Skip to main content

Apocalyptic Love and Goodness

By Jeff Dickson

While much attention has been given to the conquest narratives in the Old Testament (which skeptics commandeer to disprove a loving and good God) and how Christians can responsibly advocate for divine love in lieu of these episodes, one potential issue has gone relatively underappreciated and therefore unanswered—How is God’s love witnessed in the eschaton in which His wrath is existentially poured out on the world? Would a loving God really destroy a world and the majority of its people, sending them to an eternal lake of fire, and only preserve those who follow Him? Or, as has been popularly promulgated, does love win in the end and everyone eventually receive a reward in glory?

The book of Revelation seems to argue that God’s love does win in the end—God’s special love for his people—and this, as will soon be argued, seems to be an argument in favor of divine goodness. However, to understand this appropriately, one must appreciate at least one important image that is employed throughout the Canon to illustrate the love and goodness of God—marriage.

Both God and the God-man have been portrayed as a husband for thousands of years. However, God is never portrayed in Scripture as being married to the world. Instead, he is said to have been and is depicted as married to Israel in the Old Testament (Isa. 54:4-8; 62:1-5; Jer. 3:14; 31:31-33; Hos. 14:-20) and to the church in parables (Matt. 22:1-14; 25:1-13), comparisons (Eph. 5:22-33), instructional material (2 Cor. 11:2), and prophecies (Matt. 26:26-30; Mk. 14:22-31; Lk. 22:14-23). The marriage image is even revisited at the very end of Revelation itself as it describes the much anticipated marriage supper of the Lamb.

“Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. Then he said to me, ‘Write, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”’ And he said to me, ‘These are true words of God.’” (Rev. 19:7-9)

These passages not only portray the love exchanged between God and humans, but something of its exclusivity. To be sure, theists believe that God loves the world (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). However, these same theists also affirm that God’s love is not applied in the same way to everybody. Instead, as depicted above, God appears to especially love certain groups (see passages above). This special love, applied to Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament, is ultimately and in part a product of God choosing (volitionally) those who have pleased him (upon his evaluation) and will persevere in a relationship with him that will continue to the end.

In fact, “choice” is something engrained in the very semantics of “love” as it appears in the Scriptures. For instance,  אהב seems to involve choice in the context of Malachi 1:2-3 when it says, “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated.” Not only that, but the New Testament suggests that in order to follow the Lord one must choose Him over one’s family and oneself—signifying superior love for the former, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Lk. 14:26). Most agree that “hate” in both these contexts is not equal to disdain as much as it is comparable to allegiance in relationship. In other words, Jacob was chosen and therefore involved in a special relationship with God and, in that relationship, and object of God’s special affection. Similarly, Luke 14:26 suggests that anyone hoping to be a disciple of Jesus chooses Him over and above all others, thereby entering into a relationship with him that does not compare to anyone else.

Nowhere is this most appropriately encapsulated than within the context and image of marriage. In a marriage, a groom has chosen a bride above all others to remain with him until death. He does so in the best of situations, not under compulsion, but because his wife is pleasing to him and within the context of their marriage, he knows that she will consistently bring delight and affection into their home. Most, even in today’s morally deprived world, agree that a man who loves his wife in special and exclusive ways can be called “good.” If he loved every woman in the same way, he would otherwise be labeled a reprobate and/or womanizer.

The same is true of God as witnessed in Revelation. God’s hatred and wrath poured out over a world that has rejected him (witnessed in John’s graphic apocalyptic and prophetic presentation) indicates not only his holiness and justice, but his incomparable love for His wife—the church. God’s love, and by proxy, his goodness, might be called into question if he showed the same love and granted the same rewards to everyone in the end—even those who never responded positively to his constant overtures.

Therefore, one might say that “love wins” in the end, but not in the way it is popularly promoted. God’s love for his bride wins in the end and this is an eschatologically significant consideration pertaining to His goodness. If love for all wins, God’s love would not be particularly special or meaningful—God would not be as good as the faithful husband he is presented as through the Scriptures in general and in the book of Revelation in particular.

