The Death of Omnipotence and the Birth of Amipotence. Thomas Jay Oord. Sacra Sage, 2023.
A response by John Sanders with assistance from William Hasker.
Tom Oord is a friend of mine who has done inestimable good for the promotion of open and relational theologies. I am deeply grateful to Oord for many things in my life. Overall, I agree with many of the important points in this book. Here are some examples, I agree that Christian theology should prioritize divine love. I agree on the importance of love and nurturant values for a proper understanding of God and human life. I agree that humans need to cooperate with God and that God does not get everything God desires. I agree that divine determinism is harmful. I agree that some human ideas of God must actually apply to God lest we fall into complete agnosticism. I agree that Oord’s essential kenosis model helps to alleviate the problems of moral evil and suffering. Essential kenosis is the idea that love is key to the divine nature and love, as Oord defines it, never controls another entity. For example, God cannot, by the divine self alone, guarantee that an atom moves in a particular direction.
I believe that what Oord and I agree on is more significant than our disagreements. Yet, I see serious problems in the arguments in the book. I want people to know that I took this book seriously and put considerable reflection into this response. I hope my comments will be useful for moving the scholarly discussion forward. After all, Oord or others may find problems in my reasoning.
Three chapters in the book seek to kill the idea of omnipotence while one chapter announces the birth of the power of divine love. I am convinced that the reasoning fails to send omnipotence to the emergency room, let alone kill it.
Oord says that all proponents of omnipotence affirm at least one of the following definitions (3):
- God exerts all power.
- God can do absolutely anything.
- God can control others or circumstances.
In addition, sometimes the text gives a fourth understanding when it equates omnipotence to divine determinism of all events. A frustration I had while reading is that the text jumps around from one definition to another without notifying the reader that a different view is under discussion. Criticisms of one definition are not necessarily criticisms of another and I felt that the different views were mashed together instead of keeping them distinct.
The first three chapters give three reasons to reject all understandings of omnipotence: (1) It is not taught in the Bible, (2) Proponents employ countless qualifications which renders the term useless, and (3) Omnipotence is incompatible with evil.
Chapter one surveys what is commonly known among biblical scholars: the Hebrew and Greek terms sometimes translated “almighty” do not mean that God is able to bring about any logically possible state of affairs (common definition of omnipotence). I have two responses to this. First, I agree that the Bible does not have a formal, spelled-out doctrine of omnipotence. In fact, it does not have carefully defined articulations of important Christian doctrines such as the Trinity or the Eucharist. From the evidence in the chapter one can rightly conclude that one should be careful of naively reading omnipotence into the biblical texts. Yet, it hardly warrants the conclusion that all understandings of omnipotence must be rejected.
Second, there is a lot in the Bible that implies greater power for God than the essential kenosis model allows. For instance, most biblical scholars hold that the biblical texts depict a deity who can control specific circumstances. This includes biblical scholars who do not personally believe God can do such a thing—they just affirm that some biblical writers thought God did. This means that the Bible portrays God as one who can singlehandedly control an entity and controlling an entity is one of Oord’s definitions of omnipotence. Hence, the Bible affirms this understanding of omnipotence. Thus, the main claim of the chapter that the Bible does not teach omnipotence must be rejected.
Oord’s essential kenosis model cannot allow for a deity who can control an event. However, neither this chapter nor Oord’s other books convinced me that the scriptures portray a deity who cannot singlehandedly control an event. Oord claims that God never “singlehandedly” does anything in creation: “I know of no biblical passage that says God alone brought about an outcome and no creaturely actors or factors were involved. None” (34). That is, God never acts without some other entity. For example, if God is wooing a maple tree seed to sprout, God does not woo it without the maple seed. Oord gives his own example of this when he says, “Lebron James won the game” (34) but, Oord notes he had teammates who participated. So, Oord claims, James did not act singlehandedly. One problem with this is that it is not how English speakers typically use the word “singlehandedly.” For example, imagine a nurse arriving at a car accident and administering emergency care to four people. We might say, “the nurse singlehandedly saved the lives of four people.” We would not say, “The nurse failed to ‘singlehandedly’ save the four occupants because bandages were also involved.”
Oord holds that “singlehandedly” is synonymous with control—”the sole and sufficient cause” (32). Again, this is not what English speakers typically mean by the term. Here are some examples. “The mayor controls the budget.” “A teacher controls the class” or, “The class got out of the teacher’s control.” “I control the temperature in the house.” We use the word “control” in these instances and do not believe it is undermined because there is a thermostat or students involved. I do not find Oord’s highly qualified senses of singlehandedly or control convincing.
Again, chapter one claims that none of the three definitions of omnipotence is taught in the Bible. However, since some biblical writers believed God could control an event (definition three), this understanding of omnipotence is in the Bible.
Chapter two claims that there are thousands if not billions (73) of qualifications employed to define omnipotence. Oord says that so many qualifications are “excessive” (69) and thus render the concept untenable. Chapter headings list six things “God cannot do” (45-66) with many examples of each: (1) God cannot bring about a logically impossible state of affairs, (2) God cannot do something that goes against the divine nature, (3) God cannot exert all power and relate with creatures, (4) God cannot change time, (5) God cannot control free creatures and chance events, (6) an incorporeal God cannot lift a pebble.
