A Review of The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God by D.A. Carson

Of the books I have read over the last 3 or 4 years there are only  a few I can distinctly look at as having caused a major shift in the way I viewed God and the Bible, one of these few is D.A. Carson’s The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. In Evangelicalism today the idea of God’s love has more often than not picked up many of its cues from secular thinking, from philosophy, and from other religions over the Scriptures that we hold as our primary functional authority. The slow erosion of the Scriptural view of God to be replaced by an eviscerated morally therapeutic god, one who is solely love, has been seen most clearly in different historical brands of liberalism,[1] but has also made its way into the thinking of many today who would call themselves evangelicals.[2] A result of this has been the taking for granted of what it means for God to love and be love (1 John 4:16), it has been taken to be an easy doctrine with which we do not need to wrestle. Against these tendencies to simplify and liberalize God’s love, against the tendency to make the God of Scripture into a god who is our therapeutic comforter looking out solely for our good as the highest end of his being, Carson delivers a short but profound examination of what Scripture has to say about the love of God. His contention is that far from being a simple and easy doctrine unravelled merely by word studies, the love of God in Scripture is complex and multi-faceted; it needs to be examined Scripturally and the Scriptural synthesis needs to be held up against the therapeutic view Christian culture has often adopted. Carson’s book is a compilation of four lectures originally delivered to Dallas Theological Seminary that centre on the theme of God’s love and skim the surface of this profound Scriptural doctrine (7). Because the chapters of his book are taken from lectures they retain a rather informal nature that makes for easy readying, especially in comparison to some of his more wordy and academic books such as Exegetical Fallacies.

 

The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God is divided into four chapters, each being derived from one of four original lectures that Carson delivered. In the first chapter, On Distorting the Love of God, Carson looks at why in fact this doctrine is a difficult one. Among the five reasons he discusses Carson identifies our cultures openness to a loving God as a source of much difficulty (9). Our culture is much more open to a God of love, like that of some New Age thinking and sci-fi culture (10-11), than a fuller picture of a God who is loving and just, merciful and wrathful.  Because of this openness it is easy and tempting to downplay the more controversial and counterculture aspects of God’s character and instead present God solely as an omnibenevolent grandfather, it is easier for the culture to see God as a friend than as a king (12). The difficulties of our cultural response to the notion of a loving God is not the only issue that Carson surveys, he also suggests that within the camp of Christianity we have to wrestle with the love of God in light of the pain and suffering we experience in this world (15). A key part of this chapter is Carson’s discussion on the 5-fold discussion Scripture gives to God’s love. Whereas when we think of God’s love we often consider it one-dimensionally, Carson identifies at least 5 ways that Scripture speaks of God’s love. These different ways are interconnected but cannot be collapsed into one; we cannot take one of them and make it the grid by which we relativize all other Scriptural discussions of God’s love (21).

The first of these is that love which the Father has for the Son (16). This particular love is one with which Carson will spend considerable time in the follow chapter, it is the intra-Trinitarian love that sets the Christian conception of monotheism apart from all other monotheistic religions (16).

The second of these loves is one which Scripture, in describing it, “veers away from using the word love” (16). Though God is not said to love in this way explicitly, Carson identifies it as a strong theme throughout Scripture (16-17).  Scripture speaks of God’s providential care over all His creation, a loving care in which He benevolently provides for and takes care of even the smallest of His creation (17, Matt. 6).

The third way Scripture speaks of God’s love is for His “salvific stance toward his fallen world” (17, emphasis in original). In this regard Carson appeals to the oft repeated John 3:16 (17).  Despite frequent attempts by some of the reformed tradition to suggest that κοσμος (kosmos, world) here means “the elect,” Carson rejects this understanding and as an alternative suggests that κοσμος here is used in the same way it used throughout John’s books. World here has in its sight the badness of the fallen world; “In John’s vocabulary, world is primarily the moral order in willful and culpable rebellion against God” (17, emphasis in original). The emphasis in this passage is not on the largeness of this world but instead on its darkness; because of this emphasis there is no way that God’s love here can be “collapsed into his love for the elect” (17).

The fourth way in which Scripture speaks of God’s love is probably the most controversial and offensive to our cultural sensibilities. In a culture where the idea of an omnibenevolent god, one who is obligated to love all men, abounds, it is offensive to suggest that God loves some more than He loves others. Carson suggests that a prominent biblical category for God’s love is His “particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect” (18, emphasis in original). To show that this is truly a biblical category Carson appeals to Scriptures which refer to God’s specific and unmerited love towards His chosen nation of Israel, a love over and above that shown to any other nation (Deut. 7:7-8, cf. 4:37; 10:14-15). Carson also appeals to the apparent discrimination in God’s love as seen in Mal. 1:2-3 (referenced in Rom. 9:13). The last example Carson gives of this love is Ephesians 5 where, in comparing the God given husband and wife roles with Christ’s relationship to His Church, Christ is said to have given up His life specifically to sanctify for Himself the Church whom He loved (5:25). Carson examines this category of God’s love in the fourth and final chapter of his book.

