Love ~ A Five Letter Word

Love is a five letter word.  Did you think four letters enough?  Five letters are needful for this particular love, agape.  Five-letter agape is the love encompassing the other loves.  Agape makes best sense in reference to God in Jesus Christ.  Put aside for now agape as the love of God with his own.  This piece focuses on agape as God’s love shared between his own. Since the apostle Paul urges us to ‘let all that you do be done in agape’, celebrate with me three of agape’s winning features:  agape love comprehends (1) mutual subjection, (2) mercy/kindness, and (3) loyal commitment to death.

First, five-letter agape love entails mutual subjection. ‘To be subject’ to another person is to render oneself dependent on; to place oneself under or in a lower position to someone; or to put oneself at the service of another.  The thought of being ‘subject’ to another carries a negative connotation in our society.  It smacks of being deprived of freedom or in bondage to another.  Early Americans were ‘subjects’ of Great Britain’s King George.  As his ‘subjects’ we rebelled against King George’s goal of ‘absolute tyranny over these states.’

There is a much talked-about tussle of dominance and subjection between men and women. G. K. Chesterton was skeptical of Women’s Rights talk that ‘men are the rulers and masters and women the menials.’  Jokes abound parodying the opposite, ‘When she wants his opinion, she gives it to him.’  Subjection carries a negative connotation.

What if husbands in the above relational equation decide to be subject to their wives?  What if, further, wives determine to place themselves under their husbands?  This is exactly what five-letter love agape envisions: mutual subjection!  ‘Be subject to one another in reverence of Christ’ says the apostle Paul (Ephesians 5: 21).

Eighteenth century writer and pastor Jonathon Swift thought this an extraordinary oxymoron.  How can two equal persons both be subject to one another?  Being subject to another is only due from inferiors to those above them:  a subject to a prince.  Nevertheless, there it is!  For the believing Christian community, mutual subjection is the rule.  Be subject to one another!  Regardless of gender, rank, power, or prominence, put yourself in the service and at the disposal of others: husbands to wives and wives to husbands!  Let Jesus Christ be your model.  Jesus said to his disciples, ‘You call me Lord and Master…for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Master, wash your feet, how much more ought you to wash one another’s feet?’  Living at the disposal of others in mutual submission is a win-win aspect of five-letter love.

Consider a second aspect of five-letter agape love.  ‘Agape is kind.’  The word ‘kind’ in the original New Testament language is ‘chrestos.’  ‘Chrestos’ is bearing good will to someone undeserving. It is being suffused with a gracious, generous spirit toward the unworthy.  Jesus Christ is kindness.  He was dining at a Jewish leader’s table.  A woman crashed the party.  She positioned herself at Jesus’ feet.  Bursting out in tears she anointed his feet with ointment from her alabaster jar.  The Pharisee leader was horrorstruck.  ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him,’ he said under his breath.  Jesus answered the Pharisee, ‘I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven.’  Turning to the woman he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven…your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ (Luke 7: 37ff).  Jesus treated this public sinner with ‘chrestos’ – a spirit of generous mercy.  The Pharisee rightly reckoned her behavior wrong.  Though Jesus agreed, he met her repentant heart with sweet benevolence.  Jesus became so identified with ‘chrestos’, heathens called him ‘Chrest’ rather than Christ and Christians ‘Chrestians.’  Imagine persons, even yourself, at every level and in every walk of life – politicians, citizens, teachers, students, doctors, patients, executives, merchants, husbands, and wives - carrying on with chrestos!

Jane Austen’s heroine in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Bennett, is pretty, smart, and self-possessed.    She dared turn down the marriage proposal of the area’s most eligible bachelor, the noble, handsome, and wealthy Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy.  In the meantime, Lizzie’s sister Lydia had an affair with a ne’er-do-well rake, Wickham.  Lydia and Wickham’s improper relationship disgraced Lizzie and her family.  Lizzie felt her and her sisters’ eligibility for marriage was gone.

Unbeknownst to Lizzie, Mr. Darcy secretly intervenes.  Looking past Lizzie’s snub and Lydia’s scandalous behavior, Mr. Darcy has compassionate mercy on the Bennett family.  He uses his influence and wealth to insure Wickham marries Lydia.  The disgrace hanging over the Bennett family is removed.  Later, when he has the opportunity to reaffirm his love for Lizzie, she wholeheartedly accepts his renewed offer of marriage.  Would marital relationships be less fragile and brittle if ‘chrestos’ prevailed in spouses’ hearts?

Five-letter agape love is mutual subjection, kindness, and, lastly, loyal, committed love.  I call it to-the-death love.  I felt badly for actress Bo Derek.  Bo, having starred in the iconic movie ‘Ten’, was with her husband John Derek when he was asked by an interviewer the following question, ‘If Bo was in an automobile accident and her face was horribly scarred, would you still love her?’  I felt for Bo because John did not answer with a resounding ‘Yes’!  Five- letter love is loyal, committed love that goes to the death for your lover.  Agape is ‘for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health...till death do us part’ love.  Agape love does not jump ship…does not bail….does not walk away.  It says, ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; where you die, I will die.’  Period.  Psychiatrist F. Scott Peck said, ‘Commitment is the bedrock of any genuinely loving relationship.’  His long psychiatric practice taught him that where commitment is absent, psychiatric disorders are present.  Look around.  Would you not like to be loved with loyal love?

