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Nothing Greater, Nothing BetterTheological Essays on the Love of God
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2001 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
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Chapter OneThe Love of God - Its Place, Meaning, and Function in Systematic Theology
KEVIN J. VANHOOZER
I. THE DOCTRINE OF GOD: A PARADIGM REVOLUTION?
The opposite of love, it has been said, is not hate but indifference. The God of the Christian gospel is anything but indifferent toward humanity. Humanity, of course, has not always returned the compliment. Yet it is exceedingly odd that Christian theologians have themselves been somewhat indifferent - inattentive, neutral - with regard to the concept of the love of God, if we are to judge from their often oblique, indistinct, or awkward treatments of the subject. On the one hand, it is no exaggeration to say that defining and situating the notion of the love of God is the perennial task, and standing challenge, of Christian dogmatics. On the other hand, however, there is at present little consensus as to where the topic of the love of God belongs. Is the love of God an aspect of God's being, or should it be treated under some other heading: the Trinity, providence, or atonement perhaps? Further, what do the various headings under which the love of God is treated tell us about its meaning and function?
Though what it means to predicate "love" of God remains something of a mystery, this has not impeded its use in human affairs. "Love" has beenthe subject of poems, ballads, and philosophical treatises down through the ages. It has been a prominent theme in ethics and in theological discussions of the appropriate human response to God's gracious initiative. The mere frequency of the term's use, however, stands in inverse proportion to its meaningfulness. In his 1936 film "Modern Times," a biting satire on industrial life, Charlie Chaplin sings "It's Love," a song that repeats the term "love" at breakneck speed dozens of times: "It's love - love, love - love, love, love, love, love, love. Love, love, love, love, love, love, love'" etc. A mere repetition of the term leads inexorably to its devaluation. Hence the predicament of our modern, or postmodern times: to say what love is and how it maybe affirmed of God. It is not at all obvious, moreover, that contemporary thinkers have a distinct advantage in this effort over those of antiquity.
A growing number of Christian theologians nevertheless maintain that a major advance in understanding the love of God has been made, a step so significant as to entail a paradigm revolution in all of Christian theology. I refer to the suggestion that God's love is to be viewed in terms of interpersonal relations rather than in terms of substantival attributes. As early as 1962, John McIntyre identified the prime difficulty in giving full value to the concept of the love of God as "an unduly narrow equation of the term with an attribute." More recently, Vincent Brummer has observed that, in the Christian tradition, "Love has generally been taken to be an attitude of one person toward another, rather than as a relation between persons."
According to Sallie McFague, the essential core of Christianity is the transformative event of new life, grounded in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth: "the event of God's transforming love." This new paradigm for construing the love of God entails nothing less than a revision of the Godworld relationship itself, which is to say, a revision of the whole of theology. To be precise, the revolution McFague has in mind involves the change from a view that sees the God-world relation in terms of unilateral sovereignty to a view that emphasizes bilateral fellowship. McFague, for instance, sees the world as God's "body" and world history as the process of "inclusive love for all."
On a more popular level, the authors of The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God similarly maintain that a new understanding of the love of God leads to a shaking of the foundations of traditional theism. "A new way of critical reappraisal and competent reconstruction of the doctrine of God is sweeping over the intellectual landscape." Clearly, any concept such as the love of God that lies at the heart of such revolutionary change of theological paradigm merits serious consideration. Is it indeed the case that the concept of the love of God leads to the deconstruction of traditional Christian theism?
II. HISTORICAL REVIEW: WHERE WE ARE
Revolutions in paradigm are only visible against a background of "normal science," or in the case of theology, against the backdrop of Christian tradition. How, then, did early theologians understand the love of God?
The Love of God as Attribute and Action
Classical theism - the classic model for understanding the God-world relation - has a double origin: the Bible and ancient philosophy. Theology was to a large degree the attempt to reconcile the story of God's acts in Israel's history and in the history of Jesus Christ - essentially a love story of the Creator for his creation, his community, his child - with ancient Greek notions of perfect being.
