Biblical Challenges To A Theology of Love

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It has been a while since systematic theologians attended to the task of developing a more comprehensive approach to love. The last major discussion on love in Christian theology took place around the middle of last century. 1  In the meantime, occasional essays and articles, mostly in theological dictionaries and handbooks, have restated the tradition and its developments, but rarely  attempted a larger contemporary discussion of the different dimensions of and possible changes in the theology of love. Of  course, the ethical implications of Christian love have often been examined and developed. 2  More recently, love has also received new attention in philosophical theology and in phenomenology. 3  A number numb er of impo important rtant exegetical exegeti cal studies studi es have added to the understanding of love in its diverse biblical texts and contexts. However, no larger conversation between biblical scholars and theologians on love has emerged as of late.  All Chri Christia stian n think thinkers ers agree that love is the central cen tral theme of  Christian religion. Love refers both to the nature of God (1 John 4:16) and the divinely created nature of relationship. Thus it concerns a broad network of interdependent relationships: between God and the universe; God and human beings; God and the church; between human beings andbeings God; and between one human being and another; between human the universe; between human beings and their diverse cultural and religious traditions and expectations; and between each human being and her or his own emerging self. 1

 Amon g promi  Among prominent nent contr contributor ibutorss to th that at disco discourse urse on love we fin find d Anders Nygren, Paul Tillich, Karl Rahner, Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis and Hans Urs von Balthasar. 2 Gene Outka,  AGAPE  AGAPE:: An Ethical Analy Analysis sis  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972). 3 See Vincent Brümmer, The Model of Love: A Study in Philosophical Theology  I paradossi  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,  1993); andMorcelliana, Adriano Fabris, dell’amore fra grecità, ebraismo e cristianesimo (Brescia: 2001).

©  Ko Koninklijk e Brill NV, Leiden, 2003  Also availabl availablee online—

Biblical Interpretation 1 1, 3/4


biblical challenges to a theology of love


In this brief article I would like to explore the ground for such a conversation between biblical scholars and theologians on love. First I would like to comment on the present intellectual horizon for a discussion on love. Secondly, I shall discuss some of the biblical challenges to a contemporary theology of love. And finally, I shall identify some promising themes for a conversation between biblical scholars and theologians on love. 1 . Approaching Christian Love Today  Today a theology of love faces major suspicions: (1) Since all expressions and theories of love obviously have a history, how can love be the ultimate principle of Christian thinking about God and a successful divine-human relationship? Does not this principle and its expressions tend to change in response to historical circumstances and challenges? (2) The ongoing inter-religious encounter has shown that love cannot be considered to be a Christian possession. Moreover, God’s love cannot be restricted to the realm of the Christian churches. To what extent then is love the carrier of Christian identity? (3) Within the Christian movement, love has had a variable history: Even a brief glance at its career in the Christian tradition discloses the fact that love has been used or invoked in order to commit what we today would consider to be atrocious crimes: Corporal punishment has been inflicted on children in the name of love for them and their personal development. Infidels have been persecuted and killed in the name of  love for the truth. Women who had challenged the given order in church and society were burned out of love for their souls— though not for their bodies. People have perished in the shadow  of love. (4) Psychology has been uncovering further ambiguities: How authentic are human love relationships—between adults, between parents and children, between human beings and God?  What acts of pro projection, jection, repres repression sion and trans transference ference do occur in experiences of love? (5) Sociology has added its voice to the debate on the ambiguities of love by pointing to the level of unrealistic expectations invested in contemporary love relationships. The love of the postmodern couple, for instance, is expected to resolve all imaginable problems of both partners, i.e. the problem of loneliness, the desire to be accepted and confirmed as a person, the fulfilment of all sorts of sexual wishes etc. The love between both partners is often considered in terms of social therapy 



