Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Some Thoughts on the Love of God

About a year ago, I started a subscription to The New Oxford Review. For those who are not familiar with it, the NOR is a monthly magazine created by Anglo-Catholics who later crossed the Tiber and became Romans. The journal has a tongue-in-cheek approach to some of the messes of modern-day Christianity and its writing often crosses the line into being venomous attacks against those with whom it disagrees. In the February issue was an article by Carmelo Fallace that stopped me in my tracks. It was called, “Is God’s Love Unconditional?”

I’ve never really given much thought to that question, presuming always that the answer was, “Of course God loves all people without condition.” Wasn’t this the conclusion of the saints and theologians over the centuries? No, says Fallace, the Bible is quite clear that not only is God’s love conditional, but that those who do not follow God’s law actually earn His displeasure. I had to go back and re-read the thesis to make sure that I had seen it correctly. But there it was, Fallace was asserting that God’s love was something that definitely had conditions attached to it.


He then outlined passage after passage in both the Old and New Testaments in support of the argument. The author highlights example after example of things that God does not love: wickedness, the worship of false gods, the offering of children as sacrifices, lovers of violence, and so on. Fallace’s point is that were God’s love unconditional to those who commit these and other sinful acts, then this would place God in direct contradiction with His justice, which is also an attribute of God, and God cannot have any intrinsic contradiction in His nature. Further, all the covenants of the Bible are conditional, stating what God will do for His people if they adhere to the covenant.


Then I began thinking about some other sources that touched on this theme. The first one was our Lord’s words of institution of the Holy Eucharist. When he took the cup, Jesus said, “This is the cup of my blood of the new and everlasting covenant which shall be shed for you and for many.” Note carefully that the institution narratives do not say, “It will be shed for you and for all.” The New Testament is quite clear that Christ’s blood is shed for those who accept His sacrifice for their sins and not for all people indiscriminately. St. Paul elaborates the point further when he cautions believers not to receive the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily because to do so is to consume it to their own damnation.

Even modern Scripture scholars have wrestled with the conditional nature of God’s love. Ernst Kaesemann, a German exegete, described the relationship of the person to God in his Commentary on Romans. According to Kaesemann, everybody exists in relationship to God whether they are aware of it or not. Those who believe in Christ and have accepted His offer of salvation live under the “righteousness” of God, while those who do not or have not accepted the offer live under God’s “wrath.” In Kaesemann’s exegesis, righteousness and wrath are two sides of the same coin. To put it crassly, the side of the coin that you see determines where you stand.

Perhaps another example might clarify the point: medieval theologians often defined the love of God as being a “all-consuming fire.” Even the angels who existed closest to God were called the Seraphim, which means “the burning ones.” They were called this because they dwelt so close to the throne of Almighty God that they were literally “on fire” from His love. Hellfire, to these theologians, was the fire of the love of God, only in this case it scorched and tormented those who rejected Him, those who were out of relationship with Him.


I recognize that this is a pretty grizzly concept and it is one that is not likely to earn Christians points in this world of tolerance, or religious “I’m OK, You’re OK” thinking. However, as we celebrate Holy Week this month, as we remember that moment in history when Jesus Christ suffered, died, and rose again for us, maybe it’s good to reflect on the fact that God’s love is conditional and that it is conditioned on our acceptance of it. Maybe with this realization, we can approach the mysteries of Holy Week with a new vision, a vision of gratitude for the glorious gifts of God. Maybe we can recommit ourselves to living according to God’s law, to placing ourselves in right relationship with Him.

Fallace concludes the article by reminding us of the words of Pope Benedict XVI. In addressing consecrated religious in the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict “has indicated the proper use of the word ‘unconditional:’ Unconditional love is the relationship we must have toward God -- not God toward us. Furthermore, because He is the Creator and we are the created, we are His servants and He is our Master -- and He owes us nothing.” But for those who accept new life in Christ Jesus, the God who owes us nothing gives us everything.

11 comments:

Ron said...

