Archive E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

Love as God’s Attribute among the Westminster Divines

This is an addendum to a recent post on God’s love in the Calvinist tradition, a tradition which supposedly has no place for it as an attribute of God, but only as a description for “how the elect experience him.”

Chad Van Dixhoorn, in his recent book Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, notes the following on WCF 2.1. The first sentence may seem to confirm David Bentley Hart’s criticism, but the rest of the paragraph does not (nor, indeed, does the text of the Confession itself–a point that is significant when considering the inheritance of “Calvinism” because the WCF is usually thought to be a pretty reputable, though not the solitary, witness to the theology of the Reformed tradition!).

His own people know him as ‘most loving’. Members of the Westminster assembly did. Studying the day-to-day references to God in the ordinary writings of the assembly, and not merely the major confessional and churchly texts which they produced, we must be impressed by the fact that the assembly’s various references to the love and mercy of God far outstrip any other adjectives or descriptions of God’s character offered by these post-Reformation pastors and theologians. Of infinitely greater significance, the Apostle John has taught us to say that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8, 16). And God himself announced to Moses that he is ‘gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin’ (Exod. 34:6, 7). (Confessing the Faith, p. 32)

And God’s love for us, of course, is to elicit love for him. As John Webster puts it in his 2010 essay “Trinity and Creation” (International Journal of Systematic Theology 12: 4-19), citing Augustine and John Owen:

To know its creator, reason must be healed by repentance and the suffering of divine instruction, by which love of God is made to grow. The rule which governs teaching about the Trinity, and therefore creation as one of its extensions, is: love alone restores knowledge. Love, furthermore, is the end of theological contemplation of the creator and his work. The goal of the redeemed mind’s exercise in this matter is ‘that [God] may himself be sought, and himself be loved.’ Or, as a later Augustinian put it, the task of trinitarian theology is ‘to manifest what is expressly revealed in the Scripture concerning God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; so as that we may duly believe in him, yield obedience unto him, enjoy communion with him, walk in his love and fear, and so come at length to be blessed with him for evermore.’ (“Trinity and Creation,” pp. 5-6)

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.