Sanders and Oord in conversation 2

Tom Oord’s reply to my journal article (which criticized his understanding of theodicy and miracles) contains a number of helpful clarifications which help me understand his position better. Yet, I believe he misunderstands some things as well. In what follows I shall briefly address some of the topics raised in his reply that I hope move the dialogue forward and shall attempt to stay away from topics irrelevant to what I consider to be the main issues. In the end, substantive disagreements remain but this does not diminish the respect I have for him as a person and Christian.

Drafts of this response received input from five scholars of open theism including William Hasker and Richard Rice who expressly gave me permission to use their names. These scholars have made a number of suggestions and the response has gone through several revisions. Though I take responsibility for the wording it really is a collaborative effort.

A final introductory note is that my article was not a review of his book but a discussion of a problem I see in his model. A review would have highlighted areas of agreement. The most important agreement is that our views are on the same side of the watershed divide separating theological determinism from freewill theism. Both of our models affirm the nurturing, empathetic, responsive, and loving God common to the freewill tradition. We share this understanding of God with people such as John Wesley and Julian of Norwich. We disagree about some of the theological particulars but we affirm the same general view regarding who God is and the way God relates to creatures. This is an important point that should not be forgotten when discussing our disagreements.

Clarifying some terms

In his response Oord has helped me understand what he means by some terms. Words prompt for our minds to construct meaning from a range of possible meanings. The word “control” has a range of meanings illustrated in the following examples.

  • Greg took control of the hammer from Bill and pounded the nail into the wall.
  • Jane took control of her toddler and placed him in the crib.
  • Susan got control of the students in the classroom after the bunny escaped from the cage.
  • The football team is controlling the clock by running the ball.
  • The Prime Minister controls what the government says.

These are common ways of using the word in English and they illustrate that “control” has a range of meanings that includes degrees of control. The first two are examples of what I call “physical control” of one entity over another. Oord correctly says that he does not use the term “physical control” and questions why I use the term. It was not for insidious reasons but to have a word for the event of one entity being moved by another. We speak of humans bringing such events about and prototypical open theists hold that God brings such events about even though God lacks a local physical body. Open theists have spoken of God controlling physical entities such as water and wind. Some have even spoken of God controlling humans and removing their freewill for a specific moment. Oord says, “Sanders would have correctly represented me had he used “bodily impact” language rather than “control” or “physical control” language.” It seems that Oord wants me to say “Greg bodily impacted the hammer to pound the nail into the wall” and “Jane bodily impacted her toddler and placed her in the crib.” Personally, I do not find this a substantive disagreement between us but I don’t believe that the term bodily impact better communicates what is meant than physical control.

The key issue is, I suspect, that the word “control” seems to be prompt for Oord horrible, no good, very bad things. In his response Oord says, “Just as humans cannot control others in the sense of being a sufficient cause, chemicals also cannot control other entities. They cannot control cancerous cells or viruses (although we may wish they could!), although they often influence them.” So, it seems Oord rejects the use of the word “control” for humans and not just for God.  This seems strange to me given that “control” has a range of meanings regarding the degree to which one entity is affecting another. In the examples above Greg has a degree of control over the hammer that the teacher does not have over her students. In other words, “control” seldom means, what Oord says: “completely” or “entirely” such that the entity “controlled” loses all “self-organization and agency.” The only options are total control on the one hand and persuasion on the other. I see no reason for open theists to accept this false dilemma. Neither a human or God needs to exhaustively determine an entity or its circumstances to bring about a desired outcome. Perhaps God need not exercise total control of water to turn it into wine. Perhaps 53% control will accomplish this. An open theist can hold that God can exercise a degree of control that need not be total.

Related to this is Oord’s rejection of the word “unilateral.” If I understand Oord correctly, we should not say Greg unilaterally pounds the nail into the wall since the hammer retains its self-organization and agency. Instead, we should say the hammer cooperates with Greg such that neither is a sufficient cause. I can agree with this understanding but I believe that if the foreman asks why the plywood is nailed in the wrong place we will hold Greg solely responsible though of course he could not have done it without the hammer.

