A. What is an Interpretive Center?
In his book on hermeneutics, author Robert L. Thomas defined the interpretive center as “the establishment of a starting point for interpretation.”(1) The way the interpretive center works is that when coming to any passage in the Bible, the way that passage is interpreted is in such a way that it conforms to the teaching of the interpretive center. Another way of defining it, is that the passage selected to be the interpretive center is the foundation or keystone of a theological system.
B. 1 John 4.8
Perhaps the most important verse to Open Theists is 1 John 4.8. In it the Apostle John says that “anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”(2) Open Theists take this verse and they elevate it to display their idea of the chief characteristic of God. Sanders argues that “western theology has had a difficult time placing ‘God is love’… at center stage when discussing the divine attributes.”(3)
1. Open reasoning for this passage
Richard Rice appeals to this verse by saying that “the statement God is love is as close as the Bible comes to giving us a definition of the the divine reality.”(4)
2. Why this passage?
Why not other “God is…” passages? It would appear that the selection of 1 John 4.8 to be the interpretive center is based on the way the sentence is constructed. Namely, the fact that the verse says “God is…” This is an incredibly weak basis for selecting such an important hermeneutical tool. It also neglects the fact that the Bible makes multiple “God is” statements, some of them being:
John 4.24, “God is Spirit.”
Hebrews 12.29, “our God is a consuming fire.”
1 John 1.5 “God is light.”
Psalm 135.5 “the Lord is Great.”
Do Open Theist’s only selectively use this principle on the passages that best support their theological system? That is the way it would seem. And indeed they would have to in order to give their theology legs to stand on, as two of the passages just listed would contradict the openness definition of “God is love.” Hebrews 12.29 says that “God is a consuming fire” in the context of one of the book’s many warnings to Christians. The author of Hebrews encourages Christians to remain faithful to the revelation and commandments given from God. The illustration of Israel disobeying God is given, then the writer says that “God is a consuming fire” who will punish those who disobey Him.
In 1 John 1.5 the Apostle John tells us that “God is light” because God cannot keep fellowship with those children of His that allow sin to enter into their lives. This is a demonstration of God’s righteousness prevailing over His love (which Open Theists so severely criticize traditional theism for claiming). This is not to say God ends the relationship with His children. Rather it is the fellowship that is removed between the two parties.
Open Theists may object to the reasoning here by saying that it is man who, in his perfect freewill, chooses to sin against God and remove themselves from God’s fellowship. After all, Sanders says that Paul’s writings on the love of God “entails vulnerability.”(5) It is true that man chooses his sin, but it incorrect to think that God allows the separation to happen because His love requires Him to allow man to choose His destiny. The reason God breaks fellowship is because in His holiness and righteousness He cannot allow sin into his presence.
C. The Fallacy of the Interpretive Center
The problem with this hermeneutical method should be obvious. God gave the Bible as a whole, and nowhere in it does He intimate that one or two specific verses should take priority over the rest of it. It should be understood that every passage brings something unique to table of Scripture and is meant to add one more piece to the picture of who God is and His unfolding plan in history.
As for this specific verse, there is a strong connection to the presuppositional error described above concerning the nature of God. When God is described throughout the Bible, there are many different character traits given about Him. Love is not the only one. The Bible talks about the holiness, the righteousness, the justness, and the sovereignty of God. Not only do Open Theists commit the hermeneutical error of raising a specific passage of Scripture above others in importance, but with this verse they commit the theological error of raising an attribute of God above His other attributes.
(1) Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Verses the Old, 86.
(2) Emphasis added
(3) John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press,1998), 175.
(4) Richard Rice, The Opennes of God, 18
(5) John Sanders, The God Who Risks, 181.