Love in Christian Ethics

Oliver O’Donovan

Love is understood in Christian thought, following Jesus’ teaching and New Testament reflection, as the summative category of moral value and obligation, comprehensive and interpretative of all other moral norms. But since love is not a uniform phenomenon, distinctions of types of love have been a major feature of Christian discussion. After an introduction (1), the article begins (2) with a review of how these distinctions emerge from the vocabulary of love in Christian Greek and Latin texts. Then (3) six related strands of thought about love are identified.

(3.1) The asymmetry between the objects of the twofold love-command, God and neighbour, led patristic theologians to conceive of an ‘order’ in which neighbour-love subserves love for God. Yet since God and neighbour are united in the person of Christ, the two loves are also united in participative imitation of the divine love manifest in him. (3.2) Law is fulfilled in love as it is internalized in practical reason. ‘Shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit’, love authorizes and interprets moral laws, but also transforms law in moral history, fulfilling prophetic anticipations of a ‘new covenant’. Similarly, love imposes a new form upon the many virtues recognized in Hellenistic Judaism. Not itself a virtue, it fulfils the human capacity for virtue. Of the three virtue-like qualities that preside over all specialized performances, love is ‘the greatest’, since it anticipates the eschatological vision. (3.3) Yet love cannot be conceived apart from faith and hope; Jesus taught the need for self-loss in the hope of self-recovery. ‘Love of self’ was valued both negatively and positively, as it was associated with either of these poles. Radical self-love was thus seen as the root of sin, and yet there was no excess of virtue beyond the love ultimately due to the self as God’s creature. Duties to the self, however, were recognized only through duties to God and neighbour. The ‘ascent’ of love, a popular theme in the Middle Ages, was interpreted either as a gradual elimination or as a perfecting of self-love. But the idea of a ‘pure love’, free of all interest in the self, was viewed with suspicion as ignoring faith and hope.

(3.4) The psychology of the ‘indifferent’ will, which came to the fore in later scholasticism, lay behind the theory of two distinct mental faculties, voluntative and cognitive, in early modern philosophy. This tended to deprive the love of God of its sovereign unifying role, and elicited theological counter-strategies. A Lutheran response situated the love of God in faith, while a Reformed one recovered the Augustinian theme of love of God as the final term of love of the world, awaiting purification and eschatological disclosure. (3.5) Love of neighbour was often expounded in terms of universal and equal regard. Yet practical considerations could not ignore differing degrees of proximity. Specific types of relation, among them proximity to the poor, assumed special importance; the brotherhood of the church made a particular claim on love, from which positive, if limited, endorsements of friendship and marriage followed. (3.6) Political institutions, too, were to be renewed by the subordination of justice to love. Patristic Christianity hoped for a unified world-order initially, though its initial welcome for the christianized empire of Constantine cooled. Still the hermeneutic of love encouraged hopes for a reformed practice of justice: penal institutions that could assist the offender’s conversion were an early and persistent Christian ambition. The separation of love and justice into discrete institutional spheres was envisaged only in later modernity, radicalized in twentieth-century oppositions, where justice, understood in formal and procedural terms, demanded suspicion of all concrete relations of affinity and affection.

1 Introduction

That love is the highest category of human moral obligation was a central feature of the moral teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, as developed both by Paul and John in the NT and extensively in Christian writing thereafter. It is closely associated by Jesus with the teaching of God’s fatherly love towards his creatures. The bidirectionality of love echoes the covenantal thought of Deuteronomy, in which the highest duty, loving Yhwh alone, corresponds to Yhwh’s supreme exercise of sovereignty in loving Israel. Early Christian writing faithfully preserved the vis-à-vis of divine and human love, but the synthesis of the two to form a unified conceptual organizing structure of theology and ethics had to wait until Augustine of Hippo (fifth century CE), for whom love was the major principle of dogmatic as well as moral theology, accounting for the divine life of the Trinity, the work of grace, the hermeneutics of scripture, the organization of the church, and much else: ‘Here is our natural philosophy! Here is our moral philosophy! Here is our logic!’ (Letter 137.5.17) This synthesis had a powerful influence upon the Western theological tradition. Within Eastern Christian thought, though love did not generally assume the same organizational predominance in the early centuries, the authority of Maximus Confessor (seventh century) underwrites a theology of love with a comparably wide scope to Augustine’s. This centralization of theology around the theme of love does much to explain why, though in classical antiquity love was a philosophical theme, the modern division of topics in the West more usually assigns love to theology rather than philosophy, which in the modern West generally took its bearings either from metaphysics or from epistemology. That remains the case, though the situation has been increasingly protested, as in the recent demand to ‘substitute erotic meditations for metaphysical ones’ (Marion 2007: 8). In classical antiquity, however, love was a philosophical theme both before and after it shaped the theological ethics of Christianity.

The domain of ethics, then, covers only one side of the Christian discussion of love, that in which human agents are the lovers. Love as the name of God, the designation of the Holy Spirit, the primary motive of creation and salvation, are themes proper to Dogmatics. Yet the two spheres of discussion must be pursued in parallel. As a formal discipline of practical reflection and deliberation, Christian ethics must keep in step with speculative, doctrinal and empirical descriptions, especially of anthropology, but has its own questions, too, which cannot be answered directly with anthropological or theological descriptions. These questions are led by the need to identify and distinguish a wide variety of experiences that are commonly grouped within the semantic field of the term ‘love’. It can only be a mistake to narrow the field too much at the outset, to decide that since there is a ‘real’ love to be talked about, the natural affections must be overlooked and discussion confined to pure rational benevolence, pure faithful devotion, approximation to the divine love, and so on. This strategy cannot achieve the clarity it hopes to. An account of how love can be the highest among values must begin from a broad sample of loves, high and low. In the Christian moral tradition love is acknowledged to be bad as well as good, and bad in a variety of different ways, as weak and transient, as misdirected, as held too passionately, disproportionately or exclusively, and so on. Together with the different ways in which love can be bad, there are different ways in which it can be good, varieties of well-formed love that may coexist positively and reinforce one another: faithfulness, generosity, sensitivity, wisdom, mercy, etc. There are loves directed to states of affairs, loves directed to states of the self, loves directed to concrete objects, and among the last of these especially love for persons.

2 Verbal and conceptual differentiations

Greek philosophy divided the discussion of love into two streams, deriving from different works of Plato (fourth century BCE). From the Symposium and Phaedrus come discussions of love as erōs, with a predominantly psychological interest, and from the Lysis a discussion with social and political interests, referring to love as philia (in this section nouns may be taken to include the corresponding verbs and adjectives). The second of these strands was developed extensively and influentially by Aristotle (third century BCE). The usual English translation of philia as ‘friendship’ hardly conveys its breadth: on the one hand, English has no corresponding verb (‘to befriend’ has a specialized sense, and the recent coinages ‘to friend’, ‘defriend’ and ‘unfriend’ are very specialized); on the other, it obscures the close connection between philia and the wide range of nouns compounded with phil- to name fundamental commitments and enthusiasms, most of which must be rendered in English as types of ‘love’. These include terms for familial affection such as philostorgia, philadelphia (intimate love, brotherly love), and terms for moral and spiritual orientations such as philanthropia, philosophia, philautia, philalētheia and philotheia (love of humanity, of wisdom, of self, of truth, and of God). This vocabulary encourages the broadest deployment of philia to express the fundamental commitments of religion and morality, as well as public connections and loyalties.

However, the vocabulary for affection and love in classical Greek was not restricted to erōs, philia and their compounds. There was the noun storgē, used especially for loyal affection, and the verb agapān, which spoke of social connections and favourite practices. From the latter derived the noun agapē, the default term for love in the NT, but not in any other corpus of literature. Much has been claimed on the basis of this Christian idiosyncrasy, but it is most plausibly explained simply as an idiom of bilingual Greek/Hebrew-speaking communities influenced by the Septuagint, where agapān was widely used to translate the Hebrew ’hb, the most general verb for ‘love’. Greek-speaking theologians of the patristic age resisted the suggestion that different words for love indicated different types – let alone different moral qualities – of love, though when agapē disappeared from vernacular vocabulary (by the third century CE) it acquired a special dignity from its identification with God in the Johannine epistles. Those who referred to Plato’s contrast between ‘earthly’, or ‘popular’, and ‘heavenly’ erōs did not use different words for love to express it, nor did they think of these two as different types of love. The difference was simply between true and false: ‘popular’ or ‘devilish’ love was not ‘genuine’ (Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Cor. 32.7; 1989: 192 [vol. 1.12]). Nor did Greek patristic commentators think the play of words between agapān and philein in the dialogue of Jesus and Peter in John 21:15–19 needed explanation.