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or as a mutually fabricated social basis that provides a space of  personal security in an all too complex, fragmentary, over-regulated and globalized world. 4 Thus, today it appears rather difficult to talk meaningfully and constructively about love. However, becoming aware of the complexity and ambiguity of the discourse on love does not mean that  one could not consider the potential of love, even of Christian forms and expressions of love. Since many contemporary Christian discourses on love, in the academy, in the church and in society at large, claim to stand in the tradition of love provoked by the Christian movement’s foundational experiences, it would seem appropriate to approach the biblical resources of the Christian movement with a view to exploring their treatment of love. 2. Biblical Approaches to Love  Traditionally theologians were particularly keen to ascertain the differences between the Jewish and the Christian understanding of love, which then allowed them to build a case for the superiority of Christian religion. More recent biblical studies, however, have uncovered a more sophisticated understanding of love by  profiling its respective development within particular biblical contexts. The shift in exegetical interest from Christian apologetic concerns to a more critical and self-critical discussion of the biblical texts has promoted a review of the treatment of love within the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Hence, more nuances in the development of o f love have emerged and challenged some of the classical theological convictions. One of the most significant insights into the nature of biblical texts has been the discovery that biblical texts are texts. That means that they ought not to be reduced to collections of propositions, but seen as complex linguistic entities. As such they are able both to refer back to their particular contexts and to open their semantic potential to readers from very different social, religious and linguistic contexts. Moreover, as texts they always already participate in a communicative system that is marked by changing con ventions and styles. Hence, the fact that biblical texts always appear in particular literary forms (e.g. hymns, laws and regulations, nar4

normalee Chaos der  Ulrich Beck Suhrkamp, and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim,  Das ganz normal  Liebe  See (Frankfurt/M.: 1990).


biblical challenges to a theology of love


ratives, etc.) and are received with the help of particular reading genres and reading styles has challenged any naïve use of biblical texts for the sake of providing building material mat erial for ambitious and unambiguous theological doctrines. 5 These and related hermeneutical developments have sharpened sh arpened the theologian’s perception for the phenomenon that all discussions and descriptions of love in the Bible witness to particular experiences, circumstances, expectations and desires. Biblical love has a rich history. Therefore any effort to converse with biblical texts on the development of love draws the contemporary reader and thinker into this historical flow of experiences, ideas, ambiguities and expectations. I would like to illustrate this point with regard both to the double love command, namely the love of God and the love of neighbour, and the changing horizon of love.  Lov e of God and Love of Neighbour   Love Neighbo ur  There is great unanimity in the different biblical texts about the origin of love. Love comes from God. It emerges from God’s creative and reconciling presence in the universe. This divine love makes human love first of all possible. God’s love manifests itself  both through the divinely granted covenant with God’s people and through God’s acts as creator of the universe. Within the covenant, therefore, the love of God is the greatest commandment: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and  with all your migh might” t” (Deut. 6:4-5 6: 4-5). ).6 In this Shema Israel  as   as well as in its communicative context, the love relationship between God and his people is based on the Sinai covenant. It is important to note that here the expression of love of God is not so much a matter of intimate affection than a matter of “obedience to God’s commandments, serving God, showing reverence for God, and being loyal to God alone.” 7 Depending on which Hebrew word is used to express the nature of the relationship between God and his people, different nuances are em5

See Werner G. Jeanrond, Text and Interpretation as Categories of Theological  Thomas as J. Wilson; Wilson; Dublin: Gill and Mac Macmillan, millan, 1988); and Thinking   (trans. Thom  Jeanrond  Jea nrond,, Theological Hermeneutics: Development and Significance   (London: SCM, 1994). 6  All Bible quotations quotation s refer to the  New Revis Revised ed Standard Vers Version ion.. 7 Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, “Love (OT),” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Dictionary , vol. 4 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), pp. 375-81 (376).



