The Love of God

The great Princeton theologian Charles Hodge writes against the philosophers conception of God’s attribute of Love, concluding that the love of God is not thoroughly dissimilar to a human’s experience of loving another – that is, with feeling and emotion.

His thoughts on this express my own thoughts – only better. That is our understanding of the love of God must be commensurate with the picture given to us by Jesus Christ Himself; of a middle-eastern man who continually waits on his porch for his wayward son to return; who when he sees his son afar off runs to him (in context very undignified), throws his arms around him and kisses him; and who barely pauses for his son’s apology before calling for a big celebration (see Luke 15:11-31).

“Love in us includes complacency and delight in its object, with the desire of possession and communion. The schoolmen, and often the philosophical theologians, tell us that there is no feeling in God. This, they say, would imply passivity, or susceptibility of impression from without, which it is assumed is incompatible with the nature of God. “We must exclude,” says Bruch, “passivity from the idea of love, as it exists in God. For God cannot be the subject of passivity in any form. Besides, if God experienced complacency in intelligent beings, He would be dependent on them: which is inconsistent with his nature as an Absolute Being.” Love, therefore, he defines as that attribute of God which secures the development of the rational universe; or, as Schleiermacher expresses it, “It is that attribute in virtue of which God communicates Himself.” According to the philosophers, the Infinite develops itself in the finite; this fact, in theological language, is due to love. The only point of analogy between love in us and love in the Absolute and Infinite, is self-communication. Love in us leads to self-revelation and communion; in point of fact the Infinite is revealed and developed in the universe, and specially in humanity. Bruch admits that this doctrine is in real contradiction to the representations of God in the Old Testament, and in apparent contradiction to those of the New Testament. If love in God is only a name for that which accounts for the rational universe; if God is love, simply because He develops himself in thinking and conscious beings, then the word has for us no definite meaning; it reveals to us nothing concerning the real nature of God. Here again we have to choose between a mere philosophical speculation and the clear testimony of the Bible, and of our own moral and religious nature. Love of necessity involves feeling, and if there be no feeling in God, there can be no love. That He produces happiness is no proof of love. The earth does that unconsciously and without design. Men often render others happy from vanity, from fear, or from caprice. Unless the production of happiness can be referred, not only to a conscious intention, but to a purpose dictated by kind feeling, it is no proof of benevolence. And unless the children of God are the objects of his complacency and delight, they are not the objects of his love. He may be cold, insensible, indifferent, or even unconscious; He ceases to be God in the sense of the Bible, and in the sense in which we need a God, unless He can love as well as know and act. The philosophical objection against ascribing feeling to God, bears, as we have seen, with equal force against the ascription to Him of knowledge or will. If that objection be valid, He becomes to us simply an unknown cause, what men of science call force; that to which all phenomena are to be referred, but of which we know nothing. We must adhere to the truth in its Scriptural form, or we lose it altogether. We must believe that God is love in the sense in which that word comes home to every human heart. The Scriptures do not mock us when they say, “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him.” (Ps. ciii. 13.) He meant what He said when He proclaimed Himself as “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth.” (Ex. xxxiv. 6.) “Beloved,” says the Apostle, “let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” (1 John iv. 7–11.) The word love has the same sense throughout this passage. God is love; and love in Him is, in all that is essential to its nature, what love is in us. Herein we do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.”

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol 1, 428.

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