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What is love? Part 1: how to find the right answer

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5 minutes to read What does it mean that God is love, that he loves us, and that we are to love him? In part 1, I explain how we should approach this question, and why.

In a previous post, I argued that the popular view of biblical love as a desire to promote the flourishing of another is unworkable.

Briefly put, if a definition of love doesn’t work when applied to Love himself, then the definition is no good. And I think love as a desire for the flourishing of another is simultaneously too strong and too weak a definition when we apply it to God:

  • It is too strong because flourishing involves growing or developing or prospering—activities which are obviously incoherent in respect to God, who cannot grow or develop, and who, if we can say he is prosperous, is infinitely so. To put it in more classical terms, to desire the flourishing of someone presupposes some potential within them that you wish to be realized; but since God is pure actuality, and has no unrealized potential, it is meaningless to speak of his flourishing.
  • It is too weak because whatever love is, it seems obviously to be more than merely desiring the flourishing of the loved. We desire the flourishing of someone because we love them; but our love is not exhausted in our desiring their flourishing. (I’ll explicate this more later.)

In the next post I’m going to draw some rough lines around what biblical love actually is. But I can’t do that until I cover a fundamental starting assumption—one with sweeping ramifications for understanding love at all. I don’t think most Christians have properly considered this starting assumption, or the implications that flow from it:

The nature of love can only be discovered in the nature of God

In other words, the “most real” kind of love is found in God himself. This is especially obvious in John’s writings. Not only does he describe God as love (1 John 4:8), but his corpus is saturated with the biblical “order of being”. We exist because God first existed (John 1:3). We have life and knowledge because God first was life and knowledge (John 8:12 etc). We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). John is at pains to emphasize that the order of being is Divine → Human. Thus, the created realm is like a reflection of the divine; our love is like a shadow of God’s love; human love is derivative of and analagous to God’s love.

Now, obviously there must be some point of comparison between them, or we couldn’t know what it means to say that God is love. In fact, while the order of being for love goes Divine → Human, the order of knowing goes Human → Divine. We rely on our prior understanding of love in the human realm to have something to “latch onto” when translating that love into the divine reality.

The problem is, many Christians never get past this initial order of knowing. They never get past describing the reality in terms of the shadow. They see God describing his love in terms of human relationships, and they think that whatever human love is, God’s love is just a really big version of that. They, as it were, confuse God with his shadow.

God is not his shadow

Although he summarizes his nature using what amounts to a shortcut in the word love, he has also revealed himself far more comprehensively in every page of the Bible. Thus, although the nature of language requires our understanding God’s love to start with a simple, human definition, we certainly shouldn’t end there. If human words are like buckets that we fill with meaning, we should not be content to simply take the puddle already in the bottom of “love” and say, “This is what God is.” No! We should be taking the totality of God’s revelation about himself and pouring that into the bucket until we have a word overflowing with theological meaning—that can then be read back into our understanding of our derivative love for God and other people.

To state it another way, God chose the human words ahab, chesed, agape, philia because they most closely express the divine reality he wants to convey. But obviously divine reality is not defined by human reality—quite the opposite. So God’s nature is not defined by the words he chooses; it is merely analagous to them—neither as small nor as crude as they are. These words are simply the closest available “tokens” that match up with what he intends to convey: something that is ultimately more sublime than we can even experience as human beings, let alone imagine or describe. From God’s perspective, using human language to describe himself must look a bit like this:

Using human language to describe God's attributes is like using a 16-color palette to describe a rose

We need to keep this very carefully in mind—that words like love are just the best terms available to conveniently refer to a reality which, in its fullest expression, is infinite and cannot even be captured with human language. Therefore, we should be spending time examining the key facts that God has revealed about himself to see how these inform and expand and mold our natural understanding of the analagous human-reality concept of love.

Put simply, we should be fitting the order of knowing into the order of being

We have to start with God. I think Christians who have definitions of love that go along the lines of desiring flourishing are working in the opposite direction. They are trying to shoehorn the order of being into the order of knowing. That is less work, but it is not good theology, and it is not very rewarding either.

A good example of what I mean is the disagreement between Arminians and Calvinists over what moral goodness is in respect to God. Some of the most notable Arminian scholars today start with their preconceived idea of what goodness is in human reality, and then force it back into divine reality. Maintaining this backwards approach ends in them discarding entire portions of Scripture, because a good God, humanly speaking, does not predestine people to hell or command the annihilation of entire people-groups. If only these scholars had worked out their knowledge of goodness from what God has revealed about himself, rather than deciding what God can have revealed about himself by starting with their parochial knowledge of goodness.

In the same way, in assessing what love is, we cannot start with a colloquial definition or word study, and then read it back into God’s nature. We cannot say, well love means X, therefore 1 John 4:8 means that God is X. On the absolute contrary, what we must say is, well, 1 John 4:8 says that God is love, therefore let’s look at the totality of what God has revealed about himself to discover what the ultimate nature of love is.

Which, in very broad strokes, is what I will do in the next post.