How Important is Love? (6) John and Love, a 10 point summary

aliandninoOn this Valentine’s day it seems appropriate to turn to the supreme theologian of love in the NT – the apostle John. No-one, not even Paul, speaks more of love than John. But it’s not just a matter of quantity – John’s theology of love elevates love to new heights. It is he alone in the Bible who describes God as love (vs 8 and 16).

A good way in to John is to look at the most condensed section of his teaching on love in 1 John 4:7-12.

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

It’s worth counting the number of times love appears in these 6 verses (I make it 13).

While John’s style is simple his content is anything but simplistic.

What strikes you from these verses?

Again, look for how love is both the MOTIVE and the GOAL of God’s action in his Son.

Here’s a 10 point summary

1) Love originates in God – he is both the source of love and, in himself, is love.

2) By implication, all that God is and does is loving. In him is no ‘unlove’ – or, as John puts it, since God is light, in him is no darkness at all.

3) No-one else loves like this, of no-one else can it be said that they are ‘love’. There is a qualitative gulf between divine and human love. Humans cannot ‘naturally’ love in the way God loves. Such love is a gift from God.

[An aside here: I don’t think John is necessarily saying humans cannot love – he is saying they cannot love in the way God loves without knowing God himself.]

4) The supreme way he shows his love for us is in the sending of his Son into this broken world (‘sending’ here is shorthand for incarnation, life, death and resurrection).

5) The cross of Christ is where sins are atoned for. While not spelt out, it is in and through atonement that humans can come to know God through being born of God. There is therefore a humility required in order to love – a need for faith and repentance and openness to God’s help and empowering to love.

6) God, out of love, enables humans to know him who is love, and therefore to be transformed into people of love.

7) Divine love in this sense is contagious. It is in knowing God and having God live in us that humans are enabled to love.

8) Yet this is not ‘automatic’: love is a moral choice. John invites and exhorts his readers – ‘Let us love one another’; ‘we ought to love one another’.

9) Love is an essential and universal requirement for every Christian – it is the fundamental ‘baseline standard’ for the Christian life.  Note how John the great apostle includes himself in the call to love – ‘Let us love’. An absence of love reveals that God is not known at all.

10) What does love ‘look like’ in practice? The answer, as is so often the case, is Jesus.

Verse 17 ‘This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus.’

Love is a life looking away from the self and poured out for the good of others.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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How Important is Love? (5) Jesus and Love

aliandninoIf 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.

 

 

How Important is Love? (4) lovelessness as heresy

This is Calvin and Hobbesa fourth of a series on the importance of love in Christian theology and contemporary culture.

In the third post we looked at one verse, Galatians 5:6 where ‘faith working love’ is the only thing that counts.

Staying with Paul, below is just a snapshot of other texts that, together, show how love is absolutely core to his theology and experience, and that the whole fabric of the Christian life is made up of love.

A couple of comments before those texts. In the New Testament, perhaps even more than today in the West, new communities of believers in Jesus were socially revolutionary. No-where else in the ancient world would you have Jews and Gentiles, slave owners and slaves, rich and poor, men and women, not only mixing together but worshiping together on a ‘level playing field’ where all were one in Christ (Gal. 3:28).

Love is the only thing that could hold such communities together then, and it is the only thing that can hold diverse communities together today.

A question: are Christians known, first and foremost as people of radical, other-focused love? Are churches known for being communities of love? Is love the first thing that people associate with followers of Jesus? With you and with me?

If not, why not? And what can be done about it?

Given the importance of love (see below), ‘lovelessness’ is not just an ‘unfortunate reality’ of church life, it is actually heresy in action. It is a denial of the very purpose of salvation and the work of the Spirit. It is a sign of counterfeit faith that is worth nothing at all.

Love in Paul

Love is the goal or purpose of the new covenant ministry of the Spirit

  • The purpose of Christian freedom from the flesh is to ‘serve one another in love’ (Gal.5:13).
  • The ‘entire law is summed up in a single command, “Love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Gal.5:14, cf Rom.13:8-10).
  • The Spirit ‘produces’ love in believers’ lives as they keep in step with him (Gal 5:22-26)
  • It is through the Spirit that believers experience God’s love (Rom.5:5).

The love of God has been most supremely demonstrated in Christ’s death on the cross (Rom.5:8).

