Models of God’s relationship to creation have led to endless debates over the centuries, important debates we must get right because our knowledge of God is directly informed (or de-formed) by our conclusions here. In fact, how we explain this to our kids will have implications on what they think God needs from us, or what he’s trying to give us.
So I was thrilled to hear Michael J. McClymond employed his brilliant mind and research skills to the often ignored problem of Christian universalism (the idea, found among professing Christians, that everyone will be saved in the end). Because how we understand God’s relationship to creation is directly bound to whether we accept or reject the heresy of universalism.
McClymond brings the theme to a boil near the end of his new, two-volume work: The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism (Baker Academic; June 5, 2018).
There he introduces three key Greek terms. The erotic (self-fulfillment sought in another), the agapeic (an overflow of free love), and the plerotic (an overflow of abounding fullness).
First, the plerotic —
Rather than adopting a logic of deficiency and lack, Christian thinkers in approaching God might instead be guided by a logic of plenitude and sufficiency. … In a “plerotic” view, the stress would lie not on metaphysical deficiency but on the fullness, completeness, and overflow of the Father’s existence in the existence of the Son and of the Spirit. Within the intra-trinitarian life of God — so far as we understand it — there is no competition, no give-and-take, no fixed sum of available deity. The language of the Nicene Creed might suggest a plerotic interpretation: “The only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made.” Where here is the tug-of-war? Where is the competitive relation of Father and Son? These are non-Nicene notions of God. Do we not instead see in the creed a beautiful picture of the Son as the overflow or fullness (plērōma) of the Father’s being? “For in him the whole fullness [plērōma] of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). (1,024)
Later he builds from the plerotic (an overflow of abounding fulness) to the agapeic (an overflow of free love) in contrast to the erotic (self-fulfillment sought in another) —
The universalist problem with grace is intimately connected to the universalist problem with God. Philosophers Leszak Kolakowski and William Desmond both distinguished “erotic” from “agapeic” conceptions of God. Kolakowski captures the basic idea and the basic problem of an “erotic” deity in this way: “God brought the Universe into being so that He might grow in its body. . . . He needs His alienated creatures to complete His perfection. The growth of the universe . . . involves God himself in the historical process. Consequently God himself becomes historical. At the culmination of cosmic evolution He is not what He was ‘in the beginning.’ He creates the world and in reabsorbing it enriches Himself.”
When God is conceived of “erotically” rather than “agapeistically,” God remains in what a psychologist might call a codependent relationship with the world. For this reason God cannot love in a free, full, or independent way. Grace in the biblical sense becomes impossible, not because of an impediment on the human side but because of an inherent limitation or flaw within God.
According to the “erotic” model, God is initially deficient in himself and then seeks to complete what is lacking in himself. The emergence and development of the cosmos is a process in which God is developing toward completion, so that the world fulfills God just as God fulfills the world. One might call this a philosophical hieros gamos (sacred marriage). God and the world are “married.”
The God-concept in Böhme, Hegel, Whitehead, process thought, and much of current kenotic-relational theology is based on the “erotic” rather than the “agapeic” model. God needs the world. God becomes complete through relating to the world. But the biblical idea of free grace is ruled out in erotic conceptions of God. (1,032)
He concludes —
The God-concept of historic Christianity, which is “agapeic,” holds that God created the world out of a sufficiency or even a surplus of being, happiness, and goodness. As Augustine wrote, “We exist because God is good.” The world is an overflow of divine goodness, yet God does not “need” the world. This viewpoint, connected with the foundational Christian teaching on creation from nothing, makes it possible to conceive that God is genuinely gracious and that God loves the world freely and unconditionally. (1,032)
God’s purpose for creation must be explained in ways that affirm that the Creator is not served by human hands, “as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:25). He needs nothing. In him is fullness. We cannot add to him. And yet he created, created freely, created a world for the overflow of his person, his joy, his grace, a place where the abundance of his love would flow freely to us. Only a God who doesn’t need you can be the God who endlessly satisfies you (Ps. 147:10–11). These are profound connections worthy of deep reflection and lifelong worship, and words appropriate for even our children to grasp.