Tough Love Analyzed: Tom McCall on Divine Love’s Relation to Divine Discipline Within the Epistle of Hebrews

April 27th, 2017 by

We live in a society that is unsure about how love and discipline should fit together. As a result, passages like Hebrews 12:6, where God is said to “discipline those he loves,” may give readers pause. Tom McCall’s March paper titled “Tough Love” offered a conjunction of  five proposals (my term not his) as one way of getting at how divine love and discipline connect. Here is my attempt to summarize them:


    1. Love is the essence of God. The persons within the Trinity share this essential love and do so prior to creation.
    2. Creation is a free and contingent act of the holy love essential to God.
    3. God’s love is holy. Therefore it is expressed (in addition to creation) by God’s irrevocably binding himself in a divine covenant with humanity in response to their sin.
    4. Perfect love incarnate. As the second person of the Trinity incarnate, Jesus literally embodies the holy love of God. Humans failed to fulfill the covenant so Jesus does so on our behalf. 
    5. Perfect love in the Spirit as the life of the Church. In light of human weakness, the Spirit completes the restorative change (e.g. Heb 12:6 discipline) that is required in our lives by God’s holy love.




McCall tied these points to the eschatological telos from Hebrews 12:28; Believers are ultimately “receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” The combination of these proposals is not uniquely analytic. McCall, not one to disappoint the AT crowd, reinforced these proposals with a series of modal claims. The list below is lengthy, but I would misrepresent McCall’s paper if I didn’t include several of them (there were more):

(a) God is essentially loving. (b) In all possible worlds, mutual love is shared between divine persons of the trinity. (c) Creation is the contingent (i.e., free) act of God; therefore, possible worlds exist in which there is no realm of created reality. (d) Possible worlds exist in which no creatures sin; but in the actual world there is sin. (e) No possible worlds exist in which God does not love creatures who do sin. (f) In all worlds, God’s love is holy. (g) Therefore, there is a sense in which it is not possible that God breaks his covenant because his life is bound up with it. (h) Since God exists necessarily, it is not possible that his covenant, though contingently made, can be broken by him.

Regarding McCall’s larger goal of combining the five proposals, I believe the paper succeeds. McCall provided a reasonable account for why it would be loving for God to discipline those he loves. This reasonableness seems to follow provided we adopt four commitments that turn up in McCall’s paper (not merely his five proposals).  First, “discipline should be understood in the wider formative sense (such as that undergone by an athlete or musician) rather than mere punishment. Second, one would need to share McCall’s assumption of a Thomistic account of love (i.e., divine love is characterized by a desire for the good of and union with the beloved). If our good is the unspeakable kingdom of Hebrews 12:28, then God’s love would nearly require his disciplining us towards this end (given commitment three below). I should mention here that this raises the question as to whether divine love requires merely desiring the good of the beloved or acting to ensure the good is realized (given that in this case the Lover also possesses the attribute of omnipotence). Third is the assumption that we lack the resources (e.g., wisdom, motivation, foresight, courage) to bring ourselves to the maturity level of those who will populate the unshakable kingdom.  Fourthly, that we do not assume that all hardship in life should be equated with divine discipline.  

What about McCall’s modal claims? The fruitful Q&A conversation was not surprising, given the contested nature of his claims (or the conjunction of them).  I don’t have space to engage them other than to mention how they connected with McCall’s five proposals.  I take it that McCall’s five core proposals might work without the modal claims. However, without them, the outcome of the larger five proposals becomes tenuous. For example, if God were not essentially loving, we could never be certain whether any of the events in our lives were intended for loving discipline. So the modal statements proposed by McCall serve to make the goodness of discipline (from the five proposals and the Hebrews 12:28 telos) guaranteed rather than merely possible. The interaction between biblical statements and modal claims makes for fascinating discussion.

I want to close by using the overall thrust of McCall’s paper to build an argument for the “lovingness” of divine discipline.  McCall built his proposals around holiness because of work he was doing in Hebrews 12 (vss. 10-14 makes holiness a requirement for the kingdom).The argument below is more general and links divine discipline with any goods that God may desire in the lives of Christians (in preparation for the unshakable kingdom). For it to work, one would again need to agree with the four commitments that I mentioned above. (Premise 6 is perhaps the most controversial.)


  1. Love is the essence of God.
  2. Love involves, among other things, desiring the good of the beloved.
  3. All Christians are among the beloved of God.
  4. Participation in the “unshakeable” kingdom is one of the highest goods for Christians.
  5. Some Christians lack desiderata required by God for their participation in the unshakeable kingdom. (e.g., wisdom, holiness, love, knowledge)
  6. Some of these desiderata can only become part of human life through disciplinary circumstances.
  7. Therefore God must take some Christians through disciplinary circumstances, if he loves them.

Jesse Gentile is a new PhD student at Fuller seminary studying systematic theology. He has interests in theological anthropology, epistemology, ethics, technology and pretty much everything else. Jesse is the father of two awesome elementary school kids and is the husband of Ella (who works as a wills and trust attorney). He regularly does itinerant preaching among plymouth brethren assemblies throughout the U.S. Jesse hold’s degrees in Biblical Studies, Philosophy, and Instructional Design.

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