Dr Patrick Mitchel is Director of Learning at the Irish Bible Institute in Dublin, and blogs at Faith in Ireland. He is the author of a new volume in the Bible Speaks Today: Bible Themes series on The Message of Love. I asked him about the book, the theme, and its importance.
Tell us about the book that you have written. Why were you drawn to write it, and would do you hope it will contribute to the its readers?
The genre of the IVP Bible Speaks Today (BST) Themes series is designed to expound the biblical text and relate to contemporary life in an accessible way. I have done my best to do that through discussion of seventeen texts. Each chapter stands on its own but also makes a distinctive contribution to an overall biblical theology of love.
In regard to why this book, it really was a process of being drawn in to where I felt compelled to put pen to paper. There were twenty BST themes volumes published before this one on love – which is remarkable when you think about it given the importance of love within the Bible. It confirmed what others have noticed before me, that there is a curious lack of biblical studies on love, so this book attempts to help fill that gap. My prayer is that it will give individual readers, preachers and anyone interested in Christianity a fresh vision of the love of God and his agenda for his people to be communities of love within the world. There is a study guide which should be particularly useful for groups.
Why do you think that the subject of ‘love’ is an important one for Christians today?
First, a very good case can be made that love is the most important theme in Scripture. At the heart of the entire narrative is the covenant love of God for his chosen people, through whom the Abrahamic promise of blessing will extend outwards. Repeatedly in the OT, crisis points test that love to the very limit, but it remains unbreakable (Moses’ dialogue with Yahweh in Exodus 32-34 is an extraordinary early example, closely followed by Hosea and its picture of God as a betrayed lover). A central claim of the NT is that story of divine love takes a dramatic and unexpected Christological twist in the Father’s sending of his beloved Son. It culminates in the supreme demonstration of God’s love at the cross (Rom. 5:8) and is why John (uniquely) says ‘God is love’ (1 John 4: 8, 16) – his love is revealed in the sending of his Son.
Love also describes the appropriate human response to the one true God as summarised in the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 – no other loves are to stand in the way. While Jesus talks sparingly about love, when he does he stands in full continuity love in the Old Testament – love of God and neighbour fulfils the law (Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:27). What is astonishing however, is how Jesus extends such wholehearted love to himself, demanding complete allegiance from his disciples, above all other loves, even family (e.g., Matt 10:37). Such allegiance means loving as he loves – loving enemies and serving others self-sacrificially.
The high place of love is continued and developed by other NT writers, especially Paul and John. For Paul, God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). The strap-line for the book is ‘the only thing that counts’ which comes from Galatians 5:6 where authentic faith is worked out in love. Add in 1 Corinthians 13 and 16:14 (‘Do everything in love’) and you quickly see how love for Paul is the very purpose of being a Christian. Without it, everything Christians do is an utter waste of time. Love is also central for John, if using different language. Disciples remain in Jesus’ love through obedience – and his command is to love one another (John 5:14, 17, cf. 13:34). To put all this another way, while there are significant developments within a biblical theology of love from Old to New Testament, we can say that love is God’s consistent agenda for his people right through the Bible.
Second, studying love in the Bible inevitably raises big important theological and pastoral questions that all of us will face at some point or other. For example:
Divine love: Is God really loving and utterly good? How can God love if he allows such suffering in the world? How is divine love compatible with divine judgement? Is God’s love unconditional? How does God show his love for the poor and marginalised? How is God’s love revealed at the cross?
Human love for God: Can love be love if it is commanded? How do faith, love and the Spirit connect together? Why is love of money such a danger? If love for God requires humility and submission, is Christian love a denial of life and our full humanity (Nietzsche)? How is love for God costly?
Human love for one another: Why does the Bible overwhelmingly concentrate on love within the community of the people of God? Is loving enemies an impossible ideal? What does the Bible have to say about erotic sexual love? What is the relationship between knowing God and loving one another? What does a loving Christian marriage look like? How is love God’s most powerful ‘weapon’ in a conflict with powers opposed to his will? What is the relationship between love and future hope? Where are you and I being called to walk in the difficult yet life-transforming path of love?
Third, now that the protective blanket of Christendom has been unceremoniously removed from the Church in the West, Christianity is under more critical scrutiny than it has experienced for a very long time. In terms of witness and mission today, a key challenge for the Church is to be an authentic community in and through which the transforming love of God is made manifest within the world.
What do you think are the major issues in the way that love is (mis)understood in contemporary culture?
Today love has become virtually a religion in the West – an all-embracing belief system that answers questions of ultimate purpose. The reasons behind love’s exaltation are well described German sociologists Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim:
Love is glorified largely because it represents a sort of refuge in the chilly environment of our affluent, impersonal, uncertain society, stripped of its traditions and scarred by all kinds of risk . . . weighed down by expectations and frustrations, ‘love’ is the new centre round which our detraditionalised life revolves.
So love, in itself becomes what life is all about. The ‘shape’ of that love will tend to be universalist and inclusive, almost a type of liberation theology, freeing people to be themselves. The philosopher Simon May has an incisive analysis of the high expectations that love now carries:
the more individualistic we become the more we expect love to be a secular journey for the soul, a final source of meaning and freedom, a supreme standard of value, a key to the problem of identity, a solace in the face of rootlessness, a desire for the worldly and simultaneously a desire to transcend it, a redemption from suffering, and, a promise of eternity. Or all of these at once.
