The Love of God: A Canonical Model

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The Love of God: A Canonical Model

The opening chapter of Peckham’s 2015 IVP Reader’s Choice Award-winning book introduces two major and conflicting models of Divine love: the transcendent-voluntarist model–an inheritance of classical theism, and the immanent-experientialist model–representing process theism.

In classical theism, God is characterized as “self-sufficient, perfect, simple, timeless, immutable, impassible, omniscient and omnipotent” (pg. 17). This view of God dominated Christianity for over eighteen centuries, and shaped the understanding of Divine love, as influential figures embraced it and used it as framework for theology. For example, Augustine maintained that God, being in need of nothing, cannot desire anything from us, nor can He derive any enjoyment from the created world. In his view, Divine love can only be characterized as unilateral beneficence.

Aquinas operated within the same classical picture of God, and saw Divine love as “friendship love […] between God and humans” (pg. 19). Unlike human friendship, however, the Divine-human friendship cannot be reciprocal, since God–a self-sufficient, impassible, perfect being–can never be the beneficiary of anything. The love of God is not passible (emotional) or affected, but rational and purposive.

Martin Luther likewise understood God’s love as non-reciprocal, “unilateral, nonevaluative, unmotivated and wholly gratuitous beneficence” (pg. 20). Thus, the attributes of God upheld in classical theism provide the ontological framework for understanding a Divine love that is “sovereignly willed, unconditional, unmotivated, unmerited, freely bestowed beneficence, manifest ultimately in Christ’s self-giving” (pg. 25).

Given the emphasis on God’s sovereignty, the transcendent-voluntarist model differentiates between two components of the divine love: the “election love” (pg. 33), which is the redeeming love of a God who sovereignly chooses whom to save, and the “common love” (pg. 33)–God’s love for all humanity.

This view of God and divine love was rejected by process theism (championed by Alfred N. Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne), due to its perceived failure to support a meaningful love relationship between God and humanity. A major point of contention is the lack of human freedom, which inhibits love and, consequently, renders the Divine love futile. The alternative proposed is a God who has “universal sympathy” (pg. 26), and is the “supreme knower and feeler of all feelings” (pg. 29). This God is partly dependent on the world, and partly determined by the world.

Unlike the ‘unmoved mover’ God of classical theism and the transcendent-voluntarist model, in process theism and the immanent-experientialist model, God is “the most moved mover and the persuasive mover of all” (pg. 30). This is a God who is perfect in His love, but who changes and grows as He experiences the joys and sorrows His relationship with human beings engender.

After a concise exposition of these models, Peckham notes and elaborates on the irreconcilable nature of the differences “between the sovereignly willed, unaffected and unenriched, election love of the transcendent-voluntarist model and the all-sympathetic, immanent, affected and enriched, feeling love of the immanent-experientialist model” (pg. 31). The conflict runs deep, and has major implications for Christian belief and practice on either side of the fence. What is the way forward?

In chapter two, “Towards Addressing the Conflict,” Peckham introduces the canonical model of biblical interpretation. He submits that both the transcendent-voluntarist model, as well as the immanent-experientialist model, “tend to move from divine ontology to love, the latter being constrained and shaped by the former” (pg. 45).

The final-form canonical model of interpretation that Peckham supports reverses this order, “by first investigating the canonical depiction of divine love, while temporarily bracketing out […] as much as possible, ontological presuppositions” (pg. 45). This model gives epistemic primacy to the entire canon of Scripture, which, under examination, yields an internally coherent, theo-ontological understanding of the biblical concept of love and the Divine-human relationship.

The canonical model takes a high view of the revelation and inspiration of Scripture, respects the dual authorship (Divine and human), and upholds the grammatical-historical method of exegesis. The two main questions Peckham invites the readers to ask along the way are: “(1) what is the theology depicted in (rather than behind) the text and (2) what does all of the canonical data depict when taken together as a cohesive literary document in its final form?” (pg. 51).