To-the-death love is best revealed in Jesus Christ.  The God of the universe ‘proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’  Five-letter love is defined by Jesus’ willingness to remain steadfast and go to the death for those loved.  One can hardly find a better contemporary example of to-the-death love than Robertson McQuilken’s.  He was a university president.  In his fifties, he had finally attained his life-long dream of running a university.  His wife Muriel was skilled in tutoring college students and graciously hosting the president’s social events. Then Muriel developed Alzheimer’s disease.  Robertson faced a dilemma: care for the university, or care for Muriel.  Foregoing his presidency, he tendered his resignation to the university to take care of Muriel.  He cared for her until her death.  McQuilken knew his Master Jesus Christ loved the church by sacrificing his life for her.  McQuilken felt it his privilege to love his wife Muriel ‘till death do us part.’ Five-letter love is to-the-death love, kindness, and mutual subjection.  Love is more than a four letter word.  Are you ready for it?


Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

What's a Body to Do? "Legalistic Insistence on Submission Ruled Out" (Part 3)

In view of the principles of freely given submission through the grace of God and mutual submission in love, we must conclude that a legalistic insistence on the submission of others is an attempt to enslave those whom God has set free, and that it has no place in the Body of Christ. The possibility of submitting again to a "yoke of slavery" from which we have been delivered is a subject that Paul addresses with a great deal of feeling, and that leads us to two related final principles flowing from the example of Jesus as obedient servant.

  1. Submission according to the model of Christ is, spiritually speaking, a free and voluntary act, empowered and given meaning by the grace of God, and not by any principle of law. Christ set us free from the Law, so all acts of humility, obedience, and submission will be expressions of spiritual freedom, whatever our exterior circumstances may be (Rom. 5:18-21; Rom. 6:12-19; Gal. 3:23-4:7; 5:16-25; James 4:7-10; I John 2:3-5).

Paul's teaching on grace continually stresses our deliverance from bondage to sin through the sacrifice of Christ and our freedom in the grace of God. In Romans 6 he says,

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. (Rom. 6:12-14)

We are no longer subject to the rule of sin because we have been delivered from slavery to it. Even the perfect Law of God delivered through Moses has served its purpose of making evident our slavery to sin and pointing us to Christ, and it is now set aside (Gal. 3:23-25).  And in the freedom of our new life, we can, by the grace of God, offer to Him ourselves and our bodies to be used "as instruments of righteousness," because we "have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness" (Rom. 6:18). Walking in this new-found freedom of grace is in another place described as living in and being led by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-25), which is God's new life within us, marking us as legitimate, free-born children and heirs of God (Rom. 8:13-17; Gal. 4:6-7).

It is significant that Paul chooses the context of these arguments affirming that we live under grace and not under law in which to make his most egalitarian statement about the relationship between those who are in Christ. Having been delivered from the authority and power of the Law, Paul says, "You are all sons [i.e., children] of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:26-29). Consequently, whenever submission is practiced in the Body of Christ, it is not to be seen as in any way devaluing the one submitting, nor conferring superiority on the one being submitted to. Any submission which is forced and not freely given seeks to devalue the one submitting and compromises our deliverance from slavery to the Law. In a case of this sort, the submitter can act in free obedience to the will of God and experience the freedom of grace, while one who tries to enforce submission has stepped outside of grace by refusing to submit to God's instructions to those having power. It is those instructions that underlie the final principle springing from the servant-example of Jesus:

  1. Any attempt within the Body of Christ to enforce submission from others (with the exception of parents controlling children--I Tim. 3:4) is a divisive work of the flesh, and not of the Spirit, and is a denial of the freedom we have through God's grace. (Rom. 8:5-8; Rom. 16:17-19; II Cor. 11:4-9; Gal. 2:4-12; 4:8-11; 4:23-5:1; 5:24-26; Col. 2:20-23)

One kind of submission is not only forbidden in the New Testament, but is characterized as a betrayal of the freedom Christ died to obtain for us. In presenting his allegory of the two wives who bore children to Abraham, Paul says, "Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman[Hagar], but of the free woman [Sarah]. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 4:31-5:1). The "yoke of slavery" in this instance took the form of insisting that those males who had accepted Christ had to be circumcised, thus tying them to the Law based on merit which was set aside by the death of Christ. Earlier in the letter, he spoke of the work of false teachers whose purpose was to spy on the "freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves." Paul is adamant in his resistance to this attempt, saying, "We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you" (Gal. 2:4-5). When even Peter was carried away by the "circumcision group" (2:12), trying to "force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs" (2:14), Paul "opposed him to his face" (2:11) in order to defend the principle of grace as the source of salvation, and not law-keeping.

The Judaizing teachers who came in for such scathing words in the letter to the Galatians were challenging and seeking to replace both Paul's message and his authority, both of which, he makes clear, were given to him by God Himself (Gal. 1:8-12). The foundation of Paul's message, the "truth of the gospel," both as originally delivered to the Galatians and in his letter to them, is that one "is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ" (2:16). The charge against the false teachers is not merely that they are voicing a differing opinion, but that they are attempting to use their influence to re-enslave people to the attainment of righteousness by their own efforts, instead of relying on God through faith in Christ. They are not people who have a real concern about brothers and sisters in Christ, but rather people whose objective is to exercise control over others through requiring circumcision; as Paul puts it, "they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh" (Gal. 6:13). In other words, they are the sort of people described in Romans 16 who "cause divisions and put obstacles in your way" (v. 17), and those in Titus who foment "foolish controversies and quarrels about the law" which "are unprofitable and useless." Such a person is to be warned once, "and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned" (Titus 2:9-11).

