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The incoherent love of Jerry Walls

An example of the muddled thinking about God’s love that passes for good theology in some circles.

I was recently privy to an exchange between Arminian philosopher Jerry Walls and a couple of Calvinists. I’m going to pick out a couple of Walls’ comments because they represent the utter confusion that is part and parcel with Arminian theology.

You’d expect lay Christians to make these sorts of remarks. But it’s telling when you get the same kind of credulous, unreflective statements from people who teach philosophy at the tertiary level.

God’s supposed love for all people

Quoth Walls:

In short, to truly love someone is to desire and promote their true flourishing. The true flourishing of a human being is found in a loving/saving relationship with God that leads to eternal life.

Suppose this definition is true. God desires and acts to promote the true flourishing of all people by doing what exactly? Well, he creates huge numbers of people he knows will never accept his overtures, and will subsequently be condemned to never-ending suffering and ruin. So we need to ask some simple questions at this point:

The Arminian view of God sounds nicer than the Calvinist view—until you take a moment to think about simple questions like this. What on earth does it mean to talk about God desiring and promoting the flourishing of all people, when he manifestly fails to promote the flourishing of so many (everyone who wasn’t an Israelite in the ancient near-east, for example), and he could either do so much more, or could simply have avoided the situation in the first place?

A concrete example

Here’s a simple question: did God desire and promote the flourishing of Judas? Jesus says in Matthew 26:24 that it would have been better for Judas to never have been born. So why did God not do what was better for Judas by simply never creating him? Was Jesus mistaken? Or did God just not care that Judas would have been better off not being born?

Walls tries to weasel around these sorts of issues by promoting a belief in purgatory. Needless to say, that’s certainly not in the Bible, and isn’t even remotely orthodox Arminian doctrine—and in fact, “orthodox” Arminianism seems to lead very quickly into all kinds of errors and heresies, purgatory least among them. Open theism, for instance, is simply the key humanistic principle of Arminianism taken to its logical conclusion. Man must increase so that God may decrease. And although in the past Arminians have been all, “No, no, open theism is antithetical to Arminianism and quite unorthodox”, now they are increasingly friendly towards it. Roger Olson, the Arminian version of Superman, by his own admission thinks open theism is just one legitimate view of God within the broader Arminian tradition.

The nature of love itself

There’s a second part to the problem with Walls’ view, as demonstrated by his description of what love ultimately is:

Love is God’s very nature as a Trinity, not a sovereign choice. He necessarily loves all beings. To love is to desire true flourishing.

Now of course I agree that love is God’s very nature. But notice a couple of implications of Walls’ jejune view:

Love is not chosen

If love is not a sovereign choice—if God loves necessarily—then the entire argument that we have to freely choose to love God in order to genuinely love him is simply bogus. That’s a problem given that this argument is a key pillar in the Arminian theological colonnade; and a key reason that Arminians reject the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace. If the very nature of love, as grounded in the nature of God, is necessitated rather than free, then how can we love without being necessitated to do so? But to say that is exactly to say that Calvinism is true and Arminianism is false.

Now you could argue that the necessitated nature of God’s love is an accidental rather than essential property, and that love more generally can be libertarianly free. But even if that argument goes through—and on the face of it, it seems pretty dubious—that doesn’t show that human love must be free. Only that it may be free, if God chooses to create us that way. But given the risks involved in that, such as a sizable proportion of people choosing to reject him to their own eternal ruin, that doesn’t seem like something an all-loving God would do. It would be much safer, and no less loving, to create us so that we loved God as a matter of necessity, and thus never risked “going bad”.

So this exposes a giant, gaping, almost comical contradiction in Walls’ theology.

What does it mean for God to desire his own true flourishing?

The final point I’m going to make is simply that Walls’ definition of love is incoherent with respect to God. He repeatedly says that to love is to desire true flourishing. To desire true flourishing means to desire that the person you love will grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way; to thrive; to fare well and prosper. Yet God, in the Trinity, is infinite and wants for nothing. He cannot grow or develop; he is already infinitely fulfilled, and I don’t even know what it would mean to speak of him prospering or faring well, since that would seem to imply he could be less than infinitely fulfilled. To speak of God “flourishing” is just incoherent babble. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t mean anything.

But if God is the very essence and existence of love, and it is incoherent to speak of God desiring or promoting his own true flourishing, then it is incoherent to speak of love in those terms. By the same token, the great commandment to love Yahweh your God becomes incoherent. Love is defined in God; and when God loves, and when we love God, it does not and cannot have anything to do with desiring or promoting true flourishing. Therefore, love is not fundamentally about desiring or promoting true flourishing.

So Walls’ very definition of love is incoherent nonsense. Which explains why his theology is such garbage: it is built on the idea that God is this kind of love.

2 comments

  1. Dave

    Haven’t you also expressed elsewhere (I am thinking here: http://bnonn.thinkingmatters.org.nz/on-the-atonement-part-4/) your belief that God does, in some sense, love the reprobate and desire their salvation, but that he nonetheless has not decreed to save them?

    Thus a Calvinist might even agree, at least for the sake of argument, with Walls’ definition of love. Suppose he is right that love is “desiring true flourishing.” From that, it does not follow that love necessarily involves doing everything in one’s power to actually secure true flourishing for everybody.

    I suppose we could say that God is omnibenevolent but not MAXIMALLY benevolent.

    As Dabney says:

    “In a wise and good man, we can easily understand how a power to pardon, a sincere compassion for a guilty criminal, and yet a fixed purpose to punish, could coexist; the power and compassion being overruled by His wisdom. Why may not something analogous take place in God, according to His immutable nature?

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I think that is perfectly reasonable within Calvinism. I agree with Dabney on that point. The problem is, Arminians like Walls typically deny that God has decreed to not save anyone; or, put another way, that God has decreed to send people to hell.

    If we take Wall’s definition of love, under Calvinism that might be described in terms of God having a simple desire for the flourishing of the reprobate; a desire which is contingent on his prior plan to glorify himself by creating them for destruction (as Dabney says). So the order of desire is first to glorify himself through their reprobation, and then second to save them, simply because they are existent human beings made in his image and it is good for him to desire that also. But of course, God’s desire to save the reprobate only comes about in the first place because of his prior desire to reveal his wrath in them, and his acting upon that desire by creating them for that purpose.

    I don’t think the Bible commits us to believing God has this kind of subordinate desire, but it is sensible, and it does justice to some passages which can otherwise be awkward to understand.

    The trouble is, I don’t see how Walls could say anything remotely similar, since to do so would entail all the kinds of awful Calvinistic doctrines he repudiates—predestination, unconditional election, irresistible grace.

    That said, I still think couching love in terms of desiring to promote true flourishing is absurd, given that we can’t make sense of love from the “top down” using that definition. Ie, God’s love for himself, and our love for him, are incoherent under that definition.

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