Wednesday, January 7, 2015

What Does It Mean to Say, "God is Love?"

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Cor 13:4-7).
In some of the most beloved words ever written, the apostle Paul describes love (agape) in terms of relationship. For Paul, love is patient and kind; it is not self-seeking. The kind of love that Paul describes is clearly not self-centred; it is other-centred. It is not turned inward on self; rather, its orientation is outward, toward the other.
Love is Interpersonal     
For Paul, “love” is interpersonal in nature. That is, “love” requires one to give it and another to receive it. Paul’s inspired portrayal of spiritual love (agape) bears directly on the Christian doctrine of God. According to the New Testament, “God is love” (1John 4:8, 16). Since love requires another, clearly the “being” or “nature” of the God who is love is interpersonal. In other words, “God” is more than one person. This reasoning, of course, is in complete harmony with the New Testament teaching that “God” is “Father,” “Son” and “Holy Spirit”―three divine persons, who eternally exist in the unity of love (e.g., Matthew 28:19; 2Cor 13:14).[i]
Against the Greek philosophical tradition that has distorted the western Christian doctrine of God for centuries, the biblical witness attests that God does not exist in simple, undifferentiated “one-ness.” Rather God is “being-in-relationship.” God is a fellowship of divine persons inseparably and indivisibly united in a communion of love. Since God is “being-in-relationship,” we cannot reduce the “being” of God to a simple mathematical unity. When we speak of the “unity” or “one-ness” of God’s “being,” we have no right to impose a mathematical framework  that leaves us scratching our heads as to how “three” can be “one,” or “one” can be “three.” The New Testament witness precludes the application of mathematical nonsense to the being of God, for its writers reveal that “this God,” the one who has revealed himself in space-time history as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is “one” only in the sense that the three persons of the Godhead joyfully give to and receive from one another all that they are.[ii] All that the Father has belongs to the Son; all that the Son has belongs to the Father; all that the Father and Son have belong to the Spirit; all that the Spirit has belongs to the Father and Son. We cannot conjecture a “being” of God other than, or greater than, the being of God that is entirely constituted by the Father, Son and Spirit. As theologian Colin Gunton often stated, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in their relationships among themselves, constitute the “being” of God “without remainder.” [iii]
As Colin Gunton notes, to say that “God is love,” means that the “being” of God is describable as “love” of a particular kind. The being of God is an interpersonal “structure” of mutual giving and receiving. According to Gunton, “God is a fellowship of persons whose orientation is entirely to the other.” Of course, the notion of “person” can be problematic. In modern western thought, “person” connotes stark “individuality,” where the “individual” is set over and against the other.[iv] To guard against the erroneous teaching that the Holy Trinity is composed of three separate, “individual” persons, each with his own plans and agenda, the Church Fathers of the Fourth Century coined the term perichoresis to characterize the nature of God as “being-in-relationship.” [v] According to Basil of Caesarea, God is a “sort of continuous and undifferentiated community.” [vi]  While the three persons of the Holy Trinity are distinct, they do not exist in isolated individuality in competition with one another but, rather, are “entirely for and from one another.” That is, there is “an orientation to the other within the eternal structure of God’s being.”[vii] To say that God is love, therefore, means that God is three persons, whose being is so closely bound up with one another that they are said to “indwell” one another in mutual giving and receiving. In their perichoretic interrelations of mutual giving and receiving, the three persons of the Trinity together constitute “one God.”
Creation: an Act of Grace
Because God eternally exists in a communion or “fellowship” of love, God is not “lonely.” To the contrary, God is not “alone,” for God eternally exists in a relationship of three divine persons, whose unifying, overarching characteristic is “love.”[viii] Because the orientation of love is outward and other-centred, God sovereignly determines that there be a reality other than himself, with whom he may share his life and love (Barth). God’s love, rather than being eternally turned “inward” upon itself, flows “outward” to create others whom he may bring into relationship with himself.
Because God is eternally Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three divine persons eternally co-existing in the unity of love, it is not necessary for God to create the world. To be sure, God does not “need” human beings to keep him company. In contrast to a weak and puny God who depends upon his creation, God is utterly self-sufficient. Thus, God did not create the world out of need; God created the world out of love―a love that eternally flows outward to another.[ix] In short, we are not here because God needs us; we are here because God wants us![x] To say that “God is love” means that we are created to share in the joyous life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Hence, creation itself―including our own lives within it―is an act of sheer grace.
Divine Attributes: A Trinitarian Framework
