A Relational God and Unlimited Love

by Thomas Jay Oord

Thomas Jay Oord is a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of multi-disciplinary studies. He is a best-selling and award-winning author, having written or edited more than twenty-five books. A twelve-time Faculty Award-winning professor, Oord teaches at institutions around the globe, and is the director of the Center for Open and Relational Theology. To find out more about him or view more of his works, visit his website or the Center for Open and Relational Theology.

This article was originally published in the book Visions of Agapé: Problems and Possibilities in Human and Divine Love (Routledge, 2008), edited by Craig A. Boyd. (Publisher | Amazon)


Love and agapé are words with multiple meanings. We may say, for instance, that we love our country, local sports team, pepperoni pizza, spouse, or favorite movies. The fact that people talk of love in such varied ways prompted Sigmund Freud to say that “‘love’ is employed in language” in an “undifferentiated way.”1 Theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop concurs, saying that love is a multifarious “weasel-word.”2

Love and agape are words with multiple meanings. We may say, for instance, that we love our country, local sports team, pepperoni pizza, spouse, or favorite movies. The fact that people talk of love in such varied ways prompted Sigmund Freud to say, “‘love’ is employed in language” in an “undifferentiated way.”[1] Theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop concurs, saying that love is a multifarious “weasel-word.”[2]

In various venues and publications, I have offered and defended a definition meant to add clarity to the confusion about how best to understand love.[3] I define love as acting intentionally, in sympathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being. Loving actions are influenced by the previous actions of other creatures, oneself, and God, and these actions are carried out in the hope of encouraging flourishing.

A full explanation of each phrase in my definition of love lies beyond the scope of this essay, but to prepare us for what I want to address later, I should briefly describe here what each phrase in the definition entails. The phrase, “acting intentionally,” refers to the deliberateness, motive, and self-determination inherent in love. Love entails a degree of decisionality, limited freedom, and one’s intentions not an acts consequences are love’s primary measure.

I use the word “act” to cover a broad range of intended activities, both seen and unseen. “In sympathetic response to others (including God)” refers to the relatedness that love requires. While sympathetic response logically precedes the intentionality of love, both are present in a single responsive act of love. The “others” include humans, nonhumans, and the past actions of the lover. I will explain more about what the parenthetical statement “including God” entails later in this essay.

The final phrase, “to promote overall well-being,” points to the health, happiness, wholeness, blessedness, or flourishing that love advances. Jesus called well-being, “abundant life,” and Aristotle called it, “eudaimonia.” The qualifier “overall” refers to my claim that although we often love with a few recipients or a narrow context in mind, our actions should not be deemed loving if they obviously undermine the common good. Justice is an element of love.

While few people are surprised to hear that the word love carries various meanings in the English language, few seem aware that agape has been given a wide range of definitions. In general, agape is used to distinguish one particular notion of love from others. Those aligned with the Christian tradition are especially prone to afford agape privileged status or consider it to have special meaning.

I have shown in detail in other writings that the meanings scholars afford agape vary greatly. And these meanings are not always compatible. I have examined sixteen definitions of agape offered by scholars such as Colin Grant, Timothy Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Macquarrie, Reinhold Niebuhr, Gene Outka, Irving Singer, Alan Soble, and Daniel Day Williams. My examination shows the truth of Robert Adams’ statement: “agape is a blank canvas on which one can paint whatever ideal of Christian love one favors.”[4] The reasons for this variance have a great deal to do with the theological, ethical, anthropological, scientific, and metaphysical commitments of those who use agape to identify something they regard as unique about this form of love compared with others.

In this essay, I explore one particular meaning given agape. This meaning is apparent in the agape definition of Martin Luther King, Jr., as “good will for all men.”[5] Others have defined agape similarly as “unlimited love.”[6] The basic claim of these definitions agape should not be restricted only to a few, and I would argue that love should be extended also to nonhumans. Although this definition of agape is not one I personally prefer,[7] it identifies something that I propose is an essential element of love in general: love increases overall well-being. Agape when equated with unlimited love leads many to wonder, Can we really act in ways that promote overall well-being? Or are limited creatures restricted to expressing limited love? In this essay, I offer a doctrine of God meant to support the claim that creatures sometimes promote overall well-being or, what some call, unlimited love.

Love’s Extensivity

Scientific research provides evidence that at least some humans – and apparently some nonhumans – express love. Studies in fields such as psychology, sociology, primatology, animal behavior studies, neurology, and biology suggest that creatures act in ways that promote well-being. And sometimes the primary motive of creatures is to enhance the well-being of others.