Image: “Jesus” by x1klima. CC License. 

Summary of Chapter 5, “The Evaluative Aspect of Divine Love,” of The Love of God: A Canonical Model by John Peckham

The Love of God: A Canonical Model

Summary by Jeff Dickson

As 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.

Objections Addressed

51WwYweH7VL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_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.

Questions Answered

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.

Conclusions Reached

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.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: “The Prodigal Son” By Pompeo Batoni – [1], Public Domain,

Summary of Chapter 4, “The Volitional Aspect of Divine Love,” of The Love of God: A Canonical Model by John Peckham

Summary by Jeff Dickson

The Love of God: A Canonical Model

With the design of the argument established (a canonical model) and the preliminary linguistic work accomplished (successfully removing overly rigid distinctions between different biblical words for “love”), Peckham is well positioned in chapter 4 to begin his analysis of the different scripturally rooted attributes of God’s love for the world. The first of these is the volitional aspect of divine love. While the transcendent-voluntarist concludes that divine love is totally free, sovereign, and unmotivated (as witnessed in election), and the immanent-experientialist supposes that divine love is essential to God’s nature and therefore universal, sympathetic, and indeterministic, Peckham is going to advocate in this chapter for a foreconditional-reciprocal model of divine love that understands God’s love for the world as voluntary and yet not merely volitional.

God’s Volitional Love

51WwYweH7VL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As mentioned above, the transcendent-voluntarist model has happily endorsed the voluntary nature of God’s love; however, it is prone to delimit God’s love to mere volition. This comes as a result of an un-nuanced adherence to God’s impassibility, absolute sovereignty, and aseity. Inevitably, many (from Vanhoozer to Barth) conclude that God’s relationship with the world is not necessary. However, Kevin Hector’s interpretation of Barth affords an alternative position which states that humanity is contingently necessary to God inasmuch as God determined from eternity past to be God-with-us.

These and other  interpretations of divine love are accused by Peckham of making claims based on what God might have done rather than what Scripture clearly presents. This is why Peckham lays out, as promised, his canonical answer to the following question, “Does God love freely and, if so, what does that mean?” From the Scriptures, Peckham is able to demonstrate (with T. F. Torrance) that God did not have to create anything and, as a result (and in agreement with Richard Rice), the world owes its existence, both past and present, to God’s free choice. Applied to God’s love for humanity, it must be said that this too is freely bestowed by God in election.

To illustrate this phenomenon, the Bible uses images like marriage and adoption to reiterate that divine love is always instigated by God. Not only that, but the fact that love is shown in Scripture to be taken away (in some sense) demonstrates that divine love (in that specific sense) is inessential to God. These and other proofs both affirm the transcendent-voluntarist position and undermine the immanent-experientialist belief that God is somehow compelled to love because he is in some way dependent on the world.

However, Peckham departs from strict voluntarists when he suggests that God’s love is not merely volitional. Instead, he believes divine love is also evaluative, emotional, foreconditional, and ideally reciprocal. One example of this took place when God’s people rebelled by erecting a golden calf in the wilderness and, in response, God offered them a choice to either repent and enter back into his love or forfeit God’s mercy. In this episode, though God’s love is shown to be freely given to a people who do not deserve it, Peckham believes that it is not merely a product of his choice, but, in some ways, contingent on how his people respond and reciprocate. If they repent, they will experience God’s love in special ways; if they do not, they forfeit God’s free and sovereign offering.

Love and Election

A discussion very closely related to the volitional aspect of God’s love is the relationship between love and election. For those adhering to a strict transcendent-voluntarist model, election and love go hand-in-hand (see Leon Morris and Anders Nygren). In fact, some, as revealed in chapter 3, even equate Old Testament words for “love” with choice. This is not so with Peckham’s foreconditional-reciprocal model. Instead, Peckham suggests that while election is a manifestation of love, it is not equal to divine love. In fact, divine love is shown in the Canon to be so much more than mere election.

