As we’ve seen in this series, love as the controlling center of theology traditionally has either been neglected or ignored.1 But it hasn’t always been this way. As Lewis pointed out, “If you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old [what he thought the highest of the virtues], he would have replied, Love.”2 Even the ancients considered love (admittedly not love as described here, but a shadow of it nonetheless) to be preeminent. In Aristotle’s Metaphysics, he reports Parmenides saying, “The first thing of all the gods . . . [was] love,” and Hesiod: “Love . . . is preeminent among all the immortals.”3
Certainly the biblical canon considers love supreme. This is evident in Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he replied (the text doesn’t say this, but I don’t think he had to think about his answer; his response was probably immediate): “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37, Mk 12:30, Lk 10:27). If Jesus had stopped here he would have sufficiently answered the question, but he didn’t. It’s as if he wanted to ensure he drove the point home: “This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matt 22:38, emphasis mine). In the famous chapter on love, Paul closes his thought by elevating love above all else: “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13, emphasis mine). In a story recounted by Jerome in his Commentary on Galatians, the apostle John, now an old man, remembers back to his youth as he leads the church in Ephesus:
Brother Lawrence, the seventeenth century Carmelite monk, lay on his deathbed and, after receiving the last sacraments, said: “It is our one business, brothers, to worship him and love him, without thought of anything else.”5 Those were his last words.
These are just glimpses into the vast sea of people who not only have affirmed but experienced the love of God as the pulsating heartbeat of everything that is real. When speaking of the love of God, we are talking about who God is in his core, his essence, something fundamentally different from what God knows or what he can do or where he is.6 Unfortunately these philosophical categories have pushed the love of God to the footnotes in most theological circles today, circles who have “paid too much attention to Greek philosophy and too little to the Bible.”7 But when the absolute core, essential truth “God is love” gets misplaced or is diminished from its privileged role as the center of theology, we go wrong. We emphasize other divine attributes at the expense of God’s love, which far too often moves us off course into spaces with the potential to distort or even directly conflict with the love of God. I am not saying philosophical categories are not important . . . they are. They just cannot shoulder the weight of glory that belongs to the love of God. There is a fundamental difference between what God knows or what he can do, and who he is. In fact, Paul tells us we can know “all mysteries and all knowledge” (1 Cor 13:2, omniscience), but without love we have nothing. We can have “faith that can move mountains” (1 Cor 13:2, omnipotence), but without love we have nothing. Nothing.
Any power or knowledge void of love is ultimately destructive; the greater the power, the greater the destruction. In this way love acts as a sort of controlling attribute which all other attributes flow from, are subject to, and are clarified by.8 It could be said all subsequent divine attributes are the natural outworking, the clarifying factors which further illuminate and deepen our understanding and experience of God’s love.9 Love is the only organizing standard able to account for all the complexities raised by subsequent attributes of God.10 It is “only when placed at the center can the logic of love explicitly extend to all aspects of Christian theology.”11
I am not trying to pit the love of God against other divine attributes, that would not be prudent (or even possible) if we are to maintain a coherent biblical theology. However, there is a certain doctrinal taxonomy required for a cohesive understanding of God. And at the center, in the controlling position, is the love of God.12 It’s not as if we are able to place love at the center (or anywhere else), as if divine attributes were up for reorganization. Love at the center is ontological; we could not move it if we tried. Yet many theologians, whether stated or not, attempt to replace it with another aspect of God. They do so at their peril, and to the peril of those they pastor or train. “No Christian Church dare ever forget that the love of God as made known to man in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the whole content, the sum and substance of the gospel . . . The love of God is what the gospel is about.”13
In the 1924 British case R v Sussex Justices, Lord Chief Justice Gordon Hewart overturned a previous ruling based on judicial bias toward the prosecution. In his ruling he stated: “Justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”14 This same principle applies to how we organize doctrine, think about God, and relate to one another in our communities. To quote John McIntyre: “It is not satisfactory that the love of God should in fact be the controlling category; it should also be seen to be so.”15
In order to be faithful to the nature of God and the biblical text, the Christian Church must emphasize the love of God in everything it teaches and does. We cannot simply say it, we must embody it, or more accurately be embodied by it. This cannot merely be a cognitive affirmation, it must be our experience. When, and only when, love is recognized as the operative divine attribute in our doctrinal taxonomy do all other theological truths fall into their proper place and form a cohesive whole. This is why Jesus said love of God is first and greatest; it is the natural outworking of God’s love for us (1 Jn 4:10, 19). As such, everything else flows from it, including love for ourselves and others, and our ability to live as citizens of the kingdom of God, images cultivating the soil of Eden, bearing witness that Jesus is the king. Love is the true test of our participation in the divine life and is the definitive mark of discipleship to Jesus: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13:35, cf. 15:8).16