Sunday, October 26, 2014

God the philanthrope

Eusebius describes Jesus Christ as ὁ τῶν ὅλων σωτήρ, ὁ φιλάνθρωπος -- the savior of all together, lover of humanity (Ramelli 2013, p. 320). Likewise Athanasius says on a number of occasions that God's salvific act in Christ is motivated by his love for his creation and for humanity:  He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us. . .; and The Savior of us all, the Word of God, in His great love took to Himself a body and moved as Man among men. . . (De Incarnatione 8, 15)

This is a particularly powerful notion: that God loves humanity, and this is what motivated him to save us in Jesus Christ. It is telling to note that I rarely hear this sort of talk among those in Reformed theological circles. We hear talk about God's glory, about his desire to glorify himself in bringing many to salvation, and so on. Rarely do we hear -- or at least, rarely had I heard -- the notion that God acted to save because he loves human beings.

There are exceptions to this, of course. T.F. Torrance writes that the cross tells us that God loves us more than he loves himself (A Passion for Christ: The Vision that Ignites Ministry, p. 14) because God, like Abraham, is willing to give up his Son. But Torrance is one who has drawn deep from the patristic wells and whose theology is very much informed by them. His theology is more patristic than a lot of the contemporary Reformed persons to whom I am referring.

Why don't they speak like this? It seems to me obvious: because they don't believe in it. They don't believe that God loves humanity as such, and in fact they cannot consistently believe this. Their doctrine of election and predestination doesn't permit it. It doesn't sound plausible to hear that God loves humanity but decides not to save a portion of it though he could have. That hardly sounds like love to me! So these persons limit themselves to mentions of God's love for the elect, or else of God's concern for his glory, etc.

None of this sits well with the Bible, however, which does affirm God's love for humanity as such. After all, God has created all human beings in the image  and likeness of God! All human beings as such are created to embody the divine image and to be little icons of God on the earth; he has created every human being in such a way that they are intrinsically oriented to a relationship with him. And the Bible teaches that God loved the world and provided salvation for all persons (e.g., John 3.16, 4.42 cf. 1 John 4.14; 1 Tim 2.4-6, 4.10). Paul says to Titus that the appearance of Christ for our salvation was out of God's φιλανθρωπία, his love for humanity (Tit 3.4).

We can say, happily, that God is a philanthrope! He loves humanity and wants to save everyone. He shows us this in Jesus Christ, who was revealed as the savior of the world, as John writes (1 John 4.14).