Saturday, May 31, 2008

Calvinism, the Trinity and God's Universal Love

It has been argued by some Calvinists that the assertion "God is love" can be true even if there are people that God does not love. That sounds very odd so allow me to explain the thinking.

The statement "God is love" is rightly taken as referring to God's essential, necessary being. Within the Godhead there is mutual divine love between the Persons of the Trinity - the Father loves the Son and the Spirit, the Son loves the Father and the Spirit, the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. Thus "God is love" is a truth even if God does not create a universe containing beings for him to love.

But some in the Reformed tradition go further. They argue that if God freely chooses to create the world (and he did not have to create this world or indeed any world) then God is totally free to decide whether or not he loves everything or anything in that world without his choice impacting the truth of the claim that "God is love". Why? Because the truth of the claim that "God is love" depends on the love within the Trinity and so God's decision whether or not to love his creatures has no bearing on that truth whatsoever! Consequently it would be true that "God is love" even if God chose to hate every single creature that he created!

This line of reasoning opens the way for some Calvinists to feel reasonable when maintaining both (a) that "God is love" and (b) that God loves only some people with a robust, redeeming love (he only loves the rest with a lesser, non-redeeming love shown in common grace). It is true, we are told, that "God is love" even though God chooses to send some people to eternal, conscious torment when he could just as easily have saved them from Hell.

Here is what I think about that: It is both completely right and completerly wrong - and in that order.

It is completely correct in maintaining that God's love is an essential divine characteristic because it is grounded in the mutual love of the Persons within the Godhead. It is consequently completely correct to claim that the assertion that "God is love" is true even if nothing at all existed apart from God. So far so good.

It is completely wrong, so I think, to assert that God's essential nature of love would not be compromised if God failed to love his creatures. That would be to maintain that the following two propositions were fully compatible

1. God is essentially loving (in other words, it is God's nature to love)
2. God does not love some of the creatures that he has made.

But at face value that seems a very odd claim indeed. It seems much more 'obvious' to me that

if God is essentially loving then

3. if only God exists then God will love himself
4. if God has created a universe then God will love himself and the creatures that he has created

If God creates a universe yet only loves himself and not his creatures could we say that it is God's nature to love? That love is essential to God? Could we maintain with integrity that "God is love"? When pondering that question remember that the phrase "God is love" comes from 1 John and in that letter it is not God's self-love that is in view but his love for creation.

As an aside, I do not hear many Calvinists arguing that for God to be essentially truthful all that is required is that he is truthful within the Trinity but that he can lie through his teeth when speaking to his creatures. If God is essentially truthful then he does not lie to anyone. Well, the same goes (or so I maintain) with his love.

I would be interested to know what Calvinists made of my continued suspicion that propositions 1 and 2 above really are incoherent and that, consequently, traditional Calvinism really does have a serious problem holding on to the central Christian conviction that "God is love".


Rachel said...

I agree with you; saying that God can be love and not love all his creatures is a pretty stupid way of solving the hell problem. I think a smarter Calvinist would say that consigning people to eternal damnation is an act of love as it is providing a place for people to end up for eternity if they can't stand the presence of God. Kind of a Great Divorce-ish way of looking at it. But, some hard-liners persist:

The meaning I would attach to the statement "God is love" is this: it belongs to the fullness of God's nature that he cannot be served but must overflow in service to his creation. The very meaning of God is a being who cannot be enriched but always remains the enricher. To be God is to be incapable of being a beneficiary of any person or power in the universe. Rather, Godness involves a holy impulse ever to be benefactor. But it is not for us to insist that the best or only way for God to exert maximum love is to treat no individuals unlovingly. On the contrary, Scripture teaches us that "to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy" God does prepare vessels for destruction (Rom. 9:23; see John Piper, The Justification of God, chapters three and ten, for the exegetic evidence that this text refers to the eternal destiny of individuals).

Gregory MacDonald said...


How very interesting!

On Hell: I must own up to not finding the smarter Calvinist's solution to Hell very convincing. I have several problems with it but here is just one. The Calvinist believes that all people are totally depraved and are incapable of coming to saving faith apart from God's irresistable grace. So all people are in the category of those who resist God. All people fall into the category of those 'can't stand the presence of God'. But Calvinists believe that the sovereign God can awaken faith, repentance and love for God in the hearts of all sinners. In other words, they could all be moved by God from the group of those who "can't stand God's presence". So the sovereign and loving God has a choice with regard to any person X - he can redeem X or he can consign X to Hell. The fact that X currently cannot stand God's presence is not some brute fact that God has to (sadly) accept making Hell his only option for X. It seems to me that redeeming X is more loving than sending X to Hell. So why would the smarter Calvinist think of Hell as a loving alternative to redemption if God could just as easily do either? You'll have to help me out here because I just cannot see it.

Your reflections on divine love are very helpful and I agree with most of it. I agree that God is not some Mr Nice-Guy who would not hurt a fly. I agree that God's kindness and love sometimes manifest themselves in punishment. I even think that Hell can be seen, from one angle, as a severe mercy (though I would not describe that as 'unloving'). But I think that this way of thinking about Hell - as a severe mercy - is only possible if Hell is not a state of being placed beyond redemption. I think that God can and will rescue those in Hell. But if Hell was a completely hopeless condition - as in the classical tradition (and as Piper believes) - then I simply cannot imagine how that could count as something a soverign God WHO IS LOVE would do. So again, I need your help to see how that might work.