Sociobiologists argue that kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and other theories generally explain altruistic action insofar as organisms act for the good of those near and dear. Those expected to reciprocate some good deed and those genetically similar to the altruist are candidates for altruistic love. Group-selection theory suggests, furthermore, that altruists may assist those with a different genetic lineage and those unable to reciprocate one’s love. Altruists may gather into groups, and evolution favors groups whose members act for the good of fellow members. Groups comprised of altruists flourish when competing with groups comprised of egoists.

Prominent theories in sociobiology cannot account well, however, for instances in which individuals act altruistically for the good of outsiders and opposition groups. Group-selection advocates, Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson, admit, “Group selection favors within group niceness and between group nastiness.”[8] Strangers and enemies are not loved.

Wilson extends the group-selection hypothesis as an explanation for religion. Religious groups are “rapidly evolving entities adapting to their current environments,” says Wilson.[9] These entities have moral systems that define appropriate behaviors for their members and prevent subversion from within. In particular, says Wilson, “a religion instructs believers to behave for the benefit of their group.”[10] Judaism, early Christianity, and Calvinism are examples of religious groups whose beliefs and rules benefit members and allow these groups to out-compete other groups. Religions that promote intra-member cooperation survive and reproduce better than competitors whose members do not cooperate. But religious groups do not promote well what Wilson calls, “universal brotherhood.”[11] Religions seek only to benefit faithful members.

The work of sociobiologists is insightful and the group-selection hypothesis instructive. However, these theories do not elucidate the drive to promote overall well-being, which includes love for outsiders and enemies. They do not endorse agape, at least when defined as unlimited love. Loving these “unlovables” is an ethic commanded by at least some religious traditions and Christianity in particular. And loving enemies and strangers is apparently put into practice at least some of the time. Many people would argue that such overall well-being must be promoted if interpersonal, inter-tribal, and inter-religious hostilities are overcome. In the end, we need a theory to account both for the truth that altruism can benefit those near and dear and those in one’s group as well as the truth that sometimes creatures act to benefit outsiders and enemies. We need a theory that conceptualizes the reality of unlimited love.

It is common for religious people to turn to theology for an explanation of unlimited love. One theory for why at least some humans can love all others says that God provides unnatural – or supernatural – power to enable love of outsiders and enemies. In their natural state, humans only promote their own well-being and the well-being of those near and dear. Proponents of this view say that science explains natural love, but God supernaturally empowers at least some to go above and beyond nature. Often part of this theory is the notion that creatures naturally express eros but require divine action to express agape.

Theologian Martin C. D’Arcy articulates the theory that creatures naturally love those near and dear but need supernatural help to love outsiders and enemies. “We can advance a high theory of love by making full use of natural love,” says D’Arcy, “but the keynote of it will always be possessiveness. Our neighbors will be loved like to ourselves; they will be as it were another self…. In Christian Agape the complete revelation of love is given. Here the finite is lifted to a new degree of being, whose limit is measured only by the necessity of its remaining a human person. This new life which is thus set going is a pure gift and beyond the natural capacity of the finite human person.”[12]

The natural/supernatural scheme that D’Arcy and like-minded theologians advocate presents several conceptual problems. It suggests, for instance, that important aspects of creaturely love can be adequately understood without any reference to God. Divine inspiration is only necessary when nature proves insufficient to empower love of those we consider difficult. The natural/supernatural scheme is vulnerable to the God-of-the-gaps problem, whereby science is believed to explain fully all but a few occurrences. These unexplained events, says the God-of-the-gaps theory, require appeal to the mysterious workings of deity. When science provides hypotheses to explain fully what was previously inexplicable, divine action provides no explanatory role either ontologically or epistemologically. A function for the supernatural disappears.

Instead of adopting the natural/supernatural scheme in which some love can be fully explained without reference to God, I suggest that an adequate explanation of all creaturely love – including love for oneself, love for those near and dear, and love for outsiders and enemies – must include a necessary role for divine action. A God hypothesis is required to account for how limited creatures can express both limited and unlimited love. This hypothesis must include a robust role for incessant divine action rather than seeing God’s influence as an occasional add-on. Yet it must include a necessary part of the kind of scientific research on love that many find valuable.

