Augustine’s Love Problems
I’ve come to believe that Augustine’s theology fails on the central issue of Christian faith: love.
In my new book, The Nature of Love: A Theology, I devote an entire chapter to talking about the inadequacy of Augustine’s theology of love. I quote directly from his book, Teaching Christianity, to show problems with his views.
God Doesn’t Love Us
Early on in his discussion of love, Augustine says love either enjoys the other or love uses the other. To enjoy someone is to love him or her as an end. To use someone is to love that person as a means to something else worthy of enjoyment.
Love’s true object, says Augustine, is that which “which we love for its own sake.” We should use, however, whatever does not make “us perfectly happy or blissful.”
Augustine knows that the Bible says God loves creatures. Given his two ways of understanding love—enjoyment and use—he poses a question for himself: “How does God love us?” In other words, does God use us or enjoy us?
If God “enjoys us,” says Augustine, “it means he is in need of some good of ours, which nobody in his right mind could possibly say. Every good of ours, after all, is either God himself, or derived from him.” For God to enjoy us, we must be able to contribute something God would find worth enjoying. Augustine thinks we have nothing to contribute.
Besides, Augustine believes God has no desires we could possibly satisfy. We do not contribute to a God who has all value eternally in God’s unchanging person.
The only way God can love us, according to Augustine’s categories, is to use us. “He does not enjoy us, but makes use of us,” he states bluntly. “Because if he neither enjoys us nor makes use of us, I cannot find any way in which he can love us.”
God Does Not Love for Our Own Sakes
There are all kinds of problems with saying love uses others for the sake of something else. Augustine places these problems on God. Despite the fact that God created us and all creation and called what God created “very good” (Gen. 1:31), God doesn’t really enjoy us for our own sakes.
According to how Augustine understands love, God doesn’t act to promote our well-being. Augustine believes God uses us for the sake of something else.
To say God doesn’t enjoy us but uses us seems contrary to Jesus’ words in John’s classic biblical passage: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” (3:16). It seems to oppose the apostle Paul’s words that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rm. 5:8). It seems in opposition to the Psalms, which speak of God’s steadfast love (chesed) for creation. These biblical passages and others indicate that the world and its creatures are recipients of God’s well-being-providing love.
God Does Not Even Love by Using Us
After admitting God only uses us, Augustine realizes he has another problem. His notion of use implies God desires something other than those whom God uses. But this cannot be, according to Augustine’s system of belief. God is the only valuable one.
Augustine eventually confesses that actually God “does not make use of us, either.” God does not use us, that is, “in the same way as we use things.” “Our making use of things is directed to the end of enjoying God’s goodness,” he says. But “God’s making use of us is directed to his goodness.” In sum, God only loves himself.
According to Augustine, therefore, God cannot love us in the sense of enjoying us. To do so would mean we have some value God does not yet possess. God cannot love us in the sense of using us. To do so would also mean God lacks something that God does not already possess. God cannot love us in either sense of enjoy or use—the only two ways Augustine thinks anyone can love.
A Needed Alternative: A Relational God of Love
Augustine’s love theology reveals the importance of a relational love theology. Instead of defining love in terms of enjoyment and use, love in relational theology (and in the vast majority of biblical passages) is defined as promoting well-being.
The idea that God might need creation is, according to Augustine, something “no one in his or her right mind would say.” This statement shows the influence of Greek philosophy, which privileges absolute independence and plenitude over the give-and-receive of relational love.
Christians should learn two key lessons from Augustine’s inadequate theology of love. First, love should not be defined primarily in terms of desire to enjoy or desire to use. It should be defined primarily in terms of acting to promote abundant life, blessedness, peace, the kingdom of God, and shalom: i.e., promoting well-being.
Second, Christians should understand God as a relational being who lovingly enters into relations with others. God’s active love involves both giving and receiving. A relational God of love depends on the responses of others for the love relationship to deepen and mature. While God’s essence remains unchanging, the divine experience changes in love relations with others.
Augustine helps us think deeply about some issues of theology. But when it comes to a theology of love, I recommend Christians look elsewhere.