Tuesday, July 10, 2007

God is Love

o` qeo.j avga,ph evsti,n (this is a good example of Colwell's Rule, by the way)

Interestingly, these words have proved to be a real stumbling block for many Christian theologians. Recognising certain 'dangerous' implications many have sought to 'explain away' the significance of this statement in the name of their theological systems. I urgently refer to Talbott's powerful critique of Edwards, Packer and Calvin at this point in his book The Inescapable Love of God, pp. 109-118. What many of these theologians have done with these words of scripture is quite frankly unbelievable. They claim that God is love but ... [cue to insert theological move to explain force of statement away] that it doesn't say everything about God, or that it is only true about God for Christians, that 'God is love', to cite Calvin, 'does not speak of the essence of God, but only shows what he is found to be by us [i.e. the elect]' (from his Catholic Epistles commentaries).

Of course it doesn't say everything about God! Who ever claimed it did? After all, even the author of 1 John states 'God is light'. And would we want to argue that to say God is holy or righteous is only true about God for Christians? As for Calvin, he contradicts himself hopelessly stumbling over his own reasoning in his struggle with this statement. Would he also want to say that the statement 'God is holy' is only true in terms of how God is found by us? Is God holy and righteous with us, but unholy and unrighteous with others? And of course this text is a statement about God's, for want of a better word, nature or essence. The text couldn't be any clearer.

Of course, exegetes tend not to have any problem seeing what is going on:

'John does not say that "God loves" (as in vv. 10, 11, 19), but that "God is love" … God is not only the source of love (v 7a), but love itself. Thus the assertion "God is love" means not simply that love is one of his activities, but that all his activity is loving … God's judgment (his wrath), for example, is just as much a reality as his love … But theologically these cannot be opposed to each other' (Smalley, S. S. Vol. 51: Word Biblical Commentary: 1,2,3 John, p. 239)

God not only loves but is love. So it says in 1 John 4:18 and 16, anyway, the declaration of one who claims: 'We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life' (1:1). Having heard and seen and touched this Word, 'the "we" of authoritative testimony' (see Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, chapter 14!) writes 'God is love'. The one addressed and captivated by God's redeeming Word to us in Christ rejoices in the truth that 'God is love' without any 'buts'.

Let's stop trying to explain 'God is love' away in the name of our theological systems, and rather let our systems sit humbly before this Word as God addresses humankind in Christ Jesus. As for theological problems ... I prefer to simply exegete and let the cards land where they want.

Now the kicker question: Is God love also for those in hell? *grins*



At 7/10/2007 1:33 AM, Anonymous Looney said...

Part of the problem in our modern view of "God is Love" is that we want to enslave God to our definition of 'Love'. The result is that theology (man's opinion about God) starts trying to dictate the characteristics of God based on our inadequate definition of love and the tail wags the dog.

Man isn't love nor is the definition of love man's property.

At 7/10/2007 2:27 AM, Anonymous Edward T. Babinski said...

Dear Chris,
Have you considered a post on the "abominable fancy"? Many famous theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, taught that those in heaven would see others being cast out (see Luke), or see others suffer (as Lazarus saw Dives suffering), or see the smoke of the flames of the punishment of others (as in Rev.), and rejoice, even if they knew those suffering were their own spouses and/or children. Google: "abominable fancy."

Such a sight of hell by those in heaven, or at least a sight of hell's smoke, are based on biblical passages. While the joy of heaven's inhabitants are based on other verses that state there shall be no tears in heaven, but rather joy and wonderful happy songs of praise. Hence, those in heaven will see the damned suffer, know of it, and be pleased. Such theologians claimed that the knowledge and/or sight of hell's suffering multitude only served to increase the pleasure of heaven's inhabitants.

Cheers, Edward T. Babinski

At 7/10/2007 3:48 AM, Anonymous Owen Weddle said...

I would think, exegetically speaking, it is beyond us to say that "God is love" means "all God's activity is love." It does undoubtedly, by its usage in 1 John 4:8 and 4:16, have the meaning of God loving and being the source of love. But its purpose is not to say that everything God does is love, nor that God is only partially loving. It only makes the statement that God is loving.

Likewise with "God is light." It itself only makes the statement that God is the source of light. In and of itself, it makes no statement that there is no darkness in God, nor that God has any darkness. From context though, we understand God as being only light with not darkness, but to base that only upon the phrase "God is light" is to try to insert too much meaning into the text.