The Greek Fathers offer no consistent account of how they use the varied vocabulary of love, and their occasional comments rarely make it clear whether they refer to the ordinary uses of the words, their biblical uses, or the theological implications derived from them. The fullest early discussion is by Origen (third century), explaining why the Song of Songs uses agapē exclusively, though erōs and related terms are used elsewhere in the Septuagint. Not implausibly, Origen suggests that the translator used the ‘more respectable word’ to protect readers from carnal imaginations; but semantically he maintains that agapē and erōs are identical, and ‘you must take whatever is said about agapē as if applied to erōs, paying no attention to the difference of terms’ (Canticum Canticorum [Cant.] prologue; 1956: 34). Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century, Homilies on the Song of Songs 13.383; 2012: 403) adds the suggestion that erōs is a more intense form of agapē, and himself makes a point of using erōs when paraphrasing texts that contained agapē. For Clement of Alexandria (second century), on the other hand, agapē was a more intense term than philia and storgē (familiar love, Stromata 2.9; 1857: 976 [vol.8]). It was also the most general and all-embracing term for love, ‘conceived in a variety of ways’ though always ‘indivisible’ (2.18; 1857: 1028 [vol. 8]). Much later, in the sixth century and under the shadow of Neo-Platonism, Dionysius (De divinis nominibus 4; 2018: 709 [vol. 3]) knows of theologians who think erōs more suited than agapē for the love of God, though he himself regards the two as interchangeable. But, because the two words have different evaluative tones in popular use, he accepts that theologians may use agapē to stress the dignity of human love, and erōs to stress the continuity between divine love and its lesser human reflections.

The earlier Latin theologians used amor and dilectio without distinction to translate agapē, though translators of the NT kept to dilectio, reserving amor and amicitia for philia. In the fourth century, Rufinus’ translation of Origen introduced the distinctions of Greek vocabulary into Latin, assigning caritas to agapē, dilectio to philia and amor to erōs. Latin commentators found the wordplay in John 21:15–19 interesting: Ambrose thought that dilectio was a caritas rooted in the mind, and amor a caritas rooted both in body and mind (Expositio Evangelii secundum Lucam 10.176; 1976: 1848 [vol. 15]), while the same passage persuaded Augustine to abandon the view that amor carries a bad sense but dilectio a good one (City of God [CG] 14.7.2; Homilies on John 123.5). Both in scripture and philosophy, Augustine thought, either term could carry both a bad and a good sense, though caritas could never have a bad one. To supply a contrary to caritas Augustine regularly used cupiditas or concupiscentia (‘craving’).

Philautia (‘self-love’) was used in Hellenistic Greek mainly to refer to restricted private interest. Following Philo of Alexandria (first century CE) and 2 Tim 3:2, Greek theologians saw it as the source of all other vices, and so generally did not use it to expound Jesus’ paradox of seeking life and losing it (Mark 8:35). The exception was Maximus the Confessor, in the seventh century, who was acquainted with Latin writings by, or influenced by, Augustine. In Latin theology, Stoic teaching on oikeiōsis (‘appropriation’) mediated through Cicero and Seneca had given the expressions se diligere and se amare a morally neutral sense, referring to the natural instinct for self-preservation in the animal soul. Armed with this and the phrase ‘as yourself’ in Lev 19:5 (also Matt 22:39), Christian Latin writers spoke of self-love in expounding Mark 8:35, distinguishing a rightly-directed self-love, a natural self-love, and a misdirected self-love. Augustine kept all three of these senses in play, though his mature writing has a special use for the negative sense (as amor sui, never dilectio sui) in speaking of the fall: self-love, also described as ‘self-complacency’ and ‘pride’, was the ‘primal sin’ behind the angelic fall, the root impulse of wickedness, the ‘love of self to the contempt of God’ (CD 14.28). The three morally differentiated senses of self-love continued to be recognized in the scholastic period, as noted by Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century, Summa Theologiae [ST] II–II.q.25.a7). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as psychological and anthropological description tended to replace normative moral philosophy (under the influence of Benedict Spinoza), the neutral sense was substituted for the negative, making self-love the mechanical source of all motivation: ‘Self-love, the spring of motion, acts the soul; Reason’s comparing balance rules the whole’ (Pope 2008: 215). Theological moralists (such as Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet or Joseph Butler), resisting this attribution of a foundational status to self-love, defended both negative and positive senses. Jonathan Edwards, in particular, argued for a self-love not restricted in scope to private interest, but expansive, conforming to the beauty of universal being (Edwards, ‘Charity and Its Fruits’, 1989: 254–258; ‘Dissertation II: The Nature of True Virtue’, 1989: 575–588).

The complexity of the vocabulary of love and its uses constitutes a warning against an oversimplified schematization popularized by Anders Nygren in early twentieth century theology and supposedly founded in Greek vocabulary: agapē, a distinctively Christian concept of self-giving love, opposed by erōs, essentially acquisitive and pagan in conception (see Nygren 1953 – not alone but influential, not least on Karl Barth). Not only was the appeal to ancient vocabulary misleading, but it was unclear what the terms of the opposition were. Nygren argued for alternative concepts of love, supposedly described non-evaluatively. Theological appropriations, however, saw them as alternative ways of loving, positive and negative. Barth replaced ‘concepts’ with ‘types’ and spoke of ‘two movements in opposite directions’ (1958: 736), thus assimilating agapē and erōs with Augustine’s opposition of the two primal loves of the angels. When Nygren’s critics (Martin D’Arcy, also C. S. Lewis, though tacitly) sought to mitigate the starkness of the agapē-erōs opposition by remembering that love included philia and storgē, they wished to avoid the reduction of the question of love to original righteousness and original sin, and to keep the way open for a more complex exploration of the varieties of love in human moral experience.

Varieties of love must certainly be recognized. The high scholastic age distinguished amor concupiscentiae, amor benevolentiae, amor complacentiae, and amor amicitiae (craving, good-will, appreciation, friendship) among others. These types are typical moments in love, abstractions from the lived experience as a whole, never appearing concretely in isolation from one another. Any attempt to separate one moment from the others as a pure object of moral aspiration produces grotesque results. However, there are different things to be said about different moments, and there may be differential judgments of value on them, as when self-sacrifice is commended as the highest expression of friendship (John 15:12–15).

A successful concept of love, it was said since the patristic era, depends on its capacity to give ‘order’ to the wide range of emotional and active, individual and communal phenomena, unifying them in a conceptual whole without eliding their differences. This ‘order of love’ is not a ranking of preference among possible objects, nor a ranking of obligation among possible act-types, but a pattern of conscious growth towards moral fulfilment, individual and collective, in response to God’s call. A life of love includes moments of agitation and moments of calm, moments of volition and moments of cognition, of action and of contemplation, of suffering and of habit, of self-awareness and of awareness of others, etc. Love, however, is not merely one of these moments, but an unfolding sequence of all of them, with their states and events, individual and communal, giving direction and purpose to life in God’s presence. Such sub-concepts as ‘eros’, ‘charity’, ‘friendship’, ‘belonging’, and ‘compassion’ highlight distinctive moments, where love assumes the provisional form of a special obligation or opportunity, though always bound up in mutual implication with other forms. They give talk about love its narrative structure.

Among the moments ‘ordered’ by love, some are passive feelings and others active exertions. Because love is commanded we are bound to situate it within the scope of human agency, but its active moments derive from – and in turn create – states of feeling. Eros (used not as a Greek word, but as an English term for the aesthetic response to beauty) refers to the consciousness of the loved object as a disclosure of value and focus of admiration, a state of emotional awareness rather than an exertion of will. Yet such a feeling, passive in itself, produces active expressions and is reinforced by them. We can be selective of possible feelings to a degree, training ourselves to feel pleasure and pain at the right things (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics [Ni. Eth.] 2.3). We can also build on feelings in framing intentions. So the treatment of love within ethics must not be so narrow as to exclude the appreciation and ordering of passive feelings. Yet love still implies a disposition to act, even when its presenting form is passive admiration or involuntary excitement and confusion.

