What does “God is Love” mean? A Short Reflection

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.

1 John 4:16

What does “God is love” mean? Ian McFarland frames this question by reminding us that Scripture does, in fact, say God is other things—spirit, light, etc. He raises another concern by noting that humans “are before they love.” Is God’s love similar? If not, what is distinct about God’s love?

Like an ancient commentator, McFarland responds by observing a small thing in the Gospel of John’s epic opening hymn about the Word who was with God. Like a ghost note that catches the hearer’s ear, that word “with” captures McFarland’s eye. “Significantly,” he observes, 

“the Greek preposition used by the fourth evangelist is not meta or syn, the prepositions most typically rendered “with” in English, both of which connote a static collocation or coordination of distinct entities. It is rather pros, which is suggestive of a more dynamic relationship: the Word as “for,” “up against,” or (most crudely but also most evocatively) “toward” God. In short, God and the Word are not to be conceived as two things alongside one another. They are mutually implicated in another way.”

The Word Made Flesh, p. 28

Do you see what he’s done? He’s noted John’s unusual choice of a specific preposition to draw attention to the way the Father and the Son relate to one another. They do not relate “statically.” I think static here should be understood less as “unmoving” and more as “fixed.” In creaturely existence, our relationships are static in the sense that we can only relate to something else so much, to a certain degree. We have limits based on our embodiment, based on our self-awareness, and based on our imagination. We are fixed in our place, and so is everything else. So, we must concede that—relatively speaking, with God being that to which we are relative—every way we have of relating is static, fixed. In this sense our relationships with other things are complex, consisting of many parts.

So then, what is the other more dynamic way of relating that is true of God? The Word is with God in such a way that it is impossible for it to be otherwise. “The Father is the Father,” McFarland explains, “just as he gives life to the Son, even as the Son is the Son as he receives life from the Father: each thereby lives in the other.” The Spirit is not missing in this, though McFarland admits the “enigmatic” character of the Spirit. The Spirit is the one in whom the mutual love occurs and who confirms and bears witness to the love of the Father and the Son. This love is free, in that it is not based on anything prior; God is, simply and eternally, love. Putting the matter shortly: God is love because God is not otherwise than the Trinity. In this sense, the Trinitarian relationship is simple, in that the each person of the Trinity relates to the Other Persons in perfect unity.

God is, simply and eternally, love. Putting the matter shortly: God is love because God is not otherwise than the Trinity.

A child who relates to a rock by putting it in her pocket. In this sense the rock is “with” the child, but the distance remains palpable. Her fixed bodily existence does not allow a perfect unity with the rock she carries with her. With God’s own Triune relating, there is no distance. There is perfect withness.

Divine Playfulness

Douglas Campbell uses a different metaphor that may help us begin to understand the “mutual implication” between the Son and the Father. Having shown how familial metaphors shape the biblical imagination about God, Campbell suggests that “at the heart of the universe is a play of love between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.” This is an insight, Campbell suggests, that highlights the character of the Divine Love.

If I understand him correctly, Campbell’s metaphor here is meant to underline that God’s Triune way of relating is primarily characterized by shared delight, enjoyment, communion. There is nothing more essential to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’s relationship than their withness.

God’s Triune way of relating is primarily characterized by shared delight, enjoyment, communion. There is nothing more essential to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’s relationship than their withness.

He returns to the metaphor in his section titled “Election.” For the sake of his argument, McFarland reflected on “God is love” without describing God’s love for humans. But Campbell uses the idea of play to explain the Trinity’s love toward humankind. “So there is a very real sense in which God has created us to play with, not in the sense of toying with us, but in the sense of playing together with us” (emphasis added). In other words, the love shared between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit itself overflowed, resulting in God creating all things that God may welcome them into God’s own love. This is the connection to Paul’s understanding of election. Allowing Romans 8 and Ephesians 1 to reverberate off of one another, Campbell writes, “At the heart of the cosmos, its inception, its existence, and its future, lies the divine plan to create us and enjoy us in fellowship.” God eternally exists in perfect love; we’ve been created for sharing with God in it. This ought to help us better grasp the audacious claim that God’s love is known in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us, as the New Testament says surreptitiously. This is plainly in keeping with God’s eternal character. And this love is shared not statically, by Christ keeping safe distance from us, but instead, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 1: “In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves (vv. 5-6). The love of God, which defines the nature of the Trinity, adopts us in love. 

Campbell suggests singing the Jesus Culture chorus forever—“Your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me”—so that the centrality of God’s love embeds into our core. If you’d prefer something less contemporary, you may recall the hymn “The Love of God” which reminds us that we’ll always come up short in our quest for understanding God’s love, even with wonderful books like McFarland’s and Campbell’s.

Could we with ink the ocean fill
And were the skies of parchment made
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade
To write the love of God above
Would drain the oceans dry
And the scroll could not contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky

This post combines two ongoing review series. You can find the posts about Ian McFarland’s book The Word Made Flesh (WJK, 2019) here. And you can find posts about Pauline Dogmatics by Douglas Campbell (Eerdmans, 2019) here.

One thought on “What does “God is Love” mean? A Short Reflection

  1. Pingback: Pauline Dogmatics: What are we working with? – Theology Forum

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