The statement “God is love” is as close as scripture comes to defining the nature and character of the Triune God. If such is true, then why is it that “many theologians write their formal theologies with love as an afterthought,” and not as the centerpiece of their theological endeavors? In response to this perennial concern, Thomas Jay Oord has written The Nature of Love: A Theology.
Systematic theologies have often began the discussion of theology proper by emphasizing themes other than God’s love as the apex of all that can be said about God. Ideas such as God’s sovereignty, the church, eschatology or a closely related axiom have come to dominate and therefore create a picture of God that is lacking.
Oord begins by providing a definition of love based in the witness of scripture –
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.
With a well-rounded, biblically informed definition in place, Oord then moves forward in the next three chapters by examining and critiquing the writings on love by Anders Nygren (Agape Theology), Augustine of Hippo (Love as desire) and Clark H. Pinnock (Open Theology and love). He concludes the final chapter by offering a view of God’s love in Jesus Christ as the center of God’s nature, while using the three aforementioned authors as conversation partners. He then proposes a new theology of love he calls Essential Kenosis, and offers a series of practical ways in which this theory affects other biblical themes such as creation, ethics, eschatology, miracles and Christ’s resurrection.
Oord disagrees with the typical kenosis theologies on a number of important levels. Other theories suggest that God’s love is essential within the Trinity, but contingent in relation to creation. Oord’s fundamental concern centers on the contingent aspect of God’s love. If God’s love is intrinsic to what it means to be God, then God’s love is essential in all respects; within the Trinity and towards creation. Based in the witness of scripture, and supremely in Jesus Christ, God’s love cannot be split in two, regardless of the subject at hand. In the end, God loves necessarily, both within Trinitarian relations and towards creation (what Oord calls involuntary kenosis).
Traditional theories propose that God voluntarily self-limits Himself in relation to creation, whereas Oord’s view is one of involuntary divine self-limitation. The difference between the two is that the latter removes the contingent aspect of love in relation to creation. That is, there is nothing outside of God that imposes limitations on Him, and any limitations in God exist by virtue of God’s own nature – what it means to be God. As one whose nature is love, God necessarily gives freedom and/or agency to others and cannot “withdraw, override, or fail to provide freedom/agency” (126).
As a result, Essential Kenosis offers a new way of thinking about the simplicity of God’s love, particularly as it relates to the problem of evil (Oord’s primary concern). Oord believes that the theory “clears God from any credible charge of culpability for causing or failing to prevent genuine evil” (126). God’s essential love for creation makes freedom necessary and irrevocable. Genuine evils occur when human beings misuse this freedom to undermine rather than promote love (over all well-being). God, therefore, never uses coercion to manipulate human choice, but utilizes persuasive love in His attempts to move people forward to choose love over evil. As before, this removes culpability on God’s part and helps to explain why evil is permitted.
In relation to miracles and eschatology (theology of the last things), Oord’s theory prioritizes God’s inability to utilize coercion and emphasizes persuasive love and human cooperation with God’s love as the primary means to witnessing miracles and bringing redemption through to its final consummation. Both of these ideas, Oord claims, are deeply rooted in the biblical witness.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I deeply appreciate Oord’s emphasis on Divine love as the primary characteristic of God’s nature and the time he spent thinking about the practical application of that idea. His ability to analyze and converse with three very different theological traditions and their love proposals proved to be very helpful in shaping and adding weight to his overall argument.
I do, however, wished he had spent more time developing the theory of essential kenosis by relating it specifically to Jesus’ inauguration of the Kingdom of God. He mentioned the idea briefly on Page 20, but never really brought the idea to bear on his arguments thereafter (at least not in a direct way). If establishing the Kingdom of God was of central significance in the ministry of Jesus (and it was), and if Oord desired to make his theory truly christocentric in orientation, he should have allotted more time to what he called “God’s loving reign.”
In and through the ministry of Jesus Christ, God’s reign was articulated and demonstrated in a multitude of ways. Miracles, exorcisms, preaching, teaching, and healing all proved that God’s kingdom had been inaugurated in Christ. If God’s love is demonstrated to creatures by granting them genuine freedom, and creaturely cooperation is the means whereby God’s reign on earth is realized, then Oord would have done well to weave the theme into his theory more prominently, which would have added significant weight to his overall argument. To only briefly mention it in the first chapter proved to be a costly misstep.
Yet, in spite of this miscalculation and other less significant disagreements, the book deserves serious attention. It will help readers to better understand and appreciate God’s essential love towards creation and how that love impacts every other area of theological exploration. It seeks to build on the work of others by incorporating their insights into a new model of love that attempts to more accurately reflect the biblical witness and contemporary concerns.
I recommend this book to everyone who is serious about exploring new possibilities in their theology of God. Oord moves the conversation forward by offering a creative, biblically informed, and well-researched proposal that will positively impact future dialogue on the subject. The Nature of Love is an important contribution to this ongoing discussion.