The Love of God

The Love of God: A Canonical Model

Reviewing an important work on the central attribute of God.

Richard Rice, PhD, a professor of religion in the areas of theology and philosophy of religion at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, United States.

IThe Love of God: A Canonical Model, John Peckham, associate professor of theology and Christian philosophy at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, focuses on the center of Christian theology and the doctrine of God, and explores what, for most Christians, is the central attribute of God, namely, love. The product of extensive research, the work compares two sharply opposed models of divine love and offers a constructive alternative to both.

The “transcendent-voluntarist model” emphasizes the radical separa­tion between God and the world. For its many proponents, such as Carl F. H. Henry, God is entirely self-sufficient, and His love for the world is purely voluntary. 

God does not need this world, or any creaturely world, and His relation to the world contributes nothing to His experience. So, God’s love for the world is entirely voluntary and unconditional— unconditioned by anything outside God.

In sharp contrast, the “immanent-experientialist model” embraces a view of God as both intimately and essentially related to the world. For those who hold this view, such as Charles Hartshorne, a “process panentheist,” God’s very being requires the existence of beings other than God, and the divine experience includes God’s relations to all non-divine reality.

Considering these two views of divine love, Peckham argues, we face an impasse. They are mutually exclusive, and neither does justice to the biblical portrayal of God. As an alternative to both, Peckham offers a perspective on divine love derived directly from the “canonical data,” a view he calls “the foreconditional-reciprocal model.” According to this model, God’s love for the world is “voluntary,” but not “exclusively volitional” (90). That is to say, while God does not depend on a creaturely world for His existence, and the world exists solely as the result of God’s decision to create, He is not responsible for everything that happens in the world, yet God is genuinely affected by it. To unpack this, Peckham describes God’s love as having five important aspects—volitional, evaluative, emotional, “foreconditional” (his novel expression), and reciprocal—and he devotes a chapter to each of them.

God’s love for the world is volitional in the sense that creating a world was a choice God made rather than something He was required by nature to do. But this is not exclusively volitional, because within God’s general commitment to, and care for, the world, He occasionally acts in specific ways. Divine election, for example, involves particular people, and while it rests on God’s loving choice, divine election also requires a human response. Love between God and the creatures presupposes freedom on both sides. 

Other aspects of God’s love clarify and amplify its volitional character. God’s love, as evaluative, is that God not only bestows value on the creatures, He receives value from them. “The joy of others is integral to God’s own joy” (145). God’s love also indicates that His response to human behavior is not one of mere undifferentiated “sympathy.” Good and evil are real to God, and His responses to them are different.

Similarly, the Bible portrays God as emotionally responsive to and genuinely affected by human decisions and actions. Numerous passages, from Hosea to the parables of Jesus, attribute compassion and joy to God as well as pain, disappointment, and even “wrath.” He has also been described as changing His mind in response to human decisions and actions. While human emotions are only analogically applicable to God, it is impossible to do justice to the biblical accounts of divine experience without attributing emotions to Him.

To the volitional, evaluative, and emotional aspects of God’s love, Peckham adds “foreconditional” and reciprocal aspects—the features he uses to identify his position. There is a sense in which God’s love is unconditional, he states, but not exclusively so. Divine love is not universally experienced, not because God arbitrarily withholds it or withdraws it but because His creatures have the freedom to reject divine love and thereby forfeit its benefits. While God’s subjective love—God’s love for all—is unconditional, God’s objective love is not. Whether the reciprocity of God’s love is realized depends on the specific way in which people respond to God. His love for those who respond to Him has unique qualities; God’s love is “special and intimate” (242).

Peckham’s concluding chapter raises a number of questions for further discussion, such as divine determinism, which he rejects, and exhaustive divine foreknowledge, which he accepts, although he acknowledges that his concept of God’s love does not require it.

By any account, Peckham’s project is a significant achievement. Extensively researched, meticulously documented—the footnotes are invalu-able—it is expansive in its coverage of an important and complex topic, yet clearly and accessibly developed.

An informed and well-developed argument will always stimulate dis­cussion, and this one will certainly do that. Even though he limits his inquiry to “divine love in the context of the God-world relationship” (60), it seems curious that Peckham declines to explore the Trinitarian dimensions of love. His statement that “love between the persons of the Trinity . . . models the ideal nature of all love relationships” (228) echoes the conviction of many contemporary theologians that the love evident in God’s relation to the creaturely world both reflects and expresses the love that constitutes the divine life itself. I would like to have heard more from Peckham on this topic.

I am also puzzled by the relative lack of attention that open theism receives in this discussion. Like Peckham, those who advocate the openness of God seek a biblically informed alternative to unacceptable views of divine inde­pendence from, and divine dependence on, the world. Peckham is clearly aware of the work of open theists—and cites it from time to time—yet his discussion proceeds without giving it much atten­tion. Although he mentions Thomas J. Oord here and there, he might have considered the work of Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and Gregory A. Boyd, all of whom address a number of Peckham’s central concerns from a perspective similar to his.

In discussing thinkers who exemplify the immanent-experientialist model, Peckham cites Charles Hartshorne, a well-known process thinker. But Hartshorne was a philosopher, not a theologian. He might also have consid­ered the work of Christian theologians who employ process thought, such as John B. Cobb Jr., Schubert M. Ogden, Daniel Day Lewis, David Griffin, and Marjorie Suchocki.

Given the prominence Peckham gives it, one topic that will no doubt receive considerable attention is his “canonical” theological model—a perspective that takes the contents of the Bible as a unity constituted by divine authority and authorship and excludes attempts to go behind the biblical documents as we have them in order to reconstruct their history or development. (Peckham regards such endeavors as “speculative” and irrelevant to his purposes.)

A growing interest in the scholarly world exists to move beyond histori­cal criticism, with its preoccupation with the composition of the biblical documents. After all, these documents have functioned as a unity for centuries within communities of faith and may still do so. Nevertheless, one may affirm the unity and divine authority of the biblical writings without ignoring or disregarding the history behind them. As Peckham himself notes, one can embrace a “canonical horizon” from a literary perspective and treat the final form of the canon as a unified document (57, f.n. 40). So, it seems, one need not agree with his views on historical and canonical criticism in order appreciate the book’s insights into the biblical accounts of divine love.

Whether or not one chooses to pursue all the questions that The Love of God raises, the wealth of information it contains; the clarity of its presenta­tions; and, above all, the lofty theme it pursues will prove valuable to a wide variety of readers.

—Reviewed by Richard Rice, PhD, a professor of religion in the areas of theology and philosophy of religion at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, United States.

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Richard Rice, PhD, a professor of religion in the areas of theology and philosophy of religion at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, United States.

January 2016

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