Summary of Chapter 4, “The Volitional Aspect of Divine Love,” of The Love of God: A Canonical Model by John Peckham


With the design of the argument established (a canonical model) and the preliminary linguistic work accomplished (successfully removing overly rigid distinctions between different biblical words for “love”), Peckham is well positioned in chapter 4 to begin his analysis of the different scripturally rooted attributes of God’s love for the world. The first of these is the volitional aspect of divine love. While the transcendent-voluntarist concludes that divine love is totally free, sovereign, and unmotivated (as witnessed in election), and the immanent-experientialist supposes that divine love is essential to God’s nature and therefore universal, sympathetic, and indeterministic, Peckham is going to advocate in this chapter for a foreconditional-reciprocal model of divine love that understands God’s love for the world as voluntary and yet not merely volitional.

God’s Volitional Love

As mentioned above, the transcendent-voluntarist model has happily endorsed the voluntary nature of God’s love; however, it is prone to delimit God’s love to mere volition. This comes as a result of an un-nuanced adherence to God’s impassibility, absolute sovereignty, and aseity. Inevitably, many (from Vanhoozer to Barth) conclude that God’s relationship with the world is not necessary. However, Kevin Hector’s interpretation of Barth affords an alternative position which states that humanity is contingently necessary to God inasmuch as God determined from eternity past to be God-with-us.

These and other  interpretations of divine love are accused by Peckham of making claims based on what God might have done rather than what Scripture clearly presents. This is why Peckham lays out, as promised, his canonical answer to the following question, “Does God love freely and, if so, what does that mean?” From the Scriptures, Peckham is able to demonstrate (with T. F. Torrance) that God did not have to create anything and, as a result (and in agreement with Richard Rice), the world owes its existence, both past and present, to God’s free choice. Applied to God’s love for humanity, it must be said that this too is freely bestowed by God in election.

To illustrate this phenomenon, the Bible uses images like marriage and adoption to reiterate that divine love is always instigated by God. Not only that, but the fact that love is shown in Scripture to be taken away (in some sense) demonstrates that divine love (in that specific sense) is inessential to God. These and other proofs both affirm the transcendent-voluntarist position and undermine the immanent-experientialist belief that God is somehow compelled to love because he is in some way dependent on the world.

However, Peckham departs from strict voluntarists when he suggests that God’s love is not merely volitional. Instead, he believes divine love is also evaluative, emotional, foreconditional, and ideally reciprocal. One example of this took place when God’s people rebelled by erecting a golden calf in the wilderness and, in response, God offered them a choice to either repent and enter back into his love or forfeit God’s mercy. In this episode, though God’s love is shown to be freely given to a people who do not deserve it, Peckham believes that it is not merely a product of his choice, but, in some ways, contingent on how his people respond and reciprocate. If they repent, they will experience God’s love in special ways; if they do not, they forfeit God’s free and sovereign offering.

Love and Election

A discussion very closely related to the volitional aspect of God’s love is the relationship between love and election. For those adhering to a strict transcendent-voluntarist model, election and love go hand-in-hand (see Leon Morris and Anders Nygren). In fact, some, as revealed in chapter 3, even equate Old Testament words for “love” with choice. This is not so with Peckham’s foreconditional-reciprocal model. Instead, Peckham suggests that while election is a manifestation of love, it is not equal to divine love. In fact, divine love is shown in the Canon to be so much more than mere election.

Scripture teaches that divine love is not only the basis for divine election (Deut. 4:37; 7:7-8; 10:15), it is unmerited, evaluative, conditional, and must be maintained by appropriate human response. In addition to passages that describe God’s sovereign freedom to bestow love as he pleases, a host of passages reveal God’s hatred toward humans that is prompted by their evil actions, thereby proving his love to have an evaluative component. Also, the pervasive covenant language in the Scriptures implicitly suggests certain underlining conditions associated with the benefits thereof and the love bestowed therein. Not only that, the elect are described throughout the Canon as those who, upon receiving a divine call, answer it appropriately by reciprocating the love bestowed in the context of a growing relationship.

Love and Bilateral Significant Freedom One final consideration Peckham includes in this presentation involves what he calls bilateral significant freedom, or the ability of both God and man to will to act otherwise than they do. According to Peckham, if this was not affirmed, especially when it pertains to God’s love relationship with the world, so many passages through the Canon would not make sense. The pervasive offerings of love from God and the many commands to love God both suggest that divine love, though freely bestowed, cannot be forced upon someone by sheer will. In other words, mankind is not casually determined to love God according to the Scriptures. Therefore, the love between God and man is, in some ways, a phenomenon that occurs when both God chooses to offer it and humans choose to respond appropriately. As Peckham concludes, the love relationship between God and man is neither unilaterally deterministic nor an ontological necessity. Instead, it is mutually (though not equally) volitional and contingent.

Ultimately, [similar to] the transcendent-voluntarists [in this respect], Peckham believes that the love of God [for the world] is volitional and free. Not only that, but he affirms that love [in relationship to the world] is neither essential to God’s being nor necessary to his existence. However, Peckham believes that reducing divine love to pure volition is too limited given how the God—man relationship is portrayed in the Scriptures. God’s love seems to be experienced most completely by those who respond to his offer appropriately in the context of a bilaterally free, volitional relationship—not as a result of a reductionist interpretation of God’s election alone.


Image:By the Providence Lithograph Company -, Public Domain,