God. Love. Calvinism.

The elder John writes: "God is love." (1 John 4:8, 16) Love, then, is an attribute of God, in the same way that absolute holiness is an inherent attribute (Ps. 99:3, 5, 9; Isa. 30:15), and that justice is an absolute attribute belonging to the nature of God (Ps. 145:17). God is holy. God is just. God is love. These attributes belong to Him by nature. God does not merely possess love, or loving feelings, as much as He is love by nature. As noted in the previous post, God is capable of hating sinners, but also of loving His enemies. God could in no sense command us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44) when He is incapable of loving His enemies. St Paul explicitly states that, while we were helpless, sinful, enemies of God, He took the initiative to make a reconciliation with His enemies in and through Christ (Rom. 5:6, 8, 10), motivated by love (John 3:16).

Calvinist D.A. Carson writes a book entitled The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Why the title? Well, according to this Calvinist, people view God as a loving being and this needs to be challenged.1 In spite of explicit passages teaching us that love comprises an absolute attribute of God, Calvinists think this notion should be challenged, and properly contextualized within a presuppositional Calvinist framework. Granted, when we refer to the love of God, we are not assuming a romanticized version of love -- a view that is sentimental, a grandmotherly-justification of sinful behavior, or a blithely-unaware cheerful nature that is not offended by sinful behavior. Dr. Carson is right to argue against such concepts of the love of God.

We think Dr. Carson is also right when he denies that a passage like John 3:16, regarding God's "salvific stance toward His fallen world" (his words, not mine), can in no sense refer to the so-called, or so-imagined, unconditionally elect. There is no Greek-to-English lexicon that refers "the world" to "the unconditionally elect" (see footnote 3 in the previous post). John Calvin and many of his followers, driven by a priori notions, strain the text to make such a connection but none can be granted to the faithful exegete. We are grateful for Dr. Carson's concession: "I know that some try to take κόσμος ('world') here to refer to the elect. But that really will not do. All the evidence of the usage of the word in John's Gospel is against the suggestion."2 But then he qualifies one aspect of the love of God as "a particular, effective, selecting love" toward His unconditionally elect.3 He uses God's election of Israel as a nation, and as His people, as an inference toward supporting God's alleged "particular, effective, selecting love" toward His supposed unconditionally elect people -- i.e., those whom He has arbitrarily chosen to save, relegating the rest of humanity to an eternal separation from Him, His Christ, and His blessed presence.

First, not all within the corporate nation of Israel belonged to the God of Israel, but only those who personally trusted in the LORD. The purpose for God choosing Israel was also to bring forth the Messiah through that people. Thus the Jewish people were not unconditionally elected for salvation. The Calvinist's connection, then, is falsely contrived. The individuals who trusted in the God of Israel were considered the redeemed among the corporate and elect group of Israelites. The same is true today. God has elected the Church, in and through Christ Jesus the Head and Cornerstone of the Church, to be His people. The individuals who trust in Jesus Christ are considered the redeemed among the elect corporate body called the Church. So, the Calvinists' inference does not work for a proper support of the theory of unconditional election -- the unconditionality actually being unwarranted and absent within the pages of Scripture.



Second, if God loves "the world" salvifically, as Dr. Carson has plainly stated, then suggesting that God has a particular, effective and selecting love for only certain people and not others -- the majority (cf. Matt. 7:13, 14) -- is a most obvious contradiction of terms. We believe that not only plain logic but also Scripture supports this challenge to Calvinism. If God desires that all be saved (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9), but has unconditionally elected to save only some people particularly, effectually, and selectively, then He is acting against His own alleged desire. Is there confliction within the psyche of God? Apparently so, within a Calvinistic scheme, since God wants all to be saved but has only unconditionally (i.e., arbitrarily) elected to effectually save only some people.

But we have scriptural evidence in support of this challenge against Calvinistic notions of the particular love of God for selective people. St John informs us that the nature of God includes the absolute attribute love. Briefly, ἀγάπη (love), mentioned at 1 John 4:8, is a noun referring to goodness, good will, a preference toward morality. In other words, God's nature, as love, is good, and desires goodness; expresses good will toward humanity, or, expresses goodness to people of a good will (Luke 2:14), as a longing for people to be good and to exist in goodness; and prefers, at all times, an absolute moral existence. When we suggest that God is love, by nature, we include all of these notions as one reality in the mind and heart of God. But we think this nature of God -- this good and moral-loving nature of God -- is expressed universally and not selectively. Why?