What is the big deal about the words control and unilateral? My colleague Jay McDaniel (a process theologian) suggests that when process thinkers read these terms it prompts specific extremely negative meanings in their minds. Hence, if open theists use the terms unilateral and control it will conjure meanings incompatible with process metaphysics. In standard process thought God never acts unilaterally and never controls anything. Hence, open theists are wrong to say, for instance, that God unilaterally controlled the storm on the Sea of Galilee since there were other agents involved (wind) which God cannot control in the sense of guaranteeing the result.

It seems to me that open theists can take this into account when addressing process folks. Yet, as explained above, the uses of control and unilateral by open theists are in accord with the central meanings for English speakers. It is process theists who have the shibboleth here and read into the open view ideas that are not present. For most speakers to say Jane unilaterally took control of her toddler and placed him in the crib does not entail that the toddler had no agency or self-organization. When we say Jane was the sufficient cause or was solely responsible for bringing about her toddler being in the crib we do not mean that there was no toddler. At the least, I better understand the background for why Oord objects to these two terms and so I can try to be sensitive about this.

This connects to Oord’s definition of metaphysical control: “In the metaphysical sense, to coerce is to control entirely. This involves unilateral determination, in which the one coerced loses all capacity for causation, self-organization, agency, or free will. To coerce in this metaphysical sense is to act as a sufficient cause…” (Uncontrolling Love 182-3). He says in chapters 4-5 that Arminians and open theists hold that God uses metaphysical coercion. In his response to my article he states:

“In The God Who Risks, Sanders says that “God sometimes decides alone what will happen.” That sounds like metaphysical coercion, in the sense of unilaterally determining. Sanders says “sometimes God unilaterally decides what shall be…” The phrase “unilaterally decides” also sounds like metaphysical coercion, and there is no mention of physical coercion. Sanders also says “there are some things that the almighty God retains the right to enact unilaterally.” The phrase “enact unilaterally” also sounds like metaphysical coercion to me.

To say God acted “alone” and “unilaterally” triggers the meaning metaphysical coercion in Oord’s mind. This is like using the word “predestination” in a class. I can rest assured that most of my students will understand “predestination” in Calvinistic terms. Of course, predestination has a range of meanings but if I say I affirm predestination without informing my students that I have a different meaning than the one they are accustomed to then they will think I affirm Calvinism. Yet, it seems to me that Oord is misunderstanding what open theists mean by “alone” and “unilateral.”

Process theists argue that God never acts alone or unilaterally since other entities always exist. So if God turns water into wine process theists say we must not forget that God worked through the water such that God was not the sufficient cause. Open theist philosophers believe this is a strange understanding of “sufficient cause” but let us set this aside. If the point is simply that God works through wind, humans, water, and the like, then fine.

Can humans exercise metaphysical control?  Again the definition is: “In the metaphysical sense, to coerce is to control entirely. This involves unilateral determination, in which the one coerced loses all capacity for causation, self-organization, agency, or free will.” If I understand Oord correctly, humans cannot metaphysically control another entity. He specifically says that when Jesus chased the money-changers out of the temple that Jesus did not control the money-changers entirely (184). He says that a mother placing a toddler in a crib is not a case of metaphysical coercion.

In the article I quoted David Basinger who makes this point about process theology: “It may well be that no being can unilaterally control another in the sense that the former can cause the latter to be devoid of all power of self-determination.” (181 n. 10). Hasker points out to me that using coercion to mean metaphysical control is a red herring. Only theological determinists, he says, need to affirm divine control in this sense.

When most open theists speak of God acting “unilaterally” or “controlling” something do they believe they are affirming metaphysical coercion? Do they believe that God is “controlling entirely,” and that an entity has lost “all capacity for causation, self-organization, agency, or free will?” Oord says we do and we say we do not. We could refrain from using the words unilateral and control and say instead that God was the one responsible for the event but I don’t think this solves the problem. It seems to me that just as when we say “Greg unilaterally controlled the hammer” this does not imply that there was no self-organization for the hammer. Of course, the hammer exists and is necessary for the act of hammering. If God resurrects the dead body of Jesus there had to be a dead body. Oord says that a mother placing a toddler in a crib is a case of bodily impact, not metaphysical control, since the toddler retains its self-organization and agency. If an open theist says God miraculously brings it about that the toddler floats from the floor into the crib is this an act of metaphysical coercion? Oord says it is but why should we think that if God does this then the toddler has lost all self-organization and agency? (see my article p.180).

