It’s a commonplace of systematic theology that when 1 John 4.7 (and 16) say that “God is love”, it is neither a definition of God, nor even his “true” core atribute, as if his other “moral attributes” were mistakes by the Bible writers, or to be qualified or discarded if they seem to be incompatible with love.
For example, John Calvin commenting on 1 John writes:
And he takes it as an axiom that God is love; that is, that His nature is to love men… But the apostle simply means that as God is the fountain of love, this affection flows from Him and is poured out wherever there is knowledge of Him – just as he has at first called Him light (ch1.5) in that there is no darkness in him, but rather He enlightens all things by his brightness. So he is not speaking here of the essence of God, but only shows what we experience him to be.
And so, classically, God’s simplicity has been understood to mean that all his “moral attributes” – goodness (consisting of love, grace, mercy, faithfulness, longsuffering); holiness; righteousness; justice; truth – are like facets of his single indivisible character, of which love is the governing principle. And so to understand what God’s love is, one has to take into account of how he reveals all these other aspects as well.
Nowadays, however, that seems often to have been forgotten by theologians, and love is taken almost as a synonym for God (literally so in popular culture – in the songs of U2, for example, where “When love comes to town” is a thinly veiled reference to Christ). Love is usually then defined in a restricted – not to say anthropocentric – way, and most notably nowadays in terms of kenosis, the “self-emptying” of Jesus from Philippians 2 (see here for a critique of that) which is made the definition of love, and therefore of God’s love, and therefore (since they don’t rate Calvin or systematic theologians that highly) near enough the definition of God, on which their whole speculative theology is then constructed.
It’s quite hard to gainsay someone who places the redemptive work of Christ centre-stage, and also says that love is the heart of everything: in the old adage, it seems as if one running down motherhood and apple-pie. But if love is, in the first place, a richer and more mysterious attribute of God than a simplistic reading of 1 John allows, and in any case describes only “what we experience him to be”, then one cannot lean very hard on any of the modern theologies built upon a definition based on one misinterpreted passage in Philippians.
Returning to systematic theology, the Reformed viewpoint of Louis Berkhof, starting from the understanding of God’s love as his goodness extended towards his rational creatures, defines love as “that perfection of God by which he is eternally moved to self-communication.” Berkhof goes on to suggest that, since all goodness begins in God and is first communicated by the act of creation, then a very different concept emerges from the Open Theist’s concentration on non-control and non-coercion of, by rights, autonomous creatures:
He loves his rational Creatures for His own sake, or to express it otherwise, He loves in them Himself, His virtues, His work, and His gifts.
Here, of course, we have to escape the reflex worldly thought that God is being seriously immodest, for (we think) love ought to be about loving “the other” for “their own sake”. But this is simply to forget what monotheism means by creation: all things good come from the goodness of God, and all things worthy of love also bring glory to God, for “God is love” and “What do you have, that you did not receive?” We perhaps recognise this from the theme in vernacular religion, that we should love others because we see God in even the most damaged of men. Yet this is equally true of what God himself sees – more clearly than we. Berkhof goes on to say:
He does not even withdraw His love completely from the sinner in his present sinful state, though the latter’s sin is an abomination to Him, since He recognises even in the sinner his image-bearer.
This quotation also illuminates God’s hatred of sin – since sin is the negation of what God has created, God hates it as alien to his own nature. And so God’s love is not universal, but qualified by loving only what is good – that is, what comes from his own nature.
Let me illustrate this business that love, per se (understood only in simplistic terms of self-emptying giving), is not the be all and end all of God’s activity, first by looking at the creation story in Genesis. Typically of Hebrew narrative, the motives of God in creating the world are not overtly stated. But from something like Berkhof’s definition of love as God’s eternal desire to communicate himself, we may confidently interpret it in terms of love. That understanding is confirmed by the repeated stress on the goodness of creation: it demonstrates that God has shared his own goodness with the creatures, in all their diversity. What’s not to love?
Yet as we have discussed here many times down the years, John Walton, Rick Middleton and others (such as the redoubtable Cosmas Indicopleustes!) have shown that the way to see the genre of the account is as a temple inauguration text: the God of Israel has created the whole cosmos as his own temple, the vast heavens being where he condescends to dwell and the earth, where his image-bearer mankind is placed to rule on his behalf. So God has, indeed, created mankind – and perhaps the other creatures in their manner – to be in loving fellowship with him. But God is still the centre of creation, the deity in the temple on whom all worship is focused. Creation is, ultimately, for him – for it finds itself only in proper relationship to him as Lord, as his household.
If we turn back to 1 John, the source of that all-too-easy oversimplification that “Love is God”, we have already been reminded by Calvin that God is also light, which ought therefore to account for just as much as love in modern theology. But regarding love, the passage in 1 Jn 4 goes on to speak of Christian love:
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
It seems that moderns tend to force this too into the passive, uncontrolling view of God’s love: since God is love, there is no punishment in God, and therefore fear is always inappropriate. But both the context, and the whole biblical witness, are at loggerheads with this, because even in 1 John the dichotomy between the world of sin – set apart from God and destined for death (ch5.11-12) – and the kingdom of God, to which he trusts his readers belong – is clear. Because God is light, those in darkness have reason to fear: because he is love, those who are in Christ ought to have no place for that kind of fear. Yet God’s light, and his love, are not mutually opposed – they are aspects of the same goodness. Clearly, we would need to do some work to see how those fit together – and excluding the “light” aspect (and therefore the appropriateness of fear) isn’t going to help us do it.
I might cite other passages. For example, the christological recasting of the creation story in John’s gospel (if not by the same author as 1 John, then by one of his associates) doesn’t explicitly expound the “love” theme, but does speak of the light-darkness theme. And the arrival of Jesus brings (in v14) not a revelation of love, but of divine glory, grace and truth. In fact, it is pretty clear in John (eg the renowned ch3.16) that this is not strictly correct: Christ’s advent reveals God’s love by showing his glory through grace and truth. But that’s a lot more nuanced than “God is love. And love means self giving. And therefore God wouldn’t… (X,Y,Z).” It is also more about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, rather than the God of the philosopher’s imperfect reasoning.
Such passages as these – and indeed, the fact that the whole biblical revelation and human history is so varied, challenging and even tortuous – should alert us to the fact that the plan God set in motion at creation is likely to be far more complex than simply the implantation of what we intuitively recognise as “love”, whether into primaeval chaos, autonomous nature or selfish humans. It is more likely to be a drama in which the depth and breadth of God’s loving character, in all its aspects, is unfolded (and that specifically in his Son, Jesus Christ).
Yet just as God is at the centre at the beginning (necessarily so, as nothing but the Godhead existed then), there is no sense in the biblical story that he, like John the Baptist, must become less as he gives himself more and more to his creation. Quite the reverse – the end of all things is that, in some sense yet to be revealed, God comes to pervade all that he has created more than ever:
Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15.24-28)
And that, to go back to the Old Testament and Psalm 85, is when:
Love and faithfulness meet together;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
and righteousness looks down from heaven.
The Lord will indeed give what is good,
and our land will yield its harvest.
Righteousness goes before him
and prepares the way for his steps.
When love comes to town, it doesn’t look the way many folks expect it to.