Man_Made_in_the_Image_of_GodScripture teaches that divine love is not only the basis for divine election (Deut. 4:37; 7:7-8; 10:15), it is unmerited, evaluative, conditional, and must be maintained by appropriate human response. In addition to passages that describe God’s sovereign freedom to bestow love as he pleases, a host of passages reveal God’s hatred toward humans that is prompted by their evil actions, thereby proving his love to have an evaluative component. Also, the pervasive covenant language in the Scriptures implicitly suggests certain underlining conditions associated with the benefits thereof and the love bestowed therein. Not only that, the elect are described throughout the Canon as those who, upon receiving a divine call, answer it appropriately by reciprocating the love bestowed in the context of a growing relationship.

Love and Bilateral Significant Freedom
One final consideration Peckham includes in this presentation involves what he calls bilateral significant freedom, or the ability of both God and man to will to act otherwise than they do. According to Peckham, if this was not affirmed, especially when it pertains to God’s love relationship with the world, so many passages through the Canon would not make sense. The pervasive offerings of love from God and the many commands to love God both suggest that divine love, though freely bestowed, cannot be forced upon someone by sheer will. In other words, mankind is not casually determined to love God according to the Scriptures. Therefore, the love between God and man is, in some ways, a phenomenon that occurs when both God chooses to offer it and humans choose to respond appropriately. As Peckham concludes, the love relationship between God and man is neither unilaterally deterministic nor an ontological necessity. Instead, it is mutually (though not equally) volitional and contingent.

Ultimately, [similar to] the transcendent-voluntarists [in this respect], Peckham believes that the love of God [for the world] is volitional and free. Not only that, but he affirms that love [in relationship to the world] is neither essential to God’s being nor necessary to his existence. However, Peckham believes that reducing divine love to pure volition is too limited given how the God—man relationship is portrayed in the Scriptures. God’s love seems to be experienced most completely by those who respond to his offer appropriately in the context of a bilaterally free, volitional relationship—not as a result of a reductionist interpretation of God’s election alone.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image:By the Providence Lithograph Company –, Public Domain,

John Peckham, summary of Chapter 3, “Agape Verses Eros?: The Biblical Semantics of Divine Love,” from The Love of God: A Canonical Model

 Summary by Jeff Dickson

The Love of God: A Canonical Model

Before setting out to delineate the love of God by means of its consistent and wide-ranging attributes as supported in the Canon, Peckham decides first to address the issues surrounding the polysemy and multivalency of the word “love” as it appears in the Scriptures. In so doing, Peckham confronts an exegetical fallacy that unfortunately pervades both popular and, in some cases, academic scholarship concerning theologically charged verbiage in general and “love” in particular. This fallacy is known by Grant Osborne as the lexical fallacy and/or the illegitimate totality transfer and identified by D. A. Carson in his discussion on problems surrounding synonyms and componential analysis. In both of these presentations and in that of Peckham’s, it is concluded that the entire semantic range of any word should not be read into every occurrence of the aforementioned term nor should a particular meaning/nuance in one context be thrust on all other contexts containing the same locution.

Proving this to be true of the word “love” in its many forms (agape, eros, phileo, etc.) is fruitful for Peckham’s broader argument for two reasons. First, if Peckham cannot demonstrate that there is at least some semantic overlap between different canonical terms for love, then he might be required to treat each individual term to its own robust study. Second, proving that there is at least some lexical and semantic parallelism between different terms for love from the beginning will allow Peckham to move more freely within the Canon toward an understanding of divine love without becoming too preoccupied with unnecessary and overly particular lexical exercises which, as mentioned above, have the potential of yielding fallacious conclusions.

The Theological Inflation of Agape over Eros

Perhaps the most popular distinction drawn in this discussion is between agape and eros in which those like Anders Nygren argue that agape pertains to a unilateral beneficence limited to the realm of God’s own volition while eros describes an emotional, acquisitive, and desirous love witnessed within the human race. However as Peckham reveals, agape is used in the Scriptures both positively and negatively to convey a host of meanings ranging from the holy love of God (connotations more in keeping with popular ideas about agape) to fleeting lusts (which is more in keeping with common considerations of eros). Therefore, what Peckham is able to demonstrate seems to undermine the conclusions of Nygren and others of his ilk.

