How Important is Love? (1) love as secondary to faith

This is a first of a wee series on the importance of love in Christian theology and contemporary culture.

Here’s a proposal: there is a curious ambivalence towards love within quite a bit of post-Reformational Protestantism / evangelicalism. (Love in Catholic theology has a distinctly different flavour – maybe that’s a topic for another day).

By ambivalence I mean that, while love is extolled and spoken of as a good thing, it is somehow not at the heart of doctrine or preaching.

Does this sound familiar to you? What is the place of love in your theology and in your experience?

Obviously this is a broad claim, but at a general level I think a good case can be made for it. For example, how do you read Romans and Galatians or had them explained and preached to you? Is it something like the following?

In Romans, chapters 1-8 form the great doctrinal core of the book (sin, justification by faith, gift of the Spirit), 9-11 the confusing bit about Israel and then the ‘applied theology’ bit on practical Christian living from chapters 12 on?

In Galatians, a bit of Pauline biography in chapters 1-2, the great doctrinal core of the book (justification, adoption) from 2-4 and then secondary practical instructions on ethical Christian living in chapters 5-6.

In both, the ‘practical’ tends to be seen as secondary to the ‘doctrinal’. They are ‘follow ons’ – advice and commands that should flow from the doctrinal … but what really matters is getting doctrine of justification by faith right.

Faith is primary. Chronologically this makes sense – the Christian life follows from conversion. But, I suggest (and this is a blog post – it would need proper research) historically the dominance of justification, the strong distinction made between it and subsequent sanctification and what I call the ‘anxious Protestant principle’ of works being smuggled into saving faith, has meant that place of love within Paul’s thought has either been downplayed or simply overlooked.

Some time ago the NT scholar John Barclay said this about the relative neglect of chapters 5 and 6 of Galatians in 20th century exegesis:  (Obeying the Truth: Paul’s Ethics in Galatians. 1988. Fortress.)

[I]t is a by-product of the “Lutheran” theological consensus. If one considers that the main thrust of Paul’s attacks on “works of the law” is against human works and achievement, one is apt to conclude that his specific ethical instructions are merely an appendix or, perhaps, an attempt to prevent himself from being misunderstood as antinomian. To give these instructions any more integral place would be to admit that Paul also is concerned to promote works.

So love (and the ‘works’ of the Christian life in general) are not integral to saving faith. Note that Barclay is NOT saying that Luther taught this (we’ll come back to what he did teach about faith and love in a later post), he is saying it is a symptom of later theological post-Reformational theological emphases.

On this tack, another scholar, Stephen Chester, gives the example of Lutheran scholar Gerhard Ebeling’s major work The Gospel of Truth (2001) on Galatians in which 230 pages are given to chapters 1-4 and a paltry 25 to chapters 5-6. For Ebeling, yes, love (and works associated with it) is important, but it is nevertheless subsidiary to core doctrinal priorities of the letter. As Chester comments, the impression is given that Paul’s argument is essentially complete at the end of chapter 4 (and a similar point could be made for Romans – effectively the really important doctrinal argument is finished by the end of chapter 8).  (Stephen Chester, ‘Faith Working Through Love (Galatians 5:6): The Role of Human Deeds in Salvation in Luther and Calvin’s Exegesis’).

There is something gone awry here because this relegation of love just does not ‘fit’ Paul – nor does it do justice to Jesus or to John or the tone of the New Testament in general.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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