Pluriform Love (Thomas Jay Oord) -- A Review

PLURIFORM LOVE: An Open and Relational Theology of Well-Being. By Thomas Jay Oord. Nampa, ID: SacraSage Press, 2022. Xiii + 253 pages.

                How central is love to Christian theology? Is it the essential piece of our vision of God? Down through the ages different theologians have emphasized different aspects of theology. For example, Luther and much of Protestantism made justification by grace through faith the core message of Christianity. For others, it is obedience to the ways of God? For still others, it is love, as revealed in 1 John, where we're told that God is love. That seems pretty straightforward, so that declaration should settle it.

                One theologian who has placed love at the center of his theology is Tom Oord. Love is, for him, the essence of an Open and Relational theology. I have been reading and making use of Tom's works on love for many years. I regularly turn to his books Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement and The Nature of Love: A Theology. I have quoted these works in sermons, wedding homilies, and my own writings. More recently Tom has expanded his theological work, building on these earlier works to provide definitions of the nature of God from an Open and Relational perspective along with engaging in theodicy. We see this present in his books: The Uncontrolling Love of God and God Can't: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils. With Pluriform Love, Tom brings all of this work together in one place. If there is a “controlling” element to all of this, it would be Tom’s desire to make sense of tragedy. The question that has driven much of the conversation concerns the relationship between God’s power and the reality of evil and tragedy in the world. If God is truly loving, then why do bad things happen?

                In many ways, this effort brings together all of what Oord has been working on for the past several decades. He addresses those who would either question the centrality of love (Richard Hays) or try to define love in terms of Classical Theism, which Oord believes is untenable. How can you love if you are impassible, that is incapable of suffering or being in a relationship with another? Thus, he argues with Millard Erickson (an evangelical of Reformed background) and of course Augustine. This isn't the first time that Tom has engaged with Augustine whom he believes sets the tone for much Christian theology. He also once again takes on Anders Nygren's insistence that agape is the distinctively Christian form of love and rules out other forms of being Christian.

                As in other works, Tom offers a very definitive definition of love. He claims that the definition of love is uniform, and yet the Bible doesn’t offer us a uniform definition of love. Although this is true, he believes he has found a definition that can be used to explain love. It’s a definition that I’ve made use of. That definition is this: "To love is to act intentionally, in relational response to God and others, to promote overall well-being." (p. 28). Once we have that definition, then modifiers can be added to distinguish between different forms of love such as agape, eros, and philia.

                The structure of the book follows a definite line. We begin with Oord's charge that too often love is ignored or neglected by Christian theologians and biblical scholars, and here he focuses his attention on Richard Hays and Millard Erickson. From there we move to Nygren's work on agape, which Oord believes is insufficient because it's too narrow (ch. 3). Since Nygren's work on love is deemed insufficient for Oord's purposes, he spends chapter 4, expanding on his own thinking on agape. Oord calls this "in spite of love." He concludes that in the vast majority of cases in the New Testament, agape is understood in terms of "promoting well-being," which fits his definition of love. His exploration of love also leads to the conclusion that God is "essentially loving." That is, God doesn't choose to love, but that love is God's essence, which means God loves of necessity. It’s not a choice on God’s part.

                As we move forward, things get trickier. In chapter 5, Tom takes on Augustine's definition of love as desire. He notes here that, unlike Nygren, Augustine makes use of eros. Tom concludes from his story of Augustine’s focus on love as desire that his vision of love is unworkable. In essence, the problem lies in Augustine's apparent belief that we do not love others for others' sake but for God's sake. In other words, in Augustine's hands, love does not necessarily promote well-being. Therefore, it doesn’t fit Tom’s uniform definition of love. While Tom doesn’t deny that his vision of God as love can encompass eros, he believes that as Augustine understands love, it is more about using others for God’s sake than loving others for their own sake. That doesn’t fit his vision of love being focused on the well-being of the other. I should note that in his discussion of Augustine, Oord also engages with James K. A. Smith, who speaks of us being what we love. That is, love is what we desire. Again, this is not focused on well-being. This line of discussion continues in chapter 6, where Oord engages more broadly the problem of classical theism, a task that is prominent in Open and Relational theology. Classical theism is understood to have roots in Greek/Hellenistic philosophy, especially forms of Platonism. Thus, in this view, God is timeless, immutable (unchanging), impassible (passionless and incapable of being influenced/affected from outside), and simple (God is one, without parts). In Oord's view to adopt Classical Theism is to rule out love in any true form. It is impossible to love as love requires a relationship.