Fallace fails to recognize the difference between the act and the actor. Most of his bible quotes are about God hating the sin I.e. God hates divorce. When he quotes "God hates Esau" he fails to point out that most exegetes understand the term as used at the time of Malachi to mean “prefers one over the other”.
According to the CCC:
218 In the course of its history, Israel was able to discover that God had only one reason to reveal himself to them, a single motive for choosing them from among all peoples as his special possession: his sheer gratuitous love.38 And thanks to the prophets Israel understood that it was again out of love that God never stopped saving them and pardoning their unfaithfulness and sins.39
219 God's love for Israel is compared to a father's love for his son. His love for his people is stronger than a mother's for her children. God loves his people more than a bridegroom his beloved; his love will be victorious over even the worst infidelities and will extend to his most precious gift: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son."40
220 God's love is "everlasting":41 "For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you."42 Through Jeremiah, God declares to his people, "I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you."43 (My note: steadfast means fixed or unchanging)
221 But St. John goes even further when he affirms that "God is love":44 God's very being is love. By sending his only Son and the Spirit of Love in the fullness of time, God has revealed his innermost secret:45 God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange.
1604 God who created man out of love also calls him to love—the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. For man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love. Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator's eyes. And this love which God blesses is intended to be fruitful and to be realized in the common work of watching over creation: "And God blessed them, and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.
Doesn’t everlasting mean that it will always be? Then how can He stop loving in order to hate? If He stopped loving in order to hate then the love would not be everlasting, or am I missing something about everlasting?
Consider Wis11:24 “For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.” Since God created man, how can He hate him?
Consider 1 John 4:8 “God is love”. This has been confirmed by Benedict XVI‘s encyclical Spe Salvi and Pope John Paul’s homily during a San Francisco visit (September 1987). In it he states “God loves you! God loves you all, without distinction, without limit. He loves those of you who are elderly, who feel the burden of the years. He loves those of you who are sick, those who are suffering from AIDS and from AIDS-Related Complex. He loves the relatives and friends of the sick and those who care for them. He loves us all with an unconditional and everlasting love.”
Now doesn’t God is love mean that His essence is Love. Then how can He deny His own essence in order to hate?
How about the Popes?
Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae “79. We are the people of life because God, in his unconditional love, has given us the Gospel of life and by this same Gospel we have been transformed and saved.”
No question about this pope’s feeling about God’s unconditional love for man.
In the Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI states in the introduction: “The first part is more speculative, since I wanted here—at the beginning of my Pontificate—to clarify some essential facts concerning the love which God mysteriously and gratuitously offers to man,”. And in paragraph 9 of the same encyclical “ … The second important element now emerges: this God loves man. … God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape.”
In the Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Bishops of the Western Catholic Conference on Monday, 9 October 2006, he states “The Father's passionate love for humanity, however, triumphs over human pride. Freely given, it is a love that forgives and leads people to enter ever more deeply into the communion of the Church of Christ.” If it is ‘freely given’ then it is unconditional.
Isn’t freely given the same as unconditional? Is freely given based on some condition like purchase required?
Third, in the pastoral visit of his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to Poland (Wasowice, Rynek Square) on May 27, 2006 he states: “In the footsteps of John Paul II, a witness of faith. Here is the profound awareness of divine grace, the unconditional love of God for man.”

The Rev. Robert T. Jones IV, Psy.D. said...

For those who are not aware, CCC is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published under the authority of the late Pope John Paul II.

Ron,

Thanks for your great and thoughtful post!

RTJ+

Carmelo said...

Ron.
what is the buttom line if all your specualations are correct? What is the practical aspect of your conclusions? Does God forgive us even if we are unrepentant? Is Hell useless or did God intend the meaning to be otherwise. Is the Bible not his Word? Your world seems confused and contradictory. Would the devil gain more souls your way or tradition's?...

The Rev. Robert T. Jones IV, Psy.D. said...

Carmelo,

Thanks for your post. Sorry to take so long in getting it online but I've been out of town.

Ron said...

Dear Carmelo
My belief in God’s unconditional love for man does not imply nor should anyone infer from it that this guarantees salvation. Man is saved by God’s grace and only by God’s grace. We are saved by faith and faith is a gift from God (grace). We do good works in order to testify to our faith not to influence God.

Ron said...

Carmelo you said "Would the devil gain more souls your way or tradition's?... " Truth is not dependent on results. Truth is absolute. Regardless of what the Devil my or may not do, the truth is the truth. We live in an absolute world and not a relevastic world. If we allow the Devil's actions to dictate what the truth is or is not we are in big trouble!!!!

Ron said...

