Review of “The Love of God: A Canonical Model” by John C. Peckham

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After reading this book, I already want to read Peckham’s other book coming out in just about a month (Canonical Theology – published by Eerdmans). It looks like in his NEXT book, Peckham will explain the process of how he did what he did in THIS book (Perhaps working similarly to how G.K. Beale’s later handbook accompanied his earlier commentary?). For this potential alone I’ll buy Peckham’s next book because I was quite literally astonished by what he was able to do in this one.

I bought this book for mostly one reason: I am trying to figure out how to adequately summarize the nature of God’s love, in human language. This has turned out to be a bit more difficult for me than I had initially anticipated. (Perhaps I was over estimating myself just a tad? :) But seriously, specifically, I’ve been wondering if God’s love should be described as “unconditional love.” Notice, I’m not asking, “Is God’s love often described as unconditional?” because of course, it is. Virtually all Christians I know (and most Christian scholars as well) speak of God’s love as “unconditional”. Actually, we [Christians] don’t just describe God’s love as unconditional, we celebrate God’s love as unconditional. I want to know if that is proper, or not.

For reasons far too lengthy for this blog post, I’ve been a bit hesitant to speak of God’s love as an “unconditional love.” Unfortunately, “unconditional love” just doesn’t seem to adequately or even truly describe the love of God that I see in Scripture. Certainly, in Scripture we see some aspects of unconditionality as God relates to the world, but God’s love never seems to stop there. Doubly unfortunate is the fact that I rarely see anyone making any nuances or objections to our current vernacular. Which makes me feel like maybe I’m on to something, but most likely, makes me wonder if I’m just being crazy. So, I bought this book hoping to receive some more clarity on the issue. Or at the least, figure out how to even begin to briefly articulate my hesitation in a way that actually makes sense.

As it turns out, lots of people besides me have nuanced the terminology (gee, who woulda thunk it!), but I just hadn’t ever heard of these people before! Until now. This book was immensely helpful for me because Peckham not only delineates the two major “thought camps” within Christiandom on this issue (“transcendent-voluntarist model” & the “immanent-experientialist model”) but also offers a new model: the “fore-conditional-reciprocal model” since he also [like myself, as I found out] is not happy with either of the two previous options.

Peckham argues thoroughly, to say the least. One of the reasons I loved this book was for the simple fact that on a lot of the pages, the footnotes take up the most room! For someone as unknowingly un-initated as me, I needed every.single.footnote. On virtually every page, Peckham explains his explanations and he tirelessly shows his work. It isn’t surprising then that this was published by IVP Academic. I showed my wife one of the pages, and she almost puked! Needless to say: this book is not for everyone. But for those of us for whom it IS for, it’s like PURE GOLD! I must have said, “wow” to myself a few hundred times as I was reading this book. Is it so shameful to admit the information took my breathe away on numerous occasions? :)

While I didn’t agree with everything, this was the MOST intellectually stimulating book I’ve read in a long time. In a way I SO appreciated, this book was challenging to get through. Every 20 minutes I felt like I was in over my head, barely treading water, but I didn’t give up and the perseverance paid off. I now have in my hands what-to-me is the most comprehensively-true articulation of the nature of God’s love I’ve ever read. But maybe even more significantly than that, I was truly inspired by the carefulness of his process. I can’t wait to read more in his next book about how he does what he does.

I could really say so much about what I learned but I’ll stick to my favorite: Peckham introduced to me a new term for God’s love: Not conditional, or even unconditional, but FORE-CONDITIONAL! Reading it for the first time: I was like, WHAAAT???? You can do that?! And yes, yes you can. As Peckham puts it,

“Divine love is prior to all other love and offered to creatures prior to any conditions but not exclusive of conditions. Divine love in relation to the world is unconditional with respect to God’s volition, but conditional with respect to the ongoing God-world relationship” (66).

As Peckham notes in his 30-page chapter on this topic later on, both of the other models posit God’s love as “unconditional” although they speak of “unconditionality” in different terms (191). However, Peckham persuasively shows how God’s love relationship with the world is not dependent on God’s will alone, but it takes into account human disposition and action. After all, God’s love in Scripture is often portrayed as evaluative, and can even be forfeited (Hosea 9:15; Jer. 11:15; 12:8; 14:10; 16:5; Psalm 89:49; Romans 11:22, etc.). However, God’s love remains unmerited and is primarily initiative – it comes before we could or would “do” anything. Thus, Peckham believes there are both conditional and unconditional aspects within the nature of God’s love. He sees as most illustrative of this dynamic the passage from Psalm 103:17:

Divine love is “from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him.” (Page 211)

While I think I still have some quibbles with how Peckham talks about God as God relates to Himself (as I found out by reading this book, I’m not in sync with Peckham who seems to subscribe to the the voluntarist camp who believes God wills His own life and attributes in absolute freedom), I nonetheless found most everything else he said concerning God’s relationship to the world to be pretty much convincing. So, at the least, I now have a (previously unknown) term for God’s love I can now use that feels mostly true: “FORE-CONDITIONAL“! YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS! Another score for the home team. For that nugget alone, this book was worth the money and way more. What a treasure!

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