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The Unity of the Virtues and the Triumph of Love

March 14th, 2011 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Rob Bell’s latest offering brought out the crazy-thorough in Kevin DeYoung.

I’ve been holding off commenting on both the brouhaha surrounding the book and its contents, mostly because I haven’t read the book yet.  But I read DeYoung’s review and it almost–almost–made me not even want to bother.

I’m not going to comment on the substance of the review.  But this part caught my eye.  DeYoung writes:

Bell’s god may be all love, but it is a love rooted in our modern Western sensibilities more than careful biblical reflection. It is a love that threatens to swallow up God’s glory and holiness. But, you may reply, the Bible says God is love (1 John 4:16). True, but if you want to weigh divine attributes by sentence construction, you have to mention God is spirit (John 4:24), God is light (1 John 1:5), and God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). The verb “is” does not establish a priority of attributes. If anything, one might mention that the only thrice-repeated attribute is “holy, holy, holy.” And yet this is the one thing Bell’s god is not.

While saying nothing of his reading of Bell, I think this strategy of responding to universalists by defending holiness and wrath is in danger of giving up more than is necessary.  If something like divine simplicity is true–and I happen to think it is–then the virtues have a deep unity.  Holiness can’t possibly be the “one thing” that Bell’s god is not.  If Bell’s god doesn’t have holiness, he doesn’t have love or justice either.

When I was an undergrad, John Piper came to Biola to give a series of three chapel lectures.  Open theism (remember that?) was all the rage at the time, and Piper was bent on taking it down.  In a moment of rhetorical flourish, he suggested that God’s love could not explain the existence of hell, that love could not explain the existence of God’s wrath, but that only God’s glory could.   As a youngster wrestling with open theism at the time, I remember the moment vividly.*

And though I’m no open theist (furthest thing from it, I think), I still disagree with Piper on this point.**  (And it seems a little like DeYoung’s emphasis takes a similar approach.)  If God’s love is inseparable from his holiness and his justice, then his love must be able to explain the existence of hell and the possibility of his wrath.  To let that terrain go actually makes more room for a “modern western sensibilities” about the nature of love, with an emphasis on modern. We don’t have to agree with him to acknowledge that if Dante can include hell in a cosmos that has love at the center, then it’s certainly possible.

*I am paraphrasing from memory here.

**I have no idea if Piper still stands by this.