Love Research Needs a Definition

January 27th, 2017 / 6 Comments

Research in science and religion captivates me. Adding the dimension of love to this research motivates me in powerful ways.

Making sense of life requires exploring science and religion with help from philosophy. In fact, I can’t imagine answering well the big questions of life while ignoring any of the three.

We wonder, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” “How did we get here?” “How do things work?” Ignoring religion, science, or philosophy when seeking to answer these questions leads to unsatisfying results.

Research on Love

For some time, I’ve been pondering love in light of religion, science, and philosophy. Other scholars have done some work in this area, but this work has not yet been well coordinated and raised to the general awareness in society.

Various theologians explore love, of course, and they offer theories to account for it. Scientists explore aspects of love too, although they rarely use the word.  And a few philosophers address the topic.

At a recent International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR) meeting in San Antonio, I gave a paper on love research in science, theology and philosophy. To my knowledge, no one else has framed the research as trialogue, in part because “philosophy” often participates unnamed in the conversation.

Consensus on What Love Is

I argued at the ISSR meeting that progress in love research requires scholarly consensus about what love is. In particular, we need a definition of love if work is to make headway and be conceptually coordinated. Without some consensus on what love is, how will we gauge the adequacy or importance of love research?

A good definition of love must be broad enough to account for its various dimensions and forms. Too narrow a definition will leave out what most of us intuitively if not consciously assume love to be.

But a good love definition must not be too broad. Too broad a definition would become virtually meaningless in its all-inclusiveness. A good love definition requires some specificity.

How I Define Love

In my presentation, I offered the following definition of love to ISSR scholars:

“To love is to act intentionally, in response to others (which, as I see it, includes God), to promote overall well-being.” (I also offer and explain this definition in my book, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement.)

My definition has the advantage of accounting for a wide swath of research pertaining to love, even research not explicitly so identified. Sociobiological work on altruism, for instance, can be understood, incorporated, and even critiqued by my definition of love. Psychological studies on attachment can be illuminated by the “in response to others” aspect of my definition and my emphasis upon well-being. Most theological work done on the meaning of grace and human responsibility also fits well. Philosophical work on virtue theory, ethics, and even metaphysics have a place. I could go on.

Most Love Definitions are Too Narrow

Scholarly literature reveals that most definitions of love are too narrow. For instance, some philosophers think of love as desire. But love simply as desire fails to identify the element of goodness, positivity, or well-being we typically associate with love.

Associating love with goodness is especially prominent in sacred texts (see its connection with shalom, blessedness, abundant life, or salvation).

Some social scientists define love too narrowly. They adopt popular love language and speak of love as romance or sex. This is especially common in the positive psychology literature.

But this view of love fails to account for the way romantically or sexually-based activity sometimes undermines positivity and goodness. Ask rape victims or victims of stalkers if they feel loved!

Some theological definitions are too narrow. Anders Nygren’s influential 20th century work on agape, for instance, defined genuine love entirely in terms of divine action. The result is a theological determinism that neither fits well the biblical witness but also fails to attribute genuine love to creaturely action.

We Need More Love Research

The more I ponder the love-related work already done in science, religion, and philosophy and the more I envision the work that could be done, the more excited I get about the future of love research!

The present work fascinates me, but the work I imagine allures and inspires! It adds meaning to a biblical phrase that already motivates me: “Live a life of love!” (Eph. 5:1b)

Thomas Jay Oord

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To ‘act intentionally’ does one not need to be free? I raise this question in light of your thoughts on God’s love in your book “The Uncontrolling Love of God.” In my view a being that cannot say “no” to a relationship, that must love without having a choice about it, cannot love in a fully interpersonal sense with the most valuable kind of love. According to ‘Essential Kenosis’ God has no choice but to love and cannot choose not to love us. But interpersonal love cannot be necessitated in this sense. Love is a choice by its very nature. I would argue that a being that has no choice but to love cannot love with the exalted kind of interpersonal love expressed by God for us in the scriptures.


Thanks for your good post, James!
Like you, I think intentionality suggests a measure of freedom. But I also think freedom is never unlimited.
As I see it, God is free in choosing how to love in relation to others. This involves divine intentionality. But God is not free in choosing whether to love others. God must love others.
Creatures, however, are free both in the sense of choosing whether to love and how to love. But both God and creatures use intentionality when loving.
Does that help explain my view?