Dear Rev. Robert T. Jones IV,
Thank you for your thoughts on God’s unconditional love. I do have some points that I hope that you can clear up for me. First, you point out “He then outlined passage after passage in both the Old and New Testaments in support of the argument. The author highlights example after example of things that God does not love: wickedness, the worship of false gods, the offering of children as sacrifices, lovers of violence, and so on. Fallace’s point is that were God’s love unconditional to those who commit these and other sinful acts, then this would place God in direct contradiction with His justice,” The bold italics are mine for emphasis. You are right when you point out that the author’s examples are examples of things that God does not love. But how do you jump from things to people. Aren’t we different from things? Certainly, you would agree that we make a distinction between the concept of murder, which God hates, and the act of murder?
I would like to quote Father John Corapi. “Make no bones about it, God hates the sin but loves the sinner”. And when we talk about the things that God hates in the Bible, we are talking about things and not people. Don’t we make a distinction between the act and the actor the sin and the sinner the instance and the concept.
Additionally, it is not clear to me how justice and love are in opposition to one another. I can in some small manner understand God loving while He remains just. My difficulty is rationalizing God’s infinite justice in opposition to His infinite Mercy? His infinite love and His infinite justice do not seem to be to be in direct opposition. Even though we love our children, don’t we still punish them. And when we do punish them, do we stop loving them?
In the paragraph sited above, you also talk about God’s covenant with His people. “Further, all the covenants of the Bible are conditional, stating what God will do for His people if they adhere to the covenant.” I fail to see the connection between a covenant and an attribute of God. A covenant is an agreement between parties. While and an attribute of God is something that is intrinsic to His nature. His covenants may be conditional, fair enough, as in all covenants each of the parties adds something to the contract under a specified condition. But, what do His covenants have to do with His intrinsic nature?
Speaking of the nature of God, the following comes to mind: 1 John 4 “7 3 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. 8 Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.” For me, to have it heard or read it over and over again in the Bible (I site only one instance) that God is love, establishes a material equivalence between God and Love (“love is from God”) (see also CCC 221). If this is the case, that God is Love, and I believe it to be so, then God cannot deny His nature, Love. In other words if God ceased to love then He would cease to be and we know that that is impossible. Therefore, God can not not love.
Please allow me to make two more points. First the CCC 220 God's love is "everlasting":41 "For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you."42 Through Jeremiah, God declares to his people, "I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you."43 I do believe that the word everlasting is not conditional nor is it terminal based on someone’s actions (I repeat there is nothing that a finite being can do to affect or influence an infinite being namely God). His love is everlasting, unending not dependent on us. He is love.
Secondly, your article refers to some statement by Pope Benedict XVI. I would like to point out that in his encyclical SPE SALVI, he states: “The human being needs unconditional love. He needs the certainty which makes him say: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38- 39). If this absolute love exists, with its absolute certainty, then—only then—is man “redeemed”, whatever should happen to him in his particular circumstances.” Please not that the use of the word ‘absolute’ is, in the original Latin, the same word as the word translated as ‘unconditional’. The Latin word used is ‘Absoluto’. These two words, unconditional and absolute, are in fact synonyms of each other. Also please note that the Bible quote that he uses makes it abundantly clear that there is nothing that we can do to prevent God from loving us.
My belief in God’s unconditional love for man does not imply nor should anyone infer from it that this guarantees salvation. Man is saved by God’s grace and only by God’s grace. We are saved by faith and faith is a gift from God (grace). We do good works in order to testify to our faith not to influence God.

PS
Are you related to Robert Trent Jones the golfer?

The Rev. Robert T. Jones IV, Psy.D. said...

Ron,

Thanks for the post. I'll have to go back and reread my original post and the article behind it, since I wrote it over a year ago.

May I use your questions for a new post?

Father Bob Jones

PS. My grandfather was Bobby Jones, Robert Tyre Jones, Jr. Robert Trent Jones was the golf course architect. Thanks for asking.

whabbear said...

Dear Dr Jones and the other commenters:

I read Dr. Jones' original blog with a great deal of interest. Although my family background is Anglican, and I am confirmed in the church, I long ago assumed the status of an apostate, with a rather relaxed, though atheistic, position on the existence of God.

To an atheist, the issue of whether God's love is conditional is, paradoxically, quite important. Do you remember what happens to the earnest young follower of the evil God Tash, in C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle? Despite worshipping a demon his whole life, he is nevertheless accepted by Aslan wholeheartedly into the kingdom of heaven because, although his words and deeds were committed in Another's name, those words and deeds were actually quite Christian in their content, and were therefore accepted at face value.

I like to think that if I live my life according to the Christian principles on which I was raised then, even if I don't acknowledge any particular religious entity, a deity who supports those principles will look on my life with favor at the end.

I must admit that I find the alternative, that one could live what an objective observer would consider a Christian life, but then be rejected because of a refusal to swear fealty while on this plain of existence, to be somewhat ridiculous. Surely, the Creator is not that vain, or that petty!

Thoughts, gentlemen?

Robert McCann, Ph.D.
Research Psychologist
NASA Ames Research Center
Moffett Field, CA

Ron said...

Dear Whabbear,
Why is an atheist concerned about the afterlife? If there is no God then there is no afterlife. Isn’t that what you believe?
But if you are simply proposing a hypothetical my answer would be that neither I nor can anyone else knows what God will do in judgment. It is the providence of God who He will choose for heaven or hell. The Catholic Church teaches that there is nothing that a man can do to earn heaven. It is by God’s grace that we achieve heaven and it is by man’s free will that we choose hell. Good works are a reflection of a person’s faith and possibly a window into his / her soul indicating that the grace of God is at work in that person.
Conclusion, consider Pasqual’s wager, and accept God’s grace and return to the church. For it is by faith alone that a person is saved. That is faith is a gift from God that must be accepted freely by man.
In Christ the Savior

Ron

The Rev. Robert T. Jones IV, Psy.D. said...

Dear Dr. McCann,

Thanks so much for your post and for sharing your own journey in faith, or out of it as the case may be.

Others will probably comment more, but I suppose the only thing that I can add is that my preference would be that salvation would be a thing that was open to all, especially those who attempt to lead a good life. That is what I would prefer.

Unfortunately, the Scriptures and church Tradition have a different viewpoint and faith in Jesus Christ becomes normative for salvation because it fits in with the divine economy. If you have interest in this, read the pertinent passage of St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae. Unfortunately, I'm writing this on the fly and don't have the reference in front of me. If you are interested, I'll look up the citation for you.

Apostasy and atheism really are serious things and I hope that you can, at some point, find some peace with Christ who waits for all to return.

Thanks again for your thoughts.

Sincerely,

Father Bob Jones