A key idea here is the anthropological optimism at the heart of much modern love. By this I mean how love is assumed to be within easy reach of anyone with little cost to the self. Yet this is a recent development and is far removed from how love is understood within Scripture and Christian tradition.
How well do you think Christians today understand love as it is expressed and explained in the Bible?
That’s a tough one! I guess the answer is mixed. Hopefully most Christians have personal experience of the redemptive love of triune God. Also well-understood is how Christian spirituality revolves around the imitation of Jesus – other-focused love is at the core of what it means to be a disciple. I’m sure we can all think of inspiring examples of such love being worked out within our own circles.
But I think it would be naïve to think that we are not being shaped by powerful cultural pressures when it comes to love. We downplay the gulf between divine and human love. Some symptoms include when God’s love is sentimentalized, sin and judgement are rarely talked about, we are uncomfortable with sexual ethics, we sing cringe-worthy romantic worship songs, we live privatised lives with carefully limited exposure to those in need and, echoing Marcion, we ignore much of the OT. What is going on here, I think, is that we are losing touch with the paradox at the heart of Christian love: it is by losing our lives that we find them, it is by dying to the self that we are enabled to love. The Christian ‘path’ to love is humility, repentance and obedience, it is anything but easy and automatic. Love is a virtue developed over the long haul at significant cost.
You have posted about this Ian, but I wonder if this is linked to how the gospel is often recast as ‘God loves you’? While true (!) this is not the gospel of the NT. A fascinating fact is that Acts is the only NT book in which love is not mentioned once. Think of all those gospel sermons – love is nowhere to be seen. The response to the gospel in the NT is typically faith, repentance and baptism – a radical change of allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ. All too easily, ‘God loves you’ can be framed in a way that fails to demand such a response but effectively just affirms us where we are at.
What do you think readers might find surprising in your study of love in the Scriptures?
One is that love is the primary weapon in God’s war. Within Paul’s eschatology love is far more than a ‘nice’ idea, it is actually God’s goal for his people and his ‘weapon’ in a spiritual war with forces opposed to his will. Christians are to fight with love in the power of the Spirit, not with the weapons of the world. (This means that when it comes to loving enemies I argue that discipleship entails being non-violent).
For good and ill, Augustine casts a long shadow when it comes to love. On one hand, his insight that we are first and foremost lovers is brilliant and important. A consistent question in the Bible is not if we love, but who or what we love. This shows who we truly are and what we really believe – much more than what we say we believe. This is why the OT, Jesus, Paul and John all have so much to say about the heart. On the other hand, Augustine’s neo-platonic attitude to the body and sex has had all sorts of unfortunate consequences. Biblical love is earthy and embodied, nowhere more so than in the Song of Songs. It has been allegorised to death, I argue, because of deep ambivalence in Christian tradition towards its joyful celebration of erotic love.
There is surprisingly little in the Bible about God’s people loving the world. The overwhelming emphasis all the way through is on love for God and one another within the covenant community (the great majority of love language in the NT belongs here). This has profound implications, I think, for public theology. I am persuaded that the primary call of the church is to be the church, not to try to fix the world – and I recognise that is a much bigger discussion.
What did you learn most from writing this text?
A lot of things that will continue to take time to process. Some at the top of the list include:
I was left with the overwhelming impression of how Christianity is ultimately about God’s relentless commitment to human flourishing.
Theologically, within the narrative of the Bible, it is the identity of Jesus as God’s beloved Son who dies for us that marks a revolution in the understanding of divine love. As Larry Hurtado says, Christianity’s love-ethic marked it out as unique in the ancient world.
It is an unnamed woman who utters not a word who is commended by Jesus more highly than anyone else in the NT for her ‘great love’ (Luke 7:36-50). She taught me that love requires humility and gratitude and leads to joyful worship.
Love has deeply subversive social implications. For example, in Ephesians 5:21-33 husbands are four times commanded to love their wives, including even as their own bodies. This means treating them as equal in identity, status and worth – which was unheard of in the ancient world.
That love is ultimately about loyalty / allegiance means it is a profoundly relevant topic for Christian discipleship within a consumer culture that is relentlessly persuading us to love all sorts of temporary delights provided by the market.
In an age where it tends to be side-lined, we need a robust theology of divine wrath because God would not be loving if he were not also a judge. God’s wrath is a consequence of his love, he acts against all that seeks to destroy his loving purposes.
Finally, love is extremely inconvenient. When I am ranting about something or being generally unloving, my wife reminds me that I’ve written a book on love and should go read it!
No one will ever offer the final word on what the Bible says about love, but I know of no volume that is as thorough, sensitive to context and contour, as Patrick Mitchel’s sparklingly clear and faithful exposition of how the Bible presents love, how in fact the God of love loves the world and the people of God in Christ. This will become a standard text for my classes on New Testament theology. (Scot McKnight)
There is a reason that Jesus said that the great commandment has to do with love, and Paul said love was greater than even faith and hope. It is because God himself is love, it is the essence of his character, and Mitchel in this book lays out for us how that is a consistent theme throughout the Bible. Highly recommended. (Ben Witherington)
How can one begin to hope to do justice to a topic as broad and misunderstood as ‘love’? Read this book for the answer. Mitchel has not only done it justice but has charted the way Christian thinking on the topic should proceed in our troubled world for the foreseeable future. (Craig Blomberg)
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