15 May 2013

Is Love the Defining Attribute of God?

by Dr Mark Keown

I have been reading Stanley Grenz’s Theology for the Community of God. It is a fine theological summary. One section that caught my eye was “Love as the Fundamental Divine Attribute.” In this section, drawing particularly on the idea of the Triune God as a community (perichoresis), Grenz writes:

In that God is love apart from the creation of the world, love characterizes God. Love is the eternal essence of the one God. But this means that trinitarian love is not merely one attribute of God among many. Rather, love is the fundamental “attribute” of God. “God is love” is the foundational and ontological statement we can declare concerning the divine essence…”

He then moves to discussing the relationship of this to “divine holiness, jealousy, and wrath.” He sees these as “‘dark’ assertions concerning God.” He rejects placing holiness alongside love as does Brunner and Berkhof or Strong’s idea that holiness is “the fundamental attribute of God.” He goes on from here.

I have been thinking about this for some days having read it. Is he right? “God is love” is found twice in Scripture in the same passage (1 John 4:8, 16). God’s love is found referred to across Scripture with ideas like God’s mercy, compassion and grace (e.g. Job 33:24; Ps 103:4; 116:5; 132; 6:36; John 3:16; Rom 5:8, etc). So I agree with Grenz that God is love is a defining attribute of God. However, I question whether we should elevate “love” over other attributes of God. Why?

A “love hermeneutic” is becoming very popular among those I hang out with. We begin with this premise of Grenz and we do our theology from that point. It leads to a very gentle open and inclusive Christianity (which is not all bad). This is in some way, a reaction against a holiness/judgment/wrath hermeneutic, which has been popular up until recent times. I agree with the corrective to a judgmental, wrathful, legalistic view.

But I wonder if it is going too far? I am observing among many other Christians I hang out with in a range of contexts a move toward a very inclusive view of God. Themes like God’s love and inclusivity, Jesus as the friend of sinners, Jesus was all accepting, etc, are very popular. Alongside that I see a lot of Christians shedding “guilt and fear” for “freedom and grace” (thanks Mark Strom for that line). This is great for many – they are finding true freedom in Christ.

At the same time I am seeing many become libertine and extremely open in their theology. Some are openly moving to positions on salvation and ethics which appear to contradict the thrust of Scripture. This concerns me greatly.

As I see it, there are a range of words that must be held alongside each other to ensure we retain a good balance in our theology, all found across the biblical narrative. God is holy. God is just. God is good. God is love. God is merciful. Etc. This will help us from the two equal and opposite dangers of over-emphasising wrath or love. We need a good Christology that recognises both that Jesus was the friend of sinners, but condemned sin.

The thing is, that Jesus was the friend of sinners but never joined them in their sin or accepted it. He said things like, “go and sin no more.” Jesus was pretty up front about sin (e.g. Matt 5–7; Mark 7:21–23). The early church was not all inclusive (e.g. 1 Cor 5; Phil 3; 2 Cor 10-12; 2 Pet 3; Jude, etc).

If we elevate God’s holiness, justice and purity above love we fall into error. If we elevate God’s love over these other attributes, we fall into error. While they are not completely separate, i.e. love leads to God’s jealousy, I would question Grenz’s perspective. What do you think?

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