Sometimes it’s difficult to determine precisely why we believe what we do, and I think it’s only fair to admit that we might only believe what we do because we stand in a particular tradition of interpretation, even though we might claim legitimate biblical support for it. One area where this is obvious to me is the canon of Scripture. As a Protestant, I do not hold the apocryphal books – such as Tobit, Ecclesiasticus, and Bel and the Dragon – as authoritative Scripture; but as a member of the Church of England, I do not reject them outright as I might have done in my earlier years (I came to faith in a Brethren-influenced independent evangelical church). Indeed, as a member of the Church of England, I am not above reading the apocryphal books as part of my devotions, because Article 6 of the Thirty-Nine Articles allows the Church to read them ‘for example of life and instruction of manners’, even though they shouldn’t be used ‘to establish any doctrine’. So the question arising here is simply this: Do I accept an authoritative canon of sixty-six books simply because I am an Anglican? Honesty compels me to answer this in the affirmative, not least because nowhere do the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon advise me of the specific texts that should constitute the Protestant canon.
Another area where our psychology affects what we believe is surely the doctrine of providence. I remember listening to a sermon about twelve or thirteen years ago, not too long after the 9/11 attacks, and when open theism was the outrageous Evangelical heterodoxy of the age. The preacher admitted she couldn’t accept that God did not or could not foresee the destruction of the World Trade Center. After all, she added (and I’m paraphrasing here), what comfort can be found in worshipping a God who doesn’t know for sure what’s going to happen?
The psychology at play here appears to be of the sort that takes comfort in knowing the path ahead, or at least in knowing Someone who knows the path ahead. One only has to read John Calvin to see the beating pastoral heart within a doctrine of divine pancausality. But the flip side of this, of course, is that psychology which cannot accept that God would determine bad or evil things to happen – things such as the recent Paris attacks, to name an obvious recent atrocity now indelibly seared onto the eyes of Western consciousness. Some might take comfort from knowing that for currently imperceptible reasons, God somehow caused (remember: Calvin himself saw no distinction between God’s causing and God’s permitting of an event) the Paris attacks; but many cannot. And for many of those who cannot accept God’s determination here, a theology of providence such as open theism – a theology that posits a God who doesn’t see the future, who willingly limits divine foreknowledge seemingly to allow for genuinely free creaturely actions, good or ill – offers more comfort than a teaching that ostensibly makes God the instigator of every murder, every rape, and every injustice and catastrophe that has ever happened, is happening, and ever will happen. But for every person repelled by such an understanding of God, there is another who’s cheered by knowing that nothing happens without God’s meticulous orchestration. Both sides will draw passages from Scripture to make their points; but the point I’m making here is that it’s our psychology, our mind-set, that shapes what we believe about God’s providence and why we believe it.
I cannot comment on Oord’s wider argument, as I’ve not read The Uncontrolling Love of God. But to ascertain the legitimacy or otherwise of Oord’s argument is not my objective here. Instead, I’ll draw attention to the next paragraph in his blog post:
I find comfort in believing that God could not have stopped the terrorist attacks. If a loving God could have prevented them, I think this God should have done so. But if divine love is such that God is metaphysically unable to thwart such attacks, I can without scruples maintain my faith in the steadfast love of God. My hope is that this uncontrolling love will one day winsomely win all creation to right relationship.
Note well: ‘I find comfort in believing that God could not have stopped the terrorist attacks.’ Once more, the psychology behind the doctrine of providence plays its part. Some find an all-determining God comforting: nothing happens outside the will of God. Others find a self-limiting or self-constrained God comforting: God does not know what will happen, but God is with us all the same. And still others – assuming Oord is not in a minority of one – find comfort knowing that while God cannot prevent what happens through creaturely self-determination, some day God will triumph. Regardless of what one thinks about these three basic positions (can each of these be summarised more simply as ‘God does determine’, ‘God does not determine’, and ‘God cannot determine’?), I cannot help but think that each is shaped primarily by what their champions find to be of most comfort.
And in case you’re wondering, I am comforted knowing that God is faithful to God’s plans for the whole universe – guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus, and anticipated in the Spirit-filled Christian community as it consumes the body and blood of Christ – and knowing that we can protest against injustice and lament the absurd presence of evil in this good world.