The Theo-Logic of Love (and why Aquinas and Anselm are wrong)

September 12th, 2017 / 3 Comments

God’s love involves both giving and receiving. That’s part of the theo-logic of love. But some great theologians erroneously thought God’s love only gives and never receives.

The Theo-Logic of Love

In my previous blogs, I’ve argued that the Bible, Jesus, and our common experience tell us that God is relational/passible. And God’s love involves giving to and receiving from others.

We might call this overall argument “the theo-logic of love.” The love described in Scripture, in Jesus, and in our own best experiences indicates that expressions of love are partly shaped by responses to others.

An entirely unrelated, unresponsive, and isolated person – if such a being existed – could not love. Love requires relationships of giving-and-receiving influence.

One of the biggest errors committed by Christian theologians of yesteryear was in thinking God’s love involves only outgoing benevolence with no receptive relationality. In other words, they wrongly thought God’s love only gives and never receives. Let me offer a few examples of this erroneous thinking.

The Error of Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas thought God acted benevolently toward creatures but was not affected by creaturely love. “A relation of God to creatures is not a reality in God,” he writes. God knows creatures as ideas without being causally affected by them.[1]

Influencing relations with creation “are not really in Him,” Aquinas says, and “are ascribed to him only in our understanding.”[2] In other words, we only imagine God gives and receives in loving relationship. But in reality, God does not.

If Aquinas is right, biblical statements about God’s compassion are fictional. Creatures cannot bless God. And God never responds to sin by offering forgiveness.

The Error of Anselm

Anselm made the same error. “How are you compassionate, and, at the same time, passionless?” Anselm asks rhetorically of God. “For if you are passionless, you do not feel sympathy; and if you do not feel sympathy, your heart is not wretched from sympathy for the wretched; but this it is to be compassionate.”

In response to his own question, Anselm offers the same answer we saw in Aquinas: “When you behold us in our wretchedness, we experience the effect of compassion, but you do not experience the feeling. Therefore, you are both compassionate, because you do save the wretched, and spare those who sin against you; and not compassionate, because you are affected by no sympathy for wretchedness.”[3]

In other words, according to Anselm we think God is compassionate when God is actually not.

God’s Giving-and-Receiving Love

In contrast to Aquinas and Anselm, I think God’s love involves more than outgoing benevolence. God’s love also involves incoming empathy, receiving, and sometimes suffering.

I stand with many other theologians who affirm divine passibility. I list some in this footnote.[4] According to us, God’s love requires both giving and receiving. And we think the Bible, the witness of Jesus, and commonsense stand with us on this issue. And they stand against Aquinas and Anselm.


[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I (Wesminster, Md: Christian Classics, 1981), q. 6, a.2, ad 1.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles II (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 13-14.

[3] St. Anselm, Proslogium, tr. Sidney Norton Deane (La Salle, IL, 1951), pp. 13-14.

[4] Among the many theologians who argue that God is passible, see especially Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1949), Gregory A. Boyd, Is God to Blame? Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), John B. Cobb, Jr., God and the World (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), Isaak August Dorner, “The History of the Doctrine of the Immutability of God,” in Divine Immutability, trans. Robert R. Williams and Claude Welch (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 82–130. Paul Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), Paul L. Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), Catherine Keller, From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism and Self (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), Kazoh Kitamori, Theology of the Pain of God, 5th ed. (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1965), Jung Young Lee, God Suffers for Us (Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1974), Bruce McCormack, “Divine Impassibility or Simply Divine Constancy: Implications for Karl Barth’s Later Christology for Debates over Impassibility,” Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering, James F. Keating and Thomas Joseph White, eds. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009); Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (1974, 2001), Thomas Jay Oord, The Nature of Love: A Theology (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2010), Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), Pinnock, et. al., The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understand of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 1994), Jeff Pool, God’s Wounds: Hermeneutic of the Christian Symbol of Divine Suffering. Vol I Divine Vulnerability and Creation (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke and Co., 2009), John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Academic, 2007); T.F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God (New York: Continuum, 1996), Daniel Day Williams, “Suffering and Being in Empirical Theology,” in B. L. Meland ed., The Future of Empirical Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 175-94, Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Suffering Love,” in Philosophy and the Christian Faith, Thomas V. Morris, ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990).

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Bruce Clark

Hi Tom thanks for that…Perhaps they thought the idea of relationality within the Trinity was enough but I reckon it is out of the relational love of the Trinity that creation and relational love with the created was (is continually being) born. For this reason I think a Trinitarian view of the divine is important. Perhaps in Christ as Creator, Incarnate fellow sufferer and Redeemer we are found and as the hymn writer put it: “The love wherewith he loves his son such is his love for us” and we could add “the love wherewith the Son loves the Father such is our love for him”.

Stuart Rose

Thank you, Thomas, for these capsule views of your theology. I first learned of you through a video of a dialogue you had with Shari Held.

I do wonder what is so objectionable about Aquinas’s and Augustine’s rejection of divine passability.. If G-D is incorporeal, how can he posssess emotions as we understand the term, or be affected by them in the sense of the relational that incarnated beings experience?
Psychologically and emotionally constituted as we are, we can’t help but experience G-D’s actions in the world as acts of kindness, love etc. and express them in the language of emotions. But why is this a problem anymore than our tendency to talk about natural phenomena such as storms as angry or punishing? Figurative language and intellectual sober-mindedness can walk together.

But I guess I do see the theological problem in divine impassiblity. It seems to rob G-D of intentionality. And how can we love orworship something that didn’t intend to make the world or us? Sans intentionally, can we even view G-D as a being?
Any help here, Thomas?


Great comments and questions, Stuart! I do think we can consider God a being, but I think God is an omnipresent being. And although I don’t think God has a divine body, I think God relates to those with bodies. I’m find attractive the idea that God — as an omnipresent, incorporeal spirit — has a physical dimension and a mental dimension. Some call this view “dipolar” theism. The best analogy to God’s composition as I’m conceiving it may be the human mind. The human mind is not perceivable to our fives senses, and yet it seems to be a unit of its own, related to others, and influencing being influence. Unlike God, however, the human mind is not omnipresent.

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