The Nature of Love – Excerpt
I sent the final proofs for one of my new books, The Nature of Love: A Theology, to Chalice Press. I’m very excited for this to come out in June!
I thought I’d post an excerpt from the book. The following from the opening pages gives an idea of the direction I take in this tome:
“And the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13b).
The Apostle Paul’s final words in what Christians sometimes call the “love chapter” describe the supremacy of love. Love is greater than faith and hope. Love is the one thing that never ends. And without love, says Paul, we are nothing.
Despite these words from the Bible, theologians often neglect love when writing their theologies. Love is present in Christian devotional literature, worship lyrics, testimonials, and other forms of Christian experience. But most theologians write their formal theologies with love as an afterthought. The logic of love – God’s love for us and the love creatures are called to express in response – is largely absent and rarely followed consistently.
Given that themes of love are central in the Bible, one would think love would be central in formal theology. Most Christians know “God is love,” as 1 John says (4:8, 16). Many memorize Jesus’ words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). These verses suggest the primacy of love for theology, and they suggest love is a central feature of God’s nature.
Most Christians know Jesus placed love as the pinnacle of ethics. Jesus called his followers to love. The greatest commandment, said Jesus, is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk. 12:30). The second is like the first: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31). The law and the prophets rest on these two commandments.
“By this will all know that you are my disciples,” Jesus tells his followers: “if you love one another” (Jn. 13:35). The apostle Paul tells Christians to “imitate God, and live in love, as Christ loves us…” (Gal 5:1). An adequate theology of love seems to require an account of love that makes sense both of God’s call to love and God’s own love as a model creatures should emulate.
Even before Jesus Christ revealed God’s nature most clearly, biblical authors considered love a, if not the, primary attribute of God. The phrase “steadfast love” is the most common Old Testament description of God’s nature. God’s love is everlastingly loyal. Divine love is relentless. The Psalmist speaks often of God’s steadfast love for creation, making statements such as “the earth is full of the steadfast love of God” (Ps. 33:5). Jeremiah records God declaring, “I loved you with an everlasting love.” The Chronicler says God loves the chosen people (2 Chr. 2:11) and the book of Deuteronomy states God loves alien peoples (Deut. 10:18). Old Testament writers witness powerfully to the love of God.
Although we find other themes in the Bible, love is central. From Genesis to Revelation and from the early Church through today, the Christian story revolves around love. Mildred Bangs Wynkoop says it well: “love as the central truth makes better sense out of the gospel than do other aspects of theology. Love is the gospel message.”
Because love sits at the center of the biblical witness, Christians throughout history have proclaimed God’s love for them and their obligation to love God and others as themselves. In fact, some scholars say the centrality of love differentiates Christianity from other religions. In his multi-volume and influential work on love, philosopher Irving Singer says, “What distinguishes Christianity, what gives it a unique place in man’s intellectual life, is the fact it alone has made love the dominant principle in all areas of dogma. Whatever Christians may have done to others or themselves, theirs is the only faith in which God and love are the same.”
Singer’s words confirm the call to consider love central in Christian theology. If love is the center of the biblical witness and the core of Christian experience, it should be the primary criterion for theology. Love should be the orienting concern and continual focus for speaking systematically about theology. We should discard ideas or theories that obviously undermine love.
Christian experience speaks in multiple ways to the primacy of love. Believers in the past and present draw from a rich tradition of Christian experiences and practices. Christian hymns, devotional readings, liturgies, prayers, sermons, websites and videos, Rock-n-Roll, and more testify to love’s primacy. The relationship between Christian experience and the biblical witness is a mutually enriching one. Christians attempt to respond lovingly to the God whom the Bible describes as acting in love to make human love possible. God also responds in love to decisions creatures make.
Christian saints speak eloquently of the centrality of love. Their testimonies are worth hearing and incorporating in theology. We must hear the witness of some of the great women and men of the Church.
Only when placed at the center can the logic of love explicitly extend to all aspects of Christian theology. Love – God’s love for us, revealed in Christ, in the Church, and in creation, and our love for God and others as ourselves – must be afforded its rightful place as the center of Christian theology.
Love matters are central, because love truly matters.
[ii] Irving Singer, The Nature of Love: Plato to Luther, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 159.