In his book, Does God Love Everyone? The Heart of What is Wrong with Calvinism, Jerry Walls writes the following:
But here is what is truly remarkable: not one time in this book [the Institutes] does Calvin ever quote “God is love.” In his massive book that is 1,521 pages long and that discusses thousands for biblical texts and discusses God’s nature extensively, Calvin never one time cited 1 John 4:8 or 1 John 4:16. Not even once! This is a stunning omission. (Page 5)
Walls finds this striking, because for so many pages and for what Walls describes as a “systematic theology” on the previous page, he would expect that Calvin would cite these two passages in particular. The only other discussion Walls gives of Calvin’s Institutes is on pp. 17-18, where he quotes Calvin on unconditional reprobation, and there is a citation on p. 28 where Calvin is quoted on the irresistibility of grace.
Since the publication of this book, fans of Walls have been crowing over this omission. For evidence, see the echo chamber that is Walls’ Facebook page. What I’d like to ask if this: is this a stunning omission for which Calvinist should be embarrassed?
Why is this a Stunning Omission?
Walls is correct that Calvin not once cites these two passages in the Institutes. Why is this supposed to be stunning? Walls believes that it is stunning because Calvin, he says, wrote a systematic theology, which discusses the nature of God, but here we do not see Calvin citing two passages that could be used to indicate that God is love. That omission, Walls thinks, illustrates what is fundamentally in dispute between Calvinists and their critics. Thus Walls writes:
I hope to make clear that what is at stake is nothing less than how we understand and preach the gospel to a lost world that desperately needs the word of life. Even more fundamentally, the issue at stake is how we understand the nature and character of God, and what it means to say he is perfectly loving and good. (xvii)
It is as if according to Walls, Calvin left no place for the love of God in his theology. But that indeed is Walls’ view. For in this same book, Walls concludes,
The deepest issue that divides Arminians and Calvinists is not the sovereignty of God, predestination, or the authority of the Bible. The deepest difference pertains to how we understand the character of God. Is God good in the sense that he deeply and sincerely loves all persons? (81)
Yes, Walls does discuss Carson’s distinction between different types of love. But this is all faux love. It’s not the deepest and most sincere form of love, for it does not involve God desiring that every person be saved. And for this reason, Walls thinks, Calvinists really do not believe that God is love. That’s why it is taken to be a most stunning omission on Calvin’s part.
Citations of 1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:16 in History
When reading historical documents written in completely different times, you might wonder, like I do, to what extent did the norms of me and my contemporaries exist during the time of the writing being examined? And how shall I respond if they did not? Shall I castigate Tacitus or Livy for not following the contemporary standards of historical scholarship? Of course not. Reading historical documents and then evaluating them requires at least a little bit of empathy. If an author did not put something exactly the same way I would today, does that indicate a mental blip, or a cognitive defect, or a morally suspicious maneuver by the author? Or does it indicate that what was thought to be of the utmost significance at the time was something different than we do today? As an interpreter of texts in the history of philosophy, my first inclination is to assume (but verify!) the latter. It is this approach I apply to historical theology, although my training is only in the former.
So when Walls criticizes Calvin for not citing these two passages, you might ask yourself: how often were these texts cited anyway? And when cited, how were they used?
Because Walls gives no indication of the matter, I will. It is of the utmost importance to understand that the lack of citation of these two passage by Calvin was not some major blunder that the rest of the history of the church got right.
The way in which I have begun my search about how these texts were used is by searching through electronic copies of Roberts and Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers vols. 1-8 and 10, and Philip Schaff’s The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vols. 1-8, and the texts found at Christian Classics Ethereal Library. My searches have included “1 John 4” in order to capture any citations of that chapter, and “God is love.” It is not enough that we find some other way of putting the matter, for the whole complaint is that Calvin did not cite these passages.
Clement of Alexandria (c. 215)
In his Comments on the First Epistle of John, particularly on 1 John 1:5, Clement writes:
He does not express the divine essence, but wishing to declare the majesty of God, he has applied to the Divinity what is best and most excellent in the view of men. Thus also Paul, when he speaks of “light inaccessible.” But John himself also in this same Epistle says, “God is love:” pointing out the excellences of God, that He is kind and merciful; and because He is light, makes men righteous, according to the advancement of the soul, through charity. God, then, who is ineffable in respect of His substance, is light.
