Is God Properly Described as “Love” in the Theology of John Calvin?

by Thomas Talbott, Ph.D. 


When I first began to wonder how the Calvinists might interpret the Johannine declaration that God is love (see 1 John 4:8 and 16), I turned immediately to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, large portions of which I had already read—had indeed examined line by line and with great intensity—during my own seminary days. But to my surprise, I discovered that Calvin evidently did not regard either of these texts as important enough even to mention in this his most systematic and exhaustive exposition of Christian doctrine and practice. I found this especially surprising because I could not think of any other ethically or theologically significant New Testament text that he ignored altogether in this massive work. So, to satisfy my own curiosity, I then turned to his commentary on First John, where I knew that he would have no choice but to comment on these particular texts. What I found in the commentary, however, befuddled me even further because his remarks there appeared to be flatly self-contradictory, at least to me.

Now I made similar remarks in a personal letter to Jerry Walls who had called my attention to James A. Gibson’s critique of Walls’ own book Does God Love Everyone? and I subsequently published that letter here on my Timeline in a post entitled “A Case of Theological Obfuscation?” Accordingly, having made that letter public myself, it is no surprise, perhaps, and certainly fair that Gibson should reply to it, which he does in this blog article: “A Rejoinder to Thomas Talbott on Calvin.”

As I have reflected on both Gibson’s original critique of Walls and his rejoinder to my letter that I made public, two issues, which I shall deal with in two separate posts, seem to me worthy of further comment. One of them, which will be the subject of a subsequent post, concerns the deeply flawed nature, as I see it, of Gibson’s historical survey. But first—and this may be a more technical philosophical issue—I want to explain again the apparently self-contradictory nature of Calvin’s remarks on 1 John 4:8.

According to Gibson, the “contradiction [that I attribute to Calvin] is supposed to arise from the fact that Calvin cites that God is love, but then goes on to apply the love of God specifically to the elect. Suppose you thought that the statement ‘God is love’ obviously entails God desires every person be saved. Then you would not limit it only to the elect in the context of 1 John 4. So the contradiction is something like, Calvin affirms some statement P that has as its obvious entailment Q, but he then applies P such that ~Q [i.e., not-Q]. And then he skips away from the scene without resolving the contradiction.”

But that, I think it fair to say, misconstrues entirely the apparent contradiction I had in mind. For the record, I do believe that

(a) God is love

attributes an essential property to the individual who is God, the Father, and hence that (a) entails

(b) God wills or desires that “every person be saved.”

But why on earth would I attribute that deduction to a man, such as Calvin, who quite obviously rejects it? If I wanted to persuade a Christian of the truth of (b), moreover, I would simply point out that 1 Timothy 2:4 explicitly states that (b) is true, and I would then examine some of the absurd ways, as I see them, in which Augustine and Calvin both try to explain this text away. I would have no need, in other words, to rely on the more complicated and controversial claim that (a) entails (b). In any case, the contradiction I had in mind arises directly from Calvin’s own words and not from some deduction that I have imposed upon him. For within the context of two or three sentences, he appears to embrace a proposition of the form p and not-p. Right after telling us that 1 John 4:8 expresses “a general principle or truth, that God is love, that is, that his nature is to love men,” Calvin appears immediately to take it back, telling us that 1 John 4:8 “does not speak of the essence [or the nature] of God” after all. He appears to embrace, in other words, both the proposition, 1 John 4:8 expresses a truth about the very essence of God, and the proposition, It is not the case that 1 John 4:8 expresses a truth about the very essence of God.

Now one way to avoid my conclusion that Calvin flatly contradicted himself here would be to insist that he had in mind a sharp distinction between God’s nature and his essence; and because I was aware of such a possibility, as unlikely as it may seem, I was careful to say that his remarks appear to be self-contradictory. But if we suppose, first, that the nature of God includes all and only those properties essential to his divinity, and second, that being divine is itself an essential property of God, the Father, then it is God’s nature to love persons only if it follows from his very essence that he loves them—in which case I see no way to avoid the conclusion that Calvin’s remarks were indeed self-contradictory.

