What Does Nicea Have to Do With Geneva?

Posted on: April 25th, 2013 by Thaddeus Williams No Comments

heartmetasThe Connection Between Biblical Trinitarianism and Relational Calvinism

When it comes to the debate about God’s sovereignty, there is a common caricature that goes something like this: Calvinists are all about God’s power while non-Calvinists are all about God’s love. Some scholars have even branded their non-Calvinism “relational theism” to set their loving God apart from the relationally challenged power-God of Calvinism. Sure Calvinists will also talk about God’s love, and non-Calvinists about God’s power. But wedged between them seems to be the question of which attribute of God is more ultimate—power or love? Must we side with either the power-God of Calvinism or the love-God of non-Calvinism?

Behind this caricature lies a widespread belief that love and power exist in an inverse proportion—the more you have of one the less you have of the other. Geddes McGregor puts words to this belief when he says that “love is the abdication of power,” and talks about God emptying Himself of power to make room in the universe for meaningful love relationships. In this line of thinking God’s love and power are something like oil and water in a full jar. They do not mix well and putting more water (love) in the jar requires emptying out some oil (power).[1]

The fourth gospel shatters the jars of different theologies, those with more water and those with more oil, and mixes it all together on a giant canvas. The result is a masterpiece portrait of a God who is not powerful in spite of being loving, or loving in spite of being powerful. The God of John’s gospel is loving precisely because He is so powerful, and powerful precisely because He is so loving. How does John paint God’s power and love together? Throughout the twenty-one chapters of John’s story, God’s power to save human persons cannot be separated from God’s love as passionately expressed within the Trinity. John connects predestining power to intratrinitarian love in an astounding and worship-provoking way. Both non-Calvinists and many Calvinists have largely overlooked this connection. We have walked right by the masterpiece. So let us stop and really take it in.

 I. Before “The Beginning” There Was Love

John’s opening line, borrowed verbatim from the opening line of the Greek Old Testament, reads, “In the beginning...” Whereas Genesis 1:1 whisks us to the beginning of “the heavens and the earth,” John takes us even further back. He ventures before the beginning. Before the beginning of the universe there was not some impossibly dense particle hovering in the middle of nowhere, or a quantum energy bathtub bubbling up multiverses, or “nothingness” (as physicist Lawrence Krauss has recently speculated). For John, our cosmic origins cosmos are far more personal than that. “In the beginning was the Word”—that is, the Logos. Greek philosophers (and the Stoics in particular) had their own concept of Logos. Theirs’ was a kind of impersonal rational principle that accounts for logical order in the universe. John’s Logos is not a principle but a Person.

The next breath of John’s prologue tells us that “the Logos was with God and the Logos was God.” Before the universe began there was not something, whether a dense singularity, an energy bathtub, “nothingness,” or an abstract logical principle. There was someone, and that Someone “was God.” Rather than picturing this divine Someone as a solitary deity who needed to create out of unbearable lonesomeness, John tells us that the Logos was also “with God.” There was relationship before matter and space and time began, relationship within the Trinity. John takes the relationship of the Logos “with God” deeper only a few verses later. By the fourteenth verse of his prologue, John no longer expresses Trinitarian truths with Logos language. Instead, he speaks of the “Son” (a personal and relational word the Greeks could not ascribe to their Logos). There is a reason that the Trinitarian formula was never Uncle, Nephew, and Holy Spirit, or Boss, Employee, and Holy Spirit, or President, Citizen, and Holy Spirit. None of these capture the magnitude of interpersonal love that exists between the divine Persons. “Father and Son” shows something of the vast and beaming love relationship of which even our best father-son relationships are only a small blurry reflection.

John returns again and again to the command “love!” Why? Because his entire worldview begins with a God who “is love,” a God who has loved within the Trinity long before there were people like you and me to love. The Logos was not “with God” in the way that you might be “with” strangers in a restaurant, but with the God in the sense that, “You loved me, Father, before the creation of the cosmos” (17:24). This loving with-ness is so important to Jesus that he desires that “the world may know that I love the Father” (14:31). As his narrative unfolds, John captures this intimacy by moving from the language of with-ness to the language of in-ness—“I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (14:11). In this way, John shines a spotlight on the creation account of Genesis, clarifying once cryptic details. The Creator God of Genesis refers to Himself in the plural—“Let us make man in our image.” From John we learn that the same Logos who “was God,” “with God,” “loved” by the Father, and “in the Father” created everything (1:3). Our universe was not spoken into existence by a lonely or bored deity seeking company or entertainment. It was a God already enjoying intimate interpersonal relationship who said “Let there be...”[2]

