It’s a real treat and privilege to introduce a new regular contributor to MoralApologetics.com: John C. Peckham (PhD, Andrews University). He is associate professor of theology and Christian philosophy at the Theological Seminary of Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He is the author of The Love of God: A Canonical Model (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2015) and The Concept of Divine Love in the Context of the God-World Relationship (New York: Peter Lang, 2014) and has published articles on issues of systematic theology and canon in journals such as Trinity Journal, Philosophia Christi, Andrews University Seminary Studies and Themelios. This interview is about his most recent book: The Love of God: A Canonical Model (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2015).
- The topic of divine love is a perennial issue. Why did you write this particular book, The Love of God: A Canonical Model?
God is love. Those three words are at the center of everything I believe about God. Yet, just what does that mean? How does God love us? The term “love” is a rather elastic one, defined in so many ways by different people. Popular conceptions and myths about God’s love abound. Over the course of a number of years of studying the theology of divine love, I came to realize that the beautiful and complex conception of divine love exhibited in Scripture is often muted, or even silenced, by the presuppositions of traditional and non-traditional theological systems. The love of God as depicted in Scripture turned out to be far better and greater than I could have imagined and I’ve had many of my own presuppositions challenged and overturned in the process.
- Your book engages a number of conflicting conceptions of divine love. Can you introduce our readers to the theological landscape relative to this issue?
While there is a broad spectrum of views regarding God’s love, the main issues of the contemporary theological debate are illumined by two prominent models of divine love that are near the opposite ends of the spectrum. The transcendent-voluntarist model views divine love as unilaterally bestowed beneficence. Conversely, in the immanent-experientialist model, God is universally sympathetic. God necessarily and immediately feels the feelings of all others. Both of these conceptions flow from competing conceptions of the divine nature, the former building on a more traditionalist ontology and the latter rooted in process panentheism. The conflict between these mutually exclusive models of divine love points to the crucial questions at issue in the wider discussion of the nature of God’s love and the God-world relationship, including whether God’s love for the world is volitional or essential, disinterested or evaluative, impassible or primarily passive, unconditional or conditional, and unilateral or reciprocal.
- With so many competing conceptions of divine love, how did you go about attempting to advance the discussion on this issue?
I employed a canonical methodology to investigate the meaning of divine love in light of the contemporary debate, seeking to exposit the canonical perspective on divine love without assuming the accuracy or inaccuracy of existing models (with regard to love specifically or the nature of God more broadly). I undertook this by first identifying the issues and questions in the current debate, then conducting an inductive reading of the entire biblical canon and isolating any and all texts and/or passages that touched on these questions, even slightly. I then analyzed and organized the extracted data, narrowing and expanding it when themes emerged as more or less significant than originally thought. Finally, I systematized the data into a systematic model and compared and contrasted it with other existing conceptions of divine love.
- You mentioned previously that God’s love has often been misunderstood. Perhaps some readers will be surprised by your treatment of so-called agape love. Is God’s love agape-love as is so often taught?
Many of us have been taught that the term agape describes a uniquely superior kind of divine love, which involves (among other things) giving but never receiving (i.e. gift rather than need love). However, in the biblical canon, the agape root by itself is not a qualitatively superior term of divine love and should not be elevated above other biblical terms for love. Analysis of the usage of agape in the LXX [ed. note: Septuagint] and New Testament demonstrates that it may convey a broad range of meaning, from the most virtuous love of affection and generosity to a “love” that is more akin to lust and fades quickly after its rapacious selfishness is satisfied. When used of God, agape does convey the best kind of love but this is so not because the agape root inherently conveys only the best kind of love but because God’s love is itself perfect. Moreover, God’s love is also conveyed by many other terms, including the phileo root, which overlaps with the agape root in nearly every respect in NT usage. Further, the kind of divine love depicted via these and many other terms is not restricted to the popular conception of divine love as unilaterally giving but never receiving.
- You posit in your book a foreconditional-reciprocal model of divine love with five aspects. Can you briefly introduce those five aspects?
