“God is love,” the beloved apostle wrote (1 John 4:8). But if God’s love so describes his character and permeates his Word, why doesn’t this theme receive greater emphasis in evangelical systematic theologies? And what about those who value love but may be intimidated by a phrase like “systematic theology”?
Gerald Bray’s new volume, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Crossway, 2012), is a welcome gift to the church. Despite its substantial size, it is a remarkably readable resource. I corresponded with Bray, research professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, about the significance of God Is Love—-both the book and the reality it explores.
What are the unique contributions of God Is Love among other evangelical biblical and systematic theologies?
God Is Love is very different from any other systematic theology on the market today because it takes the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura seriously. It is not just a question of backing up everything from the Bible but of trying to convey God’s self-revelation in the Bible in a biblical way. That God is love seems to me to be the most fundamental principle of Scripture, but it has so far not been the basis of any systematic presentation! Why not? I start with God as love in himself, then discuss the creation as an act of love, sin as rejection of God’s love, and salvation as a revelation of God’s deeper love. This is the gospel message, so it should be our theology too.
In other ways, the book aims to reach the kind of people who cannot or who will not read systematic theology, because to them it is too technical and confusing. I have written for ordinary, educated non-specialists. I have also aimed to reach people in developing countries and to deal with issues like demon possession, astrology, and polygamy that most people in the West tend to ignore, even though they are issues for us too. God Is Love is itself an act of love, reaching out to those of God’s people who have been left behind in the current theological debates and who do not know where to turn for guidance.
Why did you choose God’s love as the overarching framework for the book?
I chose it because it seems to me to be what the Bible is about, what the average Christian experiences of God, and what the world is crying out for. Love is on everyone’s mind in a way that something like divine sovereignty (or even grace) isn’t, and we have to reach out to people where they are, not where we might want them to be.
Why did you choose not to interact with any literature besides the Bible? In what ways did that affect your writing? Did anything unexpected arise as a result?
The Bible is the source of our faith and will remain so when all other Christian books have been forgotten. It is the only book that you can be sure every reader of God Is Love will have and be able to check for him/herself. A lot of people are suspicious of systematic theology, because they think it leads us away from the Bible into obscure arguments that have divided the church. I cannot claim to have avoided those arguments completely, but I want the Bible-based reader to be able to relate to a coherent presentation of the Christian faith that is squarely based on it. No doubt there will be those who disagree with my interpretations of Scripture, but at least we are talking the same language!
What does 1 Corinthians 13 reflect about the eternal nature of God? How can a “jealous” (Exod. 34:14) God be loving if “love does not envy” (1 Cor. 13:4)?
Envy is a covetous desire for something that we are not entitled to. God is only “jealous” in the sense that he wants us to worship him and not idols. This is not envy, because God is entitled to our worship, but idols are not. The real problem is that human language finds it hard to distinguish these two things and so we use the same words for both, even though they are quite different.
What was the most difficult chapter or section for you to write, and why?
Every section has its challenges, and I wrestled with them all at one point or another. But I would have to say that in the end, it was the last bit, about what will happen in the future, that I found the hardest. Historians like myself are always being warned not to make predictions, and so we have an in-built hesitation when it comes to prophecy. Apocalyptic literature has often been misunderstood, and unfortunately there are many people for whom a particular view of the millennium is an essential ingredient of their theology. I do not want to dismiss such people or their views, but neither can I endorse one of them as “biblical” in a way that others are not. This is tricky!
Who are your formative theological influences? Whose thought influenced you, even if we don’t see them quoted in this work?
I have been shaped by the fathers of the early church, especially Augustine, whose great book on the Trinity may be said to have inspired my theme and the title God Is Love. I have also learned a lot from Anselm of Canterbury, from Martin Luther, and from John Calvin. Of modern writers, Jim Packer and Martyn Lloyd-Jones have been great influences, because they are both deep thinkers, and they both want to be practical and communicate. I have not quoted either of them directly, but if some readers think those men could have written certain passages—-I would not blame them for everything!—-I shall nod in agreement. Anglicanism has also influenced me, because it is no-nonsense “basic” or “mere” Christianity, as John Stott and C. S. Lewis put it. But I have learned a great deal from Presbyterians, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox too. Very Anglican, you might say.