But thanks so much for these helpful comments (and congratulations on graduating - from Calvin College I presume)



Rachel said...

Actually I don't really see how it would work either...I was just trying to think through it using one of the softer alternatives I had been presented with somewhere along the line. But I agree with you; if you're going to maintain an insistence on God's complete sovereignty over matters of salvation, it no longer makes any sense. And then you're left with somebody like Piper who says that it's more important for God to love himself than his creation, which is why I don't consider myself a Calvinist. I've adopted a position presumably similar to yours (although I confess I haven't read your book). I think you will be pleasently surprised to learn that there are Calvin faulty with universalist hopes/tendencies. I took a whole class of Jurgen Moltmann, who is a Reformed theologian with an obvious universalistic eschatology. The faculty I've talked to as I've been investigating universalism have been really helpful in giving me things to read, etc. I also think that a couple of my nursing professors are secretly sympathetic to it, since we see people of so many different faiths and backgrounds dying all the time.

Jason Pratt said...

{{This line of reasoning opens the way for some Calvinists to feel reasonable when maintaining both (a) that "God is love" and (b) that God loves only some people with a robust, redeeming love (he only loves the rest with a lesser, non-redeeming love shown in common grace).}}

I have to add that, in practice, when it comes down to it, Calvinist apologists have a tendency to go the distance and deny there is any grace at all in hell, common or otherwise. 'Common grace' only applies to the 'non-elect' before they die. After that, no grace at all. (This was insisted upon, to me in conversation, most recently last week, by a popular internet apologist debating in favor of Calvinism. I won't say who or where, though, to spare him. {s})

Consequently, though, no love at all to those in hell; only wrath.

I believe a large part of the technical theological problem, is that Christian theologians (along with most other theistic theologians for that matter), tend to be privative aseitists, not positive aseitists. In other words, they believe God merely exists without cause, rather than being self-causing. But self-begetting is self-causing. (Moreover, mere static self-existence means action is not an intrinsic characteristic of the Self-existent Independent Fact--and that implies atheism far more than theism!)

The result is that theologians and apologists are most frequently taught to think of God as just existing, statically; and this goes for how most Christians think of the Trinity existing, too. Well, if the Trinity merely exists as some kind of characteristic-set, then we have the contradiction of the love of the Persons being both essential and non-essential to God's existence. Consequently, if God is proposed to behave in any fashion that would seem to go against His intrinsic nature, it isn't a problem--it isn't like God really is essentially love, right?

Thus, God is essentially love when that's convenient to whatever theological position is preferred at the moment, and not essentially love when that's more convenient. (Not-incidentally, the same set of apologists, discussing an issue of orthodox coherency on the same site, and faced with a problem, simply pronounced the Trinity and the Incarnation to be incoherent and inherently contradictory--but still true and worth discussing as true anyway.)

How does the quote Rachel gives us go?--"But it is not for us to insist that the best or only way for God to exert maximum love is to treat no individuals unlovingly [i.e. with no love at all]."

Once someone accepts intrinsic contradictions as possibly true anyway, in principle, then one can make statements of that sort with perfect equanimity. (I know that that wasn't your position, Rach; just borrowing it for sake of illustration. {s} Nice to see you here, btw! {g})

Your criticism of the position is very good, too, Greg.


Actually, even in TGD, Lewis' dream ends with the Beatific Vision granted to those in hell--who suffer more for having and rejecting it. (This is consonant with his theology elsewhere, too.)

But you're right about some Calvs (and Arms for that matter) trying to divorce God from being present with those in hell (and thus not omnipresent), one way or another.


Auggybendoggy said...

I know this has been here a while but I'd like to comment Gregory if you don't mind.

If it is true that God, within the triune Godhead, loves each member and therfore anything outside that Godhead need not be loved then I would assume that faith being a part of love (love is always faithful) can also NOT be demonstrated outside his creation and God is still faithful (within) the Godhead?

If God can NOT be what his nature is then how can a calvinist claim that man HAS to be what his nature is (bondage of the will).

If God has to be what his nature is then can God be hateful towards his "good" creation.


Gregory MacDonald said...


I don't know that I totally follow you.

My view is that the 'Persons' of the Trinity love each other and are faithful to each other within the Godhead even if God never creates a universe. But if God does create a universe then God, being love, will love creation and be faithful to it also.

However, in the view of the theologians that I am criticizing God does not have to love or to be faithful to his creation so long as love and fideilty are exemplified within the Godhead.

Is that comment relevant to what you are asking?

Anonymous said...

I agree that God is the Saviour of all men & women (1 Timothy 4:10; 1 John 4:14), because sozo can mean "resurrect" & 1 Timothy 2:6 teaches "universal substitutionary-ransom" i.e"future,universal resurrection".
This is based on the Last Adam, Jesus, cancelling the First Adam's universal death penalty (Rom 5:17-19; 2 Cor 5:19).
But "universal resurrection" for judgment is not the same as "universal salvation", because Adam's sin (has been) & personal sins (will be) judged separately: this is the Wider (not Larger) Hope !! Temple Farrar

Robin Parry said...


resurrection to judgement is indeed not the same thing as universal salvation. But resurrection to judgement is NOT what the passages to which you refer are about. They are about universal atonement and salvation.