I’m reading Thomas Oden’s theological memoir A Change of Heart, and I did a double-take when I stumbled across the following passage. Oden describes how, in the ’60s, he spent time integrating the psychotherapeutic ideas of Carl Rogers with his own “demythothologized” version of Christian theology (which he has long since renounced). Here, he describes how successful his efforts were—unfortunately:
At the same time I was writing on the uncharted theme of unconditional acceptance, a theme I found in Carl Rogers. I argued that it was a fitting description of the forgiving God, and that unconditional love corresponded directly with commonly acknowledged assumptions in effective psychotherapy.
Soon I began to hear the phrase unconditional love on the lips of homilists and priests as applied to God… The phrase quickly entered into the common vocabulary of psychological literature, sermons and books, especially for pastoral writers struggling to find ways of making God’s forgiveness plausible…
Carelessly, I had invited pastors and theologians to equate the unconditional positive regard that had proven to be a reliable condition of effective psychotherapy with God’s unconditional forgiving love for humanity.
In doing so, I had absentmindedly and unfortunately disregarded all those powerful biblical admonitions on divine judgment and the need for admonition in pastoral care. Few of these homilists mentioned the wrath of God against sin as Jesus did.
I had drifted toward a Christ without a cross and a conversion without repentance. It still makes me wince to hear sermons today about God’s unconditional love that are not qualified by any admonition concerning the temptation to permissiveness.
While I haven’t preached God’s “unconditional love”-without-qualification in some time, I’ve taken for granted that it still expressed some truth about God’s love for us. But why? The concept isn’t found in scripture. Yet, since my formative years in Southern Baptist youth group, I’ve heard that God loves us unconditionally.
As a first-generation MTV viewer, I’m sure I was even influenced by this 1983 video by Donna Summer and Musical Youth!