Review: Divine Love Theory

Divine Love Theory, Adam Lloyd Johnson. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2023.

Summary: Proposes that the love within the Trinity serves as the objective basis and foundation for living moral lives and engages the competing atheist theory of Erik Weilenberg proposing an objective basis for morality apart from God.

In campus ministry, one of the questions we would sometimes pose to engage dialogue was “can we be good without God?” Actually, at least by the world’s account, atheists sometimes run moral circles around Christians, though I think none of us live up to whatever standards of goodness we set for ourselves. But then the question can be raised, on what does one base one’s morality if not on the character of God? For most, the response is one’s own subjective sense of right and wrong, a sense that we observed drew extensively on theist capital.

This book takes the conversation further in two ways. One is, that for me, it acquainted me with the work of atheist philosophers who argue (often against other atheists) for an objective basis for morality beyond ourselves. This work particularly focuses on that of Erik Weilenberg who has proposed the idea of godless moral realism, proposing that moral values and duties exist as abstract objective realities, apart from the existence of God. The other is the author’s proposal that moral reasoning and life has an objective basis in the loving character of the relationships within the Triune God. Most ideas of objective foundations for morality deal with God monotheistically. Johnson, by contrast considers the relational character of the Trinity and its defining quality of eternal love, that makes sense of the biblical claim that “God is love.”

One of the things I appreciated in this work is the careful, academic argument by which Johnson makes his case for Divine Love Theory. He begins with a historical survey of moral theories, the disagreement between objective and subjective theories, and the difference within objective theories between theistic and atheistic theories. He then elaborates the work of Erik Weilenberg, of godless moral realism. He notes three features of the theory: its reliance on brute ethical facts, his focus on making relationships in which natural, nonmoral properties instantiate moral properties, and that it is non-natural, that is not grounded in naturalism.

He then elaborates his Divine Love Theory, that objective morality is grounded in God’s Trinitarian nature. He notes how his work borrows from Robert Adams approach to divine command theory which first focuses on moral value modelled in God’s nature that is then expressed in commands creating our moral obligation. Johnson believes that the loving inner-trinitarian relationships are at the heart of our understanding of the goodness of God and the basis for both moral value and at the center of God’s commands, reflected in the commands to love God and neighbor.

He then identifies and responds to various objections to Divine Love Theory: concerns with loving relationships within the Trinity relating to the distinction of persons, concerns from Divine Will theorists, from Natural Law theorists, concerns about God’s will being arbitrary, and concerns with Platonism. Having answered objections by competing theorists, he outlines his contention that Divine Love Theory offers a stronger objective basis for morality than Weilenberg’s godless moral realism. He argues that his theory provides an exemplar for moral value, a human telos for moral obligation, a social context for moral obligation, and a personal authority at the head of a chain of moral obligation, features absent in Weilenberg’s theory.

He then considers problems with Weilenberg’s theory: a bloated ontology, a lack of evidence for brute ethical facts, and problems with his “making relationship,” particularly that cognitive properties can instantiate objective moral properties. Finally, he responds to a critique Weilenberg makes observing unexplained necessary connections (a problem with his own theory as well). In the case of theists, it is the connection between God’s nature and God’s commands. Johnson observes that with his own theory, there is direct connection between God’s loving nature and the necessary commands to love God and others.

The last section of the book discusses the “lucky coincidence” objection to Weilenberg’s theories and whether theistic approaches to objective morality are subject to similar criticism. The basic question is how our moral beliefs would ever line up with objective truths that are causally inert–it being a lucky coincidence that they would. It also discusses an unrelated issue, a discussion of whether the obligation of obedience to commands can be grounded in the obedience within the Trinity and whether this entails functional subordination. Since this is problematic, Johnson proposes two alternatives: the idea of the eternal generation of the Son and the idea of inner-trinitarian love, that our love that obeys resembles and imitates love within the Trinity.

I thought this a valuable work for several reasons. It extends a growing emphasis on Trinitarian theology into the realm of moral theology and philosophy. The tri-unity of God ought affect all reality including moral realities and Johnson draws this out well. Second, Johnson elaborates, defends, and shows the superior explanatory power of his theory with clarity and careful reason, offering an excellent resource to the Christian apologist dealing with arguments for objective morality apart from God. Finally, Johnson models scholarly charity in engaging Weilenberg, with whom he has a warm relationship (Weilenberg is one of the book’s endorsers!). He offers an outstanding example of rigorous disagreement about ideas that remains civil and gracious. We could use more works of this character!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.