the plants as lesser agents. Wine is the final cause of the vintner's actions, of all parts of which we may say that God's agency as creator is the first cause. God made the world in which all of these possibilities exist to be actualized. But that's an accounting bill for externalities, not a claim that God made the wine. God simply made the world in which (as Jeff Smith was so fond of illustrating) grapes are so readily supplied with every necessity to ferment of themselves. So wine may even be said to be part of the final causality of grape vines on the basis of God's agency.

But at Cana, water at some point simply became wine. God turned water into wine. Might we say that water has an agency which God is bound to respect? (Inertia?) Regardless of its animacy, water is a creature of the Creator. It has agency, to the extent that we might say so, in a relationship to God that is ordered toward covenant partnership (as Barth would say). Do we really expect the water to resist? (Perhaps, after the Fall; it is possible that water does not by default recognize God and needs to be reminded of itself.) The gospels elsewhere believe that water obeys God, and it's not an unknown conceit elsewhere in scripture. Is the water violated by this transformation? Has it ceased to be? Is not wine also water?

In an Oord-ian framework (stealing from his outside work), one might ask, "is there really a natural law that prevents this from happening?"; "is nature really a closed system (to God) in which we should complain about intervention as though from outside?"; and "are we really talking about the exertion of coercive power here?" He might say that God empowers and inspires the water to become wine, though I'm not sure to what extent Oord is concerned about coercion in dealing with inanimate matter. But all of this is really a question of how God negotiates the transformation. What worries me most about Oord's account is that wine might simply become a glorious possibility of water's existence—though as I started out here describing, it already is one by other means. Water simply can't do it to itself.

If we really go for all of Thomas, there's no reason we can't perform a thorough accounting of the roles of all participants in the event, and I don't think Oord is going to have a problem with that—or Travis, though I could be wrong. Travis' problem seems to me to be predicated on the incarnation, which I'm not so sure is representative of the category of miracles. I'd read non-competition here as cooperation, since there's no union of the participants in the event. And cooperation is partial.

Lexi Eikelboom said…
"the Arminian / Wesleyan tradition is predicated on a competitive account of the relation between divine and creaturely agency. This is the whole point of talking about “free will” and rejecting “predestination.” The Reformed / Augustinian tradition, on the other hand, has (arguably) always been about a non-competitive account, even if proponents of that tradition haven’t always lived up to it."

Sorry, I think you're a bit off base here. You say that proponents of the Reformed tradition simply don't always live up to a non-competitive account, but it seems to me that one could say the same thing about many contemporary Wesleyans. I know enough Wesleyans who would argue that a non-competitive account is equally compatible with Wesleyanism and perhaps even subscribed to by Wesley himself (as someone who loved Augustine!) and that certain proponents have, as with the Reformed tradition, simply not lived up to this. To say that the Arminian/Wesleyan tradition is predicated on a competitive account is a bit of an overreach, many Wesleyans consider it very much possible to be Wesleyan without such a competitive account.
That's a fair point, Lexi, and one about which Steve Wright (@kweh) and I had a chat the other day. Thanks for making that point here as well.

That said, I would still tend to view the predestination / free-will debate as rather thoroughly bound up with a competitive conception, but perhaps we can say that this debate does not represent the best of either tradition.
Lexi Eikelboom said…
Thank you, yes - I would definitely agree with that assessment!
Anonymous said…
I think he has a few wayward assumptions that affect his theology and yield the main hang-ups here.

Oord wrote in his recent article on Biologos, "Essential kenosis affirms a version of what has come to be called 'the free process' view of God's relation to the causal processes of the universe. The free process view notes that the complex world has numerous systems and processes dependent upon one another. Slight changes in the system create the loss of equilibrium. 'Fiddling' with the systems would lead to chaotic results. Consequently, God provides law-like regularities that are not interrupted."

None of this makes any sense because all equilibria in nature is transitory. Nature is entropic; all non-entropy happens in local, temporary islands of exceptions to the rule. Nature is not like a tranquil lake; it's a rushing river to the abyss, and there are a few backflowing eddies along the bank.