That "God is light" does not itself means that God is purely light with not darkness at all is witnessed by the fact that John feels the need to clarify the statement further and say "and in Him there is no darkness at all." If "God is something" construction meant God is totally something at the exclusion of the opposite, then John would have had no need to clarify the "God is light" statement, unless John was being redundant to make a point. However IMO, considering the nature of John's writing, I would reject the idea of redundancy.

So "God is love" only means itself that God is loving and is a source of love, just as "God is light" itself means God is light and is the source of light. It makes no statements as to how great the love or light is.

At 7/10/2007 4:29 AM, Anonymous Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Colwell's rule? Wait. First year Greek grammar was so long ago. Wouldn't that be Granville Sharp's rule? I think I am going to have to drag out notes that are close to 2 decades old. Sigh.

It's times like these I wish I was still teaching Baby Greek. It certainly kept me fresh.

At 7/10/2007 5:50 AM, Anonymous James Pate said...

I don't want to change the subject, but I do want to make a point of some importance (in my view). It is related to the question about God's love.

As someone noted above, C.S. Lewis said that the door of hell is locked from the inside. Many evangelicals seem to like this quote because it says that people keep themselves in hell and actually want to be there, thereby preserving God's love (since God is not really at fault for them being in hell). But my impression of Scripture is that it depicts people as not wanting to go or stay there. Jesus says that there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Dives does not really enjoy his experience there, which is why he wants Lazarus to warn his brothers. At the judgment, there will be people who will offer Jesus excuses because they do not want to go to hell. They tell Jesus, for example, that he taught in their streets and they ate and drank in his presence, and they weep when they are cast out (Luke 13). I do not think that people will want to be in hell.

At 7/10/2007 5:58 AM, Anonymous Macht said...

The point of Calvin's statement there is to say that we cannot know the essence of God - that what we know about God isn't his essence but what he reveals to us. He wasn't talking about only the elect - the sentence before the part quoted clearly says that God is the fountain of love and that he "illuminates all things by his own brightness." I don't read it as an attempt to "explain away" anything. Talbott has misread Calvin on this point, I believe (although I wouldn't be surprised if some Calvinists have misread him on this point, either).

And, yes, Calvin would say the same thing about "God is holy" since he holds that we can't know the essence of God but only what he reveals to us (where "us" doesn't only mean "the elect"). There are numerous places throughout Calvin's writing where he says this.

At 7/10/2007 9:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looney - the term "love" is a a human one, and is, therefore, defined thereby (indeed, language is a product of human society - and the definitions of terms are therefore our responsibility). For example, to say that theology is "man's opinion about God" is not a reasonable definition - and i make this criticism not because i have a definition from God, but because the community of faith has come to understand this term to mean "faith seeking understanding" - seeking, for example, to understand the meaning of love and, specifically, the meaning of the statement of faith that declares God is love.

By the way, one might respond to your post by suggesting that, if the definition of love is not man's property, then perhaps it is woman's?


At 7/10/2007 10:06 AM, Anonymous Alan Spence said...


You have stimulated a really good discussion here.

In your blog you have given priority to the exegete rather than the theologian. Very well, the exegete must then do their task with integrity. How from the text is this love shown? 'This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.' And from the parallel passage in the Gospel. 'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.'

Now if 'perishing' in this context refers to divine condemnation (see v.35), a condemnation that remains on all those who do not believe, then the love of God is made known in a very specific way, a way which does not appear to give any support to a universalist argument.

Exegetical integrity does not allow us to remove the text from its context.

At 7/10/2007 3:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Now if 'perishing' in this context refers to divine condemnation (see v.35), a condemnation that remains on all those who do not believe, then the love of God is made known in a very specific way,

What verse 35 are you referring to, or did you mean v.15? If you meant v.15, I believe that the text says "that every one believing in Him may not perish, but may have life age-during, for God so love the world, that His Son - the only begotten- He gave, that everyone believing in him may not perish, but may have life age-during."

It explains itself leaving the text within the context. As one who believes in Jesus the Saviour of ALL mankind, I was given the faith to believe and choice to accept and believe and follow. This gives me age-during life, and eternal life that follows. For those who choose not to believe,(or God has not given them the gift of faith and belief) perish and have not life in this age. After being raised and judged with the "fire of God" - "hell - if we must use that word" receives life eternal.

