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Summary of Chapter 1, “Conflicting Models of Divine Love,” of John Peckham’s The Love of God: A Canonical Model

The Love of God: A Canonical Model

Summary by Jeff Dickson

While the concept of a loving God has been firmly established within the theistic community for centuries, delineating how God’s love is applied to mankind in general and the lost and saved in particular continues to generate discussion. Most recently, those joining this conversation on divine love have found themselves endorsing one of two general positions: a transcendent-voluntarist position (held by classical theism) and an immanent-experientialist model (representative of panentheism). In chapter 1 of The Love of God, Peckham provides a brief analysis of each position and a description of how they answer several significant questions. Ultimately, this first discussion will lay the groundwork for the discussions that will take place later in the work as it reveals an unfortunate dichotomy in need of a canonical rejoinder.

The strident differences between transcendent-voluntarism and immanent experientialism can be traced historically and understood as the result of an ever-evolving theology on the love of God. Peckham begins by tracing the evolution of transcendent-voluntarism.

Transcendent-Voluntarism

Augustine, perhaps the forefather of the classical theistic model of divine love, was the first to endorse something akin to the modern transcendent-voluntarist position. For Augustine (a pseudo-neoplatonist), God loves men as objects of use in a top-down program of unilateral beneficence. When man loves God in return, this is determined voluntarily by God who requires nothing (as he is already perfect) but wills everything (as he is totally sovereign). With Augustine, Thomas Aquinas conceded that God is, in fact, an immutable and passionless deity. However, Aquinas warmed the free will of God into a kind of divine friendship (again top down and requiring no reciprocity), believing that God chooses to befriend mankind in different ways for his own purposes. Martin Luther applied these foregoing concepts to his revitalization of the doctrine of grace and framed God’s love as actively and freely bestowed on men who are unable to truly love except as passive agents of divine love in them. It wasn’t until Anders Nygren that attention was given to different words for love (agape and eros especially). Though later his conclusions were largely refuted, Nygren believed that a strict dichotomy existed between eros and agape and only God was capable of agape love (sacrificial, sovereign, and gracious) while the love of men was predominately understood as eros (acquisitive, upward, contingent, and effort-based).

This brief survey highlights the major classical theistic players that eventually coalesced in the work of one recent figure—Carl Henry. Henry amalgamated many of these considerations and further nuanced them into what is understood as one the most robust delineations of the transcendental-voluntarist position. With Augustine, Henry believed that God lacks nothing and therefore requires nothing from his creation. With Aquinas, Henry asserted that God is totally free to show love in different ways to different people. With Luther, Henry recognized the gracious nature of divine love that exists solely for the benefit of the recipient. However, though like Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther, Henry confirmed God’s divine impassibility, and also affirmed God’s ability to feel—arguing that these feelings were, as all of God’s attributes, purely self-determined. Similarly, though Henry adopted his forefather’s confession of God’s transcendence above creation, he did not deny God’s pervasive immanence in creation as witnessed in his preserving it and working out his purposes in it.

Immanent-Experientialism

On the other side of the aisle, immanent-experientialism affirms that God, while dissimilar from the world, is essentially related to the world and thereby dependent on the world for his existence (see panentheism). This concept is largely constructed on the premise that the continual and temporal process of change is the basic form of reality. Therefore, all reality is indeterministic and interdependent—including the reality of God. Inasmuch as the world changes, as it is part of God, God changes with it. Hartshorne applies these concepts to love in the following ways. First, since God includes the world, he feels what the world feels and is therefore acutely sensitive to the world’s concerns. His subsequent love for the world and concern for it is therefore superior to the love of all others because he knows all that there is to know and feels all that there is to feel. However, though his love for the world is as perfect as it can be, it is incomplete as the world is in a constant state of flux.

Both of these positions hit an impasse when they confront several important questions in need of cogent answers.

Does God choose to fully love only some, or does he choose to love all, or is he essentially related to all such that he necessarily loves all?

For the classical transcendent-voluntary theist, God’s love originates in his divine decision to love all generally but only some unto salvation. However, Hartshorne and others believe that the determinism of the transcendent-voluntarist model is unacceptable because it denies meaningful creaturely freedom, thereby excluding true love. As an alternative, Hartshorne and others posit that God’s love is universal, sympathetic, and indetermininistic. However, Henry and other classical theists believe that this makes God’s love contingent, thereby diluting God’s magnificence.

Does God only bestow and/or create value, or might he also appraise, appreciate, and receive value?

Classical theists subscribing to transcendent-voluntarism believe that inasmuch as God is perfect and self-sufficient, he is only the benefactor and never the beneficiary in the exchange of love (he is unchanged by the world). Conversely, immanent-experientialism says that God feels everything and, as a result, benefits and suffers along with the world. Ultimately, while the former affirms God’s self-giving agape love (altruism), the latter believes that God loves in an effort to bring about his own fulfillment (egoism).

Does God’s love include affection and/or emotionality such that God is concerned for the world?

Henry and others who affirm the impassibility of God believe that while God has feelings, these feelings are self-determined (as is every one of God’s attributes). Hartshorne and others who affirm the passibility of God believe that God’s emotions are thrust upon him in a passive way as he sympathizes with what he observes in the world. While the former view is criticized for cheapening real emotions (as many argue that impassibility rules our genuine love in God), the latter avails itself of the idea of a needy and therefore deficient deity.

In what sense is divine love unconditional or conditional, ungrounded or grounded?

Both positions concede that divine love is unconditional; however, they affirm this in different ways. Henry argues that God does not need to love. Instead, he has determined himself to be a God of love and chooses to love as a result. Hartshorne, in contrast, believes that God’s love is unconditional because of his dependency on a world that manifests itself in sympathy for that world—sympathy that manifests in love that he cannot help but demonstrate. However, neither position seems to be able to explain instances in which conditions are assigned to love in things like covenant promises.

Can God and humans be involved in a reciprocal (and unequal) love relationship?

For the transcendental-voluntarist, only God can give love and does so in both general (common grace) and particular (salvific) ways. For the immanent-experientialist, God’s love is universal—i.e. given to all, not just a few, and at all times—and reciprocal. Henry and others wonder if this does not lead inexorably to a mutable being unworthy of worship. Still others along with Hartshorne decry Henry’s transcendent God, believing him to be cold and ultimately unrelated to humanity in any compelling way.

In lieu of these questions and others like them, many have begun to wonder if there is not an alternative to these mutually exclusive conceptions of divine love. Peckham believes that there is, and in the following chapters he will work toward a canonical rejoinder to these positions.

Find the other chapter summaries here as they come available.’

Image: “He loves you” by _mogi. CC License. 

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