                I want to pause here for a moment and take note of Tom’s path to understanding Augustine and love. I struggled with his engagement with Augustine. He might be correct in this, but something seemed to be missing. I realized what it was. Augustine’s understanding of love is rooted in his understanding of the Trinity. For Augustine, the Holy Spirit is the love the Father has for the Son and the Son for the Father. It is out of this love that defines the internal relationship that is the Trinity, that God then loves the world, making love possible within the world. That is, God’s love is the source of our love. What I discovered was that Tom didn’t take Augustine’s Trinitarian theology into account. Then, looking at the index, I realized that Tom doesn’t discuss the Trinity at all. There is only one footnote to the Trinity and that has nothing to do with Augustine.  I then realized why I sometimes find myself uncomfortable with what seems a reductionism present in the Open and Relational theology that I’ve come to embrace. I am by training a historical theologian, and so I always take historical context into account. Tom, like most Open and Relational theologians, are philosophical theologians. In other words, we approach these questions from very different vantage points. That may be why my theology is rather eclectic, whereas philosophical theology tends to be less so (at least that’s my observation).

                Returning to the book, the opening chapters define love and argue that love is the essence of God’s nature. These chapters provide the foundation for the rest of the book in which Oord brings together the various elements of his theology. So, in chapter 7, he brings into the conversation the broader concept of Open and Relational theology, along with two concepts he has developed: "essential kenosis" and amipotence. The first piece has to do with the overall trajectory of his work, and that of others. He admits that it's a broad tent and not everyone agrees (thus, I count myself in this community, but have some differences with elements of the vision). When it comes to "essential kenosis," Oord suggests that it is the key to his theodicy (defense of God). His answer to the question of the presence of evil suggests that God, who is love, is not self-limited by choice, but by essence. In his view, love is noncoercive, thus God must respond to evil, not through force but persuasion. God opposes evil but needs our participation to respond. Finally, he offers the concept of amipotence as a counter to the charge that his theology leaves impotent. God is not omnipotent because God is love and love is noncoercive.

                Early on, Tom makes it clear that he views the question of love through the lens of Jesus. At one point he seems to suggest that the Old Testament understanding of love is underdeveloped, but everything gets sorted out with Jesus. I was worried that supersessionism would creep in, as I've seen it present in some forms of Open and Relational theology that focus on the supposed violence of the Old Testament God. Fortunately, that doesn't get developed too much here, but we need to be aware of the possibility of Marcionism in our visions of God.

                It is in chapter 8 that Tom engages with the Hebrew word hesed.  He discusses this Hebrew word in connection with his exploration of the Greek word philia. The focus here is on how hesed is defined as everlasting love. That is, the idea that God's love endures forever is a constant refrain in the Psalms and elsewhere in the Old Testament. Oord suggests that the way the word is used, suggests that "God always and necessarily loves creation." Therefore, he calls this "essential hesed." (p. 175). You will notice that Tom has a penchant for using the modifier "essential" when it comes to love, and things related to love. It is here that he discusses love in the Old Testament. As part of this discussion, Tom turns to creation, more specifically his rejection of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing). In his view, the belief in creation out of nothing lays the blame for evil at God's feet, for if God creates out of nothing then why doesn't God create in such a way that evil is not present? Once again theodicy is central to the conversation. I'm not going to engage too deeply with this portion as I'm not well enough informed. I will say that I find Tom's theology of creation out of love difficult to get my head around. In other words, I'm not sure it solves the problem he's trying to deal with. Having worked through this concept, he concludes by looking at philia as "alongside of love." I would have liked to have seen these three topics separated into three different chapters since I think philia got short-changed and gets lost in the broader conversation about creation.