The five complementary aspects of divine love in the foreconditional-reciprocal model are: volitional, evaluative, emotional, foreconditional, and ideally reciprocal. First God’s love in relationship to the world is volitional but not merely volitional. God’s love for the world is neither essential nor necessary to God’s being yet also not arbitrary. Whereas God, as Trinity, is essentially loving, God did not need to create any world but created this world voluntarily. In this way, God’s love in relation to the world is freely bestowed and yet he loves the world in accordance with his essentially loving character. Second, divine love is evaluative such that God takes evaluative delight and pleasure in his creatures (via divine mediation). Third, God’s love is profoundly emotional and passible though not to the exclusion of volitional and evaluative aspects. Fourth, divine love is foreconditional, not altogether unconditional. That is, God’s love is prior to, but not exclusive of, conditions. Finally, divine love is ideally reciprocal. God universally seeks a relationship of reciprocal love but enjoys particular, intimate relationship only with those who accept God’s love.
- One of the oft-debated issues that holds significance for moral apologetics is the ongoing debate regarding free will. How does the volitional aspect of divine love shed light on this?
In my investigation of divine love, I discovered a great deal of biblical information that indicates a libertarian conception of divine and human free will. Indeed, the biblical data regarding divine love suggest that God is not only significantly free but also grants significant freedom to humans to accept or reject a love relationship with God (bilateral significant freedom). Although God wants everyone to enjoy a love relationship with him for eternity, humans have the freedom to reject God’s love. As such, God’s desires often go unfulfilled.
- Many conceive of God as wholly altruistic and believe that “pure love” must be entirely self-sacrificial. How does your model of divine love relate to this?
While many believe that “pure love” should be wholly altruistic, to the exclusion of any self-interest, the Bible recognizes proper, wholly unselfish self-love, and God’s love itself includes unselfish self-interest. To say otherwise overlooks God’s rightful command to worship and exalt him and the joy that he takes in love relationships with creatures. However, God’s self-interest is not selfish but includes the best interests of all others. That is, he has voluntarily bound his own joy to the true happiness of his creatures (what I call other-inclusive self-interest). Although humans have no value to bring to God in and of themselves, God enables humans to respond to his prior and enabling action and mediates their meager offerings through Christ. In this way, God can appreciate and enjoy the gifts that humans offer even though they are faulty and imperfect, much in the same way that a father appreciates an intrinsically worthless father’s day gift because it came from his beloved child.
- Can you unpack a bit more what it means for God’s love to be “foreconditional” as you describe it? If God’s love is not wholly unconditional does that mean humans can merit God’s love?
By foreconditional, I mean that God’s love is prior to all other love and conditions, but not exclusive of conditions. Yet, while divine love is conditional in many ways, it is never merited. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). Nevertheless, we may choose to forfeit a love relationship with God. As such, contrary to popular suppositions, divine love is not unconditional in every respect. Yet, there are aspects of divine love that are unconditional. For example, divine love is unconditional with respect to God’s volition (he always desires to remain in a love relationship with each human) but conditional with respect to evaluation and ongoing relationship (thus humans can finally reject a love relationship with God). Because divine love is inherently relational, although God continues to “subjectively” love even those who reject relationship with him, the “objective” aspects of divine love are contingent upon relationship. God does everything he can to remain in a love relationship with each person short of overriding the freedom that is essential to love. As such, his longsuffering and compassionate love far exceeds all reasonable expectations.
- What do you think readers of moral apologetics would be most interested in regarding your book?
I hope there are a number of elements that would be of interest to your readers, not only regarding the many intricacies of divine love for us but also relative to the wider conception of the God-world relationship. Understanding God’s love, in my view, goes hand-in-hand with understanding God’s goodness. In particular, I think there are significant implications of the foreconditional-reciprocal model of divine love for the problem of evil. The volitional aspect of divine love, for example, entails bilateral significant freedom and such freedom holds implications for the way God relates to the world. Specifically, this model suggests that, although God is omnipotent, he voluntarily and temporarily limits the use of his power to allow the significant freedom of creatures. Further, by engaging in love relationship with creatures, God is deeply affected by the world.
- What project(s) do you plan to work on next?
I have recently completed a draft of a manuscript on canonical theological method and I plan to begin working in earnest on a follow-up to this book that unpacks the implications of this conception of divine love for the problem of evil and addresses central issues of God’s providence.
Thanks, John! You’re doing great work, and we hope this interview helps inspire more interest in this really important scholarship. Readers of the site, please read John’s book The Love of God: A Canonical Model!