Motivation and attitude are everything here in evaluating the character of these disruptive teachers and assessing the danger that they pose. They were obviously more concerned with exercising power and coercing people than with following God's way of grace, humility, and service. In the same way, if a member of the Body of Christ today seeks to gain power over others by demanding a kind of submission which would be a regression to law-keeping and a renunciation of the freedom of grace that we all have in Christ, that person is a sower of dissension and disharmony, a divisive person who is "self-condemned." While one who refuses to submit to a divinely appointed authority may miss an opportunity for growth and cause the Body to have a weaker testimony to the world, the wielder of fleshly power in the Body who is able and willing to reject the freedom of God's grace inflicts even greater damage on both himself and the Body by demanding legalistic conformity from others for his own satisfaction and aggrandizement.


Image :Dirck van baburen - Christ washing the apostles feet. CC License. 

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

What’s a Body to Do? (Part 2)


A Twilight Musing

Theological Principles Based on Jesus’ Example and Teaching on Submission 

  1. All submission to others must be a direct outgrowth of, and subordinate to, our submission to the Lord. (Rom. 13:1-7; I Cor. 10:28-33; I Pet. 2:13-16, 18-19).

When we submit to civil authorities, it is not only out of fear of punishment, but "also because of conscience" (Rom. 13:5). As Peter puts it, "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men" (I Pet. 2:13). When Paul urged the Corinthian believers not to eat meat offered to idols out of deference to the tender consciences of others, it was not that he was allowing himself to be coerced by the "tender conscience" people ("why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience?" [I Cor. 10:29]), but that he chose to uphold an underlying spiritual principle: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Paul seeks not to cause anyone to stumble, but to “try to please everybody in every way.  For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved" (I Cor. 10:31-33).

The same principle is made explicit in Ephesians: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord" (Eph. 5:21-22).  Children are to obey their parents "in the Lord" (Eph. 6:1), and servants are to obey their masters "wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men" (Eph. 6:7). In the most explicit admonition to submit to spiritual leaders (Heb. 13:17), the rationale is that as these men "watch over you," they "must give an account" to the Lord of us all for the discharge of their responsibilities, and submission to them is to the "advantage" of the whole Body.

In many of the exhortations to submission in the New Testament, the people being submitted to were not necessarily worthy of the submission, and that was not the reason for the requirement; rather, the principle was to be voluntarily subject to them as a part of our submission to the Lord. Who of us in our right mind would contend that we are worthy of being submitted to? Since only God is worthy of our ultimate submission, we run the risk of a kind of idolatry if submission to another is not a direct consequence of our being submitted to Him. In that context, an act of submission becomes a manifestation of trust in God, and not primarily in the human being to whom secondary submission is being rendered. Accordingly, those being submitted to are given instructions focusing on their need of humility, sensitivity, and a special awareness of the awesome responsibility connected with the position that God has allowed them to occupy. The next principle shifts the spotlight from the submitters to the people exercising authority.

  1. New Testament admonitions to submit are balanced by instructions to those being submitted to, urging them to act with tenderness, compassion, and loving care toward those under their authority, seeking always to build them up and affirm their value, and never to exercise authority in a demeaning or self-exalting way (Eph. 5:21-33; 6:1-9; Col. 3:18-4:1; I Tim. 6:17-19; James 5:1-6; I Pet 3:7-8; 5:1-3)

The most detailed and emphatic teaching of this sort is to husbands, coming after an unambiguous admonition to wives to submit to their husbands (stated twice--Eph. 5:22, 24). Taken out of context, this adminition is often seen as a liability for wives and a license for husbands; it is neither, as the subsequent instructions to husbands make clear:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Eph. 5:25-28)

As a preacher friend of mine tells couples he counsels, for a husband to be the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church means that, like Christ, the husband is to be first in line for the cross; or as C. S. Lewis refers to it in his marvelous little book, The Four Loves (in the chapter entitled "Eros"), if the husband wears a crown, it is a crown of thorns. Far from authorizing a man to demand and enforce the submission of his wife, Paul instructs the husband to give himself up for his wife as did Christ for the church, even going so far as to cover her faults, if necessary, in order to present her "without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless" (Eph. 5:27). That doesn't sound like a license to be lord and master in any worldly sense of the exercise of power.

In I Peter 3:7 is another balancing command to husbands, following six verses on wifely submission beginning, "Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands"; the writer continues, "Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers." The next verse, moreover, is another admonition to mutual submission: "Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers [and sisters], be compassionate and humble" (I Pet. 3:8). The rationale here is that the husband is to be especially considerate of his wife because of her societal and physical vulnerability to being abused, and respectful of her because she is a "partner" and is as much an heir of God's kingdom as he is. Describing wives as "the weaker partner" does not imply any kind of inferiority of intelligence or character or ability, for in these areas women often prove to be superior to their husbands, and even to men in general; but rather it refers to physical, emotional, and social vulnerability. It would seem evident that the ease with which women have been mistreated by men throughout history indicates that they are in many ways inherently at a disadvantage in dealing with men, from having less physical strength to their function in the structure of the family, in which their special responsibility for the bearing and nurturing of children creates the need of special support in these activities. In our own society, the large number of single mothers shows the susceptibility of women to being abandoned.  So the obligation of the husband as set forth in this passage is to be especially aware of how his physical, emotional, and social advantage needs to be used for his wife's benefit and support (not for boosting his ego), so that both of them can experience shared and unhindered prayers as fellow-heirs of the Kingdom of God (3:7).

