Thomas Jay Oord – God Can’t: Making Some Sense of God and Life

I’m on a quest to make some sense of God and life.

The journey isn’t easy. I seek help from the sciences, arts, literature, cultures, sages and saints, and wisdom traditions. I also read theological texts and devote time to thinking about God. But I see as if looking through a darkened glass.

Image provided by Thomas Oord. Used with permission.

Certainty and Mystery

I’ve noticed two trends among theologians. Both trends include theologians who, unlike me, are not on a quest to make some sense of God and life.

The first group of theologians believes they already have the right answers. They’re certain their view of God is correct. They typically claim this assurance by appealing to an inerrant sacred text or particular tradition. They are not on a quest of discovery, because they have God and life figured out.

Other theologians have given up the quest to make sense of God and life. Many of them have abandoned the quest in reaction to those who think they’ve got God and life already figured out. These theologian rightly see the problems that come with certainty. They respond by appealing to mystery and give up on constructive theology.

In my quest to make some sense of God and life, I’m steering a middle way between certainty and mystery. On this adventure, humility is paramount. I haven’t got God and life figured out. But I also seek constructive proposals that seem to come closer to truth than alternatives.

My quest has prompted me to believe some of our fundamental beliefs about God need changing. I don’t know this with certainty, of course. But I can make better sense of God and life if some long-standing theological beliefs are replaced by better ones.

In the following, I ask you to consider the possibility that God can’t do some things. In fact, I’m going to argue that God can’t control creation. Thinking about God’s power in this new way has helped me make better sense of God and life.

Speculating about God’s Nature

The theologians who appeal to mystery are wary of any talk about God’s nature. They sometimes claim we can only talk about God’s actions. Of course, knowing what counts as an act of God requires some prior belief about who God is and how God acts. This belief comes from some implicit or explicit assumption about God’s nature.

I think we should humbly propose claims about what God’s nature may be like. My primary argument for why we are justified in speculating about God’s nature comes from the Bible.  Biblical authors OFTEN make statements about God’s nature or attributes. They don’t just describe God’s actions.  Here are a few:

“God is love” (I Jn 4:16).  “God is spirit…” (Jn. 4:24). “The Lord our God is holy” (Ps. 99:9). “The Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). “God … knows everything” (1 Jn. 3:20). “God is just” (2 Thess. 1:6).   “God is not unjust” (Heb. 6:10). In God’s nature “there is no change or shadow of alteration” (James 1:17). “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33).

I could list so many more.

Jesus Reveals God

I join with most Christians who think Jesus Christ reveals important information about God’s nature. Of course, we have to make judgments about what aspects of Jesus pertain solely to his humanness and which reveal something about God.

For instance, Jesus was located in one place. But like most Christians, I think God is omnipresent. Jesus seemed not to be omniscient. But like most Christians, I think God knows everything that can be known.

The passage of scripture many theologians today look to for how Jesus reveals God’s nature is Paul’s letter to believers in Philippi. In this text, Paul says that Jesus’ kenosis tells us something about God. Here’s the pertinent passage:

“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself (kenosis), taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross (Phil. 2:3-8).

All Scripture requires interpretation. Theologians interpret this passage in various ways and apply it to various issues.

A number of theologians are comfortable saying this kenosis passage tells us that God voluntarily chooses not to act in certain ways.  God voluntarily self-limits, creates space for creation, and gives creatures freedom, say theologians as influential as Jürgen Moltmann and John Polkinghorne. This limitation is based on God’s free decision.

God Can’t vs. God Won’t

The typical interpretation of Jesus’ kenosis says that God voluntarily self-limits and therefore won’t control creatures (at least most of the time). I’ve come to think it’s better to believe God can’t control creatures, ever.

The distinction between “God can’t” and “God won’t” is important for accounting for God’s action or inaction to prevent genuine evil. If God won’t prevent evil even though God could, we’re left with the usual questions about evil. We’ll wonder why a God who voluntarily self-limits doesn’t become un-self-limited, in the name of love, to prevent genuine evil.

