DA Carson is one of the clearest and deepest thinkers in the Reformed evangelical world. In The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God Carson tackles what is perhaps the most difficult issue for Reformed thinkers to grapple with: if the God of the Bible is sovereign, can he really be loving?
Before making his case for what the love of God looks like, Carson grapples with the distortion of the love of God. In Carson’s words, “The love of God has been sanitized, democratized, and above all sentimentalized.”
Carson spends the first two chapters parceling out the love of God. First, Carson lays out what is his most significant contribution in the book: a layered understanding of the love of God. In doing so, Carson comes to grips with the multitude of ways God is talked about scripturally. For instance, how does one reconcile God’s love of the world with his love of the elect? It is a surprisingly difficult task that Carson has an elegant solution for.
Carson suggests that encapsulating all other loves is the intra-Trinitarian love of God. Within that love is “God’s providential love over all that he has made.” This is God’s love as a Creator. There is nothing that God has made that he does not love. Within that circle is God’s love of the fallen world. Within the circle of that love is God’s “particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect." And finally, at the center is God’s provisional love of the obedience of his children. Later in the book Carson reminds us that to absolutize any of these forms of love is to create “a false system that squeezes out other important things the Bible says, thus finally distorting your vision of God.”
Next, Carson tackles the weight that has been given in different camps of the Greek word agape in describing the love of God. Carson asserts that we have made too much of distinctions between phileo and agape and that more important is the way all of these loves reflect out the intra-Trinitarian love to us: “Thus we move from the intra-Trinitarian love of the Father for the Son, to the Son’s love of his people in redemption. Jesus thus becomes the mediator of his Father’s love. Receiving love, so has he loved.”
Next, Carson tackles the difficult relationship between the love of God and God’s sovereignty. Why is this so difficult? In some sense, you could say that the ongoing battle between Reformed and Arminian camps centers around which of these attributes of God trumps the other. The Reformed thinker has to be able to reconcile how her God is still truly loving in light of this intrinsic conflict.
Carson fleshes out just how raw the love of God is biblically. God’s love at times makes the staid reader blush. In Hosea, the Most High rhapsodizes, “How can I give you up, Ephraim… my heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.” Carson asserts that when it comes to the impassability of God, “If this is taken to mean that God is emotionless, it is profoundly unbiblical and should be repudiated.”
So, how do election and God’s love fit together? First, any position must begin with compatibilism: “God’s unconditioned sovereignty and the responsibility of human beings are mutually compatible.” We must continuously place ourselves under the scriptural witness, which attests both a transcendent sovereignty and his personhood. To throw in the towel of transcendence leaves us with “the modern therapeutic God [who] may be superficially attractive because he appeals to our emotions,” but is, in the end, no God at all.
Part of the solution of bridging the gulf between transcendence and personhood is understanding that God does not “’fall in love’ with the elect” but rather “sets his affection on us.”
Finally, Carson tackles how to reconcile God’s love with his wrath. God’s wrath, a thoroughly biblical concept “is not an implacable, blind rage.” It is, in fact, an “entirely reasonable and willed response to offenses against his holiness.” Contrary to popular understanding, when we come to the New Testament we find, in fact, that God’s wrath is ratcheted up alongside his love. How is this the case? We see that God’s justice is meted out, and not on those who deserve it, but that God himself, in Jesus Christ, bears the full weight of his wrath. “Thus God is necessarily both the subject and object of the propitiation.” This love of God displayed for us on the cross is a love that swallows up wrath and compels our love. As John reminds us, “we love because he first loved us.”
Carson’s contribution in The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God significant. I just added it, in fact, to my discipleship group’s curriculum as it is the most thoughtful wrestling through of what is at the crux of one of the most important theological issues a Christian has to come to grips with. As a reproduction of a series of lectures, I wish that there would have been a stronger editor. It’s a book that pushes the lay Christian because it can read unevenly (at times very understandable to any Christian, at other times it is very academic) and the thread of the argument is hard to follow at times, particularly in the second chapter. That said, it is a book any thoughtful Christian would benefit from. I highly recommend it.