Love in the Godhead?
The Gospel of John, while containing some of the most powerful attestations to Godís uni-personal nature, also records some statements which have been difficult for many Oneness believers to reconcile with their faith. One such example is Johnís record of statements made by Jesus concerning the Fatherís love for Him (John 3:35; 5:20; 10:17; 15:9-10; 16:27; 17:23-24, 26 and His love for the Father (14:31). What did Jesus mean by these statements? If God is one, and Jesus is that one God incarnate, then how could the Father love the Son and the Son love the Father and there still be only one God? An exchange of love seems to imply that Godís being is multi-personal, not uni-personal, which is what Trinitarians have claimed for centuries (specifically that God is tri-personal). Do these Scriptures which speak of love between the Father and Son support the Trinitarian doctrine? If not, how are we to understand such Biblical statements?
The first thing to be noted in this discussion is that the Scripture never mentions love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but only love between the Father and Son. If Jesusí words truly teach an eternal love between Persons in a Trinity, one would have to wonder why one member of that Trinity is never spoken of as giving or receiving love. While this is an argument from silence, the absence of the "the third-Person of the Trinity" in the exchange of love should cause us to critically evaluate the impetus for Jesusí words. Even if the love spoken of is indeed between multiple Persons in the Godhead, while such would disprove Oneness theology, it would not prove a Trinitarian conception of God because all three "Persons" are not said to be involved. At best, such "evidence" would give evidence for a binitarian view of God.
How could it be, and why would it be that the Father loves the Son, and the Son the Father? The fact that the love is only spoken of as being between the Father and Son, coupled with the fact that all such statements are post-incarnational (spoken only by Christ), should alert us to consider that such statements are due to the incarnation. Any attempt to discover the meaning and nature of the love between the Father and Son must incorporate this monumental work of God, and its ramifications for the discussion at hand.
With the advent of the incarnation God's existence as a genuine human being became distinct to, but not separate from God's continued existence beyond the incarnation (God in His transcendence). When God assumed a human existence in the incarnation, He acquired a consciousness and identity which He did not possess before the incarnation. He had a human psyche not overwhelmed or consumed by His deity. The exercise of Jesus' human nature (such as His consciousness, spirit, will, mind, emotions, and flesh) in such a way requires that in the incarnation, Jesus be spoken of as possessing an identity distinct from, but not separate from the Father.1 Just as we find a distinction, but not a separation of Christ's two natures, we also find a distinction, but not a separation between God and Jesus; the Father and the Son.
Let it not be thought that we are separating Jesus and the Father so as to say that they are two distinct persons in the Godhead. What is being emphasized is the Biblical distinction between the Father and the Sonóa distinction between God's existence as exclusive deity and His existence as deity and humanity conjoined into the one person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is distinct from the Father as it pertains to His human existence. Although the Father and Jesus are the same person in regards to deity, the addition of humanity in the Son makes the Son distinct from the Father; distinct in regards to the humanity, not in the Godhead itself.
It is because of this distinction between God's existence in the incarnation (Son) and God's continued existence beyond the incarnation (Father) that we read of love existing between the Father and Son. God created human beings as relational beings, with the capacity to receive and give love. Because Jesus was truly human, although fully God simultaneously, He had a need to relate to the Father as do all men, and thus love the Father. The Father, who loves all men, also loved Jesus, who was as human as us all. In this relationship between Father and Son (as with any relationship), the exchange of love is to be expected.
Some have tried to explain this exchange of love as Jesusí human nature loving Jesusí divine nature, and vice-versa. Trinitarians have particularly criticized this explanation, pointing out that it reads something into Jesusí words that He did not say, and makes Jesusí statements meaningless when interpreted according to the normal use of language. We must agree that Jesus did not say His divine nature loves His human nature. Also, such an approach assumes an unbiblical definition of "Son," attributing it strictly to Jesusí humanity, to the exclusion of His whole person which includes His deity. The Biblical use of the term "Son" certainly originated with the incarnation, but it does not refer only to Jesus' human nature.2 The term "Son" incorporates Jesusí whole person, both deity and humanity conjoined into one indivisible person. To say that "Son" only refers to Jesusí human nature is Nestorian at heart, separating Jesus into two persons in one body. It presents Christ as two beings in one body, the divine nature loving the human nature. Such a conception would have Jesus saying, "I love myself," or "I love my other nature" rather than, "The Father loves the Son." The Scripture, however, presents Christ as one whole person.. Although Christ has a divine and human nature, natures do not love, people love. Jesus loved the Father, and the Father loved Jesus.
