Summary by Jeff DicksonAs Peckham progresses in his evaluation of the remaining canonically informed aspects of divine love, he continues by delineating its evaluative component. In an attempt to strike a scripturally-based position over and above the transcendent-voluntarist and immanent-experientialist models, Peckham begins by voicing his dissatisfaction with their understanding of God’s love and its evaluative nature. While the former position holds that God is incapable of ever benefitting or taking pleasure from his creation (rendering his love thoroughly gratuitous), the latter holds that God feels everything along with the world as he is intimately connected to everything in it and depends on it for his essence. In contrast, Peckham argues that God’s love is evaluative, not because he is essentially united to creatures, but because he freely chooses to love in this way.
There are three main objections to this theory that Peckham must address if he is to defend his canonical model. First, there are those who emphasize God’s perfection to the extent that they believe he cannot receive value (as he is already completely valuable). Peckham calls this the theo-ontological objection. To these Peckham calls attention to the myriad of passages that suggest God is capable of being pleased with his creatures. John Piper and Anders Nygren have to assume a metaphorical interpretation of these copious passages and in the place of more literal meanings provide more figurative alternatives. To be sure, Piper and Nygren go to these efforts to protect the self-sufficiency and glorious perfection of God; however, Peckham reminds them that his foreconditional-reciprocal model allows God his sovereignty in freely choosing to be affected by his created world as he pleases.
The second objection states that pure love never receives, but only gives. Those who hold this view insist that receiving love and its derivative values is ultimately selfish and that this is unbecoming of a perfect God. However, what of those passages that affirm self-love? This moral objection to Peckham’s model is shown not to be based on canonical data as much as on a false dichotomy that pits altruism against self-interest. Is it not possible that in acting for the good of others, God is serving himself and vice versa? The two cannot be so easily divided. In fact, one cannot even responsibly imagine a world in which pure and pervasive altruism works in any practical way. Rather, the world that God created was willed by him to include love that is both self-interested and others-centered in that the unselfish self-interest of genuine love includes the best interests of all others.
One final objection Peckham must address is one he calls the anthropological objection. This objection holds that humans are incapable of generating value or eliciting God’s delight. In other words, mankind is so far below the divine that nothing men or women can do can elicit God’s praise. However, this position does not take into consideration the semantic overlap that exists between both Old and New Testament words pertaining to love, delight, pleasure, approval, and acceptance. Not only that, but in many places, God is shown to enjoy his people and care for them more deeply than, for example, the birds. While Peckham agrees that the sinfulness of humans makes it impossible for us to generate value independently of God, he directs attention to the mediation of Christ through which even the most meager offerings of humans can be acceptable and pleasing to God by faith.
Is divine love essentially self-sacrificial?
Similar to what Peckham addressed earlier about selfishness, many believe that the highest virtue of love involves self-sacrifice. Why, if this is the greatest virtue, does it not make sense then to assume this of God at all times? The answer can be most completely addressed when one considers the nature of the world. Christ’s self-sacrifice, for which he is most famous, is necessary in the world as it presently exists because of an intrusion of evil.
Not only that, but it would not make ontological sense for God to sacrifice everything about himself for the sake of the world as everything that exists is contingent on his existence. Some might argue that any sense of self in God is unbecoming as it would mean he acts in self-interest; however, it is this very [unselfish] self-interest, according to Peckham, that renders any sacrifice God makes possible and even more incredible. If God possessed no interests in and of himself, what could, one might ask, he sacrifice in the first place?[Editor’s Note: C. S. Lewis argued, in The Problem of Pain, that self-giving touches “a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being. For the Eternal Word also gives Himself in sacrifice; and that not only on Calvary. For when he was crucified He ‘did that in the wild weather of His outlying provinces which He had done at home in glory and gladness’. From before the foundation of the world He surrenders begotten Deity back to begetting Deity in obedience. And as the Son glorifies the Father, so also the Father glorifies the Son…. From the highest to the lowest, self exists to be abdicated and, by the abdication, becomes the more truly self, to be thereupon yet the more abdicated, and so forever.”]
Does God only love the worthy?
How God’s love is especially applied to the righteous reiterates its evaluative nature even more. Surely, while passages like John 3:16 and others teach that God loves everyone, it is equally true that God is also, at the same time, displeased by universal evil, and finally saves only those who accept his love. How can these ideas be true at the same time? Peckham demonstrates that God is able to love unworthy human beings by temporarily suspending judgment. Though humans do not deserve God’s love, the extremely negative judgments they do deserve are, at present, significantly tempered by his patience and grace which responds with delight when people repent and exercise faith (resulting in salvation).
How is God justified in loving human beings?
However, how is a perfect God able to get away with loving humans in spite of their multitudinous imperfections? The answer exists in two parts. First, God wills to bestow his prevenient grace and foreconditional love upon the world, rendering, as described above, the possibility for people to repent. Second, when imperfect people do repent, Christ’s mediation is able to make up for the deficiencies of those who are in Christ by faith (Romans 8:1). In other words, God makes it possible for people to desire God and, when they do, Jesus makes up the difference. This difference will continue to be satisfied until the eschaton in which the temporary and partial suspension of the effects of evaluation will be over and those in Christ will be glorified. This will successfully render them worthy of God’s positive evaluation.
According to Peckham’s canonically-informed foreconditional-reciprocal model, God not only evaluates his creatures, but he both delights in and is displeased by them. This he does, not because he is in any way dependent on his creation, but because he chooses to love in this way. The system God has put in place has suspended deserved wrath for the time being in an effort to give people a chance to accept his prevenient grace and love. When people do so, Christ’s mediation renders them objects of God’s special and saving affection—an affection that will ultimately result in glory forever.
Image: “The Prodigal Son” By Pompeo Batoni – , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4628046