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phasized in the texts. Hence, there are many meanings of love in the Hebrew Scriptures and a number of different terms that give expression to them (e.g. d¡d , ra‘y¸ ,  y¸dîd , h¸±aq , }¸ h¹b, and hesed )).. The single English term love   has contributed to the widespread illusion that we here are dealing with a well-defined phenomenon and its unambiguous expression. All of the different Hebrew expressions translated as love nevertheless refer to experiences of  close relationship, although not all of them denote (sexual) intimacy. The expression of God’s relationship through the verb }¸h¹b, for example, enjoys a significant development over time and context. Hosea uses this same expression when likening God’s relationship to Israel to the relationship of the (patriarchal) husband to his  wife. In spite of this enlargement enlargem ent of association assoc iation into the area of  marital intimacy, there is no question that all the founding activity  and energy of this relationship originate in God’s will. God makes Israel’s love possible.8 Even the expression of God’s relationship through the noun hesed  undergoes  undergoes a development. This term “compactly incorporates all three of these dimensions (commitment, provision for need, freedom) in a single word.” 9  The Mosaic covenant tradition “stretches the meaning of the term beyond its usual secular usage to incorporate the possibility of forgiveness as an act of divine hesed. ”10 The communicative possibilities of dealing with the different  dimensions of God’s love for Israel and Israel’s love for God were somewhat restricted in the process of the Septuagint translation  where  whe re the Greek Gre ek term agap¹   was allowed to lend expression to nearly all of the Hebrew terms for love. The verb  phile¡   is used

only very rarely. The Greek verb era¡ , which can refer to sexual love, was avoided altogether in the Pentateuch as a translation of  the Hebrew }¸h¹b (which can have the same connotations). 11 T  The he price for this restriction of connotations has been high, especially  for later Christian readers of the Hebrew Bible through Greek. The reduction of a wider imagination of religious love that includes the erotic dimension of human relationality to a narrower 8 9 10

Cf. Sakenfeld, p. 377. Sakenfeld, p. 378. Sakenfeld, p. 379.


The Anchor Bible Dictio-  Cf. William Klassen, “Love (NTvol. and4, Early Jewish),” nary  (New York: Doubleday, 1992), pp. 381-96 (381).


biblical challenges to a theology of love


imagination that wishes to understand religious references to love to be free from eros has contributed to the problematic rupture between eros and agape   in the Christian theology of love. Of  course, we can appreciate the Greek translators’ dilemma to find a word that would not lead to a false identification between Yah weh and eros, the Greek god of love, whose veneratio veneration n was widespread and popular at the time. Nevertheless, avoiding one problem in translation has led to other problems in the reception of the text. Translations rarely reduce ambiguities. The New  Testament writers do not use the term eros either. Their preferred terms for talking about love were agap¹  and   and  phile¡ . In spite of the shifts in language, there is agreement throughout the Hebrew Bible on the faithfulness of God’s love and on God’s mercifulness and willingness to forgive breaches of that  relationship which God has offered to his people. The divine offer of love embraces all aspects of reality. To love God implies to respect and accept the creative power of God’s love and presence, pr esence, but also to love the other human being and one’s own emerging self. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes  justice  ju stice for the orphan and the widow, wid ow, and who loves the strangers, stranger s, provid provid-ing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone  you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear (Deut. 10:17-20).

Love of God and love of neighbour thus belong together. Although they need to be distinguished, disting uished, they must not be separated. For women, men and children to love God demands openness to God’s creative project, letting oneself be drawn into this project  and following its rules and wisdom, respecting God’s divinity, accepting God’s otherness, desiring to know more about God and longing for an always intensifying closeness to God.  According  Accord ing to the syn synoptic optic gosp gospels, els, even Jesus Jesus’’ theolo theology gy of love is naturally anchored in this covenantal understanding. The covenant and its laws provide the framework for the successful di vine-huma  vinehuman n relatio relationshi nship. p. Jesus never aband abandoned oned the covenant covenantal al order. Rather he re-emphasized the love commandment from Deuteronomy when provoked to identify the greatest commandment within the Torah. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment.



werner g. jeanrond  And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself. yourself.”” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matt. 22:3740 and par. in Mark 12:29-31 and Luke 10:27).

