Reflections of a Broken Man

On the Love of God (Issues Presentation – Preliminary Draft) by StephenMac
May 5, 2011, 11:56 am
Filed under: Reflections

The issue of neighbour-love is one of the more interesting, and deeply practical, ethical issues in the Christian life. More than simply “who is my neighbour?”, the issue of neighbour-love causes me to ask “how do I love my neighbour?”. There are many points in the Bible where the answer is simply, love as you have been loved. As Christ has loved you, so you should also love others. In other words, God’s love for us is presented as a model for our love of our neighbour. And this, the topic for this morning, is a deeply theological issue. How has God loved us, and to what extent does that love become a paradigm for our love?

I begin in the ethical realm, since this is where we are today. Our ethics, “what should I do?”, flow out of our theology, “who is God, and what has he done?”. In other words, We are presented with an ethical dilemma – namely, how should we love – and provided with a biblical model by Jesus – love as I have loved. So after first looking at two contrasting ethical answers to this problem, I turn to our theological issue – how has God loved us. Thirdly, I discuss the ability for us to love as God has loved. Finally, I’ll propose a model for our love of neighbour that flows out of God’s love for us.

Some quick preliminaries. While I prefer this definition of love (“Love: It’s like a thousand ninjas attacking your brain”), I will be working with the O’Donovanian definition of love as “being attentive to”.

We begin with two ethical accounts of neighbour-love. Paul Ramsey, in his book Basic Christian Ethics, proposes that Christian ethics are founded upon “Christian love”, agape. He writes that the source of this Christian love is found primarily in God’s love. Specifically, Christian ethics flows out of the way that Jesus Christ acted, or in other words, Christian ethics are Christocentric. God’s love for man is prototypical – the way that Jesus loved is the way that we should love. We return to this point later. But secondly, and most importantly for this morning, Ramsey argues that our love must be disinterested. Ramsey writes,

[We use] the expression “love for neighbour for his own sake”… Such disinterested regard for another person is one the primary meanings of “Christian love””

In other words, Ramsey’s argument is that if we love our neighbours in the same way that God loves us, then we will do so “disinterestedly”. We love people in and of themselves, for their own sake and not for any other reason.

In contrast, in a section on “communication”, Oliver O’Donovan in almost a throw-away comment suggests that there is no such thing as “disinterested” love. Commenting that the idea of “bestowal” as a community action is the idea behind agape, he writes,

The idea of absolute and unmotivated bestowal has been held in high admiration in some Christian circles, and has often been said to be the true meaning of Christian love, agape. This moral misunderstanding is due to two theological misunderstandings…

We’ll return to O’Donovan’s critique later. However, considering that O’Donovan was Ramsey’s student, he must have been conscious of the way that Ramsey used the word agape and Christian love,as he was writing this.Thus, our ethical descriptions of how we should love present us with a dilemma: when we are called to love our neighbour, are we to love disinterestedly or not?

Our first step in answering this question is looking to the bible to see what it has to say on the topic. While it is understood that in order to gain a full appreciation of the link between our love and God’s love, we would need to do a thorough systematic study of the way that God’s love has manifested itself throughout the whole of the Bible, due to the size and scope of this paper, and in the interest of brevity of research, I’ve chosen to pick just one passage which I hope, due to its explicit relation to our topic, will provide an appropriate link between our love for others, and God’s love for us. This passage is 1 John 4:7-12, though I understand that passages like John 13:12-17 and Romans 15:5-7 are equally helpful. My hypothesis is that Christian love for neighbour is modelled on God’s love for us.

1 John 4:7-12

The apostle John gives us a direct causal link between God loving us and our loving our neighbour. As I. Howard Marshall writes, “[John] could not understand how a person could experience divine love and remain unmoved by the obligation to love other people in the same way as God had loved him”. Importantly, it’s a command, an obligation. It is something we should do, based on something that is. Furthermore, the context is love for fellow Christians, yet since God loves sinners, our love cannot be restricted to just brothers and sisters. It must be for the world.

From these three passages, it appears to me that there is a strong link between God’s love for us, and our love for others. In each of these passages, the motivation to love others is founded upon Christ’s love for us. The model and motivation for us to love people is that Christ has loved us. We are to do so in the same way. As Ramsey suggested, God’s love is prototypical for the way that we are to love. But does God love disinterestedly?

We thus need to move onto the second part of our discussion – how has God loved us?

The passage in 1 John that we just looked at gives us a direction to answer that question. 1 John 4:9-10.

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

The apostle John makes a direct link between Jesus’ death on the cross and God’s love for us. God’s love for us is Jesus on the cross. We see, though, that it was not because of us, i.e. it was not because of something intrinsic within us or something we have done to earn God’s favour like loving him. Rather, simply, he loved us, and so sent his Son to the cross. We see this elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Acts 15, Eph. 2, 2 Tim. 1), where we are reminded that the cross is an act grace – an undeserved gift – which shows that we are loved.

Two conclusions can be drawn:

First, God loved us self-sacrificially. In the cross, we see God dying in the place of man to save man. God’s love for us is costly, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, since it cost him his Son.

Second, God loved us for our benefit. In the cross, we see God acting to bring us into relationship with himself, and thus giving us eternal life.

This is the key and contentious point – did God love us, for our benefit? Or to frame in the language of our topic this morning, did God love us disinterestedly? In the Trinitarian Faith, Torrance highlights that this point is what Athanasius stresses, namely that The Saviour came, not for his own sake, but for our sake and for our salvation, picking up the language of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The incarnation is soteriological – God’s act of love in Jesus on the cross, is for our salvation. God’s love is for our benefit.