God’s people are loved by God (1 Thes.1:4; 2 Thes.2:13, 16; Rom.1:7; 2 Cor.13:11, 14; Eph.1:4-5, 2:4, 3:17-9, 5:1-2; Col.3:12).

Nothing in all creation will be able to separate them from his love expressed in Jesus (Rom.8:37-9).

Believers are to act in love for each other (1 Thes.4:9; Rom.14:15; 1 Cor.8:1; Eph.4:2, 15-16; Phil.2:1-2; Col.2:2).

In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 Paul teaches that all Christian life and ministry is of no value at all if it is not done in love.

At the close of 1 Corinthians he simply commands ‘Do everything in love’ (1 Cor.16:14).

In Ephesians 5:2 Christians are commanded to ‘walk in the way of love’

In Colossians 3:14 they are to ‘put on love’ on top of a list of other virtues.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:8 Paul includes himself in the exhortation to ‘put on faith and love’.

Paul often expresses his deep love for his communities (e.g., 1 Thes.2:8; 1 Cor.16:24; 2 Cor.2:4, 11:11; Phil.4:1).

Husbands are to love their wives (Eph.5:25; Col.3:19).

Paul prays that believers’ love would grow (1 Thes.3:12; Phil.1:9)

He is glad to hear of a church’s love (e.g., 1 Thes.3:6; 2 Thes.1:3).

He is thankful when Christ is preached ‘out of love’ (Phil.1:16).

He rejoices when he hears of believers’ love for God’s people (Col.1:4, Philem.1:5, 7)

He prays that the Lord would direct their ‘hearts into God’s love’ (2 Thes.3:5).

Rather than use apostolic authority, he prefers to appeal to Philemon about Onesimus ‘on the basis of love’ (Philem.1.9).

All this is why I like to call Paul ‘the apostle of love’.

 

 

How Important is Love? (3) Just ‘the only thing that counts’

Gal 5 vs 6Galatians 5:6 is a crucial verse when it comes to the relationship between faith and love.

NIV ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’

ESV ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.’

NRSV  ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.’

The Greek can be rendered more literally, ‘faith working love’ – the sense being that faith and love are integrally connected, almost like one tangible ‘thing’.

We may put it like this, for Paul, for someone to be a Christian (in Christ) is to be living a life of ‘faith working love’. Or, differently, the very purpose of being a Christian is ‘faith working love’. Without love that faith counts for nothing.

There is no such thing as Christian faith that does not work in love.

This takes us straight to 1 Corinthians 13 where the Apostle makes this point even more bluntly and with greater rhetorical effect – without love, whatever someone does for Jesus, however impressive, powerful or sacrificial, is completely and utterly worthless.

If so, how should this impact the priorities of church life? Of personal discipleship? Of training programmes, preaching and theological education generally?

Note how this is different to the ‘love alone’ theology of the previous post.

Christian love has a specific form – it is umbilically linked to faith. That faith in turn has a specific focus – Jesus Christ.

This means that there is a sharp contrast between Christian love and popular contemporary understandings of love.

In contrast to ‘love alone’ theology, Christian love:

  • Is interpreted and understood from within the narrative of the Bible
  • It has a specific content – the self-giving love of God in Christ
  • Nothing is easy or soft about Christian love – it involves spiritual transformation of desires through walking by the Spirit.
  • It is not concerned primarily about the self, it involves self-sacrifice for the good of others.
  • It is communal through and through – lived out in all the messiness of relationship with others within the community of the church and overflowing into the world.
  • Ethically, ‘love alone’ does not justify and legitimise what is moral and good. Christian love means obedience (‘If you love me you will obey my commands’).
  • Nor is Christian love itself divine, only God is. Love itself does not give our lives ultimate meaning – being children of the God who is love does.

Paul’s emphasis on love does not hang on a couple of extraordinary texts. Love pervades his theology and his letters – God’s love for us, our response of love for God, and – most of all – exhortations and commands for the people of God to love one another.

Nor is Paul out of sync with the rest of the New Testament. While John is the theologian of love par excellence, the priority of love is everywhere. We’ll have a look at some texts in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

How Important is Love? (2): ‘Love Alone’ theology

aliandninoThis is a second of a series on the importance of love in Christian theology and contemporary culture.

In the last post we talked about the relegation of love within the theological priorities of post-Reformational traditions where love comes in a very definite second to faith.

In this post we’ll look at the opposite trend: how in (some) contemporary Christianity love is celebrated and extolled, prioritised and spoken about in terms that elevate it to such a degree that it becomes a goal in itself.