Notice that here, the fact that God is love is tied to the fact that John describes God as light. And Clement ties this to God making men righteous. What a perfect opportunity to declare that the love of God, like God’s light, shines forth on every man living under the sun. And what a lost opportunity that was, you might think if you happened to be bothered by Calvin not citing those passages. 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. Unfortunately, we only have fragments of his work and we do not have anything specifically on 1 John 4:8 or 1 John 4:16.
Cyprian (c. 200-258)
In the third book of Cyprian’s letters, Cyprian spends some of his discussion on charity. This is under section 3 titled, “That Charity and Brotherly Affection are to be Religiously and Steadfastly Practiced.” What you see, there, is a large list of scriptural citations about charity, including the fuller citation of 1 John 4: “God is love and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.”
The lazy reader will look at this section, which begins, “In Malachi: ‘Hath not one God created us? Is there not one Father of us all? Why have ye certainly deserted every one his brother?'” and then say, “Isn’t there one God of all human beings? Do we not all have one Father?” just assuming that the first person plural pronoun must mean all human beings that ever lived. But if one keeps reading, Cyprian cites the following:
“Of this same thing in the Epistle of John: “In this appear the children of God and the children of the devil. Whosoever is not righteous is not of God, and he who loveth not his brother. For he who hateth his brother is a murderer; and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.” Also in the same place: “If any one shall say that he loves God, and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he who loveth not his brother whom he seeth, how can he love God whom he seeth not?”
Thus we see Cyprian citing in the very same context as 1 John 4 passages that indicate not everyone has this love of God in him. 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. Another lost opportunity for Cyprian to explain this, I suppose.
Anonymous (3rd or 4th century )
It is unknown who the author of A Treatise on Re-Baptism is. An editorial remark preceding the text says that some think Ursinus wrote this in the fourth century. But Regaltius, who first edited the treatise, notes it was written around the time of Cyprian, putting it in the third century. In any case, it is early. Here is the full section in which the statement that “God is love” appears:
For any one of us will hold it necessary, that whatever is the last thing to be found in a man in this respect, is that whereby he must be judged, all those things which he has previously done being wiped away and obliterated. And therefore, although in martyrdom there is so great a change of things in a moment of time, that in a very rapid case all things may be changed; let nobody flatter himself who has lost the occasion of a glorious salvation, if by chance he has excluded himself therefrom by his own fault; even as that wife of Lot, who in a similar manner in time of trouble only, contrary to the angel’s command, looked behind her, and she became a pillar of salt. On which principle also, that heretic who, by confessing Christ’s name, is put to death, can subsequently correct nothing, if he should have thought anything erroneously of God or of Christ, although by believing on another God or on another Christ he has deceived himself: he is not a confessor of Christ, but in the name only of Christ; since also the apostle goes on to say, “And if I shall give up my body so that I may be burnt up with fire, but have not love, I profit nothing.” Because by this deed he profits nothing who has not the love of that God and Christ who is announced by the law and the prophets and in the Gospel in this manner: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, and with all thy mind, and with all thy thought; and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. For on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets;” — even as John the evangelist said, “And every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God; for God is love;” even as God also says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that every one that believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” — as it manifestly appears that he who has not in him this love, of loving us and of being loved by us, profits nothing by an empty confession and passion, except that thereby it appears and is plain that he is a heretic who believes on another God, or receives another Christ than Him whom the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament manifestly declare, which announce without any obscurity the Father omnipotent, Creator of all things, and His Son. For it shall happen to them as to one who expects salvation from another God. Then, finally, contrary to their notion, they are condemned to eternal punishment by Christ, the Son of God the Father omnipotent, the Creator whom they have blasphemed, when God shall begin to judge the hidden things of men according to the Gospel by Christ Jesus, because they did not believe in Him, although they were washed in His name.
– Section 13
What we see in the use of 1 John here is not that God has a universal love for everyone given God’s nature. And we certainly do not see that 1 John here suggests anything about God’s desire to save every individual. Rather, we see that the God’s being love is tied to the love shared among those who have everlasting life. And furthermore, there are some “who has not in him this love”.
Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395)
In his work, On the Making of Man, Gregory cites 1 John 4:8 in the section titled, “That a man is a likeness of the Divine sovereignty.” In this section, Gregory expands upon how God created us with great properties that resemble him. Here, I think, Walls might plausibly claim that one person before Calvin took 1 John 4:8 to imply what Walls thinks it does. Here’s the relevant section:
The Godhead is mind and word: for “in the beginning was the Word” and the followers of Paul “have the mind of Christ” which “speaks” in them  : humanity too is not far removed from these: you see in yourself word and understanding, an imitation of the very Mind and Word. Again, God is love, and the fount of love: for this the great John declares, that “love is of God,” and “God is love”: the Fashioner of our nature has made this to be our feature too: for “hereby,” He says, “shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye love one another”.