In contrast to the natural/supernatural scheme, another theological theory suggests that only God expresses authentic love. This theory, divine unilateralism, contends that creatures cannot love at all. Any expression of genuine love we might witness is entirely an act of God, and creatures contribute nothing. Only God loves.

Anders Nygren, perhaps the 20th century’s most influential love theologian and advocate of agape, advocates divine unilateralism. Nygren contends that the only authentic love is agape, and God is the only agent who expresses agape. “The Christian has nothing of his own to give,” says Nygren. “The love which he shows his neighbor is the love which God has infused in him.”[13] He likens creatures to tubes that pass genuine love received from above to others below. The tubes/creatures do not contribute to the character or shape of this love.[14] “It is God’s own agape,” Nygren asserts, “which seeks to make its way out into the world through the Christian as its channel. What we have here is a purely theocentric love, in which all choice on man’s part is excluded.”[15]

There are many reasons to reject Nygren’s understanding of agape in general and his divine unilateralism in particular.[16] For centuries, theologians have noted that it implies absolute determinism, divine predestination, and lack of significant creaturely value. Divine unilateralism should also be rejected for what it implies about science. It denies that science tells us anything important about creaturely love. Science is superfluous; all scientific love research ultimately amounts to nothing. And divine unilateralism implies that we can skirt any responsibility to choose love, because all responsibility rests upon God.

Instead of adopting divine unilateralism, an adequate explanation of love must include a necessary role for God and creatures. Creaturely love is not the work of God alone. Creatures are not tubes, channels, or conduits through which God unilaterally acts to promote well-being. Creatures love when responding appropriately to others to promote overall well-being. An adequate hypothesis for how creatures can express limited and unlimited love must include reference to divine and creaturely agency.

A Relational God

I assume that the evidence provided by scientific research on love tells us something true about existence in general and creaturely love in particular. Now we need a God hypothesis that affirms the scientific evidence while making theological sense. It must be a God hypothesis that avoids the supernatural/natural scheme, which proposes that divine action is only sometimes necessary for love. And this hypothesis must reject divine unilateralism, which states that God is the only loving agent and the scientific enterprise ultimately pointless.

The God hypothesis provided would be especially helpful if it offered a solution to why creatures sometimes love those near and dear and sometimes love outsiders and enemies. The God hypothesis would be crucial for conceptualizing how constrained creatures might promote overall well-being. If a doctrine of God were provided that offered an empirically-oriented explanation of how limited creatures express both limited and unlimited love, a way may be found to marry theology and science in the name of love.

The attributes and activity one postulates of God, therefore, are crucial to the explanation of unlimited love one might offer. I begin by contending that love is an essential attribute of God.[17] It is necessarily the case that God acts intentionally, in sympathetic response to others (which includes past divine actions), to promote overall well-being. Loving others is not an arbitrary divine decision but an aspect of God’s eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot not love. God is love.

By suggesting that love is an essential aspect of the divine nature, however, I am not suggesting that God has no choice whatsoever with regard to love.[18] That God will love others is necessarily the case. But how God loves others is a free choice on God’s part.[19] God may choose any number of options to promote overall well-being based upon divine concerns to promote the future common good. God freely chooses the ways of love.

In ongoing love relations, we can rest assured that God will always act intentionally, in sympathetic response to others (including God’s own past actions), to promote overall well-being. This steadfast love is necessary to what it means to be divine. The fact that God loves others is an aspect of God’s unchanging, eternal essence. But the manner in which God chooses to promote overall well-being arises from how God sympathetically responds to others. There is neither a formula nor circumstances exterior to God that entirely determines what these divine choices will be. How God loves others, therefore, is a matter of the divine will.

Presupposed in the claim that freely chooses how to love others is the notion that God is a relational being. As relational, God is affected by those with whom God relates. For some time, relational theologians have rejected the idea that God is an aloof and distant monarch uninfluenced by others.[20] Instead, relational theologians affirm that God suffers and is passible, to use the classic language. This means that God is influenced by the ups and downs, joys and sorrows, sins and loves of others. God is not in all ways transcendent; God is a living God who enjoys give-and-receive relations within history. God is the best and most moved mover.[21]

Although this relational God is affected by others, we should remind ourselves again that God’s nature as love is unchanging. God’s eternal nature remains constant, which is why we can always rely upon God to love. God’s nature is love, and that nature never alters. But the particular way God loves others is influenced by the condition of the beloved. Science suggests that a creature’s own characteristics and its relations with others influence the form and extent of a creature’s love. The doctrine of God that I propose suggests that God’s own characteristics and God’s relations with others influence the form and extent of divine love.

