God is Love?

“God is love.”

This is one of the most important things Christians say about God. And, it is one of the most abused.

The problem with saying “God is love” is twofold. First, we assume that we know what love means already, so the phrase becomes a bit of a mirror rather than an insight into the divine. Secondly, we make the mistake of thinking that because we can say “God is love,” we can flip the subject and the predicate and faithfully say, “Love is God.”

But Barth gets it right on both counts.

As his discussion of the identity of God unfolds in CD 28.2, the “Being of God as the one who Loves” is continually drawn back to the love of God as it is made known in the Father’s giving of the Son for us.

This is the best of Trinitarian theology: cultivating an understanding of what it means to say “God is” that is relentlessly tied to how God is made known in the story. It is a theology from below, a theology that trusts that the way God has revealed Godself in the stories of Israel and Christ is not mere condescension and analogy, but truthfully revelatory of who this God is.

I confess: the sorts of claims Barth makes in this chapter, while I agree, take increasing amounts of faith the more I compare and contrast other people’s ways of talking about God. The idea that we are not projecting into heaven but receiving what heaven has brought down to us requires an assent to this story, and its claims to be the playground of God.

Throughout the section, Barth reminds us not to think that our abstractions are the ideals to which God conforms: not “personhood,” not “the absolute,” not “the infinite,” not “the power,” and not even love–until love is shaped by the story of the self-giving Son, given of the Father.

This is the triune God–the one who is known as the one who gives in love.

9 thoughts on “God is Love?”

  1. This was precisely Luther’s point against the Scholastic theologians. Any time we are trying to discus or define or explain God *en se*–that is, as God is *in [God's] self* (as the Scholastics did)–we are going to get in trouble. We are trying to look beyond what has been given to us to know, beyond what God has chosen to reveal about God’s self. Instead, we can only rightly discuss and define God as God *pro me*–God as God has revealed God’s self to be *for me* in Christ. When we wish to rightly know God, we must look at God as God was in Christ, and there we see what it means to say “God is love.”

  2. Not sure I follow the distinction. If love is the substance of the Divine, it does not follow that this is somehow an abstract concept. Love, more than anything, is manifest by action and not distant contemplation. God could be powerful and do nothing, but he can’t be loving unless he actually loves. 1 John 4:8 is not telling us that some guy we will never see has a crush on us.

    Or did I miss the point, as I so often do.

  3. Thank you for this post you.

    When you write, “First, we assume that we know what love means already, so the phrase becomes a bit of a mirror rather than an insight into the divine”, I want to be careful. CS Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity (I believe) that there must not be a wide gulf in how we understand goodness and what God thinks as good.

    In other words, I think that there is just as much danger in saying that everything God does is good, and every action of God is an act of love. Why? Because we are often fallible in receiving and interpreting what God reveals.

    Your points are the errors of those deeply committed to social justice in such a way that theology no longer matters.

    However, my concern is that which seems to be supported by Calvinists and conservative Evangelicals, i.e., that the way that the world is right now is exactly how God wants it. Because He is good and loving, we should accept the way things are.

    I don’t know a solution and I hate when people say “balance” is needed. However, I think my concern is just as valid as your concerns about what we mean when we say “God is love.”

    Thank you for your blog. I enjoy reading as time permits!

    Tim

    1. In reply to your invocation of Lewis, I’d just want to ask, “Who’s ‘we,’ kemo sabe?” Do we really want to affirm that what goes for “love” on the airwaves of our radios, our TVs, our movies, our books, is “love” as it pertains to God? Do we really want to dissociate God’s love from the story of the crucified Christ?

      You write:

      Your points are the errors of those deeply committed to social justice in such a way that theology no longer matters.

      Shame on you.

      Reread the post. The whole point is that theology matters–that theology ties the truth about God to the actions of God.

  4. Exodus 34:6-8
    6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

    God revealed that He is compassionate and gracious. He declared His objective attributes in actualistic human speech via a particular theophany with Moses personally.

    1. Paul, I think it’s important to recognize here that this is not a revelation of God in God’s “ontology” or some such. It is a revelation of God as who God is in relation to Israel / humanity. See verses 7-8: this is all about who God is for God’s people and for those who rebel against God.

      That’s part of the narrative framing that is important for making sense of the passage itself. Also, it then leaves us continuing to ask, “What does all this mean, what does it look like?” throughout Israel’s story. At points it means exile; at points it means military victory; at points it means restoration–but ultimately we know what it means when the fullness of God’s self-revelation is made in the non-sparing Father handing over the self-giving Son.

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