3 Predominant themes

3.1 Love of God, neighbour, and Christ

Jesus’ teaching about the supremacy of the twofold command of love of God and neighbour (Matt 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34; cf. Luke 10:25–28) was formed against the background of the rabbis’ search for a hermeneutical key to the multiple commands of the Torah (conventionally numbered as 613). Their goal was both to mark the difference between commands of ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’ weight and to identify a comprehensive summary for pedagogical purposes. There is a precedent in Rabbi Akiva for Jesus’ choice of Lev 19:18, but none for the combination of this text with Deut 6:4 (Strack and Billerbeck 1956–1963). In Deuteronomy, the expression ‘to love Yhwh’ is focused on purity of religious observation in the exclusive covenant-relation of Yhwh and his people. However, in conjunction with the text from Leviticus – itself a summary of some more specific demands of social justice – its scope is greatly expanded. Love must embrace the ontological distinction between its divine and human objects.

This proposal is conceptually daring and uniquely definitive of the shape of the Christian ethic. The width and comprehensiveness of NT appeals to love are a measure of how seriously early Christians took this programme for moral thought. Not only does love serve as a matrix to frame more specific moral questions; it also determines how other wide-ranging moral categories (justice, truthfulness, etc.) are to be interpreted, so that ‘love’ retains its sense as a specific action-type and is not reduced to a mere disposition to perform whatever other acts may be commanded. The commands of love thus satisfy both aspects of the rabbis’ search: on the one hand they are comprehensive, including and implying all other moral demands, as is suggested by the verb ‘sum up’ in Rom 13:9; on the other hand, they were to have precedence as ‘great’ commands, especially in regulating minor ritual duties (Mark 10:33; cf. Matt 23:23). They were thus interpretative, governing the way in which lighter commands, especially ritual ones, were to be understood, as is implied by the verb ‘hang’ in Matthew (22:40), a rabbinic term for the expository dependence of commentary upon text. The interpretation could sometimes prove radical (Matt 9:13, 12:7, both using Hos 6:6). This dual priority of love generates many of the characteristic tensions of later Christian moral thought. The tensions are seen at their sharpest in moments such as the scholastic placing of the ethics of war and capital punishment under the heading of duties of love. Each aspect, the comprehensive and the interpretative, was sometimes emphasized to the exclusion of the other. In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther insists strongly on the critical hermeneutic function of the love-command, which ‘not only teaches good works, but also condemns fantastical and superstitious works’ (Luther 1964: 55), while John Calvin accounts for it as a comprehensive summary to aid memory, secondary in substance to ‘true piety’ (Institutes 2.8.51).

The asymmetry between love for divine and for human objects attracts constant notice, and the phrase ‘love of God’ struck many theologians in different ages as in need of explanation. An early text, ambiguously Jewish or Christian, rewrote the twofold command as, ‘fear the Lord and love your neighbour’ (Testament of Benjamin 3.3). The question is present in the New Testament itself, where the Johannine epistles expound the twofold love-command to mean that the ‘brother’ (here governed by the story of Cain and Abel, meaning the fellow-human) is the visible focus for love of the invisible God, and that in loving ‘one another’ we ‘know’ God by participating in his love for us (1 John 3:11–18; 4:7–21). Patristic theologians addressed the question by speaking of an ‘ordering’ of love, in which God is valued higher than the neighbour in reflection of his ontological priority. The expression ‘ordered love’, first introduced by Clement of Alexandria (The Rich Man’s Salvation; 1960: 29) and associated by Origen and Gregory of Nyssa with the Septuagint of Song of Songs 2:4, was developed at length by Augustine. In his words, creatures are loved propter Deum, ‘for the sake of God’, and God is loved propter se, ‘for his own sake’. That phrase was not intended instrumentally, as of a means to an end, but as supplying a moral horizon within which a given love could fit within the scope of love as a whole. Augustine also experimented with saying that the neighbour should be ‘used’, and only God ‘enjoyed’ (De Doctrina Christiana [Doctr. Christ.] 1.22), but did not pursue this formulation. Love ‘for the sake of’ is conceived as a reflective evaluation, weighing the worth of love’s objects in relation to each other. For Augustine it is also necessarily reflexive, for the reflective appreciation of any object includes the appreciation of the love itself. An instructed love recognizes and values its own origin in God and its role in revealing God. The mutual implication of the two objects of love could therefore be resolved within a unitary order which did not involve distributing duties and obligations of love into distinct categories. It was not a matter of distinguishing a love due to God from a love due to the neighbour (Maximus, Epistula 2.8; 1996), but of love for God expressed through love for what manifests God, the fellow-human made in the image of God. Love for neighbour is thus the intrinsic proof of love for the Creator, so that the detailed content of the twofold love-command could be abbreviated simply as love for neighbour (Matt 19:19; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; Jas 2:8).

The ordering of love in relation to the ontological ordering of God and human neighbour demanded also to be thought through in connection with Christology. In Christ, love for God and love for neighbour have a single focus. Having taken human nature to himself, he presents believers simultaneously with the human neighbour they must love and with the divine Spirit who elicits their love as Love himself. Therefore, Augustine interpreted the parable of the Good Samaritan as pointing to the one who ‘was neighbour’ to the victim of the thieves (Luke 10:36): the neighbour is ‘every man’, and the neighbour is Christ, the one to whom we may show mercy and the one who shows mercy to us. ‘No one can be a neighbour except to a neighbour’ (Doctr. Christ. 1.30.32). Faced with the expression ‘the love of Christ’ in 2 Cor 5:14, the exegetical tradition refused to decide for an exclusively subjective or objective genitive: the love in which the believer would participate was the love Christ demonstrated and the love he elicited. Thus the believer was drawn beyond personal perspectives and interests and concerns into the work of God and the life of others. For Luther, ‘a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and his neighbour […] in Christ through faith, in his neighbour through love’ (Luther 1957: 371). For Edwards this involved a sublimation of love-of-self; loving your neighbour ‘as yourself’ in Lev 19:18 is replaced by ‘as I have loved you’ in the ‘new commandment’ of John 13:34 (Edwards, ‘Charity and Its Fruits’, 1989: 266).

In the tradition of medieval and early modern spiritual writing the terms ‘love’, ‘prayer’, and ‘imitation of Christ’ tend to coalesce in referring to a discipline of meditation aimed at self-giving love for Christ. The devotional practice of meditating on the wounds of Christ focused this discipline especially on the paschal mystery, evoking a sense – sometimes heightened by special mystical experience – of participating in Christ’s suffering love for the world. Julian of Norwich (fourteenth century) experienced ‘visions’ that drew her imaginatively into the physical horror of the crucifixion, but also – and decisively – into the triumph of grace and eschatological joy. Imitation of Christ’s love was again central in nineteenth-century christological developments, where Phil 2:5–12 encouraged a strong emphasis on the self-emptying character of Christian love. But, in this period, imitation is also understood in terms of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment concerns with historical freedom. To love without reserve is to be uniquely free, and Christ, appearing at the ‘turning point’ of history, is the decisive model for freedom in love, a radical critique of and alternative to the Promethean ‘great men’ of political and military history (Martensen 1879).

3.2 Love as the fulfilment of other moral categories

In Deuteronomy, the equation of the law and the covenant of Yhwh with Israel suggests a further horizon to law than simple conformity to demand. Law is to be internalized ‘in the mouth and in the heart’ (30:14). In Jesus’ teaching that internal extension of the law is identified with love in its twofold direction, providing the background to Paul’s claim that the whole law is ‘fulfilled’ in neighbour-love (Gal 5:14). If love is a wholly comprehensive command and a hermeneutic key to the meaning of law as a whole, law must be more than the particular concrete commands or the ensemble of commands, since no concrete command – however important – could contain all the others. Love thus reduces all specific commands to their universal reason (Maximus, Ep. 2.1). In the Middle Ages, this understanding of the order of love was popularized by Robert Grosseteste’s exposition (thirteenth century) of moral obligation as a tree, the main trunk of which was the love-command and whose ten main branches were the Decalogue, from which grew numerous twigs (De decem mandatis 1). At the same time, love’s ‘fulfilment’ of law is not simply a matter of comprehensiveness. That might account very well for the Decalogue, as Jerome points out (Commentarius in Epistolam ad Galatas 5:13f.; 1844: 406–410 [vol. 26]), but it would not account for the ancient sacrificial laws, food laws, and calendar of festivals, which have to be understood as prophetic symbols. Only if the appearance of love is understood as a fulfilment in history can it be understood not only as an inner moral meaning but an outer moral progress realized in the fulness of time.

