glory and love

Last evening a student asked if I have any insight on whether God is primarily a God of glory or love. Apparently this was being discussed among the pastoral staff at his church, and he intimated it was being bandied about more broadly. In case someone else has an interest in this topic, here is where I come down.

The doctrine of the Trinity indicates that God is equally a God of glory and love, but the order is important. The first thing we learn about God is that he is one (Deut. 6:4). God’s oneness means he has no competitors. No one is equal to him. He deserves all the glory that the entire universe could ever hope to offer. And more.

But if we stop here we could leave the impression that God is selfish. One evangelical theologian comes out and says it. God is right to be selfish because he is the most important being in the universe. It would be wrong for him not to be consumed solely with his own glory.

But this theologian misses that God is also three. As Neal Plantinga memorably puts it, God is a “community of self-giving lovers.” God is three persons who have always loved each other. And so God’s love is equally eternal with his glory. This eternal God of love was not required to create a world outside of himself, but it is just like this God, who always loves the other, to allow his love to overflow his borders and create new others to love.

And so the act of creation is a supremely Godlike thing to do. As is redemption. Our eternal God of love was not required to save us from our sin, but it is just like this God, who always loves the other, to do whatever it takes to win us back. Even if it costs his life. Given who God is, the cross should not be a complete surprise.

I say the order is important, because Scripture reveals God’s oneness before it proceeds to his threeness. We must begin with God’s glory, for if we start with his love we run the risk of pulling a Joel Osteen and turning God into our very own spiritual trainer. We must start with the glory of God’s oneness, and say with the opening line of The Purpose-Driven Life, “It’s not about you.”

God is one, and so he is supremely glorious. God is three, and so he is supremely loving. He cares first for his own glory, but also for our flourishing. Rick Warren is right that “It’s not about you.” But given who God is, it’s not exactly not about you either.

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  1. I don’t (think) I agree that the theologian (if he is who I think he is) “misses that God is also three.” It could be argued that God is three because he is a God of glory and love, not in spite of that fact. And the overflow of his glory and love is a creation who can enjoy his glory and experience his love.

    This seems to be where you go with the Plantinga citation. The only comment I would make is that the word “glory” needs to be inserted in there and you have what I said in the previous paragraph.

  2. Dr. Wittmer, I really like this insightful & substantive post, but I can’t get my head around this: “The doctrine of the Trinity indicates that God is equally a God of glory and love, but the order is important.”

    Is this one of those supra-logical mystery places where God’s reality transcends our understanding and language? It seems to be one of those ‘pressure points,’ logic-wise, that carries a whiff of special pleading. Even though I believe it’s true!

    As always, thank you for sharing your brain, -Adam

  3. Adam, I probably wasn’t clear, but I meant the order from our perspective–the order of progressive revelation. God reveals his oneness before his threeness, his unrivalled glory before his eternal fellowship of love. I think that is instructive for how we talk about God. Theologians are right who begin with the God of glory, but they are wrong if they don’t give equal weight to his love.

    The Heidelberg Catechism illustrates this productive tension between God’s concern for his own glory and our flourishing. It begins with a question that squarely addresses our need, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”, and then answers with a firm focus on God.

  4. Aha, it’s clicking into focus for me now. Thank you, sir! -af

  5. Jonathan Shelley February 2, 2012 — 8:32 am

    Mike,

    I’m not sure that I agree that revelation begins with God’s glory instead of his love. True, God is revealed as one before he is revealed as three (depending on how you interpret “Let us make man in our image”) but revelation begins with creation, which, as you indicated, is an expression of God’s love. In fact, it seems to me that the very act of revelation is an expression of God’s love, since he is condescending to enter into a relationship with us.

    That being said, I agree that we should hold God’s glory and love together, as is true of all of God’s attributes, to have a complete and correct understanding of the Living God. Would it be fair to say that God’s glory is passive (innate) product of his divine nature, whereas his love is an active expression of the divine nature?

    I know a blog isn’t the correct format for this, but I’ve always wanted to discuss the transference of God’s attributes within the doctrine of divine simplicity with you. Having read your lecture notes, and Dr. Crawford’s notes, I realize that my thoughts are not as sharp on this as they should be.

  6. Jonathan: You’re obviously right that creation is an act of God’s love, and that just shows that everything God does must be simultaneously and fully both for his glory and love (and there you have the fruit of the doctrine of divine simplicity). I was more strictly focusing on the progressive revelation of the Trinity, which does proceed from one to three.

  7. Jonathan Shelley February 2, 2012 — 1:35 pm

    Mike,

    Textually, I think a case could be made that the plurality of God is expressed first in Scripture, in Genesis 1:26, and the oneness of God is not fully expressed until Deut 6:4. I’m not looking to debate this with you (since I would lose) but God does introduce himself in the first person plural.

  8. Not exactly. I take that as a reference to God and the angels. But you’re certainly able to read the Trinity into that, if you wish. But the very fact that you have to read into it is a sign that the threeness of God isn’t explicitly taught until the New Testament.

  9. Jonathan Shelley February 2, 2012 — 3:40 pm

    Mike,

    I think reading the Trinity “into” Gen 1:26 is more natural, unless we want to argue that the angels and not the Son and Spirit were the agents of creation.

    I would also add (since I’m feeling argumentative) that the Trinity is not explicitly taught in the New Testament but is constructed from references to the oneness of the Father and Son. I’m not saying that the Trinity is an extra-biblical doctrine; just that there is no explicit statement of the Trinity in Scripture. If there were, it seems that the homoousia debate would have been much easier to settle.

  10. We need to understand something of God’s glory before we can understand our accountability to God and the weight of our sin. We need to understand our sin before we can understand our need for the cross. We need to understand the cross to know the revelation of God’s love. Romans 5:8.

  11. Jonathan: You need to decide which way you want to argue this. Are you now taking up for Arianism? Surely you don’t think that NT is as vague on the Trinity as Gen. 1:26, do you? By the way, remember that I still have your thesis on my desk!

  12. Jonathan Shelley February 7, 2012 — 9:12 am

    Mike,

    I gave you a couple of days off in the hopes that you had a chance to read my thesis. I’m quite anxious to get your feedback so I can be done with this little writing project.

    I don’t think that the assertion that there is no explicit statement regarding the Trinity in the NT is the same as taking up for Arianism. If it is, the entire tradition is in trouble! And there’s no need to engage in an ad hominem tu quoque just because I found two weaknesses with your position.

    As a serious response to the question regarding the relative vagueness of Gen 1:26, I think Scripture is filled with verses and passages that seem vague when not interpreted within the context of the entire canon. This is particularly true of texts that lead us to proclaim the mystery of the Trinity. This is, I think, a prime example of Calvin’s distinction between faith of the head and of the heart, where we believe what we know to be true even if we cannot fully comprehend it. I know that God is triune even though the Trinity is a mystery, just like I know that my sins are forgiven because of Christ even though the majesty of the atonement transcends my understanding.

  13. Please reference Ephesians 3:19. It’s an understanding of God’s love that enables us to be filled with the fullness of God, not an understanding of His glory. Being filled with God’s fullness means that you have the richest measure of divine presence, and become a body wholly filled with God Himself.

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