To say that God is “love” requires a complete re-thinking of many traditional ideas about the “nature” or “being” of God. Theological textbooks typically introduce the “doctrine of God” with a laundry list of classic “attributes,” wherein God is described as “infinite,” “immutable,” “impassible,” “omnipotent,” “omnipresent,” et. al. The “classic” attributes that are said to describe the nature of God actually arise from observation of the creation. The “imperfections” of nature are merely negated and then applied to the “perfect” God, where God is said to be “not this.” For example, since nature is finite, we say that God is infinite (“not finite”). Since nature is “mutable” or “changeable,” we say that God is “immutable” (not “mutable” or “changeable”). Or we may simply extend human limitations to an infinite degree and declare that God is “omnipotent” (“all-powerful”), “omniscient” (“all-knowing”), and “omnipresent” (“all-present”). Either way, rational descriptions of God are nothing more than attempts to develop knowledge of the Creator from the creation.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity, on the other hand, is derived from God’s self-revelation in the history of Israel, the giving of the Son and the sending of the Spirit. While “natural theology” has its place as a support to faith, it cannot be allowed to supplant God’s self-revelation as Father, Son and Spirit. A trinitarian approach to the doctrine of God, where God is understood not philosophically but personally, demands a thorough re-formulation of the classic “attributes” of God. As we have seen, the “being” or “nature” of God is constituted “without remainder” by a tri-personal fellowship of “love.” Thus, the traditional attributes of God must be recast in personal terms, where God’s historical revelation in space-time history as Father, Son and Spirit takes precedence over traditional “philosophical” constructs.
In a trinitarian framework, the personal attributes of God come to the forefront. When God is understood personally rather than philosophically, personal qualities such as “love” and “mercy” take precedence over abstract concepts such as immutability and its logical corollary “impassibility” (“not able to suffer”). As Colin Gunton notes, “mercy is not an occasional but an intrinsic quality [of God], because it is the outworking of the way in which God is eternally love.” In other words, “mercy” is the expression in space-time history of God’s eternal nature as “love.”[xi] To be sure, many of the “classic” attributes of God, as traditionally conceived, simply do not fit with the biblical description of God. For example, in the classic attributes, divine “omnipotence” (“all-power”) is typically construed in terms of strength, force and the ability to coerce in order to achieve a particular goal. A trinitarian framework, built on God’s self-revelation in Jesus and the Spirit, however, reveals that God does not accomplish his saving purpose for creation through the use of “power,” as traditionally conceived. From the beginning of his ministry, when he was tempted in the wilderness by Satan, the Son of God refused to fulfil his mission through the use of worldly power. Jesus admonished his disciples against the worldly use of power (Matt 20:25, 26). The power of the God who fulfils his plan of redemption through the meekness of a manger and the humility of a cross cannot be captured by merely extending human concepts of power to an infinite degree. At the same time, however, as Gunton notes, “One who can direct history through an incarnation leading to a cross is one to whose power no limits can be set.” The incarnation and the cross reveal “omnipotence” not as abstractly and philosophically conceived but “personal and ordered to the needs of its object.”[xii]
As noted above, to say that God is “love,” as revealed in the giving of the Son (John 3:16) and the sending of the Spirit (John 14:16, 17; 15:6), demands that the classical attributes of God be reformulated in personal rather than philosophical terms. For example, divine “immutability” must no longer be conceived in philosophical (i.e., Platonic) notions of “un-change-able-ness,” according to which God may not even respond to prayer![xiii] Rather, the classic attribute of divine immutability must be reformulated in the personal terms of God’s unswerving faithfulness and commitment to his good plan for creation and his steadfast determination to bring it to fruition. Similarly, the philosophical construct of divine “impassibility” (not able to suffer) must be recast in view of Bethlehem and Calvary, for the entire life of the Son of God was a bearing of the cross on behalf of all humanity. Finally, even the troublesome and oft-abused construct of divine “wrath” must be reformulated, not in terms of penalty and punishment, but in terms of God’s determined purpose to resist anything that stands in the way of his loving purpose for all creation.
To say that “God is love” means that God is not a simple, undifferentiated “one-person” monad existing in eternal isolation. Rather, God is three divine persons, who eternally exist in a relationship of mutual self-giving and receiving. To say that “God is love” means that God’s basic orientation is outward, “toward” and “for” the other. To say that “God is love” means that God has sovereignly determined that “he will not be God without us” (Barth). Creation is an act of grace, wherein God has determined to bring us into the circle of his divine life and love. To say that “God is love” is to subvert all man-made (i.e., “philosophical”) constructs in favour of the self-emptying, suffering God revealed in the manger and the cross. Finally, to say that “God is love” means that all God’s way toward us are ways of love, for God can do no other than be true to his nature as our loving Father, as revealed in Jesus and the Spirit.
Rev. Dr. Martin M. Davis, (Ph.D)