Theologians have long talked about the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, the Latin phrase signifying God’s creation of the universe “out of nothing.” God did not take some pre-existing stuff and rearrange it to make our universe, like a painter who needs pre-existing paint and canvas to create beauty. When God said, “Let there be…” things came to be that, prior to that creative command, were not. But we should affirm right along with creatio ex nihilo the doctrine of creatio ex amor (creation from love). Because John traces the genesis of the universe to the “with”-the-Father, “in”-the-Father,” “loved”-by-the-Father Logos, relationality is written into the very structure of creation. In many Kierkegaard poems the whole poem and each line within it find their meaning only in light of the poet’s passionate affection for his first love, Regina Olsen. Similarly, God’s poetic creation as a whole and the individual creatures, like lines of His poem, find their deepest meaning only in light of the Father’s first love for His divine Son.

 II. Why “Loneliness is Such a Drag” 

Contrast John’s Trinitarian cosmology with the Greeks. Their Logos was not a Son in divine relationship—more of rational “It” than a relational “He.” With this starting point, the Greek vision of the good life hardly rises higher than the life of reason, wearing a toga with your fist on your chin in Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, Epicurus’ Garden, or Stoic’s Painted Porch. These four schools of antiquity, each with their own divergent themes, converge on the point that “reason more than anything else is man.”[3] Whether the final destination is Plato’s state of a well-ordered soul (diakosune), Aristotle’s fulfillment of our built-in purpose (eudaimonia), Epicurus’ peaceful mind purged of fear (ataraxia), or the Stoic’s statuesque indifference (apatheia) the road sign always reads “reason.” The rational, not the relational, will save humanity.

John’s Logos is certainly rational (hence, worshipping God in “truth” and loving Him with our “minds” are essential to John’s vision of the good life). Yet John’s Logos is also relational. While big enough to contain sacred space for the life of the mind, John’s worldview leaves far more room than the Greeks could accommodate for the reality of love, the reality that we all know in our best moments is what makes life worth living. Let’s get specific. The rational and relational Logos of John’s gospel (rather than the merely rational Logos of Greek philosophy) explains…

…why, to quote the late great philosopher Jimi Hendrix, ”loneliness is such a drag.” There are old folks with no visitors beyond the talking images of a Matlock episode, ex-lovers who find themselves alone and withdrawn after a broken relationship, odd theologians who exert more effort on books than people. Why are these are all tragic figures? Because they are each created for relationship by a Triune God of relationship.

…why prisons punish with solitary confinement rather than restricted library access. Why is the hole, where relationships become impossible, a far more chilling punishment? Because prisoners are created for relationship by a Triune God of relationship.

…why the overwhelming majority of great songs, poems, and movies focus on the same grand theme. Love dwarfs all other creative themes, whether the invigorating power in, the yearning desire for, or the lamenting loss of it. The lyrical climax of Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” is not “the wonder of it all is that you just don’t realize how much I logically contemplate you.” The Beatles never sang the anthem “All you need is reason, do do do do do.” Elvis’ rewrite—“Think me Tender”— would have never made the pop charts. Even when love is confused with a serotonin rush to the brain (or a rush of blood to certain body parts with more nerve endings), these shadows reveal something of our thirst for the Substance. Why is love what artists attempt to express more than anything else (and what we want them to express more than anything else)? Because we are all created for relationship by a Triune God of relationship.

The Greeks’ Logos could not explain such experiences. Neither can the astrophysicist’s quantum singularity, the Muslim’s Allah who created in solitude, the Hindu’s Brahman as an impersonal force, or any other explanation of where we ultimately came from. In John’s relational Logos we find not only the explanation of love’s rudimentary place in the world, but also the realization of our deepest built-in longings to love and be loved.

III. A Love That Cannot Drop Bottles

If we look deeper into John’s portrait of God, we not only find our origin in the Triune God who has loved before the cosmos. We also find that this pre-cosmic love is an active love (This is one reason why, for John, reflecting the Triune God requires that we “love not only with word, but also with action” cf. 1 Jn. 3:18.). The Son expresses His love for the Father primarily through the action of obeying (tereo cf. 12:49-50; 14:31; 15:10; 17:4). The primary love-language by which the Father expresses affection for the Son is the action of giving (didomi). The Father “gives” the Son “life in himself” (5:27a), “authority to judge” (5:27b; cf. 5:22), “work” (5:36), “sheep” (10:29); “authority over all people” (17:2); “those … out of the world” (17:6; cf. 17:24), “words” (17:8), “the name” (17:11-12); “glory” (17:22, 24; cf. 13:31-32), and more.