By this I mean that love takes on a sentimental and even mystical nature, that when experienced you have reached a higher spiritual existence.

Love itself becomes divine – the ground of our being.

This links back to a post on how, in contemporary culture, we have shifted from John’s famous statement, ‘God is love’ to ‘Love is God’. Where love itself is idolised and revered as that alone which gives life meaning.

As the fab 4 sang, ‘All you need is love’.

This is all quite subtle and hard to pin down, after all, you have to be a miserable old curmudgeon to be anti-love don’t you?

‘Love Alone’ theology

Here are some symptoms of what I call ‘Love Alone’ theology

1. Love is spoken and sung about in ways that it is detached from the narrative of the Bible. Love becomes what we want it to be. Yet, in contrast, Christian love has a particular character – it is shaped by God’s self-giving love in Christ. It calls for a wholehearted response of obedience to God. It requires humility and repentance. It depends on God’s grace. It entails deep cost to the self.

2. The ‘content’ of love is assumed – the assumption being ‘sure we all know what love is don’t we?’. That content tends to be sentimentalised – love is warm, inclusive, feel-good, fulfilling. It is that which meets our deepest needs.

3. The difficulty of love is downplayed  – it is assumed that love is automatic and easy. Little or nothing is said about our own distorted loves and sinful desires.

4. The cost of love is ignored – love is that which brings happiness and joy, not that which often involves pain and sacrifice.

5. The focus of love tends to be individualistic – faith in God is what gives ‘me’ an experience of God’s love that brings me comfort and hope.

6. Love trumps all – if something is loving, the presence of love trumps all.  So, for example, a couple in love who want a baby to love pay a woman to rent her womb. Love trumps any ethical concerns over surrogacy. The outcome (love) justifies the means.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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.

Jesus – the smile of God

[This is a copy of my column in the last edition of VOX.]

One of the best (and also challenging) things about Church is that it throws all sorts of people together who would otherwise probably never interact with each other. For example, it’s rare, I think, in our culture for deep friendships to be formed across generations. But, despite being ancient (in my 50s), it is a delight to have good friends who are a generation younger. Two such couples had their first baby last year. It’s been a joy to see their joy. And, since I have just finished a draft of a book on love, it got me thinking about the love of parents for their children.

Now I know that, sadly, this is not always the case, but there is nothing fiercer or more tender than parental love. The mother and father envelop their baby in love; they would do anything for the well-being of that little bundle of life. They bombard their baby with smiles (and various clucking and cooing noises along with weird facial expressions). Eventually this tiny new person smiles back.

baby smileThat first smile is a transcendent moment and is what these musings are about.

In reading about love I came across these comments by a Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar.[1] He writes that

‘After a mother [I’d add father as well!] has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, she finally receives her child’s response. She has awakened love in the heart of her child’.

The baby is loved into loving.

And von Balthasar then draws parallels between parental love and God’s love.

God interprets himself to man as love in the same way: he radiates love, which kindles the light of love in the heart of man, and it is precisely this light that allows man to perceive this, the absolute Love: “For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has [shone] in our heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). In this face, the primal foundation of being smiles at us as a mother and as a father. Insofar as we are his creatures, the sea of love lies dormant within us as the image of God (imago). But just as no child can be awakened to love without being loved, so too no human heart can come to an understanding of God without the free gift of his grace – in the image of his Son.

This is a beautiful and moving picture.

It is also profoundly biblical. John writes that ‘love is from God’ because ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:7-8). ‘We love because he first loved us” (4:19). That love takes flesh-and-blood form in the self-giving love of Jesus: ‘This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him’ (4:9). And it is in our response of love that we come to a knowledge of who God is: ‘Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God’ (4:7).

Think about that for a moment: John tells us that we love in order to know. That’s a radical thought in a culture which thinks that knowledge equals information and facts and ‘know-how’ and has nothing to do with love.

Another theologian, James K. A. Smith, puts it this way,

The smile of the cherishing mother [again, what about dads?!] that evokes the smile of the infant is a microcosm of a cosmic truth: that God’s gracious initiative in the incarnation – “he first loved us” – is the provoking smile of a Creator who meets us in the flesh, granting even the grace that allows us to love him in return.

Jesus as the smile of God.

Now that’s an image to mull over the next time you hold a happy baby in your arms.

[1] All the following quotes are drawn from J. K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love (Brazos Press, 2016) pp. 111-12.