According to Plato, love is either the desire (eros) for something I do not have or the desire never to lose what I now have in the future. Love is "always poor," always needy. Augustine agrees with Plato that love is essentially the desire for ultimate happiness. For Augustine, however, only one's love for God will not disappoint. Only God, that is, should be loved for his own sake and not for the sake of something else. How, then, can God love us? The gods, according to Plato, cannot love, for they lack nothing. It is not as though God needs the human creature, for it follows from the notion of perfect being that nothing can add to God's own enjoyment of himself. Yet it is clear from Scripture that God loves us. Augustine's solution to the paradox of God's love is to posit a properly divine kind of love, a gift love: agape.
Nicholas Wolterstorff doubts that there is much of the Stoical rather than the scriptural about Augustine's position. For the Stoics, and the whole eudaemonist tradition of antiquity, happiness is a matter of un interrupted bliss. The wise person is one who learns how not to be disturbed by changes in the world. The wise person lacks pathos: he or she is without passion, impervious to changes that would overturn the rule of reason. Wolterstorff observes that "Augustine stood in the Platonic tradition of seeing happiness as lying in the satisfaction of eros while the Stoics saw happiness as lying in the elimination of eros."
The implication for the concept of the love of God is clear: God's life is one of bliss and beneficence, or as Wolterstorff paraphrases it, a life of "non-suffering apathy." Augustine's God "turns out to be remarkably like the Stoic sage: devoid of passions, unfamiliar with longing, foreign to suffering." In the Christian tradition, God was widely held to be "impassible": not able to suffer. In the classic theological paradigm, the Bible and classical philosophy are seen to agree: a perfect being who has life in himself cannot suffer. Where the Bible appears to ascribe emotion or suffering to God, the tradition quickly concludes that such language must be figurative. Classical theism thus functions as a theological hermeneutic for construing what Scripture says about the love of God.
How, then, does God "process" the suffering of the innocent, or the suffering of his Son? God is all-knowing, to be sure, but how should we characterize God's knowledge of those occurrences that involve loss (e.g., grief, injury, pain, death)? Wolterstorff believes that the root assumption behind the notion of divine impassibility is that God is unconditioned by anything not himself. If, as John of Damascus puts it, passion is "a movement in one thing caused by another," then God must, if he is unconditioned, have no passions. The question Wolterstorff presses home is simply this: if God cannot be affected by anything other than himself, then how are we to understand God's knowledge of human suffering and human loss? Is this something that God can know or not? Can a God who does not experience suffering, in some sense, be said to "know" particular instances of suffering in our world? More pointedly, can a God who is unable to sympathize be said to love?
Many of the same classical emphases that characterize Augustine may be found almost a thousand years later in Thomas Aquinas. God's being and God's will are unconditioned. God cannot change, for he is perfect (the doctrine of divine immutability). God's will is the final explanation for everything that happens (the doctrine of divine sovereignty). Is it correct to infer from these constants, however, as proponents of the new paradigm are prone to do, that "God's relation to the world [in the classical paradigm] is thus one of mastery and control"?"
What precisely is the love of God according to Aquinas? Question 20 of the Summa Theologiae treats de amore Dei and, significantly enough, follows question 19 on "will in God:" The love of God for Aquinas is God's willing the good. God is benevolent (bene volere = "good willing"). To love someone is to will that person good. Does God love the whole world? Yes, for God wills some good to each existing thing. However, God loves some things more than others, "for since his love is the cause of things ... one thing would not be better than another but for God willing it more good." Importantly, Aquinas does not believe that God responds to the good in a thing by loving it, but rather that God's love for a thing is the cause of its goodness.
On the traditional view, then, God metes out good but takes neither joy nor delight in the good he brings about (for this would make God's joy conditional on something in the world). That in which God takes delight turns out to be his own exercise of benevolence. Classical theism pictures God, not as a utilitarian or pragmatist who delights in results, but rather as a Kantian - a modern Stoic - who takes pleasure simply in his good will: good for goodness' sake. Wolterstorff admits that such a picture is coherent, but he denies that it is biblical.
For Aquinas (and here he follows Aristotle), God moves the world but is not moved by the world. This is simply another way of stating what it means for God to be immutable and impassible. God, says Aquinas, is like a stone column to which humans stand in relation. The column may be on our left or our right, in front of or behind us, but our relation to the column is in us, not in the column. Similarly, we may experience God's mercy or his wrath, but it is not God who changes, only our relation to him. "What changes is the way we experience the will of God." With regard to God's will, it is his goodness alone that can move it. The concepts of immutability and impassibility here converge: God's will cannot be affected or changed by anything outside himself. God is, to use Richard Creel's fine phrase, "unsusceptible to causation." This is a most important analytic point: impassibility no more means impassive than immutable means immobile. God may be unmoved (e.g., transcendent - unsusceptible to worldly causes), but he is nevertheless a mover (e.g., immanent - active and present in the world). On the contrary, the original intent of both concepts is to insist that no creature can move or affect or change God by dint of its own will."