So why is this important? Because it simply cannot be true that the same verse both expresses a truth about the nature of God and says nothing about the essence of God. And furthermore, if lovingkindness is indeed one of God’s essential perfections and therefore part of his very essence, then it is logically impossible that God should fail to love someone in the sense of willing the very best for that person. This follows from the very nature of an essential property. If omniscience is one of God’s essential perfections, for example, then it is logically impossible that he should ever believe a false proposition; if justice is one of his essential perfections, then it is logically impossible that he should ever treat someone unjustly; and similarly, if lovingkindness is one of his essential perfections, then it is logically impossible, contrary to what Jonathan Edwards once wrote, that in “hell God manifests his being and perfections only in hatred and wrath, and hatred without love.”

201203_044_lovelimitWhat Calvin’s overall theology requires, then, is that we accept one of his two inconsistent claims—namely, that 1 John 4:8 “does not speak of the essence [or the nature] of God” at all—and reject the other; it requires, in other words, that we treat lovingkindness as something other than an essential perfection of God. If we do that—if (in philosophical parlance) we treat lovingkindness as at most an accidental property of God—then we can consistently hold that God freely chooses to withhold his elective love from some people, such as the non-elect and those destined for hell. But even if we adopt such a move as that, we must still do justice to the way in which love ties the interests of people together. If in obedience to the command of Jesus, for example, I should successfully love both of my children even as I love myself, then any evil that befalls one of them is an evil that likewise befalls me; as Jesus himself put it, “just as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren [i.e., to one of those I love] you did it to me” (Matt 25:40—RSV). Hence God cannot will the best for me unless he also wills the best for both of my children. That is but the first step in an argument that will finally lead, I believe, to this inescapable conclusion: either God wills the very best for all of us, or he does not will the best for any of us (see The Inescapable Love of God, pp. 126-129, for the full argument). Or, to put it in a slightly different way, a doctrine of limited election is a logical (or metaphysical) impossibility.

* * *

In his book Does God Love Everyone? Jerry Walls comments, “Unfortunately, Calvinists sometimes [my emphasis] seem to have a blind spot for the love of God” (p.4). And he provides several illustrations of his point, the first of which is the following quotation from Arthur W. Pink: “When we say that God is sovereign in the exercise of His love, we mean that He loves whom he chooses. He does not love everybody” (quoted on p. 3). But of course Walls could have chosen from any number of similar examples, such as the declaration of Jonathan Edwards and Hermann Hoeksema that from the beginning the non-elect are an object of “God’s eternal hatred.” Or, he could also have quoted Calvin himself: “If God wills that all be saved, how does it come to pass that he does not open the door of repentance to the miserable men who would be better prepared to receive grace [than some who do receive it]? . . . But experience teaches that God wills the repentance of those whom he invites to himself, in such a way that he does not touch the hearts of all” (Institutes, bk. 3, ch. 24, sec. 15—my emphasis). Here one wonders how, according to Calvin, our limited and impoverished experience of such matters is even relevant to what God will do in the end? How is it even relevant to the interpretation of any given text in the Bible?

As a further illustration of the point, Walls also observes that in his Institutes of the Christian Religion John Calvin never once cited 1 John 4:8 or 1 John 4:16 and never once considered the Johannine declaration that God is love important enough even to discuss. Although Walls presents this as but one illustration among several of his point about blindness and rests no argument of substance upon it, James A. Gibson evidently felt compelled to defend Calvin with an historical survey, which in a subsequent reply to me he summarized this way:

In response [to Walls], I point out that almost no one in the ecclesiastical corpus cited those verses, and moreover, only one person among all those who cited the verses had the slightest chance of thinking the verses might mean what Walls took them to mean. Furthermore, almost every commentator minus one had the same interpretation of 1 John 4 as did Calvin. As a result, it would be strange to think that Calvin goofed in not citing the verses as possible contrary evidence to his other views; and it is certainly not stunning that he did not cite them. [But see “Calvin and the Love of God in 1 John” for the full explanation of his survey.]