Methodologically, Peckham’s canonical research into the Divine love involves an inductive reading of the canon, and a deductive exposition of the findings. Thus, the book is structured around five key aspects of the Divine love the study points to: “(1) volitional, (2) evaluative, (3) emotional, (4) foreconditional and (5) ideally reciprocal” (pg. 66). The author devotes most of the remaining chapters to these and the foreconditional-reciprocal model he develops as an alternative to the transcendent-voluntarist and immanent-experientialist models.

Before he proceeds to this, however, Peckham dwells a little on the long-lasting credence that different terms of love used in Scripture indicate different kinds of love. The contrast has been drawn primarily between agape and eros, the former being traditionally understood as “gift love […] pure giving, never receiving [….] only seek[ing] the good of others” (pg. 69), and therefore fit to describe God’s love, while the latter being generally understood as “need love […] motivated by self-interest, […] conditional” (pg. 69), and therefore deemed unsuited for divinity. Most definitely, the research Peckham put into this chapter turns upside-down my lifelong Christian understanding of the concept of love in Scripture, as it had been passed down to me.

The author provides support from both the Old and the New Testament that this distinction is unwarranted. For example, he determines through exegesis that agape “is not itself a superior term of divine love” (pg. 71), but instead has “a broad range of meaning from the most virtuous love of affection and generosity […] to lust that fades quickly after its rapacious selfishness is satisfied” (pg. 72).

Evidently, the term is not found in Scripture referencing God in a negative way; however, the word has been used to describe, for example, love for the world (2 Tim 4:10), and Amnon’s lust for his sister Tamar (2 Sam 13:15). In reference to divinity, agape is used in Scripture to denote conditional love (John 14:21). The chapter provides many examples of the usage of different terms in Scripture, and the reader will, no doubt, find it engaging, refreshing, and perhaps challenging.

As mentioned above, five chapters of The Love of God are devoted to what Peckham, following a canonical model of exegesis and interpretation, determines to be the five key characteristics of divine love, and the core elements of the foreconditional-reciprocal model: volitional, evaluative, emotional, foreconditional, and reciprocal.

Through careful exegesis and frequent comparisons with other views, the writer sketches a depiction of Divine love that overlaps slightly with both models introduced at the beginning of the book, and yet stands on its own as a completely different model. The author asks penetrating questions of interest, not only to the academic mind, but also to Christianity at large, such as:

  • “Does God love freely and, if so, what does that mean? […] Does God choose to fully love only some, or does he choose to love all, or is he essentially related to all such that he necessarily loves all?” (pg. 89)
  • “Does God only bestow or create value, or might he also appraise, appreciate and receive value? Is divine love arbitrarily willed, pure beneficence, or may it include desire and/or enjoyment?” (pg. 117)
  • “Does God’s love include affection and/or emotionality such that God is concerned for the world, sympathetically or otherwise? Is divine love emotionally responsive to humans?” (pg. 147)
  • “Is divine love for the world unconditional or conditional, unmotivated or motivated, ungrounded or grounded…? Can humans forfeit divine love, or is it unilaterally constant?” (pg. 191)
  • “Is the God-world relationship unilateral, or can God be involved in a reciprocal (albeit asymmetrical) love relationship with humans? (pg. 219)

The portrait that emerges from Peckham’s study is that of a God who delights in his creatures, but can also be sorrowed and angered in response to their choices. God’s love is foreconditional – it is “prior to any human action, love, merit or worth, while at the same time God implements conditions for the reception and continuance of that love” (pg. 217). God empowers humans to respond to His actions, through which humans convey value to God.

While always short of the ideal (given the context of sin), the offering human beings can bring to God is valuable and appreciated by God. As One who voluntarily bound Himself up in a relationship with created beings, God is affected by the events in the world, even while the ideal reciprocity in relationship remains asymmetrical.

Given the thorough research behind this book, both in terms of biblical study and interaction with other scholars, a careful reading of The Love of God will likely provide compelling answers to questions Christians and non-Christians might be struggling with as they consider Divine love. A book on this topic and of this caliber is overdue, and is guaranteed to find some echoes in the reader’s mind and heart as she or he humbly seeks to know the God who desires to know us and be known in His true character.

Purchase here: Peckham, John C. The Love of God: A Canonical Model. Downers Grove, IL:  IVP Academic, 2015.

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About the author


Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.