Book Review: John C. Peckham, The Love of God: A Canonical Model

Peckham, John C. The Love of God: A Canonical Model. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 297 pp.; Pb.; $32.00   Link to IVP

Peckham’s 2012 dissertation at Andrews University was published as The Concept of Divine Love in the Context of the God-World Relationship (Studies in Biblical Literature 159; Peter Lang, 2013). The Love of God: A Canonical Model covers much of the same ground in an attempt to find a way between a classic theological view of God’s love which stresses the transcendence of God’s love and process theology which stresses the immanence of God’s love.

Peckham labels the classic view of God as the Transcendent-Voluntarist model. God is so utterly separate from creation he is completely free (voluntarism) and therefore depends on nothing (aseity) nor is he affected by anything (impassability). The Process theology alternative he labels the Immanent-Experientialist model (following Charles Hartshorne). Here God’s love is a divine sympathy because God is in the world and utterly affected by his creation.

In order chart the course between these two extremes, Peckham proposes a “canonical method” which answers five key questions. By canonical method, Peckham means he will engage in grammatical-historical exegesis of the text of the whole Bible. Although he does in fact engage in philosophical discussions of love and the nature of God, he does so from the foundation of what the Bible actually says. It is possible to discuss the nature of God without taking the text of the Bible into account at all, but Peckham grounds his theological proposals in canonical exegesis. By reading inductively across the canon, the scholar can develop minimal theological statements which are open to further expansion and clarification (a theological-spiral). He has discussed aspects of this method in a series of journal articles and a recent monograph (Canonical Theology, Eerdmans, 2016).

This method is used to answer five questions. First, Does God choose to fully love only some, or love all, or is he essentially related to all so that he necessarily loves all? Although this question sounds as though he will enter into a classic Calvinist vs. Arminian debate, he manages to avoid those categories by sticking to his canonical method. He does land somewhere between those two poles as the book develops, but he is less interested placing his view of God’s love in a theological pigeon-hole.

Second, does God only bestow value, or can he also receive value from his creation? Process theology argues that God feels all feelings, a kind of universal sympathy that allows him to love in a real sense. Classical theology resists this since “all feelings” include both love and sadism (for example), and seems to erode the classic theological views of God’s omnipotence and immutability. This was certainly a problem in recent years among evangelicals who developed Hartshorne’s process theology within Arminianism. The so-called “openness of God” debates generated dozens of books for evangelical publishers, Peckham only rarely touches on this literature because his interest is in the canonical data.

Third, Does God’s love include affection, desire, or enjoyment? In other words, his is love merely agape love, or can he experience eros, enjoyable love? In order to make this question make sense, Peckham includes an excellent chapter on the meaning of agape and eros in order to avoid confusion caused by popular preaching on God’s love. Classical theology views the suffering, emotional God of Process theology as weak and hardly a god at all! As Peckham points out in his chapter on this question, it is difficult to read the book of Hosea without hearing the real affection and love God has for his people.

Fourth, is divine love unconditional or unconditional? This question comes the closest to the classic Calvinist vs. Arminian debate, although once again Peckham is able to keep ought of the fight by attending to the details of the text. Does God respond to humans in some way, or is there something within God that requires him to love? Peckham finds room for both unconditional and conditional love because there is a real tension between these two positions in the Bible (210) and there are clear subjective and objective aspects of God’s love.

Fifth, can God and humans be involved in an asymmetrical reciprocal relationship? The classic view of God’s love seems unilateral and one-way while the Process view seems too sloppy, God loves everyone, a view which would naturally lead to universalism. Peckham deals with this issue by observing that the ideal relationship between God and his creation is reciprocal, but God is the more-faithful partner in the relationship.

Peckham’s responses to each of these questions form the main section of this book. He surveys all of the relevant texts (although the massive details are found in his The Concept of Divine Love in the Context of the God-World Relationship) and concludes God’s love is volitional, evaluative, emotional, foreconditional and ideally reciprocal.

These terms are fairly transparent with the exception of foreconditional, a term Peckham coins in order to convey God’s love as freely bestowed prior to conditions but not exclusive of conditions (192). In addition, foreconditional love includes prevenient, unmerited love. Although buried in a footnote, Peckham points out that conditionality should not to be confused with merit (194, note 17). The Bible constantly indicates divine love is conditional on a human response. Here Peckham has John 14:23 in mind, where Jesus states “if anyone loves me my Father will love him.” A condition is stated, although the one who does love the Son does not by that action merit God’s love. In fact, the conditionality of God’s love means God’s love can be forfeited. Jesus has compassion on the crowds, but the crowds refuse to respond to his message.

By way of conclusion, I would observe that traditional Calvinists will find much in Peckham’s book which is challenging and corrective. But I suspect they will remain unconvinced of some aspects of Peckham’s description of God’s love because he falls too far from the theological commitments of classic Reformed theology. This is a book rich in detail which takes the Scripture seriously and is not distracted by the need to defend an entrenched post-Reformation position.

NB: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Published on June 4, 2017 on Reading Acts.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: John C. Peckham, The Love of God: A Canonical Model

  1. Phillip, you said QUOTE:
    “By canonical method, Peckham means he will engage in grammatical-historical exegesis of the text of the whole Bible.”

    This is the fundamental problem – the flawed unbiblical assumption that “All Scripture is EQUAL” – in authority, importance, value, accuracy, and is all somehow equally “The Word of God”, without paying attention to who is speaking.

    If we are followers of Jesus, we should listen to Jesus first, put more weight on what Jesus said, and evaluate other New Testament texts in light of Jesus’ teaching through His appointed Apostles- shouldn’t we?

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    • You are not going to like this book, not at all. Peckham is trying to avoid the “canon within a canon” you have so strongly (ad nauseum) advocated.

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      • Phillip,
        in the last chapter of Matthew 28:16-20 (which our tradition has dubbed “The Great Commission)
        Jesus spoke of “teaching them to obey EVERYTHING I HAVE COMMANDED YOU.”

        Specifically who was Jesus addressing here – in other words, according to Jesus in context, who is YOU exactly in this sentence?

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  2. Thanks. Good to know of this work and author. He stands among what seems to be a growing number, to my limited knowledge, looking to mediate different reasonable approaches to God and Scripture.

    I’d wonder if he’s really “tackling” the predominant Process thinking, however, if he mostly works from Hartshorne… more a philosopher than a theologian. From a fair exposure to the system and its main thinkers, I much more observe them (Cobb, Griffin, Suchocki, Epperly, Ogden, etc.) going straight back to statements and comments of Whitehead and NOT referencing Hartshorne much. And, of course, they take the theology Whitehead only touched on into much more depth, along with views of Jesus, inspiration, etc.

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    • To be clear, the book is not on Process theology itself, so there is no real engagement with the whole system. That’s not the point of the book, so it is OK that material is set aside.

      He is only interacting with Hartshorne with respect to how God’s love works, and it appears to me Hartshorne is set up as a extreme Arminian (in contrast to Calvinism, but NOT hypercalvinism). By setting up the boundaries that way, his “middle way” between the two extremes. is more or less Aminianism.

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