While the above explanation does justice to Jesus’ statements concerning love between the Father and Son after the incarnation, what about Jesus’ statement in John 17:5 where He said to the Father, “You loved me before the creation of the world.” This love is pre-incarnational, and thus cannot be explained by the incarnation. Does this, then, teach an eternal love between Persons in the Godhead? To answer this question we must consider God’s foreknowledge, and ability to “call those things which are not as though they were” (Romans 4:17). Jesus is said to be the lamb slain from the foundation of the world (I Peter 1:19-20; Revelation 13:8). Although Jesus qua Jesus did not exist until the fullness of time—and thus not slain until the fullness of time—God considered the crucifixion to be an accomplished event even before the creation of the world. Believers are even said to have had our names written in the Book of Life before the foundation of the world (Revelation 17:8), although our actual salvation experience does not occur until we exist in space/time. Clearly we did not exist before the foundation of the world, and yet God considered us to have already been saved even then, calling those things which were not as though they were. In like manner, Jesus qua Jesus did not exist until the incarnation, and yet the Father loved Him prior to creation, calling those things which were not as though they were. The Father loved the Son in foreknowledge, just as God loved all of us, and saved us according to His foreknowledge.
Trinitarians are quick to point out that God is love (I John 4:8, 16), and that true love must have an object for love to have any meaning. Since creation is not eternal, while God is, and thus His love is eternal, it is argued that God needed an eternal object of love. Trinitarians see this eternal object of love as the Trinity itself. The Father has had the Son and Spirit as eternal objects of love, and likewise the other two Persons of the Trinity. But as I have demonstrated above, it is not difficult to conceive of Godís love being eternally directed toward His creation, even before the creation truly existed in space/time.
Even if we conclude that Godís eternal love was not based on His foreknowledge and foreordination of the creation, why can it not be conceived that the Father could love Himself eternally? God is love, after all, not just the source of love. We can have a godly love for ourselves (a respectful recognition of our dignity because of who/what God created us to be). If we can have a love for our self, who are made in Godís image, then is it not possible that God, too, could have a love for His self? This is supported by the fact that God gave us the command to love others as we love ourselves (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:19). Our love for others is based, in part, on our love for self (again, in a godly sense). If Godís image-bearers can do such, then why cannot God have love for His self also? Such an argument is speculative and inconclusive, but is an argument nonetheless. I find the argument no more speculative than the Trinitarian claim that God has been eternally love by being in community with His tri-personal self. This claim to knowledge assumes something about the nature of God and the nature of His love, based on our imperfect, human experience of love. Human love needs an object, but it could very well be that Godís perfect love does not require an object to have a true existence. When it comes to the nature of God and His love, then, the idea that love must have an object to be true love may be a presupposition we are making about love based upon our limited understanding of love. If God needs no direct object for His nature of love to have meaning, the Trinitarian argument against the Oneness position becomes completely invalid. Again, this portion of the discussion has been entirely speculative. While I do not personally hold to the "self-love" explanation, I postulate such speculation simply to demonstrate that the Oneness position cannot be rendered de facto false based on the fact that one of God's eternal attributes is love. There are at least two ways to explain John 17:24 in light of Oneness theology.
In conclusion, Jesus' statements concerning love in the Godhead harmonize quite well with Oneness theology, being understood in light of the incarnation. Jesus is distinct from the Father because of His human existence, and with His humanity-based distinction from the Father there arises a need for relationship with God just as there is a need for relationship with God in all genuine human beings. One element of the Son's relationship with the Father is the element of love.
1. Daniel L. Segraves, Systematic Theology I. (Stockton, CA: n.p., 1997), 38. <back>
2. That "Son" cannot attributed purely to Christ's humanity is evidenced by the fact that Hebrews 1:8-9 connects "Son" with "God," saying, "But unto the Son He says, 'Your throne, O God...'." If Son referred only to Christ's human nature, such a statement would be meaningless. Clearly the author of Hebrews is attributing deity to Son. Another example is found in Matthew 16:16-17 when it is revealed to Peter that Jesus is the Son of God. If "Son of God" only refers to Jesus' humanity, no revelation from the Father would have been necessary. Anybody could have seen that Jesus was a human being by just looking at Him. Even the unbelieving Jews understood Him to be a genuine human being. It is what the Jews could not believe, that Peter understood by the revelation of God; i.e. Jesus was divine, being both God and man simultaneously. <back>
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