Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Plato, Nygren, and God's Love for Humans

Kevin Vanhoozer edits a booked titled Nothing Greater, Nothing Better. It is a series of articles covering contemporary issues on the love of God. I was particularly struck by a chapter in the book by Gary Badcock, titled “The Concept of Love: Divine and Human.”

Badcock discusses to two attempts to make sense of God’s ability to love humans. The first is from Plato. Plato described love as “born of need” (Vanhoozer, 31). So, according to Plato’s view, one person loves another person because they need affection. One loves wisdom because they have some foolishness in them (31-32). So, the gods, to Plato, cannot love because they do not have needs. The other attempt at describing God’s love comes from Anders Nygren. Nygren, in reaction to Plato, describes God’s love as the agape love that is “spontaneous and uncaused,” “indifferent to human merit” (33). So, according to Nygren, God sees nothing loveable in humans, but loves them anyway because he is God.

Badcock tries to find a kind of middle ground between these two. I do find his answer striking, but unsatisfying. I will try to deal with two important statements in Badcock’s reconciliation.

First, in reaction to Nygren’s view of man’s depravity, that “he [God] is unable to see any good remaining with human nature after the fall” (35), Badcock argues that “he [Nygren] represents an unduly pessimistic view of human nature and an inadequate doctrine of sin” (35). In response he says, “It is the love of God for the person that is all-important, the divine love that recognizes the goodness or potential for goodness buried deep beneath the mound of perceived unloveliness” (36).

Without saying it, it seems that Badcock is using Nygren as a kind of caricature for what is typically the Reformed view of total depravity. Like the liberal media loves reporting stories of Westburo Baptist church and other crazies, I come across a surprising amount of writers and speakers who tend to cite extreme versions of Calvinist doctrines and use it to knock down what most Calvinists actually say.  What I am saying is that Badcock’s choice of Nygren over a more classic approach, like Augustine, is suspect.  He seems to be setting up a kind of legal straw man. It’s above the belt, but it’s still a gut-check.

I agree with Badcock that the choice between Plato’s view and Nygren’s view is a false dilemma. I sit in the middle with him. He seems to sit a bit closer to Plato and I seem closer to Nygren. I am also arguing, however, that the rest of the Reformed community seems closer to me than to Nygren.

I haven’t read any Reformed theologians who would claim that there is not “any good remaining within human nature after the fall.” Reformed theology typically champions common grace and the imago Dei. There is certainly a great worth to human beings that God is jealous to restore. That remaining good, however, is not the motivation of God’s love. He needs no motivation. So, I think Reformed theology has a medium between these views that is not guilty of the same overstatements as Nygren.

The second statement from Badcock that struck me is that “God is affected by the world-or at the very least he chooses to be so-which is no more than to say that it matters to him, that he loves it” (46).

First, I want to point out some a presupposition to Badcock’s thinking. This statement is assuming that in order for love to exist, it must be affected by the one being loved. Not being affected implies “indifference” (46). It matters to me what Badcock means by “affected.” He isn’t, however, clear on this. If it merely means that God relates, responds, feels, and cares, I am not concerned. If he believes that God is “affected” in a way that implies humans do things that God didn’t expect and that have an impact on God’s experience as God, that is more concerning. He seems to step into this line of thinking when he says, “both positions err in not recognizing that the existence of the world adds something to God’s experience” (46).

While I think that Badcock raises some striking problems, I do not think we need to find answers to them in God’s being affected by humans in the way Badcock is describing. I think we need only look to the Trinity. In Jn. 10:17, Jesus states that the Father loves him. It seems reasonable to assume that Persons of the Trinity have loved each other from all eternity. From this, I would argue, that God’s intra-Trinitarian love for himself propels his love for humanity. His love for himself need not be affected by humans to be legitimate. He has had enough love pouring from his own being from all eternity that it does not seem to lesson his love to say that it is completely self-provoked. That is why I can hold to a Calvinistic view of human depravity are and have no problem seeing God’s love as actual love. Because, when the Father sees his church, he sees Christ.

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