Having just put on the Misfits Theology Conference and having Thomas Jay Oord as our Keynote speaker has sparked a lot of dialogue. To that end, I thought it would be good to post an excerpt from my book that touches on the subject. I imagine some of our bloggers will also write something in response to Tom, so keep an eye out!
God can do only what is good. In this, his omnipotence is purely reflective and bound to his essence and being, which is love. God being bound to himself, which is the source from which logic finds its existence, can do no other thing that is outside the realm of logic. God cannot make a rock too heavy that he cannot lift, nor can he do any action to his creation that is outside his Sovereignty of love. Sovereignty is done an undue injustice when it is defined outside of God being understood as love. In response to Calvin’s popular idea of Sovereignty, a Scottish Presbyterian theologian James Orr (1844-1913) criticized it because in it, “love is subordinated to sovereignty, instead of sovereignty to love.”
For sovereignty must be defined according to love. Sovereignty or omnipotence rightly understood is primarily what God can do, not that of which he is limited too. For a God who is perfect and unchanging, there is no need or ability to perform any actions that is outside of his love and logic. Just as a good tree cannot bear bad fruit neither can God do evil. For a God who has the ability to do “all things” including evil is not a God that allows for a permanent universal law of morals. Thus, if this universal law of morals is to exist, there needs to be an unchanging preexistent being (that can do nothing but good ) from which the law of morals has its own existence. At this point one may say, “this in fact limits the freedom of God, for this says God cannot do all things.”
But this, like all things, depends on how you define God’s freedom. It seems to me that for God to be constant and unchanging in his essence, and for a universal set of morals to exist, God cannot have libertarian freewill. He cannot be capable of doing all things (i.e. determinism). Only finite creatures such as ourselves must necessarily have libertarian freedom. God’s freedom must, therefore, be defined differently. For God to be free means to do that which is in accordance with God’s nature. God’s nature is love, and because God can and only ever love he is free.
Eastern Orthodox Theologian and walking thesaurus (as Peter Enns calls him) David Bently Hart says in his book The Doors Of The Sea, “…God is infinite actuality, the source and end of all being, the eternally good, for whom mere arbitrary “choice”-as among possibilities that somehow exceed his “present” actuality – would be a deficiency, a limitation placed upon his infinite power to be God. His freedom is the impossibility of any force, pathos, or potentiality interrupting the perfection of his nature or hindering him in the realization of his own illimitable goodness, in himself and in his creatures.” In other words, for Hart, God having the ability to choose anything other than the infinite goodness that God already is would be an actual limitation on God. Because God is already perfect, he has no need to be or do any other thing than he already does. For God, the so-called “ability” to do evil – anything outside of God’s own essence/nature/being of love – would rather be a limitation on God.
Speaking about God having the ability to do evil, Hart says further, “To be ‘capable’ of evil – to be able to do evil or to be affected by an encounter with it – would in fact be an incapacity in God; and to require evil to bring about his good ends would make him less than the God he is.” In other words, a God who is truly good and powerful has no need to do evil and doing so would only tarnish his goodness. Instead, he is able to accomplish his plan only through his goodness. He goes on to further say that, “The object of God’s will is his own infinite goodness, and it is an object perfectly realized, and so he is free.” For Hart, freedom has more to do with attaining the objective of one’s nature, rather than being able to choose between opposing options (i.e. libertarian freewill). For God true freedom is the ability to be who God is. For if God is the source of all being, in fact, the very ground of being, the source of love and infinite goodness, then how could God do any other thing than be who God has always been and always will be.
According to Hart, “To be free is to be able to flourish as the kind of being one is, and so attain the ontological good toward which one’s nature is oriented; freedom is the unhindered realization of a complex nature in its proper end (natural and supernatural), and this consummate liberty and happiness.” Although Hart applies this kind of freedom to both human beings as well as to God, I can full heartily agree with this definition when only applied to God. For finite creatures, it is not necessary for us to not be able to do anything but love in order to secure an objective morality. In fact, it seems for us to have any meaningful relational knowledge of God, we ourselves must be able to choose between opposing options (i.e. libertarian freewill).
Furthermore, love is a logical necessity. It is not as if love and logic are at odds with one another. Instead, like all good things, logic flows from love, which is Gods very being. Of course, God can do all possible things. But one must define what they mean by possible. I doubt, however, that it is necessary to define possibility in such a way that would allow for anything outside the realm of love and logic to occur as an action of God. This would seem absurd as God would then better reflect the character of a raging lunatic rather than that of a being that is love and that of which all good things flow from.
I imagine at this point, some of my Calvinist friends may say, “but God can do all things that please him” or in other words, God can do whatever he chooses that operates from his will. God can do all things which please him, but certainly not all things please him! Again, if you believe in a good and loving God then you must admit that there are certainly things that do not give him any sort of pleasure. It is examples such as the holocaust that I hear the rhetoric that God does all things for his glory. This appears to me as a copout rather than an intelligent, well thought out scheme of universal purpose for all things.
Of course, even this requires a definition. For from your definition does your theology flow. A God who requires all things to be for his glory seems to be a rather petty and selfish God. Seeming more like that of the pagan gods from the Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern pantheons. I quiet imagine this is where we have inherited this current notion of Gods glory. Gods glory is actually a rather wonderful object of affection. For this glory is selfless.
Far from the kind of glory the pagan gods demand, this glory is the very essence of God’s being, God’s very presence, love. Or as Austin Fischer has said, “The glory of God is the glory of love.” This glory calls us to allow God’s love to flow through our very being; it invites us into right relationship with God, and into an unleashing of God’s all-consuming love in the reconciliation of all creation. At this point, I may sound more like an annoying gong rather than any sort of theologian. However, I think this is a matter of great importance, for if we depart at even one moment from having our theology centered around God as love, then we have left a house worth living in.