                The final chapter is a summation of what Oord has laid out, trying to pull together in his book on Pluriform Love. In his view, there is but one uniform definition of love, but this one love takes different forms (agape, eros, and philia). Thus, it is pluriform. This vision of love is rooted in his understanding of the nature of God, who is love.

                I appreciate all that Tom has done here. He has worked hard to develop a distinctive theological vision that he believes is both biblical and theologically sound. For the most part, I believe he is on the right track. I'm comfortable putting myself within the circle. However, I do have some concerns. Once again, I think I know the reason why I have concerns. My study of the history of theology, plus my own experience being part of restorationist movements, makes me leery of attempts to define theology with more precision than is warranted. When it comes to foundations, while Greek philosophy or Hellenism is charged with being the corrupter of Christian theology, there appears to be a blind spot when it comes to modern philosophical traditions. In other words, does replacing Plato with Whitehead solve the problem or simply exchanges one philosophical tradition for another, neither of which is truly biblical. They are but lenses we use to interpret what we read and experience in Scripture and beyond.

                So, here are a few concerns that emerged as I read the book. Again, this is intended as a friendly conversation. Regarding Tom’s definitions of love, while they are helpful and I regularly turn to them, at points they feel too restrictive. I’m not sure I would agree that there is one uniform definition of love, even if I like the idea that love should include well-being. So, I wonder if both Tom’s focus on love as contributing to well-being and James Smith’s focus on love as desire could both be true. I must admit I found Smith's book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit rather compelling. While I agree that Augustine's definition can be rather restrictive, he does have some good things to say about love as well. So, I’ve quoted both Tom and Augustine on love in the same sermon. I also felt that Tom was a bit unfair by pushing to an extreme application of Paul Tillich’s definition of love as "the drive towards the unity of the separated." (p. 35). I'm not sure that Tillich would disagree with Tom's concern for well-being. I could be wrong, but I felt he was unfair. I would like to see him go back and engage with Tillich more.

                Secondly, I wonder about the audience. When dealing with Reformed theology, why choose Millard Erickson? He may be a popular evangelical, but I wouldn't put him at the top of the list of influential Reformed theologians. Why only mention Barth a time or two when Barth goes into great detail about love, including offering a detailed exploration of 1 Corinthians 13. This might seem picky, but it may be revealing of Tom’s intended audience. He speaks of the Apostle John being the author of the Gospel and Letters of John. That is the traditional view, but most scholars believe that the apostle is not the author of the Gospel and letters and that the author of the Gospel is likely not the author of the letters. So, is Tom trying to reach out to conservative evangelicalism in the way he speaks of biblical authorship?

                Finally, I would like to push on Tom's conversation partners. In this book and in previous ones he takes on Augustine. That's understandable for Western Christians. However, I believe that there is much to gain from engaging with eastern Christian writers. For one thing, they are rooted in Greek thought and understand the context and language in ways that are different from Western Christians. It’s good to remember that while Augustine was greatly influenced by Neoplatonism, he was not fluent in Greek. Thus, when it comes to eros, I’ve found it interesting that a theologian as important as Maximus the Confessor makes significant usage of eros, even equating it with agape. With that in mind, I would suggest looking at Maximus along with a more recent Greek Orthodox theologian/philosopher Christos Yannaras and his book Person and Eros. I'm not saying that looking east will change Tom's trajectory, but it could enrich it. That is especially true of the idea prominent in orthodox thought about the distinction between the divine essence, which is unknowable/transcendent, and the uncreated divine energies through which we encounter God, including God’s love.