I have concentrated on the counter-balanced divine instructions to wives and husbands both because they are the most detailed of such instructions and because there is so much misunderstanding and controversy surrounding them. But the principle of mutual submission is reinforced in the New Testament teaching regarding other relationships in which power might be (and often is) exercised in an ungodly way. Immediately following the husband-wife passage in Ephesians are two such teachings (which are also set forth in the same pattern in Col. 3:18-4:1):

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honor your father and mother"--which is the first commandment with a promise -- "that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth." Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Eph. 6:1-9)

Even though children are unequivocally instructed to obey their parents, and elsewhere parents are given the charge to require such obedience, there is nevertheless the caution to fathers (as those ultimately responsible for enforcing parental authority) not to "exasperate" their children, but, "instead," to "bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord." Training and instruction are processes that require patience and understanding, and whatever firmness may be required to keep children at the task of learning, they are always to be encouraged and valued in such a way as to engender and build on the hope that they are both capable of learning and worth the trouble of teaching. Any heavy-handed use of authority that would demean them or deprive them of hope (or embitter and discourage them, as in Col. 3:21) is prohibited. In the slave-master relationship, masters are to eschew the impersonal and devaluing treatment ("Do not threaten them") that might be tolerated or even expected in the worldly view of things, but that has no place in the Body of Christ, since slave and master stand as equals before God.

Abuse of the poor by the rich is scorchingly attacked in the book of James (2:5-7; 5:1-5), and, in a more positive way, the rich are encouraged by Paul to act responsibly and generously with the wealth and power that God has given them (I Tim. 6:17-19). Even the duly appointed spiritual leaders of the Body of Christ are not to "lord it over" those in their charge, but are to be examples to the flock (I Pet. 5:2-3).



Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

What’s a Body to Do? (Part 1)

(The following is the first part of an article I wrote several years ago that I think goes along with my recent thoughts on preserving and cultivating harmony between Christian brothers and sisters.  The remaining three parts of the article will be posted in succeeding weeks.)


“What’s a Body to Do?”

The Example and Teaching of Jesus

Tensions and conflicts within social organizations develop because people have desires and objectives that clash with each other. Because different groups and individuals feel that they have an absolute right to satisfy those desires and pursue those objectives, even at the expense of others, the outcome of such conflicts is usually determined by which group or individual most effectively exercises power over the others. In one vein of worldly wisdom, this enforcement of a hierarchy is the only way to bring order to the society. There is another vein of worldly wisdom, however, that is less cynical, and that, indeed, expresses a kind of egalitarian idealism, based on the humanistic principle that "all men [read 'people'] are created equal" and "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" as individuals. This Enlightenment ideal, soaringly and memorably expressed in our country's Declaration of Independence and associated with the throwing off of tyranny, has evolved in our society into a kind of free-standing, self-validating individualism that trumps every other value and concern. Although the principle of individual rights is generally seen as a noble challenge to the raw exercise of arbitrarily established power, its dominance poses a serious challenge to God's way of dealing with relationships between people in the church, the Body of Christ. God makes no apology for speaking of His people as His Kingdom, with an absolute ruler and subjects who are to submit completely to His authority and will. But how are we to deal with this uncompromising terminology for the society of God's people and the biblical principles that are drawn from it in an age where individual freedom and rights are assumed to be unchallengeable ideals? And how are the concepts of servanthood, obedience, and submission which are central to the New Testament church to be implemented without compromising the worth of individuals, which is also a vital part of the Gospel message?

An organism, not an organization

Perhaps close to the core of the problem is that the designation "church" has been attached to Christian societies in such a way as to define them as primarily political entities; it seems rather natural to speak of "Church polity," but it is awkward to speak of "Body polity." There is certainly nothing wrong with the word "church"--it is a biblical term that describes the aggregate of those who belong to Christ—but the word has been appropriated and applied in ways that picture the church primarily as an organization, and not as the organism it truly is, i.e., the Body of Christ. I think it is necessary to emphasize the Church as Body in order to correct the impression that the dynamic of politics that obtains in human social organizations is appropriate and applicable to the Body of Christ. Within Christ’s Body, people relate to one another according to the model of their Master and King, and not according to the wisdom of the world.

Let me set out first what I see to be the implications of New Testament teaching on relationships in the Body of Christ for dealing with the seemingly contradictory principles of hierarchy and submission to authority, on the one hand; and assertions of the equality of all Christians on the other.   In Part 2 of this article, I will make some applications of this teaching to practical difficulties commonly experienced in the Body of Christ, based on the primary principles in the headings below.  I shall begin, though, with the foundation truth upon which all of those applications are built:

Jesus is the model for free and positive submission and obedience.

When the boy Jesus was found in the Temple by his parents after a three-day search, he gently chided them for not knowing that they would find Him there; but afterward, "He went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them" (Luke 2:51). Even this early, He established the practice of being in voluntary submission in a circumstance where He had more understanding than those who had temporary authority over Him. I wonder if Jesus didn't find it increasingly incongruent to be under the governance of Mary and Joseph.   Although they had been chosen for their dedication to God, they were subject to human limitations which must have been apparent to Jesus as He grew up.  His obedience in this situation must have been preparation for the profound obedience to His Father in Heaven which, the writer of Hebrews tells us (Heb. 5:7-10), He had to learn through suffering, even though He was the Son of God.

Toward the end of His ministry on earth, Jesus had occasion to demonstrate graphically to His disciples the lesson of achieving greatness through being a servant. Having already remonstrated with them about their competing for superior position in God's Kingdom (see Matt. 20:24-28), He gave an object lesson at the Last Supper to underline His previous statement that "whoever wants to be first must be your slave--just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve"  (Matt. 20:27-28).  John tells us that

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him!  When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them. "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (John 13:3-5, 12-17)

The contrast between what Jesus was (the almighty Son of God) and what He voluntarily became (a servant to sinful mankind) is strikingly spotlighted in the prelude to the foot washing scene, which states that He was acutely aware "that the Father had put all things under his power." The fleshly mind finds it hard to understand and accept Jesus's lesson here: that voluntary submission to others in servanthood is not an act of weakness, but of strength; not a surrendering of individual worth, but an affirmation of it in a more profound way than any human exercise of power and prerogative could establish.

