defining love 1600

First Corinthians and the Twenty-First Century Church: Questions about Love

January 20, 2021

Love, Love, Love … and Love? 

For three blog posts now, we have been discussing the definition of love. We have argued the language of love is used to denote affinity, affection, attachment, and action. We have also noted the incompatibility of hate (with one notable exception) and selfishness with love, and we have argued that, while love is not the same thing as desire or acceptance, it is related to these ideas in complex and significant ways.

Hopefully, these discussions have deepened our understanding of what it is we are talking about when we use the language of love. Nevertheless, the careful reader likely has some questions about our topic. These questions deserve to be addressed, and while we may not be able to answer them to everyone’s satisfaction, we can at least get them out on the table for everyone to consider.

Is Love One Thing or Many Things?

Let’s begin by asking a rather basic question. Is love one thing or is it many things? Those of you who have read C. S. Lewis’ The Four Loves may well respond it is many things, but those who have been influenced by the stream of thought exemplified in the work of Alexander Pruss would likely disagree.

We certainly use the language of love as if we are talking about many different phenomena. We even see this linguistic flexibility in the Bible. For example, is John’s Gospel really talking about the same thing when it says that God “loved” the world (John 3:16) as it does when it says that people “loved” darkness (John 3:19)?

And yet, our present passage (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13), to say nothing of Romans 12:9-13 and Galatians 5:22-23, seems to present love as a virtue which can be distinguished from other virtues. Paul never quite defines this cardinal virtue, but that may simply be because he assumed his readers already knew what love was (and still is). Moreover, the argument that love has a single author and, therefore, a single essence, makes a lot of theological sense, even if we can’t prove it linguistically.

In the end, I think love is a polyvalent reality which varies substantially in form but always maintains some connection to the ideal. So, for example, Jesus may not mean precisely the same thing when he commands his followers to “love” their “enemies” (Matthew 5:43-48) as he does when he commands them to “love” God and their “neighbor” (Mark 12:28-31 and parallels). Indeed, the “cold beneficence ” offered to one who has harmed us may be a more sincere expression of love than the affection offered to a friend. Nevertheless, there must be some resemblance between the ideals of love and its expression in the world, even when an “enemy” is its object. Love is not content to “heap coals” on the “heads” of its enemies (cf. Romans 12:18-20). It longs to imitate its Author and turn enemies into family members (cf. Romans 5:6-11).

Is Love Conditional or Unconditional?

Our second question is one I have been wrestling with for a couple of years now. Is there any such thing as unconditional love? If and when we use this phrase and we mean love has no logical or relational predicate, then I am not sure there is such a thing. We all love “because”even if the cause of our love has nothing to do with the worthiness of its recipient or the benefit said recipient may bring to us.

The real question is whether love is earned or unearned, and the surprising truth is thisit is both. Indeed, we as humans need both. On the one hand, we need to know we are worthy of being loved, that there is something within us which can inspire others to form permanent, unique, and affectionate attachments with us. On the other hand, we need to know there are people who will love us even when we are unworthy of love.

We could put the matter another way. It is the most profound transgression of love’s essence when we repay the good shown to us with evil. But the heart of love beats with the rhythm of grace. It is unmerited favor, to use a well-worn phrase, which opens the door to forgiveness, reconciliation, and new life. 

That is how God loves. Indeed, it can be argued God is the one being in the universe who loves without predicate—especially if the theologians are right that God created us because he loved us, and not the other way around. It is certainly the case that God loved us before we did anything to merit such love, and He has expended great effort, and suffered much, in order to continue loving us in the midst of our profound unworthiness.

Is Love Universal or Particular?

The third question has to do with the extent of love’s reach. Many people in North America and Europe (among other places) believe love is supposed to be universal. They believe we ought to love everyone.

But is that notion really what the Bible asks of us? Is that even possible? Love is, by its very nature, a relational thing. Yes, it is possible for us to have affinity with and affection for something other than a person, but love in its truest form binds two (or more) specific people together.

That is what we see throughout the Bible. We are called to love certain categories of people—our spouse, our “neighbor,” our fellow believers, our “enemy.” But we are not told to love everyone. That is as it should be, for loving everyone can get in the way of loving anyone in particular. We can always use our love for “humanity” or “the world” as an excuse to ignore the spouse, friend, stranger, or enemy who is right in front of us.

Having said all of this, we still must acknowledge that love does have a generalized function in Christian ethics. This is a point strongly implied by our present passage and by other passages which treat it as a virtue. Love is not simply a guide for our actions or a foundation for our relationships. It is to be hard-wired into the very core of our being. It is to be the wellspring out of which our devotion to God and our fidelity to others flows. It is to be the defining characteristic of who we are—just as it is the defining characteristic (or one of them, at least) of who God is.

Other Questions?

What other questions do you have about love? Share them in the “Comments” section below. Your insights might help all of us define love more accurately and live love more faithfully.

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