Tom Oord and the logic of contingent being

41ogX8m9AuL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Hi friends. Hope everybody had a wonderful Thanksgiving. And we wish a blessed Christmas season to all. Let me first say that Dwayne and I hope to resume blogging on a limited scale after the first of the year. We’ll describe then what that will look like and how our interests may be changing.

For now I’d like to share some very brief thoughts on Tom Oord’s (or TJ as he’s sometimes called, which will have to do for us since we already have a Tom here!) new book The Uncontrolling Love of God. Reviews are showing up. More are forthcoming. I hope to engage it after the holidays as well. Roger Olson briefly expresses questions and concerns here, but it’s something TJ says in his response to Roger that I’d like to think aloud on for a moment.

Let me begin by saying that though we don’t know each other extremely well, I do consider TJ to be a friend and I respect his passion for God and his academic work. It is as friends that we have disagreed. TJ has done more than anyone I know to promote, as he calls it, “open and relational theologies,” and that emphasis has brought people who never would have been in conversation into conversation. I think that’s a good thing and TJ is to be credited with that. I particularly appreciate his kind demeanor and conversational style.

So, to begin. I know TJ grants the fundamental distinction between God as metaphysically necessary and all else as contingent. God alone is self-sufficient; he alone accounts for his existence. All created entities are sustained in their being by God, i.e., none are self-sustaining. I think our main differences with TJ begin here, in what we see as a failure on his part to appreciate the implications of this distinction. If we explore that at length, it’ll have to be later. For now, I want just to comment on a particular statement TJ makes in his response to Roger, namely, the claim that “God never acts as a sufficient cause.” I don’t think TJ can consistently maintain this, given his agreement on the metaphysical contingency of created entities, and I think it’s rather obvious why.

I’m not speaking here of the process that creation takes via its capacities for self-determination to realize this or that possibility. We’re logically antecedent to that, at a place where the logic of ‘uncreated’ vs ‘created’, of metaphysically necessary vs metaphysically contingent, being comes into view. And it seems to us that here TJ has to grant divine sufficient causation (or modify aspects of his cosmology). Now, it may be that what God sustains are the creature’s limited capacities or dispositions for some measured self-determination, leaving the movement from particular possibilities to actualities contingent upon created dispositions whose exercise is not a foregone conclusion of divine will or knowledge. We have no issue with that. And surely we must also say that the being of created entities possesses its own integrity—i.e., creation truly exists as other than God, and whatever constitutes the integrity of created reality per se is not violated by God since that integrity is God-given and is the creature’s reality as such. This integrity is the product of God’s creative act. But unless TJ wants to suggest that created entities are self-sufficient for their existence as such, he seems committed at this level to concede that God acts as sufficient cause. Whatever God’s providential actions within creation may be with respect to particular outcomes, God must still be viewed as sufficiently sustaining the very capacities of created particulars. Even if those particulars determine themselves within a limited scope, they do not share in determining their existence as such. We contingent creatures are not self-sustaining, and so not causes of our existing per se. Existence is given, and that giveness entails the sufficiency of the divine act of creating as an act of giving being to beings.

I don’t mean here to propose occasionalism, rather only that the logic of uncreated (necessary) vs created (contingent) being itself requires the former to be the sufficient cause of the ‘being’ or ‘existence’ of the latter. This goes without saying. Creature’s do not create themselves, nor can they be said to sustain their own existence. If this much is so, then it’s not the case, as TJ says, that God “can never act as a sufficient cause.” On the contrary, if created entities are metaphysically contingent, their continued existence as such is by definition contingent upon some other act which sufficiently accounts for their existing at all. And only God, the one self-sufficient act of being (which is what it means to say God alone exists necessarily, something TJ concedes), can be that which is always acting within created entities, the sufficient cause of all that exists but is not self-existent. To appreciate what it means to say God is the self-existent ground and act which ‘gives being to beings’ and that no contingent thing can participate in being the cause of its own existence, is, we think, to touch upon that which makes much of TJ’s project so objectionable.

Now, TJ may reply by agreeing that, sure, on this level God sufficiently accounts for the existence per se of created entities. That reply will take the conversation in a particular direction (which will have to wait till next year). But I suspect that TJ will reply by persisting in his view that God can never be the sufficient cause of anything because (on TJ’s view) there’s always some contingent world that God acts with to bring about new worlds, i.e., TJ posits an infinite series of distinct worlds each created out of the previous, so God never stands in a sufficient relationship to whatever exists contingently. No matter how far back you go, there’s always a turtle underneath the turtle you’re on and so no moment in the series for God to relate sufficiently to anything. This takes the conversation in a slightly different direction (which also will have to wait until next year as well).

Merry Christmas!

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7 comments on “Tom Oord and the logic of contingent being

  1. Thomas Oord says:

    Tom,

    TJ here. (Actually, in High School more people called me TO than Tom!)

    I use the word “sufficient cause” as identical to “unilateral determination.” So my claim is that God never is the sole determining factor/being for any creaturely existent. God is a necessary cause for all others. For this reason, we rightly say God sustains all creation. But I think all creatures also result from the influence of previous creaturely causation and the self-causation of the creature itself.

    As for an infinite series of contingent creatures, you’re right to say I affirm this. My doctrine of creation says that God always creates through uncontrolling love, and God always creates out of that which existed previously. This means the causal influence of the past has genuine influence in the creation of creatures in the present.

    Thanks again!

    Tom

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  2. TO/TJ: Over my head, but are you suggesting an infinite regress of finite beings (aka Mormonism’s error of finite godism/eternal matter, etc.)? God is uncreated triune Creator, but creation/creatures have not always existed (God and man are ontologically distinct). Can you clarify (assuming you can figure out what I am asking)?

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  3. tgbelt says:

    TJ, thanks for the article. I actually did already have it (elsewhere in the office), and it’s with respect to views you share there (and elsewhere) that I was responding. So I’m tracking with you fine. And your qualification on “sufficient causation” as well is how I was reading you to begin with. Perhaps after the New Year when we pick up blogging again I’ll be able to give some time to describing what’s objectionable about your take. In the meantime, Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Tom Torbeyns says:

    Your argument makes sense, Tom Belt! 🙂

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