Tuesday, November 03, 2015

God is Love - what does it mean?

1. I did a quick search to try to find a crisp definition or description of God's love somewhere in John Piper's online footprint. This article seemed to come close.

Piper notes some strong statements by George MacDonald and a former professor named Thomas Talbott against the conception of God that Jonathan Edwards and Piper himself have. I've made similar strong statements in the past and I've heard Chris Bounds do the same.

Why does this conception of God so disgust Arminians? Because it makes God look evil. It seems to deconstruct the key aspect of God's character revealed in Jesus Christ and in the New Testament. It undermines his character as love (1 John 4:8).

"God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have never-ending life." The meaning of love in this verse seems pretty self-evident. God wants to save people. No problems here.

"Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Rom. 10:13). That fits. God wants to save. "In the good news, the God's righteousness is revealed... the good news is the power of God for salvation..." (Rom. 1:17, 16). "In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them" (2 Cor. 5:19). That all fits. God is love.

2. There is no problem for Piper when it comes to understanding what it means to say God is love when we are talking about those who are going to be saved from God's wrath. The problem comes with regard to those who aren't going to be saved, namely, 1) those who never had a chance because of lack of knowledge and 2) those who, in Piper's understanding, were predetermined to be damned.

In any normal definition of love, sending the majority of people to hell for eternity, when they never had any chance whatsoever to be saved, is discordant. This is not a disobedient spirit. This is not an attempt to get out of what Scripture says. Indeed, this is taking the central point of the New Testament literally and seriously. The verses that lead Piper to modify the normal understanding of love are not the central verses of the New Testament (e.g., Rom. 9). The verses that present God in terms of the normal understanding of love are the central verses (John 3:16).

Piper and others make a number of moves here that, while clever, ultimately seem to deconstruct any meaningful sense of God's character as loving. Here are some examples:
  • For God, love means something different than it means for us, at least when it comes to the damned.
  • Even one sin against God is so heinous that it deserves an eternity of fiery punishment.
  • We can't say that God "arbitrarily" chooses who will be saved and who will be damned. We can't know God's reasons.
3. Facile references to God's justice are sometimes made at this point. "God is love, but God is also justice." God's justice and "wrath" are revealed in Scripture, often in highly anthropomorphic pictures. But the Bible does not present God as a slave to justice. God offering Christ as a sacrifice is a demonstration of God's justice (Rom. 3:25-26), but nowhere is God portrayed as a slave to his justice, as if he cannot show mercy unless he satisfies some abstract law of justice.

To make justice God's key characteristic and love the secondary is to skew the New Testament priorities. Justice is the background against which the more central feature of love is featured. God's justice fits within the context of his love, not the other way around. This is the priority of the New Testament. Mercy triumphs over judgment (Jas. 2:13). God has the authority to show mercy because he is God. He doesn't have to fill out paper work to explain to some still higher power how he can justify it.

In the end, Piper's approach tends to skew Christian values in the church. It not so subtly teaches people to be just before they are loving. It fosters an attitude of "making sure people get what they have coming to them" over "mercy triumphs over judgment." It fosters an attitude of law over grace. This is deeply ironic, because God himself becomes the ultimate legalist at the same time that the New Testament is emphasizing God's grace.

4. But the intent of this post was not to rehash these reasons why Piper's theology infuriates so many Wesleyan-Arminians. It infuriates us because it undermines the revealed character of God in the name of logic and difficult verses. [It reminds me of the Seventh Day Adventists who see one verse saying not to eat pork and another that says all foods are clean and they pick the wrong verse as their base camp.]

The spark for this post was the fact that the New Testament doesn't have a different definition of love when it comes to God than it has for us. Where did the default definition of the word agape in the Bible come from, after all? God did not inspire the Bible in a completely new language that only believers could understand. The Bible was revealed in words that were being used at the time of the New Testament.

[Anyone who wants to argue that agape was some new, specifically minted Christian word needs to look at this use of agapao in the Greek Bible of 2 Samuel 13:1, just before Amnon goes on to rape Tamar.]

God might steer the concept of love with this word, but the starting point was a function of how the word was being used in the broader culture at the time of the New Testament.

5. So how does the NT understand love in relation to God? Let's start with John 3:16--God's love leads him to save. Romans 1:17 says the same--God demonstrates his righteousness by making a way of salvation. Both Paul and Acts emphasize that God is reaching out to everyone. He is expanding his reach beyond the Jews to non-Jews. The Lord does not want anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9). God wants everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4).

This is the primary theme. God wants to save and he wants to save everyone.

But there is a secondary theme. Not everyone will be saved. This is also a dominant reality of the New Testament and this is where the logical problem arises:

1. God wants everyone to be saved.
2. God is all powerful.
The logical conclusion would be universalism, that 3. Everyone will be saved.

So where is the logical problem?

a. True, there are some Christian universalists and "hopeful" universalists (people who can't entirely justify universalism in their minds but hope God can). But this is not a position most of us feel like we can take biblically or theologically. Justice does matter even if it is not absolute.

b. Few of us would consciously fiddle with #2. There are some voices who would argue that the NT authors did not yet fully understand the omnipotence and omniscience of God, but this is not a path most of us want to take.

c. So we are left to qualify #1. Piper in effect negates #1. God simply doesn't want everyone to be saved. Indeed, he has determined himself that most will go to hell for all eternity. He determines everything that happens and has thus set up the system to send almost everyone to eternal damnation.

This wreaks havoc with the overwhelming emphasis and thrust of the New Testament. It undermines the central message of God's love. It does not modify or expand the meaning of the word love. It subverts it, changes it into is virtual opposite.

d. Arminians suggest that there is another principle in play here. That is to say, #1 is not absolute. This is infinitely more preferable a move both logically and biblically to Piper's virtual negation.

So Arminians suggest that there is another premise that makes the logic go something like the following.

1. God prefers everyone to be saved.
2. God wants even more for individuals to choose for him to save them.
3. God is able to save.
4. Those who choose him will be saved.

This is not only more logical than Piper's scheme. It fits the overall tenor of the New Testament much more naturally. [Piper also does not operate as if the NT gives a more precise understanding of God than the OT. He flattens out the understanding of God in the biblical texts.]

I'll leave it there for today. But let me emphasize again, the Arminian scheme stays fairly close to the surface meaning of the biblical texts. It takes the words in their most natural sense. Piper's scheme requires us to redefine the meaning of central passages in the name of difficult passages. He uses the "naughty verses" to reinterpret the central ones and thus gets the biblical priorities out of order.

The unintended consequence is often a Christian whose values are out of whack, a Christian who sees justice as more important than mercy.


matthew said...

I think it's interesting that you think it makes more sense to qualify #1 (God's desire for all to be saved) than #2 (God's omnipotence). It makes more sense to me (even in your thinking) to say that omnipotence is qualified by the delegation of some sovereignty to people (God gives people the freedom to choose whether to respond to Him lovingly or not).

Splitting hairs perhaps :)

Ken Schenck said...

Interesting! I prefer to see that as splitting hairs, since that would still be God, in his sovereignty, granting some authority to humanity. :-)