If love is hugely important in Paul, how important is love in Jesus?
The best book that I’ve come across over the last couple of years of reading a lot on love is Simon May’s, Love: A History.
It is excellent: his writing is a pleasure to read, his overall argument is exceptionally well made, and he paints fascinating portraits of philosophers and theologians who have written about love through the centuries.
But when it comes to Jesus and love, May argues that love just wasn’t that important for the Messiah as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. Certainly not in the way it was for the two major theologians of love in the NT – Paul and John, nor compared to how love came to be elevated in later Christian theology, especially from Augustine on.
Jesus, his argument goes, does not make love the ultimate virtue. He does not say ‘God is love’. He basically reaffirms OT love commands: love of God and love of neighbour is fulfilment of the law.
Even the radical innovation of enemy love is a sub-set of neighbour love – the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that your enemy is your neighbour.
Does this sound surprising? Isn’t Jesus the anti-establishment prophet who shows love to all and makes love the defining characteristic of Christianity (as opposed to the legalism of the Pharisees and the OT law generally)?
Certainly in some strands of Christian theology, Jesus is held up as the one whose way of love liberates us from OT ‘law’ (Anders Nygren). But such ‘love versus the law’ theology is unsustainable. It is almost Marcionite in its negative view of the OT. It doesn’t fit Jesus, nor Paul. Both see love as a fulfilment of the law.
So I want to agree and disagree with May.
Yes, Jesus’ teaching on love fits fairly and squarely within the OT.
But I don’t see a chasm between Jesus and Paul & John when it comes to love. Love is critically important to Jesus. The entire goal of the law and prophets is fulfilled in love for God and neighbour. Those who love are greatly commended.
What May, I think, downplays, is how there is a development of theology of love in the NT.
It is not that Paul and John can be compared to Jesus as if all three were independent ancient philosophers of love, and that Paul and John, in very distinct ways, are responsible for ‘inventing’ Christian love and taking it to places that are foreign to the teaching of Jesus.
Rather, as I see it, the theologies of love in Paul and John undergo radical development in light of Jesus – and most especially in the shadow of the cross and in the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit.
The cross is reinterpreted not as a shameful defeat, but as a glorious demonstration of divine love.
The Spirit is the empowering presence of God who enables spiritual transformation – the most significant aspect of which is love.
It is these two developments that give shape to a NT theology of love. It is not that Paul and John are going off on a totally new tangent of their own. Nothing they say is incompatible with Jesus’ teaching on love.
What both of them see, in different ways, is how love is both the motive for God’s saving work in Christ (the cross) and the desired outcome of that saving work (a life of love lived in the Spirit).
It is to the unique importance of love in John that we turn next – tune in!
Comments, as ever, welcome.