Love is not, as such, the performance of a command; it is the spontaneously-extended welcome to a command as embodying the deepest aspiration of the acting person in relation to other persons. That was the point of Immanuel Kant’s dismissal (eighteenth century) of the idea of a ‘duty’ to love (1996: 206–208). But if not simply ‘a’ duty, love must still be understood as the presupposition of duty (Scheler 1973: 63–65). The mandatory and binding character of law, though transcended in loving agency, is also reinforced and supported by it. It is by virtue of our love that we become most conscious of the moral framework that governs our self-disposal. The apostle Paul and the author to the Hebrews both saw this as implied in the ‘new covenant’ anticipations of the Deuteronomic era of Jeremiah (Jer 31:33). The image of a law written on ‘the heart’ was understood by NT writers as the key to a new motivation, as the love of God is ‘poured into our hearts’ through the gift of the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5).

One major task facing theological ethics in the New Testament was to harmonize the sovereignty of love with the prevailing organization of moral teaching by lists of virtues, typical of Hellenistic Judaism, as occur repeatedly in the works of Philo. The virtue-lists of the NT epistles, often matched with corresponding lists of vices, are heuristic and exploratory, varying from one instance to another, sometimes sketching the genesis and progress of virtue as a whole from inception to maturity, and usually assigning love a commanding position either at the beginning or at the end (Gal 5:22; Col 3:14; 2 Pet 1:7). The church fathers stress the role of love as a unifying factor among the virtues, a ‘golden chain’ and an ‘artificer’ of virtue as a coherent whole (Chrysostom, On 1 Cor. 33.4,6; 1989: 198, 201 [vol. 1.12]). In this they may be influenced by Plato’s doctrine that a single virtue apart from other virtues degenerates into vice. In the scholastic era this is expressed by speaking of love as the ‘form’ of virtues. For Thomas Aquinas (ST II–II.q.23.a8), virtues ‘form’ acts by directing them to their immediate ends, while love operates analogously at a higher level, ‘forming’ the virtues by directing them to their ultimate end.

Is the love which so unifies and forms the virtues itself a virtue? In light of Aristotle’s definition of a virtue (Nic. Eth. 2.1) as a formed habit enabling its possessor to function well, two reasons not to conceive love as a virtue suggest themselves. On the one hand, there is such a thing as bad and misdirected love: vice, too, was love that had mistaken its object, and the NT warns against a ‘love of the world’ (1 John 2:15). ‘Fire goes up, a stone comes down […] My weight is my love; by it I move wherever I move’ (Augustine, Confessions 13.9.10). On the other hand, love may attest the present activity of God more immediately than a formed virtue can. This leads some Greek theologians to situate love primarily among the operations of the Holy Spirit, intervening upon the ordinary operations of moral character, and changing behaviour without changing the underlying disposition (Chrysostom, On 1 Cor 33.6; 1989: 200 [vol.1.12]). Yet it is not one of the differentiated charismata, for love is a ‘higher way’ than those (1 Cor 12:31), and while the Spirit bestows charismata ‘severally, to each as he wills’, love is a ‘universal gift’ (32.3; 1989: 188 [vol. 1.12]). From this it might be supposed that love is wholly supernatural, an impression that other theologians are quick to correct. Maximus the Confessor associates love both with the activity of the Holy Spirit and with the integrity and fulfilment of human nature; it is a divinely given activation (energeia) of the natural virtues, working by grace to ‘deify’ men (Ep. 2.3; Maximus the Confessor 1996). Even in its passive manifestation as feeling, love is a divinely-evoked combination of the human virtues of ‘respect’ and ‘benevolence’, neither of which would be stable on its own (Maximus the Confessor 1985, prologue). In the Western church, love continues to be classified as a virtue. Yet Aquinas places it together with faith and hope apart from other virtues, as ‘infused’ by grace rather than acquired by practice (ST II–II q24.a2).

A special case of love’s relation to other virtues arises with Paul’s formulation of a list of ‘three’ virtues that ‘remain’, the immediate context giving ‘remain’ an eschatological sense (1 Cor 13:13). ‘Faith, hope, and love’ – an ordering adopted especially for this context, love elsewhere appearing in the middle (1 Thess 1:3, 5:8; Col 1:4) – are not named as ‘virtues’. The fact that faith precedes both love and hope is important, especially emphasized by the ethics of the sixteenth-century Reformation. Galatians 5:6 becomes a constant point of reference for an understanding of love as the effect of faith’s operation. In relation to hope, love may have either a this-worldly or an eschatological reference, and be placed in the list accordingly. In the immediate context of 1 Cor 13:13, love is ‘greatest’ since it extends to eschatological vision, ‘face to face’. It is the nature of love to ‘hope all things’ (1 Cor 13:7). Augustine (Doctr. Christ. 1.39) and Maximus (Ep. 2.3) both anticipate the eschatological all-sufficiency of love, in which the historical need for faith and hope will be fulfilled. The sceptical modern suspicion that hope ties love down to an ‘economy’ of exchange and barter could arise only when love had come to be considered in isolation, lifted out of its conjunction with the virtues that govern beginnings and ends. The return of love is a horizon the lover cannot dispense with, for if love is directed to the sovereignty of divine love, then it must look forward to the appearing of divine love in every other agent capable of loving. In this light the dominical command to love one’s enemies (Matt 5:44) has a more ambitious scope than mere forbearance and forgiveness.

3.3 Love of self and others

Fundamental to Jesus’ teaching was a conception of the moral life as a dynamic of self-loss and self-recovery: if one is to ‘gain’ one’s life, one must ‘lose’ it (Mark 8:35 and parallels). In the Pauline epistles, true life takes the form of death and resurrection, accomplished sacramentally in baptism but still awaiting its eschatological fulfilment. This pattern, shorn of its eschatological reference, is found in the teaching that it is ‘more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35). This side of death and resurrection, all positive activity takes the form of giving. But, as the Johannine texts insist (John 15:9,12; 1 John 4:10–11), a prior condition for giving love is receiving the love shown by God.

The question then arises, posed formally by the phrase ‘as yourself’ in Lev 19:8 (Mark 12:31, etc.), of how the demand for self-giving allows for love of self and the desire to receive. From Aristotle onwards (Nic. Eth. 9.8) it was a philosophical commonplace that ‘self-love’ was ambiguous: it could mean a consciousness of the inherent demands of agency, seeking to do what is ‘fine’; alternatively, it could mean a pursuit of private advantage. To these two philosophical alternatives, positive and negative, a third possibility was added in Christian ethics, also positive: an interest in one’s ultimate destiny in a desire to become what God has called believers to become. The thought of self-love and self-hatred as ultimate moral orientations becomes attached to intertestamental Jewish discussions, originally more mundane in their scope, for ‘the care of the soul’ (Sir 21:27–8, 30:21–25). Augustine later develops this into the idea that the soul, bearer of humans’ ultimate destiny, is among the needy claimants on our alms, not to be neglected. There can be no excess of virtue beyond what we owe ourselves in this sense. Within ultimate self-concern an ascetic self-denial of physical satisfactions can find a place, as can the dominical teaching that the greatest love is seen in sacrifice of one’s life (John 15:13). The egoistic character of this framework, however, is qualified by Augustine’s insistence on the coextensiveness of loves for God, neighbour, and self. The first and second commands, love of God and neighbour, hold the key to an interpretation of the third. True self-love is coextensive with love of God, for God is always our benefactor, the source of of all giving and in need of no good of ours. Neither can love of self clash with love of neighbour, for through the neighbour God has given us decisive ‘instruction’ as to how we may love ourselves in fostering one another’s love of God (CG 19.14). The ‘end’ of human life is wholly social: ‘peace in eternal life or eternal life in peace’ (CG 19.11). The self, affirmed in devotion to God and neighbour, receives its reward in the enjoyment of God and of the neighbour ‘in God’.