The careful reader might compare Gregory’s use of this passage with the other authors who I have quoted at length, and ask whether Gregory is using the claim that God is love in the context of the first epistle of John, or is he speculating about what God’s loving nature entails? 1
Augustine of Hippo (354-430)
From On the Trinity, Book 8, chapter 8, section 12:
For in this same epistle, a little further on, he says most plainly thus: “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love.” And this passage declares sufficiently and plainly, that this same brotherly love itself (for that is brotherly love by which we love each other) is set forth by so great authority, not only to be from God, but also to be God. When, therefore, we love our brother from love, we love our brother from God; neither can it be that we do not love above all else that same love by which we love our brother: whence it may be gathered that these two commandments cannot exist unless interchangeably. For since “God is love,” he who loves love certainly loves God; but he must needs love love, who loves his brother. And so a little after he says, “For he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen”? because the reason that he does not see God is, that he does not love his brother. For he who does not love his brother, abideth not in love; and he who abideth not in love, abideth not in God, because God is love. Further, he who abideth not in God, abideth not in light; for “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” He therefore who abideth not in light, what wonder is it if he does not see light, that is, does not see God, because he is in darkness? But he sees his brother with human sight, with which God cannot be seen. But if he loved with spiritual love him whom he sees with human sight, he would see God, who is love itself, with the inner sight by which He can be seen. Therefore he who does not love his brother whom he sees, how can he love God, whom on that account he does not see, because God is love, which he has not who does not love his brother?2
Recall that on Walls’ view, God loves everyone in such a way that God is acting as best he can, consistent with the freedom of the wills of the creatures, to move them to conversion. For it is the Wesleyan view that God provides prevenient grace to everyone so that they can, if they so choose, to stop rejecting God’s grace. This is a result of the fact that God is love, so says Walls.
But notice how Augustine uses this passage. The one who loves his brother does so because that love is given from God. The love with which one loves one’s brother is the love from God, for that love has its source in God. So what about the person who does not love one’s brother? Take note of what is quoted above:
For he who does not love his brother, abideth not in love; and he who abideth not in love, abideth not in God, because God is love. Further, he who abideth not in God, abideth not in light; for “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” He therefore who abideth not in light, what wonder is it if he does not see light, that is, does not see God, because he is in darkness? But he sees his brother with human sight, with which God cannot be seen. Therefore he who does not love his brother whom he sees, how can he love God, whom on that account he does not see, because God is love, which he has not who does not love his brother?
The implication is that he cannot. An omission about prevenient grace? Let’s move on.
On the Trinity, Book 15, chapter 17, section 31:
As, then, we call the only Word of God specially by the name of Wisdom, although universally both the Holy Spirit and the Father Himself is wisdom; so the Holy Spirit is specially called by the name of Love, although universally both the Father and the Son are love. But the Word of God, i.e. the only-begotten Son of God, is expressly called the Wisdom of God by the mouth of the apostle, where he says, “Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” But where the Holy Spirit is called Love, is to be found by careful scrutiny of the language of John the apostle, who, after saying, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God,” has gone on to say, “And every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love.” Here, manifestly, he has called that love God, which he said was of God; therefore God of God is love. But because both the Son is born of God the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from God the Father, it is rightly asked which of them we ought here to think is the rather called the love that is God. For the Father only is so God as not to be of God; and hence the love that is so God as to be of God, is either the Son or the Holy Spirit. But when, in what follows, the apostle had mentioned the love of God, not that by which we love Him, but that by which He “loved us, and sent His Son to be a propitiator for our sins,” and thereupon had exhorted us also to love one another, and that so God would abide in us, — because, namely, he had called God Love; immediately, in his wish to speak yet more expressly on the subject, “Hereby,” he says, “know we that we dwell in Him, and He in us, because He hath given us of His Spirit.” Therefore the Holy Spirit, of whom He hath given us, makes us to abide in God, and Him in us; and this it is that love does. Therefore He is the God that is love. Lastly, a little after, when he had repeated the same thing, and had said “God is love,” he immediately subjoined, “And he who abideth in love, abideth in God, and God abideth in him;” whence he had said above, “Hereby we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He hath given us of His Spirit.” He therefore is signified, where we read that God is love. Therefore God the Holy Spirit, who proceedeth from the Father, when He has been given to man, inflames him to the love of God and of his neighbor, and is Himself love. For man has not whence to love God, unless from God; and therefore he says a little after, “Let us love Him, because He first loved us.” The Apostle Paul, too, says, “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us.”
