So what is the nature of God’s love? Remember four things at this stage. First of all, that Open Theists are not the only people to be emphasising love as God’s chief essential attribute. Rob Bell and Steve Chalke both make essentially the same move and in fact, as we saw earlier, Bell also equates love with freedom which is a key plank in his argument about hell.
Secondly, we have also argued that love is of great importance when talking about God. In fact, we have argued that this is the right starting point, not because it is God’s only or even dominant attribute, but because it is the best way in to understand God as personal and so to grasping what all the other attributes are about.
Thirdly, we have said that whilst love is important, it is not the only essential attribute. We have described God as simple which means that all of his attributes are essential. This also means that there is a strong connection, overlap even, between how we talk about the attributes.
Fourthly, we have insisted that we must allow God to define love and not the other way round. God is love, but love is not God. This love is defined and demonstrated in terms of the relationship between the members of the Trinity and specifically with regards to his love for us demonstrated by the Father giving his Son as an atoning sacrifice for us. This is important and helps us realise why the notion of God’s simplicity is so key. If God has one stand out characteristic, then that attribute becomes elevated so that, in a sense, God is subject to it. God must conform to a rule or principle outside of himself. As we saw when we looked at God’s goodness, this means that God is subservient to an abstract, impersonal principle. This is the very problem with Open Theism and its view of God’s love. Because Open Theism makes love God’s essential attribute and not only that, goes on to define love specifically in terms of God’s freedom, this means that God’s ability to speak, act, even ‘to be’ in terms of his other attributes is constrained by “freedom.”
Notice please that it isn’t even “love” that holds the highest position in our hierarchy. It is freedom that has control. Freedom is sovereign. Freedom wins. Is it any coincidence that “Freedom” is one of the principle values that modern and post-modern Western society upholds? I used to own a T-Shirt emblazoned with the motto “Live Free or die.” It was the motto of New Hampshire, but it’s really the motto of the Western world. In the film “Braveheart”, Mel Gibson’s William Wallace cries out “You may take away our lives, but you can never take away our freedom.”
Freedom has become a modern god. But in fact, it is a far older god than that isn’t it? Our desire to be free goes back to the Garden of Eden. That’s what the temptation was all about. If Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they would be autonomous. They would not only know right from wrong, but have the freedom to choose independently from God’s Word.
But how important is freedom to love? Well, there are a couple of important things at stake here. First of all, when looking at human relationships, we want to emphasise that these should be free from coercion, manipulation and abuse. The principle of consent is an important safeguard against the sinful human tendency towards gaining things for selfish reasons by forceful means.
Secondly, freedom and consent are really to do with equality. It’s about me having the right to say “yes” or “no” to you because you do not have absolute power over me. If I can choose how I respond to you, then I am, at least in some respects, on a level with you.
Thirdly, freedom and consent are actually really important if I’m to know what someone’s will on a matter is. I cannot read minds and hearts. I can try to second guess, but a lot of the time, I’ll get it wrong. I need you to tell me what is on your mind. I need you to make your will clear.
Now, immediately, we will realise that when talking about human-human relationships, the principle of free consent is pretty much vital. We don’t want to lose it. But the reason why freedom is important is not that it is part of the definition of love, but because it is important to human interactions. It is a safeguard made necessary because of our finiteness and falleness.
However, do these things necessarily apply to a Creator God who:
- Is by definition much greater than us
- Is completely good
- Knows all things, including our innermost thoughts so that he knows me better than I know myself?
But what really are the essential traits of love? Let’s go back to what we’ve already learnt about love. First of all, if love is seen in the Trinity, then we can see that love is to do with faithful and exclusive intimacy. Why do I say that?
Well, first of all, there is an intimacy seen within the Godhead that enables John to tell us that “The Father and Son are one” and that “The Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father.” The members of the Trinity are of one will and they take pleasure and delight in each other.
Secondly, it is faithful. We see this in the way that the Son is obedient to the Father, even to death. We see it in the Father’s commitment to the Son that whatever and whoever He gives to him will not be lost.
Thirdly, it is exclusive. Now, this may be a little bit more implicit, but it can be seen in the distinction between the nature of the relationships within the Trinity and between the Trinity and us. Their relationship is not just about a social union (indeed I wonder when I read Pinnock’s quote again whether Open Theism gets this): rather it is a union based on the persons of the Trinity being of the same essence. This exclusiveness can also be seen in the jealousy that each person has for the others’ honour and glory.
There’s a little side point here which is that these are the character traits that we also see in a healthy marriage.
Then when we turn to that other demonstration of God’s Love, the incarnation, we see what it means for God to love someone other than Himself. Here love can be defined in terms of a concern for the other’s well-being resulting in willingness to give sacrificially of oneself for the benefit of another, regardless of whether or not they deserve it.
Now, at this point, I don’t see reciprocal freedom as essential to those descriptions. And why should it be?
Many years ago, our family were on holiday in Wales and on an outing to a viewing point where you could see puffins, I got dangerously close to the cliff edge. Without hesitation, my dad instinctively ran, grabbed me and pulled me back. He may well have put himself at risk of losing his balance and going over the edge. He certainly did not stop to ask me if I wanted pulling back. In fact, as a youngster, I probably had little sense of the danger and my first reaction was resentment at the indignity of it all. But my dad’s priority wasn’t my free choice; it wasn’t even whether or not I would like him in return. His concern was for my wellbeing. This concern overrode my need for independence. In the end, love trumped freedom.
And that’s the beauty of the gospel. We crave freedom, we desire autonomy. But God’s love trumps our freedom. The Gospel saves us from ourselves. To be sure, we are set free from sin, death, slavery and our own selfishness, but we are set free from these things in order to serve the true and living God. We are not left to run free. We are brought home.