Out of this conception develops the idea of an ascent of love through sanctification towards perfection. At its simplest, it posits two stages, reminiscent of Plato’s two types, carnal and spiritual; conversion to Christ involves the conversion of love itself from the one type of love to the other. The terms ‘carnal’ and ‘spiritual’ distinguish both the loved objects (sensory and intellectual) and the manner of loving them (sensual and spiritual). One love is partial and self-referential, the other universal and mutual. This two-step account persists in the tradition alongside more complex elaborations; it underlies Augustine’s opposition of concupiscentia and caritas (craving and love), corresponding to amor sui and amor Dei (self-love and love of God) as the twin principles of social life in the ‘two cities’.

In the Origenist tradition, however, the idea of ascent was taken further. Especially in appropriating Jewish allegorical readings of the Song of Songs (Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose) it discerns an analogical correspondence between carnal and spiritual love. The allegory is not solely a literary relation of image to meaning, but also a relation of things spoken about, deriving from the original relation of created physical reality to its Creator. Love for God is necessarily an ascent undertaken within the soul itself through mediating objects. There is no good that God can receive from it, and no way in which he can be possessed; he can only be adored with lesser or greater clarity as the universal beauty revealed concretely in Christ. While the lover and the mode of love are subject to change, the beloved contains the whole power to motivate that change, drawing the lover ‘from glory to glory’. The conclusion, drawn by Augustine in De Trinitate, is that the ascent through mediating objects of love is accompanied by an ascent in self-love, as love reflects with increasing clarity upon itself and on the causes of its own ascent.

Sequential steps of the ascent were often enumerated. A three-stage series was common in monastic circles (Cassian, Conferences 11.6–9): the love of the slave, the love of the hired servant, and the love of the son. Caesarius of Arles (sixth century), possibly preserving a lost text of Augustine, differentiates a bestial love, human love, and divine love (Sermo 21). The first step in each case is ‘love’ only in a shadowy sense, for the inner attitude of the slave is fear, and love is merely instrumental in a strategy of self-protection. The second step is self-interested, living in expectation of reward but in genuine appreciation of the objective good that is loved. The third step is love of the object, pure and simple, ‘for its own sake’. Well-ordered sexual love belongs in the middle category; lovers look to each other for the satisfaction of carnal passion, but in admiring the whole good of each other and referring their relations to the higher ends of love, they progress, even in this life, to love more spiritually. In the patristic era special respect was accorded to older couples who, having had children, renounced physical relations and lived together in pure affection. For the Greek theologians, the ascent of love was often described negatively as the reduction or elimination of self-love, an approach which encouraged an ascetic tendency to characterize the final stage as a moment of self-abandonment. The soul perfected has no further place for hope or memory, its two self-preservative dispositions, but is universalized in love like God himself (Gregory of Nyssa 1976: 450). In twelfth-century France this produced a lively argument between advocates of ‘pure love’, Abelard and the anonymous De Caritate (Sherwin 2018), and its opponents such as Hugh of St Victor. A mediating position that would come to define the medieval consensus was formed by Bernard of Clairvaux, who accommodated an ecstatic strand drawn from expositions the Song of Songs within an Augustinian framework: the three stages of love are extended to a fourth, a rare and ecstatic phenomenon in this life, designated as ‘love-of-self for God’s sake alone’.

The pattern of ascent, in which the three or four steps of love were often conflated with a parallel series of seven steps by which the mind is purged for contemplation, was important for the medieval Western imagination of the life of faith. The extent to which this development mirrors Hesychasm in Eastern Christianity is subject to varying assessments. The ascent of love was decisive for the conception of Dante’s Purgatorio and Paradiso (see 1958), and its presence is still felt in the seven stages of Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castle (sixteenth century), though there the spatial imagery is reoriented so that progress is not upwards but inwards, towards the centre. Yet the idea of a ‘pure love’ at the summit of the ascent continued to prompt major theological doubts. Could a moment of conscious self-abandonment be attained without forgetting the truth that God himself is love’s reward? Did it involve loving God exclusively in his aseity, and could such a love be accessible to the creature? Such a state of mind, claiming legitimacy from Paul’s hypothetical willingness to be ‘cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers’ (Rom 9:3), could be idealized as an exceptional state of exceptional saints involving a total renunciation of even the most rigorously purified self-love. Its critics suspected it of heterodoxy on the ground that it separated love from hope, and in so doing made hope indistinguishable from concupiscence. It was thought to adore an abstract idea of God from which all the real and actual divine attributes and persons manifested in salvation-history had been strained out. Such arguments, already adumbrated in the twelfth century, were rehearsed exhaustively and finally at the end of the seventeenth century in a bitter controversy between two French bishops, Fénélon and Bossuet, one defending the ideal of ‘pure love’ and the other the traditional equation of true self-love with love of God. The anxieties that surfaced in this exchange are plausibly ascribed to the crisis in early modern moral philosophy occasioned by mechanical accounts of motivation that gave a central role to natural self-love (see section 2).

3.4 Love, knowledge, and will

That crisis can best be understood in light of the medieval search for a satisfying account of the will. In patristic understanding, the act of will or volition (Latin voluntas; later Greek distinguishes thelēma, an act, from gnōmē, a settled practical purpose) was the concrete expression of a disposition to act. It presupposed knowledge, and for Augustine this meant that it presupposed love formed in knowledge, because the human subject – trinitarian in form as an image of the godhead – consisted in the consubstantial and coeternal relations of mind, word, and love, expressed in acts of memory, imagination, and will (Augustine, De Trinitate). Maximus was combatting a monothelite Christology which marked the appearance in the Eastern church of the will as the core of personality. He saw love as ‘a determination that no reality is of greater value than the knowledge of God’, while self-love, the origin of all passions, was not an original state but the result of ignorance of God (Chapters 1.1, 3.56–57; Ad Thalassium preface, CCL 7.253). The natural act of will, not necessarily a ‘choice’, was its harmonious consent to the will of God, departing from that norm only when deliberative reason was corrupted by self-love. The medieval Western conception of the will as an original power of indifferent choice, though commonly designated ‘Augustinian’, was a medieval innovation, though it was anticipated in Augustine’s anti-Pelagian polemics (Rist 2014). It arises from a concept of God’s immutability in which ‘his will does not extend beyond his substance’ (Augustine, Conf. 12.15.18), so that God wills all that happens in one eternal and simultaneous act. In the West, the logic emerges clearly in Peter Lombard’s treatment of the counter-factual powers of God, debating the claim that God ‘can’ create a world constituted different in all respects from the world he has created, so that the actual created world – including its moral laws and the ordering of the creature to love of God – depends on his arbitrary volition (Sentences I d.41–44). The scholastic separation of intellective and voluntative faculties in the soul was shaped by this concept of the ungrounded will. The high scholasticism of the thirteenth century tended to resist or qualify it, characterizing the will as ‘intellectual appetite’, subject to the control of reason. So Aquinas asserted the objectively relational character of love as a ‘habitual form’ in the soul, natural and superadded by grace, producing complacentia (appreciation) with a good object and amicitia with a co-subject. But Duns Scotus in the next century reasserted the indifference of the human will, poised between two natural inclinations towards happiness and justice (Cross 1999).

Broadly speaking, the voluntarist conception dominated later scholastic theology and harmonized with early modern rediscoveries of Scepticism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism, all of which weakened the claim of objective good on the agent. In turn these fed the subjective tendencies of philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The two distinct powers of the mind, ‘the power to begin or forbear, the power of perception’ (Locke, Essay 2.21.5), left open the complex task of how they may be coordinated in the life of a single agent, with the possibility, mooted by Hume (Treatise 3.1), that actions cannot be reasonable or unreasonable. Kant’s radical distinction between theoretical and practical reason sums up this train of thought in a way that fixes, according to some popular strands of modernity-criticism, the default postures of contemporary scientific civilization.

