Obstacles to Putting Love First

April 13th, 2022 / No Comments

Many biblical scholars and theologians fail to affirm the priority of love.

In this essay, I focus on the final of five reasons why many fail to make love a priority. I’ll simply list the first four before addressing the fifth. Get a copy of Pluriform Love to read the explanations I give to the first four.

1. Love is sometimes equated with sex/romance, self-indulgence, sentimentality, or extreme tolerance.

2. Biblical writers are sometimes unclear about love’s meaning.

3. Biblical writers sometimes portray God as unloving.

4. The Bible has no precise definition of love.

We Need a Definition of Love

The final reason many theologians and biblical scholars fail to affirm the priority of love arises from confusion over what we mean by love. This confusion emerges from a failure to clarify terms. I put it this way…

5. Theologians often fail to define love well.

Most theologians do not define love. Even those who focus on love rarely clarify what they mean. This practice is especially odd, because most theologians know love has diverse and often confusing meanings. There’s a dearth of explicit definitions.

The few theologians who do define love often fail to use their definitions consistently. They’ll say we ought to love the world, for instance, which sounds like we should treat creation well. In the next breath, they’ll say we shouldn’t love the world but should love God instead. Others say God causes or permits evil but also claim God loves everyone. The harmed and hurting doubt this. Theologians will say suffering is a necessary part of love, but they’ll claim heaven is a loving place without suffering. Others say God loves everyone, but God does not love the wicked. Some say God loves us like a friend and then say friendship with God is impossible. Or theologians will say love isn’t about feelings, but then urge us to feel compassion for the needy. Some claim humans are incapable of love but criticize them for being unloving.

Theological claims about love often make no sense!

So… theologians need to define love well. And then employ their definitions consistently. Of course, definitions cannot capture everything that’s true. Just as we will probably never grasp the full meaning of God, we will never grasp the full meaning of love. Words cannot provide all-encompassing explanations.

Despite imprecision and failure to be comprehensive, however, words are meaningful. They can partially describe reality. Words also move us to act, feel, think, and live in particular ways. We often need them to, as the Apostle Peter put it, “make a defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in [us]” (1 Pet. 3:15). If we thought words useless, we would stop using them altogether. And yet we persist.[1]

Because I think theologies of love should offer clear definitions of love, I devote a whole chapter to defining love and explaining what I mean.

I define love as acting intentionally, in relational response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.

Later chapters in Pluriform Love explore the details and implications of my definition in light of key theologians, doctrines, and intuitions. I aim to put love first in my theology, because I think it’s first in scripture and should come first in everyday living.

[1] For accessible accounts of the primacy of love, see Jim Burklo, Tenderly Calling (Haworth, N.J.: St. Johann, 2021); Jared Byas, Love Matters More (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2020); Jason Clark, Prone to Love (Shippensburg, Penn.: Destiny Image, 2014); Jonathan Foster, Reconstructionist (Glen Oak, Ca.: Quoir, 2021); Daniel K. Held, Love’s Resurrection (Springfield, Oh.: Higher Ground, 2013); Jacqui Lewis, Fierce Love (London: Harmony, 2021); Andrew Lightbown and Nick Fane, ReDiscovering Charity (Buckingham: UBP, 2009); Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2010); Chuck Queen, A Faith Worth Living (Eugene, Or.: Wipf and Stock, 2011); Niq Ruud, Only Love (Glen Oak, Ca.: Quoir, 2021).

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