However, qualifications three though six are simply examples of the first two qualifications that are standard in the history of the discussion. If I said that a dog is a mammal and then listed fifty breeds of dogs as different types of mammals, you would not agree that I listed fifty different types of mammals. Or take omniscience (which Oord affirms). We might qualify omniscience by stating the types of things an omniscient God cannot know such as what an agent with libertarian freedom will do in the future. If we then gave a hundred examples of things this agent might do in the future such as putting on socks, putting on shoes, putting on a shirt, putting on a hat, putting on gloves, putting on a coat, etc., we would not have provided a hundred different types of things omniscience cannot know. Rather, we would have given a hundred examples of one type of thing omniscience cannot know.
On the other hand, if one insists that these are examples of thousands of things an omniscient God cannot know, then, according to Oord’s reasoning, omniscience will have to be rejected due to “excessive” qualifications. Furthermore, we could do the same with the qualifications Oord provides for what “love” is and is not. We could give thousands of examples of what love is not and so conclude that “love” is a useless concept because of the countless qualifications. Thus, either the examples in this chapter of what an omnipotent God cannot do are either illustrations of two qualifications (God cannot do the logically impossible or deny the divine nature) or the reasoning means we must reject divine omniscience and love as well due to the thousands of qualifications. Consequently, the chapter either fails in its main claim or Oord must, according to his own criteria, reject the concepts of omniscience and love.
Here are some lessor points regarding chapter two.
Oord claims that God lacks a physical body and so cannot move a pebble (65, 109). I understand the way in which Oord uses this idea to claim, for instance, that God can’t move a child out of the way of a car. Personally, I (and every other theologian I’ve ever read) never thought God required a body to move a pebble. I’ve yet to read an explanation of why so many thinkers are wrong about this.
Hartshorne’s claim that all power is social is used to criticize the idea that God could exist apart from creatures (55-56). I make three points in response. First, we can say that post-creation, power is social. All human understanding is dependent upon our embodied and social cognition. We don’t know what power was like prior to creation. Humans need epistemic humility when asserting that the way humans are constrained to conceptualize is the way reality must have always been (see my Theology in the Flesh). Second, one could agree that power and love are eternally social and that the trinity, prior to creation, had both power and love. Third, we could modify Hartshorne’s claim to align with an embodied cognition approach gaining popularity in cognitive science and hold that all power is embodied. This would mean that no disembodied entity has any power. Thus, God has no power (including Oord’s God).
Chapter three claims that moral and natural evils are incompatible with omnipotence.
I agree with Oord that worshipping an authoritarian deity is harmful (84-91). Yet, I believe the problem lies in Authoritative values rather than in omnipotence (defined as the ability to bring about any logically possible state of affairs in accordance with the divine nature).
Oord cites Calvin to claim there is “no difference between an omnipotent God permitting oppressive authorities or policies and God willing them” (90). I criticize Calvin on this point and explain the difference in God Who Risks 229-233. The difference is between divine determinism and freewill theism, not between omnipotence and freewill theism.
“Solving the Problem of Evil” (95-113). Oord claims to completely solve the problems of moral and natural evils in six steps. I agree with him that God empathizes with our suffering, that God works to heal, and that God works to bring good out of evil. I agree that the freewill defense does not “solve” the problem of evil in the sense that one can still ask questions of God. Elsewhere, Oord has criticized open theists such as Hasker, Polkinghorne, and me for not completely absolving God of any possible questions regarding evil. Though he mentions the freewill defense, Oord does not present Hasker’s freewill and natural order defenses with any substance.
I agree that any view that affirms divine omnipotence or even a non-omnipotent but “mighty God” has legitimate questions regarding evil. Then why retain the concept? A Christian could argue that at least a mighty God is needed to raise Jesus from the dead. That is, I hold that there are trade-offs in theological models. It is commonplace in theodicy to either (1) reject omnipotence and sacrifice some key Christian doctrines or (2) hold on to both omnipotence and key doctrines and admit there are unanswered questions. Oord seems to believe that he has found the holy grail of theodicy such that his model has all the answers and contains no costs to traditional Christian beliefs. If this was the case, I and countless others would be rejoicing, and the discovery of the theodicy grail would go viral on the internet. However, scholars who affirm traditional Christian doctrines such as the resurrection of Jesus conclude that the costs are too high in the essential kenosis model. Oord’s claim that his model can account for the raising of Jesus’s dead body is implausible. (For example, see my “Why Oord’s Essential Kenosis Model Fails to Solve the Problem of Evil While Retaining Miracles.” Wesleyan Journal of Theology (fall, 2016): 174-187 or https://drjohnsanders.com/problems-oords-theodicy-miracles/. I do not find Oord’s response to my criticisms satisfactory. For me, every theological model has costs and questions and I believe it is better to acknowledge them. I believe the essential kenosis model would be more realistic if it dropped the claim of miracles and left the body of Jesus in the grave.