The voluntarist trend was never unresisted, especially within theology. In opposition to the central Scotist strand, the late Middle Ages produced a self-conscious tradition of ‘mystical theology’. This recognized a range of different affective powers in the soul, among which the will was reckoned a subordinate power, subject to the direction of the higher affections. Supreme among these, conscience attends to the objective good and is perfected in the love of God (Gerson, Mystica 1.21). The sixteenth-century Reformation made a different corrective move: rather than broadening the scope of love to include moral cognition, it broadened the scope of knowledge to encompass the vital and immediate grasp of the divine grace spoken of in the New Testament as ‘faith’. The priority of faith was central to Luther’s rejection of semi-Pelagian concepts of merit due to implicit love. It implied a rejection of the scholastic idea of love as ‘a quality inhering in the mind, by which a person elicits the motivation in his heart or the act which they call “wishing well”’ (Luther 1964: 51). True human love could only be a derivative expression of faith, a demonstration of what God had evoked in the soul quite apart from it. Therefore, in one aspect of Luther’s complex reflections on the subject, the concept of love was excluded from the inner activities of the soul and pressed into the outer world of benevolent action, confined to the ‘second table’ of the Decalogue. This emphasis was revived in the nineteenth century among Lutherans influenced by Albrecht Ritschl: faith, rather than love, was the receptive and enlivening energy in the mind, reaching beyond cognitive limits to commit itself in Andacht, ‘devotion’. Love of God could be understood as the love of neighbour on the one hand and the joy of faith on the other (Herrmann 1895: 209–214). Karl Barth’s twentieth-century treatments of love are best understood as an attempt to avoid this conclusion while partially accepting the premisses. Faith is distinguished from love by Barth as ‘reception’ from active ‘giving out’ (Hingabe), but the latter concept includes an inner as well as an outer activity, exercised in prayer and adoration. There remained the question of how one might conceive of love as giving without receiving. Is love, described this way, essentially self-sacrificial, and is it as such an exercise of freedom from the object of love and its value? The rejection of the idea of value is central to this train of thought: love is an act evinced from within the subject rather than elicited by the object. Therefore, even when it is carefully qualified, there is a radical opposition between ‘Christian love’ and all other love, which is ‘self-love’, marking the ‘wholly alien character of Christianity in relation to the world around’ (Barth 1958: 730–735).

The puritan and pietist reactions of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, however, had found an alternative way of interpreting the priority of faith over love, which enabled the Reformed tradition to recover and exploit part of the legacy of medieval piety. Instead of Luther’s inner-outer matrix, they proposed a developmental one: faith is the initial human response to divine grace, love the subsequent emergence of the purified appetite. Love appears in a variety of affective states directed eschatologically to the unqualified enjoyment of God as the transcendent and universal good. Here was a new attempt to allow the love-of-God sovereignty among human affections. Love could accommodate dramatic contrasts of mood, desiring, mourning, and delighting; though the love of God was not generally so ‘passionate’ as love for creatures, it was susceptible of passionate delights that might be given as a special grace (Baxter 1846, Directory 121a). One aspect of the medieval ascent that this account did not follow was the assumption of a graded progression: love was persistently beset by ‘trials’, on the one hand, open to ‘discoveries’ of God on the other. Spiritual autobiography had a special place in articulating these (Bunyan 1966). This approach was generally accommodated within the framework of the ‘two faculties’ of the mind – cognition and inclination – presupposed in contemporary moral philosophy: love is the chief of the affections, the ‘spring of men’s actions’, and affections are the vigorous exercises of inclination (Edwards 1989: 96–102). Yet this was modified to ensure the reflective character of love as ‘complacence’, as distinct from ‘benevolence’. Recognition of the object of love, accomplished by a ‘spiritual sense’ commanding the affections rather like a sense of taste, establishes love also as a form of cognition, a phenomenon that leaves the distinction of the two faculties behind (1989: 8, 272). It is on this, not on narrow self-love, that human identity depends. Love is ‘the grand, significant, vital motion of the soul’, the true indicator of ‘the man’ himself (Baxter 1846, Directory 122b).

Immanuel Kant’s philosophy can be seen as the crowning the voluntarist tradition, uniting the activity of theoretical and practical reason around the concept of freedom. The theological resistance bore a harvest in the thought of Friedrich Schleiermacher, in whose philosophical idealism all oppositions were merely relative. Reason, in its relation to ‘matter’ or ‘reality’, is the single foundation both of knowledge and action, and as reason moves out ‘into space and time’ it differentiates itself. Virtue is rooted in reason, and only secondarily in inclination as it conforms to reason at a given point in time. Wisdom and love are the two primary virtues, formed on the basis of ‘conviction’ (Gesinnung), and both of them are relations of reason to reality. In wisdom, reason conforms to ideal reality, in love it is brought to bear upon reality as actual, entering into its processes (Schleiermacher 1981: 135–40). Love, in turn, assumes a double form as ‘recognitive’ and ‘constructive’ love (1981: 150–151); this is the tradition’s ‘complacence’ and ‘benevolence’, an admiring consciousness of the rational attraction of nature on the one hand and a will to bring nature into conformity with reason on the other. Thus the way was cleared for some nineteenth- and twentieth-century Protestant theology to see prayer and meditation as the primary work of Christian love. ‘A receptive Christianity is better and higher than a Christian life of works’, said H. L. Martensen (1879: 192). This places him not as far as might appear from his more famous fellow-countryman and opponent, Søren Kierkegaard – author of the nineteenth century’s most sustained reflection on Christian love, Works of Love (1995) – for whom love was ‘sheer action’, but as such quite different from busy distraction and wholly dependent on the inward God-relationship (1995: 98–99 [vol. 16]).

The fate of love in the modern intellectual environment has been coincident with the fate of its object, ‘the good’, a philosophical category which the ancient world assumed it was the task of moral philosophy and theology to elucidate. Though Schleiermacher defended a notion of the ‘highest good’, the modern era has tended to follow Kant (1996: 187–188) in dissolving the good into ‘the right’, on the one hand, and a multiplicity of subjective ‘goods’ on the other, thereby decisively severing its unitive normativity from its attractive power. Attempts to recover the foundational position of love in philosophy, most notably that of Max Scheler in the early twentieth century (1973: 488–501), sought to reconcile these two antithetic movements of normativity and attraction, the ‘push and pull’ of the moral life, within an account of the religious aspect of the good (or ‘value’), in relation to which reverence and attraction are necessarily blended.

3.5 Universal and preferential love

Jesus’ teaching that neighbour-love should embrace the stranger and those in need of mercy (Luke 10:29–37) generated an early trope associating Christian love and equality (1 Clement 21.7). The egalitarian principle remained important generally, as a horizon against which preferential loves had to be assessed, but it could also be asserted as a practical demand laid on the ‘perfection’ of monastic communities, at least in the negative form of ‘hating no one’ (Maximus, Chapters 4.82). Yet ‘the neighbour’ was literally ‘the nearest’ (proximus, ho plēsion). Origen distinguished ‘natural’ or abstract equality of proximity from a practical proximity of immediate opportunity (Cant. prologue) For Aquinas (ST 2–2.26.6), charity must wish the same general good to all, but the focused intention of doing good is prioritized according to propinquity. In the nineteenth century, Kierkegaard echoed this: ‘To love the neighbour is, while remaining in the earthly dissimilarity allotted to one, essentially to will to exist equally for unconditionally every human being’ (1995: 83–84 [vol. 16]).

The danger of an egalitarian philanthropia (love of humanity) was abstractness, the disappearance of every particular love into an undifferentiated love of the universal. Plato (Symposium) had taught that behind erotic love for a particular beautiful object lay the universal beauty; philosophical erotics must ‘ascend’ from the contemplation of the particular to the universal. Greek theologians sought to correct this: the universal beauty is God, who has revealed himself concretely in Jesus Christ, the only true beloved. So while the philosopher

who looks upon the perceptible cosmos and has grasped the Wisdom that is displayed in the beauty of these beings infers […] the invisible Beauty and the wellspring of Wisdom […] the person who attends to this new cosmos that appears in the creation of the church sees in it the One who is, and is becoming, ‘all in all’. (Gregory of Nyssa 2012: 386 [vol. 13])

If the question of eros for Plato is what the ultimate object of love is, the Christian question, framed by a re-reading of the Song of Songs, is who? The answer is Christ (2012: 379–382 [vol. 13]). A similar move from the universal to the concrete is found in nineteenth- and twentieth-century existentialist rejections of idealism, which laid stress on the particularity of each exercise of neighbour-love as a unique response to a unique person. But the existentialist approach could have its own perils. The particular in isolation is unknowable and indescribable. A love that was wholly particular would not ‘fulfil’ the law, but render its authority unintelligible, as in the frankly antinomian positions advanced in the mid-twentieth century as ‘situationism’. Normative rules of conduct, it was replied, must be seen as the form that love assumes within the regularities of experience, and love’s particular discernments involve a better learning of the implications of rules already grasped (Ramsey 1967). Though it might appear that love was ‘formless, transcending all creaturely determinateness and precisely for this reason a threat to it’, that is not the case when love takes the form of the human nature of Christ (Von Balthasar 2004: 125–126).