Jesus's final act of submission came in the Garden of Gethsemane, when He prayed to be delivered from the bitter cup that He was about to drink, but ended with the words, "Yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matt. 26:39). As Paul says in Philippians, though Jesus was one with God, He

did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death --even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:6-11)

Thus, Jesus's voluntary submission to the will of the Father, and His humble and obedient servanthood, led to the fulfillment of God's plans for Him and for mankind: that Jesus Christ be exalted and honored as God's anointed King and the savior of the world. Even at the end of time and the eternal consummation of all things, Jesus will "be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all" (I Cor. 15:28). He is both our model of positive servanthood and obedience, and the One who enables those who follow His example to experience the fulfillment of God's purposes in their lives--to be exalted in God's way, not in the way of the world.

The life of Jesus, then, is the foundation of biblical teaching on submission, and from this foundation flow several other theoretical principles of Body life.



Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

TThere Ain’t Nothin’ Like Love

The title above reflects a sentiment that has for centuries been ubiquitously expressed in the popular songs and literature of Western societies.  But the "love" referred to is associated much more with Cupid than with God.  Love as the world defines it has to do overwhelmingly with the exhilarating whirlwinds of sexual attraction and desire, whereas God's love, magnificently presented in I Cor. 13, addresses the totality of human experience.  After 1 Cor. 12, on the misuse of God's gifts of the Spirit, Paul launches into a concise, almost poetic meditation on Transcendent Love (agape), saying, "I will show you a more excellent way" than the petty competition to prove who is most spiritual (1 Cor. 12:31).

He begins his beautiful poetic-prose meditation on Divine Love with a comprehensive catalogue of spectacular spiritual gifts that are of no profit without the enabling grace of that Love.

If I speak in the tongues of me and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but I have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  (I Cor. 13:1-3)

No humanly willed virtue, nor even the exercise of a divinely granted gift has significance within itself, but can draw its value only from being grounded in the Love of God.  The carnal Corinthians have been emphasizing uses of their gifts that draw attention to themselves, but Paul wants to show that no matter how spectacularly "successful" they are in the exercise of their gifts, that success is empty unless its purpose is to be a transmitter of the transcendent Love that Jesus showed supremely in His death on the cross.

How are we to recognize this love that trumps the most notable good deeds that can be imagined?   Paul follows up on his astounding statement by (1) giving a down-to-earth picture of what Love does and does not do and (2) showing that of all virtues, only Love endures past this world into eternity.  The characteristics of Love are catalogued in verses 4-7.  The first two items are overarching, comprehensive qualities (patience and kindness) that rule out six specific negative behaviors and cultivate a vital positive one.  The six negative behaviors are all self-centered and injurious to others: arrogance, rudeness, selfish insistence, irritability, resentment, and fault-finding. The vital positive behavior generated by patience and kindness is rejoicing in truth.  This might not seem at first to be so very important, but it springs from a key attitude of the Christian mind, that is, seeking and embracing truth even when it is painful to know and accept, in contrast to cherishing falseness and error when it is to our advantage.

The statement in verse 8 that “love never ends” begins Paul’s assertion that the day will come when all of our experience of God, even faith and hope, will be folded into His Love, just as the Son will one day, at the end of God’s work with this world, yield back to the Father the authority given Him through the Incarnation, so that “God may be all in all”  (I Cor. 15:28).  Faith and hope in that day will find all that they looked forward to has become eternal reality and they will no longer be necessary.  But Divine Love, which is the very nature of God, will never find its limits, for it will continue forever to be the quality that binds all beings together in a fellowship that will never be broken.  All purposes since the Creation of the world have been leading toward the participation of God’s children in that state of Eternal Love.  We will then know truly that “There ain’t nothin’ like love.”



Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Summary of Chapter 5, “The Evaluative Aspect of Divine Love,” of The Love of God: A Canonical Model by John Peckham


As Peckham progresses in his evaluation of the remaining canonically informed aspects of divine love, he continues by delineating its evaluative component. In an attempt to strike a scripturally-based position over and above the transcendent-voluntarist and immanent-experientialist models, Peckham begins by voicing his dissatisfaction with their understanding of God’s love and its evaluative nature. While the former position holds that God is incapable of ever benefitting or taking pleasure from his creation (rendering his love thoroughly gratuitous), the latter holds that God feels everything along with the world as he is intimately connected to everything in it and depends on it for his essence. In contrast, Peckham argues that God’s love is evaluative, not because he is essentially united to creatures, but because he freely chooses to love in this way.

Objections Addressed

There are three main objections to this theory that Peckham must address if he is to defend his canonical model. First, there are those who emphasize God’s perfection to the extent that they believe he cannot receive value (as he is already completely valuable). Peckham calls this the theo-ontological objection. To these Peckham calls attention to the myriad of passages that suggest God is capable of being pleased with his creatures. John Piper and Anders Nygren have to assume a metaphorical interpretation of these copious passages and in the place of more literal meanings provide more figurative alternatives. To be sure, Piper and Nygren go to these efforts to protect the self-sufficiency and glorious perfection of God; however, Peckham reminds them that his foreconditional-reciprocal model allows God his sovereignty in freely choosing to be affected by his created world as he pleases.

The second objection states that pure love never receives, but only gives. Those who hold this view insist that receiving love and its derivative values is ultimately selfish and that this is unbecoming of a perfect God. However, what of those passages that affirm self-love? This moral objection to Peckham’s model is shown not to be based on canonical data as much as on a false dichotomy that pits altruism against self-interest. Is it not possible that in acting for the good of others, God is serving himself and vice versa? The two cannot be so easily divided. In fact, one cannot even responsibly imagine a world in which pure and pervasive altruism works in any practical way.  Rather, the world that God created was willed by him to include love that is both self-interested and others-centered in that the unselfish self-interest of genuine love includes the best interests of all others.

