God is love: a workable theology

A few days ago bls at The Topmost Apple posted a critique of this First Things article by Philip Turner on the “unworkable theology” of the Episcopal Church. In Turner’s view, liberal, mainline Protestantism prizes “inclusion” above all else and thus has reduced God to “love, pure and simple.” In response, bls pointed out that, in fact, liberals are not quite as squishy and non-judgmental as Turner supposes; they can be quite stern about sins against social justice, for example. She further pointed out that inclusion and salvation are distinct issues and that it’s possible to (and many churches do) emphasize inclusion without being requiring good works for salvation or being universalists. Moreover, many saints and doctors of the church, not to mention the current Pope, seem quite comfortable with saying that God is love, pure and simple.

Christopher at Betwixt and Between followed up with a post defending the view that, in fact, God is love “pure and simple,” and we can’t earn that love. But this doesn’t mean that God’s love leaves us the way we are, as critics like Turner claim. Christopher writes: “Let’s be clear, a response to Love that comes out of Love will bear appropriate fruits in virtues.” Yet the order is critical: we love because he first loved us. Following that, Christopher posted a lengthy meditation on the atonement of Christ (partly in response to a question I asked) and connected this to the ethics of same-sex relationships (which really does seem to be the subtext–or in many cases just the text–of so many of these cris de coeur about decadent liberal churches).

I may have more to say about all this later once things have sunk in a bit more, but I wanted to highlight these very thoughtful and thought-provoking posts.

8 thoughts on “God is love: a workable theology

  1. Pingback: On Love « haligweorc

  2. Nobody is going to write great theology to defend a particular party in the church, conservative or liberal. It may be possible to do so in favor of a single doctrinal point, but the more broadly you aim, the more likely the partisan vision will distort things.

    I see some truth and some falsehood on both sides here.

    But I think that the best liberals who could make a case for, say, inclusion, would be wary of defending every other aspect of the current party platform with equal gusto. It’s too accidental to warrant that. Likewise for the conservatives. I can imagine someone being reoriented by a long stay in a more conservative country. But would the real result be drawing the line in the sand exactly where other conservatives in the U.S. seem to be drawing it? Or would it be a re-evaluation of the matter that suggests that the lines should have been drawn earlier? Many parts of the First Things piece made sense to me. But I know many Christians who have managed to be both more conservative and more liberal in principled ways than that. They rarely ever fit into a political faction, let alone a reigning one.

  3. Yeah, I think there are a lot of ways you can slice this. Few people are down-the-line conservatives or liberals (what, in all logic, does abortion have to do with capital gains tax rates, e.g.?). And theological liberals are sometimes political conservatives (and vice versa). Plus, theological commitments don’t, in my view, yield a set of political views in any straightforward way (I think the Lutheran two kingdoms view is helpful here).

    Your point about conservative and liberal being relative is a good one too: in the ELCA I often feel pretty conservative, but if I was in the LCMS I’m sure I’d be considered a flaming liberal. 🙂

  4. The problem is more complicated than “liberal” and “conservative”, or even politics and theology, as if if one is orthodox with regard to the Incarnation, one must agree a particularly way on a given moral/ascetical matter. Things have never been that simple, and yet, what Turner does is suggest otherwise.

    When theological “liberal” means accepting of committed same-sex relationships, we’ve a problem in my opinion, and I’m afraid that that is precisely what the term means in too many so-called “conservative” circles who make this charge. To discuss core matters like Trinity and the Incarnation, as I do, from a rather traditional and “conservative” bent with easy access to the fathers and our own theologians on the point and then to suggest that I am a theological “liberal” because of my stance on a moral/ascetical matter is problematic at best. But, others in Anglicanism have and do accuse of heresy on this point.

    Worse, to suggest that the Episcopal Church preaches some other gospel is quite nasty simply because the church has taken stances on moral/ascetical matters with which others disagree. The fact is, Turner’s thoughts on core matters, such as “God is love”, give me pause because he seems out of line with the heart of the tradition, and particularly in Anglicanism, where “God is love” has a long and venerable history among our theologians, hymnists, poets, and novelists. It would be more honest to say he has a problem with homosexuality and doesn’t think it can be affirmed by God. And then, he would need to show that the possibility of grace cannot work in same-sex couples. It’s easier to make a charge of preaching another gospel, or to suggest that to get to the gospel one must first jump through the law. That may be Lutheran, but it is not and never has been the only way the gospel has been proclaimed in Anglicanism.

    Further, quite a lot of nuance is involved in the stances of the Episcopal Church on say abortion or even warfare, and to charge that that stance is “anything goes” is to bear false witness. There may be those that do preach and teach such, but that is not what I have encountered on the whole even in very liberal parishes where the theology on core matters give me pause just as much as Turner’s theology gives me pause here.

  5. Indeed. I was thinking of this today when reflecting that many of the sermons in our (very liberal) parish are actually the sheerest of moralism, though usually with some sort of “anti-Pelagian codicil” (e.g. “We can do this with the help of God’s grace.”).

    I’ve never really grasped the Lutheran law/gospel dialectic in all its subtlety. It’s not really the way my mind works. And I think it’s kind of disingenuous to insist that people have to be brought to recognize their sins before they can be told about God’s love (as though we don’t know what’s coming!). In fact, I think that very often you can’t see your sins until you experience love from another (or Other); it’s when that love becomes tangible that you realize what it is you were doing. (I was re-reading a bit of James Alison’s “On Being Liked” last night, and he seems to say something similar to this.)

  6. I would rather use the word “distinction” than “dialectic.” We’re at base saying that Law and Gospel are two different things. The key subtlety is to see just how many ways that elements of Law can be worked into the Gospel as people present it.

    Good point on how we often really become aware of our sins. When Lutherans insist on Law first, they will often say that you first find out whether or not the Law is at work in the hearer. If you think it is, then you need not start with Law since it’s already present. I also think there is a danger in insisting that each particular sin must be recognized before grace can be accepted. (Charles Finney enjoyed making such points.) The repentance that precedes grace does not merit anything. It just creates the condition necessary so that grace will be seen as something needed. This is somewhat of a psychology. And Lutherans will often count things like awareness of mortality as the Law doing its work.

    How to structure a sermon in light of Law and Gospel is probably subject to much more controversy among Lutherans than whether or not the distinction is a good one.

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