It may seem like a nonsensical distinction but I think it makes all the difference in the world in Christian theology. Which term gets to modify and define the other? Love or holiness? Is God’s love more holy than his holiness is holiness? I suspect that the reason that Wesleyans and Calvinists tend to talk past each other is because Wesleyans say God is most fundamentally love and thus define holiness in terms of love while Calvinists say God is most fundamentally holy and define love in terms of holiness. There are two quotes in particular that capture this distinction.
First, we have John Wesley’s comment in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament about 1 John 4:8:
God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.
In contrast, we have this passage from page 57 of R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God:
When the word holy is applied to God, it does not signify one single attribute… The word is used as a synonym for his deity. That is, the word holy calls attention to all that God is. It reminds us that his love is holy love, his justice is holy justice, his mercy is holy mercy, his knowledge is holy knowledge, his spirit is holy spirit.
We start with very different presuppositions about God’s nature based on whether we think he is more fundamentally holiness or love. It’s interesting because Wesleyan theology does a lot of talking about holiness mostly in terms of our sanctification as humans, but this holiness is not shaped by the way that the Old Testament defines God’s holiness as it is for Calvinist theology. The premise of Wesleyan theology is that 1 John 4 is the most definitive starting point for understanding the character of God. Whether that’s exegetically justifiable or not, it is our heritage. And it results in very different assumptions about God’s character than the Calvinists have.
For instance, the goodness of God can have two very different meanings. If God’s reigning attribute is his holiness, and that holiness is defined primarily as “purity” and “set-apart-ness,” then God’s goodness is his perfect flawlessness. God’s goodness is most relevant in its contrast with our flawed nature, which is infinitely wicked compared to his goodness. In this way of conceiving God’s goodness, God expresses his goodness most definitively by rejecting our wickedness. But if God’s reigning attri1bute is love, and love is defined according to the definition the apostle Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 13, then God’s goodness is his perfect benevolence. Conceived in this way, God’s goodness is most relevant as our assurance that he wants the best for us and our challenge to treat others with the same benevolence regardless of how flawed they are. If God is most fundamentally love, the way that he expresses his goodness most perfectly is by loving his enemies.The distinction between predestination and prevenient grace can likewise be described as the difference between seeing love or holiness as more fundamental to God’s nature. If God is most fundamentally holiness, and that holiness is his “otherness” and “inexplicability,” then our ability to stomach God’s holiness is measured and validated by our acceptance of God’s prerogative to create people for the sake of eternal damnation if that’s his will. Furthermore, God’s holiness means that if we are not living in obedience to his will, he will walk away and make himself aloof to us until we recognize our error and repent. A primarily holy God doesn’t denigrate his office by chasing us down when we’re bad; he disappears until we decide to come back.
In contrast, if God is most fundamentally love, then we end up with the assumption that God is always proactively seeking every human heart with his prevenient grace and using every means available to show us love and win us for love. For someone with this view of God, it’s easier to speculate about the possibility that God might be working within other religions or even secular thought systems according to their concepts and vocabulary to draw people to him. For someone with a God who is more essentially holiness than love, it would be scandalous to claim that God would do anything other than shun people from other religions for dishonoring him by believing the wrong thing.
I recognize these are oversimplifications, but I think it’s a legitimate reminder that Wesleyan and Calvinist theology are fundamentally different thought-systems. This has become particularly important today as the “neo-traditionalist” movement within United Methodism seems to be more attracted to Calvinism than Wesleyanism. God is certainly both loving and holy. As a Wesleyan, I understand his holiness to be more defined by his love than vice-versa, and as such, it is a quality I am called to emulate as I seek to be “perfected in love.”