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God’s Love and Christian Ethics

July 5, 2012

I was honored to be invited again to the Second Nishan Forum, held May 2012 in Jining, China, and to contribute again a paper to the conference. I have now placed the text of my paper (PDF) under the “Selected Essays” tab.

The gist of my paper is that (1) the NT emphasis on the biblical deity as loving the world, and this love as the prime basis for God’s acts toward the world, is rather novel in the Roman religious environment, and (2) that this divine love serves rather consistently as the basis and pattern for the actions that believers are called to exhibit.

I make no claims about how consistently Christians have actually lived up to this. Heaven knows it’s hardly a consistent record! Perhaps all the more reason to return to the NT texts every so often.

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12 Comments
  1. Martin Davis permalink

    My church teaches that God is angry with the world and eager to judge it. He only loves the elect and everyone else is pre-destined to judgement and punishment
    The elect don’t choose of their own free will to believe but God puts it in them just out of the blue so they can be saved. Are these ideas correct as I feel they have misrepresented God

    • I can’t speak to your own church situation, and I really don’t want to get into church polemics. The idea that the world is alienated from God and in need of reconciliation is NT teaching. Those churches that emphasize God’s wrath against sin do echo (albeit often in a somewhat one-sided and distorted manner) a valid NT point, that sin is aggression against God and often (most often?) against God’s other creatures, and so a God who cares about creatures would be opposed to sin. But the overwhelming emphasis in the NT is not that God hates sin, but that this God invests enormous effort to redeem from sin out of God’s great love. (Simply read Romans 5; Romans 8; 2 Cor 5:11-21, and make your own judgement.)
      The NT emphasis on God’s choosing the redeemed functions to show that redemption rests on divine initiative, not on ours. That’s supposed to give courage and comfort, not to terrify. And God’s choice TO SAVE IN CHRIST, never in the NT is played off against the human responsibility to respond to the divine initiative.

  2. John Moles permalink

    May I just add: this is an incredibly good blog.

  3. John Moles permalink

    Thanks, Larry, for your response. It’s certainly true that much of what one might say about Stoic ideas of ‘love’ as the driving force of the universe (as divinely regulated) is reconstruction, because most of the original material only exists in fragments or testimonia, but (a) this is not true of Epictetus or Dio, and (b) one should always be trying to reconstruct the organic logic of such ideas, rather than belittling the surviving quotations/testimonia as ‘isolated’. As you presumably know, I am a Christian but my day job is as a Classicist and some of these great Classical texts – and I do count Dio 12, 30 and 36 as very great texts – still ‘speak to me’ theologically. I love them actually. I think Luke (‘Luke’) has a very good grip on these matters. The dedication to ‘Theophilos’, with its double meaning (as Church Fathers rightly understood it) of ‘loving God’ and ‘loved by God’ appeals alike to Jews, ‘Christians’ and pagans. The essential argument of Acts 17 is: look, we can go along with you a certain way, but the Christ event and a historically validated resurrection of Christ as ‘man’ make a decisive break. That ‘certain way’ actually assumes similar notions about divine intervention and benevolence. These are intensely interesting areas. There are some Christian scholars (I am not including you) who systematically downgrade the quality and the relevance of the Classical material because they are afraid of it. But Christian faith does not depend on its absolute distinctiveness.

    • John, I agree entirely with your posting. Indeed, I’ve lodged similar points myself in the past.
      –“Unique” doesn’t = valid, and validity doesn’t require uniqueness.
      –Historical investigation/analysis of earliest Christianity shouldn’t be confused with apologetics. A proper analysis requires us to note fully as we can the contextualization of earliest Christianity, and so its reflection and appropriation of, and its engagement with, its historical/cultural settings.
      –We should expect that ancient Christianity looks . . . ancient, Roman-era, and affected by its setting.

      But in academia (perhaps especially in my own field) there’s also a kind of over-reaction among many against earlier Christian apologetics, exhibited in an almost allergic response to the idea that early Christianity might have exhibited anything novel, innovative or (heavens!) even “unique”. So, the strangest efforts have been made to “explain” phenomena: e.g., drawing upon sources from a few hundred years later to “account for” phenomena in lst-century Christian texts. This isn’t critical history (as I presume you’ll agree), but a kind of reverse-apologetics.
      I’m not the only one to propose that one of the factors in the rapid growth of early Christianity was that it was doing something novel, saying some novel things. And one of those things, so it seems to me, was such a pronounced emphasis on divine love as the basis of the relationship of their deity to the world. If others said something similar, they obviously didn’t say it clearly or widely enough to have an equivalent impact.
      In any case, Christianity is unique in the Roman era in its growth from obscure Jewish sect to a trans-ethnic, trans-local religious movement that also demanded an exclusivist commitment. It wasn’t an add-on deity, like, e.g., Isis-cult or Mithraism, but required an exclusive devotion to the biblical deity, with all the profound social consequences that entailed.

  4. There were two passages that I was primarily thinking of where it is states that god loves humanity is Cicero’s In Div I.82, and II.101-102. This would really the only substantive point that I wanted to raise with your paper.

