Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
This volume of theological essays on the Love of God consists of the papers from the Sixth Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, with the addition of an introductory chapter by the editor. The authors believe, and this reviewer agrees, that the concept of the love of God is the central motif of the Christian doctrine of God. The challenge to reflect on the meaning and reference of love in relation to God is a perennial task for Christian theology. Discussions of the doctrine of God in the recent past and present theology have opened the door to a reappraisal and reconstruction of this doctrine.
“Is it indeed the case that the concept of the love of God leads to the deconstruction of traditional Christian theism?”(p. 3). The aim of the book is to address critical questions about God’s love that arise within the Christian theological tradition, but may lead beyond it to a revisionist doctrine of God which places love at the center of God’s mystery. What does love mean when predicated of God? Is love (so conceived) adjectival or essential, relational or substantial for God? And if the love of God transcends our categories, on what basis may we speak of it at all? What is gained and what is lost for those who, like Karl Barth and the authors, take the narrative of God’s love in Jesus Christ as the criterion (control story, p. 28) for a Christian concept of God’s love, and hence of God’s reality?
The introductory chapter places us in the middle of on-going conversations about God’s love in (later) twentieth century theology. The editor sees these conversations as an opening for the “properly dogmatic questions” which are raised in the various essays because they display the need for a deep going revisioning of the doctrine. This reconstruction will give primacy to the narrative of God’s love in creation and covenant history as the paradigm case of love governing the use of the term for Godself. The effect of this is to place the love of God at the center of the discussion about every article of Christian theology. The particular issues raised by the theological context are dealt with only indirectly.
The essays develop different aspects of the subject. There are problems raised by traditional sources, such as the distinction of God’s love as “gift love” (Nygren) as opposed to “need love” (Nygren’s Plato), the variety of Scriptural uses of the terms for love, and the ways patristic exegesis (e.g. Augustine) interpreted God’s love. There are problems of analogy raised by using a common analogate (love) for divine and human reality. There are special questions of interpretation of God’s love which have puzzled Christians over time, such as the universality of God’s love for the world, the relation of love and wrath in God, and whether God’s love finally triumphs over the forces of destruction. The final essay reminds readers of the complexity of God’s love through a reading of Hosea 11.
The essays of this volume stand within the wider tradition of evangelical theology stemming from the work of Karl Barth. Students of Barth’s writings know the importance he gave to carefully delineating the use of analogy in Christian theology, and the vigorous discussions which ensued. The problems of language about God are well-known. Perhaps nowhere do they impinge so directly as in the subject of this book. Do we mean the same thing by the common term love when referring to human and divine love? Projection and idolatry lie near to hand. Do we mean different things? Agnosticism and atheism beckon on the other side. Words really do fail even as words matter. The concept of love is less than the Christian narrative of God’s Creating and Redeeming love in Jesus Christ from which it sprung. A signpost on the way, it must always remain a sign, a likeness, of “something greater, something better” (Richard of St. Victor) offered in the Gospel.
As I read this book, I thought again just how daring the Christian message is. The unimaginable God becomes imaginable in human form, and creates the analogate (love) by which we can think about God, desire God, and rely on God in our living and our dying.
Thomas D. Parker
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, SPRING/SUMMER 2003, VOL. 3, #2.
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