Furthermore, even if nature is deterministic under God's sovereignty, nature IS chaotic (deterministically chaotic). So reductio ad absurdums like, "'Fiddling' with the systems would lead to chaotic results," don't "work"; chaos is pervasive and perpetual in nature. It's why weather forecasters suck beyond the range of a few days.

Deterministic chaos is, in fact, how evil can emerge without being authored. Given a "soup" of elegant rules, many interactive pieces, and tons of time, we can expect a variety of virulent and resilient things to pop forth, some that don't look very godly. And if God is reluctant to interrupt nature, then he'll suffer these, by and large.

Further, in this "soup," all micromanaging teleology evaporates over time as an arithmetic fact. Surgical teleology can assert itself only if (1) baked into specially-tuned, fundamental, inelegant rules that act like "bodyguards" for those future moments or (2) imposed by novel supernatural fiat. If neither #1 or #2 are true, then Oord shouldn't/can't credit God for any incisive descriptions of teleological cooperation.

Chaos isn't an absurdum. It's a natural reality we live with every day. And it's the reason why those of us who are Christian deterministic compatibilists can say with a straight face that primary and secondary causation are functionally, meaningfully different.

A couple articles on the term I've been using -- "heterophroneo" -- for what I think you mean by paradoxical identity and non-competitive thinking. Let me know if I'm combining distinct concepts in error:

On the topic of Freedom & Sovereignty:

In general:
"If neither #1 or #2 are true, then Oord shouldn't/can't credit God for any incisive descriptions of teleological cooperation"

Unless teleology is a theological concept and not a generally accessible / scientific one. I would like a bit more clarity from Oord on that point, myself.

But the purpose of this thread isn't to criticize everything that Oord has ever written. And, just as a side-note, casting matters in terms of primary (divine) and secondary (creaturely) causality predisposes toward a competitive account insofar as one has to be extremely careful not to use the concept of causality here in a natural theological / analogy of being-ish sort of way.
Stan Patton said…
I'll admit that I'm pretty anti-Thomistic with my use of the term.

My outside reference was an attempt at rooting-out what could be the underlying bad acorn.

I think the primary/secondary taxonomy lets us have our cake and keep it insofar as we can -- paradoxically, but not incoherently -- employ competitive and non-competitive descriptions of God's ecosystem as it suits us. The only trouble was that it seemed, under adequate determinism, that there was nothing to prevent the two (primary/secondary) from functionally collapsing-together. Deterministic chaos provides the meaningful discriminatory fuel we needed.
Thomas Jay Oord said…

Sorry for coming so late to the conversation. I've been hiking the John Muir Trail the last three weeks. Even now, I'm sending this note during a break at a science and religion conference. So I'll need to be "kinda" brief.

Zero-Sum/Competition: You're right that I think saying God controls creatures 100% and that creatures also exert self-causation (whatever percent) is a key issue. You call it a paradox that God can be both controlling and yet creatures act of their own accord. As you rightly quote me, I think the 100% + more makes no sense. So if one agent is the cause of all, it is illogical to say another agent exerts some causation.

One Cause Among Others: In one sense, I don't think God is simply one cause among others. That is, God's causation is uniqe, in the senese that it is necessary, is influential but not controlling, etc. But in a very important sense, I do think God's causation is the same in kind as creaturely causation. To deny this is to be an apophatic theologian who appeals to absolute mystery when it comes to divine causation. I reject such apophaticism. It is present in the Thomistic primary/secondary causation scheme affirmed by many Thomists.

Overall, I like the way you wonder about whether out theological traditions have influenced us (or we have chosen those traditions because they attract us). I appreciate your engaging my book, even if you don't find my ideas convincing.

In friendship,

Thanks for reading and commenting, Tom! I envy your time on the John Muir Trail.

The "one cause among others" bit is the hang-up, I think. If one can get pasting thinking of God as one cause among others, thinking of the relation between divine and human action as not a zero sum game makes more sense. And you are right to lay the finger on apophaticism (and you're right that this is a problem for Thomas). But there are different kinds of apophaticism. It isn't clear to me that it's the same to say "we done / can't know" and "we know God transcends." I'm trying to say the latter. To paraphrase Irenaeus in a way that George Hunsinger might: God is cause, but God is unlike any cause we've ever known.

I look forward to future interactions!

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