It is in this expressive love exchange between the giving Father and the obeying Son that we discover John’s perspective on God’s power. Divine love and divine power are profoundly intertwined around one specific gift. John 6:37 speaks of the Father giving the Son people. You, me, and every other believer are, in John’s view, living, breathing ‘I love yous’ spoken by a Triune God. Says the Son, “All that the Father gives me will come to me.” Who “will come to” Jesus? “All that the Father gives” Him. The tenses of the two verbs in Jesus’ statement shed light on how John connects divine love and power. The Father “gives” in the present tense. People “will come” in the future tense. Grammatically, this is like saying, “All the majority votes for (present) will sing (future) in the next round,” or “All the governor pardons (present) will enjoy (future) freedom from death row.” The performers’ singing another round and the prisoners’ enjoying freedom rest on the prior actions of other agents (i.e., the majority’s voting and the governor’s pardoning). Similarly, if you have come to Jesus then you were not the prime mover behind that coming. Rather you came to the Son because the Father first gave you to the Son as an expression of His intense affection for the Son.[4] The vocalist has the voting majority to thank for her singing in the next round. The convict has the governor to thank for his enjoying freedom. You have the Father to thank for your coming to the Son. Peer behind your decision to follow Jesus and you will find a Father generously in love with His divine Son.

Francis Schaeffer observes that, “love existed between the persons of the Trinity before the foundation of the world. This being so, the existence of love as we know it in our makeup does not have an origin in chance, but from that which has always been.[5] According to John 6:37, not only does “the existence of love” in human makeup trace its origin to “that which has always been.” Any and all love we have for Jesus traces to that same ancient affection. Once it sinks in that our belief in Jesus originates because of the Father’s love for His Son, we can never again think of the Trinity as some kind of abstract, black-and-white, strange math equation where three somehow equals one. Rather, the doctrine becomes something precious and practical. It bursts with color. It becomes a cool ocean to plunge into after we have followed John’s map upstream from our rivers of faith and discovered their ultimate Source in the Triune God of love. Non-Calvinism cannot lead us to this ocean. Non-Calvinism reverses John’s verbs. All who come (present) to the Son [with their autonomous free power], will be given (future) by the Father. For John, however, we do not believe to become love-gifts; we believe because we are gifts. “All” the Father gives will come to the Son. For John it lies beyond the scope of possibility that anyone the Father wants to give His Son as a living, conscious, worshipping ‘I love you’ would not, in fact, come to the Son.

To see why all the Father gives will come, consider an illustration: Imagine a dad who wants to express His fatherly affection for his only son. Dad purchases a 24-bottle case of a certain rare, delicious beverage to enjoy with his boy. Let us assume, for the sake of illustration, that these bottles have the power to either remain in the case, and so be love-gifts enjoyed by the son, or spring out of the case and shatter themselves on the concrete. As the father makes his way to the son’s apartment, he hears the shattering pop of bottles on the sidewalk. By the time the father knocks on the front door a few bottles remain in the case. The son swings the door open to find his father offering a half empty case. Over the father’s shoulder, the son spots a sad trail of glass shards and brown liquid running into the gutters. The extent to which bottles have used their free power to opt out of the love-gift, casting themselves to the concrete, is the extent to which the father’s love has not reached its full, intended expression. Every bottle broken is a bottle not enjoyed by the son.

A similar mishap may occur in non-Calvinist theologies. If the Father’s giving depends on our first coming, then the Father’s love for His Son may not reach its full, intended expression. Every potential love-gift who uses her free power to say ‘no’ to the Son is one more bottle wastefully broken on the pavement rather than joyfully imbibed by the Son. This raises an important question. Calvinism debates typically focus on the question: Do humans have the power to thwart the will of a supremely powerful God with regard to their salvation? Calvinists answer ‘no,’ while non-Calvinists generally answer ‘yes.’ While this is an important question, let us re-frame the question in light of the Father-Son relationship in John’s gospel: Do humans have the power to thwart the will of a supremely loving, Triune God with regard to their salvation? Can we mar the full, radiant expression of God’s love within the Trinity? Can we leap from the case, leaving the Father blushing at the Son’s doorstep? Can we prevent the beloved Son from savoring every last drop that the Father wants Him to enjoy?