Personally, I would never claim that Calvin “goofed in not citing these verses”; I suspect he knew exactly what he was doing. In any case, Gibson’s claim that “almost every commentator minus one had the same interpretation of 1 John 4 as did Calvin” seems to me altogether vacuous. For how are we to determine Calvin’s interpretation? If it is flatly self-contradictory, then it entails any interpretation you please and excludes none whatsoever. But perhaps we can here let that pass and focus on three fatal flaws, as I view them, in Gibson’s historical survey.

First, Gibson seems utterly oblivious of the major impact that Augustine had on the Western theological tradition and the changes he introduced into it. Gibson therefore writes, as if he were scoring a point: “Striking, isn’t it, that Augustine does not take the fact that ‘God is love’ to imply that God is actively aiming at the salvation of every single person?” But that, of course, is just what one would expect. Was not Augustine (the later Augustine, at least) the very first “Calvinist,” so to speak, the first Christian to invent the idea of a limited elect drawn from all classes of people? And was not Calvin a follower of Augustine in this regard, even to the point of using Augustine’s own phraseology to explain away a text such as 1 Timothy 2:4? The index of references to Augustine in my copy of the Institutes is seven pages of small print with two columns per page, and it is simply inconceivable that Calvin might have interpreted the Johannine declaration that God is love any differently than Augustine did. So why treat this similarity between two proponents of limited election as if it were some kind of important discovery in the present context? The challenge for Gibson would be to name a single Christian before Augustine—and before Augustine perverted the early Christian understanding of divine love—who denied that “God is actively aiming at the salvation of every single person.”

Second, Gibson systematically confuses the belief that “God is actively aiming at the salvation of every single person,” which Walls accepts, with a belief that Walls and many others reject: the belief that God will successfully win over every single person. Concerning Clement of Alexandria, for example, Gibson writes: “What Clement declares is that love is an excellence of God’s. From this, we see that God makes men righteous. Every man? That’s not in the text” (i.e., not in Clement’s brief comment on 1 John 1:5). But does Gibson seriously doubt that, according to Clement, God’s love is all-inclusive, that it is always and everywhere active, in the next life no less than in this one, in hell no less than in heaven? Although Clement may never have explicitly endorsed Origen’s idea that God’s love will successfully win over every person, he clearly did hold that God’s love would never cease striving towards that end. Another example: Gibson quotes Cyprian to the effect that liars, murderers, and those filled with hatred for others do not have the love of God abiding in them. He then comments, “How strange it should be that not everyone has this love when it is thought that 1 John 4:8 has the implication that God loves and aims to convert every person.” But good heavens, why should anyone think that strange at all? When Saul of Tarsus was dragging Christians from their homes and consenting to the murder of Stephen, would Gibson think it strange that he was motivated by something other than a perfect love for these Christians? And would Gibson draw the further inference that God was not, therefore, “actively aiming at the salvation” of Saul? I certainly hope not.

Finally, Gibson’s survey of pre-Augustine Christian writers, using the search terms “1 John 4” and “God is love,” results in little more than an unfortunate argument from silence. Take a look at his list of ten for whom his search turned up nothing. Ignatius, who was (apparently) martyred in Rome sometime around the year 110, wrote seven known letters (possibly before 1 John was even composed), and Polycarp, who was burned at the stake sometime around the year 156, wrote one epistle, which was to the Philippians. Unlike Calvin, neither of these martyrs was a scholar aiming to interpret an existing New Testament canon; in fact, the church had not yet settled upon one at the time of their deaths. Or consider John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) who wrote commentaries on all of the Pauline epistles. Although he reportedly had written commentaries on the whole Bible, we have none on Mark, Luke, or any of the Catholic Epistles including 1 John. So the absence of a specific comment on 1 John 4:8 in the available literature is no more surprising than the absence of one on 2 Peter 3:9. It is important to see, moreover, that the pre-Augustine theological milieu was very different from what we find after Augustine in effect endorsed the idea of limited election. Prior to Augustine, there were Christological controversies aplenty and growing divisions between Arians and Trinitarians. But no one of significance had even contemplated the idea of limited election, much less that of divine reprobation, as Chrysostom’s own comments on Romans 9 illustrate nicely. Because virtually all Christians understood St. Paul’s contention that God’s grace extends to both Jews and Gentiles alike to imply that God loves all of humanity equally, it would most likely have seemed to them utterly pointless to cite 1 John 4:8 in support of a claim that no Christian had yet disputed. Indeed, most thoughtful Christians had far more immediate controversies on their minds—concerning, for example, the nature of the Incarnation.

