Continued from part 1, on how we should go about answering this question
Now that we know we need to consider the nature of God to discover the nature of love, let’s see where that takes us.
Love and the Trinity
As many theologians have noted, love requires a subject (the lover) and an object (the loved). I don’t aim to show here that the subject and the object cannot be the same (ie, that one person can’t love himself); but merely that in God, they are not the same. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit, who in turn love him and each other.
This strongly affects our understanding of what love is, because the love within a triune God has characteristics which self-oriented love does not.
Let me list some of these characteristics which seem most essential to the nature of God as love. These might not always be features of any love, since love can be expressed in different ways depending on the subject and the object—but they do seem to be essential to “ultimate” love. Other types of love will only be love inasmuch as they reflect what God himself is; so while they won’t all involve every one of these characteristics, the more they do, the more “true” they will be.
Triune love is affectionate
I mention this first because it is the feature most strikingly absent from typical definitions of biblical love. They tend to make love a purely intellectual operation, which I think is because they are built on the notion that love can’t be “real” unless we can choose to avoid it (more on that later). Since we very often have no choice in how we feel, love therefore cannot be primarily about feeling.
Now, I don’t think God is subject to emotion in the same way we are. I don’t think God finds himself spontaneously feeling anything he didn’t intend to feel. Nothing can cause a change in God, so he is what theologians call impassible—he does not have passions in the sense of being emotionally volatile, or having emotions imposed upon him by another. Passions, in the theological sense, are those feelings which are caused from without. God has no feelings caused from without—but that isn’t to say he has no feelings at all. On the contrary, although human emotions are no doubt only analagous to divine emotions, it seems very clear from the Bible that these divine emotions do exist.
Love must surely be chief among these: the Father has an infinite, ineffable affection for the Son and the Spirit; and they for him and each other. It is something greater and deeper and more inexpressible than the affection a human father has for his son, or a human child for his parents; but it is nonetheless like that affection. Our human affection is derived from, or modeled on, God’s affection within the Trinity. So triune love is affectionate.
Triune love involves authority & submission
The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all God. They are in nature equal. Yet within their relationship exists a hierarchy of authority and submission. A hierarchy of roles. The Father has a right of governance, and the Son and Spirit have a duty of obedience. The Father plans and the Son and Spirit carry out. It is through these roles that triune love is expressed.
Notice how often love involves a hierarchy in human relationships. We submit to God. Wives submit to husbands; children to parents. The basic model of love God instituted in creation is the family unit. Even love among friends frequently involves a hierarchy, subtle as it may be. Some people are good leaders, and their friends defer to them when they make decisions together. Some people are wise, and their friends seek their counsel. And so on. Indeed, failing to accommodate this is one of the ways in which modern Christians, influenced by egalitarianism and individualism, are often lousy at loving one another.
Triune love is self-sacrificing
You might think I’m talking about Jesus here—but while his sacrificing himself for us is certainly a key element in understanding love, it is not itself triune love. It is not love within God; it is love between God and us. But dig back a little, and you will find triune love behind that.
What I have in mind here is simply the fact that both authority and submission involve putting another ahead of oneself. To have authority, in the Bible, means (at least) to put the interests of those beneath you before your own. That is why biblical leadership is so hard. But of course, by the same token, to submit is also to do the same thing: to give up one’s own interests for another’s. And this being the case, you can see where popular definitions of love as desiring true flourishing come from: giving up one’s interest for another’s is often very unnatural for us, and so we tend to notice it a lot.
Triune love is discriminating
God is love, but he does not love everything. Triune love is holy; it stems from each member of the Godhead being infinitely worthy of love. But holiness is an all-consuming goodness—where goodness is understood not in a fuzzy, muffins-and-puppies way, but in the “unapproachable light” way. It not only illuminates and empowers the good, but it consumes and destroys the wrong.
To put it another way, God’s triune love is one and the same thing as God’s hatred for that which opposes his character.
I mention this because it has deep ramifications for human love. Love is not indiscriminate. Human love which is not holy is a perversion of what love should be. This is something the world would have us lose sight of—that we cannot love everything, and that God does not love everything. To love the world is to hate God. To love God is to hate the world. So for example, a gay Christian who believes God approves of his homosexuality because “God is love” is in fact utterly missing the point. He does not understand love at all. His own love for another man is a perversion of what love is supposed to be (just as a heterosexual man’s love for a married woman is); and God does not love perversions of his nature which exalt a corrupt caricature of who he is.
Triune love is necessary & volitional
This is particularly important to understand if you’re a Christian who believes, or is sympathetic to, the idea that libertarian free will is the price of genuine love. Many Christians strongly believe this, though you won’t find it anywhere in the Bible. It is one of the key pillars in the colonnade of freewill theism: that if God had not given us the ability to rebel against him, we would also not have had the ability to truly love him, because love by nature must be libertarianly freely chosen.
The obvious problem with this view is that, in fact, love by nature cannot fail to exist. God cannot fail to exist; God is love; therefore, love cannot fail to exist. The Father cannot fail to love the Son, etc.
This is not to say that the Father does not choose to love the Son. But it does mean that the Father is unable to choose not to love the Son. I think love is obviously volitional; it is something that requires an act of will. Yet in God’s case—the paradigm case—the act of will is necessitated. God cannot choose otherwise. The most real kind of love is the least libertarianly free.
Triune love is unity
Augustine suggested that the Spirit is the love itself existing between Father and Son. Whether this is true or not, the ultimate nature of love is completely reciprocal. More than reciprocal, it is such a closeness of being that the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father (John 10:38; 14:10 etc); and the Godhead is three and the Godhead is one (John 10:30; 17:11 etc).
I have left this for last because it strikes me as being the very ground of love. Fundamentally, love is a relationship that makes one “unit” out of distinct persons. The characteristics I’ve described above explain how love does that; but this concept of unity explains what love ultimately is; what it is aimed at; what it achieves.
I once saw someone describe biblical love as “one-togetherness”. I think this is apt, and I will explore it further in the next part of this series.