Again, one need not exhaustively determine an entity in order to achieve a desired outcome. One can even guarantee a result in some cases without totally controlling an entity or the situation.

Open theists can agree that some outcomes can only be achieved synergistically and we can thank Oord for emphasizing this—even though this idea is present in the books by open theists. Also, we can say that when God works through entities such as wind or water it is not usually “total” or “complete” control. It can be a matter of degree in the same way we understand humans working through other entities. Since “metaphysical control” is not possible for humans and open theists do not believe God uses it when working through entities then metaphysical control is a red herring.


Oord mentions genetic mutations that cause a debilitating condition in a girl. He says, “Because God necessarily gives agency and self-organization to the entities and organs of our bodies, God could not unilaterally prevent Eliana Tova’s ailments. To prevent them would require God to withdraw, override or fail to provide agency and self-organization to her body’s basic organisms, entities and structures” (172). This account seems strange to us on a couple of fronts.

Again, we meet the claim that if God brings about the healing “unilaterally” then it involves metaphysical coercion. Again, why does a traditional understanding of divine healing entail metaphysical coercion? Perhaps God works through the properties in the cancer cells themselves to return them to normal cells. Why must divine miracles entail total control and not simply some degree of control?

Also, note that God cannot prevent cancer cells from forming because it would override the agency of the cells. I interpreted this to mean that God could not want to heal Eliana because that would mean God overrode the self-organization of the cancer cells. In his response Oord provides an explanation: “Analogously, God giving agency and self-organization to cells that become cancerous and to genes that harmfully mutate is like the idea that God gives freedom to humans who then choose to use that freedom wrongly.” So God can want to change cancer cells just as God wants to change our sinful behavior. God wants to change my sinful behavior but cannot guarantee it without overriding my freewill. Do cancer cells have freewill so God cannot override their freewill? Oord rejects this explanation in his book (p. 210 n. 38).

He seems to say that God can want to “heal” the cancer cells in my body but cannot guarantee it without overriding the self-organization of the cells. Again, why does healing require a total overriding of the cells self-organization?

Why cannot God guarantee that the cancer cells not form in the first place? Oord says God cannot “prevent” cancer cells from forming since that would override their agency. Why does God not want to override the agency of mutant cells? Because that would be unloving. Hasker points out that mainstream process theists say that God can try to “lure” and “persuade” the cells not to become cancerous but the metaphysical relationship between God and the cells is such that God cannot ensure that this happens—God cannot guarantee the result. For the essential kenosis model God loves the cells so much that God never interferes with their agency and self-organization even when they do harm to a creature. Hence, though God may want to save the child’s life God is unable to want to prevent the cancer from forming. Standard process views say God wants to heal the cancer cells but simply lacks the power to do so. Essential kenosis entails that God loves the cells and so cannot prevent them becoming cancerous.


Oord thinks that I demand he explain completely how God brings about a miracle and says that is an impossible standard. I heartily agree and did not word my concern well. What I was trying to say is the same thing I stated elsewhere: that I don’t find his three strategies for explaining how God brings about miracles to be persuasive given his metaphysics. This is especially acute regarding the resurrection of Jesus. In the standard open theist model God can guarantee the resurrection of Jesus at the time needed. Essential kenosis cannot guarantee the resurrection at the needed time let alone water changing into wine at the needed time and place. It seems that in the essential kenosis model God got really, really, lucky that the molecules of Jesus’s corpse decided to cooperate with God’s lure of novel possibilities and somehow brought themselves back to life. That is why it seems like a just-so story to open theists who believe God was responsible for raising Jesus from the dead and that God could guarantee that Jesus’s corpse would return to life at just the moment God wanted it do so.

Is the key issue between the standard open theist model and Oord’s model whether or not God can guarantee the result? I suspect it is. For the open theist God can guarantee that Jesus’ dead body will return to life.

Biblical miracles are “signs and wonders” that call attention to something God is doing in history. God worked through the prophets Elijah and Elisha to bring messages to Israel. Some of the signs they performed involved feeding a particular widow during a famine and healing Naaman of leprosy. Jesus says there were many needy widows and people in need of healing but God sent these prophets to only these two individuals (Luke 4:25-27). Were these the only widows and lepers who cooperated with God to be healed? The standard open theist view says God can guarantee the miracle at the needed time in order that the miracle serve as a sign to God’s redemptive work. In the essential kenosis model God gets lucky every now and then when entities cooperate with God. If so, then why should we think of these fortuitous events as signs and wonders of God’s mission?

