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Augustine on that which deserves the name “love”

Too often, contemporary Christianity sees all emotions or affections as essentially equal. For this reason, many conclude as long as some kind of religious emotion is evoked, some good has been done.

Augustine did not believe that all loves were equal. In fact, he distinguished between different kinds of genuine spiritual love. This comes out in many different places in his writings. Consider, for example, this wonderful passage from The Trinity:

It follows that in this enquiry concerning the Trinity and our knowledge of God, the first thing for us to learn is the nature of true love–or rather the nature of love; for only the love which is true deserves the name. All other is covetousness: it is a misuse of language when the covetous are said to love, as it is when those who love are said to covet.

The aim of true love is the life of righteousness in cleaving to the truth; and this means that nothing in this world should have any weight for us beside the love of men, which means the will that they may live righteously. That gives all the value to the readiness to die for our brethren, which the Lord Jesus Christ taught us by his example.

There are two commandments on which hang all the Law and the Prophets: love of God and love of neighbour; but it is not without reason that the Scripture often puts one of them for both. Sometimes it is the love of God. “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.” “Whosoever loveth God, he is known of God.” “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given to us.” In such sayings it is implied that he who loves God must do what God has commanded, that his love depends upon his doing, and so he must love his neighbour also, because this is what God commanded.

Sometimes Scripture only mentions love of neighbour. “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so shall ye fulfill the law of Christ.” “The whole law is fulfilled in one saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Or as in the Gospel, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do unto them; for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

There are many other places in Holy Writ, where it seems that the love of neighbour is alone enjoyed for our perfecting, and nothing is said of the love of God; though the Law and the Prophets hang upon both commandments. The reason for this is that he who loves his neighbour must necessarily have first the love for love itself. But “God is love, and he who abideth in love, abideth in God.” It follows that he must have first the love of God.

  • The Trinity 8.10 (vii). John Burnaby, ed., Augustine: Later Works, Library of Christian Classics 8 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), 50-51.

For Augustine at least, that which is true love is opposed to any covetousness. That which is love is wanting men to be good, that is, that other men would live accordance with the Truth (which is God’s Truth). All else does not deserve the name “love.” Those who so love men rightly will value this above all else, so that they are willing even to die for their fellow man. This love comes only from God, and such that love for God and love for one’s neighbor are inextricably linked.

Ryan Martin

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

One Response to Augustine on that which deserves the name “love”

  1. Ryan, I think you are onto something here. I was blessed by an expansion of the meaning of love by Spiros Zodhiates in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 13. The core of the “love chapter” lists a lot of things love is not (particularly verses 4-6). He quotes Ainsworth, who says:
    “That is just what St. Paul does for us in this great hymn of love — love that is at the core of life, love that goes out to the verge of life and beyond it. Suddenly he turns our gaze from the high places of speech, from the Horebs and Carmels of history, from the great princes of the faith before whom the mountains of difficulty shake and bow themselves, from the lonely heroes whose faces are lighted with the glowing fires of pain, and brings us face to face with the world as we so well know it, and with life as we know we live it. For no man can read these words, “Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own,” without reading between the lines a description of a world he knows too well where things are not so. We know a world that has little patience or kindness, a world that takes no pleasure in a brother’s prosperity but rather finds bitterness in the thought of it, an envious world. And there we meet many a thing that flaunts its pretensions in our faces, many an inflated thing, many an unseemly thing. And, lo! the singer shows us love, a beautiful figure, sweet-faced, soft-spoken, tender in touch, a very poem of grace and fitness, come down from the prophetic and heroic heights, or perhaps we should say come up from the divine depths of human life. Be that as it may, we see love passing through this world of ours, a living, holy presence, and waiting with winsome, heavenly grace on the threshold of each house of life. We see it in a world that is very impatient of affronts, of real or seeming wrongs, and we wait for what it has to say amid the petulant complainings, the diatribes and denunciations, the vindictive outbursts, and the long, low mutterings of vengeance.” (Ainsworth, The Silences of Jesus and St. Paul’s Hymn to Love, 137-41).
    (from First Corinthians: An Exegetical Commentary, Copyright © 1967, 1970, 1972, 1974, 1994, 1997, 1998, 2002, Spiros Zodhiates.)

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