This double commandment is based on citations both from Deut. 6:5 (see above) and from Lev. 19:18 and 34 and thus emphasizes the Hebrew tradition (though in its Greek Septuagint translation) in which the Christian love command is rooted. 12  Theologically  speaking, it is firs nott to of have great intr importance toe know whether not   Jesu  Jesus s was the first introdu oduced ced th the comb combin inatio ation n oforboth love commands.13  It is more important to appreciate the significance of this double command for the proclamation of God’s reign in the synoptic gospels. Love is the central focus of the human-divine and the human-human relationship. However, for  Jesus this focus calls for concrete concr ete action rather than for a llengthy  engthy  theological or legal deliberation. This fact is most clearly expressed in Luke’s gospel where the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is told immediately  after the citation of the double love command. Moreover, by redefining the meaning of “neighbour,” the Lucan Jesus establishes a principle of moral obligation which is independent of the Mosaic law. “In the context of the group-oriented ethics of first-century Palestine this was indeed a radical step.” 14 Søren Kierkegaard sees in the commandment to love one’s neighbour an eternal  trans transformation of human love. “Thus, only when it is a duty to love, only then is love eternally reliable.” 15 The praxis of love, which Jesus proclaims and lives through his actions, reaches out to all sorts of people: the friends, the needy,  women,  wome n, children, child ren, the poor, poo r, the suff sufferin ering, g, the sick, sic k, th thee sinn sinners, ers, the foreigner, and the enemy. This praxis reflects God’s goodness to all and gathers all people around God’s creative and reconciling presence. 12

Cf. also Klassen, p. 385. Birger Gerhardsson does “not think that Jesus was the first in Israel to make this combination.” B. Gerhardsson, The Shema in the New Testament   (Lund: Novapress, 1996), p. 276. 14 Philip F. Esler, “Jesus and the Reduction of Intergroup Conflict: The Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Light of Social Identity Theory,”  BibI  BibInt nt 8 (2000), pp. 325-57 (345). Esler (351) draws attention also to the related passage in Acts 10: 34-35 where Peter says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” 13


 Kjerlighedens  Kjerl ighedens Gjer Gjerninger  ninger  [1847] Kierkegaard,pp.  [1847] (Copenhagen: Gyldendal G yldendal,, 2000)Søren (my translation), 37-38.


biblical challenges to a theology of love


But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate  you, bless those who curse you, pray for those tho se who abuse you ... Your reward  will  wi ll be great, and you will be children chil dren of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:27-28 and 35b-36).

The constructive and charitable relationship to all people that  characterizes this understanding of love is an important theological event—notwithstanding whether or not it is original. Rather its centrality in the synoptic gospels provokes the theologian to  widen  wi den the hori horizon zon of love so as to incl include ude the enemy enemy,, the for for-eigner, and the sinner.16  Parallel with this widening of the horizon, the gospels reveal a relativisation of traditional family bonds:  Jesus is repor reported ted to have redefined the quest question ion of identi identity ty in his community now in terms of belonging to God and active participation in God’s reign: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). The Changing Horizon of Love 

The community thethough close connection betweenJohannine love of God and lovetoo of stresses the other, in its writings the others refer to members of this Christian community. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them ... We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also (1 John 4:16b and 19-21).

The Johannine understanding of Christian love includes two further dimensions: (1) the love of God is related to oneness or harmony within the Christian community and (2) to Jesus’ own example of self-sacrifice for his friends. With regard to the first, it  is striking to see how much the author of the gospel focuses on the issue of abiding in the love of God. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:9-10). It is obvious that love characterizes the network of relationships between God, the Son and the community against the very real threat of  16

See here also Gerd Theiß Theißen,  Die Relig Religion ion der ersten Christen: Eine Theorie des Urchristentums   (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 3rd edn, 2003), Urchristentums p. 106.



