Confessional Fidelity and Divine Love
It is expected that denominations whose lifeblood is constituted by one of the great historic confessions should subscribe to them. The Church of England subscribes to the Thirty-Nine Articles, Lutherans to the Book of Concord, Dutch Reformed Calvinists to the Three Forms of Unity, and Presbyterians to the Westminster Confession of Faith. There are some Baptists who adopt the London Confession of Faith as an accurate summary of biblical doctrine. Once this point has been conceded, however, questions arise. How strict or loose should subscription be to the confessions of the respective denominations? (Moving forward, I shall refer only to the Westminster Confession, but the same questions apply to any group who wishes to acknowledge and uphold its links to the recent and remote Christian past).
How permissible is it for a Presbyterian minister to disagree publicly with the wording of the Confession he has solemnly vowed to uphold in his teaching and preaching ministry? Are there instances in which it is consistent both to vow to uphold the Westminster Confession while completely disavowing certain of its claims such as the Pope being the antichrist? To make matters worse, what does one do when one realizes as a matter of historical fact that the Confession itself was in crucial respects during its formation “a bundle of compromises?” One thinks for example of the differences of opinion between Gillespie and Selden or of the fact that there were Congregationalists as well as Presbyterians participating in the assembly. (See William M. Hetherington’s History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, chapter 2).
The relevance of questions like these is made clear when thinking about the Westminster Confession’s’s doctrine of God. The second chapter of the Confession contains one of the most exalted descriptions of God to be found in one place. I want to touch on just two aspects of what the chapter claims about the nature of God and raise some questions.
In Section 1, the Confession describes God as “most loving.” In section 2, we find the following claim: “God has all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself; and is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which He has made.”
Two contradictory claims appear to be being made. The first is that God is most loving. Christians will not be surprised by this, knowing as they do that God is described as love (1 John 4:8). The second claim might strike many readers as strange, indeed foreign to our normal ways of thinking about love. It claims that god is in need of nothing, self-sufficient. Indeed, Section 2 of the Confession goes on to claim that God derives no benefit or glory from His creation. This kind of language about the divine nature is not often heard, but it in fact echoes what the Apostle Paul says in Acts 17:25: “Nor is he [God] served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (ESV).
I just said that this second claim seems to run counter to our normal ways of thinking about love. Let me elaborate. Plato, the great philosopher of Athens (427 to 347 B.C. had claimed that love is something needy. It makes no sense to say that love is unless it is of something. One loves one’s spouse or one’s friends; love does not exist apart from that to which it seeks to be related.
The problem is that the Confession will not allow one to suppose that god’s love is based on a need in God to be related to His creation. He is self-sufficient. Plato maintains that a perfect being would not go outside itself to love, and yet the confession states that God is, in addition to being self-sufficient, most loving. Obviously, a Christian cannot adopt the view that god cannot love. Christianity’s central message of redemption from sin makes it clear that God’s love initiates the giving of the Son that brings about redemption (John 3:16).
The question is: What conceptual tools do we have at our disposal to help us grasp the nature of God’s love? Is there an account or a combination of several accounts of love that can help us make sense out of the claim that god loves us?
Orthodox Christianity can get around Plato’s dilemma concerning love by the use of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity consists of Father, Son, and Spirit, each of whom loves the other two members unceasingly, which means that God does not need to go outside Himself to be loved. Each member of the Trinity eternally loves and is loved by the others. Of course, the question that follows from this is: Why did God create the world? Good Reformed Christianity says that He did so for His own glory. More elaborately, to love in the Christian sense is to share oneself, and in the case of God, to share Himself without needing to do so. (See Jonathan Edwards’s classic The End for which God Created the World for more on this). These reflections make it possible for there to be a compatibility between Platonism and Christianity as long as human love, which is needy, and divine love, which is not, are not confused.
Subscription to a confessional standard cannot by itself answer the question we have raised concerning divine love. This is not a criticism of confessional subscription; confessional statements by their very nature leave many questions unanswered both because of the limitations of space required for their sensible adoption and because reasonable drafters of confessions realize that one’s conscience in matters of faith can only be bound to a confessional document only to the extent that the document expresses what to one’s conscience constitutes a biblical doctrine. All that said, the Westminster theologians were clearly articulating a view of god that relied upon men such as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas for its prior formulation. At the time of the writing of the Confession, orthodox Christians took it for granted that the doctrine of God taught in chapter 2 was simply correct.
Considerations such as those offered here ought to lead any reader to take seriously the importance of knowing Christian doctrine well, especially in ecclesiastical contexts where confessional subscription of one kind or another is required. The doctrine of God is no small thing, and one ought to know clearly what one believes about God before subscribing to a confession with very specific theological commitments such as those presented in chapter 2 of the confession.
I will not discuss Plato’s view further here. I mention it because it is one of the sources of our thinking about love that remains powerfully influential on anyone who seeks to understand and articulate just what love is and what it means to love. Symposium is the dialogue in which Plato offers some of his most profound thought on the nature of love. Many translations are available, but I have benefited from Plato, Symposium, trans. Seth Benardete, with commentaries by Allan Bloom and Seth Benardete, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).