Augustine’s God Doesn’t Love Us
I’m writing a book I’m tentatively calling, “Pluriform Love.” Part of the task involves looking at major theologies of love in Christian history. I’m looking at Augustine’s thoughts and criticizing them harshly.
Here’s an excerpt…
Use or Enjoy
A subsection of Augustine’s classic book, Teaching Christianity, is titled, “God Does Not Enjoy Us, But Makes Use of Us.” The first statement in the title aptly describes Augustine’s view. The second statement does not. Both have disturbing implications for Augustine’s theology of love.
Augustine believes that love involves either using others (uti) or enjoying them (frui). He applies these ideas to creaturely love and says we should enjoy God but use others as a means for enjoying God.
He then employs his “use” and “enjoy” scheme to God’s love.
To explain his view, Augustine reminds us of what he considers love’s true object. “There still seems to be some uncertainty about what we have been saying,” he admits, “that we enjoy that thing which we love for its own sake.” We should use what does not make “us perfectly happy or blissful,” he says.
God Cannot Enjoy Us
Then Augustine poses a question to himself: “How does [God] love us?”
According to Augustine’s categories, he’s asking, “Does God use 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 finds worth enjoying. Augustine thinks we have nothing. We have nothing to offer because we cannot contribute to a being who has all values eternally.
The only way God can love (desire) 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.” Augustine’s love categories have painted him into a corner!
To say God uses us seems contrary to much of scripture. It stands in opposition to Jesus’ words, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” (Jn. 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 (hesed) for creation.
These passages and more say the world and its creatures benefit from God’s love. God wants to promote our good.
Problems emerge when saying we should use people for the sake of something else. If we do not treat people at least sometimes as ends in themselves, it’s hard to see how we promote their well-being.
We may treat people as both ends and means, of course. We might act for their good and for the good of God and others. But using people only for the sake of something else contradicts love. Using stands in opposition to how biblical writers typically understand love.
Because Augustine thinks 1) love is desire and 2) God has all values, he cannot say God enjoys us. Although biblical writers say God created us and all creation as “very good” (Gen. 1:31) and desires a loving relationship with us, Augustine’s God doesn’t enjoy creation for its own sake. So, says Augustine, God uses us.
Augustine can’t say God loves us for our sakes.
God Cannot Use Us
After saying God uses us, Augustine realizes he still faces a problem. His notion of use implies God needs something. But this cannot be, according to his theology. It says God is the only one with ultimate value and God has no needs. What use is creation to an entirely self-sufficient God?
Augustine admits his problem. God “does not make use of us, either,” he confesses. At least not “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.”
So… even God’s using us has God’s own good in mind. It’s for God’s own sake. To use us would mean God lacks something. If God used us, God would need creation. But Augustine thinks God has no needs whatsoever. Consequently, God cannot love us in either of the ways Augustine thinks anyone can love. The result…
God only loves himself.
Augustine’s God Neither Loves Us for Our Sake Nor for God’s Sake
Creatures may receive some benefit when God uses them as means to enjoy Godself. But this does not mean God loves creatures in themselves. Or for their own sakes.
Augustine’s God doesn’t intend to promote creaturely well-being. God is concerned only with the divine life, because only the eternal and unchanging is worthy of concern.
We briefly encountered the idea God only loves Godself when discussing Millard Erickson’s theology. Like Augustine and many theologians in what many call “classical theism,” Erickson thinks God can only love Godself. The logic at play assumes love is desire and God is unaffected by creation. This God has no needs.
When reflecting on the Trinity, Augustine says God ceaselessly loves Godself. This love is contemplation and enjoyment of the divine life. His appeal to intra-Trinitarian love, however, does not solve his problems regarding God’s love for creatures and creation. God doesn’t love them. God neither loves creatures by enjoying them or using them – except insofar as in using them, God loves Godself.
According to Teaching Christianity, Augustine’s God does not love us for our sakes or for God’s.
 Augustine, Teaching Christianity, Book 1, paragraph 31.
 Ibid., Book 1, paragraph 32.
 Augustine, On the Trinity, 9, 2.