But if God can’t prevent evil, a completely new way of thinking emerges. In my quest to make some sense of God and life, I think we should say God can’t prevent evil by acting alone.

Scripture says God Can’t

Some people think saying God can’t do some things is blasphemous. They belief God can do anything, and they (wrongly) think the Bible clearly says so.

A few biblical passages do say God can do anything. The best known is probably “with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26 and elsewhere).  In this passage (and the other gospels reporting the same conversation), Jesus seems to be saying that offering salvation is always possible for God. That would be different that saying literally nothing is impossible for God to do.

There are passages in the Bible that specifically say God can’t do some things. They aren’t saying God voluntarily chooses not to do some things. They say God simply cannot do them.  Here are a few:

“It is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18).  See also Titus 1:2.

“God cannot be tempted by evil” (Js. 1:12).

“If we are faithless, [God] remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).

The statement, in my view, covers the others.  When Paul says God “cannot deny himself,” he seems to be saying that God’s own nature places limits on what God can do. God must be God, and God cannot be otherwise.

Christians like me who privilege the Bible on theological matters can’t ignore statements that seem to tell us something about God’s nature and inherent limitations.

A Limited God is Worthy of Worship

If we think about it, limitations based on God’s nature aren’t that big a deal. They shouldn’t shock us, even if we haven’t yet thought much about it.

Does it diminish our view of God, for instance, to admit that God can’t lie?  I doubt it.  And I doubt our view of God is diminished if we consider the alternatives to other divine attributes.

For instance, I doubt many of us worry God can’t voluntarily decide to be 671 instead of triune. Most Christians assume that trinity is part of what it means to be God. I’ve never heard anyone say, “A triune God is unworthy of my worship. But I could worship a God who is 671!”

We probably don’t think it’s a significant limitation that God must be omnipresent. We probably don’t think it’s a shame God must be righteous instead of sinful.

Upon reflection, the fact that God can’t do or be some things doesn’t seem so bad after all. In fact, we may come to think a God worthy of our worship must be limited in some ways if our worship is to make any sense. That’s how I see it, at least.

God must love: God cannot not love

One of the most important biblical statements about God’s nature is that God’s eternal and unchanging nature includes steadfast love.  God always loves. God cannot not love, to use the double negative.

If God’s nature is love of a certain type, this can help us solve the problem of evil. It might helps us make sense of God and life. Here’s what I mean:

Perhaps God’s love is necessarily self-giving, other-empowering, and therefore uncontrolling. Perhaps because God’s nature is love, God can’t control others. To put it positively, God’s love always involves giving freedom and/or agency to creatures. Because God’s nature is love, God cannot do otherwise.

Drawing from the kenosis passage we looked at earlier, I’ve come to call this idea “essential kenosis.” My view says God necessarily gives freedom, agency, self-organization, existence, and law-like regularities to creatures. Consequently, God cannot fail to provide, override, or withdraw this gift. These moment-by-moment gifts are, to use Paul’s word, “irrevocable” (Rm. 11:29).

The Powerful God of Uncontrolling Love

If you’ve followed my arguments this far, your mind is probably whirling!

You’re wondering, “If essential kenosis is true, how do I understand God’s creating, miracles, resurrection, eschatology, etc.?”

I’ve asked these questions myself and proposed some answers in various publications. I’ won’t rehearse them here, however.

Looking at God’s power through the lens of God’s love and not total control will be a new to some people.  But I know of nothing in the Bible to suggest that thinking this way does injustice to the overall biblical witness.  After all, most folk think God always acts lovingly – even when biblical writers report God being angry with sinners.

I don’t have it all figured out. I see through a glass darkly. And I admit there are a few biblical passages that aren’t easily explained by the idea that God always acts loving. They are the exceptions to the overall drift of scripture.