Universal philanthrōpia thus found expression in specific relations and particular opportunities. Maximus traces a sharpening focus (Ep. 2.10) from love of universal mankind, philanthrōpia, to the first community of love, philadelphia, to those members of it who were far-flung and remote, travellers and distant friends, philoxenia (love of strangers) and to those in material need, philoptōchia (love of the poor). This last focus has been forcefully asserted at various points in Christian history, notably in the original inspiration of the mendicant friars (thirteenth century) and more recently in the twentieth-century Catholic advocacy of a ‘preferential option’ (John Paul II). Moving in the opposite direction, growth of love could be described in terms of widening circles of proximity. For Augustine it was a fire that spread out from a centre towards the periphery, with the family as the nearest and most instinctive object of love. Love was thus identified with the outreaching of God in creation: ‘the Good extends its goodness unto all things’ (Dionysius, Divine Names 4.1), an idea still echoed in early modern Protestantism by the idea of love as ‘diffusive’, extending and enlarging the self (Edwards, ‘Charity and Its Fruits’, 1989: 262).

Among the relational spheres in which a universal love achieves a concrete reality, the church had a special place in Christian teaching. ‘The household of faith’ (Gal 6:10) had a priority among the claims made on love. The Johannine texts identify what is ‘new’ in Christ’s love-command as the mutual love among Christ’s disciples (John 13:34; 1 John 2:7; 4:10), envisaged not as an end in itself but as the promise of the universal manifestation of God’s love. Here it seemed important that mutual love should be interpreted as intentional unity (John 17:21–3; Eph 4:3–4), the conscious awareness of a mutual social belonging and beholdenness among believers. Breaches of unity had a especially ominous appearance in the early church, and were spoken of as tantamount to apostasy, a denial of the reign of divine love within human community. Yet the senses in which ‘unity’ could be attributed to a community needed careful exploring: as distinct from the ‘personal union’ of God and man in Christ, this was a unity in word and sacrament, a universal reason that reconciled differences of perspective by the mutual exchange of distinctive qualities (Maximus, Ep. 2). A narrative of how the concept of unity, challenged by church divisions, came to be thought of in a variety of ways belongs elsewhere; but that narrative cannot be read apart from its root in the doctrine of love, nor can the doctrine of love be understood apart from it. Threat of division was the context of Paul’s celebrated panegyric of love in 1 Corinthians 13.

Love within the church both encouraged and limited a convergence of the theological tradition and the discussions of elective friendship in classical ethics from Aristotle to Cicero. The biblical ground for this lay in Jesus’ description of his disciples as ‘friends’, privy to his secrets and keeping his commands (John 15:13–15). The small groups of informal ascetics who practiced the spiritual life intensively together in the patristic age understood themselves in these terms, as illustrated by the friendship of Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus. Aquinas (ST II–II.q23.a1) understands friendship as the basis of caritas, which is friendship-love directed especially to participation in the divine good. Cooperation in practical endeavours, both the tasks of work and the tasks of service in the kingdom of heaven, was an essential dimension to friendship as Christians understood it. But suspicion lay over the potentially idolatrous and inward-looking character of exclusive friendship (Augustine, Conf. 4), and in monastic contexts the cultivation of special friendships was often disapproved of. Christian advocacy of friendship underlined its more gregarious aspects; Aelred of Rievaulx (twelfth century) advocated the cultivation of many friends. It also laid stress on its power to overcome separation and distance (Maximus).

Attached to the concept of friendship was a revaluation of the exclusive bond of marriage, which is defined by Augustine in terms of friendship (Bono coni. 1). The rejection of marriage, characteristic of some ascetic Gnosticism, was generally condemned as heretical (Heb 13:4, for example), but its moral standing was considerably depreciated by the ascetic concerns of the third and fourth centuries, which saw in consecrated virginity a ‘practice of the heavenly life’ made possible by the incarnation (Ambrose On Virgins 3.13). The persistence of marriage after Christ’s resurrection seemed to require explanation, especially in view of Jesus’ teaching about the resurrection life (Matt 22:30–31). It was common to argue that while the earth lasted, and death with it, procreation must continue, and that those not called to virginity would accomplish the pilgrimage of life more faithfully under a discipline of bearing each other’s burdens (Clement, Stromata 3.1; 1857: 1104 [vol. 8]). To these two goods (proles and fides, procreation and fidelity) Augustine added a third and weightier one derived from Eph 5:25–32, to form a triad that would be liturgically influential in the West until the twentieth century. By virtue of its lifelong permanence, marriage was a sacramentum, a representative sign in human life of the union of Christ and his church. Thus marriage was brought in from the margins of Christian love to its centre, an image of enduring divine love: ‘in a good marriage between elderly partners, though the youthful passion between male and female has withered, the ordered love between husband and wife remains strong’ (Bono coni. 3). These high claims for the indissolubility of marriage were, however, challenged by the Reformation, where marriage came to be represented as ‘a rather secular and outward thing, having to do with […] other matters that belong to the realm of government, all of which have been completely subjected to reason’ (Luther 1956: 376).

3.6 Love and justice

Over against the capacity of love to narrow its focus to smaller and more elective spheres of community, there stood the demand for justice, the virtue that regulates the relations of strangers and antagonists, itself a species of love. Lactantius (fourth century) advanced the bold thesis that justice, banished from the world by sin, had returned to it within the Christian community that worshipped through the love of God and fellow mankind (Divine Institutes 5.7). The history of redemption would therefore also shape the history of political institutions – an expectation that encouraged what would prove too unguarded an initial welcome for the christianized Roman empire of Constantine (Eusebius of Caesarea 1976). Because justice could not be confined within given political societies, but must in principle extend as widely as the reign of God itself, patristic Christianity embraced the idea of a unified world-order. Claims for the Roman empire as the God-given unitary political structure endured longer in Byzantium than in the West, though they returned to the medieval West in association with the German emperors, supported especially by critics of the papacy (Dante Alighieri 1954). Augustine, more guarded about empire, took Lactantius’ claim in a different direction, refusing to concede the existence of justice in polytheistic political communities that denied God his right. Political communities as such were bound together not by the virtue of justice, which they rarely possessed, but by ‘common objects of love’ of variable character and moral quality (Augustine, CG 19.21, 24). These community-binding loves derived in different ways from the primal alternative of self-love and the love of God, the two loves that formed the earthly and heavenly cities. The two cities were two spiritual communities that were evident throughout world history and included all particular political communities, determining their moral character. While the two cities could and must coexist in an uneasy cooperative relationship that evolved with the circumstances of history, their ultimate relation was conflictual: ‘the heavenly city could not have religious laws in common with the earthly city’. Justice in any society therefore depended essentially on the church in its midst – though even there the justice on display ‘consists more in sin forgiven than in virtue made perfect’ (Augustine CG 19.17, 27).

