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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Book Review: The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God

Carson, D. A. The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000. 93 pp. $14.99.

D. A. Carson is Research Professor of the New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Carson is widely published and is renown for his work in many fields. He is the co-author of a New Testament Introduction. Carson has written numerous commentaries. His writings have broached a wide array of topics including Worship, Christian suffering, Postmodernism, the Emerging Movement, KJV-Only Controversy, and Exegesis.

This short introduction on the doctrine of the love of God had its beginnings in a lecture series by Carson delivered at Dallas Theological Seminary in 1998. This lecture first appeared in print in the 1999 volume of Bibliotheca Sacra.

One might be tempted to ask, "What is so difficult about the doctrine of the love of God?" This is the first question which Carson seeks to answer and in so doing illustrates the growing problem of the biblical ignorance many have when addressing this topic. In chapter one, the author discusses reasons why the doctrine of the love of God is difficult. The first difficult issue in expressing the love of God today is a source issue. Christians should ground their understanding of the love of God in the Bible. Non-Christians ground their understanding in many sources, but not normally in the Bible. The source determines our understanding, and due to the varying sources used to determine the meaning of the love of God we have worldview clashes and a plethora of definitions in the culture.

The second difficulty arises from the first. Understanding the love of God also requires an understanding in complementary doctrines also taught about God in the Bible including the holiness of God, the sovereignty of God, and the providence of God (p 11). The culture in large has already purged these qualities from their vocabulary when speaking about God. This development will necessarily lead to a divergence in our understanding what the love of God entails.

The third problem area arises from the dominant worldview prevalent in industrialized countries, which is Postmodernism. The rejection of the absolute trivializes any attempt to be dogmatic when addressing any topic, not just the doctrine of the love of God. The result of Postmodernism leads to many competing understandings of the love of God, and to reject any of the treatments is considered taboo.

If I have understood Carson correctly, his fourth and fifth difficulties are internal issues. First, Carson says that Christians have themselves been too quick to neglect how the love of God is compatible with God's justice, God's sovereignty, and the problem of evil. Perhaps we have tried to make the love of God seem simpler than what it really is. The author's fifth point is that Christians in their attempts to articulate the love of God have also neglected the diverse ways Scripture talks about the love of God.

This leads Carson to list five different expressions of the love of God used in the Bible, followed by short definitions and Biblical examples. They are:

1. The peculiar love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father (p 16).
2. God's providential love over all that he has made (pp 16-17).
3. God's salvific stance toward his fallen world (pp 17-18).
4. God's particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect (pp 18-19).
5. God's love is sometimes said to be directed toward his own in a provisional or conditional way--conditioned, that is, on obedience (pp 19-21).

Carson next warns against wrong approaches in the quest for understanding the love of God. First, we should not seek to absolutize any one the five ways in which the Bible speaks about the love of God over the other four. Second, he warns us against trying to speak of these loves independently. Third, he cautions us against a word study approach. Carson's rejects the often preached, "agapao means only unconditional love versus phileo means only erotic love" approach as this has now been debunked academically.

Throughout the duration of chapter 2 through the last chapter (chapter 4), Carson examines biblical texts of each of the five categories previously mentioned. Along the way the author gives a few examples of how each expression of the love of God helps us to understand another expression of the love of God. For example, Carson examines the love which the Father has for the Son from John 5:16-30 (pp 30-34). The Father's love is expressed by his showing the Son all things. The full expression of himself to the Son enables us to more fully understand John 3:16 as the Father so loved the world, he gave his only Son, the Son whom he has uniquely shown all things.

The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God is very helpful as an introduction into the subject of the expressions of the love of God. The book has many strengths. Already mentioned, Carson helps the reader to see how even the church's understanding of the love of God has been distorted due to the pressures coming from the culture. This book harkens us back to the Scripture as the ground for our understanding the love of God. Carson also encourages us to think comprehensively as well, for the church today is saturated with teaching on the 3rd category he lists, God's salvific stance toward his fallen world (pp 17-18), to the neglect of categories 1, 4, and 5 (see above).

Additional strengths of this book are Carson's discussions on the impassability of God and the relationship between the holiness and love of God found throughout chapters 3 and 4. Carson writes concerning the impassibility of God, "Closer to the mark is the recognition that all of God’s emotions, including his love in all its aspects, cannot be divorced from God’s knowledge, God’s power, God’s will. If God loves, it is because he chooses to love; if he suffers, it is because he chooses to suffer. God is impassible in the sense that he sustains no ‘passion,’ no emotion, that makes him vulnerable from the outside, over which he has no control, or which he has not foreseen . . . Our passions change our direction and priorities, domesticating our will, controlling our misery and our happiness, surprising and destroying or establishing our commitments (p 59-60).

One weakness to the book was perhaps the lack of integration of the fifth expression of the love of God with others. Just how do the conditional promises of Scripture relate to the effective, particular love and the providential love of God for all creation?

The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God is a must read for preachers. It has been my experience that preachers have sorely neglected the depth of the riches of the love of God. This book will awaken Christians to the complexity and comprehensive nature of the love of God, and I hope along the way help Christians to know the richness of the love which God has for the church in Christ. In addition to this The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God will serve as a rudder to steer us back to Scripture and away from culture for our understanding of the world around us.

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