St Paul teaches us what is and what is not considered as the core nature of love in a chapter many name "the love chapter" within a letter written to self-absorbed believers in Corinth. Since God's nature is love, we can rightly substitute each notation of "love" written in this text with "God," and make the exact same conclusion: God is patient; God is kind; God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. God does not insist on (His) own way; God is not irritable or resentful; God does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. God never fails. (1 Cor. 13:4-8 NRSV) We are not naming love "God," or reducing God to our own notions of love, but are assessing what the inspired authors of Scripture convey about love, God, and love as a natural attribute of God.

What is striking to me is how this inspired and biblical conception of love and the nature of God opposes the underlying principles of Calvinistic presuppositions or hermeneutics. If love "does not insist on its own way," and "does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth," then the über-deterministic notion of the sovereignty of God proffered by Calvinists, whereby He has decreed all that should come to pass by His own eternal desire, choice, and will, including sin and evil from sinners and demonic hosts, is rightly condemned as heresy. But, also, the loving nature of God being gentle or kind (1 Cor. 13:4) undermines any semblance of unconditional election, since unconditionally (and arbitrarily) selecting some souls to spend eternity in His presence and the majority in a tormenting and eternal fire, is any other notion than kind, gentle, loving.

In essence, then, how can a Calvinist like Dr. Carson insist that God salvifically loves the world but has unconditionally elected to save only some? Jesus even confesses that the Father's love for Christ's followers is to the same degree of His love for His only Son. (John 17:23) What kind of love must that be? In this question I am assuming a quality and intensity of love rather than a quantity of love. If God loves the world salvifically, then suggesting that He only loves some particularly-salvifically is an obvious contradiction. Does Calvinism, then, inevitably produce within its adherents a theological and practical dissonance with regard to the love of God?

Perhaps partial blame for this dissonance, from my perspective, is due to a concept of divine impassibility -- i.e., that God is "not subject to suffering, pain, or the ebb and flow of involuntary passions." (link) That is what some refer to as a "proper" definition. The gist of this concept received by many, though, denies any semblance of emotions to God and not just "involuntary passions." Many believe that if God experiences fluctuating emotions, like anger or joy, then He is guilty of immutability (change of nature). I think this doctrine is faulty. God expresses both anger and joy throughout Scripture. Does His eternal nature change due to expressed anger or joy? No. God remains constant in nature while He reacts to human decisions -- decisions that are not determinately decreed. What I fear is that many Calvinists have a clinical perspective of God that defrauds them of various expressions of a loving God. Therefore they typically rail against notions of God as loving, falsely imagining their opponents as advocating a sentimental God who is "soft on sin," and One who never genuinely expresses divine anger or joy.

What kind of God do such people tend to promote? Calvinists evoke mental images of an impersonal and analytic God who cares primarily about rescuing numbers -- objects -- instead of caring about and loving helpless sinners in need of His grace and mercy. We are presented with a calculated God who gives people cancer, like John Piper's God, and who has decreed that people suffer, while they evoke their myriad passions during the suffering He has brought about, while He shows no passion whatsoever. We find this perspective of God rather unlike Jesus Christ, who came to show us the Father (John 14:8-10), who is the "reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being." (Heb. 1:3) Jesus, the divine Son of God, the one who shows us what the Father is like, weeps (John 11:35), becomes righteously angry (Matt. 21:12) rejoices (Luke 10:21) and expresses love (John 11:36). If one cares to argue that these expressions derive solely from his human nature, we ask for scriptural evidence as we also remind such persons that Jesus retains that nature still, and is capable of these expressions presently in heaven.

We find Calvinism a deficient theological system on the grounds of the loving nature of God: such contradicts Calvinism on a core tenet of that system, namely, the sovereignty of God, whereby He has allegedly decreed all that shall come to pass. We also conclude that Calvinism is tragically bereft of scriptural support for the false theory of unconditional election, a challenge directly related to the loving nature of God Himself, since love is kind and is more concerned with others than with one's narcissistic self, an unfortunate consequence of the Calvinist's interpretation of Romans 9:21-22 within Calvinism that insists God is more concerned with His glory in wrath than for sinners. I suppose, then, for these reasons, Calvinists like D.A. Carson are obliged to address the love of God within the context of much difficulty, thus naming their work The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. The only "difficulty" the Arminian encounters, concerning the love God, is how a holy and just being could love such wicked sinners. But because of Scripture, and because of Jesus, we better understand that God loves us in and through His own nature.

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1 D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), 9.

2 Ibid, 17.

3 Ibid., 18.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.