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What is Love?

Prince Charles, famously, at his engagement to Diana Spencer, asked what love is. Our society and culture believes, rightly, that love is the key value. Yet, we live in an age when there is a great deal of confusion on the nature of love. Love, in our society, is equated with a romantic feelings and a desire for self-fulfilment.  So, many believe that love (in the sense of desire and need for self-satisfaction) must have a sexual expression. We can see these notions played out in the debate about same-sex relationships and marriage. Many believe that if two men or women “love” one another then the “loving thing” for society must be to allow them to express that love sexually. Indeed, the government’s argument about its plans to legislate for same-sex marriage is that, given that same-sex couples “love” one another, then simple equality demands that they be allowed to marry.

Further, “love” is also defined in terms of “tolerance.” The loving thing is to accept that all see truth differently. One woman’s truth is not another’s.  Thus, love is defined as accepting all viewpoints as equally valid. The “loving thing” is to see truth as relative.  So, any correction, judgement, or discipline is seen as “unloving.”

These popular views also have profound theological implications. It is, therefore, “unloving” to assert that Jesus is the only way to know God. All religions must be seen as equal. Traditional Christian views on hell are also condemned as “unloving”: How could a loving God send anyone to hell? For God’s love to “win” (in Rob Bell’s phrase) all must, ultimately, get to heaven. 

Given our confusion about love, Gerald Bray’s new systematic theology, God is Love, is a landmark achievement that sets us on the right path. Bray is an exceptional systematic theologian and church historian, and this fine book is the fruit of many decades of thinking and teaching.  It is quietly Anglican in tone, focusing on what Bray calls “mere or basic Christianity.” Bray’s tone is irenic in matters like baptism, church government, gifts of the Spirit, and the millennium, which divide evangelicals. It is clearly, warmly, and elegantly written; it fun to read. It is written (like Scripture) for our learning and edification, so that we may love the God we worship more dearly. Bray includes topics that are not usually found in a systematic theology. Bray has sections on ecology, drugs, disabilities, work, leisure, sexuality, world religions and syncretism, deviant cults, atheism, and government and civic religion. This means that the book is not merely an “in house” debate between Christians; there is genuine biblical engagement with the real issues in our modern world.

Above all, Bray has, freshly, framed the book around the key idea that “God is love.” We experience God as love.  So, there is a “language of love,” (Scripture and God’s sustaining love of the universe). This is the point of reading the Bible and praying – we get to know the love of God.  Then, there is “God’s love in himself.” It is precisely because God is a Trinity of three persons that God is love. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in a communion of love. That is the key to love.  This God who is love, out of love created the creation and us. “God’s love for his creation.” Yet, astonishingly and tragically, there has been a rejection of the love of God – caused by the fall. Sin is, quite simply a creaturely rejection of the creator’s love.  However, God, out of gracious merciful love, has loved sinners by coming to earth in Christ. He showed love to its full by taking our place and dying for us. One day, God’s love will be consummated when Christ returns.

Bray shows how God’s love, in the Bible, is many-faceted, eternal and expressed in the elective, shepherd-like, self-giving love of God, and includes judgement, justice, protection, and correction. Our God is so good and loving that He hates evil. How can God be love without loving the good and loving justice? Since many non-evangelicals accuse evangelicals of being strong on truth to the detriment of love, Bray rightly stresses that God’s love is at the heart of evangelical theology.

So, what is love? Bray helps us to see that love is a true concern for the welfare of the other, grounded in the very being of God, foundational to creation and redemption. Love is not merely a feeling but a disposition and inclination of the will to seek the good of the other. Or, as Paul puts it: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

This article was first published in the CEN on 23 September 2012

Rev. Dr. Rohintan Mody is Vicar of St Paul’s Church, Throop, Bournemouth and is a member of the Theological Work Group of the Latimer Trust.

 
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