IV. Secure in the Indestructible Grip

John helps us answer these questions. John 17 records one of many intratrinitarian conversations, a prayer of the Son to the Father. In that prayer, the night before Jesus’ execution, Jesus prays for the very love-gift introduced in John 6:37. This includes not only His first-century disciples, but also “those who will believe in me through their word” (17:20). The night before His murder, who was on Jesus’ mind? You, me, and every believer through the echelons of history. What did Jesus pray for us? Among other things, He expresses His “will” (thelo) that His love-gift may be with Him to see His glory (17:24). Jesus desires His complete personal gift to behold Him in all His glory. He wants every last bottle secure in the case when He swings open the door to eternity. So the Son asks His all-powerful and loving Father to fulfill this request.[6]

In John 6 we see the Father in perfect alignment with His Son’s desire for the love-gift. The Father’s “will” (thelema) is that the Son would lose none of all that the Father has given Him, but that the Son would raise up the complete gift on the last day (6:38-40). Father and Son stand united in wanting not a single bottle to end up a heap of glass shards and gutter ooze. The Father puts it in His obedient Son’s hands to ensure that His “will” would reach fulfillment. Recall that the primary medium of the Son expressing love for His Father in the fourth gospel is obedience to His Father’s will: “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (14:31 cf. 17:4). If we could resist Jesus with self-destructive finality, smashing ourselves on the sidewalk, then we could prevent the Son from doing His Father’s will. Do we possess such intratrinitarian love-blocking power? Says Jesus, “No one come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (6:44).[7]

We have seen the Son ask the Father to hold onto His love-gift and the Father ask the Son for the same. This explains John 10:27-30 where Jesus declares that His love-gifts (identified as His “sheep”) are “given eternal life,” “will never perish,” and “cannot be snatched” both from “the Son’s hand” and “the Father’s hand.” The all-powerful Son holds us secure in the hollow of His hand as a loving response to His Father’s will. The Father then wraps His omnipotent fingers around the Son’s hand as a loving response to His Son’s will. Here in this loving and indestructible grip of a Triune God we can at last let go of any fears about which eternal destiny we are being carried toward. Our destiny rests not on our own wobbly and unreliable abilities, but on the steady and sure abilities of the Father and Son to carry out one another’s wills as they express intratrinitarian affection. You could no more fumble your salvation than the Triune God could fail to love Himself. Looking beyond our finite selves to this Triune God of infinite love, our binding anxieties turn to blessed assurance.

Non-Calvinism leads us away from this blessed assurance into troubled waters. If God’s will to the Son is that the He lose not a single love-gift (6:38-40) and we have the autonomous power to lose ourselves, then we can, in effect, keep the Son from perfectly fulfilling His Father’s will. What happens, then, to the beautiful substitution that happened at the cross? Biblically, the cross is where the Son who perfectly fulfilled His Father’s will takes the place of those who fall short of such perfect will-keeping. Not only does our egregious will-breaking (and the awful consequences it entails) become His; but the Son’s perfect will-keeping (and the extravagant rewards it entails) becomes ours. If, however, we can say ‘no’ to Jesus, shatter our salvation, break off the relationship with self-condemning finality, then we can prevent the Son from fulfilling His Father’s will that “none” of the love-gift “would be lost.” The cross would then become a place where we exchange our filthy rags for another set of soiled clothes. Imperfection is substituted for yet another imperfection.[8] The Son’s failure to keep the Father’s will that “none would be lost” would be a failure credited to our account.

John’s gospel does not lead us to such hopeless conclusions. The Son says ‘I love you’ to His Father through a track record of impeccable obedience. We can, therefore, look up into the Father’s mirror and see ourselves radiant and dressed in white, without so much as a speck of lint. A soiled bride is not worthy of the divine Son. (I recall seeing my own bride floating her way past a standing crowd of smiling faces to meet me on our wedding day. I teared up. A burger grease stain down her white dress definitely would have taken something out of that moment.) Jesus kept every facet of the Father’s will, including losing none of His love-gift, ensuring that no stain could subtract a single iota of tearful joy as He watches His bride—the church—march to the altar. All the while, the Father-of-the-Groom looks on at His Son’s joy in His utterly spotless bride, and love triggers His own tear ducts with joy unspeakable. Can we, the approaching bride pristine in the Son’s perfection, lock eyes with the Father and Son and not ourselves feel overwhelming joy dance up our spine, pure awe at the privilege of being so loved, so cherished, so clean, so beautified, the celebrated member welcomed by the Triune God into the divine family. Oh, let us worship our Groom! Let us worship the Father-of-the-Groom! This is no shotgun wedding. The Father does not have the barrel at our backs forcing us to the altar against our wills. He has changed our wills, reformed our hearts so that we want nothing more than to come to the Son. We find Him irresistible.

