Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Does Omnibenevolence Mean Unibenevolence?
05/01/2006 - James White
James White, I'm not reformed in my theology, but I did want to ask you a sincere question. How do you reconcile God not being omnibenevolent with simplicity. When you claim that God only wants some people to be saved, you are really claiming that God is only partially loving. By doing this, you are destroying God's simplicity and really saying that God has parts. But you cannot have an actual infinite number of parts, thereby reducing God to a finite being. Whatever God is, He is wholly and completely. If God is love, then He loves infinitely, wholly, and completely, but in your theology, you destroy the metaphysical attributes of God by really implying God is only partially loving. You might reply by claiming that God has more power than He uses, but this is a category mistake. Omnipotence is a metaphysical attribute, not a moral attribute. How do you reconcile this situation?
John Frame wrote a response to open theism titled No Other God. Chapter Four of this work is titled, "Is Love God's Most Important Attribute?" Open theists, and Arminians in general, present the idea that omnibenevolence is the central aspect of God's character, and hence, all other aspects of God's being, whether attributes referring to His being (omnipresence, for example), or moral attributes (holiness) are to be subsumed under this over-arching attribute of "love." Of course, it is very difficult to prove this kind of assertion on any fair reading of the text of Scripture. Surely you can find great praise of God's love, of God's grace, God's mercy (those three, while related, are not necessarily identical in all instances and at all times) in the Scriptures. But, any fair reading will also show you that God's holiness, God's Lordship, God's kingship, the demonstration of God's power, the vindication of God's righteousness and judgment, the demonstration of His wrath, are all equally lauded and acknowledged truths. Of course, a lot of that comes from the dread Old Testament, and given that many in evangelicalism today are canonically challenged, it is easy to see how those themes fade into obscurity in their every-day theology. Frame comments,
Theologians are wrong when they think that the centrality of their favorite attribute excludes the centrality of others. These writers are (as often among theologians) right in what they assert, but wrong in what they deny. Ritschl is right to say that love is God's essence, but wrong to deny that holiness is. And that kind of error is sometimes linked to other theological errors. Often when a theologian makes God's love central, in contrast to other attributes, he intends, contrary to Scripture, to cast doubt on the reality or intensity of God's wrath and judgment. (p. 52)
In response to the question quoted above, who denied God's omnibenevolence? Evidently, our writer assumes omnibenevolence must mean unibenevolence: that is, that if God is all-loving, then He will not possess the capacity His creatures rightly possess: discrimination in the matter of love. We are not only not unibenevolent, as image bearers of God we, like Him, are able to possess, and express, different kinds of love. I do not love my cat as I love my children (and I think anyone who does is simply wacked). I have and properly express all different kinds of "love," from loving my wireless laser mouse to loving my Tablet PC to loving my Felt F65 road bike---but none of those kinds of love come close to my love for God's truth, God's people, my family, my friends. If faced with a choice, I am going to choose based upon discrimination in my love. I am going to save the mother of my children before I save a stranger. I am called to love my wife as Christ loved the church. And my ability to do this is clearly reflected in God's own actions. The love He showed Israel he did not show the Canaanites, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, or the Babylonians. This is a simple biblical fact. All the "God loves you!" smiley face t-shirts do not change revelational reality.
Hence, I reject the assertion that omnibenevolence equals unibenevolence, i.e., having one equal, undifferentiated, indiscriminate warm fuzzy. There is no biblical basis for thinking otherwise.
Now, our writer expresses a very common human failing in these words: "When you claim that God only wants some people to be saved, you are really claiming that God is only partially loving." Notice the unstated assumption: love = extension of redemptive grace. What is the only logical conclusion to be derived from such thinking? Either 1) God's love demands God's failure; i.e., God will be unhappy and unfulfilled throughout eternity because He tried, but failed, to save those He loved (more than one theologian has held this position); or, 2) universalism. God will conquer all in the end, all will be saved. But in neither case can God show redemptive, saving love to undeserving sinners while, at the same time, expressing His just wrath and anger against the rest. By insisting upon this concept, our writer robs God of His freedom, let alone His ability to freely chose to love redemptively. The false dilemma is clearly seen: by denying the difference between the love God shows to all of creation in providence in the merciful suspension of His immediate and just judgment upon all sinners, and the special redemptive love He freely bestows on vessels of mercy, our writer creates a false unibenevolence and on that basis says God is only "partially loving." That makes as much sense as noting that I love my wife in a way I do not love a woman in Bosnia and saying I am "partially loving" as a result. I am not supposed to love the woman in Bosnia in that way, and God is under no compulsion whatsoever to love redemptively (which involves the extension of mercy and grace). To say otherwise is to say that redemption can be demanded of God, that grace is not free, but can be demanded at His hand. That is, in essence, the sum of this kind of objection.
And so we see that the rest of the objection bears no weight and has no merit for it is based upon a misuse of terms.