The Divine Immutability of God’s Love

Throughout the Christian community, the love of God proves to be a recurring topic of discussion. From classical theology and philosophy to contemporary worldviews and doctrines, this topic tends to expand from one end of this spectrum to the other. However, the interrelationship between God’s love, especially in terms of agape versus eros, and His immutability help shape each discussion within the boundaries of classic theology and the contemporary discussion.

To provide a basis of understanding, one must first understand divine immutability. This concept primarily deals with the attributes of God that cannot be changed or altered. In other words, even though God may respond to His creatures in various ways, His essence remains immutable.[1]  In turn, one must always consider God’s immutability when examining His relational attributes, such as His love.

Second, one must understand God’s love as defined by classical theology. The view of
classical theology regarding the love of God is best reflected through Thomas Aquinas’ belief that any good in a person does not drive a response from God, but rather the good in a person is a product of God’s love.[2]  In essence, classical theology maintains that God’s love is not dependent on human action, but is reflected through the good in humanity. In addition, classical theology also recognizes the distinct differences between agape and eros in relation to God’s love.

One also cannot discuss the love of God in terms of classical theology without mentioning the contributions of Plato. Plato asserted that love, especially eros, stems from the missing good in a person that drives a desire for the completion of self.[3] On the surface, it appears that Plato’s definition of love focuses on the individual and one’s desire for completion.

However, when viewed through a contemporary theological lens, Plato’s definition of love further hones in on the importance of self and one’s relationships. To explain Plato in contemporary philosophical or theological terms, one must utilize relational terms since human beings exist as an individual only in relation to community.[4] Hence, most contemporary discussions of God’s love within the construct of His immutability take on a more individualistic and relational slant than that of classical theology.

Third, one must also understand the various viewpoints within contemporary theology, such as those of Gary D. Badcock and Anders Nygren. Badcock makes the argument that, since wholeness of self drives Plato’s definition of eros and not self-interest, egoism alone is not a valid basis. In addition, based on God’s love in the person of Christ, Badcock asserts that it is appropriate for God to desire a response to His initiative of love.[5]

Another contemporary theologian, Anders Nygren, posited a thesis regarding the two words used to depict God’s love—agape and eros—which stated that agape, or ‘gift love’ familiar to most Christians is the direct opposite of the eros, or ‘need love’ discussed by Plato.[6] Most modern evangelicals would view Nygren’s thesis as plausible given their common understanding of agape. This is reinforced by the fact that the New Testament presents an ideal of agape that reverses the Platonic one, as well as depicts man as the source of eros and God as the source of agape. Furthermore, eros is dependent upon the characteristics of an object while agape is independent of an object, and is applicable to the good, bad, and ugly alike.[7]

While both theologians present valid points, I agree more with Nygren’s thesis regarding the differences between eros and agape. The applicability of agape is more aligned with Scripture, especially when applied to the Gospel. For example, the love that God demonstrated towards His creation by sending His Son is a prime example of Nygren’s description of agape, in which this love applies to all of His creation and is independent of its actions.[8] Granted, Badcock would argue that a response to this demonstration of love is expected by God, but its applicability remains independent.

However, this expected response would seem to fit the openness theism model of divine love. According to openness theism, God’s love fosters His desire for mutual relations with His creation, and, through these relations, the will of God would be achieved.[9] Therefore, open theists would be more apt to support Badcock’s assertion for God’s desire for a response to His initiative of love as discussed above.

John S. Feinberg asserts that open theists believe in a dynamic, rather than static, divine relationship with the world. In addition, open theists present this love as the leading divine attribute throughout Scripture.[10] So how does God’s love demonstrated through this dynamic relationship align with His immutability in open theism? As Feinberg further discusses, open theists declare that the nature of God and His attributes are immutable, and He will continue to be loving. However, given His changing, or dynamic relationships with His creation, He is not entirely immutable. As depicted in Scripture, God does change His mind, especially when it comes to relationships.[11]

Finally, coupled with an understanding of the interrelationship between God’s love and His immutability within the boundaries of classical and contemporary theology, one must be familiar with the importance of this issue for the Gospel and ministry. In his discussion on open theism, C. Fred Smith hones in on its intense focus on divine immanence, specifically God’s relationship with humanity. In turn, this lopsided focus downplays God’s transcendence as depicted in Scripture.[12]

Christians must be aware of these discussions and associated worldviews in order to gain a more holistic view of God and His attributes. To a further extent, pastors must be able to portray this holistic view of God through their presentation of the Gospel, and the cultivation of personal relationships with Christ, since He is the only One who can fully comprehend God.[13]

____________________

1. Gerald L. Bray, The Doctrine of God: Contours of Christian Theology (Westmont: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 101.

2. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Introduction: The Love of God,” in Nothing Greater, Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 6.

3. Gary Badcock, “The Concept of Love: Divine and Human,” in Nothing Greater, Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,
2001), 31.

4. Ibid., 32-33.

5. Vanhoozer, 24.

6. Ibid.

7. Badcock, 33.

8. John 3:16, KJV.

9. Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008), 213.

10. John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2001), 70.

11. Ibid.

12. C. Fred Smith, “Open Theism,” in The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics, eds. Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), 377.

13. Matthew 11:27, KJV.

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