Augustine claims that the love by which one loves another is because the love of God abides in him, for God is love. And those who do not love do not have this love of God in them. 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?3
Although I will not write about every instance where Augustine cites this passage, I can say that I have gone through every instance that showed up in the search results. Not one of them indicates what Walls thinks “God is love” implies, and in some cases Augustine’s use of this passage suggests (sometimes as we saw explicitly) the opposite.4
John Cassian ( 360-435)
In Cassian’s thirteenth chapter of On Friendship, he writes:
Finally so highly is the virtue of love extolled that the blessed Apostle John declares that it not only belongs to God but that it is God, saying: “God is love: he therefore that abideth in love, abideth in God, and God in him.” For so far do we see that it is divine, that we find that what the Apostle says is plainly a living truth in us: “For the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost Who dwelleth in us.” For it is the same thing as if he said that God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost Who dwelleth in us: who also, when we know not what we should pray for, “makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered: But He that searcheth the hearts knoweth what the Spirit desireth, for He asketh for the saints according to God.”
Like Augustine, Cassian’s use of 1 John 4 implies nothing about a desire to save every person. Rather, the love of God is had by those who have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them.
A Quick Break
Let’s take count of all the people for which I could not find a single reference of “God is love”:
- Cyril of Jerusalem
- John Chrysostom
- Hilary of Poitiers
- Gregory the Great
You get the idea. And for all of the writers who do cite 1 John 4, only one of them appears to have any hope of meaning what Walls takes it to mean or imply. It’s beginning to look at lot less stunning that Calvin would not cite those passages.
What about authors that preceded Calvin but came after the Patristic era? How common was it for them to cite either 1 John 4:8 or 1 John 4:16? It is a bit harder to know since many of them still need to be translated. But given that Walls can make a big deal about how Calvin does not cite them within 1500 pages, what about Anselm of Canterbury or Thomas Aquinas? Regarding Anselm: zero times. Perhaps God could be conceivably greater than Anselm did, you might think? Aquinas cites it once in the Summa Theologica in the first part, question 20, but not once in Summa Contra Gentiles.
Enter the objection with which we started: “That’s five volumes with on average over 300 pages per volume. That’s approximately 1500 pages! Aquinas will talk about God’s infinity, and God’s goodness, and God’s simplicity. Where is the love of God?!? A stunning omission that not once does he cite 1 John 4:8 or 1 John 4:16!”
All of this is an exercise in showing how silly this sort of argument is against Calvin. But there it is. And why is it silly? Hardly anything can be inferred about an author’s theology given the fact that a book does not mention it, when the majority of the writers in the Christian church did not mention it. And for those that did, almost none of them took 1 John 4:8 or 1 John 4:16 to mean what Jerry Walls thinks it means. The fact that one would think this is a stunning omission is bizarre. Or rather, it is due to forming a belief on the basis of not having done one’s due diligence.
Back to Calvin
So was Calvin completely unaware of 1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:16? Hardly, for he wrote a commentary on the First Epistle of John. Did he intentionally avoid these passages in the Institutes? That is a hard case to make as well, for Calvin does not hesitate to cite from 1 John 4 in the same section. Among the passage he cites in the Institutes are 1 John 4:10, 13, and 19. Let’s look at an example.
In Book III, Chapter 1, Section 4 (Battles’ translation), Calvin writes:
But faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the terms commonly employed to express his power and working are, in large measure, referred to it because by faith alone he leads us into the light of the gospel, as John teaches: to believers in Christ is given the privilege of becoming children of God, who are born not of flesh and blood, but of God [John 1:12-13]. Contrasting God with flesh and blood, he declares it to be a supernatural gift that those who would otherwise remain in unbelief receive Christ by faith. Similar to this is that reply of Christ’s: “Flesh and blood have not revealed it to you, but my Father, who is in heaven” [Matthew 16:17]. I am now touching briefly upon these things because I have already treated them at length elsewhere. Like this, too, is the saying of Paul’s that the Ephesians had been “sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise” [Ephesians l:13]. Paul shows the Spirit to be the inner teacher by whose effort the promise of salvation penetrates into our minds, a promise that would otherwise only strike the air or beat upon our ears. Similarly, where he says that the Thessalonians have been chosen by God “in sanctification of the Spirit and belief in the truth” [2 Thessalonians 2:13], he is briefly warning us that faith itself has no other source than the Spirit. John explains this more clearly: “We know that he abides in us from the Spirit whom he has given us” [1 John 3:24]. Likewise, “From this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” [1 John 4:13.] Therefore, Christ promised to his disciples’ “the Spirit of truth that the world cannot receive” [John 14:17] that they might be capable of receiving heavenly wisdom.