Nick Baker

Hi Dr. Oord, I am a college student (bachelor’s degree in psychology) who is very interested in the concept and application of Love in the same triangular context you speak of in this article and I wanted to see what you think of my definition.

Love: The reflection of God’s very nature in self-sacrificial giving to others.

It meets the religious criteria. God is the standard by which this particular trait (love) is defined. This is confirmed in scripture where Christ said there was no greater love than to lay one’s own life down for his brother (John 15:13) which is exactly what He did on the cross.

It meets the science criteria. The practical action which can be tested and falsified is whether one is self-sacrificially loving others. In other words, the opportunity cost of loving others is preserving time, money, material or immaterial resources for one’s benefit. To give an example, one may choose to donate $50 to a local charity and this would be considered an act of self-sacrificial love because the same money could be used to buy, let’s say a tub of ice cream and other groceries for oneself.

Philosophically, I think that it means that the semantic value of love maintains objectivity because it is based on the one who is Love and is the source of all love. If Christ is God who is Love, then Christ is Love. And if Christ practically demonstrated for us self-sacrificial love (quite literally in this case), then it could be said that God self-sacrificially loves us through the Word made flesh who was crucified. And of course, I hold to Trinitarian theology where on the cross, the fullness of God, the three members of the Trinity was physically present in the body of Jesus, the God-man. Anyways, the implication is that the being of God (Love) is connected to the act of both God and man (self-sacrificial love) in the person of Jesus Christ. To put it bluntly, Jesus Christ is the meaning of love. The application is that one cannot self-sacrificially love another without invoking the very nature of God Himself. An atheist cannot truly love her husband without invoking God in her action.

What do you think? I apologize for the long post.

Nick Baker


Thanks for your kind note, Nick. It’s great to hear from a kindred spirit!

I like the divine element and so much more. I do think love reflect’s God’s nature, and in fact I think God empowers us to love.

I don’t think, however, that love is always self-sacrificial. I think it can be self-affirming sometimes. Which is why I talk about promoting “overall well-being” in my definition. I don’t think we have only the good of others in mind, all the time, when we love. We can also consider our own good. Sometimes our own good will be sacrifices. But often promoting overall good includes promoting our own good.

Does that make sense?

Nick Baker

Thank you for response and compliments. I apologize for the wait. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I will be reading a couple of your books in the near future that I think are important for my journey with God. I’m very thankful for your ministry.

I think you are right in that love isn’t always self-sacrificial and that it can be affirmative of oneself. In an abstract way, God is self-affirming. He affirms of His existence and importance in and over creation. If we are created in His image, then, to some degree, we will carry a sense of worth and dignity as a result of being alive and self-aware. We are born loving ourselves, seeking our needs, and there is nothing wrong with that. So I think having self-worth, self-esteem, self-respect, etc. are very good when one also has humility to balance it out.

I guess I would define self-sacrifice more specifically as the sacrifice of one’s temporary desires (the flesh) for the purposes of the spirit. I take my ideas from Romans 7,8 and Galatians 5. Living by the spirit is definitely beneficial for oneself and others. Since the spirit is of God and God desires for the well-being of all, then we can say living in the spirit is loving for oneself and others. An implication is that one can do well for oneself by living in the spirit and rejecting their temporary desires.

Living in the spirit, which is living a life of loving oneself and others, can be reduced into verbal statements of God’s will. These statements or commands are the measure of one’s love. One can quantify the love of an individual by how well she consistently and energetically adheres to these statements as shown by their behavior.

To answer the question of how to quantify God’s will, I would do a word study in the Bible for God’s will/desire/intention (Greek word: thelema). Based on the patterns we find in the Biblical data, we can find what God desires for His people to behave. These behaviors would be measured in individuals in their natural setting. It would sort of be an ethnographic study of individuals in churches. I’m not sure how one could both ethnically pull of the study without any bias. If individuals were alerted that they were watched, they would likely behave better than normal. If individuals were not alerted to the fact that they are watched, that could be a violation of ethics. Not that I would actually do this study, but it’s just a thought experiment.

I know that this kind of study is reductionistic, bereft of dimensionality, and fraught with potential hermeneutical fallacies (with regards to the Bible study). I also think that if we want to get somewhere in the study of Love, we have to start throwing out (crazy) ideas and whittle our way down to specific, reasonable, and testable hypotheses.


Thanks, Nick. That’s good stuff!

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