The Essential Goodness of God
If you’ve been reading my posts for awhile you might know that I ascribe to a theology that generally goes by three different terms. Essential Kenosis is the fancy technical term I use when I want to sound smart. God Can’t theology is the provocative title meant to raise some eyebrows but is usually intended for a general audience. And lastly the term I’ll use in this post is the Uncontrolling Love of God.
The basic tenets of this theology are 1) that God’s very nature, that is, what makes God God, is Love, as the author of 1 John testified. And 2) that Love is inherently uncontrolling. Hence God is Uncontrolling Love. This means that when tragedies like the coronavirus happen or the holocaust God is not responsible for failing to prevent such events. For although God is always seeking the good (the overall well being of all God’s creatures since it is God’s very nature and essence to be uncontrolling Love) God gives all of creation freedom. Since God necessarily gives freedom and cannot control, God can never retract that freedom and therefore cannot singlehandedly stop tragic events that otherwise make the world a worse place than it could be. While this is a quick and simple explanation it hopefully supplies you with a basic framework for knowing what I mean when I say God is uncontrolling love. If you want to delve into it more just google Thomas Jay Oord and any of the three terms for this theology and check out one of the books or articles he’s written or a podcast he’s been interviewed on.
Don’t Read You’re 21st Century Theology Back Onto the Church Fathers
Now suffice that all to say that in this post I’m going to discuss the Church Father Origen in relation to the theology of uncontrolling love. As we will see, while Origen himself may not have held to a full-fledged theology of Essential Kenosis some of his own theology shows seeds of it. Seeds which when given the proper conditions could easily bloom into what today is known as the uncontrolling love of God. Jewish Biblical Scholar Benjamin Sommer in his book Revelation and Authority discusses the legitimacy of taking a theologian’s ideas from long ago, who may not have gone as far as us in our own thinking and using those ideas to the service of further developing our own thoughts on the subject at hand. He beautifully articulates this in the following statement:
“Thinkers sometimes do not articulate or even realize crucial implications of their own ideas…One thinker may have an insight that cannot be easily expressed or even fully understood in the conceptual language of his own day, but a later author, equipped with habits of thought unavailable earlier, can take up that insight, grasp it more thoroughly than the thinker who first propounded it, and articulate it in ways the original thinker could not imagine. To use Aristotelian terminology: the new formulation actualizes a potential. that was present in the original insight.” Pg. 96-97.
In other words, imagine the seed of a great Redwood or Apple tree. The seed of course has the potential to develop and grow into what may seem impossible if one just looks at the seed in front of us. But in reality that seed has all of the potential to become one of the great Redwood trees we know today or to become one of our favorite apple trees (Honey Crisp in case you were wondering). So while I think it would be irresponsible to claim the Church Fathers in general or Origen, in particular, held to what we now have fully fleshed out as the uncontrolling Love of God, I can’t help but see the seeds there.
With all that in mind lets take a look at what Origen had to say.
Origen and the Goodness of God
In Origen’s book titled On First Principles, he rather beats a dead horse repeatedly when it comes to the matter of humans possessing free will. (Which I’m a big fan of myself) To Origen, all rational creatures, of which humans certainly are included, (although in light of contemporary American culture and politics we may doubt this) have free will, that is, the ability to choose both virtue and vice, good or evil. In regard to this Origen writes, “According to us, however, there is nothing amongst all rational creation that is not capable of both good and evil.” Pg. 68 Said another way, humans are not bound to choose evil or sin as the Protestant doctrine of Total Depravity would have us believe. But humans are also not bound to choose good as many in the West and Mainline progressive churches would sometimes claim. Rather for Origen, if humans are to be truly responsible and culpable for their actions, whether good or bad, they must have the ability to choose those actions. As an interesting side note for Origen, this capability to choose virtue or vice extends to all rational creatures, such as the angels and even to the Devil himself.
Now you may be wondering how this all relates to the uncontrolling love of God. Well for Origen while rational creatures (creatures meaning they are created by God) may have the capability to freely choose virtue or vice God certainly does not. Here he states, “…for goodness did not exist in them essentially [rational creatures], as it does in God and his Christ and the Holy Spirit. For in this Trinity alone, which is the author of all things, does goodness exist essentially; others possess it as an accident and something that can be lost…” Pg. 54-55 In other words, what Origen is saying, is that goodness is an essential quality of God alone, God is the Good. The only being that is Good by nature is God. For creatures it is accidental not in the sense that they accidentally become good but that God gives them the ability to choose good or evil, it is therefore not an essentail aspect of their nature.
Going one after referring to Satan’s own ability to choose good or evil he reiterates that while creatures can choose the good or bad God alone cannot choose the evil, “so also other creatures, having the capacity for either, by avoiding evil by their will, they cleave to the good. There is no nature, therefore, which does not allow in good or evil except the nature of God, which is the fountain of all good things, and of Christ: for he is wisdom, and wisdom assuredly is not able to allow folly in: and he is righteousness, and righteousness will certainly never allow unrighteousness in: and he is word and reason, which indeed cannot be made irrational: moreover, he is also light, and it is certain that darkness does not overcome the light. Similarly, also, the nature of the Holy Spirit, being Holy, does not admit of pollution, for it is naturally or substantially holy.” Pg. 68-69. Said another way, Origen of the 3rd century believed that God is only able to be Good. God cannot be or choose evil. Since God is the Good God cannot allow evil into God’s nature. Since God is Wisdom God cannot allow folly to enter God’s nature. Since God is Righteousness, unrighteousness can never be an attribute or character trait of God. This is essentially in agreement with the uncontrolling love of God theology that says God is by nature Love/Good and cannot choose to be otherwise. God must always act according to God’s nature, and since God’s nature is Good/Love God can only be Good and Loving. While Origen does not state explicitly that God cannot control free creatures (a key component of the uncontrolling love of God theology) his emphasis on the freedom of creatures and God’s essential Goodness certainly would lean that way. Or maybe, it is the seed of the tree, of what we have come to know as Essential Kenosis.
So while we may hesitate to say that Origen had a full-blown God Can’t theology there are certainly elements of his thoughts about God that are in agreement with Essential Kenosis. Particularly his thoughts here that God is Good and cannot choose to be otherwise. This I put forward is the foundation of the uncontrolling love of God. A theology that’s name first appeared in a book by Thomas Jay Oord about 10 years ago but that would seem to have some seeds, in at least one Early Church father, that are just beginning to blossom into a full grown tree. Time will tell exactly what kind of tree it is.