In conclusion, Calvin’s Institutes is a monumental work of over 1500 pages; in it he sought to provide a comprehensive summary of Christian doctrine, as he understood it, along with an exhaustive examination of the biblical support for it. And for that reason alone, what we find (or do not find) in far less comprehensive works, written before Augustine radically altered the Western theological tradition, has no power at all to dissuade me of this: Calvin’s failure even to mention the Johannine declaration that God is love is indeed a glaring omission.

* * *

Dr Thomas Talbott is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon

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19 Responses to Is God Properly Described as “Love” in the Theology of John Calvin?

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Thank you, Tom, for giving me permission to publish this article on Calvinism and the divine attribute of love. It’s good to have you back on Eclectic Orthodoxy.


    • Tom Talbott says:

      You are very welcome, Fr. Kimel. One thing I would point out for anyone who might have missed it, this article is a combination of two separate notes on my Facebook Timeline, which accounts for the slightly repetitive nature in the middle of it. The first note was entitled “Are John Calvin’s Remarks on 1 John 4:8 Self-Contradictory?” and the second, which begins with the paragraph adjacent to the picture of Jerry’s book, was entitled “A Deeply Flawed Historical Survey?

      Anyway, thanks again for publishing this.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I have added three asterisks to mark the division between the two parts.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Tom, Gibson has objected to the title as misrepresenting your articles. Do you agree? If so, I’m happy to change it to whatever title you suggest.


        • Tom Talbott says:

          Hmmm. I guess I hadn’t thought about that. But now that I do, I think I see his point. For I never argue in my two posts that Calvinism is incoherent, though I do suggest that Calvin’s own remarks on 1 John 4:8 in his commentary are self-contradictory. I then point to which of his two seemingly contradictory statements a consistent Calvinism would require. Did Gibson specify what he thought the misrepresentation is? Was it what I have here suggested it is?

          As for what title I would suggest, you could, I suppose, simply use the original titles, substituting the second for your three asterisks. I liked that division, by the way. Thanks. Alternatively, you could use one title along the lines of “John Calvin on 1 John 4:8 and 16.” That may seem a bit bland, but nothing else comes immediately to mind.

          Thanks for your integrity in all such matters.


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            I gave the article a new title. I hope it meets with your approval, Tom, as well as meets Gibson’s objection to the charge of “Calvinist incoherence.” We’ll let the reader decide whether the contradicitons you have identified amount to incoherence.


          • Tom Talbott says:

            That’s a much better title than I came up with. As for the issue of incoherence, I might add one clarification. If I happen to contradict myself on some particular issue, that would indeed be a species of incoherence, But it would not follow that my overall philosophy is incoherent. I may have simply expressed myself carelessly on some particular occasion and in a way that is quite correctable..

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I do not know about the Greek but the Latin reads “Deus caritas est” which reads simulataneously, “God is love” and “love is God”.


  3. John Stamps says:

    World’s shortest sermon is St Augustine preaching on John 3:16.

    Somewhat surprisingly, Calvin has extensive comments on John 3:16, although it’s mostly double predestination weasel language. He won’t admit God loves “the world.”

    “This mode of expression, however, may appear to be at variance with many passages of
    Scripture, which lay in Christ the first foundation of the love of God to us, and show that
    out of him we are hated by God…. Let us remember, on the other hand, that while life is promised universally to all who believe in Christ, still faith is not common to all. For Christ is made known and held out to the view of all, but the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith.”


