We now come to our last post (for now) on D. A. Carson to show how his theology tracks with and supports a universal application of the love and redemption of God found in the Holy Scriptures.
We will continue to look at Carson’s book “The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God” as he now adds more in-depth commentary. He begins with the heading entitled: “Three Preliminary Observations on Three Distinctive Ways of Talking About the Love of God.”
To remind you of Carson’s five ways of talking about the love of God:
1. It is intra-Trinitarian and therefore relational and personal.
2. Providential over all creation. A general equal common grace over everyone.
3. God’s yearning love for His fallen world of sinners to repent and be saved.
4. God’s electing love that is the only effectual means of salvation for a pre-determined number–the “elect.”
5. God’s conditional or provisional love that is for His own children.
First he warns “what will happen if any one of these five biblical ways of talking about the love of God is absolutized and made exclusive, or made the controlling grid by which the other ways of talking about the love of God are relativized.” To de-emphasize any of the five is to “prove disastrous” says Carson. (pg 23)
Obviously the love of God based in the relationship of the Trinity has its limits as it represents a love between perfect Beings and does not require “grace.”
If we limit our view to the second point, it reduces God to a general benevolent force in the universe.
Point three, God’s love for the world, is where the debate begins, dividing Arminians and Calvinists. Here is his warning on taking this type of love too far:
“If the love of God is exclusively portrayed as an inviting, yearning, sinner-seeking, rather love-sick passion, we may strengthen the hands of the Arminians, semi-Pelagians, Pelagians, and those more interested in God’s inner emotional life than in His justice and glory, but the cost will be massive. There is some truth in this picture of God, as we shall see, some glorious truth. Made absolute, however, it not only treats complimentary texts as if they were not there, but it steals God’s sovereignty from Him and our security from us.
It espouses a theology of grace rather different from Paul’s theology of grace, and at its worst ends up with a God so insipid he can neither intervene to save us nor deploy his chastening rod against us. His love is too “unconditional” for that. This is a world far removed from the pages of Scripture.”
We agree… if indeed that is how Arminians present their view of God. But most Arminians never speak in this way. Just as most Calvinists never portray God in a way consistent with their theology.
He then laments the hyper-Calvinists and young Reformed who know it is right to offer the Gospel freely, but have no idea how to do it without violating some element in their Reformed theology. In other words Calvinists often struggle with sharing the good news with the world when they know its message isn’t applicable to the whole world. They feel dishonest in saying, “God loves you” because they really don’t know (for there is about a 90%+ chance statistically that He doesn’t).
It appears the only way Carson is able to dodge the hyper-Calvinist label is by including in his paradigm some beloved Arminian doctrines. If you look you will see in his writings the Arminian doctrines protecting him from the accusation of being a hard-hearted Calvinist theologian. In the same manner, I have witnessed this exact phenomenon in the Arminian churches where they never quite sound like full Arminians as they speak about God’s sovereignty over all creation etc., There is, necessarily, a lot of borrowing between them. Indeed without doing so either would sound ridiculous and offensive: either we would have a God who is able to save but won’t or a God who wants to save but can’t.
Finally Carson sums up his observations by saying:
“In short, we need all of what Scripture says on this subject, or the doctrinal and pastoral ramifications will prove disastrous. We must not view these ways of talking about the love of God as independent, compartmentalized, loves of God…they are not hermetically sealed off from the other. Nor can we allow any one of these ways of talking about the love of God to be diminished by the others, even as we cannot, on Scriptural evidence, allow any one of them to domesticate all the others. God is God, and He is one. We must hold these truths together…God has thought it best to provide us with these various ways of talking of His love if we are to think of Him aright” (pg 23, emphasis mine)
Yes, Yes Yes, God must be one! We are told He is one. However he is still claiming there are differing loves (plural) which imply different purposes and divides God in His one love. But this is encouraging, Carson is trying to be consistent and Biblical.
To wrap up I must share the end of the chapter as he makes his third observation challenging what he calls “evangelical cliches.” First he says that the phrase, “God’s love is unconditional” is true but only in the sense of election, not in the sense of His Fatherly love:
“God’s discipline of His children means that He may turn upon us with the divine equivalent of the “wrath” of a parent on a wayward teenager…”
Carson again equivocates God’s wrath with that of an earthly father’s “wrath” over his wayward children. (But why Carson defines this response to a child as “conditional love” instead of “conditional blessing” is perplexing.)
I must add this bit of his pastoral advice on how to navigate in speaking to different people about the love of God. According to Carson you really must become a mind-reader because:
“…if you say ‘God’s love is unconditional’ to a Christian who is drifting toward sin you may convey the wrong impression and do a lot of damage. Such Christians need to be told that they will remain in God’s love only if they do what He says. Obviously it is pastorally important to know what passages and themes to apply to which people at any given time.
‘God loves everybody exactly the same way.’
That is certainly true in passages belonging to the second category, in the domain of providence…but it is certainly not true in passages belonging to the fourth category, the domain of election. (pg 24)”
Now this is not so encouraging. Unless, this serves the reader by showing the utter confusion and potential bondage this kind of thinking can produce. Now we are back to multiple Gods with multiple purposes. Again it is the confusion between God’s love and His blessings. His love never changes: it is finished, all of grace, once for all; but His blessings are conditional. The prodigal son, who did not “keep himself in love” but rather ran away to a far country, was not blessed by his father until he returned. But while he was gone the father never ceased to love him. Is this not the way we are to see the difference between God’s “unconditional love” and His conditional blessings?
The only way out of this muddle is to see that God’s love, wrath and fire have one purpose because they all emanate from the all glorious, all loving, all holy God who is ONE!