Explaining why more divine healings do not occur is a problem for the standard open theist view and we have addressed it though we acknowledge that our position is not without questions. Oord puts forward a different account and then explains why divine healings fail to occur. “The organisms, body parts, organs and cells of our bodies can resist God’s offer of new forms of life that involve healing. These creaturely elements and organisms have agency too, and this agency can sometimes thwart miracles” (213). Oord is claiming much more here than simply that Jesus wanted to do more miracles but was prevented from doing so because the people lacked faith. We can agree with Oord that Jesus’ healing of the man born blind involved the cooperation of the blind man. But what about all the other blind people that God presumably wants to heal and they have faith that God can heal them? According to Oord, the problem always is on the part of those not healed in that they fail to cooperate with God. Human persons lack faith in God while entities such as cells refuse God’s persuasion. So God is persuasive in the cases when Jesus healed people and the water was willing to cooperate with God by changing into wine and wind listened to God and the decaying molecules in Jesus’ body were persuaded to return to life just when God needed them to do so. These just happen without any divine guarantee—God got lucky.

But on the other hand God is not able to persuade the cancer cells to heal in 5% of children with cancer. Most of the time the God of essential kenosis is not very persuasive. Alan Rhoda makes a point about divine persuasion that seems relevant to Oord’s position.

“[P]rocess theists face a dilemma: God’s persuasive power vis-a`-vis the world process is either high or it is not. If it is high, then God’s influence should make a big difference in the long run, with God getting His way much more often than not. But then it might be charged that there is far more evil in the world than we should expect given an all-good God with high persuasive power. Process theists will then need to offer theodicies and/or play the sceptic card to explain why we shouldn’t expect so much. If, however, God’s persuasive power is often low, then we have less reason to expect the long-run distribution of evils in the world to reflect God’s influence, but we then have more reason to wonder whether a God with so little influence really qualifies for the divine title.” (Gratuitous Evil and Divine Providence, 2010, p. 299).

One could still expect that a God who never exhaustively controls things to accomplish more to heal people and prevent evil. The essential kenosis model still has questions about the problem of evil. My article was not really about this issue (though others are criticizing essential kenosis on this). Instead, it addressed the problem of claiming that God is successful in having miracles occur at just the right time and place while also claiming that God cannot prevent evil from occurring.

In general, open theist scholars believe this is a problem for the essential kenosis model and the explanation offered by this model for how miracles occur seems to us quite implausible. In particular, the account of the resurrection of Jesus is unconvincing. Oord believes our assessment here is incorrect. If his goal is to persuade others then he has work to do.

The Love of God

Oord asserts that a problem with Sanders’s view is that divine love is not preeminent. I did not discuss this in the article but Oord makes this criticism in both his book and his reply to my article. Let me say that I found his discussion of divine love in the book quite helpful. He presents ways of understanding God’s love that are beneficial and that I wish to employ. Yet, when I read this criticism in his book I did not feel it accurately characterized my view.  He writes: “His [Sanders] statements about God creating are especially illustrative of the priority in God of controlling power over persuasive love.” I presume he is referring to my ideas that God did not have to create and that God created ex nihilo. I, along with other standard open theists, affirm the social trinity and hold that love is eternal in the godhead and so speculate that God did not have to create in order to experience love. For me, the triune God decided to share the internal love of the trinity with beings external to God which did not, as yet, exist. There is divine power to create ex nihilo but I don’t agree that this places the priority of divine power over divine love. However, to be precise, what Oord says is that my approach places “controlling power over persuasive love.” Of course, for those who affirm creation ex nihilo there is nothing, prior to creation, for God to persuade. Also, this can be understood as power in the service of love because the eternally loving trinity decided to use power to create things which did not exist and once God brings them into existence then there are beings which God loves. Hence, there are ways of stating the open theist position that takes Oord’s concern into account. Since Oord rejects creation ex nihilo his model can affirm that there was always something external to God for God to seek to persuade. That is understandable but it does not mean that all who affirm creation ex nihilo place controlling power over persuasive love since there were no entities prior to creation.

