Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


series
What is love? Part 2: the nature of triune love

What does it mean that God is love, that he loves us, and that we are to love him? In part 2, I sketch out some of the important characteristics of God’s love.

Continued from part 1, on how we should go about answering this question

Now that we know we need to consider the nature of God to discover the nature of love, let’s see where that takes us.

Love and the Trinity

As many theologians have noted, love requires a subject (the lover) and an object (the loved). I don’t aim to show here that the subject and the object cannot be the same (ie, that one person can’t love himself); but merely that in God, they are not the same. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit, who in turn love him and each other.

This strongly affects our understanding of what love is, because the love within a triune God has characteristics which self-oriented love does not.

Let me list some of these characteristics which seem most essential to the nature of God as love. These might not always be features of any love, since love can be expressed in different ways depending on the subject and the object—but they do seem to be essential to “ultimate” love. Other types of love will only be love inasmuch as they reflect what God himself is; so while they won’t all involve every one of these characteristics, the more they do, the more “true” they will be.

Triune love is affectionate

I mention this first because it is the feature most strikingly absent from typical definitions of biblical love. They tend to make love a purely intellectual operation, which I think is because they are built on the notion that love can’t be “real” unless we can choose to avoid it (more on that later). Since we very often have no choice in how we feel, love therefore cannot be primarily about feeling.

Now, I don’t think God is subject to emotion in the same way we are. I don’t think God finds himself spontaneously feeling anything he didn’t intend to feel. Nothing can cause a change in God, so he is what theologians call impassible—he does not have passions in the sense of being emotionally volatile, or having emotions imposed upon him by another. Passions, in the theological sense, are those feelings which are caused from without. God has no feelings caused from without—but that isn’t to say he has no feelings at all. On the contrary, although human emotions are no doubt only analagous to divine emotions, it seems very clear from the Bible that these divine emotions do exist.

Love must surely be chief among these: the Father has an infinite, ineffable affection for the Son and the Spirit; and they for him and each other. It is something greater and deeper and more inexpressible than the affection a human father has for his son, or a human child for his parents; but it is nonetheless like that affection. Our human affection is derived from, or modeled on, God’s affection within the Trinity. So triune love is affectionate.

Triune love involves authority & submission

The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all God. They are in nature equal. Yet within their relationship exists a hierarchy of authority and submission. A hierarchy of roles. The Father has a right of governance, and the Son and Spirit have a duty of obedience. The Father plans and the Son and Spirit carry out. It is through these roles that triune love is expressed.

Notice how often love involves a hierarchy in human relationships. We submit to God. Wives submit to husbands; children to parents. The basic model of love God instituted in creation is the family unit. Even love among friends frequently involves a hierarchy, subtle as it may be. Some people are good leaders, and their friends defer to them when they make decisions together. Some people are wise, and their friends seek their counsel. And so on. Indeed, failing to accommodate this is one of the ways in which modern Christians, influenced by egalitarianism and individualism, are often lousy at loving one another.

Triune love is self-sacrificing

You might think I’m talking about Jesus here—but while his sacrificing himself for us is certainly a key element in understanding love, it is not itself triune love. It is not love within God; it is love between God and us. But dig back a little, and you will find triune love behind that.

What I have in mind here is simply the fact that both authority and submission involve putting another ahead of oneself. To have authority, in the Bible, means (at least) to put the interests of those beneath you before your own. That is why biblical leadership is so hard. But of course, by the same token, to submit is also to do the same thing: to give up one’s own interests for another’s. And this being the case, you can see where popular definitions of love as desiring true flourishing come from: giving up one’s interest for another’s is often very unnatural for us, and so we tend to notice it a lot.

Triune love is discriminating

God is love, but he does not love everything. Triune love is holy; it stems from each member of the Godhead being infinitely worthy of love. But holiness is an all-consuming goodness—where goodness is understood not in a fuzzy, muffins-and-puppies way, but in the “unapproachable light” way. It not only illuminates and empowers the good, but it consumes and destroys the wrong.

To put it another way, God’s triune love is one and the same thing as God’s hatred for that which opposes his character.

I mention this because it has deep ramifications for human love. Love is not indiscriminate. Human love which is not holy is a perversion of what love should be. This is something the world would have us lose sight of—that we cannot love everything, and that God does not love everything. To love the world is to hate God. To love God is to hate the world. So for example, a gay Christian who believes God approves of his homosexuality because “God is love” is in fact utterly missing the point. He does not understand love at all. His own love for another man is a perversion of what love is supposed to be (just as a heterosexual man’s love for a married woman is); and God does not love perversions of his nature which exalt a corrupt caricature of who he is.

Triune love is necessary & volitional

This is particularly important to understand if you’re a Christian who believes, or is sympathetic to, the idea that libertarian free will is the price of genuine love. Many Christians strongly believe this, though you won’t find it anywhere in the Bible. It is one of the key pillars in the colonnade of freewill theism: that if God had not given us the ability to rebel against him, we would also not have had the ability to truly love him, because love by nature must be libertarianly freely chosen.

The obvious problem with this view is that, in fact, love by nature cannot fail to exist. God cannot fail to exist; God is love; therefore, love cannot fail to exist. The Father cannot fail to love the Son, etc.

This is not to say that the Father does not choose to love the Son. But it does mean that the Father is unable to choose not to love the Son. I think love is obviously volitional; it is something that requires an act of will. Yet in God’s case—the paradigm case—the act of will is necessitated. God cannot choose otherwise. The most real kind of love is the least libertarianly free.

