BEN: Another of your main themes is that love is inherently interpersonal. You even predicate this of God, talking about the relationships within the Trinity. I remember the famous saying of Vic Furnish that the love the NT is talking about is not like a heat-seeking missile that is attracted to something inherently targetable and likable in the object of the love. I understand what you are saying here, but since we are all called to love our neighbor as ourselves, it seems to me that self-love is presupposed, and that is not interpersonal per se. Right? And that leads me to ask about 1 John 4, is the author really meaning when he says ‘God is love’ that God’s character couldn’t be described that way if God had no one else in the universe to love? Really?
PATRICK: This is an interesting theological question that impinges on worship as well. No, ‘God is love’ whether he has someone else to love or not. While John’s statement that ‘God is love’ is unique in the Bible, it is not as though love stands above all other divine characteristics (see John’s parallel statement in 1:5 that ‘God is light’). It is to say that all that God is and does is loving.
How much we can say for sure about the ‘inner’ workings of the trinity is debatable. As you know a social model of the Trinity has been advanced in different ways by theologians like Miroslav Volf, Jürgen Moltmann, Colin Gunton, Cornelius Plantinga and others. It has been popularized by people like Tim Keller in The Reason for God, and before him by C.S. Lewis. It is not without its critics, such as Fred Sanders, Stephen Holmes and Karen Kilby who say it is too anthropocentric – reading human experience ‘back’ into the incomprehensible mystery of the triune God. An example of what they criticize is the use of the Greek word perichoresis to describe the inner ‘dance of love’ between Father, Son and Spirit. I really like that image and talk about it in the book – there’s plenty of talk in John about the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s love for the Father after all. But I accept its limitations and potential problems.
BEN: Let’s deal briefly with some of the hard sayings, like those who do not love do not know God. In what sense is that true? I agree that without God’s love, we could not have or receive salvation— true enough. True enough, we love because God first loved us. But I have to say that I’ve met a lot of persons, for example some of my Muslim and Jewish friends, who know a lot about the Biblical God, and know the Bible often better than many Christians. Yet, I can’t really say that they love God in the way 1 John describes the matter. They don’t really worship God per se, most of them are secular Jews or Muslims. I suppose we could say they know about the real God in ways that are often accurate, but they have no personal relationship with that God, taking ‘to know’ in the deeper relational sense of the term. Does this make sense?
PATRICK: I don’t pretend to know the answer here Ben – I like where you are going though. Clearly very many people who have no Christian faith can and do love in remarkable ways, so I agree with you. It seems to make most sense of lived reality to say that John is referring to a specifically Christ-like love and those who do not know God will not be motivated to love in this way.
But I think John’s point is primarily about love as the visible evidence of an invisible spiritual reality. If I can quote myself (!): “to be in relationship with the God who is love, means that someone will reflect the character of God. Not to love shows that there is no true relationship. The vertical shapes the horizontal. John does not explain how this process works in practice; he simply describes an apparently inevitable implication of knowing the God who is love.” p.110