Also, please note that I say in God Who Risks: “’God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8). John Wesley took this statement to be the preeminent characteristic of God, and recently Kevin Vanhoozer has said that God’s love should be the structuring principle providing thematic unity to all other doctrines” (GWR 177).  In the coauthored  Openness of God, Rick Rice says that love is the central attribute of God. Again, I thank Oord for helping us think more about what it means to have love as the preeminent characteristic of God yet his claims that open theists subsume love to power are incorrect.

Agreeing that divine love is preeminent does not require us to affirm the metaphysics Oord endorses. An open theist can affirm much of what Oord says about essential kenosis and still come to the same conclusions regarding miracles and evil that open theists have held. The crucial issue is the metaphysical commitments which direct Oord to his particular views. I, along with Bill Hasker and Richard Rice (and several other open theist scholars who have contacted me) believe that Oord affirms the metaphysics of process thought though he does modify it in the following way. “For Oord, God is not limited by external forces as in standard process views but solely by the divine nature. In process thought God lacks the power to move a spoon from one side of a table to another. For Oord, God cannot do this for two reasons. First, God lacks the type of body necessary to move a spoon. Second, because God loves the self-organization of the spoon and the regularities of nature.” (Sanders, “Why Oord’s Essential Kenosis” 177 n. 6.).

This raises a question about Oord’s model: is it primarily a process or openness proposal?

The terms “open theism” and “openness of God” came into common use with the publication of The Openness of God. What theologians, philosophers, and others mean by open theism was established in that book along with Most Moved Mover, God Who Risks, and God of the Possible. Those books present a recognizable model of God and divine providence now over 20 years old.

In his book Oord sharply criticizes the standard openness model held by Pinnock, Hasker, Rice, Boyd, and Sanders for failing to “solve” the problem of evil. He then presents his own distinct model as superior. Given his criticisms of the open view in his many publications as well as his use of process metaphysics, I and other open theist scholars, interpreted Oord’s model to be an alternative to open theism. However, in his response Oord says “I do not reject open theism. I affirm it.” This is surprising to a number of us. Oord says he intends to criticizedthe open theist model and then offer a different openness model. We did not take it that way at all.

In his previous publications (e. g., “The Divergence of Evangelical and Process Theologies: Is the Impasse Insurmountable?”) we understood Oord to be working on a model that is in between open theism and process theology or that seeks to combine elements of each. So, when I read his criticism of “the openness model” in chapters 5-6 of his book and then read his own model in opposition to it, I interpreted this to be a model different from open theism (though not different in all respects). Oord uses the terms “open and relational” to categorize his account. At the American Academy of Religion there is a group called “open and relational theology” which includes some open theists but the majority, it seems to me, are process theists. So, I take “relational” here to mean process theology which is one reason why I interpreted Oord’s model to be an attempt to blend process with openness.

Oord challenges me to define an essence for open theism and then show how his model does not fit this essence. Alan Rhoda has done a lot of work on the necessary and sufficient conditions for open theism. That work is helpful but I will leave it to others to assess Oord’s model in light of them. Here I simply want to acknowledge that there are variations of theological models, including open theism. My approach to the issue of definition uses prototype theory. Take the category “bird” for example. If we think of a bird most of us will think of a particular bird the size of a Robin with feathers and which flies. It serves as the best example of the category. If asked about ostriches and penguins we will say they are birds but are not good representatives. Hence, the category is radial with a center and then other examples that share a family resemblance to the center but are further away.  I take prototypical open theism to be the view expressed in books such as the Openness of God, Most Moved Mover, and GWR. There can be variations that share a family resemblance but will not be seen as the prototype. Prototypes can change over time, just think of the way phones are changing, so it is possible that what we today call open theism could be different in several decades. On the other hand, just because something has wings and flies does not make it a bird. Think of bats, for example. So, the open theist community can discuss whether Oord’s model is more like a bat or a penguin.

Other open theist scholars have pointed out to me that Oord has helpfully called attention to some similarities between certain forms of process theology and open theism. Yet, they add that the core differences between open and process views remain and they believe that the essential kenosis proposal bears more family resemblances to process thought even though it is not the prototypical process view.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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