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Part 1 of of my discussion of this series by D. A. Carson can be found here.
I recently read an article by D. A. Carson titled “God is Love.” I strongly commend the article to you, especially to those who believe God is absolutely impassible (without emotion and/or does not react emotionally). You can find Carson’s full article here (pdf). I’ve provided a summary below, followed by my response. You can also find Carson’s book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God here for free (pdf).
Carson, D. A. “God is Love.” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (April-June 1999): 131-142.
Twice John writes in His first letter, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). The biblical writers present God’s love as praiseworthy, but what does “God is love” mean? To start, we should not assign the love of God to a particular word-group.
God’s love cannot be tied in any univocal way to the agapao word-group. First, there are excellent diachronic reasons in Greek philosophy to explain the rise of the agapao word-group, so one should not rush too quickly toward theological explanations. Second, even in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament used in Jesus’ day) it is far from clear that the agapao word-group always refers to the more noble, less emotional forms of love. For example 2 Samuel 13 speaks of Amnon incestuously raping his half-sister Tamar saying that he loved her—a vicious act, transparently sexual, emotional, and violent—and both agapao and phileo are used. Third, in John’s Gospel we learn that the Father “loves” the Son (John 3:35; 5:20). In the first occurrence, agapao is used, but in the second occurrence, phileo is used. It is impossible to distinguish between the two. Paul also writes that Demas has loved (agapao) this evil world, which is a strange word choice if it refers to willed self-denial for the sake of others. Fourth, since agapao and phileo have different semantic ranges, a subtle distinction can always be made, but this reality has no bearing on any concrete passage. Fifth, just as the English word “love” can be used in a variety of ways and the surrounding context defines and delimits the meaning, the context defines and delimits the verbs meaning “to love” in holy Scripture. Sixth, Christian love (agape) in 1 Corinthians 13 cannot be reduced to willed care for others. After all, even believers may give their bodies to be burned or give all they have to feed the poor—both willed acts of self-denial for others—without love. Therefore, Christian love is not equivalent to willed altruism. Seventh, I suspect that the understanding of agapao as willed emotionless love with commitment to the other’s good has been influenced by schoolmen and theologians in the past who affirmed the impassibility of God. The point here is that to begin to understand the nature of the love of God requires something more penetrating than methodologically flawed words studies.
In light of these conclusions, we must proceed in exegesis with great concern for context and the unfolding of redemption history. As an example, I’ll spend some time examining the intra-Trinitarian love of God in John 5:16-30. In John 5:8 we learn that Jesus healed a paralytic at the pool on the Sabbath, and then told him to take up his mat and walk. Jewish scholars, trying to clarify the Mosaic prohibition of work on the Sabbath, developed various rules of conduct, including the prohibition against carrying any burden outside one’s domicile, and carrying any burden higher than one’s shoulder, even at home. The Jews disapproved because these things were done on the Sabbath (John 5:16). Jesus could have replied disputing about the rules of conduct, the lack of detail of the Mosaic law, the lack of earned wages by Jesus or the man, etc. These things would have been debated, but Jesus would not have been charged with blasphemy. Jesus, instead, replied, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working” (John 5:17).
Two background features must be understood in order to grasp the implications of Christ’s claim: 1) “Sonship” is very often a functional category in the Bible, which means that sons often did what their fathers did. Thus, by Jesus claiming that His Father is working to this day, He is implicitly claiming to be God’s Son with the right to follow His Father’s pattern. 2) First-century Jewish authorities debated whether God kept the Sabbath. The dominant group believed God transcended the Sabbath since He is bigger than the universe and never raises anything above His own shoulders. God, of course, works in a providential manner on the Sabbath, but does no work that violates the Sabbath. Yet, Jesus claims the right to work on the Sabbath. God can work on the Sabbath because of His transcendence, but by Jesus claiming the right to work on the Sabbath, He was claiming a right only God possessed. Jesus “was even calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God” (John 5:18).
