John C. Peckham. The Love of God: A Canonical Model. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015. See here to purchase the book.
John C. Peckham teaches theology and Christian philosophy at Andrews University, which is a Seventh-Day Adventist university. His book, The Love of God: A Canonical Model, is a scholarly treatment of God’s love. Peckham interacts with theological ideas about God and God’s love.
Peckham addresses two models. The first model is the transcendent-voluntarist model of God’s love. It maintains that God is transcendent and unaffected by emotions, that God dispassionately and unconditionally loves the world, and that God voluntarily makes a choice to love the world rather than being compelled to do so by nature. The second model is the imminent-experientialist model of God’s love. It holds that the universe, in some sense, is a part of God, and that God thus feels what beings in the universe feel, in a sympathetic and empathetic manner.
Peckham is critical of both models, and he supports a third model, which he calls the foreconditional-reciprocal model of God’s love. Peckham bases this model on the biblical presentation of God’s love. In this model, God voluntarily chooses to love the world and to be emotionally invested in it and affected by it. God does not have to love the world out of any neediness on God’s part, for God already gives and receives love within the context of the Trinity. But God chose to create the world and to love it, and God is affected emotionally by what humans do. God’s emotional response is not arbitrary, however. God is pleased and satisfied when humans reciprocate, through faith and obedience, the love that God has shown to them, and God is upset by human wickedness. Moreover, Peckham regards God’s love as foreconditional more than unconditional. God wants every human being to be saved and in a relationship with God, but God has a special love for those who reciprocate God’s love through faith and obedience.
Overall, Peckham supports his model with Scripture. Against the view that God is dispassionate and devoid of emotions, Peckham appeals to the mountain of biblical statements about God having emotions and feeling certain ways in response to human behavior. Against the view that God’s love is unconditional, Peckham refers to biblical passages about God’s special love for the faithful and the righteous, and God’s special relationship them. Peckham is convincing on these particular issues.
Peckham’s book is also useful with regards to the Greek and Hebrew words for love. Many theologians and Christian writers have waxed eloquent about agape being a dispassionate, disinterested, divine sort of love, but Peckham effectively argues that this is not necessarily the case in Scripture.
This book is a fresh, scholarly, and biblical discussion of God’s love. My main criticism, however, is that it should have gone into more detail about what God’s love is, or what God’s love entails. Is it God’s affection? Is it God’s desire to do good to people? If so, what is the nature of that good? Are we talking about physical and material blessings, spiritual blessings, or both? When people say that God loves them, what does that mean exactly? In what sense is God loving them? From a Christian perspective, the answer to these questions may seem rather obvious, in areas: God shows love for people by offering them salvation, which includes forgiveness of sin, a relationship with God, and eternal life. This is God benefiting people and being concerned about their well-being. But does God’s love entail giving people material blessings, as seems to be the case in parts of the Hebrew Bible and even the New Testament (i.e., Psalm 104; Matthew 5:45)? If so, how can one account for people who do not have many material blessings? Does God not love them? Peckham would have done well to have wrestled with these issues, for they relate to the substance and concrete expression of God’s love.
Peckham seems to be an Arminian, one who maintains that God gives prevenient grace so that all people can respond to God’s love; this is in contrast with Calvinism, which holds that God chose who would be saved before the foundation of the world and then unilaterally transformed the chosen ones so that they would have faith and live a holy life. My issue with Arminianism is that it does not seem to me that everyone on earth has an equal opportunity to respond to God. Some have heard the Gospel, whereas some have not; some are receptive to God, whereas some are hard-hearted or indifferent, or find that they cannot believe even if they wanted to do so. How does this fit into God’s love? Peckham should have wrestled with this.
The book did not exactly make me feel better from a spiritual standpoint. I am drawn to the Christian slogan that there is nothing we can do that will make God love us more, and that there is nothing we can do that will make God love us less. The problem is that this does not mesh that neatly with certain things that are in the Bible. Moreover, when we say that God has a special love for the faithful or obedient, that is not particularly reassuring, for, being imperfect, many of us fall short in terms of faith and obedience to God’s rules. I do not dismiss what Peckham says, but I would add to it a belief that God is patient with us and recognizes that we are works in progress.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Intervarsity Press, in exchange for an honest review.