Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Theology of Love

Let’s talk about love. May as well; tomorrow is Valentine’s Day and only the foolish and foolhardy among us dare forget it. Everywhere we turn (television, florists, departments stores, Hallmark) we’ll be inundated with the notion that love is defined as a romantic feeling that launches us on a quest to “acquire” someone to fulfill our personal desires. At least that’s the world’s definition of “love.”

But it’s not the Church’s.
C. S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves, points out that while the world has largely reduced the idea of love to the “romantic,” the word in the culture of the New Testament (Greek) is far richer. Actually, there are four different words for love in Greek – eros (romantic love), philia (friendship), storge (affection), and agape (charity). The world’s notion of love is defined exclusively by the first – eros. The other three hardly come in for notice. Actually, says Lewis, while there are four different words for love in Greek, there is fundamentally only two kinds of love – need-love and gift-love. The former, characterized by eros, is an acquisitive, acquiring, selfish kind of love. “It’s about me and what I want from this relationship, not you.” The other kind of love (characterized supremely by the NT’s use of the word agape) is a self-giving love, seeking nothing from the other except to meet the other’s needs.

Three comments: (1) the New Testament never (that’s right, I said never) uses the word eros (Do the math!); (2) eros is almost exclusively the world’s notion of love; (3) the New Testament’s idea of love is informed and defined by the word agape, the self-giving love with which God loves us and wants to teach us how to do as well. What I’m saying is that the world’s idea of love is really an “anthropology” (Greek for “human”) of love, whereas the Church’s idea of love is a “theology” (Greek for “God”) of love. It’s about gift-love, not need-love.

I must confess to being embarrassed when the best idea the Church can come up with when it wants to talk about “love” is to borrow the world’s understanding of love (eros) and then smear a thin veneer of piety over it as though this is what the New Testament is talking about when it says “love.” It isn’t.

John comes as close as any NT writer to giving us a definition of what the Christian means when we say “love”: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to take away our sins.” Then he adds the punch line: “Beloved, if God so loved us, then we ought in the same way to love each other” (1 John 4:10-11).

“Honey, the flowers should be arriving any time now!” (Hey, I’m not that foolish)

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