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hatred, namely of that what destroys the inner-Christian bond, from inside and outside.  With rega regard rd to the second seco nd dimens dim ension, ion, it is imp importan ortantt for the author to show that love has to do with self-sacrifice on behalf of  the others within the same community.  We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone  who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet  refuses help? (1 John 3:16-17)

The Johannine approach to love evolves around an intensification of love that aims to strengthen the community from within (cf.  John 13: 3434-35). 35). There T here is n no oq questio uestion n that love is ccentral entral to Chr Chrisistian discipleship also according to John, though the scope of love in John’s community differs from other New Testament writings. The Johannine discourse on love centres around the Christian community’s own life including the call to pay attention to those brothers who require help and assistance. The equality of the members of the Christian community may thus be stressed, 17 however, the shift from a love that is actively concerned about all the others now to a love that is directed towards the inner circle of a Christian church cannot be overlooked. Love functions in this community first of all in terms of internal loyalty over against a societal context experienced as threatening. 18 Moreover, here love and oneness are linked in such a manner that suggests that love is not so much the way to handle difference, conflict and otherness as a way of avoiding all three. Here, John clearly differs from Paul and Luke.  All New Testament Tes tament discourse disco ursess on love witnes witnesss to the divin divinee origin of love, but draw quite different conclusions from this insight. To acknowledge God as the author of love and to reflect upon God’s nature as love does not necessarily lead to the same kind of  theological conviction or indeed to the same kind of praxis of love in church and world. With regard to the vogue of Trinitarian approaches to church and society in contemporary theology one might wish to add a cautionary remark here: References to the inner-trinitarian love do not automatically lead to an adequate Christian praxis. Insights into the divine mystery do not necessar17

Cf. Theiß Theiß en, p. 108.

See Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), pp. 59-61 and p. 233. 18


biblical challenges to a theology of love


ily provide guarantees for adequate Christian action. 19  While for John love is a mean meanss of un unity ity fo forr th those ose who belon belong g to the Johannine church, Paul considers love to be a means of handling conflict, difference and otherness in the Christian community. To the disunited community at Corinth Paul wishes to offer an unusual, extraordinary way of approaching one another in everyday life. Paul does neither moralise, nor sentimentalise, nor psychologise this way of love. Instead he demonstrates a praxis inspired by the goal of God’s creation. Love is not an idea or abstraction.20   Rather Paul attempts to show concrete attitudes springing from this extraordinary way. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends (1 Cor. 13:4-8a).

Moreover, for Paul love is the central dimension of Christian discipleship and existence (cf. Gal. 5:6). Love draws the Christian into the truth. It thus has an eschat eschatological ological dynamics (1 Cor. 13:1213). But it also has a personal dynamics, for love draws the Christian disciple into union with Christ. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Rom. 8:35) Paul answers himself: No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:37-39).

Not even death can separate the Christian from the love of Christ. That means that this love not only is unlimited, rather it has the quality of eternity, namely of God’s own realm. God’s presence, love and respect for creation will never end. This in turn means that the love relation which God offers to the human being in Christ both respects God’s divinity and the humanity of the hu19

See Werner G. Jeanrond, “Revelation and the Trinitarian Concept of God:  Are  A re th they ey Key Concept Conc eptss f or Theolog Th eolog ical Thou gh ght?” t?” in Wern Werner er Je Jeanro anrond nd and Christoph Theobald (eds.), God: Experience and Mystery,  2001:1, pp. 120Mystery , Concilium  2001:1, 30. 20 Cf. Wolfgang Schrage, Der Schrage,  Der Erste Brief an die Korinther  Korin ther , vol. 3 (1 Kor 11,1714,40), EKK VII/3 VII/ 3 (Zurich: Benziger and Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchner Verlag, 1999), p. 294.