This conception severely qualified the ancient notion, evident in the Hebrew scriptures, of a political society constituted under two complementary authorities, priestly and royal, the two co-existing peaceably within separate spheres of operation according to the distinct principles of holiness and justice. Though this idea was still appealed to, and the duty of respect for the separate spheres was constantly invoked in medieval accounts of the ‘two rules’, the consciousness of God’s sovereign rule over secular rulers ensured that in Christendom the relation of the two spheres would always be a contested one. Voluntary perfectionist movements, monastic and separatist, arose in part because the compromise of purity in the church was perceived as inevitable in any social coexistence with the world. Medieval theorists of the ‘two rules’ attributed duties both of love and of justice to both forms of government: there was a jurisprudence proper to ecclesiastical government and a benevolent concern for popular welfare proper to civil government. For John Wyclif (fourteenth century) iniusticia and caritas were directly opposed terms (De civili dominio 1.1), the presence of either being inconsistent with the other. Thus the relation of love and justice recapitulates that between love and law, but with an added institutional dimension, the effect of which was to concede greater variation and autonomy to the sphere of justice. As the virtue of organized societies as well as of individuals, justice will be conditioned in relation to each society’s aims and requirements. Yet the question of how well the love owed by authorities to their subjects was served by the administration of justice could never be deemed irrelevant. For Aquinas (ST II–II.q26.a13), the full equivalence of love and justice could only be a hope for the kingdom of heaven, where everyone would be loved justly in proportion to the measure of his loveliness. However, such sins as war, riot, and sedition were committed not merely against justice but against charity (ST II–II.q.40–42), a point of organization on which Aquinas’s lead was followed by the scholasticism of the seventeenth century.

The task of Christian government was thus seen as a Christian service to political society with potentially reforming aims. Even Luther, who could state the distinction of the secular and sacred realms sharply without embarrassment at the office of the hangman, made it quite clear that the love a prince bore his people not only made him zealous for their interests but gave him an independence of established expectations. Rather than follow counsellors, traditions, and law, his use of ‘untrammelled reason’ in the service of love would recommend his justice to the approval of all (Luther 1962: 129). Specific aims in the reform of justice were adopted as time and circumstance required: centralizing irresponsible local power, bringing authorities under the rule of law, cultivating public morality and cooperative citizenship, and reducing the severity of coercive action all had special importance at different periods. A penal practice aimed at correcting the offender was one of the earliest and most persistent Christian social ambitions, shaping the practice of public penance in the church as a quasi-judicial sacrament of church order. It also created expectations for civil order, which was asked to assume less violent and more discriminating practices of punishment and accept the pedagogical need for ‘toleration’ of faults to allow for amendment. The church fathers urged civil rulers to employ the death penalty only if it was essential to civil order, and especially to avoid the practice of crucifixion, still in use against pirates (Ambrose Ep. 7; Augustine Letter 153). Intercession for criminals facing execution, urging the parable of the unforgiving servant and the story of the forgiven adulteress, became part of the accepted function of local bishops. Emperors who submitted to episcopal censure over the mass-slaughter of whole cities were celebrated as Christian rulers. In the Middle Ages, the emphasis shifted as the need to centralize justice under a uniform monarchical administration of law demanded more decisive action against baronial license. But the early modern period renewed the insistence that civil justice should be gentler. ‘Equity’ (translating epikeia, i.e. reasonableness, moderation, and sympathy for weakness) was urged in opposition to a rigorist doctrine of the application of law (Luther 1962; Perkins 1604), a doctrine that influenced Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Merchant of Venice. At the same time, the development of the idea of just war (Vitoria 1991; Suárez 1944; Grotius 1993) laid a new stress on the duties of discrimination and proportion even in justified conflict. Concern for a more constructive penal practice inspired eighteenth-century Protestant experiments with the ‘penitentiary’, laying the foundations for the modern prison-based penal system.

Schleiermacher (1981: 147) still upheld the doctrine that justice was an authentic virtue only when it understood as a species of love with application to all social contexts, not only to the state. But several factors hastened a nineteenth-century tendency to treat justice as independent and autonomous. Counter-revolutionary reaction against ‘natural’ justice encouraged legal positivism grounded in the state; the development of theories of social class and political systems removed justice from the moral influences on individual agents to operate on a more collective level. The opposition between the subjective and the objective seemed to pull considerations of love and justice apart into separate spheres. In the nineteenth- and twentieth-century reaction against moral idealism, an existentialist account of love tended to pair up with a realist account of justice. Max Weber’s rejection of a ‘politics of conviction’ and Ernst Troeltsch’s distinction between the social ethics of a sect and a church encouraged the conclusion in Protestant ethics, popularized by Reinhold Niebuhr, that love’s influence on the practice of justice could only be indirect, ‘the relevance of an impossible ethical ideal’ (Niebuhr 1936). Meanwhile, a renewed interest in Augustine’s account of the two cities focused less on their origins in the opposition of loves, more on their temporal cohabitation as a model for pluralist politics. Catholic thought moved in parallel with this, prompted by the need to overcome an ‘integralist’ conception of papal and secular authority and allow the church more flexibility in pluralist social contexts. Jacques Maritain argued influentially that Christian morality must play a formative educational role in shaping believers’ conscientious participation in pluralist democracy, but could supply no reasons valid for all participants. Democracy was thus governed by canons of justice that were independent of the faith and ethics of the gospel, though supported by them. However, both Protestant and Catholic traditions came to worry that this separation could be too sharply drawn, and that a justice defined only by institutional norms and procedures might be little more than raison d’état. If the meeting of love and justice, human and divine, was a central theme of the doctrine of redemption, the correction of institutional justice in the light of love was a possibility always to be kept open. Under the label of ‘agapism’, Protestant thinkers insisted not only that Christian love had played a historically important role in shaping modern ideas of political justice but that it continued to exercise a normative restraint over political strategies, e.g. in prohibiting acts of mass-destruction of whole populations in war (Ramsey 1960). The Second Vatican Council, underlining that same prohibition, claimed an authoritative position for the church in articulating the basic conditions for world-peace. However, by the end of the century, these agapist accounts were in their turn challenged by formalist philosophical construals of justice as ‘fairness’ in political philosophy (Rawls 2001), giving rise to a lively North American debate about the rights of religiously-motivated views in the context of a secular ‘public reason’.

In Christian moral thought, every moral concern, however distinctive, has to prove its credentials in relation to the primacy of love. At the same time, the scope of love is further revealed by new concerns that emerge and are brought into relation with it. How love for God and neighbour may direct and validate debates over geophysical environment, for racial justice, biotechnology, and artificial information has yet to be adequately thought through; these questions present an open challenge to Christian moral reason. At the same time, the traditional conclusions drawn from the command of love may often need imaginative recovery. For example, the link between love and the unity of the church, a link so urgently talked about in the last century and so quickly forgotten in this, may determine what social basis there will be for Christian moral reason in the future.


Copyright Oliver O’Donovan (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Brown, Peter. 1988. The Body and Society. New York: Columbia University Press.
    • Brunner, Emil. 1945. Justice and the Social Order. Translated by Mary Hottinger. London: Lutterworth Press.
    • Burnaby, John. 2007. Amor Dei: A Study of the Religion of St Augustine. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
    • Butler, Joseph. 1896. ‘Fifteen Sermons’, in Butler’s Works. Edited by W. E. Gladstone. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
    • Fénélon, François. 1983. Oeuvres. Volume 1. Edited by Jacques le Brun. Paris: Gallimard. (Especially ‘Explication des Maximes des Saints’, ‘Réponse à la Relation sur le quiétisme’, 999–1199.)
    • Furnish, Victor P. 1973. The Love Command in the New Testament. London: SCM Press.
    • Gilleman, Gérard. 1959. The Primacy of Charity in Moral Theology. Translated by W. F. Ryan and A. Vachon. London: Burns & Oates.
    • Gregory, Eric. 2008. Politics and the Order of Love. Chicago: University of Press.
    • Meilaender, Gilbert C. 1981. Friendship: A Study in Theological Ethics. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press.
    • O’Donovan, Oliver. 2006. The Problem of Self-Love in St. Augustine. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
    • Outka, Gene H. 1972. Agape: An Ethical Analysis. New Haven: Yale University Press.
    • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. 1998. Systematic Theology. Volume 3. Translated by G. W. Bromiley. Edinburgh/Grand Rapids: T&T Clark/Eerdmans.
    • Pieper, Josef. 1997. Faith, Love and Hope. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
    • Rosmini, Antonio. 1988. Principles of Ethics. Translated by Terence Watson and Denis Cleary. Durham: Rosmini House.
    • Rousselot, Pierre. 2001. The Problem of Love in the Middle Ages: A Historical Contribution. Translated by Alan Vincelette. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press.
    • Scheler, Max. 1954. The Nature of Sympathy. Translated by Peter Heath. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
    • Spicq, Ceslaus. 2006. Agape in the New Testament. Translated by M. A. McNamara and M. H. Richter. Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock.
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