Almost certainly, the Jews thought Christ was setting Himself up parallel with God. Jesus replies with the raw stuff of Christian monotheism. First, Jesus denies that He is setting Himself over against God as an alternative. He is entirely dependent on the Father and subordinate to Him (John 5:19). Indeed, Jesus grounds His functional subordination in His claim to coextensive action with His Father. This makes His Sonship unique. Second, the Son does everything the Father does because the Father loves the Son and shows Him all He does (John 5:20). Third, since Jesus is always obedient to His Father, all of Jesus’s actions work to reveal God perfectly. Because the Father loves the Son, the Father is self-disclosed in the Son. Fourth, the Son loves the Father, always doing what pleases Him (John 8:29, 14:31). Fifth, Jesus says that His Father loves Him, a love manifest in the Father’s showing the Son all He does (John 5:20a). The Father will show the Son even greater things than those things Jesus has already done. Just as the Father raises the dead, even so the Son gives life to whom He is pleased to give it (John 5:20b-21). Jesus was different than the human agents God used in the past to resuscitate someone, for the Father has “shown” Christ this, and Jesus raises the dead as He pleases, just as the Father does.
In conclusion, first, some have argued that the label “the Son” is rightly attached to only the incarnate Word, not to the preincarnate Word. John 5:16-30 is used to support this notion, but there are several points that need to be noted: 1) The Son does whatever the Father does, which must include creation. Thus, in addition to the Father “showing” the Son things in eternity past, the Father also “showed” Him things step by step in His incarnate state, which served as the precise trigger for what Jesus in the days of His flesh actually did, and when. 2) The obvious reading of John 3:17 is that God sent His Son into the world to save it. Just as the Word is preexistent (John 1:1, 14), “the Son” should be viewed as an alternative appellation for the Word (John 3:17). 3) According to John 5:26, the Son’s Sonship is an eternal grant from the Father. 4) In some passages Jesus addresses God as Father, and thus implicitly thinks of Himself as Son. This is especially seen in John 17:5: “Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” Second, the distinction between the love of the Father for the Son and the love of the Son for the Father should be carefully noted. The Father sends, tells, commissions, shows, etc. the Son and the Son obeys. Not once is there a sense where the Father submits to the Son. The Son is equal with God in substance or essence, but there is a functional subordination of the Son to the Father. Third, the intra-Trinitarian love moves from the Father’s and Son’s love to the Son’s love for His people in redemption (John 15:9). Then, Jesus tells His disciples to remain in His love by obeying His commands just as He has obeyed His Father’s commands and remains in His love (John 15:9b-10). Our relationship with Jesus is to mirror His relationship to His heavenly Father (John 17). Furthermore, we are no longer slaves, but Jesus’ friends because He has made known to us all He learned from His Father. We are the friends of God by virtue of the intra-Trinitarian love of God that so worked out in the fullness of time that the plan of redemption, conceived in the mind of God in eternity past, has exploded into space-time history at exactly the right moment.
I really appreciated Carson’s explanation of the wrong assumption that the agapao word group explains God’s love as emotionless willed concern for others. God’s love goes beyond this reality, if we are to be faithful to how Scripture describes the love of God. A cursory glance at the use of the agapao word group in Scripture reveals that there are numerous examples where emotion is clearly present. Carson is disagreeing with the classical Christian doctrine that God is impassible (does not react in an emotional way). Carson’s point is that the agapao word group does not prove God is impassible. On the contrary, the agapao word group is often associated with emotional love, sometimes even to describe wicked emotion rather than godly love. To simply argue that agapao refers to emotionless willed altruism appears to be biblically unfounded.
I also appreciated Carson’s exegesis of John 5:16-30. I was unaware of the background behind the Jewish debate concerning whether God kept the Sabbath. I had never even considered the question. The answer was even more startling that many first century Jews believed God kept the Sabbath based on His transcendence in addition to His consistent providence (which does not count as work; loophole). No wonder Jesus’s statement was considered blasphemy. He was claiming to transcend the Sabbath in the same manner as His Father does. Just as the Father was providentially caring for creation, the Son was as well. The Father is God. Jesus is God.