[i] As the great Church Father Gregory Nazianzus said, “When I say ‘God’, I mean the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
[ii] Gunton, C.E. 2002. The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, p. 186.
[iii] ibid., p. 188. I have long appreciated Gunton’s assertion that the three persons of the Holy Trinity constitute the being of God “without remainder.” As Gunton has argued, this means there is no “fourth-something” hidden behind the Father, Son and Spirit, whose purpose for us is unknown. To be sure, there is no other God than the loving, self-giving God revealed in the history of Israel and in the giving of the Son and the sending of the Spirit.
On another note, the biblical teaching that God is a communion of persons, who eternally exist in a nexus, or “network,” of relationships, is reflected at the most fundamental level of nature. Modern science has discovered that the basic “building blocks” of nature are not “atomistic”; that is, they do not exist as disconnected “particles” in isolation or separation from one another. Rather, they exist in networks of relationships, where the “building blocks” and the relationships between them constitute their reality. Hence, at the subatomic level, nature has its “being-in-relationship.” As T.F. Torrance noted, when the discoveries of modern science support the biblical revelation of God as tri-personal “being-in-relationship,” we do well to pay attention.
[iv] To be sure, there is a measure of “individuality” in the Christian doctrine of God, for each divine person―Father, Son and Holy Spirit―is unique and irreplaceable: the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. Yet, all three divine persons are essential to God’s being “as God.”
[v] The Cappadocian Fathers―Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzus and Gregory Nyssa―were a trio of great trinitarian theologians from the province of Cappadocia, now in modern-day Turkey. Their doctrine of perichoresis, with its emphasis on the mutual “indwelling” of the three persons of the Trinity, guards against the erroneous teaching of “tri-theism.”
[vi] Gunton, p. 186. The classical doctrine of the Trinity states that the “one God” of the Christian faith eternally exists as three co-equal divine persons―Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
[vii] Gunton, pp. 186-7.
[viii] “Father” and “Son” indicate “persons” in relationship with one another.
[ix] God did not create human beings because he needs us; he created us because he wants us. God is a “Father,” who reveals his love for us through his Son and Spirit. As a loving Father, God wants his children with him.
[x] As Karl Barth insisted, God will not be God without us!
[xi] Gunton, 188.
[xii] ibid., 189.
[xiii] According to the classic idea of divine “immutability,” God cannot respond to prayer, for to do so would introduce “change” into the Deity (!). Misdirected by his inherited philosophical tradition, Calvin argued that those passages of scripture that “”seem” to indicate God’s answering prayer were merely “baby talk” to strengthen the weak in faith. Scripture, however, portrays a God who interacts with his people in a mutual “give-and-take.” Had Calvin not been bound by the neo-Platonic philosophical tradition that entered the church through Augustine, he would have been free to embrace the scriptural portrait of the loving Father who stoops to interact with his children and is moved by their prayers!


  1. Great post, Martin - I'll be sharing it with our leadership and some other pastors! Hope all is well with your preparations.

  2. Martin, when I need a divine boost, I reach for your blog and I'm never disappointed. I love the juxtaposition of the classic attributes and the self-revelational attributes which are outgrowths of God's triune being! I never bought into the wrath concept either. It doesn't square with love... until you look at it as growing out of His uncompromising, unrelenting purpose to "purpose to resist anything that stands in the way of his loving purpose for all creation."

    Great stuff! I so wish we could have coffee once in a while. May God reward you richly with the desires of your heart. You're awesome! I pray that your ministry to the Moslem people may be wonderfully fruitful.

    I greet you in His precious name,

    1. Thanks Franco,

      Comments like yours encourage me greatly. Much appreciated, brother!


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