Beyond Wynkoop’s Love Language
Mildred Bangs Wynkoop’s magnum opus, A Theology of Love, presents a powerful argument for love as the Christian’s theological priority. But her work would have been more powerful had she been consistent in her language of love.
The first third of A Theology of Love offers the heart of Wynkoop’s argument. She draws from the Bible and John Wesley’s theology to argue that we best understand Christian theology when love is front and center.
“When each doctrine of the Christian faith is identified and defined by [John Wesley],” writes Wynkoop, “the basic meaning invariably comes out ‘love.’”
This means that, “If one is committed to a Wesleyan theology, he must realize that his commitment is to a theology of love.”
Jesus Christ provides the fullest revelation of who God is, and the Christological revelation suggests that love is God’s reigning (but not only) attribute. Jesus called God “Abba,” and he declared the greatest two commandments to be love for God and others as oneself.
Past and present theologians have not agreed with Wynkoop. They question whether love can play the central role for theology. Their worry is that love – without qualification – is too sentimental and mushy. Such theologians, however, almost invariably fail to define love.
Wynkoop counters the charge that love is not strong. “Love is not a soft, permissive cover-up of human personality,” she says. “Love… is the disciplining of human reactions.”
Furthermore, says Wynkoop, “Christian love creates an atmosphere in which all the creative conflicts may not only exist but be matured and fully utilized without tearing apart the fabric of Christian unity.”
In the early chapters of her book, Wynkoop uses the word “love” without qualifications. She never offers a precise definition of love, but her love language suggests that love always does good.
Here are some of Wynkoop’s words:
— “Love is the gospel message.”
— “The character of holiness is love.”
— “Love characterizes holiness as presented by New Testament writers.”
— “Love cannot wrong a neighbor.”
— “The test of right relationship with God is love.”
— “Love is happiness – harmony of the whole.”
— “Love guards over self-esteem lest it slip into selfishness.”
— “Ethics is the out flowing of love.”
— “Love is fathomless goodwill.”
Wynkoop’s language of love fits my own definition of love. I defined love as acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.
Unfortunately, however, Wynkoop fails to remain consistent in her love language. Confusion emerges in A Theology of Love. Despite indicating that love always promotes good, Wynkoop later slips into a language of love alien to most of the Bible.
Here are her confusing words:
— “The very nature of sin is love’s perversion.”
— “Love positively or negatively defines holiness or sin.”
— “When…love centers in self, God is excluded and sin is described.”
— “Love without holiness disintegrates into sentimentality.”
Instead of using language that speaks of love as doing good, Wynkoop slips into an Augustinian notion of love as desire itself. For Augustine, love = desire. In such terms, desire can be good or evil, depending on its object.
Although she earlier argues that love is not essentially sentimental and always good, Wynkooop “supplements” her love language with “holy” or “holiness.”
Admittedly, few passages of scripture can be interpreted as understanding love as desire. But the overwhelming majority of times, “love” appears in scripture only in terms of doing good. The dominant biblical witness does not say that love is desire itself.
We find nowhere in the Bible the phrase “holy love.” Instead, the vast majority biblical writers assume love must always be holy. After all, “love is from God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one that doesn’t love, doesn’t know God, for God is love” (1 Jn. 4:7, 8). Love, according to the dominant biblical witness, is never unholy.
For the sake of clarity and biblical faithfulness, I urge us to take care in how we use the word “love.”
Although acting intentionally to do good often if not always has an element of desire, we should not use the word “love” for desire itself. When defined well and from the dominant biblical perspective, love is always holy. Adding “holy” to “love” is redundant.
Love repays evil with good. Love acts for the benefits of family and enemies. Love turns the other cheek. Love promotes the common good. God expresses love incessantly, because God is love (not desire). And we love, because God first loves us.
The Wynkoop theology of love legacy lives on. I discovered her work while in my mid-twenties, and it confirmed my own intuitions and convictions about the centrality of love for theology.
For the Wesleyan witness to the primacy of love to be most effective, however, we must move beyond Wynkoop’s linguistic inconsistency. We must take care to speak of love consistently and in a way that coheres with the broad biblical witness.
We more likely avoid confusion if we always use “love” positively, which is also the usual biblical understanding of love. If we regard love as inherently positive because derived from God, we do not need to qualify it with “holy.”
“Faith, hope, and love remain. But the greatest of these is love. Pursue love…” (1 Cor. 13:13, 14:1).