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Scholar: View God’s love through Scripture, not through culture

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Believers can misinterpret the love of God and make chaos of Christian theology by isolating one aspect of God’s love at the expense of a fully biblical understanding of it, New Testament scholar D.A. Carson said July 16 at the Southern Baptist Founders Conference.

Carson, longtime research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., warned believers against isolating individual texts when grappling with the biblical doctrine of God’s love.

Carson was the keynote speaker for the 21st annual Founders Conference July 15-18 at Samford University. The conference theme was “The Love of God.” Carson is author of scores of books and commentaries, including “The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God” and “A Call to Spiritual Reformation.” Founders is an organization founded in 1982 for the perpetuation of historic Calvinistic doctrines within the Southern Baptist Convention often referred to as “the doctrines of grace.”

Carson noted that the first — and perhaps most critical — error is using one expression of God’s love as the lens through which every expression of it in Scripture is viewed.

“It is a mistake to fail to observe the ways in which the Bible speaks of the love of God and not to listen to them carefully in their respective contexts,” Carson said.

“This is important today because there is so much in our culture that is trying to squeeze all notions of love into one or two narrow categories and therefore” avoid other texts, he said.

As a contemporary illustration of such erroneous “proof-texting,” Carson pointed to what he said was the mainstream news media’s most-quoted verse, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Many pundits quote it but few can cite the place it is found in Scripture (Matthew 7:1), he said.

Contemporary pundits typically aim the verse at Christians as if it settles every moral or ethical question, be it homosexuality or gambling, he said. Christians often use the same hermeneutic when quoting verses out of context regarding the love of God, he said.

“That [Matthew 7:1] is the sum total of contemporary western Christian ethics in the mind of the media,” he said. “[In their minds] that settles the argument, doesn’t it? It is very easy to rip texts out of context.

“Somehow, in this whole area of the doctrine of the love of God, I think that we are particularly prone to do so and from different sides. It is possible to absolutize several different kinds of biblical texts and really play around with our theology in very detrimental ways by simply absolutizing one strand of biblical truth.”

Carson said Scripture speaks of the love of God in at least five distinct ways:

— Love between God, the Father and Christ, the Son, often called God’s “intra-trinitarian love.”

— Providential love. This type of love points to God’s watchcare over and superintendence of creation. This sort of love is spoken of in Matthew 5:45 by which God sends rain and sun on both the “just and unjust.”

— Yearning, inviting love, by which God cries to all sinners to repent and be saved.

— Electing love. This is His love directed at those whom He has chosen for salvation by His own sovereign choice and will.

— Love as conditioned by obedience. This type of love accompanies the Ten Commandments and occurs throughout Scripture, including in John 15. It is presupposed in Jude and is prominent in the Old Testament, Carson said.

Carson gave several examples of how God’s love might be misinterpreted.

If one views God only by His providential love over creation, something close to pantheism is the result.

“[Then] all religions are the same, all of nature is the same,” he said. “God becomes this genial granddaddy who has lost about three-quarters of His marbles and sort of exercises a beneficent watch over the world without power, without truth. But He’s sort of nice and He’s sort of kind and He smiles a lot and has a snowy white beard.”

Making God’s electing love ultimate leads to hyper-Calvinism and scuttles evangelism, Carson said. On the other hand, absolutizing God’s yearning, inviting love to sinners leads to the notion that salvation depends on human effort, he said. A full-orbed biblical understanding will hold the two together in unison, he said.

“You can absolutize God’s love that is conditioned by obedience,” Carson said. “Then, God loves the good and hates the wicked. It’s as simple as that. You are lost in a quagmire of merit theology and looking at yourself to see if you have been good enough today to please God.

“More recently, some people have tried to absolutize God’s intra-trinitarian love. That is, we sort of all become part of God by a certain understanding of theosis, of becoming divine. The whole distinction between God and human beings is lost and we all become a part of this circle of love that begins with the Trinity and reaches outward.”

Carson also warned against over-characterizing the different categories of God’s love. God must not be viewed as mechanically turning on one expression of His love while simultaneously “switching off” another aspect, he said.

“I may truly say I love my wife and I may truly say I love my brother’s wife,” Carson said. “I hope I don’t mean the same thing by both. I love woodworking and I love reading, and in each case the object of love means that I am thinking about love in slightly different ways.”

A fully biblical comprehension of God’s love also will assist Christians in rethinking well-worn cliches such as “God loves everybody the same way” or “God loves us unconditionally,” he said.

In many places in Scripture God’s love is specifically conditioned by obedience. On the other hand, God’s love for Christians is unconditional, Carson said.

Carson compared God’s love to that within family relationships. There are different contexts within a family relationship between father and son in which it is proper to speak of both conditional and unconditional love.

Finally, Carson said Christians are often in danger of thinking of God as toggling on and off certain attributes so that He has room for others. But God is constantly and unchangingly loving, holy, just, merciful and altogether perfect. All of His attributes are always operative and work out in the dynamic interchange with His people, Carson said.

For example, God loves Christians and at the same time can express His wrath toward them due to sin. But it is important to note that God’s wrath does not suddenly awaken because He is ill-tempered, Carson said.

“What God never does is display His wrath because He loses it,” Carson said. “It [God’s wrath] is always principled. He is never controlled by His emotions. He always works out of His the perfection of all His perfections. He can never be less than perfect. And therefore, He never falls in love and He never loses His temper.

“And as we grow in conformity to Christ, there are ways in which these sorts of things must be seen in our lives as well.”

    About the Author

  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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