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
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.