Love begets love

Whenever the love and grace of God is discussed, someone will inevitably invoke Scripture: “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire” (Dt 4:24; cf. Heb 12:29). The metaphor of fire needs to be used carefully, however, as it can easily overwhelm or distort the revelation of the Father’s accessibility in love and affection in and through his Son Jesus Christ. By itself the metaphor of fire intimates that the Father is an impersonal substance that one dare not approach without first putting on asbestos protective gear. This, I believe, is the wrong way to approach our understanding of our heavenly Father. It has had disastrous consequences for both the preaching and communion practices of the Church, in both East and West.

Who is the God of Jesus? He is the Father who goes searching for the one lost sheep, who sweeps the house for the lost coin, who rushes down the road to welcome his returning son, who sends his son to die on the cross for sinners, who justifies the ungodly. In the words of St Isaac the Syrian: “Among all his actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love, and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of his dealings with us.”

Those who reject God’s love will inevitably experience the fire of his love as a fire of condemnation.  But this is not because God has now rejected them or ceased to summon them into the communion of his love.  The problem is within our hearts, not within God.

The Father eagerly invites his children to come to him. He is hopelessly and passionately in love with us. As C. S. Lewis once remarked (paraphrasing George MacDonald), God is easy to please but hard to satisfy. He will not be satisfied until we are able to reciprocate his love with perfect love; but we will only grow in our love for God as we grow in our understanding of God’s unconditional mercy. Love begets love. Forgiveness generates repentance.

And this takes us back to the Epistle to the Romans. Protestant exegesis has typically interpreted this letter as a battle between divine wrath and divine mercy. If we believe in Jesus, God won’t punish us. Underlying this is a contractual understanding of the God-human relationship. Instead of judging us according to the Law (which is typically interpreted as requiring perfect obedience), God offers us his forgiveness on the prescriptive condition that we repent and believe on Christ. I believe that this model of justification is terribly wrong and needs to be replaced by a participationist model grounded in the absolute love and unconditional mercy of God (see Douglas Campbell, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel; also see his chapter on Paul in Four Views of the Apostle Paul). God died on the cross not to deliver us from his wrath (except perhaps in an indirect sense) but to deliver us from the power of sin and death and bring us into the divine life of the Holy Trinity. Romans 1-4 must be read in light of chapters 5-8.

Until we get this right, we will never be able to read St Paul properly nor preach the gospel rightly.

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14 Responses to Love begets love

  1. Oak Hill Studio says:

    Amen, amen, and amen!!! Thank you! For twenty plus years I did not understand this, and so not surprisingly felt further and further alienated from this wrathful, fiery, god of Augustinian “orthodoxy.” Thanks to George MacDonald, the joy, love, and delight in my heavenly Father has grown by leaps and bounds since I’ve come to the understanding of the original orthodox Christian view.


  2. Andy says:

    Fr. Kimel,
    I am very sympathetic to your thoughts, and desire to square them with verses like 1 Thessalonians 1:10 (“…whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”) I think I know the answer, but could you please elaborate a bit more what you meant when you said, “God died on the cross not to deliver us from his wrath (except in an indirect sense).” ?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Andy, you raise the critical question for my thesis. If God is unconditional grace, how do we understand “the wrath to come”? I haven’t come up yet with an answer that fully satisfies me, though I am utterly convinced that in Jesus Christ the Father loves us absolutely and unconditionally.

      I suppose I would want to begin simply by noting that St Paul is himself thinking these matters through an inherited 2nd Temple lens, in which a retributive understanding of the “wrath to come” is taken for granted. But think about how he speaks of the divine wrath in Rom 1: “God gave them up …” May we perhaps understand the divine wrath as God permitting his creatures to suffer the natural consequences of their actions and choices? Even still, though, I would argue that the intent here is educative, rehabilitative, therapeutic–hard love, as they sometimes say.

      I know that some (most?) will argue that I am rationalizing the plain meaning of Scripture; but don’t we make a similar interpretive maneuver when we speak of God hardening the hearts of the Egyptians, etc.? Theologians commonly speak of secondary causality when this notion is probably unknown to the biblical writers. If we were to rely exclusively on the “plain” meaning of Scripture, we might well end up with a God who looks very much like the supreme Creator of the double predestinarians. Hence I cannot apologize for interpreting the wrath passages of the Bible through a hermeneutic of love. This is a hermeneutic that we learn from the gospel; it is not imposed upon it.

      The experience of wrath is universal to humanity, I think. This is how, apart from the gospel, we experience reality. It is only in and by Christ that wrath is conquered. “There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus!”

      Does this in anyway help?


      • Andy says:

        Thank you for responding. It does help, some. For the past twenty years, I have been in the (infra more than supra) predestinarian camp, but am not convinced of it; this is part of the reason I have been exploring the Orthodox faith of late. The “hermeneutic of love” is very appealing, but so very different from what I hear on Sunday mornings. And I gather from my reading there is more than one “Orthodox” way to look at the wrath of God, hell, etc. St. Isaac the Syrian is somewhat outside the Orthodox mainstream. Please correct me if I am wrong. I’m here to learn…


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Andy, what ecclesial tradition do you belong to?

        St Isaac is respected throughout Orthodoxy, but it certainly is the case that his hope for universal salvation represents a minority position within Orthodoxy. And it’s probably the case that his understanding of the unconditionality of the divine love is often muted in Orthodox parochial preaching. But one wonderful exception is Fr Stephen Freeman in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and I’m sure there are other exceptions, too.


