Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What Is Love?

I know it seems like I'm always picking on my former professor, but I feel as though he has gone off the mark in his theological trajectory, precisely, because of misunderstandings like this one.

As I've mentioned before, we're going through 1 John right now as a family, and of course, I've been through it when preaching through it, and also in two different Greek Exegesis courses (and beyond that, I've studied it 'til the cows come home). But you don't need all of that to see what I'm going to say. You just need what you always need: context.

So what does John mean by the term "love"? If we fail to answer that question, as Dr. Enns does not answer it above, then we're really just assuming what it is. And, of course, assuming what a word means often means that we're importing a contemporary meaning into the term. And no term has been more confused in biblical study than this one.

Now, I don't fault Dr. Enns for this. I've heard people who are of my theological ilk also distort it by assuming its meaning, so this is just an important point of clarification. So here it is:

Love does not refer to your tone of voice, particular feelings/attitudes you might have toward someone when speaking to them, or keeping the peace between yourself and someone else. If it did, then Dr. Enns' post above would be relevant to the verse.

What John means by love, however, is giving what is needed to those Christians who need it. That's how he defines it. Love is taking from what you have in order to give it to another Christian in need. "Hatred" in John's vocabulary, then, is not harsh tones, a malicious intent, angry feelings, or a combative relationship with someone's ideas. Hatred is having what your brother needs to live and closing your heart toward him so that you do not give it.

What is ironic here is that John includes doctrine in this whole thing. Loving Christians means loving God first. Hence, one must obey God's commands in order to love people, and this is loving God as well. But what if someone does not obey His commands? According to John, rebuke is the right course of action of love. Turning a brother away from sin is loving.

Likewise, throughout his entire epistle, John has argued that defining God and Jesus differently than the apostles have is the spirit of antichrist that replaces the true Father and Son with a false God and a false Christ that cannot save others. Guiding one into orthodox truth, therefore, is a part of John's loving activity. It is part of love's course of action, and in John, love is action, not feeling. It consists of words and deeds, not simply words. 

Hence, surrounding his rebuke of heretical theology is his discussion of loving the Father and the Son and loving fellow Christians. Truth is vital to love. After all, if you give someone some food but do nothing when you see him honor a false Christ and damned by a false gospel, how can you say that you love that person? 

Love is also exclusive, therefore, because it must clearly show what is in and outside the bounds of knowing God and Jesus whom He has sent. It must tell us who is "in" and who is "out," and so John tells us just those things by giving assurance to those who have the marks of being a Christian (i.e., they pursue apostolic orthodoxy and taking care of other Christians who are also children of God), as well as telling us who are out (i.e., those who deny the Father and the Son, who do not adhere to the teaching of the apostles, who do not love in word and deed). 

Now, I'm not saying that all theological debates are displays of love. Some are just displays of one or more of the persons to gain superiority and control over others. But, you see, that is a motivation that cannot be seen. Jesus Himself looks arrogant to many when He spends His life (yes, His entire ministry is spent in debate) debating those who are theologically and ethically wayward. But we know that He is perfect and does this out of love for His people (every debate is a learning opportunity to teach those who belong to God and mark boundary lines of what is pleasing to God for them that they may be wary of crossing them).

So I cannot judge motivations (we are commanded in Scripture not to attempt it anyway), but I can judge whether debating theology, and even spending your life doing so, is consistent with, rather than in contradiction to, love as John defines it. And it is consistent, or John wouldn't be doing it, nor would he condemn the Lord doing it, or the rest of the apostles for doing it (were they not always in the synagogues picking a fight, so it seems to us). Contending for the faith, fighting the good fight, taking every thought captive for the sake of Christ, these are all the flowers of love. Sure, someone can give you flowers and hope you get allergies, or give them to you with false motives; but the flowers themselves cannot be the evidence of someone being unloving, since, indeed, they are often the fruit of it.

So my answer to the question, "What about love?" would have been, "What about it? I just described a life of love to you. It is a life sacrificing time and energy in order to preserve the lives of God's children from chaotic ideologies and ethics that would tear them from Him."

Instead, I would have asked this student, "Why have you chosen this path if you could narrow it down to one reason?" That gets to the motivation, but the act itself cannot be confused with the motivation. That's a common mistake I hear, and have heard, all of my life whenever conflict exists, and that can only be attributed to a culture that confuses love with comfort and maintaining a false peace. As I've said before, love works toward shalom, and shalom throughout the Bible is most often achieved in a chaotic world by going to war with the chaos, not making peace with it. John's concept of love is in continuity with that biblical understanding.

What that all means is that, more often than not, it is the person who does not engage in correcting his brother who needs to be corrected in order to save his life, who is hating his brother rather than loving him. If you want to chew on something profound, chew on that one for awhile. Our problem is that we hold our tongues too often when we need to speak what is true on important matters, and then turn around and let them fly on matters that we could have just let go. That's because our biggest problem is that we love ourselves, and so want ourselves defended and our personal opinions heard, but have little love for God and His revealed concerns, since to be concerned of those things would be to sacrifice our own ideas and concerns so that God might be exalted as true, and that His children might see and fellowship with Him in the truth. Our problem, then, as usual, is that we don't discuss theology and ethics because we love ourselves too much, we want to maintain comfort and false peace, and will only disrupt it when the Self is at stake.

That, to me, is a far more serious concern than someone who commits his life, as the prophets, apostles and the Lord Himself did, to a life of submitting their own ideas to the Father in love and calling others to do the same because you love them too.


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