What is Christian Love? A Reformed Philosophical View

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What is Christian Love? | Show Notes

What does the Bible say about loving one another?

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” John 13:34

Jesus gives this command to his disciples at the Last Supper and following. At this time Jesus has washed the feet of his disciples and predicted the betrayal of Judas. He then prefaces this new commandment by saying, “Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

We Protestants love our law/Gospel distinction. It aims at ensuring we neither fall into legalism nor antinomianism. Christ fulfilled God’s Law in our place so that we may enjoy renewed fellowship with God our Father. But questions concerning obedience to God’s Law in the Christian life persist. And now we have this new commandment, directly from the mouth of Jesus Christ. So, what does this mean?

The command to love one another is repeated 15 times in the New Testament. Christ repeats it in John 15. Paul repeats it in Romans and Thessalonians. Peter repeats it in his letter to exiles of the Dispersion. And John repeats it in his first and second letters warning against false teaching. Paul even says that love is the fulfillment of the law.

But didn’t Christ himself say that he fulfilled the law in Matthew 5:17? Romans 8:3-4 explains this:

“For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

So the fulfillment of the law in us, through the work of Jesus Christ, manifests in our love for one another.

How do we know what love is?

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters … let us love not with words or speech but with actions and in the truth.” 1 John 3:16 and 18.

Of course, Scripture interprets Scripture and so God says much more about love. 254 times love is mentioned in the New Testament alone. (A total of 692 times in all of Scripture). These verses tell us whom to love and what not to love. We are to love God, love our neighbor as ourselves, love our enemies, love the poor and widowed, etc. and we are to not love money, title, status, and of course, we are to not love evil and unrighteousness.

It’s very easy for us to read some of these passages and conclude that love is sacrificial. After all, Christ’s death on the cross was his sacrifice on our behalf. We didn’t deserve it. We didn’t even ask for it. He chose to do this because of the love the Father has for us. But many of us know how this verse is twisted by others. What is it that we sacrifice when we love others? Do we sacrifice sound doctrine? Do we sacrifice the love we have for ourselves? Do we do it voluntarily? Or are we compelled to do it?

Scripture has more to say:

I Corinthians 13, a passage often invoked out of context and frequently for marriage ceremonies, gives us more information. Because it’s so frequently misinterpreted or misapplied, I will read it in full:

If I speak human or angelic languages but do not have love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.

And if I donate all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not conceited, does not act improperly, is not selfish, is not provoked, and does not keep a record of wrongs.

Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for languages, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.

But when the perfect comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things. For now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known.

Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

A few things stand out from this passage. First, in the absence of love, eloquent speech, intellectual giftedness, and a great faith, are nothing.

Second: love is accurately (but not precisely) defined. Love is patient, kind, rejoices in the truth, bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things. Love does not envy, boast, nor is it filled with conceit; love does not act improperly, is not selfish, provoked, nor does it keep a record of wrongs, and love finds no joy in unrighteousness. This is accurate.

But precisely how patience, kindness, joy, longsuffering, hope, faith, and endurance manifests in each of us, varies from person to person. In other words, how one Christian expresses patience, for example, in a given situation may look different from how another Christian expresses patience in the same situation.

Third: love is eternal. Prophecies, languages, knowledge will all cease, but love never ends.

Fourth: as we grow in our Christian faith, we put away childish things while three things remain: faith, hope, and love – with the greatest being love.

But even with all that Scripture says about love, Christians still seem confused. Christian love is often invoked when discussing topics of homosexuality, women’s ordination, abuse in the church, and others. Myriads of books have been written to explain love, but seem to leave the question lingering: what is love?

What is love?

We have many examples in Scripture of how the Triune God expresses his love for us. And it seems Scripture tells us how to recognize what love is and is not when we see it. And this is certainly of value. We could leave it here agreeing the precise expressions of Christian love are best left to our God-given freedom of Christian conscience and liberty. And that would be enough!

Yet, this question keeps coming up.

Is it loving for a Christian to wear a mask against their conscience? Is it loving to bar Christians from worship for the health and safety of those attending? Is it loving to accept people as “gay Christians?” Is it loving to let women preach? Is it loving to submit to your abuser hoping to win him or her over?

If my life is a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1), then don’t I subject myself to all forms of abuse in the name of Christian love? After all, isn’t this what Christ did?

You see, this question – what is love? – is not as straightforward as Christians want to make it. But what if we’re missing something – the structural dimension of love?

The Reformed view, from the neocalvinist tradition, holds that the image of God in human beings can be understood as having two dimensions. A structural dimension and a directional dimension. The structural dimension entails all the creational laws written into the fabric of the cosmos. Some are unbreakable, such as physical laws, and some are breakable, such as ethical norms.

These ethical norms should not be broken, but often are because of sin. The directional dimension then, entails negative deviation from and positive conformity to these God-given norms.

God, in Scripture, gives us the oughts and shoulds of love. But there is a further structural dimension of love that we need to pay attention to.

