Is God’s love more holy than his holiness is loving?

Is God’s love more holy than his holiness is loving? January 31, 2014

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.”

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  • tsgIII

    We are definitely Wesleyans, with many profound experiences way back in the day attending what was called a Wednesday evening Bible study( but was in reality very much a Methodist class meeting in the historical sense).

  • I think you make an interesting point here. Thanks. I share your concern that about young conservative UM’s being more drawn to the Gospel Coalition than to the Wesleyan understanding of the faith.

    • stephen fife

      I think Wesleyans are envious of the Gospel Coalition folks because of their ability to speak with deep conviction and articulate doctrine easily translatable to the masses.

      We Methodists have lost our:
      1. Deep Convictions – our theologies vary from church to church and state to state. We are split over many issues and find ways in which to live in the split. TGC has no split and the speak through their togetherness.
      2. Articulate an easily translatable doctrine – we have a system that has a mixed bag of results. Many in the popular culture believe you can be a Methodist and believe whatever you want to believe. TGC is bold and convincing. We are timid and don’t want to offend anyone.

      I don’t want to be TGC I want us to reclaim our on dynamic voice of spreading scriptural holiness across the land. (A very Wesleyan mission)

      • MorganGuyton

        I definitely agree that we need to do a better job of articulating our theology. But one systemic issue behind our lack of “clarity” is that Wesleyan theology is inherently pastoral and pragmatic while Calvinist theology starts from a pristine theological system.

        • summers-lad

          Not having a Wesleyan tradition, I find this interesting. I very much agree with you about God’s love and holiness, but I didn’t know until recently that this was a characteristic of Methodism.
          The 19th century Scottish writer and theologian George Macdonald once wrote something along the lines of (although I’m sure he said it better than this) “The more complete a theological system attempts to be, the more it tries to sum up all there is to be said about the nature and ways of God, the more certain it is to be wrong.” So although pastoral and pragmatic theology may have its risks, it certainly has its benefits.

          • MorganGuyton

            I’m definitely a fan of George Macdonald.

    • MorganGuyton

      That’s why I’m writing the book, to try to articulate a robust Wesleyan evangelical theology that has more teeth than open hearts, open minds, open doors.

  • David Pitchford

    A post I read yesterday (I can’t remember where and it’s driving me crazy) talked about how Reformed theologians often made God’s holiness/justice (closely associating the two) into an intrinsic aspect of His deity. What this means (I think) is that while they could imagine God doing something that disproved His love, or His omniscient, or omnipotence, they could not imagine Him doing something that disproved His justice, because everything He does is automatically, mysteriously just, even if it doesn’t seem that way to us. If God were unjust, then He couldn’t possibly be loving (because the loss of justice would be an irreparable blow to what makes Him God), but He can do plenty of apparently-unloving things in the name of justice. I found this pretty interesting.

    I wonder, though, if we have to choose to understand God’s justice through His love or vice versa. This ranking of His characteristics seems like a human fallacy in describing a perfect deity. If we understand His justice as primarily something He seeks to restore to creation because we’ve perverted it (instead of simply His anger at sin/sinners and need to punish them) I think there is less of a conflict.

    • MorganGuyton

      Oh I think God’s justice and wrath make perfect sense with his love. It’s just that his anger against sin is about solidarity with the victims of sin including when we victimize ourselves rather than a sort of abstract sanctimony against “dishonor.”

      • David Pitchford

        So you would say God recognizes us as victims of sin (even our own) rather than just perpetrators? That is a nice way to put it.

        • MorganGuyton

          I think so.

  • Lianne Simon

    “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” Cornel West

    • MorganGuyton

      Amen!

      • Lianne Simon

        I’m glad you don’t try to reduce God to a set of linear equations. At the center of Christianity is Christ dying on the cross and rising from the grave. For sinners like me. I don’t know how anyone can explain the atonement without both a love and a holiness that surpasses human understanding.

  • christythomas

    Thank you. This is a good summary of the differences.

  • Andrew C. Thompson

    You make some interesting points here, Morgan, but you’ve gone a bridge too far when you claim that “Wesleyan and Calvinist theology are fundamentally different thought-systems.” The 18th century Church of England out of which Wesleyan Methodism emerged was more heavily influenced by Reformed theology than any other tradition. When John Wesley himself said that he was but a hair’s breadth from Calvinism, he wasn’t kidding–even if the few doctrinal points that separated his views from Reformed orthodoxy were significant. The various and sundry ways that Wesley’s understanding of justification, sanctification, sacramental theology, ecclesiology, etc., show strong Reformed influences are surely enough to warn us away from making overly exaggerated claims about Reformed/Wesleyan differences just because we want to quibble with a particular aspect of the nature of the sovereignty of God.

    • MorganGuyton

      Wesleyan holiness is fundamentally different from reformed holiness because it means to be perfected in love. An understanding that God’s character is most fundamentally love is more than just “quibbling with a particular aspect of God’s sovereignty.” It makes all the difference in the world.

      • Andrew C. Thompson

        Morgan: To be clear, I was not responding to a statement that Wesleyan understandings of holiness are different than Reformed understandings of holiness. I was responding to your statement, “Wesleyan and Calvinist theology are fundamentally different thought-systems.” That is a broader claim by several orders of magnitude–from one particular articulation of sanctification (i.e., holiness), to the doctrine of sanctification, to soteriology, to theology. The claim in your final paragraph was about theology in general. And given both the warp & woof of Wesley’s theology and the historical context of the Church of England in the 18th century, that is a significant over-exaggeration.

        • MorganGuyton

          You’re right. I need to come up with a better way of saying that. They’re not fundamentally different.

  • Valerie Van Kooten

    As someone who was born and steeped in the Reformed tradition, you have articulated what I have long felt but couldn’t describe. Unfortunately. the “holiness is paramount” mindset has led to numerous church splits within Reformed church….with some of those splitting groups using a “We need to be the purest of the pure” as a tagline. When love is not foremost, then we will constantly be ranking everyone on the Great Holiness Scale.