My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Some theological subjects are highly controversial within Christianity, such as election, predestination, and sacramentology, to name a few. But then others would appear to be fairly straightforward, uncontroversial and standard fare; the love of God, for example. But John H. Peckham, associate professor of theology and Christian philosophy at the Seventh-Day Adventist Theological Seminary of Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, reveals the storm that swirls around this subject in his new 297 page paperback, “The Love of God: A Canonical Model”. The book is noticeably intended for academic circles, but written simply enough that a patient reader of whatever educational attainment can engage with it.
The first indication that “The Love of God” is going to be seriously scholastic is when the reader glances through the book and notices mounds of footnotes that mind-numbingly thunder across the bottom of every page. The 1,025 footnotes can be as short as a one-line notation, and as full bodied as five complete paragraphs. If the annotations were removed the book would drop in size by a third! And yet these arduous addendums on each leaf hide tasty tidbits and insightful interruptions. To get through the book profitably, the reader may have to be selective as to when he picks through the footnotes, and gloss over the rest.
Peckham’s nine chapters are packed with biblical references and scenes to make the case that the Biblical God has emotions and that these emotions are real. And from within this mix of emotions, God loves with a real love. For the author that means that God’s love for the world is freely given, not essential to his being or necessary to his existence. But also that God’s love for humankind is not unilaterally willed but “requires the free response of humans to God’s freely given love. Thus neither God nor humans love each other by necessity” (114). The author takes on two camps of thought, what he denominates the transcendent-voluntarist and the immanent-experientialist camps, and plots out his third way, the foreconditional-reciprocal model.
The transcendent-volitional arrangement holds that God needs nothing, lacks nothing, does not desire or receive anything for his own advantage. When it comes to God’s love, he is impassible (without passions), so that his love is an act of his will, not to scratch some itch he has or fill up any lack (16-26). God’s love “is freely, sovereignly willed and unmotivated beneficence. God freely bestows love on all but also decides to love only some unto salvation (election love)” (89).
In the immanent-experientialist configuration God is in the process of becoming within relationships; the knower is changed by what is known. God is partially dependent and independent, being determined and self-determining; he is the moved-mover, the feeler of all feelings. Therefore, with regard to love, God is continually growing and enjoying the ever-increasing value of the world (26-31). Since God’s love is essential to himself, ontologically necessary, then his love is “universal as sympathetic, indeterministic relationship” (89).
The author’s standpoint reaches out to draw in aspects of both outlooks, guided through the grid of Scripture, to form his own synthesis. The foreconditional-reciprocal platform posits that within the God-human relationship “God’s love is (1) voluntary but not based solely on his will, (2) evaluative and deeply interested in the world, (3) profoundly emotional and passible, (4) foreconditional, but not unmerited, and (5) ideally reciprocal, that is, love relationship is universally available yet particularly enjoyed by those who freely reciprocate God’s love” (247). God has voluntarily bound his own interests, both his joy and suffering, to the welfare of the world; but he remains independent of any relationship, being perfect and self-sufficient, not growing from his relationship, and not in need of this or any other world. Nevertheless he “desires a reciprocal love relationship with each person” (278).
By the end of the book it becomes clearly obvious that one of the author’s main programs is to enter the old “Arminian-Calvinist” fray and come out clearly on the side of indeterminism, as he might call it. Peckham clearly states that, “the foreconditional-reciprocal model interprets the canonical evidence to mean that humans are called (invited) by God to be part of his elect but that humans possess the God-given ability to accept or reject God’s call and, consequently, love relationship with God” (108). This is a subtle theme that weaves through each chapter becoming more noticeable by the end of the book.
“The Love of God” is an in-depth study of the emotionality of God, his relationship to the world, and the love of God. It’s profitability is that it stimulates a renewed interest in rethinking what is meant by the impassibility of God, and especially what do we mean when we talk about “God so loved the world.” It is a worthwhile read, with the few exceptions already noted, and would make excellent material for seminary classes. I recommend the book.
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