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man being without dissolving the one into the other. God’s love then respects the difference between the human being and God and thus invites to an eternal disclosure of the mystery both of  God’s divinity and the humanity of the human being. Yet for Paul, this understanding of love is not confined to the limits of the human subject. Rather every genuine love comes from God and extends to the entire community, which God has called into existence through Christ (cf. Rom. 5:5). It is interesting to note that  “Paul seems most comfortable speaking about the love of God/ Christ in the first person plural.”21  Withou  Wit houtt dis discus cussin sing g further fur ther New Tes Testam tament ent com commun munitie itiess and their respective references to love, already at this point we can conclude that the Bible offers important aspects and initiatives for a theology of love. However, this theology is characterized by a plurality of different contextual insights and expressions. There is agreement on the divine origin of the gift of love and on the potential love has for the development of a Jewish and a Christian praxis. Love neither is a Christian invention or possession. Rather the Christian understanding of God’s relationship to the  world in Christ Chr ist opens up an ethos mark marked ed by attention to love. However, there is a shifting horizon within this attention to love: is love to inspire only the relationship between the Christian community and God or does it even concern the relationship between Christians and non-Christians? Does love extend to the enemies and outsiders? How much otherness inside and outside of the Christian community is to be approached through love? 3. Challenges to a Theology of Love  Our brief discussion of some of the biblical approaches to love has drawn our attention to some problems and questions: First of all, biblical love has a history. Tracing the development  of a theology of love throughout different biblical contexts and traditions can make the contemporary reader aware of the variety  of communal and personal expressions of love as well as of the connection between the commandments to love God, to love the other human being, and to love oneself in the right way. Second, both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament   we detect trends of includ including ing and of exclu excluding ding “other “others” s” from the 21

Klassen, “Love (NT and Early Jewish),” p. 392.


biblical challenges to a theology of love


horizon of love. The universal horizon of God’s love to which the  variou  var iouss cre creatio ation n acc accoun ounts ts and cov covenan enantt nar narrat ratives ives witn witness ess is at  times narrowed down by concerns for communal identity both in Israel and the church. Third, a combination of linguistic and cultural developments has promoted the reduction of the degree of passion in biblical considerations of love. Desire and  Lei  Leidens denschaf chaft  t   are present in a number of texts in the Hebrew Bible, but strikingly absent in the texts of the New Testament. In Exod. 20:5 God is described as a “jealous God.” In Jeremiah 2–3 we read of God’s passionate love for his people, but also of God’s disappointment over Israel’s failure to love God. Emotions are evoked when God contemplates his love for Israel (see Isa. 49:15-16). 49:15- 16). Likewise human love for God is expressed in images portraying deep emotions:  As a deer longs for flowi flowing ng streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears havesay been my food dayally, and night,  whil  while e people to me continually, continu “Where is your God?” (Ps. 42:1-3)

Body and soul are involved in this love relationship between human beings and God. The entire human person loves God. In such texts the unholy separation between eroticism and piety that later on was to permeate the Christian spiritual development is not yet   visible  visi ble here. Rather the whole human perso person n desir desires es God’s pres pres-ence. Notwithstanding later allegorical interpretations and theological reconstructions, the rich imagination of the love poetics in the Song of Songs offers the reader a beautiful hymn to love in all its erotic splendour and shapes. The presence of this text in the biblical canon might serve as a promising reminder that human sexuality ought to be well integrated into the network of  divine-human love relationship. The human person is created as a subject capable of loving God, other human beings, herself, and God’s entire creation. Human sexuality is not only not an obstacle to the human vocation to become an agent of love. On the contrary, God meets the human being in the incarnate   son. God’s assuming of a human body does not only exclude any thought of  human love without a body, but stresses the participation of the body in all acts of eternal love. The story of the woman with the alabaster jar, which we find in all the gospels, illustrates very plastically the respect for and appreciation of Jesus’ body (Matt. 26:6-



