Summary of Love of God: A Canonical Model: Chapter 9: “Who Is the God Who Loves?”


In chapter nine of The Love of God: A Canonical Model, Peckham summarizes the five key aspects of the foreconditional-reciprocal model of divine love that he has developed in the book and then focuses on key questions concerning God’s essence in light of how he loves. God’s love is volitional, evaluative, emotional, foreconditional, and ideally reciprocal. These features highlight the “give-and-take relationality” that exists in human-divine love. God’s choice to love means that he allows himself to be affected by the disposition or actions of his creatures and to engage with humans in profoundly emotional ways. God’s love for humans is undeserved but not without conditions in that it is only those who reciprocate God’s love that enjoy a particular love relationship with him for eternity. God works toward a bilateral love relationship with humans but does not unilaterally determine who will reciprocate his love. Such coercion is incompatible with genuinely loving relationships.

Is Love God’s Essence?

The bulk of this final chapter focuses on ontological issues that are key to determining what God must be like if he loves in this particular manner. The first of these issues is the relationship of divine love to God’s essence. In light of 1 John 4:8, 16 (“God is love”), many have postulated that love is God’s essence. Because of the mysteries associated with divine essence, Peckham takes a more cautious approach in asserting, “God’s character is love, and God is essentially loving” (p. 252). All that God is and does is congruent with divine love. The members of the Trinity have enjoyed an eternal love relationship with each other, but this “essential intra-trinitarian love relation does not extend to creatures” (p. 253). God is not morally or ontologically bound to love his creatures but voluntarily chooses to do so. This explanation preserves divine freedom in contrast to pantheistic conceptions that view God’s love for the world and his creatures as necessary to his being.

Divine Love and Perfection

Peckham next examines how the foreconditional-reciprocal model of divine love accords with a proper view of God’s perfection. Some forms of the transcendent-voluntarist model often view God’s enjoyment of the world as a defect that impinges on divine perfection, but Peckham argues that while God is ontologically independent from the world and self-sufficient, he also finds enjoyment in the world’s goodness and takes displeasure in evil. Because of his abundant love for humans, God has “voluntarily bound his own interests to the best interests of his creatures” so that the quality of his own life is interwoven with the course of human history (p. 256).

God has also extended significant creaturely freedom to humans, allowing them the choice to reciprocate his love or not to do so. The fact that humans act in ways that either positively or negatively impact God reflects that God himself is not the causal agent of these actions. God’s will is not “unilaterally efficacious,” evidenced by the ways in which “free beings actually affect the course of history, often in ways that are not in accordance with God’s ideal decisions” (p. 258). Peckham provides a helpful distinction between God’s “ideal will,” referring to what would occur if all agents acted in perfect conformity to his desires, and his “effective will,” which refers to what God evaluatively wills after taking into account the wills and actions of his significantly free creatures. God allowed Adam and Eve to not obey his ideal will in favor of granting them this creaturely freedom. The death of Jesus was “God’s will,” not in the sense that he desired it to happen but because it was part of his larger plan of salvation. We clearly see numerous instances in Scripture where God’s desires are not fulfilled (cf. Ps 81:11-14; Isa 66:4; Ezek 18:23; Matt 23:37-39; Lk 7:30), and such occurrences are necessary as a means of securing genuinely reciprocal divine-human love relationships.

Peckham’s distinction between “ideal will” and “effective will” contrasts to how more deterministic models distinguish between “desired will” and “decretive will.” In this, God genuinely desires that all be saved but has not decreed that all would be saved. Peckham raises the question, “If God’s will is unilaterally efficacious and God wants to save everyone, why does he not do so?” (p. 262). God ought to be able to determine every individual to accept his love and be saved, but the reality is that God acting in this way would be incompatible with the biblical ideas of significant human freedom and the bilateral nature of divine-human love.

Divine Love, Passibility, and God’s Constancy

Peckham also addresses how passibility and constancy can both exist within God’s person. Reiterating from his fuller discussion in chapter six, Peckham affirms that God is affected by the disposition and actions of his creatures and argues that explaining the strongly emotional language used to describe God in the Bible as anthropomorphic lacks a clear canonical rationale. God’s relational nature is reflected in the give-and-take aspects of his interaction with humans as he calls for response to his initiatives and then relents, rewards, or punishes based on what those responses are. Peckham is careful to qualify that his view of passibility does not deny divine immutability when understood as the constancy of God’s character and promissory purposes. God has voluntarily chosen to enter into the joys and sufferings of the world and does so “evaluatively and voluntarily but not essentially” (p. 269). God allows himself to be affected by others while also maintaining “ontological independence from the world.”

Divine Love and Theodicy

Lastly, Peckham examines divine love in relationship to the issue of theodicy and argues that the foreconditional-reciprocal model has advantages over the other models in outlining why there is evil in the world if God is good, all-powerful, and all-loving. The determinism of the transcendent-voluntarist model asserts that God predestines all evil but does no evil himself in that God wills these actions for different reasons. Peckham contends that this perspective is unsuccessful in attempting to avoid making God culpable for evil, asking how God could be good if he could have unilaterally willed to prevent evil without hindering his purposes and why God did not unilaterally determine that he be fully glorified before his creatures without evil. The pantheism of the imminent-experientialist model goes in a different direction, positing that God is not responsible for evil because he was unable to prevent it. This view offers an impoverished view of God and also raises the question of whether or not evil will ever come to an end.

The foreconditional-reciprocal model explains that God is omnipotent but that possession of all power does not require the exercise of all power. God freely grants power to other agents whose choices he does not unilaterally determine. God’s voluntary allowance of evil testifies to his loving nature. Since love must be free and cannot be determined, the necessary context for genuine love requires the possibility of evil and the rejection of God’s ideal will. Peckham writes, “God allowed evil, while passionately despising it, because to exclude its possibility would exclude love” (p. 274). Though creatures suffer greatly, God suffers more, and the voluntary suffering of God on the cross ensures that evil will be eradicated in the eschaton and that the universe will continue in “unceasing love and uninterrupted goodness.”


Gary Yates

Gary Yates is Professor of Old Testament Studies at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia where he has taught since 2003.  Prior to that he taught at Cedarville University in Ohio and pastored churches in Kansas and Virginia.  He has a Th.M. and Ph.D. in Old Testament Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary.  His teaching interests are the Old Testament Prophets, the Psalms, Biblical Hebrew, and Biblical Theology.  He is the co-author of The Essentials of the Old Testament (B&H, 2012) and The Message of the Twelve (B&H, forthcoming) and has written journal articles and chapters for other works.  Gary continues to be involved in teaching and preaching in the local church.  He and his wife Marilyn have three children.