But I do think essential kenosis is a biblically supported view of God’s nature. And I know it has already helped many people make sense of why God doesn’t prevent genuine evil.

Essential kenosis builds upon the biblical claims about God’s inability to do some things, because God “cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).

Thomas Jay Oord

If you want to dig deeper into the ideas Thomas shared in this post, then make sure you get a copy of his excellent book The Uncontrolling Love of God. And if that whetted your appetite, then he has a number of others books out, and a blog. Tim

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5 comments on “Thomas Jay Oord – God Can’t: Making Some Sense of God and Life

  1. Thanks for posting this little piece. Already in the hours since you’ve posted it, I’ve been getting inundated by people with questions about God’s power and love.

    For instance, many are asking how God can do miracles, given my argument that God doesn’t have controlling power. I actually devote a whole chapter to miracles in The Uncontrolling Love of God.

    So I recommend those who are interested in that subject and many others to check the book for answers to these important questions.

    Thomas Jay Oord

    • It’s good to hear your article is stiring up some questions. I’m really hoping we can meet up and interview you when you come to the UK next year, then we can dig into some of these questions!

  2. Tom, I agree wholeheartedly that there’s a lot God can’t do. I know that’s process theology, and I’m trying to wrap my brain around it. (But the books on process theology are so DENSE. Makes me feel intellectually inadequate.)

    Where I think go you err is going to such pains to point out that your view’s “biblically supported.” I’m anything but a scholar, but after 35 years of reading the Bible, studying the Bible, memorizing the Bible, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Bible is just the word of man. Why is it so important what the Bible thinks? Who cares what the Bible says? Why not consult the Koran, or, heaven forfend, the Book of Mormon?

    You say Phil. 2:38 holds profound truths. That may well be, but that doesn’t mean it’s from God. It just means Paul was capable of profound thoughts.

    I don’t think we can look to scripture as a guidebook to the nature of God. I think general revelation is our only reliable source about God’s nature. Evidence is our scripture.

    So what I’ve been trying to figure out is can you build a case that God is love without using a single Bible verse? I’m thinking my position is . . . it can‘t be done. At least, the case for God is Love is just as compelling as the case for God is a Jerk or God Just Doesn’t Care.

    • Thanks for the response, John. I’m sympathetic to your concerns. But here’s how I think about the role of Scripture:

      First, I don’t think we should draw a clear line between special and general revelation. That means, in part, I see the Bible as a form of general revelation and nature as form of special revelation.

      Second, no matter what the alleged revelation, I think we must interpret it. And our interpretations are largely shaped by a whole host of factors. Furthermore, our convictions or intuitions about who God is and how God acts strongly shapes our interpretations.

      Third, for a number reasons, I think love comes first logically in God’s nature. This not only influences how I interpret all revelation. It also influences what I think about HOW God reveals. And by HOW, I mean God NEVER controls the revelation process. This means ALL revelation has human dimensions. And I think some humans better capture God’s revelation than others.

      Fourth, all of this means I think some biblical writers badly misunderstand God. But I also think some do a good job. Despite all of the biblical passages that seem to imply God is unloving, the preponderance suggest God is loving. So I go by the majority witness.

      Fifth, I privilege the words and actions attributed to Jesus in my attempts to make sense of God. And the vast majority of what Jesus said and did points to a loving God. Notice I say “majority.” There are a few passages that puzzle me, because they seem to suggest otherwise.

      In light of all the previous, I feel comfortable saying the Bible can function as a primary means for supporting the kind of arguments I make about God’s love and power. But I say this in light of the qualifications and explanations I make above.

      Does any of this make sense?


      • Preston Bittenbender May 22, 2017

        This is all assuming that our human view of love is the correct and full view of love. Which Biblical passages suggest God is not love? I suppose it depends on your perspective. From my perspective, the notion that God would send His Son to die for me is indeed love. But from the Son’s perspective…is that love? Sometimes trying to hard to make sense of God and life can lead us to difficult places. His ways are higher than ours after all.

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