The Primacy of Love

January 1st, 2022 / 1 Comment

I’m excited about my book, Pluriform Love, which is coming out in February!

It’s an academic book. I think of it as a follow-up to my book, The Uncontrolling Love of God. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter…

The Primacy of Love

It’s not hard to make a scriptural case for the primacy of love.

“And the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13),[1] says the Apostle Paul in what many call the New Testament’s “love chapter.” Love never ends, says Paul, and without love, we are nothing (13:2, 8). Even a person who gave away everything and chose death but did not love would gain nothing (13:3). Above all, we should “pursue love” (1 Cor. 14:1), because it is “the more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31).

The one whom Christians believe loved best — Jesus — says the greatest commandments orient around love. We should love God and neighbor as ourselves (Mt. 22:34-40; Mk. 12:28-34; Lk. 10:25-28). His commands were not new; we find them in the Old Testament. The law and prophets rest on them.

Salvation is oriented around love. In a passage many Christians memorize, Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

“By this will all know that you are my disciples,” Jesus tells his followers, “if you love one another” (Jn. 13:35). Even obedience is ultimately about love, says Jesus (Jn. 14:15).

The New Testament doctor of love, the Apostle John, puts the relationship between God and love simply, “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8,16). For millennia, scholars have debated the meaning of this three-word sentence. At a minimum, it positions love as central to who God is and what God does. On a spectrum between literal and symbolic, “God is love” rests closer to being true literally than perhaps any other biblical statement.[2] The person who doesn’t love, says John, doesn’t understand God (1 Jn. 4:8).

Because God loves, we ought to love. Paul tells Ephesian readers to “imitate God, as dearly beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loves us…” (Eph. 5:1). We can love like God loves, and Jesus is our example of what this looks like. An adequate theology makes sense of divine love as a model to emulate.

Even before the special incarnation of God in Jesus, biblical authors considered love a, if not the, primary divine attribute. The phrase “steadfast love” is the most common Old Testament description of divine activities. The Psalmist often says, “the earth is full of the steadfast love of God” (Ps. 33:5). Such love is relentlessly loyal. Jeremiah records God declaring, “I loved you with an everlasting love” (31:3). The Chronicler says God loves the chosen people (2 Chr. 2:11) and the Deuteronomist says God loves aliens (Deut. 10:18). God loves all creation (Ps. 117:1). Old Testament writers witness powerfully to divine love.

A recurring description appears in full form like this: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (Exod. 34:6-7). No description of God occurs more often in the Old Testament, although it takes various forms and abbreviations.[3] Old Testament writers describe God as loving.

The major themes of the Old and New Testaments promote love’s primacy.

Not every biblical passage portrays God as loving, however. Scripture does not provide a consistent voice on love, creaturely or divine. Sometimes, God is portrayed as wanting or causing harm. God threatens to abandon or bring pain. I’ll address this issue later because it’s important. For the moment, I simply say love is the main theme of scripture… even though contrary themes are also present.

Christian intellectuals often fail to recognize or promote love’s preeminence. To illustrate, I’ll identify two 21st century examples, Richard Hays and Millard Erickson. They are among many influential Christians who fail to make love a priority in theology.

[1] Unless noted, I use the New Revised Standard Version for biblical references.

[2] On this claim, see Gustavo Gutierrez, The God of Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996).

[3] I first encountered this claim in the work of Terence Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 25. It’s developed in various of Fretheim’s writings, many of which are compiled in What Kind of God? Collected Essays of Terence E. Fretheim, Michael J. Chan and Brent A. Strawn, eds. (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2015). For other occurrences of this phrase, see Exod. 20:6; Num. 14:18; Deut. 5:9-10; 7:9; 1 Kings 3:6; 2 Chron. 30:9; Neh. 9:17, 31 Ps. 86:15; 103:8, 17; 106:45; 111:4; 112:4; 145:8; Jer. 30:11; 32:18-19; Lam. 3:32; Dan. 9:4; Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2; Nah. 1:3.

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Excited to get this one!

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