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13 and par.). At the same time it inspires the reader’s erotic imagination and thus might help in overcoming the contemptuous attitude of some Christian periods toward the body, an attitude that  sharply separates separates b betwee etween n pure (i.e. non-physical) and impure (i.e. physical) expressions of love. At times eroticism has been challenged and erotic expressions of love in the Bible have been explained away with reference to deeper spiritual senses and concepts. Bodily love was often considered ambiguous, whereas spiritual love ( agap¹ ) was considered above suspicion. However, in our reading of the Bible there is no unambiguous expression of love. The crucial question, then, is not the one between pure and impure love, but between love affected by eternity and love not affected by eternity. Fourth, many of the biblical texts confirm a certain amount of  ambiguity with regard to the question that occupies so many of  today’s readers: How can I relate to my own emerging self within the network of interdependent love relationships? Feminist thinkers have often reminded theologians that one needs first some measure of selfhood in order to invest it then into the network of  love relationships.22 While many biblical texts, the gospels in particular, point to Jesus’ regard for the entire human person including her bodily integrity, the process of maturing in love is only  reflected in passing. Paul testifies to a radical transformation of  self-identity as a result of the power of Christ’s love: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ   who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19b-20). What does such a view of intimate unity between Christ’s love and the human personofmean understanding as a subject love? for the human person’s selfFinally, a theology of love would need to attend to the question of criteria of adequacy for Christian love. According to Kierkegaard’s suggestion it would be important to explore to what extent human love relationships reflect their eternal character. Following Paul’s and the synoptic gospels’ line of argument, we could ask to what extent the praxis p raxis of love represents an adequate response to God’s always prior love for us, a love that is unlim-

22 See Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theologi-  cal Discourse  (New   (New York: Crossroad, 1993), p. 265.


biblical challenges to a theology of love


ited, faithful, respectful and eternal. Or with reference to John’s community it would seem appropriate to ask: Does Christian love reflect Christ’s invitation to follow him on his way to God, a way  that does not know either status claims or hierarchy, but heeds the call to be the servant of his friends (cf. John 13).  A more comprehen comprehensive sive theology theolog y of love is needed. It requi requires res the constructive and critical co-operation of biblical scholars and theologians. But already at this point it has become evident that  neither Jewish nor Christian love can be taken to be an object of  faith or a principle. Rather, love is a way of life, a praxis. It is not  an attempt to lift all human differences and forms of otherness to a higher spiritual level. On the contrary, it is firmly rooted in the everyday encounter of belonging and difference, conflict and otherness. It seeks a new world order where all human beings can respect God’s otherness as well as each other’s otherness and actively explore God’s gift of creation and reconciliation.

 Abstr  Ab stract act  A contem contemporary porary system systematic atic theological th eological reflect reflection ion upon love requir requires es a crossdisciplinary attention to the plurality of approaches to love within the Hebrew  Scriptures and the New Testament. This article explores the retrieval and development of Jewish love traditions within three New Testament traditions, namely  the Synoptic Gospels, the Johannine texts, and Paul. These approaches agree on the divine origin and gift-character of love, but differ in their assessment of both the horizon of love and the significance of love for the Christian community.  John  Joh n stresses stress es the com communi munity’s ty’s n need eed tto o be un united ited in llove ove against ag ainst a hostile hosti le environenvi ronment; Paul recommends the praxis of love as means of dealing with difference, otherness and conflict within the community; and Luke considers the universal scope of neighbourly love. Thus, acknowledging God as the author of love and reflecting upon God’s nature as love does not necessarily lead to the same theological convictions or praxis of love in church and world. Moreover, the rich and ambiguous history of biblical love includes a shifting emphasis on human desire, the erotic, and the body. A critical theology of love would need to pay close attention to both the possibilities and ambiguities of the plurality of approaches to love in the Bible.

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