One final objection Peckham must address is one he calls the anthropological objection. This objection holds that humans are incapable of generating value or eliciting God’s delight. In other words, mankind is so far below the divine that nothing men or women can do can elicit God’s praise. However, this position does not take into consideration the semantic overlap that exists between both Old and New Testament words pertaining to love, delight, pleasure, approval, and acceptance. Not only that, but in many places, God is shown to enjoy his people and care for them more deeply than, for example, the birds. While Peckham agrees that the sinfulness of humans makes it impossible for us to generate value independently of God, he directs attention to the mediation of Christ through which even the most meager offerings of humans can be acceptable and pleasing to God by faith.

Questions Answered

Is divine love essentially self-sacrificial?

Similar to what Peckham addressed earlier about selfishness, many believe that the highest virtue of love involves self-sacrifice. Why, if this is the greatest virtue, does it not make sense then to assume this of God at all times? The answer can be most completely addressed when one considers the nature of the world. Christ’s self-sacrifice, for which he is most famous, is necessary in the world as it presently exists because of an intrusion of evil.

Not only that, but it would not make ontological sense for God to sacrifice everything about himself for the sake of the world as everything that exists is contingent on his existence. Some might argue that any sense of self in God is unbecoming as it would mean he acts in self-interest; however, it is this very [unselfish] self-interest, according to Peckham, that renders any sacrifice God makes possible and even more incredible. If God possessed no interests in and of himself, what could, one might ask, he sacrifice in the first place?

[Editor’s Note: C. S. Lewis argued, in The Problem of Pain, that self-giving touches “a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being. For the Eternal Word also gives Himself in sacrifice; and that not only on Calvary. For when he was crucified He ‘did that in the wild weather of His outlying provinces which He had done at home in glory and gladness’. From before the foundation of the world He surrenders begotten Deity back to begetting Deity in obedience. And as the Son glorifies the Father, so also the Father glorifies the Son…. From the highest to the lowest, self exists to be abdicated and, by the abdication, becomes the more truly self, to be thereupon yet the more abdicated, and so forever.”]

Does God only love the worthy?

How God’s love is especially applied to the righteous reiterates its evaluative nature even more. Surely, while passages like John 3:16 and others teach that God loves everyone, it is equally true that God is also, at the same time, displeased by universal evil, and finally saves only those who accept his love. How can these ideas be true at the same time? Peckham demonstrates that God is able to love unworthy human beings by temporarily suspending judgment. Though humans do not deserve God’s love, the extremely negative judgments they do deserve are, at present, significantly tempered by his patience and grace which responds with delight when people repent and exercise faith (resulting in salvation).

How is God justified in loving human beings?

However, how is a perfect God able to get away with loving humans in spite of their multitudinous imperfections? The answer exists in two parts. First, God wills to bestow his prevenient grace and foreconditional love upon the world, rendering, as described above, the possibility for people to repent. Second, when imperfect people do repent, Christ’s mediation is able to make up for the deficiencies of those who are in Christ by faith (Romans 8:1). In other words, God makes it possible for people to desire God and, when they do, Jesus makes up the difference. This difference will continue to be satisfied until the eschaton in which the temporary and partial suspension of the effects of evaluation will be over and those in Christ will be glorified. This will successfully render them worthy of God’s positive evaluation.

Conclusions Reached

According to Peckham’s canonically-informed foreconditional-reciprocal model, God not only evaluates his creatures, but he both delights in and is displeased by them. This he does, not because he is in any way dependent on his creation, but because he chooses to love in this way. The system God has put in place has suspended deserved wrath for the time being in an effort to give people a chance to accept his prevenient grace and love. When people do so, Christ’s mediation renders them objects of God’s special and saving affection—an affection that will ultimately result in glory forever.


Image: "The Prodigal Son" By Pompeo Batoni - [1], Public Domain,

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,

John Peckham, summary of Chapter 3, “Agape Verses Eros?: The Biblical Semantics of Divine Love,” from The Love of God: A Canonical Model

Before setting out to delineate the love of God by means of its consistent and wide-ranging attributes as supported in the Canon, Peckham decides first to address the issues surrounding the polysemy and multivalency of the word “love” as it appears in the Scriptures. In so doing, Peckham confronts an exegetical fallacy that unfortunately pervades both popular and, in some cases, academic scholarship concerning theologically charged verbiage in general and “love” in particular. This fallacy is known by Grant Osborne as the lexical fallacy and/or the illegitimate totality transfer and identified by D. A. Carson in his discussion on problems surrounding synonyms and componential analysis. In both of these presentations and in that of Peckham’s, it is concluded that the entire semantic range of any word should not be read into every occurrence of the aforementioned term nor should a particular meaning/nuance in one context be thrust on all other contexts containing the same locution.

Proving this to be true of the word “love” in its many forms (agape, eros, phileo, etc.) is fruitful for Peckham’s broader argument for two reasons. First, if Peckham cannot demonstrate that there is at least some semantic overlap between different canonical terms for love, then he might be required to treat each individual term to its own robust study. Second, proving that there is at least some lexical and semantic parallelism between different terms for love from the beginning will allow Peckham to move more freely within the Canon toward an understanding of divine love without becoming too preoccupied with unnecessary and overly particular lexical exercises which, as mentioned above, have the potential of yielding fallacious conclusions.