    • Calvin was a systematic theologian. You have to understand that. He didn’t do things the same as the church fathers did. Sermons/homilies are quite different than systematic theology which seeks to break theology into “systems”.


  4. Calvinism- big on “glory” short on love.
    Makes your skin crawl, really it does.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I admit that I have little sympathy for Calvinism proper. There are some Reformed theologians that I read and benefit from, namely, Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance, but they have liberated themselves from the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, which I judge to be heretical.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ryan says:

        It seems Torrance might say that limited atonement is not really inherent to Calvinism but more an invention of Calvinism as a scholastic system formulated by Beza et al. I can’t say I know enough about it to evaluate this claim.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          You may be right, Ryan. The counter-reply, I think, is to point to Barth’s radical reinterpretation of Calvin’s double predestination, which TFT embraces. Everyone agrees that Barth has given us a very different Calvin. TFT is often described as an evangelical Calvinist, but I’m not at all convinced that is an accurate description. I prefer simply to speak of him as a Reformed theologian who was obviously influenced by Calvin in significant ways but who also broke from Calvin at key points.


  5. I should like to know something. How is it that Augustine, whose writings so greatly altered the Church and Her view of Christ’s salvation, is considered a saint? To me, that would be like declaring Arius a saint, since his writings would have had the same effect or worse upon our understanding of salvation.

    And second, and I am really greatly wrestling with this one as a member of the Catholic Church (although Eastern in purview), is this: how do the mental meanderings of two men, Augustine and Anselm, become Catholic dogma (and to some degree, Orthodox dogma as well?). I thought that a council had to ratify such new ideas, yet it seems that they went out from Augustine and spread like some crazed virus until they finally found their way into codification in the Roman Catechism. Perhaps you could enlighten me on this?

    The reason this is so important, of course, is that in mentioning the all-inclusive love of the God of Patristic Universalism, I am immediately declared a heretic and told that A.) I cannot be in communion with Rome in such an instance B.) the Church has declared this and the Church is the “pillar and ground of truth” and therefore the issue is settled C.) since the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth, I must change my mind and this is final.

    This puts me in a terrible bind, for if the Church truly is the pillar and ground of truth, then indeed there is nothing left but blind obedience to what is written. If the Church is not the pillar and ground of truth, then the Protestant Reformation had every right to exist, and what it worse, there is no one source of definite truth. All is up for grabs – which is a bad place to be for those seeking truth. Yet my mind cannot let go of the aionios distinction and how Latin speaking theologians redefined it in their own legal image.

    It is maddening. Any clarity you can give will be appreciated, for I exaggerate not that there are days my mind feels like it is burning as I try to synthesize all this.

    But nonetheless, to God be the glory and thanks be for your site!


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I should like to know something. How is it that Augustine, whose writings so greatly altered the Church and Her view of Christ’s salvation, is considered a saint? To me, that would be like declaring Arius a saint, since his writings would have had the same effect or worse upon our understanding of salvation. And second, and I am really greatly wrestling with this one as a member of the Catholic Church (although Eastern in purview), is this: how do the mental meanderings of two men, Augustine and Anselm, become Catholic dogma (and to some degree, Orthodox dogma as well?). I thought that a council had to ratify such new ideas, yet it seems that they went out from Augustine and spread like some crazed virus until they finally found their way into codification in the Roman Catechism. Perhaps you could enlighten me on this?

      You raise, Edward, a really interesting question–actually, two interesting questions. Clearly it is possible for individual Christians who hold views that are eventually judged heretical to be venerated as saints. St Augustine, as you note, is perhaps the prime example. His “mature” teachings on the massa damnata, the damnation of unbaptized infants, and (almost) double predestination are most certainly rejected in the Eastern Church and increasingly rejected in the Latin Church. RC theologian Henri Rondet has spoken of a purification and correction of Augustinian teaching in the Latin Church over the past thousand years. Yet both Latin and Eastern Churches venerate him as a saint, despite his serious errors. Similarly, St Gregory of Nyssa is venerated as a saint–indeed, acclaimed as “Father of Fathers” by the 7th Ecumenical Council–even though he clearly taught a doctrine of apokatastasis that most theologians in the Latin and Eastern Churches deem heretical. How do we explain this fact? Ultimately the only explanation that matters, it seems to me, is the inspiration and guidance of the Spirit, who reveals to the Church those men and women whom she is to venerate. Whatever heterodoxies Augustine and Gregory may have taught, they surely do not teach them now. I find that encouraging.