Twentieth-Century Developments: Responsiveness and Relation
A number of twentieth-century developments have led to the demise of the classical paradigm that saw God's love in terms of divine sovereignty, that is, in terms of God's ability unilaterally to will and to do good. The problem is not that God loves, but rather what God's love is. What, then, is the effect of what Langdon Gilkey calls contemporary theology's "war with the Greeks" upon the notion of the love of God?
Metaphysical Developments: Process Philosophy
Process philosophy stands out in the twentieth century for its resolute commitment to the metaphysical project - constructing a comprehensive account of the categories by which to understand all of reality, from the amoeba to the Absolute - and for its critique of the classical theistic model of conceiving the God-world relation. From a process perspective, the classical picture of a universe filled with various kinds of individual substances fails to capture the dynamic and interrelated nature of the physical world, not to mention the other, nonphysical orders of reality. Classical theism, process philosophers suggest, pictures God as a spiritual, personal substance of infinite perfection that exists over ("transcends") the world order.
George Newlands rightly comments that "Faith has been a central theological motif particularly in the tradition of Luther and of modern existential thought. Hope has appeared as the new promise of a future oriented theology.... Love has come to the fore particularly in process thought in America." Charles Hartshorne, a theologian who draws chiefly on the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, sought to rethink the nature of divine perfection. God, says Hartshorne, must be thought of not as "above it all" but as "in touch with it all." The universe is not a collection of discrete entities, each complete in itself, but rather a vast organic network where each entity is what it is thanks to its relation to other entities. God is God, says Hartshorne, not because he is above this social network but rather because he is at the heart of it. God, in short, is God because he relates to everything that happens. It is in this sense that we may affirm that "God is love" (1 John 4:8): "To love is to rejoice with the joys and sorrow with the sorrow of others. Thus it is to be influenced by those who are loved."
Process theologians conceive of God in terms of their newer metaphysical categories: temporality, development, change, relatedness, and interdependence. They see no reason to apologize for this (after all, classical theists had their metaphysical categories too), for many of these qualities are, they would argue, essential if we would understand the love of God. Love in a process world is no longer a matter of unilateral benevolence. On the contrary, love means entering into a relationship in which one is willing to undergo - to suffer - change. As Paul Fiddes puts it: "To love is to be in a relationship where what the loved one does alters one's own experience."
Classical theism has also been criticized by theologians proper. The twentieth century saw a renaissance of sorts in Trinitarian theology. This has had a twofold effect with regard to our topic of the love of God. In the first place, Trinitarian theology challenges approaches to the doctrine of God that begin with the notion of "perfect being" - "the one" - rather than with the economy of salvation. In the second place, the renewed interest in Eastern Orthodox approaches to the Trinity has led some to redefine God's being itself in terms of its Trinitarian relations. As John Zizoulas has argued, the Cappadocians made person rather than substance the prime ontological category. Love for another is thus more basic - that is, more fundamental to reality - than self-sufficiency. Thus the same theme - relationality - comes to the fore as in process thought, but for reasons wholly internal to Christian theology.
Karl Barth's theology reflects a similar tendency to begin with the concrete acts of God rather than with abstract speculation on the nature of perfect being. For Barth, God is knowable only because he reveals himself through himself, that is, in Jesus Christ. Indeed, all that can be known of God is known only on the basis of his revelation through Jesus Christ. Hence, one can discuss God's being only on the basis of his "act" in Jesus Christ, an all-encompassing act that embraces both revelation and reconciliation. In rigorously refusing to think about God except on the basis of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, Barth comes to the conclusion that God essentially is the one who goes out of himself for the sake of another. God is "the one who loves in freedom," and these two qualities "love" and "freedom" define for Barth the whole range of divine attributes.
Excerpted from Nothing Greater, Nothing Better Copyright © 2001 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission.
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