V. From Biblical Trinitarianism to Relational Calvinism

It is against this backdrop of John’s Trinitarianism that Calvinism moves from a blurred black-and-white into vivid Technicolor, and it begins to shine as a truly “relational theism.” Why is election unconditional? Because if God’s choosing us is conditioned on our prior choice of Him, a choice we could easily make against Him, then the size of the Father’s love-gift to His Son could be drastically smaller than He wants it to be. Election is unconditional because the size of His intended expression of Trinitarian love is determined by the Gift-giver, not the gift. Why is the atonement effective in redeeming every sinner it is intended to redeem? Because otherwise the Son fails to fulfill His Father’s will. Every autonomous human agent who says ‘no’ to the cross prevents Christ from carrying out His commanded mission, impeding the full expression of God’s love within the Trinity. The atonement is effective because intratrinitarian love is not defective. Why is grace irresistible? Because if we could shun the Father’s grace as He draws us to worship His Son, then we have the power to thwart God’s expression of love within the Trinity. Grace cannot be resisted because His Trinitarian love cannot be frustrated. Why are the saints preserved to their state of glory? Because otherwise the Son would fail to fulfill His Father’s will that He would “lose none of all” of His love gift, and the Father would fail to fulfill His Son’s will that they would “behold His glory.” The saints are preserved because the Divine Persons perfectly fulfill one another’s will.

Remove the Trinitarian backdrop from behind these doctrines and the marvelous luster of love begins to fade from Calvinism. Without John’s Trinitarian understanding of predestination, we can all too easily bow before a God with a crown on His head and scepter in His hand but little love in His heart. A God of power who is not simultaneously a God of love is not the God of John’s gospel. He is an idol. Let us worship John’s God “in Spirit and in truth,” (14:6), a God who is powerful because of His love and loving because of His power. This biblical fusion of robustly relational Trinitarianism with Calvinism is one important step toward what so many of us long for in our generation—that is, a new Reformation, a Re-Reformation in the 21st century in which God is worshipped as He is.

There is a Love that is not powerless.

There is a Power that is not loveless.

Both, dear reader, are found in the

One God who exists as three Persons

And who draws us irresistibly to Himself.


[1] Perhaps this oil-and-water comes from our own relational encounters on the human level, where the more domineering someone becomes the more it seems that love is lost, e.g., a controlling spouse or parent whose constant demands choke the other’s personhood. We must be careful to not make our own human experiences the grid into which we squeeze God.

[2] William Shedd adds, “Here is society within the Essence, and wholly independent of the universe; and communion and blessedness resulting therefrom. But this is impossible to an essence without personal distinctions. Not the singular Unit of the deist, but the plural Unity of the Trinitarian explains this. A subject without an object… could not love. What is there to be loved?” (Preface to Augustine, City of God, 15).

[3] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 2nd Ed., tr. Terence Irwin, (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1999) Book 10.

[4] The present-tense-followed-by-future-tense occurs elsewhere in John with the same implication (cf. 14:15; 16:13).

[5] Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There,  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998) 124-125.

[6] The Father does not fail to give the Son any of the other gifts mentioned in the fourth gospel (e.g., “life in himself” (5:27a), “authority” (5:22, 27b; 17:2); “words” (17:8), “the name” (17:11-12); “glory, ” etc.). Are we to believe that the Father’s love-gift of people is the one exception to this rule because those people have autonomous God-resisting power?

[7] Jesus does not say, “I might raise him up on the last day,” or “I will give it my best shot, although human power could lead to broken bottles that I cannot raise up.” No. The Son “will” raise us up on the last day.

[8] If the Son fails to carry our His Father’s will “to lose none of all that He has given me,” then He fails to fulfill His Father’s will that He be a perfect substitute for that love-gift. It follows that if one love-gift is lost, then all love-gifts are lost. Why? Because the crosswork of Christ only succeeds in saving anyone if there is not a single slip of will-keeping on Christ’s part.

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