…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.