    I would like to note though that the theme, but not the precise term “love”, though is found expressed in most extant Stoic authors- though not with great frequency. The one exception (and apologies if you already familiar with this!), who does present a emphasis and consistent reference to God is such personal way is Epictetus. I can’t express is better than A. A. Long does when he states that:

    “so much [of Epictetus' teaching] reads like, and has sometimes been read as, a direct echo of the New Testament. He characterizes God as “the caring father of human beings” (i.3.1; cf. 3.24.3), and he even treats adoption by the Roman emperor as conferring less status than his students enjoy as “sons of Zeus ” (1.3.2). He asks rhetorically, expecting an affirmative answer, whether God cares for individual persons (1.12.6). He tells his students to call on God to help them over difficultues (2.18..29) and to regard slaves as their siblings because they too are children of god (1.13.4). he is insistent that God and the nature of goodness or helpfulness coincide (2.8.1). In all things he and his students are to look to God as their benevolent creator and friend, to do God’s will, to be thankful to God, and to please him (1.9.4; 4..4.21; 4.12.11). od has given a portion of himself to each person, whose status is correspondingly exalted (1.3; 2.8.11)…Epictetus speaks of thh world’s divine author with the commitment and even the fervour of such figures as St Paul or St Augustine.” Epictetus: A Stoic Guide to Life, 2002 p.144

    It was in large part because of these parallels that Epictetus’ writings proved to be particularly popular for later Christian writers (e.g. see Gerald Boter’s The Encheiridion of Epictetus and Its Three Christian Adaptations: Transmission and Critical Editions) Indeed, until Bonhoeffer’s “Die Ethik des Stoikers Epictet” was published over a century it was thought that Epictetus was talking about God in the same manner as Scripture does. But while he might use the same language as the N.T. , he does not mean the same thing as it. So it might be argued that while the language is not unique to the N.T.,(apart from the odd occasional reference as noted above) the concept is- which is, after all, the substance of your very useful paper.

    • Yes, certainly, Epictetus was a remarkable figure, and gives us numerous sentiments that seem very similar to some we find in the NT, esp. in Paul. All the more interesting that he was a freed-man (former slave). I am encouraged with your affirmation of my major point that, in emphasis and concept at least, the NT does seem to reflect a somewhat distinctive view of divine-human relations. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the NT reflects an early Christian critique of the more widespread/common view of the gods and religion, this in the name of their own deity. The early Christian movement (made up originally of Jews) obviously inherited a lot of this from the Jewish religious matrix of their faith. But, as a trans-ethnic and “popular” movement, it was distinctive I think in its effects with these ideas.

  5. John Moles permalink

    Agree with Erlend. There’s stacks of stuff in Stoic texts that’s highly germane. One might start, for example, with Dio Chrysostom’s 12th Oration or Malcolm Schofield’s ‘The Stoic Idea of the City’ (1991) (or with the huge volume of 19th century scholarship concerned with parallels between the NT and pagan philosophers such as Dio or Epictetus). As a Classicist, I find the claim of certain Christian commentators’ comments on the Gospel according to John that it was uninfluenced by Stoicism very counter-intuitive. It’s true that Christians are going to downplay the erotic element which is very strong in certain pagan formulations but even that has Christian analogies (‘Jesus the bridegroom’ etc.), and pagan formulations about God’s love are not always eroticised. (I’m reminded of a paper on ‘one-ness in John’ which Richard Bauckham recently gave to the Durham NT seminar, when I thought some of the passages he discussed must have had Stoic input.) There’s also relevant material in Platonism (via ‘the ladder of love’). Claims for the uniqueness of Christianity require great circumspection. But of course I’m a pagan at heart and by training.

    • Thanks, John. Honestly, no desire to exaggerate what can’t be substantiated on my part. Erlend (as I read his comments) grants that, individual seeming-parallels notwithstanding, early Christian emphasis on God’s love as the fundamental nature of the deity’s relationship with the world was distinctive. Do you agree to that also?
      One thing important: I think there’s a distinction between what a few philosophers may have written about in texts they intended to be discussed and chewed over by fellow intellectual elites (on the one hand), and a trans-ethnic and populist religious movement that early Christianity was, seeking to make certain ideas the basis and nature of a way of life for all. At least in significance as a social phenomenon, I don’t think we can rightly put a few pagan philosophers and the early Christian movement in the same scale.

  6. Thank you for this, and will need to re-read it. But I think that your argument: “I can find no statements about gods loving humanity in Roman-era “pagan” texts, or in philosophical discussions of that era.” could be qualified. The Stoics can make the claim that God loves us, a view particularly seen in Cicero’s “On the Nature of the Gods”, and in his “on Divination” ( e.g. see Cicero In Div. 1.82;). Epictetus would seem to get close to this when he argues God is a caring Father of all,–though I don’t know if he specifically uses the language of “love”. But you can argue that the philosophers are meaning different things by this than the immanent love of God meant by the Christians (and this is argued as far back as Adolph Bonhoffer in 1894, and more recently by John Cooper), but the language doesn’t seem to be unique to Christianity.

    Anyway, perhaps this being pedantic. Your claim on the paradigm shift that Christianity brought in the conception surely stands nevertheless.

    • Thanks for this. I’d be grateful for specific statements of Stoics and references. Honest question. I’m not challenging your claim, as my own acquaintance with classical philosophy is not by any means comprehensive.
      I also freely grant that there numerous pagan statements about this or that deity being beneficent, kind, generous, etc. But it seems to me that that the early Christian discourse about God is characterized by an emphasis and frequency of reference to God’s love, and by the strongly relational and moral nature of that love, which make it noteworthy. Jan Bremmer has made a similar claim.

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