Love, or holy love? Why it matters

03202011-transcendentThere’s a conversation in Wesleyan circles about God’s nature. Thomas Jay Oord insists that the unadorned noun, “love,” is sufficient when talking about the character of God. Kenneth Collins, on the other hand, prefers to add an adjective, describing God as “holy love.” I side with Collins, and here’s why:

1. The biblical evidence – Two key New Testament passages come to mind. In 1 Peter 1:16, quoting Leviticus 11:44, God calls us to holiness in simple terms: “Be holy, because I am holy.” The verse is preceded by a call to avoid the “evil desires” that typified us when we “lived in ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14, NIV). Holiness is presented as the opposite of evil, i.e. righteousness. God is saying: “Pay attention! This is something crucial about who I am. Because purity is part of who I am, so it should be part of who you are.”

Yet if we stop there, we have only one half of the equation. 1 John 4:8 (NIV) teaches: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” There is no hatred in God. Rather, God seeks the well-being of all creation. In fact, love does not exist where a genuine and prioritized interest in the well-being of others is absent.

2. Immanence and transcendence – Christian theology teaches that – in relation to creation – God is both transcendent (over and above) and immanent (close by). Isaiah 6:1 is the prophet’s vision of the LORD who is “high and lifted up.” This is the picture of transcendence, that the LORD is the Other, the Creator not to be confused with the creation. Yet this coin has two sides. In Jesus, Immanuel, we also encounter God with us (Matthew 1:23), the immanent one, close by and alongside all that God loves. This is a tension in our view of God, to be sure, but not unlike other tensions that we accept, such as Jesus being wholly human and wholly divine.

So where does this leave us?

If we say only that “God is love,” we are favoring part of the biblical revelation over another; it is an incomplete picture of God. Balanced doctrine takes into account what John Wesley called the “whole tenor of Scripture.” Though this brief essay has cited only a few passages, a more thorough study of Old and New Testaments would confirm that these dual emphases as related to God’s nature – holiness and love – exist side-by-side. Like a double helix strand of DNA, stability comes when the two remain joined together.

Danger lies in either extreme. Should we speak of God as only holy, inevitably our concept of God would be that of a distant, even harsh deity unable to identify with our weaknesses. On the other hand, if we only speak of God as love, we risk making God a doting grandfather who cares little about the moral quality of our lives. To maintain the transcendence/immanence tension – of the exalted, righteous God and the God who showed his affection for us through the incarnation of Christ – then speaking of God’s nature as “holy love” maintains equilibrium in our vision of who God is and who we are to be in response.

May the God who is holy love be our exemplar. May Jesus Christ – who is the very image of God – inspire us to lead lives that are simultaneously unpolluted by the world and selflessly poured out in loving service to others.

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Image credit: aboutfbc.org

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2 thoughts on “Love, or holy love? Why it matters

  1. Very interesting thoughts. How does the equation change if we talk about God as loving holiness? Norman Snaith (Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament) pointed out the definition of holiness as otherness. God is unique, transcendent yet immanent. This description is very helpful for worship, which is the essence of what we are to do as human beings. To speak of God as love is only part of the equation in the Bible.

    • Thanks for the comment, Dave. At first glance, I would see “holy love” and “loving holiness” as equivalent terms. But, I can see upon further reflection that “loving holiness” places the word “holiness” (as the noun) more firmly the center. What do you think?

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