"God is love" is best described to mankind that "Love" is when someone would give their life for you.

As a father, I feel that I can honestly say that should my son reject me, hate me, ignore me, I still would give my life for him. Because I'm a nice guy? No, because I truly love him. I personally could never reject him. The truth is that he has hated me (or I should say my ways, laws, discipline) and rejected me, and as a father I had to discipline by not allowing him to stay with us...but through a few years of "hell" thankfully, the "Fire of God", he has come to understand not only my love, but LOVE. God, who is LOVE.

At 7/10/2007 6:24 PM, Anonymous Alan Spence said...


Thanks for the response. The verse referred to was John 3:35 which appears to me to summarise the preceeding 19 verses.

My intention is not to resolve the important question that Chris has raised but to make one simple point. When God is spoken of as love in 1John and in John's Gospel it is in the context of the cross. And according to these passages the benefits of the cross have to do with believers in the promise not coming under divine judgement.

In short God's love means the cross and the cross means forgiveness for those who believe.

At 7/10/2007 6:33 PM, Anonymous Slapdash said...

Hi - I appreciate this conversation. It relates in some ways to questions I am asking about free will, justice, sin, heaven/hell over on my own blog. I was particularly struck by Ed Babinski's comment (2nd in this string) as God's apparent removal of free will in the afterlife has become a really big question/dilemma/paradox for me.

I have no answers to contribute here (sorry) :) but the questions themselves are making me question very much the existence of hell.

At 7/10/2007 7:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


This Friday, the 13 of July, a pastor who has been shunned by the main stream church for changing his belief in a literal hell. I think this is the reason that many will not accept the doctrine that there is no eternal punishment. You can't keep your job! And if you somehow manage to save it, it certainly is much harder to continue in the ministry.

At 7/10/2007 8:04 PM, Anonymous Stephen said...

Just a reminder that you also need to respond to the annihilationist position while you're making a case for universalism. "God is love" is a perfectly coherent assertion from the annihilationist perspective.

First, as Alan points out quite rightly, God expresses his love by offering a way of redemption.

Second, for those who will not be redeemed, and therefore cannot enter into the presence of a holy God, God offers a merciful alternative to eternal torment: annihilation.

At 7/10/2007 8:19 PM, Anonymous Stephen said...

I see there was some discussion of annihilationism in the comments on your previous post:

How can an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God create billions of people knowing most will be [annihilated]?

First, I take issue with the assumption that "most" will not be redeemed in Christ. I am one of those who assumes a wideness in God's mercy.

(I also believe some people — an exceptional few — are so thoroughly committed to evil that it would make a mockery of justice for God to redeem them — but that isn't the point at issue here.)

Second: why shouldn't God create billions of people knowing that only some will enter eternal life? If the others are tormented forever, that's a problem. But if they suffer in proportion to their sins after which they are annihilated, to suffer no more — the problem disappears.

After all, the end result of this history is that billions (or millions) of people are, in fact, saved to enjoy eternity with God. Surely this is a good, and the fact that millions (or billions) of others were annihilated in the course of that history does not negate that good.

At 7/10/2007 8:58 PM, Anonymous Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


Good post. It would seem to me that if "God is Love" then there can be no "but. . . " God either is Love or God is not love, and if God is love then whatever God does must emerge out of love. It is for that reason that I can no longer countenance a doctrine of hell. I realize that God's thoughts are not necessarily my thoughts, but to consign someone to eternal punishment, especially someone whose only "real crime" is not having said yes to Jesus is cruel and inhumane. If you or I passed such a judgment we would be called monsters, and yet we're fine with a God who does such things.

As for the annhilationist option, it is the option I took for a long while, it was the option I learned in seminary from Colin Brown. But ultimately it has proven to be untenable. So, whatever reconciliation does mean, it would seem that in God's wisdom, God will not rest content until all are reconciled. That in my estimation is the only way to understand the love of God!

At 7/10/2007 10:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, would αγαπη be identified with God's essence, as opposed to His energies?

At 7/10/2007 10:23 PM, Anonymous Looney said...

"So, whatever reconciliation does mean, it would seem that in God's wisdom, God will not rest content until all are reconciled. That in my estimation is the only way to understand the love of God!"

That was roughly what I was getting at. Because man considers himself to be the owner of the concept of love, and God is love, we have now made God into our little marionette. He must do exactly according to what we consider loving.

