Augustine’s Love Problems

October 26th, 2010 / 12 Comments

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 loveenjoyment and usehe 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 usethe 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.

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Dr. Oord,

I agree that Augustine seems to be the source of many problems in our Western Theological thinking. I tend to think, however, that those who followed him seem to be even more faulty in their reasoning. Augustine was a product of his own time – he grew up with Neoplatonism, like we are growing up influenced by post-modernism. What seems to me, is that theologians that followed him, failed to submit his beliefs to the scrutiny of the Word and thus the problem continue to spread throughout Western Christianity.

Thank you for your thoughtful post.

Stacie Martin

Although I find the discussion of Augustine’s view on love fascinating, and sure your response sounds like an almost adequate solution, but i’m just not completely sold. My reasoning being this; if God is a relational God whose love stems from the promoting of well-being for others, where does that sense of longing for others well being come from? Why does God want humanities well being? To answer purely because “God is love,” just doesn’t seem to suffice.

Debbie Holston

Is it possible for us to say that God loves us in the sense of enjoying us but our existence, as ones for God to love, is not necessary for God’s existence? The way I see Augustine’s point of view, God does not love us. Does Augustine think that God’s nature is not love? I do not like Augustine’s lack of emphasis on a relational God. I believe that God loves us because God is a relational God. If we, as Wesleyans, so strongly believe that God’s essence is love, how can we follow any of Augustine’s theology, if he does not start at the same place?

Erika Schaub

I think that Augustine’s view on God’s love as enjoyable depends on his own view on God’s interaction with humans and humans interaction with God.  I view God as a relational God and that humans can have a relationship with God.  Since we are in relationship with God and God in relationship with us; then God does love us as “enjoyable”.  So i totally agree with your ending paragraphs on understanding that God is relational. 

With the love promoting well being, i get a little confused.  When i think well being of humanity, i think of physical, mental, and spiritual healthiness of a person.  If God’s love is to give us well being; how then?  Or is the well being meant for the next life?

Caleb Reynolds

Does Augustine follow his reasoning through to its logical conclusion:  God does not love us?  If Augustine depends absolutely on his categories of love, it would seem that the portion of the discussion that would have to be discarded would be the biblical witness to the steadfast love of God.  Given a Protestant heritage and the consequent weight placed on Scripture, we find it easy to say, “Scripture overrules our categories,” and to reconstruct them accordingly.  Augustine obviously did not have this mindset, and so seems to struggle.  His philosophical constructs are inadequate to interpret the theological constructs of Scripture.  What should give?  What constructs do we have that are similarly inadequate?

Rachel Benedick

I found Augustine’s theory of love questionable as well! When he implied, “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”, that does not bring to mind the kind of love God has for us. This seems like a selfish kind of love where you would be using someone to love as a way to get something out of it for your own good.
Clearly, Augustine believes that God uses us for the sake of something else, rather than to “promote our own well-being”. In my eyes, God is the opposite of selfish, so how could He have this kind of a love for us? This is completely contradictory to my image of God and the image so widely shared in this world of His character.

Jason Caddy

Love can be such a complicated subject but you have stated correctly: “A relational God of love depends on the responses of others for the love relationship to deepen and mature.”  Many people will have a problem with the word “depends” linked to God, but to understand relationship as “giving and receiving” is equally important.  The reason is that God, even in His sovereignty, will not force himself on people.  He seeks out the relationship by giving of Himself through prevenient grace.  Grace is always available and allows the relationship to grow as deep as we would like because God always has our best interest at heart.  That depth, however, is dependent on our reception of His love.

Sharelle Seward

I am in complete agreement with you on this topic.  This is a good example of how different each persons beliefs and ways of understanding God can be.  I think it is important though to know and understand why and how others think so we know how to show God’s love to different people with completely different views than us.

Hunter Mizar

Tom one of the things that I have recognized is that God’s love for me has proven to provide wellness of being for me.  As I have benefited from being on the receiving end of God’s love it has inspired me to want to first love God because of the way that he has loved me but has also put a desire in me to want to love others as well.  I think what becomes problematic for those that have not experienced the love of God in a deep and meaningful way is that they have a hard time receiving a selfless love that exists with no strings attached just the simple motive to bless them.  I think that people can really be skeptical of other people to wonder what the hidden agenda is behind simple acts of love and kindness.


I find the comments of Augustine very intriguing.  I am fascinated because Augustine is considered a respected theologian in Christendom.  In reflecting on his statement, “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.” Why would Augustine say this after reading the Bible?  I am sure he has a good reason for making such a statement.  However, in my opinion this statement is very inconsistent with Scripture.  I am wondering what his understanding of Psalm 147:10.  Thank you Thomas for giving us a Biblical perspective on the theology of love. 

Justin Walker

Interesting post.  I do not know that much about Augustine, so it is intriguing to hear more about him.  Augustine seemed to be confused on God’s love and relational being.  In your conclusion, I would agree that love should be defined differently than a desire, but I do not know if God “needs” us.  So far as we can tell, God existed and is content in and of Himself before the creation of man.  I believe that God WANTS a relationship with His people, but does He NEED it?  I guess this goes to show the importance of defining love. 

Interesting post and ideas.  I enjoyed learning more about Augustine.

Talitha Edwards

I can definitively agree that we should look elsewhere for our theology of love if this is how Augustine views love.  To define love in terms of either enjoyment or use seems vastly simplistic.  To go so far as to say God only loves himself flies in the face of Scripture.  If God has expressed love to us, and he has, it is hardly feasible to determine that since the categories available are not adequate than he must only love himself. It would seem clear to me that something vastly important is missing.

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