    • brian says:

      Edward, I almost exactly share your ecclesial identification. To be honest, I just keep mum about my eschatology. It is too difficult to explain briefly and most people are traditionalist with a kind of rote catechesis or of the modern American tolerance that is simply indifferent to the truth. As Father indicates, I think we should accept that saints are complex human beings like the rest of us. The greater insight due to sanctity this side of eternity does not equate to infallibility. Anyway, we all have our unique paths. My experience is that I had to follow out certain lines of inquiry, as it were, not as intellectual questions, but as pressing existential crises that pushed me — and continue to push me — to wrestle with angels. There is a prudence that learns to recognize the continuing presence and gift of Tradition, that can go beyond easy certitudes and the comforting illusion that everything that matters is already settled for us, yet retain loyalty to the ontological and historical structures nurtured by the Spirit.

      When I am angry with Augustine, I try to read one of his sermons on the Psalms and listen to the beauty of his language and his passion for God as a means of keeping friendship and justice with him. I also don’t like Dante’s Inferno, but think he is one of the greatest of poets.


  6. John H says:

    Edward, I think that one of the problems is that it is very difficult to precisely identify the Catholic teaching regarding the Last Things at this point in time. It really does run the gamut from neo-Banezian Thomism, which is the Roman Catholic version of double predestination, to the hopeful universalism that is found in two of the greatest Catholic theologians of the last century, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

    So I suppose that a person of faith in the Catholic Tradition does need to exercise a choice between blatantly contradictory alternatives when thinking about eschatology. Rahner propounds the view in his Foundations of Christian Faith that our finite No to God in this life can never be equivalent to God’s unqualified Yes to every human being as realized in the Paschal Mystery of Christ. And von Balthasar dares to hope that all may be saved in the end because he too has unqualified faith in the victory of Christ over the powers of darkness and hell. So to me the choice is not difficult, even though many Catholic traditionalists maintain that it is heresy even to think that hell may be empty in the end. I also take great comfort in the words of David Bentley Hart, one of the foremost Orthodox theologians, which dovetail quite nicely with the view expressed by Professor Talbot in this excellent post:

    But, because we say God creates freely, we must believe his final judgment shall reveal him for who he is. So, if all are not saved, if God creates souls he knows to be destined for eternal misery, is God evil? Well, why debate semantics? Maybe every analogy fails. What is not debatable is that, if God does so create, in himself he cannot be the good as such, and creation cannot be a morally meaningful act: it is from one vantage an act of predilective love, but from another—logically necessary—vantage an act of prudential malevolence. And so it cannot be true. We are presented by what has become the majority tradition with three fundamental claims, any two of which might be true simultaneously, but never all three: that God freely created all things out of nothingness; that God is the Good itself; and that it is certain or at least possible that some rational creatures will endure eternal loss of God. And this, I have to say, is the final moral meaning I find in the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, at least if we truly believe that our language about God’s goodness and the theological grammar to which it belongs are not empty: that the God of eternal retribution and pure sovereignty proclaimed by so much of Christian tradition is not, and cannot possibly be, the God of self-outpouring love revealed in Christ. If God is the good creator of all, he is the savior of all, without fail, who brings to himself all he has made, including all rational wills, and only thus returns to himself in all that goes forth from him. If he is not the savior of all, the Kingdom is only a dream, and creation something considerably worse than a nightmare. But, again, it is not so. God saw that it was good; and, in the ages, so shall we. (David Bentley Hart: “God, Creation and Evil; the moral meaning of Creatio ex Nihilo”)

    I hope that this helps.

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