God in the Dock (3) What kind of love is this?

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:

  1. Is by definition much greater than us
  2. Is completely good
  3. 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.

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5 thoughts on “God in the Dock (3) What kind of love is this?

  1. Dave, you make this claim “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”. I would ask you: if a person said that they loved you and harmed you, can you agree with them that they love you? If you allow them to define the term, this means the term is meaningless; anyone can claim any word means anything.

    All you seem to be doing is claiming might equals right: that this god can redefine words because it is powerful. It is very much like an abusive parent or spouse claiming to love a child or partner and then doing nothing to show that this is the case. It is an Orwellian attempt at trying to make pain equal love, hate equal love etc: classic doublespeak.

    You also say this “First of all, when looking at human relationships, we want to emphasise that these should be free from coercion, manipulation and abuse.” I agree with you. The bible shows that the relationship between the god presented in it and humans aren’t free of these things at all. Is this a case of where might makes right again?

    What does it mean when you make the claim “God Is completely good”? Is it a circular argument “God is Good is God” aka anything that this god does is good be definition and again might equals right? If God murders people it is “good” by dint that this god did it. If a human murders someone, it is not good. This shows that there is no objective good, but simply a matter of power and control.

    I would also point out that there was no sacrifice made at all by this god. Sacrifice is a permanent loss e.g. sacrifice is someone throwing themselves on a grenade, a parent giving their last bit of food to a child, a wife pushing her wife out of the way of an oncoming vehicle and not being able to get out of the way herself. A god that made the rules, changed the rules and then part of it spending time as a replica of a human to die for the rules itself made and not remaining dead is no sacrifice (not that any of this can be shown to have happened at all). Again it seems that you wish to make words redefinable dependent on power and control.

    There is no evidence your god exists, much less does anything for anyone. If this entity’s concern for us trumps our “freedom”, why does this god do nothing to help its loved ones? This becomes the problem of evil. This omnipotent being supposedly loving us i.e. “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.” Does nothing like your father did for you. And I’m pretty sure your father wouldn’t work with pure evil to allow it to corrupt you once it had you all safe and sound (see Revelation 19-21 where this god kills everyone who doesn’t agree with it, the believers are ruled by Jesus for an aeon and this god intentionally lets evil loose again in the garden). That’s certainly doesn’t seem like what a loving being does, but is what a being that can redefine love anyway it wants to does.

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    • Hello thanks for your comments. No I’m not arguing that might is right! Quite the opposite! There’s a couple of specific points I’m making in relation to what love is where ultimate authority lies etc. By the way I don’t agree that sacrifice is necessarily permanent! I believe in the God who raises the dead.

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      • Show that you are not arguing that might equals right. I am asking this because it certainly seems that you are right here “what love is where ultimate authority lies” where it appear you are saying that this god has some right to redefine what love is and anything it does is good just because this god does it.
        I know you believe in your god, nothing new there. There is no evidence that this god raises the dead or does anything beneficial for its supposed loved ones as one human does for another e.g. your father and his son, you.

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  2. A couple of helpful things to consider that might help. I have included that God is unchanging in my description of him. This means that He won’t be arbitrarily changing the definition of love. One of the Bible ideas is covenant – this is to do with faithfulness. This is part of the reason for saying g God defines love it’s another way of saying that there isn’t a dominant impersonal principle that controls God. It means a romantic notion of love we fall in and out of shouldn’t shape our view of what it means to say God is love So when I say God defines love I mean that we see love in his unchanging concern for his creation, in the action of Jesus dying on the Cross in God’s forgiveness … I also realise I won’t be able to answer all your questions in these comment sections but hopefully a bit more in the articles coming especially when I get on to the atheist argument. Also I’d recommend Tim Keller ‘ s The reason for God and also walking with God through pain and suffering as two books which will deal with your specific questions and objections in more detail 🙂

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  3. Hi – apologies for the missing comma that should say “what love is, where ultimate authority lies etc” So I’m not quite sure how this = a might is right argument. Remember that the Bible’s description of God is that he is compassionate, holy, just, faithful merciful, beautiful, forgiving. So it is never about brute strength, never a case of “might is right.” I guess you could equally and even more reasonably say that “infinite wisdom and infinite knowledge is right.” It is as much because we believe God is wise and knows everything that we believe he is the one who has the right to define love. Just to re-emphasise again. Remember as well that I’m very definitely saying that God does not redefines love, God is unchanging and so love doesn’t change to fit plan b either. In fact that’s as much a part of the idea of an ultimate or foundational authority. If God is eternal and constant then we have a secure reference point. Remember posts to do with atheism are coming up later and I think your comments/questions are probably more directly related to that topic so I will pick up on them then.

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