Recall above that for the majority of the authors who did quote “God is love,” their use of that quote was in the context of how believers are capable of loving each other because the Holy Spirit resides in them. There was not anything about how given God’s nature as love, God desires every person to be saved. Rather, those who did not love did not because they did not have love, for God was not in them. Now reread Calvin above. It is bizarre to think it embarrassing that Calvin did not cite two passages, but cited a neighboring passage, to convey the same thing that almost every other author has said who did quote the passage.
In Calvin’s commentary on the first epistle, concerning the statement “God is love” in 1 John 4:16, he writes, “This is as it were the minor proposition in an argument; for from faith to love he reasons in this way: By faith God dwells in us, and God is love; then, wherever God abides, love ought to be there. Hence it follows that love is necessarily connected with faith.” And is this not what Cassian, Cyprian, and others above thought?
When Calvin discusses 1 John 4:8 a little earlier in his commentary, he writes:
When he commands mutual love, he does not mean that we discharge this duty when we love our friends, because they love us; but as he addresses in common the faithful, he could not have spoken otherwise than that they were to exercise mutual love. He confirms this sentence by a reason often adduced before, even because no one can prove himself to be the son of God, except he loves his neighbors, and because the true knowledge of God necessarily produces love in us.
He also sets in opposition to this, according to his usual manner, the contrary clause, that there is no knowledge of God where there is no love. And he takes as granted a general principle or truth, that God is love, that is, that his nature is to love men. I know that many reason more refinedly, and that the ancients especially have perverted this passage in order to prove the divinity of the Spirit. But the meaning of the Apostle is simply this, — that as God is the fountain of love, this effect flows from him, and is diffused wherever the knowledge of him comes, as he had at the beginning called him light, because there is nothing dark in him, but on the contrary he illuminates all things by his own brightness. Here then he does not speak of the essence of God, but only shews what he is found to be by us.
And there we see the same points raised by Clement and Augustine.
In my view, that Calvin did not cite these two passages was not something to be embarrassed by. What would be embarrassing, in my view, is to single out and castigate someone from an earlier century for not doing what someone today would be expected to do, when nearly the entire ecclesiastical corpus fails that norm. Even worse would be to misunderstand the text one is saying should have been cited. By not presenting as accurate a picture as you can of the authors you aim to criticize, you do a disservice to the authors, to those you oppose intellectually, and to anyone who lacks the mental maturity to investigate these matters further than imbibing your every word. Responsible scholarship will produce better scholars, and it well help us be better to each other.
- On being made in the image of God, N.T. Wright has some really useful things to say in After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. ↩
- Augustine also cites this at the end of chapter 7. But this discussion in chapter 8 is much fuller and thus I have chosen to discuss that chapter. ↩
- One might also look at Bk. 15, Chapter 19, section 37, not much later in the book, where this love is said not just to be a result of the Holy Spirit, but also of the other persons of the Trinity. And here Augustine ties this love that Christians have to the work of redemption by the Father and the Son: “or He is both said and read in countless places to be so, — the only-begotten Son of God the Father; as that what the apostle says of God the Father is true too: ‘Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness .and hath translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His own love.'” ↩
- Check for yourself in the rest of Augustine’s work: The Enchridion, chapter 121. De Fide et Symbolo, chapter 9, sections 19-20. De Patientia, section 15. Answer to the Letters of Petilian, Bishop of Cirta, Book 3, chapter 5. The Grace of Christ and On Original Sin, chapter 22. Grace and Free Will, chapter 40. Letter on the Gospel of John, Tractates 9, 67. Homily 7 and Homily 8 on 1 John. Exposition of the Book of Psalms, Psalm 80 section 2, Psalm 99 section 4, Psalm 100 section 6, and Psalm 149 section 3. ↩