That said, Peckham does concede that with divine agency, the agapao word group only refers to perfect, virtuous love, but not in a lexically limited way. Instead God’s agape love in many contexts involves conditions, evaluations, emotion, and reciprocity. Therefore, to delimit agape to the perfect and yet cold volition of God is to rob it of its nuance, biblically rooted connotations, and the subsequent implications thereof.

The Theological Inflation of Agape over Phileo

A similar phenomenon is witnessed in considerations of agape alongside phileo. Those wearing lexical blinders often conclude that while agape speaks of Christian love witnessed between God and man, phileo connotes a friendly and therefore inferior kind of love that is given and reciprocated between two equals in a relationship. Many in favor of this distinction point to the conversation recorded in John 21 between Jesus and Peter for support.

However, as Peckham points out, the meanings associated with these two terms in the New Testament overlap in nearly every respect as both describe the Father’s love for the Son, God’s love for his disciples, Jesus’ love for sinners, mankind’s love for Christ, human love for other humans, and love of one’s own life. Additionally, similar conditions are often involved in contexts containing both agape and phileo, as are emotions and reciprocity.

For the reasons described above, Peckham concurs with Carson in concluding that there is no biblically supported rule that ultimately or completely isolates agape love to the realm of God and limits his affection to volitional and emotionless beneficence. The best proof of this is witnessed in the obvious semantic overlap between agape, eros, and phileo.

The Wider Semantics of Love in the Scripture

The same can be said of words used for “love” in the Old Testament. For instance אָהֵב (the forerunner of agape) with divine agency always connotes perfect love. With this in mind, Eugene Merrill (as Nygren has done with agape) delimits אָהֵב to a unilaterally willed and unconditional kind of love—the kind demonstrated most succinctly in arbitrary election. However, Peckham argues that while love might serve as a basis for election, the two are not pure synonyms. In fact, according to Old Testament usage, אָהֵב is evaluative rather than the result of arbitrary choice. Elsewhere, God expects אָהֵב from human beings (albeit not symmetrically) for having bestowed אָהֵב on them.  Not only that, but Peckham shows that אָהֵב is decidedly emotional in certain contexts as well.

חסד ( “steadfast love and mercy”) is also understood by many to be relatively singular in meaning—denoting the relational love of God that allows for his loyalty and mercy. However, even this term is multifaceted. Occurring primarily in contexts dealing with God’s covenant with His people, חסד includes a voluntary (volitional) act toward another that is unmerited and yet not altogether unconditional (as it may be forfeited and withdrawn). חסד also naturally assumes responsiveness from those to whom it is bestowed (reciprocity).

Finally, רחמ (and New Testament counterparts pertaining to compassionate love) is also teaming with potential meanings and nuances. Though primarily רחמ is used in referring to intense emotional love, its reception is often described in the Old Testament as contingent on the maintenance of an ongoing divine-human relationship (foreconditional).


Peckham has thus been able to demonstrate that biblical words for love are not nearly as distinct as they are often presumed to be and that they share many of the same attributes (volition, evaluation, emotion, forecondition, and reciprocation)—especially in contexts dealing with God’s love for the world. This study is well positioned to develop its understanding of divine love on a canonical level without having to delimit itself to or preoccupy itself with overly reductionist lexical studies.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: By Joan de Joanes –, Public Domain

John Peckham, summary of Chapter 2, “Toward Addressing the Conflict: A Canonical Approach,” of The Love of God: A Canonical Model

Summary by Jeff Dickson

The Love of God: A Canonical Model

Having delineated the disjunction and subsequent impasse between the transcendent-voluntarist and immanent-experientialist models of divine love in chapter one, Peckham continues his work by describing the means by which he has arrived at his canonical alternative. Instead of presupposing a robust ontology and moving toward an understanding of love, the author instead presupposes a sophisticated view of Scripture and then considers what it elucidates about divine love in light of Scripture’s principal character—Christ.

