Ancient Christian church father St. Augustine (354–430) articulated the provocative idea that the Trinity makes God perfect in a love that is found within God’s nature. Contemporary Anglican theologian Gerald Bray provides a helpful summary of Augustine’s basic reasoning:
“God cannot be love unless there is something for him to love. But if that something were not part of himself, he would not be perfect. The Bible does not teach us that God needed the creation in order to have something to love, because if that were true, he could not be fully himself without it. So Augustine reasoned that God must be love inside himself. To his mind, the Father is the one who loves, the Son is the one who is loved (the ‘beloved Son’ revealed in the baptism of Jesus), and the Holy Spirit is the love that flows between them and binds them together.”1
I have written a number of articles over the last couple of years explaining why I think Augustine has touched upon something incredibly important. Discussing this topic has led to a number of dialogues and debates with people who affirm nontrinitarian views of God.
Recently, a reader visited my blog page and left the following challenge concerning Augustine’s reasoning about the Trinity and love. I have paraphrased the comment and then provided my response, which I hope you’ll find helpful for your own understanding.
Respondent: Why in heaven’s name would a tripartite deity who doesn’t need to love something else outside of itself nevertheless decide to create other beings just to “share the love”? In doing this unusual thing, doesn’t this deity risk showing its limitations and fallibility?
My Response: Greetings. In classical Christian theology, God is thought to be a maximally perfect being. That is, God is unsurpassable in power, presence, knowledge, wisdom, justice, holiness, goodness, and love. This means that God is not limited in his being, for God does not need anything outside himself to fulfill himself.
With regard to love, the triune God of historic Christianity enjoys unity and diversity (one God in three persons). The Trinity (tri-unity) is loving because God is analogous to a human family where parents and children share their love. In the case of the Trinity, it’s three persons exchanging (giving and receiving) love for all eternity. So with the triune God, love is grounded in God’s being and personhood and thus God does not need to create in order to fulfill himself.
With unitarian Gods (one being and one person) like Islam’s Allah or the Watchtower’s Jehovah, such a God cannot be maximally perfect because he can’t ground love within himself and must create to find fulfillment. A God who must create to find fulfillment is by definition limited and imperfect.
I think it makes perfect sense that a God who is perfect in love like the Trinitarian God of Christianity would share that love with others. A God who is loving by nature is generous and is always reaching out. Loving human families act similarly. Loving parents share their love with children who are products of the parents’ love.
Moreover, I don’t see how God creating others to share in his divine love is, in any way, limited or fallible. Concerning risk, God apparently thought that sharing his love—even with humans who might be resistant—was a price well worth paying.
Historic Christianity says God is love because he is a Trinity (having both unity and diversity). And we love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
Scripture declares that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16) and reason indicates that for God to be perfect, then that profoundly virtuous attribute has to be grounded in God’s being and personhood. Unitarian views of God struggle to explain where a single, solitary God gets and gives love without expressing limitation.
Reflections: Your Turn
What does reflecting on God’s love do for you? Visit Reflections to comment.
• To study the attributes of God, see my book A World of Difference, chapter 8.
• For a respectful and fruitful dialogue I had with a Muslim imam concerning the question of God being love, see Is Allah a Loving God?
• For a similar discussion I had with a Jehovah’s Witness, see “How the Trinity Shows God’s Love.”
• For my explanation and defense of the historic Christian doctrine of the Trinity, see Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions, chapter 5.
1. Gerald Bray, “8 Things We Can Learn from Augustine,” Crossway (website), posted November 16, 2015.