At 7/11/2007 12:47 AM, Anonymous T.B. Vick said...


I can certainly see your point with reference to certain theologians taking this phrase and adding "but" or building the "God is love" phrase into their theologies so as to make it "fit."

However, the phrase "God is love" merely describes what God is. Too often we take descriptions of God's character's and make them His actions. To say God is love does not seem to be a problem for those who oppose universalism. Quite frankly, the phrase does not even seem to apply to the issue. The phrase merely describes God. God is love, God is Light, God is omnipresent, etc. all these phrases do is describe God.

Now, the verse/phrase that gets me everytime - which seems to be more applicable to the issue of universalism is "If I be lifeted up, I will draw all men to me." That's the verse that cooks my "gonads" when it comes to this issue - 'cause Jesus was infact lifted up, thus does that mean He will in fact draw all men to him?

At 7/11/2007 3:26 AM, Anonymous John Hobbins said...

Dear Chris,

I think your post is brilliant. I eagerly await to see where you go with your line of argument.

John Hobbins

At 7/11/2007 10:04 PM, Anonymous Brian said...

C.S. Lewis was quick to point out too that love is not God but rather God is love. Sometimes people get that confused. Really great post Chris!

At 7/12/2007 4:04 AM, Anonymous Looney said...

"Looney, you have hit on an important issue, touched upon by the great theologian, Jüngel, in his Magnus Opus, God as Secret of the World."

Chris, I don't see why changing the meaning of a word in the middle of a theological derivation requires a great theologian to understand the problem. The error in this discussion is essentially identical to that of "prooftexting".

At 7/12/2007 5:34 AM, Anonymous T.B. Vick said...


you state, "If God is X, then one would expect that he acts accordingly. This is why the text is, in my estimation, relevant to the issue."

I agree with you to a certain degree, but there are attributes of God that are descriptions without the "act" you mentioned above. For instance God is spirit, but He does not act accordingly, He just is spirit. Of course, "God is love" does indicate, according to the text you draw this from, that God does act accordingly.

At 7/12/2007 7:18 AM, Anonymous Dustin said...

Dear all,

This has been interesting. I think looney, edward t.b. and alan have made some very worthy remarks when it comes to understanding what it means to say "ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν". But given the fact that the main thrust of this blog and purpose of this post is exegetical, alan's remarks carry the most weight.

I think it is also important to note a few things. Alan rightly demonstrates that the action associated with God's love is clearly demonstrated in 1 Jn 4:8-9 and Jn 3:16ff. However, I think a slight correction is needed. It is not the cross that demonstrates this love, but rather the sending of the Son. Certainly this includes the cross, but it is much more as well. And it has many more ramifications for how we are to understand this love.

Another point to note is that while John seems to clearly understand that only believers will receive life, he also understands the sending to have, seemingly, postitive consequences for the κόσμος or "world" (see 1 Jn 4:14 and Jn 3:17). The Son is the "Savior of the world" and "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." Again, when we read the surrounding verses, John's understanding is presumably, that only those who recognize the Son will receive life.

But this brings us to another point. How do we know if someone recognizes the Son? According to John it seems that one is in the Son if one 'abides in love' (1 Jn 4:16b) or does 'what is true' (Jn 3:21). The determining factor is not necessarily a professed faith, but rather preformed action (1 Jn 3:4-4:21).

The thrust of John's statement that God is love is to compel right action. To compel his readers to the same kind of love, the same kind of action, that God did when God sent the Son.

For John, the 'what' of God's love is quite clear--the sending of the Son as the savior of the world. The 'who' of God's love seems to be believers first and foremost, though there is a real possibility that God's love will reach a much broader audience, and perhaps the entire world. But the main focus is the 'meaning' of God's love. It's not just out there floating around waiting for us to draw a heart around it and carve our initials in it. But it is all around us, compelling us to like action, compelling us to participate in the being of God. God is love, and so should we be.

At 7/12/2007 10:04 AM, Anonymous Alan Spence said...

Ah Chris,

but now you are privileging the theologian over the exegete. You are implying that a broader understanding of God's dealing with us has taught us that he is love and we must allow that view of God to shape what is meant by 'the perishing of the unbelieving' in John3:16.

That's fine. But then you must be gentler with the theologians like Calvin et al who want to talk further about God as love. You can't just throw one text at them and ask them to let the cards lie where they fall.