The Theological Inflation of Agape over Eros

Perhaps the most popular distinction drawn in this discussion is between agape and eros in which those like Anders Nygren argue that agape pertains to a unilateral beneficence limited to the realm of God’s own volition while eros describes an emotional, acquisitive, and desirous love witnessed within the human race. However as Peckham reveals, agape is used in the Scriptures both positively and negatively to convey a host of meanings ranging from the holy love of God (connotations more in keeping with popular ideas about agape) to fleeting lusts (which is more in keeping with common considerations of eros). Therefore, what Peckham is able to demonstrate seems to undermine the conclusions of Nygren and others of his ilk.

That said, Peckham does concede that with divine agency, the agapao word group only refers to perfect, virtuous love, but not in a lexically limited way. Instead God’s agape love in many contexts involves conditions, evaluations, emotion, and reciprocity. Therefore, to delimit agape to the perfect and yet cold volition of God is to rob it of its nuance, biblically rooted connotations, and the subsequent implications thereof.

The Theological Inflation of Agape over Phileo

A similar phenomenon is witnessed in considerations of agape alongside phileo. Those wearing lexical blinders often conclude that while agape speaks of Christian love witnessed between God and man, phileo connotes a friendly and therefore inferior kind of love that is given and reciprocated between two equals in a relationship. Many in favor of this distinction point to the conversation recorded in John 21 between Jesus and Peter for support.

However, as Peckham points out, the meanings associated with these two terms in the New Testament overlap in nearly every respect as both describe the Father’s love for the Son, God’s love for his disciples, Jesus’ love for sinners, mankind’s love for Christ, human love for other humans, and love of one’s own life. Additionally, similar conditions are often involved in contexts containing both agape and phileo, as are emotions and reciprocity.

For the reasons described above, Peckham concurs with Carson in concluding that there is no biblically supported rule that ultimately or completely isolates agape love to the realm of God and limits his affection to volitional and emotionless beneficence. The best proof of this is witnessed in the obvious semantic overlap between agape, eros, and phileo.

The Wider Semantics of Love in the Scripture

The same can be said of words used for “love” in the Old Testament. For instance אָהֵב (the forerunner of agape) with divine agency always connotes perfect love. With this in mind, Eugene Merrill (as Nygren has done with agape) delimits אָהֵב to a unilaterally willed and unconditional kind of love—the kind demonstrated most succinctly in arbitrary election. However, Peckham argues that while love might serve as a basis for election, the two are not pure synonyms. In fact, according to Old Testament usage, אָהֵב is evaluative rather than the result of arbitrary choice. Elsewhere, God expects אָהֵב from human beings (albeit not symmetrically) for having bestowed אָהֵב on them.  Not only that, but Peckham shows that אָהֵב is decidedly emotional in certain contexts as well.

חסד ( “steadfast love and mercy”) is also understood by many to be relatively singular in meaning—denoting the relational love of God that allows for his loyalty and mercy. However, even this term is multifaceted. Occurring primarily in contexts dealing with God’s covenant with His people, חסד includes a voluntary (volitional) act toward another that is unmerited and yet not altogether unconditional (as it may be forfeited and withdrawn). חסד also naturally assumes responsiveness from those to whom it is bestowed (reciprocity).

Finally, רחמ (and New Testament counterparts pertaining to compassionate love) is also teaming with potential meanings and nuances. Though primarily רחמ is used in referring to intense emotional love, its reception is often described in the Old Testament as contingent on the maintenance of an ongoing divine-human relationship (foreconditional).


Peckham has thus been able to demonstrate that biblical words for love are not nearly as distinct as they are often presumed to be and that they share many of the same attributes (volition, evaluation, emotion, forecondition, and reciprocation)—especially in contexts dealing with God’s love for the world. This study is well positioned to develop its understanding of divine love on a canonical level without having to delimit itself to or preoccupy itself with overly reductionist lexical studies.


Image: By Joan de Joanes -, Public Domain

John Peckham, summary of Chapter 2, “Toward Addressing the Conflict: A Canonical Approach,” of The Love of God: A Canonical Model

Having delineated the disjunction and subsequent impasse between the transcendent-voluntarist and immanent-experientialist models of divine love in chapter one, Peckham continues his work by describing the means by which he has arrived at his canonical alternative. Instead of presupposing a robust ontology and moving toward an understanding of love, the author instead presupposes a sophisticated view of Scripture and then considers what it elucidates about divine love in light of Scripture’s principal character—Christ.

As in any argument, the canonical approach employed for understanding divine love (as endorsed by Peckham) is well within its epistemic rights to select its starting point a priori. Taking advantage of what is allowed on epistemic grounds, the canonical approach in this work endorses the following foundation: (1) a robust view of revelation, (2) a dual-authorship understanding of the produced text, and (3) a primarily grammatical-historical hermeneutic (although Peckham’s iteration of this concept is sympathetic to how any one text fits into the entire Canon). These endorsements reveal that the canonical approach promulgated in this work desires to uncover what about divine love is depicted in the text. Additionally, what is sought is not what any one passage has to offer on the matter, but what the Canon reveals as a whole.

This decision is in keeping with what is encouraged by many hermeneutical scholars who believe that much of what is reached on an interpretive level depends on context. Reaching a responsible understanding of a passage/topic requires an investigation of the immediate context (i.e. the passages that surround the verse/idea in question) for anything that might offer aid in interpretation. Better, continue the analysis by observing how the verse/topic fits into the argument of the book in which it is placed. What is even better is exploring how a verse or passage comports with other passages in the Canon that deal with the same concept or contain similar language. Investigating a topic as broad as the love of God merits (and even demands) an approach that extends this kind of contextual analysis Canon-wide because it is only in the purview of the entire Scriptural account that something as pervasive and significant as God’s affections can be properly informed and elucidated.

