Is Love a Reason for a Trinity? By Rodney Shaw




This article originally appeared in the September-October 2008 issue of the Forward.


One of the arguments used to support a trinitarian view of God is that since God is love, and since love requires an object, God must be comprised of more than one person, all of whom are in loving relationships with the others, or else God could not be love. In short, God could not be love unless there were something upon which He could project His love. Though this understanding of the supposed trinity is ancient, going back at least to Augustine, it seems to be rising in popularity. A recent articulation of this view can be found in The Reason for God by Timothy Keller (pp. 216-7).

If God is unipersonal, then until God created other beings there was no love, since love is something that one person has for another. This means that a unipersonal God was power, sovereignty, and greatness from all eternity, but not love. Love then is not of the essence of God, nor is it at the heart of the universe. Power is primary … . We believe the world was made by a God who is a community of persons who have loved each other for all eternity. Self-centeredness destroys the fabric of what God has made.” This view is often described as a “social” or “communitarian” model of the trinity. This argument fails on several accounts. The points raised below are not exhaustive and could be debated even among Oneness believers. The point of this article is not to suggest an undisputable understanding of God’s nature or to give the definitive answer to the argument above. Rather, the point of the article is to show that there are many reasons why the existence of love does not require a trinitarian view of God.

Belief that God is triune is an a priori assumption. The fact that God is love—or anything else for that matter—does not lead to the conclusion that God is triune. The assumption of God’s triune existence precedes conclusions about love and its supposed role within the Godhead. Only after assuming that God is triune can one make such claims about love within the Godhead. Accordingly, the appeal to love does not prove that God is multi-personal; it is only used to support an already-held position. There is no theological basis to make love God’s essence. The argument that God is somehow less God if He is primarily characterized in terms of power, sovereignty, or greatness is baseless. First, this dictates that God must be what we conceive Him to be, not what He has revealed Himself to be. Second, it is based on unsubstantiated claims about God’s essence. Love is not so much the essence of God as it is an attribute of God. The essence of God is the sum total of all His attributes. The attributes of God overlap at some point, each informing and shaping the others. Any ordering of God’s attributes is based on both logic and theological assumptions. For example, if one does not assume that God is triune, one is less likely to conclude that love is God’s chief attribute or essence.

The claim that God’s essence is love is usually rooted in I John 4:8, “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love” (cf. v. 16). However, Scripture does not say that God is primarily, preeminently, predominately, or only love. He is love, but is at the same time many things. Scripture also says “God is Holy” (Psalm 99:9); “The LORD our God is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4); “God is a Spirit” (John 4:24); and “God is light” (I John 1:5). There is certainly no consensus on God’s essence or chief attribute because Scripture does not tell us if God has a chief attribute. Many theologians argue that holiness is God’s chief attribute, and it is His holiness that informs and qualifies His love, not vice versa. (God hates the transgressor, idols, wickedness, divorce, and so on because of His holiness.) But holiness, too, is a relational attribute (only realized in relation to other things); therefore, some would argue that God’s self-existence is His chief attribute, for He exists apart from anything else and does not rely on anything else in order to be complete in and of Himself.

The most fundamental self-disclosure of God is in Exodus 3:14: “I AM that I AM.” Many translations render this, “I AM WHO I AM.” This was in direct response to Moses’ question about God’s identity as a (the) deity apart from all the other false deities. God’s self-revelation was one of self-existence and independence from all other gods or causes. His self-existence was not qualified by holiness, love, or any other attribute. He exists by Himself and because of Himself. Hence, His self-existence is His attribute that best describes Him prior to creation in eternity past.

This understanding of God reduces Him to spacial, temporal, and relational categories, all of which derive from time/history, not eternity. Upon what authority can we claim that only what is realized about God is true about God? This limits God to our own experience. God is eternally complete and whole. God has from eternity past been holy. However, not until creation was there anything with which to contrast God, so His holiness was not realized until something, presumably an angel, was created. Therefore, God’s holiness was always existent though not realized. God knows everything there is to know and has known such from eternity past. Accordingly, since God has eternally known the elect, this does not mean that the elect have eternally existed. No, it simply means that He has foreknowledge.

Without creation all the attributes of God are incomprehensible. His attributes are ways for us to comprehend Him over against every thing else. Hence, if God cannot possess His attributes until He expresses those attributes, then we have dissolved God completely. According to this trinitarian view of God, God could not be sovereign until there was something against which to measure His sovereignty. He could not be power until there were some demonstration of His power, which would not be observable, measurable, or even possible prior to creation. God could not be great because greatness is a quantitative assessment. God is only great in comparison to things which are not great. Following this logic, we could whittle God down to nothing at all.