Triune love is unity

Augustine suggested that the Spirit is the love itself existing between Father and Son. Whether this is true or not, the ultimate nature of love is completely reciprocal. More than reciprocal, it is such a closeness of being that the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father (John 10:38; 14:10 etc); and the Godhead is three and the Godhead is one (John 10:30; 17:11 etc).

I have left this for last because it strikes me as being the very ground of love. Fundamentally, love is a relationship that makes one “unit” out of distinct persons. The characteristics I’ve described above explain how love does that; but this concept of unity explains what love ultimately is; what it is aimed at; what it achieves.

I once saw someone describe biblical love as “one-togetherness”. I think this is apt, and I will explore it further in the next part of this series.

Continued in part 3, on the nature of God’s love for us

4 comments

  1. Karl

    Since you state that you are positing “…characteristics which seem most essential to the nature of God as love,” am I correct in understanding that you take a hierarchical view of authority within the immanent trinity?

    I have a hard time avoiding the idea that if the hierarchy of authority is essential to the trinity, then the asymmetry of duties and roles would be grounded in the asymmetry of being between the persons. For, if authority over the son is an essential attribute of the father (and subordination to the father essential to son), then wouldn’t these two attributes be part of the essences of the respective persons of the trinity (and *not* the other), thus not being consubstantial?

    Great article. Love the blog.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    That is a decent question. I haven’t studied as much as I’d like into this, so take my answer with that in mind. My intuition (as I say, unstudied) is that if the Son and the Spirit eternally proceed from the Father—leaving aside the filioque!—such that the Son is like the Father’s speech, and the Spirit is like the breath which delivers it, then there does indeed appear to be a clear asymmetry between their respective beings. The Father is not generated by the Son or Spirit; it is vice versa.

    Now, it is very unclear to me that this is a problem, given that we seem to have some kind of equivocation going on in human speech when we talk about being in the first place. James Anderson has argued persuasively for this. Given that we are too epistemically impoverished to conceive of being with enough precision to parse the distinctions between Father, Son, Spirit, and God, I don’t think we’re in a position to quibble over asymmetries. I can’t see a good reason to think that asymmetry between “internal” being within the Godhead must entail non-consubstantiation with the “external” being of God.

    Of course, as I say, I am unstudied on this topic. So perhaps I’m in a Dunning-Kruger situation. I’m willing to acknowledge that possibility, and I’m glad to be schooled by someone who has examined the issue with greater depth or clarity.

  3. Karl

    Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to school very many people on this issue. But a few thoughts:

    1) As a general rule, I lean toward preserving the equality of the persons as much as I can (without diminishing the distinction of the persons). So if there’s a way to do so without losing the distinctions, then I’ll gravitate toward that. Even if it turns out that I’m wrong, I at least hope my motives are fine, and that seems like a fine motive to me.

    2) I can’t say that I’m familiar with James Anderson’s work you are referring to, though I think it might be his book on Paradox in Christian Theology(?). If so, haven’t read it. My only comment there is to say that I really want to get around to it.

    3) “Begetting/proceeding” and/or “authority/submission” would certainly be nice for providing a basis for distinguishing the persons in the ontological trinity, but I’ll just claim mystery there. The distinctions in the economic trinity are sufficient to show at a minimum that there are three distinct persons, and that’s good enough for me.

    4) Of course, if I thought there were some text(s) that evidenced a functional difference between the persons beyond the economic out-workings, I would have to cede the point.

    5) I think if “beget/proceed” is to have any meaning at all, it would seem to *at least* mean “cause” in some sense where the other person(s) would be the source. But since I want to preserve equality (without, of course, diminishing the distinctions), and since this would seem to make the son and spirit less “a se” than the father, I therefore try to avoid those conclusions. Similar, I think, for “authority/submission.”

    Beyond that, I’m looking forward to part 3 :)

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    1. Fair enough.

    2. Yes, Paradox in Christian Theology. Well worth a read.

    3. Fair enough. I think even if it turns out that authority/submission aren’t essential to the nature of God as love, they seem important; and the rest of the features of love which I have identified are unaffected anyway.

    4. I doubt there are any texts which could only be taken to show a functional distinction between the persons. At best they would suggest it. God doesn’t seem to have been concerned with giving us this kind of explicit information about himself.

    5. I prefer to avoid the “beget” language since it is based on an old misunderstanding of the etymology of monogenes. That said, on the face of it, it’s hard to imagine a way for the Son and Spirit to proceed from the Father without some kind of causation taking place. I am hesitant to repudiate that idea without some careful investigation though, because causation with reference to God is opaque at best. Intramundane causation is bad enough; trying to fathom divine causation is rather deep water. I don’t see an obvious problem for the aseity of the Son and Spirit if we say the Father timelessly causes them, given that the best we can say about the word “cause” is apophatic, and we can’t do much better for the word “timeless” (heck, it is apophatic by definition).

    I am also reminded of Proverbs 8:22ff, which plainly seems to be speaking of Jesus, where Yahweh is said to have “created” or “acquired” him as the “first of his ways, before his acts of old”. Understanding this as analogical and poetic, it still appears to be teaching that the Son is in some sense dependent on the Father. Not that there was ever a time the Son did not exist (see v 23).

    From an explanatory point of view, I am attracted to this interpretation because it seems to make the father/son relationship which God models something more than just an “act”; a condescension for our sake. It means there is something essential to God which our own family relationships are modeled on—which seems to cohere better with the strong emphasis on family both in the divine realm (viz the beney elim, sons of God) and in the human realm.

    But either way, thanks for some stimulating discussion :)

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