love your neighbor

Defining Love

If God’s eternal essence is love, as discussed in this post, then we must ask: What does this confession actually mean? We must explore this question carefully because “love” has been defined in many theological streams in ways that seem contradictory to the kind of love revealed by Christ.

As with so many other things, the dominant way that love has been defined has been shaped in large part by St. Augustine. Along with all other theologians up to his time, Augustine affirmed that the revelation that “God is love” lies at heart of the Gospel and is foundational for Christian theology and ethics. Moreover, Augustine held that all Scripture should be interpreted with “the rule of love.” Unfortunately, Augustine defined “love” as an inner attitude and orientation that had no necessary implications for one’s actual behavior. Speaking of Jesus’ command to never retaliate but to rather “turn the other cheek” for example, Augustine argued, “What is here required is not a bodily action, but an inward disposition.” Augustine thus argued that one could love one’s enemy while nevertheless treating them with “benevolent severity.” More specifically, for God as well as humans, loving enemies did not necessarily rule out torturing and killing them if one was justified in doing so.

However one assesses Augustine’s motivations for arriving at this subjective-oriented definition of love, the fact that it was compatible with “just war” thinking made it immediately popular with Church leaders who were struggling to come to terms with Jesus’ teaching on love in light of the political power they had recently inherited as a result of the Constantinian revolution. Indeed, with this remarkable redefinition of love in hand, Augustine could cite Luke 14:23, in which the master in Jesus’ parable tells his servant to go out into the streets and “compel” people to come to his banquet, to support the use of coercive force in the name of love to “compel” unbelievers and heretics to repent. This set a tragic precedent that contributed to the torturing and execution of millions at the hands of professing Christians throughout history.

The same Augustinian-type reasoning that led Christians to believe that torturing and killing people was compatible with loving them contributed to theologians and others having little problem confessing that “God is love” while accepting that God could command genocide. That is, since many (but not all) Christians in Augustine’s time were taking the violent depictions of Yahweh in the OT at face value and ascribing to these depictions the same revelatory authority they ascribed to Jesus, it followed that Jesus’ revelation of God’s love must somehow be compatible with engaging in and sanctioning horrific violence. And if God’s love does not necessarily rule out violence for him, there’s no reason to think it necessarily rules out violence for us.

In any event, whether the reasoning moved from a redefinition of love to its compatibility with violence or from the acceptance of violence to its compatibility with love, the compatibility of the two under certain “justified” conditions has been generally assumed since the time of Augustine.

In contrast to Augustine, the Bible does not allow us to speculate about love in this way. If we want to define the kind of love that God is we must notice that the NT is not silent about this topic. Rather than giving us an abstract definition, however, the apostle John points us to a person and to an action: “This is how we know what love is,” John says, “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” From this he concludes, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another“ (1 Jn 3:16).

When John proclaims that, “God is love,” this is the kind of love he is referring to. He’s saying that God is the kind of love that causes God to set aside his blessed state, to humble himself by becoming a human being, to offer himself up to be humiliated, tortured and crucified and to bear our sin and guilt, all while we were yet sinners and enemies of God! The infinite intensity and unsurpassable perfection of the eternal love that unites the Father, Son and Spirit is most profoundly revealed in God’s willingness to go to the furthest extreme possible to save us, as the all-holy God stooped to become our sin and our God-forsaken curse, which is the very antithesis of himself (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13).

This, and only this, defines the love that God is.

Image by Nina Strehl via Unsplash

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