The key question in chapter seven of Peckham’s Love of God is whether God’s love for the world is unconditional or conditional, the answer to which is also essential for determining if humans can forfeit divine love or if it is unilaterally consistent. Peckham employs the term “foreconditional” to express his understanding that “God’s love is freely bestowed prior to any conditions but not exclusive of conditions” (p. 192). He further elaborates: “God’s love is both prior to human love and yet responsive to and conditioned on human love, which is itself response to God’s initiative. This is the foreconditionality of divine love” (p. 196).
Peckham contrasts his understanding of the foreconditionality of God’s love with both the immanent-experientialist and transcendant-voluntarist models, which both in different ways view divine love as unconditional and as something that cannot be forfeited. In the immanent-experientialist model, divine love is ontologically necessary in that God has an essential sympathetic relationship to the world. In pantheism, God is bound to the world and is mutually dependent on others so that God is unable to choose not to love humans. In the transcendant-voluntarist model, God is self-sufficient so that his love depends solely on his sovereign will. Divine love is thus not conditioned on any external factor and is spontaneous and unmotivated in every way. In this system, the object of divine love can do nothing to inhibit, decrease, or forfeit divine love.
The Conditionality of Divine Love
Peckham opts for a model of divine love that recognizes the priority and necessity of divine initiative but that also sees conditionality and reciprocity as essential to the relationship between God and humans. He argues that Scripture depicts divine love as conditioned upon human response. In the OT, God’s “lovingkindness” (hesed) is for those who love him and obey his commands (Exod 20:6’ Deut 7:9-13). What God has promised within this covenant “is presented as explicitly conditional on the ongoing relationship” (p. 194). In the same vein, Jesus declares that the one who loves him is the one that he and the Father would love (John 14:12) and that the Father loves the disciples because they have loved Jesus (John 16:27). Mutuality is evident in these texts, which indicate that believers remain in the love of God and Jesus by obedience.
This conditionality in divine love is complemented by the evaluative aspect of God’s love that Peckham has developed in chapter five of this work. The Lord loves the righteous but hates the way of the wicked (Prov 15:9). Divine mercy is conditioned upon humans showing mercy to each other (Matt 5:7; 18:33-35). Friendship with Christ is also conditioned on obedience to his commands (John 15:14). God loves all persons and bestows his foreconditional love on all (John 3:16), but his “particular, intimate, relational love” is only received by those who respond to his foreconditional love.
The conditionality of divine love means that humans may also forfeit the benefits of divine love. The prophets Hosea and Jeremiah speak of God hating his people, not loving them, and withdrawing his hesed from them (Hos 9:15; Jer 11:15; 12:8; 14:20; 16:5). Jude’s exhortation for believers to “keep themselves” in the love of God (Jude 21) reflects that fellowship with God can be forfeited. The need for believers to “abide” in God’s love (John 15:5-10) also demonstrates that enjoyment of God’s love demands a proper response to it. Peckham argues that this biblical evidence does away with “the sentimental notion that God’s love is monolithic, constant and unconditional,” and he concludes that “God’s love relationship with the world, then, is not dependent on God’s will alone but takes into account human disposition and action” (p. 199).
Three Objections to the Condtionality of God’s Love
Peckham addresses three common objections to the idea of the conditionality of divine love. The first objection is that some would argue that such conditionality might mistakenly attribute primacy to human action in the divine-human relationship. In response to this objection, Peckham asserts the “absolute priority” of God’s love in the divine-human relationship (1 Jn 4:7-8, 16, 19) and argues that God “is the primary source of love and draws humans to himself prior to any human action” (p. 201). God’s love not only precedes human love, but also follows it as well, energizing love for God and obedience as an expression of that love.
The second objection is that the conditionality of divine love might appear to suggest that God’s love is something that could be earned or merited. Peckham explains that his foreconditional-reciprocal model makes a sharp distinction between conditionality and merit. God’s love toward humans is always undeserved, just as was his love for Israel (cf. Deut 4:37; 7:7-8; 10:15), but divine love can be unmerited while at the same time contingent upon human response. The individual who freely receives God’s love has not merited that love, because even the ability to receive divine love is something that comes as a gift from God (cf. 1 Cor 4:7).
The third objection is that the conditionality of divine love might seem to diminish the greatness of God by removing the assurance of divine love or suggesting that God’s love is not faithful. Peckham counters this objection by noting that God never arbitrarily rejects humans or withdraws his love, The removal of divine love always occurs in response to unrelenting human evil. Divine love is conditional but never capricious.
Peckham also assesses if God’s love would be greater by reconciling all to himself in a reciprocal love relationship. Certain forms of universalism are based on the premises that God desires a love relationship with all and also possesses the ability to effect such a relationship with all persons. Deterministic models of divine love would affirm the second premise, but some forms of determinism would deny the first. According to this understanding, God loves all in some respect but he only chooses some to irresistibly receive the benefits of divine love leading to eternal life. Humans do not possess the ability to accept divine love or not.
In contrasts to these perspectives, the foreconditional-reciprocal model accepts that God desires a love relationship with all (cf. Ezek 18:32; 33:11; 1 Tim 2:4-6; 2 Pet 3:9), but that a truly reciprocal loved relationship between God and individuals “cannot be unilaterally determined by God” (p. 207). This conditionality is not due to any defect in divine love or lack in his power but rather to the fact that any truly loving relationship requires “significant freedom.” Peckham argues that “it is impossible for God to determine that all beings freely love him” (p. 208).
The Conditionality and Unconditionality of God’s Love
The final question that Peckham addresses in this chapter is how we should view the many passages that speak of God’s love as everlasting (cf. Jer 31:3; Rom 8:35, 39) in light of the conditionality of divine love. Distinguishing between God’s subjective and objective love, Peckham argues that, “Divine love is everlasting in some respects, yet may nevertheless be discontinued in other respects” (p. 212). God’s subjective love refers to his loving disposition toward all humanity, and this love is everlasting because it is grounded only in his character. God’s subjective love is unconditional and everlasting because his character is unchanging. God’s objective love, however, is conditional because it is “foreconditional and requires reciprocal love for its permanent continuance” (p. 212). Humans possess the freedom to either accept or reject divine love, and God only removes his love relationship with humans “in response to the prior rejection of God’s love” (p. 213).
Peckham also argues that God’s love is unconditional and everlasting in a corporate sense. He writes, “That God will love and save some people is unconditional.” The Lord’s saving purposes and covenantal promises will come to fruition for his people, but conditionality is maintained at the individual level in regard to who will belong to the remnant. The remnant will only consist of those who favorably respond to God’s loving initiatives (cf. Isa 65:8-9; Rom 9:6; 11:7, 22-23). The interplay between the unconditionality and conditionality of divine love is specifically reflected in the working out of God’s covenant grants in the OT. These covenant promises are unconditional in terms of ultimate fulfillment, but individuals or even entire generations may forfeit the blessings of the covenant and even their covenant status. In the Davidic covenant, Christ is the “entirely faithful servant” who receives all of the blessings that are part of that covenant and to confer those blessings to all of his spiritual offspring. However, individuals may either choose to enjoy those blessings through adoption into God’s family or reject these intended blessings and the love relationship they might have enjoyed with God.
In concluding this chapter, Peckham summarizes the differences between God’s subjective and objective love in this manner: “While God’s subjective love never diminishes or ceases, God’s objective love will eventually no longer reach the one who finally rejects it. Those who respond positively to God’s love, however, enjoy everlasting reciprocal love relationship” (p. 217).
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