The final way that Carson gives in which Scripture refers to God’s love is His love that is “said to be directed toward his own people in a provisional or conditional way—conditioned, that is, on obedience” (19). We must be careful to differentiate this love from the unconditional nature of God’s love in other contexts, but with that provision Carson shows that this aspect of God’s love is a distinct category. In Jude 21 the author gives an exhortation to “Keep yourselves in God’s love”, intimating that this is a love of God that one who experiences it has the ability to not keep himself or herself in (19). This love would also appear to be seen in other Scriptures, spanning both the New and Old Covenants, such as John 15:9-10, Ex. 20:6, and Ps. 103:8 (19-20).

The last part of this first chapter Carson makes a few preliminary observations on these different ways Scripture speaks of God’s love and how we treat them. He notes that we must be careful not to compound them into one (21), for example while it is safe to say that God loves everyone in the same way when speaking of the second category, we cannot say the same for God’s love in the fourth category (24).

 

After introducing the different ways Scripture speaks of love in the first chapter, Carson goes on, in the second, to delve further into the depths of what God’s love actually means. In the second chapter he takes aim at the intra-Trinitarian love that characterizes the Fathers relationship with the Son. What follows in this chapter is an examination of various texts describing the love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father, Carson draws together various themes to show how there has always been a functional subordination in the Trinitarian relationship and how this enlightens what it means for God to be love (John 4:16)(38-39). In this chapter Carson helpfully recreates an argument he made in his book Exegetical Fallacies, showing in a much easier to read fashion how the αγαπη/αγαπαω (agapē/agapaō) word group does not have the theological weight it has often been attributed, how there is a diachronic explanation for how this word came to be used so frequently in the Septuagint and in the Greek New Testament (25-30, see 51-53 in Exegetical Fallacies 1996).

In the third chapter Carson moves from the inward focused love of God’s intra-Trinitarian love to God’s love for people, this chapter mainly focuses on God’s love for people in relation to God’s sovereignty. In doing this Carson gives an outstanding overview of compatibilism (49-54) and provides a solid discussion of the immutability of God. Carson suggests that the Aristotelian idea of an unmoved mover, imported into Christianity by Thomas Aquinas, does not adequately deal with the biblical testimony as to God’s love (48-49). According to Carson we cannot suggest that every reference to an emotion in Scripture is merely an anthropopathism (59) but we must affirm that God truly does feel in some sense (58-61). What Carson suggests is a rightly bounded understanding of impassibility; God’s love is not like ours in that He is not subject to uncontrolled passions and emotional fits, but instead His “passions” are tied into all of His attributes. His emotions “cannot be divorced form [His] knowledge, [His] power, [His] will” (60). Carson writes that “we will successfully guard against the evils that impassibility combats if we recognize that God’s “passions,” unlike ours, do not flare up out of control” (60).

The last chapter of Carson’s book deals with God’s love in relation to His wrath. Moving on from his discussion of love in relation to impassibility, Carson discuss how God’s love is not “an implacable, blind rage”; it is an emotion, but it is, like His love, an emotion intertwined with all of God’s attributes (69). Carson shows that there is nothing in the nature of God’s wrath or love that excludes Him form expressing both towards the same individual at the same (69). In this chapter Carson also touches on God’s love for His elect people and the issue of particular redemption, most often—unfortunately—called limited atonement. Here he addresses the issue of how the understanding of God’s love presented in the book affects the way we who God sent His Son to die for and what exactly that looks like. Carson finally concludes with a discussion of how God’s love relates to His people, how understanding God’s love in this way affects the way we express love towards one another.

 

In the introduction to this review I mentioned that this book has been one of the few I can remember as having a distinct impact in my growth as I have strived to better understand God and His word over the last few years. There came  a time in my studies where I came to see what Scripture seemed to be saying about God’s election of some to salvation and how this was deeply intertwined with His love. This understanding ran head on into the understanding of God’s love I had inherited from the evangelical culture I grew up in. I could not see how the distinct love God had for His elect people could be reconciled with the picture of an omnibenevolent deity who loved all people absolutely equally with the same salvific love. As I wrestled through these issues I found myself balancing on a precipice; where I was before was safety in the picture of the universal grandfather loving everyone equally, at the bottom of the cliff was the hyper-Calvinistic idea that God only loved His elect people and had no love for anyone else. Seeing what I had seen in Scripture I could not have remained ignorantly in my previous understanding of God’s love, but I was not ready to go to the other extreme I saw as the only other option. Thankfully one of my teachers recommended to me Carson’s book and I was delighted to discover in it a picture of God’s love that allowed me to affirm what I saw in Scripture as to God’s love for all men and women while also affirming the equally clear teaching of God’s particular love for His elect people. I am thankful for this little book and the insights Carson has to share in it; I highly recommend it as an outstanding introduction for anyone who is wrestling with what God’s love truly is according to Scripture.

This book gets a rating of 5/5


[1] Though other brands have gone the route of impassibility and stripped God completely of any form of emotion.

[2] A very recent example of this is the emergence of pop-universalism with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, but there are examples of this on less extreme levels.

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