And yet, Scripture continuously highlights that God acts for his glory (Ex. 14, Is. 48, ). Of particular note in this regard is Ezekiel 36:22, 32, where God reminds the Israelites that despite their sinfulness, he acts to save them, not for their sake, but for the sake of his name which is profaned among the nations. God’s saving act here in Ezekiel seems to not be disinterested. It seems to be for his own benefit, for his own sake. However, it can be argued that this is a statement, not so much a description of why God does actually love them, but merely a reminder that merit plays no part in God’s decision to love them.

On this point, the question of merit, we see that God’s love for us is despite our response. Obviously, the question of who did Jesus die for is raised here. I don’t think that there is space here to explore that issue, suffice it to say that my own interpretation is not for definite atonement, but rather understanding that Christ died for the sins of the world, while at the same time, dying for elect. I think that it is important to remember Carson’s caution that God’s love can have many senses, at least five he counts, which we must keep distinct and avoid collapsing all into one or two. He differentiates between God’s love for the world and God’s particular love for his elect. We would do well to follow his caution.

When it comes to the cross, as far as I can tell, there is no indication of God sending his Son to the cross, for his own glory. John 17 is the closest association the cross and God’s gloryI can find. Here, Jesus prays that the Son might be glorified, so that the Father will be glorified. Yet, even at this point, the glorification of God seems to be more associated with Jesus’ obedience to the Father, rather than an explicit statement of God sending his Son to the cross for his own glory.

How does God love? It would seem that Ramsey’s disinterested model has borne out. We must now return O’Donovan’s critique. O’Donovan firstly suggests that the “bestowal” model of communication presupposes a deist conception of God – that God simply gives, and then withdraws, not expecting a response. While this is the logically extreme of disinterest, I don’t think we need to go so far. We need to be nuanced – God loves us despite our response, but God does not love not expecting a response. God loves disinterestedly, but the does not mean that God does not expect a response. There is always a response – acceptance or rejection. Despite that response, God still loves.
The second critique is that “bestowal” implies the removal of desire. In other words, I love disinterestedly because I desire nothing at all. O’Donovan rightly critiques this, saying that selfless giving without desire is not what Jesus taught, but rather selfless giving requires desiring one thing, namely the eschatological community of the kingdom of heaven. My desire in loving someone must ultimately be the promotion of the relationships of the kingdom, which in many respects, overlaps with the benefit of the person I am loving. However, again, we need to make sure we nuance this. My love for a brother or sister in Christ will be different to my love for a non-Christian. I love my brother or sister in a way that encourages them in their faith – it is ultimately edifying. However, my love for my non-Christian friend/colleague/whatever is not edifying in the same way; it is evangelistic. Both are community promoting, and yet, in different ways. On this point, it is different to Ramsey’s conception of disinterested neighbour-love. Ramsey argues that for it to be thoroughly disinterested, I must love everyone as if I am loving an enemy – expecting nothing but rejection and cost. While the point here is that I am to love the person despite their response (and love of enemy is the clearest example of this), it fails to take into account the different ways that I can love people.

To what extent can we imitate this model of loving – self-sacrificial, other-person-centred, or using Ramsey’s word, disinterested love? Obviously, we cannot love in exactly the same way as Christ: we cannot die on a cross for humanity. However, there are principles that we can imitate. One cautionary note – I’m not advocating a simple Imitatio Christi here. I understand the complexity of Christian ethics, the poles of the joined up life and so on and so forth. Taking those considerations into mind, my question is more along the lines of what are the limits to imitating God’s love for us. Jesus quite clearly has no problem in establishing the model for us, and Paul likewise has no hesitation in suggesting that we imitate him, as he imitates Christ (1 Cor. 4:16ff). And yet, we understand that we cannot imitate exactly. So to what extent can we imitate?

At this point, we reach another hurdle – the question of impassability. This is obviously a project-sized question, and so we can only deal with it briefly.

<insert impassability here>

Our final question, therefore, is how does this affect neighbour love?

<insert conclusion here>

2 Comments so far
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Hey bro, thought I’d chuck this in, more detailed thoughts soon

“In simple human terms, a love that is inseperable from an interest in the other is always more commendable, more truly selfless, than the airless purity of disinterested expenditure, because it recognises the otherness and deleights in the splendor of the other. The Christian thought of God’s creative agape has nothing to do with the sublime and sublimely disinterested abyss of the One, but belongs to the thought of the Trinity: it is a love always of recognition and delight, desiring all and giving all at once, giving to recieve and recieving to give, generous not in thoughtlessly squandering itself, but in truly wanting the other. Thus the ‘ethical’ must belong, for theology, to an aesthetics of desire: of gratuity, grace, pleasure, eros, and interest at once. A christian ethics cannot help but concern itself with the cultivation of desire, with learning to desire the other because the other is truly desirable, because the other is truly beautiful, the moral task is to love because one truly sees and to see because one truly loves. To educate vision to see the glory of this particular one”
DB Hart “Beauty of the Infinite

Comment by Mike Wells

Mostly I don’t think ‘model’ or ‘motivation’ exhaust the biblical connection between God’s love and ours. Especially in 1 John, in what sense is God’s love ‘through’ us (in the Spirits indwelling) and ‘to’ God (in recognition of the Spirit in others).
Participation is a stronger concept than ‘imitation’, which allows stricter demands while still being gracious (possibll more gracious).
Just my thoughts

Comment by Mike Wells

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