Peckham’s canonical approach assumes that in spite of its plurality of authors and contexts, Scripture was written in a single vein that informed, guided, and even corrected the human participants in the writing process.  In other words, the Canon itself has a direction and objectivity to it that is greater than the sum of all of its parts.

Additionally, Peckham’s program is sympathetic to hermeneutical critical realism (i.e. that meaning exists before interpretation). However, his hermeneutic pushes exegesis beyond any specific text and toward an interpretation of the entire Canon. Such an approach is able to appreciate both the rich nuance of any text along with its meaningful relationship to the rest of Scripture and its history. Put another way, the canonical approach described above is characteristic of both phenomenological exegesis (considering interpretations which mean something on both a specific and canonical level) and hermeneutical exegesis (considering the philological and historical dimensions of the exegetical method).

These commitments keep Peckham from missing the forest for the trees and losing the trees among the forest. As much as possible, Peckham is trying to understand love by means of applicable texts (bottom up), while simultaneously analyzing these texts alongside each other given their relationship to canonical and historical considerations (top-down).

Although while interpreting data exegetes and theologians are encouraged to cancel out all previously inherited theories and/or presuppositions that could in some way color the text, the canonical approach delineated here is honest about its commitment to an orthodox view of revelation, authorship, and a singularly focused canonical framework that is only fully appreciated when both phenomenological and hermeneutical investigations are allowed to transpire. Peckham chooses to presuppose this over and above a sophisticated ontology. Instead of beginning in the realm of systematic theology and understanding Scripture in light of well-organized systems, he chooses to begin with the raw data, correctly interpreted, and then proceeds to build a canonically sound view of divine love.

One of the concessions that Peckham makes before proceeding is that this work is not prepared to report an exhaustive analysis of every passage on divine love along with its meaning and relationship to the entire Canon. Therefore, the analysis will be in large part feature a report of the trends discovered following a more exhaustive exercise conducted before this work was produced. One of the means by which the raw data was limited for the purposes of this project involved delimiting God’s love to his concern for the world. This naturally establishes Jesus Christ as a special subject worth careful consideration as he is the very incarnation of God in general and God’s love in particular.

For Peckham, it is not just the Canon, but the Christ of the Canon that reveals God primarily and his love especially. Therefore, with the Canon as the body of data and Christ as the example par excellence discovered therein, this canonical approach is able to yield an understanding of the love of God that is more sophisticated than both the transcendental-voluntarist model and the immanent-experientialist model.

In a preview of coming attractions, Peckham concludes this chapter by outlining several specific attributes of God’s love resulting from the canonical approach described in this chapter: (1) volition, (2) evaluation, (3) emotion, (4) forecondition, and (5) reciprocity. These will be delineated in future summaries.

Image: By Carl Bloch -, Public Domain,


Interview with John C. Peckham: Author of The Love of God: A Canonical Model

It’s a real treat and privilege to introduce a new regular contributor to 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).

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. You posit in your book a foreconditional-reciprocal model of divine love with five aspects. Can you briefly introduce those five aspects?
John Peckham 

John Peckham 

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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!

John C. Peckham

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.

Podcast: David Baggett on the Love of God and the Doctrine of Election

This week we will be talking again with Dr. David Baggett, co-author of Good God and professor of apologetics at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, about the doctrine of election and the love of God. Besides the main topic, we will hit on a number of related issues, like love and the necessity of free will, and the role that philosophy ought to play (if any) in interpreting the Bible. Most of this discussion takes place with a critique of Calvinism. Because conversations like these can be so divisive, Dr. Baggett wanted to give a brief statement to explain his motivation and to set the tone for the discussion. Here's the statement:

I hope nothing here causes any discord or division; they’re just some reflections I have about the nature of God as essentially loving and what that seems to imply, and to my thinking they comport with the best biblical exegesis available, though I don’t claim to be a biblical scholar. To me this focus on God’s essentially loving nature seems a crucial part of moral apologetics, but I really do sincerely hope that those who may disagree with me on some of these issues don’t take any offense. It’s surely not intended. Christians of diverse stripes agree on much more than what they disagree about, and as Lewis once said, sometimes one of our disagreements is the importance of our disagreements. At times I’ve overstated the differences, and regret that, but here it’s my intention just to lay out how I see things, how some of the pieces fit together, and folks can do with it as they will. And if they disagree, that’s fine. There’s mental space and ample prerogative to do so, and I won’t be offended. But irrespective of our differences, as believers we all need to learn to love one another, and I only hope what I say here contributes to that rather than detracts from it. These discussions are important, but we’ve got to strive to avoid their becoming needlessly divisive.

Photo: "God's Open Door Church (air conditioned) by Tom Hart. CC License. 

Podcast: Dr. Brian Scalise on the Doctrine of God and the Ethics of Love in Islam and Christianity

This week on the podcast, we are continuing a discussion with Dr. Brian Scalise. Dr. Scalise has written his dissertation on the different views of God in Christianity and Islam. Important differences for our view of love and ethics follow from the different views of God in each religion. When we build a worldview from the notion that God is absolutely one with no distinction, as in Islam, we get a deficient ethic and view of love. The Christian trinity, on the other hand, provides a robust foundation for a substantive morality and understanding of love. Since God is one nature with three persons, it turns out that God essentially loves others. And it is this key difference that we will be exploring this week. Dr. Scalise will help us see the implications of this difference by pointing out that the highest command in Christianity is to love the Lord while, in Islam, the highest command is to submit to Allah. We’ll also touch briefly on Islam and the Euthyphro Dilemma. Photo: "Islam" by E. Musiak. CC License.