The Nature of Love: a Theology Reviewed
The Nature of Love: A Theology
Thomas Jay Oord
Chalice Press, St. Louis, MO
Review by Paul DeBaufer
The Nature of Love is a theology book. We learn very early on that the majority of theologians have made love a secondary or tertiary theme in their theologies. Yet love plays a central role in the life, words, teaching, and ministry of Jesus Christ. Why should this be? Because 1 John 4:8 & 16 tell us “God is love”, so why is love put on the back burner in theology? Some have tried to make love central to their theology but that has been problematic. One of the biggest obstacles is that love seems to mean so many different things. There are no less than three words in Greek that are translated love in English. The Greek words are not used consistently in the Bible. So while Biblically love is center stage theologies have sent it into the wings.
This is a book about love. No it is not a romance. It is about love, love as found in the Bible. We learn that there are many senses of “love” in the Bible. Several words are translated into the English “love”. Dr. Oord searches out all of these uses of love and finds that even though there are many meanings there is a thread of basic meaning which connects them all ties them all together so that it is fair usage for the translators to use the single word, “love” to fill in for the several in the original languages. The definition Oord proffers is Love is to act intentionally in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others to promote overall well being. This is the uniting theme underlying love in the Biblical sense.
In the introduction we learned that the major theologians through the ages did not give love the primary role and consideration that it rightfully should have. However, theologies of love have been put forward. We all, from reading the Bible, and especially the New Testament, can see that love is central, that love is at least a part of God’s nature. So why then has love, which plays a central role in the biblical narrative, been neglected by so many theologians and theologies? Yet, love remains ignored. Oord demonstrates love’s primacy in the Bible. He then goes on to offer a reason that the theologians have all but ignored it: love is a slippery word, amorphous in that we don’t all mean the same thing when we use “love”. Love is a word that many feel they know the definition of yet no one really has articulated a good solid definition. Contrary to what Hollywood and the romance novel industry would have us believe love is not a feeling so much as a chosen action.
In the next two chapters Dr. Oord explores the love theologies of two theologians. Anders Nygren wrote of love, God’s love in the mid 20th century. Augustine of Hippo wrote of love in the late 4th early 5th centuries. The theology of Nygren has greatly influenced how we perceive the Greek word agape. Nygren made the claim that agape is God’s perfect love. Oord tells us that Nygren’s notion is unsatisfying because the biblical witness is inconsistent in its use of agape. Further, Nygren’s theology disregards the Old Testament, and even some of the New Testament because they do not fit with the proposition put forward. Augustine, according to The Nature of Love, didn’t believe God loves creatures. Again this is unsatisfying because the actions of God toward creatures fit the definition Oord puts forward. In this chapters we again definitions for agape, philia, and eros (which is never used in the New Testament per se, yet it is described.) Each of these definitions have at its root the definition of love in general, where they differ is in object and orientation.
In the final chapter Dr. Oord introduces us to his theology of love Essential Kenosis. For Oord God is non-coercive yet highly persuasive. Love is God’s nature. Oord defines kenosis as self-giving. Essential Kenosis says that God does not just voluntarily give Himself, kenosis is part of His nature, an aspect of love. This notion has implications for all of the omni- statements we tend to hold so dear. While the omni- statements have their origin in the Hellenization of Christianity and can be traced to neoplatonic philosophies, Oord doesn’t discard them, just modifies them to fit the biblical witness. Essential Kenosis has implications for creation. But most importantly Essential Kenosis satisfactorily deals with the problem of evil in the world. A loving God who can yet does nothing about true evil seems contradictory. While Essential Kenosis suggests that because God loves perfectly He cannot override the freedom He has given creation, itself an act of love. God can do all that is doable, knows all that is knowable. What is doable and knowable are not exhaustive to our minds. We can imagine the impossible and the unknowable.
I like Essential Kenosis as a theology. I, personally, believe that it fits the biblical narrative better than the other theologies of love. I find Essential Kenosis satisfying. Since becoming a Christian five years ago I have been presented with many ideas and traditions which, for me, do not fit with what I read in the Bible. Essential Kenosis as presented in The Nature of Love: a Theology fits what I have come to in my studies. But I came to the Bible with none of the traditional pre-conceived ideas which I needed to defend. This book may well be uncomfortable for many as Oord challenges many dearly held traditional concepts. The Nature of Love is readily accessible for the casual reader, no need to be a scholar to understand what Oord is saying. However, I think even scholars will enjoy this book.