As in any argument, the canonical approach employed for understanding divine love (as endorsed by Peckham) is well within its epistemic rights to select its starting point a priori. Taking advantage of what is allowed on epistemic grounds, the canonical approach in this work endorses the following foundation: (1) a robust view of revelation, (2) a dual-authorship understanding of the produced text, and (3) a primarily grammatical-historical hermeneutic (although Peckham’s iteration of this concept is sympathetic to how any one text fits into the entire Canon). These endorsements reveal that the canonical approach promulgated in this work desires to uncover what about divine love is depicted in the text. Additionally, what is sought is not what any one passage has to offer on the matter, but what the Canon reveals as a whole.

This decision is in keeping with what is encouraged by many hermeneutical scholars who believe that much of what is reached on an interpretive level depends on context. Reaching a responsible understanding of a passage/topic requires an investigation of the immediate context (i.e. the passages that surround the verse/idea in question) for anything that might offer aid in interpretation. Better, continue the analysis by observing how the verse/topic fits into the argument of the book in which it is placed. What is even better is exploring how a verse or passage comports with other passages in the Canon that deal with the same concept or contain similar language. Investigating a topic as broad as the love of God merits (and even demands) an approach that extends this kind of contextual analysis Canon-wide because it is only in the purview of the entire Scriptural account that something as pervasive and significant as God’s affections can be properly informed and elucidated.

Peckham’s canonical approach assumes that in spite of its plurality of authors and contexts, Scripture was written in a single vein that informed, guided, and even corrected the human participants in the writing process.  In other words, the Canon itself has a direction and objectivity to it that is greater than the sum of all of its parts.

Additionally, Peckham’s program is sympathetic to hermeneutical critical realism (i.e. that meaning exists before interpretation). However, his hermeneutic pushes exegesis beyond any specific text and toward an interpretation of the entire Canon. Such an approach is able to appreciate both the rich nuance of any text along with its meaningful relationship to the rest of Scripture and its history. Put another way, the canonical approach described above is characteristic of both phenomenological exegesis (considering interpretations which mean something on both a specific and canonical level) and hermeneutical exegesis (considering the philological and historical dimensions of the exegetical method).

These commitments keep Peckham from missing the forest for the trees and losing the trees among the forest. As much as possible, Peckham is trying to understand love by means of applicable texts (bottom up), while simultaneously analyzing these texts alongside each other given their relationship to canonical and historical considerations (top-down).

Although while interpreting data exegetes and theologians are encouraged to cancel out all previously inherited theories and/or presuppositions that could in some way color the text, the canonical approach delineated here is honest about its commitment to an orthodox view of revelation, authorship, and a singularly focused canonical framework that is only fully appreciated when both phenomenological and hermeneutical investigations are allowed to transpire. Peckham chooses to presuppose this over and above a sophisticated ontology. Instead of beginning in the realm of systematic theology and understanding Scripture in light of well-organized systems, he chooses to begin with the raw data, correctly interpreted, and then proceeds to build a canonically sound view of divine love.

One of the concessions that Peckham makes before proceeding is that this work is not prepared to report an exhaustive analysis of every passage on divine love along with its meaning and relationship to the entire Canon. Therefore, the analysis will be in large part feature a report of the trends discovered following a more exhaustive exercise conducted before this work was produced. One of the means by which the raw data was limited for the purposes of this project involved delimiting God’s love to his concern for the world. This naturally establishes Jesus Christ as a special subject worth careful consideration as he is the very incarnation of God in general and God’s love in particular.

For Peckham, it is not just the Canon, but the Christ of the Canon that reveals God primarily and his love especially. Therefore, with the Canon as the body of data and Christ as the example par excellence discovered therein, this canonical approach is able to yield an understanding of the love of God that is more sophisticated than both the transcendental-voluntarist model and the immanent-experientialist model.

In a preview of coming attractions, Peckham concludes this chapter by outlining several specific attributes of God’s love resulting from the canonical approach described in this chapter: (1) volition, (2) evaluation, (3) emotion, (4) forecondition, and (5) reciprocity. These will be delineated in future summaries.

Find the other chapter summaries here.


Image:”The Last Supper” by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

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.


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.


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.