God is beyond time and space, so He eternally can be love, holiness, power, and so on, whether He exhibits those attributes or not. So taking the love argument for a trinity, we could just as easily say, “Until God created there was no power, wisdom, knowledge, or redemption.” But we know this is not true. God has eternally loved humanity and planned our redemption. However, the fact that humanity has been the object of God’s love in eternity past does not mean that humans have existed eternally. We only existed in the God’s foreknowledge. He can eternally be love without being triune, for His love is for His creation which was part of His foreknowledge. (See Isaiah 46:10; Romans 4:17; I Corinthians 2:7; Ephesians 1:4; II Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2; James 1:27; I Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8; 17:8.)

The argument is self-contradictory. If God is truly multi-personal so that each person can give and receive love, this is practical tritheism, for it defines God as multiple centers of consciousness. Alternately, to continue to argue that God is one(-in-three) leads right back to the supposed problem, i.e., God is self-centered if He indeed is one and if He loves Himself. So proponents of this position are left with two choices: practical tritheism or, by their own definition, “self-centeredness [which] destroys the fabric of what God has made.” This view of love reduces love to sentimentality. Biblical love is an active reaching out by one person to another person primarily for the benefit of the other. It is not primarily emotional, sentimental, or romantic. However we understand love, it must be consistent with Jesus Christ, the ultimate expression of love. The love of God in Christ is sacrificial, selfless, giving, benevolent, and others-focused. “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (I John 3:16). Christ’s life, death, burial, and resurrection are consistent with His own teachings about love.

The story of the Good Samaritan is a story about violated boundaries, condescension, inconvenience, pity, helplessness, giving, and debt (Luke 20:27-27). This is the imagery Jesus chose to depict love. Elsewhere Jesus gives us a statement about the ultimate expression of love being sacrificial: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). This is consistent with Paul’s description of love in I Corinthians 13, the most comprehensive description of agape in Greek literature. Paul describes love in behavioral terms. Of necessity then, love as we know it is only possible in conjunction with choice.

Using a biblical understanding of love, in what way could individual, all-knowing, all-powerful, self-existent “persons” project love upon one another? What need is being fulfilled in the others? In what way are they improved by receiving love? In what way would they be lesser if they did not receive love? To say that the supposed persons of the trinity have love for one another must leave open the option for them to choose not to love.

So is love a choice or an essence? If love is an essence then it must be a state of being that is free from personal concern or care with a sacrificial focus on others. If this is the case, to say that God is love does not require an object; rather, it is simply the way He is as He exists apart from sin and in His infinite completeness. After creation there were moral agents to receive the benefit of His love (state), but they, nor persons in a trinity, need not be present in order for God to exist in this state. Love then becomes associated with God’s holiness and foreknowledge.

This brings us full circle to the volitional element of love. If love involves choice and requires an object, and if love must be realized eternally in God, then tritheism is the only possible conclusion, for love is about giving of one’s self for the benefit of another. To love is to project certain attitudes and behaviors upon something other than oneself. No three-in-one formulation of God can satisfy this without fundamentally becoming tritheistic. In this regard, a difficulty for trinitarians is to define love in a way that is meaningful in an environment of sinlessness among ultimate beings. To say that the love within the supposed trinity is a different kind of love or a love that transcends what we know about love defeats the point of the argument in the first place, for love then becomes something other than what we know it to be, so to refer to this as love is meaningless.

The New Testament mentions the love that God the Father has for His Son, Jesus Christ (e. g., John 10:17; 17:24), but this is love shared between the eternal God and the man Christ Jesus, not two eternal persons within God. This is love in the context of the Incarnation, which, too, was in the foreknowledge of God. To import the dynamics of this relationship back into the eternal Godhead is only possible if one has already assumed that God is triune. It does not in any way prove that God is triune. Trinitarians must admit that the eternal Spirit of God loved the man Christ Jesus without regard for whether His spirit was the second person in the Godhead or the singular Spirit of a unipersonal God. There is no biblical reference to the Father loving the Spirit, the Spirit loving the Father, the Son loving the Spirit, or the Spirit loving the Son.

This view recreates God in our image. It is inappropriate to say that God’s existence parallels ours. If God is unipersonal, He can still be love. If He loves himself, this cannot be seen as self-centeredness in the same way it is of humans. God is jealous, vengeful, and a judge, things we are commanded not to be. Likewise, if God has love toward Himself, it is not destructive and self-centered any more than it is sinful for Him to judge. All the rules that apply to us do not apply to Him and vice versa. However, it is a leap in logic to say that he projects love upon Himself in the first place, for this s not revealed in Scripture. Accordingly, we cannot impose our self-understanding and human experience back upon God.

There is no questioning the fact that God is love. This is what makes the Oneness view of God so powerful. The one, true God loves His image creatures, and He has loved us from eternity past! He loves us so much that He came in human flesh to redeem us. The gospel is not that God so loved Himself. No, the gospel is that “God so loved the world!” (John 3:16).

© 2008 Rodney Shaw

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