A text with a similar structure to 'God is love' is 'God is a consuming fire'. Is this to be qualified theologically in any way or applied with an unbending universality?

At 7/12/2007 6:04 PM, Anonymous James Pate said...

This is just a response to one of Dustin's statements. He says, "The determining factor is not necessarily a professed faith, but rather preformed action (1 Jn 3:4-4:21)." I do not know if he is totally dismissing the need for professed faith, but I want to point out that it is important in I John. I John 4:15 says that God abides in those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and vv 2-3 stress the importance of believing that Jesus Christ came in the flesh.

At 7/13/2007 12:07 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thank you all for your feedback. I'll try to respond tomorrow. I'm a bit short on time tonight (and fed up of the sight of my keyboard!)

At 7/13/2007 2:47 AM, Anonymous Macht said...


Calvin quite often makes a distinction between God's essence and God's nature. This distinction is exactly what I was talking about above - Calvin says we can't know God's essence but we can know his revealed nature. Like I said, I can point out numerous places where he makes this distinction, so there isn't anything special about what he says here about this passage.

In any case, Calvin quite clearly says that God is love and that his nature is to love men. And he says that the way we know this is through God revealing Himself to us. And then he goes on to make a point he's made many times elsewhere - that there is a difference between God's essence and God's revealed nature. There's no "God is love but..." about it. For Talbott to think that, just shows a lack of familiarity with Calvin, IMO.

At 7/16/2007 9:41 PM, Anonymous Macht said...

"Isn’t nature simply synonymous with essence in these citations? "

Umm, no. I thought I made that pretty clear throughout my post. They are different. This is a common theme throughout Calvin's writings.

"Also, he argues that ‘God’s nature is to love men’ but goes on to say that 1 John nevertheless doesn’t speak of the essence of God."

Yes, that is the distinction - God's unknowable essence and God's knowable nature. Calvin says that ALL of revelation speaks of God's nature, not his essence. This verse is no exception. He isn't "struggling" with it nor is he "stumbling" over himself.

At 7/17/2007 11:43 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Macht,
Sorry for casuing frustration. I must admit, I only skimmed through your post due to time. But would you not think that Calvin's exegesis is still rather fudging the import of the text?

At 7/18/2007 1:01 AM, Anonymous Macht said...

"But would you not think that Calvin's exegesis is still rather fudging the import of the text?"

Not really. He says that "God is love" and that it is "his nature is to love men" and that "God is the fountain of love" and that "there is nothing dark in him." I assume you would agree with all those things.

The one sentence you disagree with is the one sentence you've continually misinterpreted. You really shouldn't listen to Talbott's interpretation on this one. I've had a chance to read that section of his book since some of my previous comments here and he just totally mangles it. Half the time he complains that he doesn't know what Calvin is talking about or that he doesn't elaborate on his thoughts and Talbott seems to want us to believe that this is a problem on Calvin's part, not Talbott's! The fact that Talbott finds it "bewildering" just shows he has very little familiarity with Calvin's writings. And the fact that he just "moves onto other matters" is because Calvin has made his position on this known throughout his writings and there isn't much need to elaborate. And his quotations of Calvin's comments on John 4:24 are just flat out wrong - Calvin is talking about God's nature in that commentary, not his essence. Honestly, I was appalled at how bad Talbott's scholarship on Calvin was in the section I read. It really is bad.

That being said, Calvin is interpreting verse in light of his view of the difference between the nature and essence of God. But this difference is NOTHING like what Talbott's ignorant interpretation makes it out to be. Calvin maintains that the nature that God reveals to us is consistent with his essence. So when he says that "his nature is to love men" he quite literally means that and he means that this revealed nature is completely consistent with his unrevealed essence.

At 9/04/2007 12:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just want to make a comment re; "free will". We are free to choose but we do not make free choices... All our choices are influenced by inner and outer conditions, therefore they are not totally free in the sense that we can choose whatever... We are only free to make a choice but not free to make any choice. I find it comforting to believe that GOD who is LOVE is the one in control, not me.GOD is too wise and loving to leave man as the final deciding factor. Yikes!!We can all talk of what we believe and it will be according to all the influences in our lives, but none of us will know the whole truth on this side and I believe that in that day when we sll do know it, we will be blown away by the glory of it! Till then we have blogs full of "seeing through dark glasses and minds knowing in part". Some of us just love to discuss the "dark parts" anyway.


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