Divine Love and the case for Open Theism

The crucial question when making a decision about Open Theism is whether or not it faithfully points us to the God of the Bible.  As I mentioned in my previous article, a key starting point for Open Theism is 1 John 4:8 where the apostle says:

But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Richard Rice argues that “From a Christian Perspective, love is the first and last word in the Biblical portrait of God.[1] He goes on to say:

“The statement God is love is as close as the Bible comes to giving us a definition of the divine reality. And as Eberhard Jungel observes, Christian theology has always given this expression pride of place among the many descriptions of God.”[2]

Rice, rightly points to the context of this statement being the following description of the incarnation and atonement.  We know what love is because God has shown us in the sending of the Son.  Whilst the statement only appears once, Rice argues that it sums up a strong Biblical theme. He then asserts that:

“So, the statement God is love embodies an essential biblical truth. It indicates that love is central, not incidental to the nature of God. Love is not something God happens to do, it is the one divine activity that most fully and vividly discloses God’s inner reality. Love therefore is the very essence of the divine nature. Love is what it means to be God.”[3]

Now, it is important to think through the implications of Rice’s argument.  Why is 1 John 4:8 crucial to Open Theism.  We might note that “God is love” is something that all Christians would agree with -and would agree that it is a statement central to his character. There might be a few differences in terms of understanding what that means which we will come to shortly but it is worth observing that orthodox, classical theism would agree that “love is central, not incidental to the nature of God.  Love is not something God happens to do.” 

So, what is Rice implying.  The implication seems to be that there is something distinctive about Open Theism which means God is truly acting in love in line with his character that isn’t so of other views of God.  Rice is arguing that “love” is acted out in “openness” and this openness is to do with risk taking, give-and-take relationships.  Love therefore is to do with allowing another to have freedom and choice.  Hence, a God of love will not control the future in such a way that will restrict human freedom. 

This begs the question, is it more loving to allow complete freedom than it is to intervene and override freedom?  Our world today would say “yes it is!”  What then of situations where a person’s freely exercised choice puts them or others in danger?  What about when a person is simply not in a place to freely exercise consent, the unconscious accident victim who needs life saving treatment, the person who is falling off of a cliff and needs someone to grab them?

The other crucial implication of Rice’s statement is that if love is the one essential attribute, if love is the essence of God, then this also support’s Open Theism’s acceptance of the Social Trinity because the one thing that unites Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not divine substance but love. That’s why it’s important to double check that his understanding of Scripture is correct and not just note that his application of what it means to be love might be faulty.

You will not be surprised to discover that I believe it is.  The problem is not in his argument that “God is love” is “central” but in his suggestion that it is exclusive, the one attribute that tells us what God is like.  Elsewhere in Scripture, the same “Is” formulation us used to tell us that God is Spirit, God is holy, God is light, God is a consuming fire.  We refer to this as the Doctrine of Simplicity.  God isn’t made up of complex parts, so that we can remove this or that part.  Nor is there one attribute that dominates in order to sum up his essence. Rather, each attribute, every time we say “God is” tells us something about the other attributes, the offer different perspectives on the same thing.  His love is a holy and just love, His holiness is a loving holiness, His love is powerful, His power is loving and so on.

This is important because it protects us from doing what I think Open Theism has done. It hasn’t been alone in that, which in effect is to reverse the statement so it says “Love is God.”  The result is that we start with an idea of love, which is in fact, our human idea of what love is, our priorities, what we look for in relationships and we impose that onto God.  It’s the other way round, if we want to know what love is, then we need to look to who God is and what God does.

So, Rice is right to pick up on the context of 1 John 4:8 but isn’t that the very point, that the context doesn’t particularly support his suggestion.  Rather, God’s love is seen in that he takes the initiative to seek us out and save us.  His love is about the Son who takes the penalty for sin, whilst we were still helpless. The point about love is not our freedom to love God but his decision to love us.  And of course, this love is all wrapped up in holiness and justice as God deals with sin.

Even were Rice’s understanding of 1 John 4:8 correct, it would not in fact lead conclusively to Open Theism.  However, in any case, his interpretation is found seriously wanting.

[1] Richard Rice, “Biblical Support for  New Perspective” in The Openness of God, 18.

[2] Rice, 18.

[3] Rice, 19.

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