One particular book has stood out to me as effectively addressing the structural dimension of love. Though written to explain the meaning of love for marriage, intimacy, and the family, the author, Dietrich von Hildebrand – a Catholic philosopher, begins by explaining the nature of love generally.

First, love is not blind nor is it a delusion. It’s not a mere appetite or desire, and it’s not merely a means to happiness. It’s also not mere attachment or a chemical in the brain. To make claims that love is anything of these things is not to be morally wrong, but factually wrong.

Factually speaking, according to von Hildebrand, love is a value-response. Love sees the true self of the beloved, affirms their person, and desires happiness for the beloved. In other words, the one who loves sees the beloved as complete in their person – flaws and all – and has intrinsic value.

Incidentally, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson said something similar. “When you love someone, you love them not only despite their fragility, but also because of it. They wouldn’t be who they were if they weren’t fragile and limited in their particular way.”

Why should we care about what a non-Christian says about love? The structural dimension is something God wrote into the fabric of reality. It’s an element of general revelation which is revealed to believer and non-believer alike. Creation itself bears witness to God as seen in Romans 1:18-20 and Psalm 19:1-4. And God chose to make love demonstrable to all. Though the expression of love in the non-believer does not, in itself, fulfill the requirements of the law in them, they can express genuine love so far as the structure of love permits.

Von Hildebrand goes on, explaining love is different from other affective responses. We’re not talking about esteem, admiration, enthusiasm, or veneration. Love is what he calls the voice of the heart – an act of willing. It’s a choice. It’s voluntary. Love yearns for union.

Imagine restating John 3:16 this way. “For God so yearned for reunion with his Creation, that he gave his only begotten Son …”

As believers, we not only yearn for reunion with Christ upon his return, but we yearn for fellowship with other believers.

Love also perfects the lover, says von Hildebrand. “Love alone brings a human being to full awareness of personal existence. For it is in love alone that man finds room enough to be what he is,” says von Hildebrand. Love sees the true self of the beloved. In other words you see their full potential of the people you love. You objectively understand what they are not now, and what they struggle with. But it’s important to understand that love sees what God made that person to be.

Just a reminder, we’re not talking about marital love here. This is the basic nature and beauty of love as given to us by God and commanded of us to one another. It’s as much about brotherly love as it is the basis for marital love.

Love isn’t blind to the beloved’s shortcomings. Von Hildebrand again says, “love makes us sensitive to faults in another because the beauty of his personality is present to our mind as a whole … love opens one’s eyes … we grieve at the presence of what is essentially untrue of him, and this we do out of a deep sense of unity with him. In profound awareness of our own weakness and frailty, mindful of how unfaithful we are to ourselves and to what God desires of us, we lovingly face the faults when they occur, meeting each such instance of weakness with empathy, rejecting them inwardly for him and with him.

Love still believes. That despite the other’s faults, we assume the best of the other, but “when love encounters fault in the other, it is like meeting disloyalty or infidelity to what is truest in his nature (and it is never accepted on par with his positive qualities).” Love grants the best, and grants the weakness but with a mind to coming alongside the beloved with the mutual goal of becoming their true self.

A note on abuse. Someone who is abusive is not struggling against their faults. So you can’t lovingly face those faults with an abuser because it not only requires your rejection of them for him (or her), but with him (or her). In other words, they too will seek to reject their faults. An abuser doesn’t do this. This isn’t to say it’s not possible for the abuser to see his or her own faults and come to reject them, but the abuser’s victim is in no position to do this.

Finally, von Hildebrand says, love must be learned. It is not innate. We love because God first loved us. 1 John 4:19. But God’s love is perfected in us as we express God’s love to others 1 John 2:5. Augustine wrote, “in loving, man himself becomes worthy of love.” Robert Murphy McCheyne, a Reformed theologian, says of the love of Christ that it’s a constraining (meaning to draw tightly together) love.

In other words, Christ’s love draws us tightly to Himself. Christ’s love removes our hatred, stirs up our love for one another so that the body of believers are also drawn tightly together. Christ’s love perseveres.

The factual element of the structural dimension of love is something that cannot be broken. In other words, if one doesn’t yearn for union with another, or believes the best of another, or sees the true self of another, they haven’t fallen into moral error. It is simply a fact of the matter that the kind of affection they have for another is not love categorically, but some other kind, like admiration.

The reason these cannot be considered moral failures is this. Should we, for example, see the true self of the stranger? It might be argued that loving a stranger simply means believing in their general potential as a human being, rather than in the particular potential of their true self. It is simply a fact that we cannot see the true self of all human beings and that is not a moral failing. The moral failings of love are when we contradict Scripture.

What is Christian Love?

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B.A. Philosophy, Arizona State University. My writing focuses on libertarian philosophy and reformed theology and aimed at the educated layperson. I am a confessionally Reformed Christian orthodox Presbyterian in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937)
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