God’s love: limitless, precarious, vulnerable

We’ve seen in my previous post how W.H. Vanstone argues in his book Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense that “authentic love” is “limitless, precarious and vulnerable”. He then goes on to quote the Dies Irae as an example of how Christian devotion has attributed those qualities to the work of Christ in our redemption:

Quaerens me sedisti lassus:
Redemisti, crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus.

Faint and weary, Thou hast sought me,
Crucified hast dearly bought me;
Shall such grace be vainly brought me?

As Vanstone observes:

The word “lassus” – “weary” or “spent” – expresses the limitlessness of love’s self-giving: the word “passus” – “suffering” – expresses the vulnerability of love: the word “cassus” – “in vain” – expresses the precariousness of love and the possibility that its outcome is tragedy and its work in vain.

He argues that the same quality of love is found not only in God’s work of redemption but in his work of creation. God’s relationship to creation is frequently presented as one of an effortless supremacy. However, if the redemption reveals “not one aspect of the divine being, nor one moment of the divine history, but the fullness of what God is”, then:

whatever characterises the event or work of redemption characterises also, through and through, the being and activity of God.

Hence those same qualities of limitlessness, precariousness and vulnerability as are found in the work of redemption are also found in God’s work of creation, and in his relationship to the creation.

Vanstone describes this as the “Kenosis of God”, as an extension to the “Kenosis of the Redeemer”. Getting into the arguments for and against the “kenotic theory” are beyond the scope of this post (though see this interesting post on Vanstone and kenosis), but perhaps another way of looking at this is from the point of view of the theology of the cross, which asserts in a similar way that God’s work of redemption in Christ is characteristic of how God reveals himself to us rather than exceptional.

Vanstone summarises his argument in the final paragraph of this chapter:

If God is love, and if the universe is His creation, then for the being of the universe God is totally expended in precarious endeavour, of which the issue, as triumph or tragedy, has passed from his hands. For that issue, as triumph or tragedy, God waits upon the response of his creation. He waits as the artist or as the lover waits having given all. … Always, for the richness of the creation, God is made poor: and for its fullness God is made empty.

This is undoubtedly the most controversial area of Vanstone’s argument, and I’m not sure I would want to go as far as he does in claiming that God’s creative power is “exhausted” or “totally expended” by his work of creation. I’m also conscious that I’ve skated very lightly over what is a dense and complex chapter in Vanstone’s book.

That said, even if we might want to moderate it to some extent, Vanstone’s general account of God’s involvement in creation – one of sacrificial love, of “putting heart and soul into it” (if we can put it that way) – seems more in keeping with a God who reveals himself in the Cross than do accounts that present him as reigning supreme, effortless and unaffected over his creation. I think it would be a mistake to dismiss Vanstone outright here: at the very least, I’m sure there is a lot to be gained from a dialogue between Vanstone’s account and the more traditional view.

Nor is it necessary, I think, to accept Vanstone’s argument here in its entirety to benefit from what he moves on to, namely the role of the church in responding to God’s love. We will look at this in my next post.

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3 Responses to God’s love: limitless, precarious, vulnerable

  1. Blair says:

    Hello again John,

    just a comment or two in response. Am wondering first what you mean by “the more traditional view” – is this the view that God is not vulnerable, that God does not suffer (have a dim memory that this was tagged the Patripassian heresy)? I wonder if Vanstone is aware of this possible objection – “The activity of God in creation must be vulnerable”, he writes, and continues, “It would be more natural to say that, in His activity, God Himself must be vulnerable, but in saying this there would be a danger of introducing an excess of anthropomorphism into our reflection on the love of God” (p66 in first edition). Having noted that, in human experience, we’re aware of how love makes the lover vulnerable, Vanstone then says, “But we do not know the susceptibility of God” – and, on the next page, “We know that God is vulnerable only in the sense in which the activity of love may be said to be vulnerable”. Am wondering if this is how Vanstone seeks to link his argument and its outworking, to the ‘classical’ view.

    You say you’re not sure you “would want to go as far as he does in claiming that God’s creative power is “exhausted” or “totally expended” by his work of creation” – and maybe it is too anthropomorphic, and / or too great a challenge to a ‘traditional’ view of God’s omnipotence. And yet… if Jesus is the image of the invisible God, and if “without him was not anything made that was made”, and if what the cross reveals “is characteristic of how God reveals himself to us rather than exceptional“… a lot of ifs, but they do give strong underpinning to Vanstone’s argument, I’d suggest. (Moreover if God is one, then surely God’s work of creation and of redemption are also one, and cannot be of different kinds? Or as James Alison put it once: “ad extra all the activities of God are single. So there is no difference between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit acting ad extra. If we recognise the Spirit doing something, we are recognising God – who is Father, Son and Spirit – doing something. The only distinction – if we can talk about a distinction – is in the ‘inner life’ of God. Ad extra, there is only one acting out – we are monotheists, not tritheists. It’s not three persons turning up and treating us differently: it’s one Protagonism into whose inner life we are called”. See http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng47.html ) Also I think the ellipsis in your last quote is worth putting in: “Where the issue is tragedy, there remains only the unbelievable power of art or love to discover within itself, through the challenge of the tragic, the power which was not there before – the power of yet further endeavour to win back and redeem that which was going astray” (p74). Although putting it in might only raise more questions, admittedly – such as how that ‘sits’ with the ‘traditional’ view that God is infinite and omnipotent… am also sensing I’m somewhat out of my depth by now 😉

    The other quibble I had was your suggestion that it may not be necessary to “accept Vanstone’s argument here in its entirety to benefit from what he moves on to” – maybe not necessary to benefit from it, but it would make it less than coherent, wouldn’t it? My memory might be off the mark here, but I thought that Vanstone’s last chapter on the church’s response was in part a call to self-giving to reflect the divine self-giving – so not fully accepting Vanstone’s argument about God’s self-giving would mean we’d ‘moderate’ our own self-gift in response wouldn’t it?

    OK that’s quite enough! ‘Scuse the tedium and lack of clarity…

    in friendship, Blair

  2. John H says:

    Hi Blair, thanks for your comment.

    Maybe I overdid it with the caveats. On a first (re-)reading, this chapter blew my mind, but precisely because it was such a different perspective I’m inclined to push back against it, at least initially. I’m still chewing this over.

    The section that caused me most hesitancy was (to quote from memory) the bit where Vanstone talks about there being no power in God beyond that involved in creating the universe, no eternity beyond the universe’s time and so on. Equally, though, I appreciate Vanstone is very careful to emphasise he is talking about the activity of God.

    As for being able to move on while keeping an open position on Vanstone’s argument in this section: I’ll be interested to see what you think of my next post, to see whether I’ve managed to achieve that aim. However, it is at least a logically tenable position (whether or not it’s actually correct) to say that for God to love the universe fully need not exhaust either his power or his capacity for love, but that for us (as finite, not to mention mortal and sinful, creatures) to respond appropriate is at or beyond the limit of our capabilities.

    To borrow one of Vanstone’s analogies, if God is like an artist putting his heart and soul into a work of art, then it’s fair to observe that the artist is still able to do other things besides create that artwork, just as a loving parent is able to do other things (and love other people) besides their children, without that meaning their love and commitment for their children is deficient. (Well, more deficient. But you see my point.)

  3. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » The Church: recognition and offering

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