                I appreciate the opportunity that Tom gave me to read the book in manuscript and then once again after receiving a hard copy. I appreciate his mention of my work on pneumatology (Unfettered Spirit) and including me within the Open and Relational community. I believe this is an important work of theology, especially since it brings together much of what he has been working on the past few years. His emphasis on love being at the center of our theology and understanding of God is important and is to be welcomed. The cautions that I have underlined in this rather lengthy review is rooted in my rather different vantage point. That being historical theology. Thus, when it comes to Augustine, I don’t necessarily disagree with Tom’s assessment, but to understand Augustine’s theology of love, one must address it in the context of his vision of the Trinity. Interestingly enough eastern theologians find him wanting in that they would insist that love defines all three persons of the Trinity, not just the Holy Spirit. Since the majority of Open and Relational thinkers appear to be philosophers, I would like to suggest that more attention be paid to the history of theology.

                In the end, the most important takeaway from Tom’s work in Pluriform Love is that love is the centerpiece of what it means to be Christian and that love leads to the well-being of others as well as ourselves. We might differ on our definitions, but as St. Augustine declared: Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. [On Christian Doctrine, Kindle Edition, loc. 808]. With this, despite his disagreements with Augustine at other points, I believe Tom would agree.  


Steve Kindle said…
Once again, I must thank you for your ministry-within-a-ministry of informing those of us who don't read as widely as you. You've kept me informed for years.

I'm curious to know, based on your comments in this post and elsewhere, why you posit the value of history over philosophy, especially since history (its conclusions) is often a direct result of a philosophical worldview. Add to this that history is interpretation, not fact. In other words, an epistemological pursuit, a branch of philosophy. It seems to me we cannot divorce the two. How can your "historical" approach yield better results? Inquiring minds want to know.
Steve Kindle said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Cornwall said…
Steve, I wouldn't say that history is better than philosophy. Philosophy itself is historically conditioned. What historical study does, however, is serve as a reminder that all things are contextual. So, if you want to engage Augustine, it's important that you judge him in his own context. Don't judge him on the basis of philosophical traditions he wouldn't have had access to.

But, hey, I'm a historian and not a philosopher!

As for facts, well they can be slippery as well, especially when it comes to theology.
Unknown said…
Being a philosopher myself, analytic philosopher, and philosopher of religion, I do not really understand your comparisons - Both History and Philosophy as academic disciplines have many subdisciplines and branches. You cannot compare "history" with "Philosophy" just as that. Actually, there is an important subdiscipline of philosophy called "history of philosophy" where are the thought through centuries are discussed "within" their historical era. Hermeneutics - Gadamer for example was very particular to put historical philosophical texts into the philosopher's era - the lifestyle of the time - ideas of the time - to better understand the contexts.

I find it a bit - sorry to say - but cheap to just compare "History" with "Philosophy" and in favour of the former even. It is like comparing Mathematics with Biology kind off.

Concerning Thomas´ideas - I also have the feeling that he is going towards more fundamentalistic evangelistic ideas of Christianity. Do not get me wrong - I like his idea of the ever loving God - but this ever loving God is everywhere even amongst those who are not Christians, or religious.

This reminds me of a talk by Desmond Tutu when he received his honoral dr. degree at the Uppsala University, my alma mater. He said "I had a discusion with a physicist who claimed he did not believe in God - my answer was - that is alright - you do not have to believe in God - God believes in you!" That is the most beautiful thing I ever heard. That is what Almighy love means. God never leaves his people. God cannot save all, because people make their choices and some bad and even very bad choises, but he will love them until the end - his children and try and try to get them out of the bad - He never forsakes one of us. That is unconditional divine love.

Cannot help to think how sad God must be over all these children who do not accept his love...
Unknown said…
PS, I am sorry, I am Anne L.C. Runehov, prof. EM. Uppsala University.
Robert Cornwall said…

Thank you for your comments. My comparison of history to philosophy isn't meant as an attack on philosophy My concern with Tom's engagement with Augustine, is contextual. There is a tendency among some in Open and Relational Theology (and I count myself as one) to unfairly compare ancient writers with contemporary philosophical views, without taking him in context.

What I value in Tom's work is his emphasis on love. I agree! I just thought he was a bit unfair with Augustine, though Augustine is far from being beyond reproach!

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