I agree that the problem of evil raises serious questions for those who believe in omnipotence or even a mighty God. One can ask God “why?” or participate in the biblical tradition of lament (see God Who Risks 275). To “solve” the problem of evil requires, according to Oord, a position in which no lament or questions are justifiable. The chapter claims the problem of evil is fatal for omnipotence. It may be fatal if one accepts Oord’s stipulations. But if one does not accept them, as I do not, then the concept of omnipotence has not been killed.
Furthermore, though I agree that the essential kenosis model helps to answer some questions regarding moral evil and suffering, it still falls short of a complete solution. There are even questions about whether Oord’s view absolves God of all questions. On these issues I highly recommend Ryan Mclaughlin’s “Unreasonable Hope: A Critical Evaluation of Thomas Oord’s Eschatology” Modern Theology, 33:2 (2017), 259-274 and his video on Oord’s claim to solve the problem of evil https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXxOoiz5gRc&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR3JDcxx-sFCdt_CKNPD_ipiRi6Hp0azYuorMXiCMgG4r_EU1UphufALs3s. To my knowledge, Oord has not responded to Mclaughlin’s carefully stated criticisms.
I wish that this section of the book had seriously engaged the careful and substantive criticisms that scholars have made about the problems in the essential kenosis theodicy. The chapter fails to deal with the best arguments for other positions or with the best reasoning against the essential kenosis model.
The chapter argues that omnipotence must be rejected to “solve” the problem of evil. However, I believe Oord needs to make a more encompassing claim. Oord states: “God can be powerful and do mighty deeds without being omnipotent” (36). I agree. Yet, there is quite a range of degrees of abilities between an omnipotent God and the God of essential kenosis who cannot move an atom. For instance, a “mighty God” who is not omnipotent could control an event or raise Jesus from the dead. Consider views of God that are clearly not omnipotent such as the Orishas of the Yoruba religion or the gods in some forms of Buddhism. Some of these deities can move a pebble and possibly raise one from the dead. Oord’s position requires that we reject deities with these kinds of abilities because one can ask the question why a deity did not change a specific situation. Thus, the real claim in this book is that any deity with more power than the God of the essential kenosis model must be rejected—not just those that affirm omnipotence. A mighty God who can move a pebble or raise Jesus from the dead must go.
Chapter four makes the case that we should focus on divine “Amipotence” (the power of love). This is the chapter I eagerly anticipated. I agree that Christian theological models should prioritize divine love. Oord writes that love acts “intentionally, in relational response to God and others, to promote overall well-being” (122). Though I agree with several points in this chapter, I want to note that the way Oord articulates amimpotence is not the only way it can be construed. Oord’s essential kenosis model is framed in a heavily process philosophical fashion (especially 130-140) but one could delineate amipotence in an open theist or other relational theological frames as well.
The bulk of the chapter seeks to explain the nature of divine power and how it works in the world according to the essential kenosis model. God is more powerful than other entities in that God is omnipresent to all entities and God is always seeking to influence creatures for the good (123). God and all other entities have both material and mental dimensions (133, 141). God “influences creatures in ways similar to how creatures influence” (130). “The universal, loving Spirit inspires and empowers everything we perceive that is loving, good, true, and beautiful” such that “Without the empowering Spirit, creatures could not do anything” (142). “God gives the abilities to creatures to do good and evil” (142). These claims are common enough among Christians, but I do not understand them in the essential kenosis model. How exactly does a deity who cannot move an electron give an ability to creatures? How is it the case that without God we cannot do anything? Perhaps Oord is using hyperbole here.
I was left wanting more specifics and clarity regarding what God’s power amounts to for the essential kenosis view. Oord spends more time explaining what God does not do than what God does do in relation to creatures. It is unclear to me (from this chapter an Oord’s other books) what the God of essential kenosis can do. He suggests there is a problem for a non-physical God to affect the physical world. He then claims his model “escapes” from this problem by saying God is both physical and non-physical. But if so, what is it that being partly physical enables God to do? Can this God activate a neuron in our brains? If so, how? If not, then I fail to understand how this God is “wooing” and “persuading” us towards the good, the beautiful, and the true. Perhaps Oord will develop answers to such questions. If so, I look forward to reading them.
In conclusion, I agree with Oord that legitimate questions can be raised regarding omnipotence and some people define it in ways that I find quite objectionable. However, his claim to have killed the concept in three chapters is overreach. The first chapter fails because some biblical writers affirm that God can control an event which, according to Oord, is one definition of omnipotence. The arguments in the second chapter result in a dilemma. Either there are two qualifications of omnipotence or there are thousands. If only two, then the concept does not die the death of a thousand qualifications. If there are thousands, then the same reasoning entails that the concepts of divine omniscience and love die the death of a thousand qualifications. The third chapter rightly argues that problem of evil is a significant issue for belief in omnipotence or even a mighty God. However, it is fatal only if one agrees with Oord’s stipulations that no questions whatsoever can be asked of God, and one is willing to jettison major Christian doctrines. Paraphrasing Mark Twain I conclude that “The rumors of omnipotence’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.”