  3. I like this post. One matter I find subject to some uncertainty, though, is the notion (found, to be sure, in some venerable writings, and I know you have discussed it here in previous entries, Father Aidan) that the punishment of those who reject God is the punishment of his love made painful on account of the rejection (“fire of love as a fire of condemnation,” as you say). I hesitate to account with too much specificity for the nature of the pain of Hell. This specific conclusion strikes me as too speculative.


  4. Dana Ames says:

    “Until we get this right, we will never be able to read St Paul properly nor preach the gospel rightly.”




  5. Rhonda says:

    “Hence I cannot apologize for interpreting the wrath passages of the Bible through a hermeneutic of love.”
    Thank you, Fr. A!

    I often use the example of a parent that disciplines their child for bad actions or words with the non-Orthodox that object to this hermeneutic. If a imperfect & created parent can so discipline out of love for & for betterment of their child, is it so hard or totally out of line to apply this concept towards the perfect & uncreated God the Father & thus translate “wrath to come” in the same fashion as loving parental discipline? Perhaps the forensic & legal has been promulgated for so long that many think that is now correct…it seems that it is actually very difficult for some to even begin to conceive otherwise. You know the old saying, “Repeat a lie often enough & long enough & eventually it will be believed.”

    I was raised under the forensic & legal God of wrath. It took many years & much patience from 2 very wise priests for me to begin to let go of it & heal after my Chrismation…in many ways I still am & perhaps always will. I am pleased to see that some are beginning to step away from lens of forensics & reinterpreting things accordingly through the lens of God’s love–Christ.


  6. maryeholste says:

    Amen! I cannot say enough in praise of your point. “I am utterly convinced that in Christ Jesus, the Father loves us absolutely and unconditionally.”–this is the best short summary of the gospel ever.
    Here is my small insight to add, (which was actually my husband’s insight first)– when we are reading passages in the Bible that talk about the need to keep God’s commandments in order to be saved, we should remember what are the Lord’s commandments anyway? “The Law” is not about fasting rules or minimum church attendance or something. No- the Law given by Christ is the Law of Love. Love God and your neighbor. These are the commandments that are salvific, and all other commandments are somehow connected to the Law if Love. The beatitudes are the primary list of commandments — all drawn from Christ’s Law of Love. Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness… When we remember that this is the Law, these are the commandments the Bible is referring to, then all the passages on “fulfilling rules” are transformed into a call to love and be loved by God.
    This insight, along with using “the hermeneutic of love,” as you call it, have completely altered my view of the world. Thank you as always for the chance to read and discuss my favorite subject!


  7. Rhonda says:

    “The “hermeneutic of love” is very appealing, but so very different from what I hear on Sunday mornings.”
    Yes, very much so.
    “And I gather from my reading there is more than one “Orthodox” way to look at the wrath of God, hell, etc. St. Isaac the Syrian is somewhat outside the Orthodox mainstream. Please correct me if I am wrong. I’m here to learn…”
    Over the past couple of months I have read several works by Asian & African Church Fathers (St. Isaac, St. Ephrem, St. Jacob of Serug, Enzira Sebhat). I like their works as a change from the “regular” Church Fathers, such as Ignatius, Ireneaus, Athanasius or the Cappodocians occasionally. Their writings are read more along the lines of songs or poetry rather than catechesis or dogmatics. For me it is actually easier & more edifying to read them aloud in a sing-song chant. Given their “musical bent” I do not think St. Isaac the Syrian’s emphasis is outside of the Orthodox mainstream, IMO he is more at one of the ends of the mainstream.

    Remember unlike those Protestants that have theorized & literalized hell & God’s wrath, even turning gore & blood at the hands of a wrathful God into a very lucrative money-making endeavor, the Orthodox have not defined & dogmatized it to death (pardon the pun). In the Orthodox world one is not cultic or destined to eternal hellfire if one does not hold the proper view of hell. To say Orthodox “mainstream” on these ideas one could easily & more properly envision a very large, very deep & very wide river. Therefore there is a wide view of end-time things, but the emphasis is always on God’s love…even hell will have as its purpose (& other than a “Repent or Burn” billy club) to bring all persons, all beings & all things under God’s love. The longer I am Orthodox the more I understand & believe this.


  8. Andy says:

    Fr. Kimel,
    My faith journey has been rather eclectic, although I’ve been in the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) for the past twenty-plus years. My experience has been on the whole very positive, perhaps different than some of your guests. It wasn’t until I began to study church history that I was exposed to the church fathers and Orthodoxy.

    I don’t know much about St. Isaac; I’ve yet to read his writings, other than a few excerpts. I understand that he is respected in Orthodoxy; you expressed what I was thinking better than I did in your comments concerning him. I appreciate Rhonda’s comment that Orthodoxy’s “mainstream” is more like a river than a stream. There’s good and bad in that, though it is part of the appeal. Perhaps I’m too eclectic for my own “reformed” good…


    • Rhonda says:

      My mother, who was raised Southern Baptist, raised me PCUSA 45 years ago because in her words she wanted me to “give up hell on my own rather than having it scared out of me”; she wanted me to learn about a God of love rather than wrath. That is where I first experienced the early seed of the “hermeneutic of love” from a Presbyterian minister who taught me that if something (whether idea, belief, interpretation, understanding, action, comment, thought) violates “God is love”, then it is error.


  9. john burnett says:

    St Isaac’s Homilies are sometimes referred to in Orthodoxy as “The Fifth Gospel”. They’re right up there with John of the Ladder. Mainstream *indeed*!


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