God is always present to all creatures, and God’s omnipresence plays a crucial role for understanding divine action in relation to creation. In fact, divine omnipresence provides empirical grounds for hypotheses about divine action in relation to creaturely love. An entirely transcendent God, who exists above all time and space, would not be an agent whose influence we should consider in our empirical accounts of existence. The vision of God I am proposing, by contrast, is of a deity whose immanent influence should be considered a crucial and necessary factor when attempting a comprehensive account of creation.

With the exception of divine love, omnipresence may be the divine attribute that theologians least emphasize. By omnipresence, I mean that God is present to all things. Nothing exists that is not graced by divinity.[22] Or as theologian John Wesley put it, “the universal God dwelleth in universal space.”[23] We might say that God is omni-immanent, so long as we do not regard omni-immanence as negating divine transcendence altogether. To say that God is omnipresent does not require one to say that all things are divine, however. Distinctions between creation and Creator remain.

For some time, many philosophers and theologians have called the omnipresent God, “the Soul of the universe.” If one understands a soul to be present to and influencing all parts of one’s body, the label is appropriate. Instead of referring to God as the Soul of the universe, however, some today adopt the label “panentheism” to emphasize God’s immanent omnipresence without denying divine transcendence.[24] God penetrates the entire universe, but the divine being is not identical to or exhausted by the universe. God is distinct from others, having God’s own essence, constitution, and agency. Elsewhere, I have also suggested that “theocosmocentrism” might be a helpful label to identify God as intimately and everlastingly present to all in the cosmos.[25]

God is not only present to all things, but God enters moment-by-moment into give-and-receive interaction with others. In this interaction, God is omni-relational. God acts in relation to others both as the Ideal Recipient and the Ideal Contributor. As the omnipresent Ideal Recipient, God takes in the experiences of all others. God does so not by looking at creation from a distance, as if a spectator on the sidelines who only occasionally gets in the game. Rather God is present to all things, all the time, and God experiences the experiences of others. Because God is the all-embracing one who sympathizes fully with all others, God possesses the capacity to assess flawlessly what is required to promote overall well-being at any particular moment in any particular place. God’s omnipresence sustains God’s omniscience and contributes in important ways to God’s love.

God not only loves incessantly and by virtue of divine omnipresence loves all others, God also calls creatures – both human and nonhuman – to promote overall well-being. God is the Ideal Contributor. This contributory call entails empowering and inspiring creatures to love given the capacities of each creature.[26] All feel God’s direct, causal call.

The call to love that God gives each creature is, in one sense, no different from the causal influence that other creatures exert. In a universe of cause and effect, divine efficient causation is a cause of the same metaphysical kind as creaturely causes. No appeal to mysterious divine action is necessary. Special pleas to inexplicable supernaturalism are not required. God’s influence upon creatures breaks no theoretical principles pertaining to the metaphysical laws that apply to all existents. Whitehead’s plea that God not be treated as an exception to the metaphysical principles is heeded. This is the empirical key to identifying divine action in the world.

If God exerts causal influence as an efficient cause and relationally assesses the states of all others, God must possess both physical and mental aspects. To say that God has a physical aspect that exerts causal influence need not conflict with the claim made by most theistic religions that God is a spirit. It does conflict, however, with the positivistic claim that the physical aspects of all beings must be perceptible by our five senses. One may affirm that a spiritual entity exists (and perhaps there are more than one), that this spiritual entity exerts efficient causation, and we perceive the influence of this entity nonsensorily. God is a spirit whose invisible physicality affects others in a way analogous to the physical influence – whether sensory or nonsensory -- that other beings exert.

Perhaps the best way to envision the constitution of the divine Spirit as including both physical and mental aspects is to compare the Spirit’s constitution to a creature’s mind. We might speculate that the divine Spirit has an element of physicality analogous to the physicality that creaturely minds possess. Just as a creature’s mind exerts causal influence upon bodily members despite its physicality remaining undetectable to our five senses, so God experts causal influence upon others despite possessing a physical dimension undetectable by sensory perception.[27]

While in some ways God’s causal influence is similar to the causal influence exerted by creatures, in other ways God’s causal call to love is different from the influence that creatures exert. Yet even in these different ways, God is not an exception to the metaphysical principles that science presupposes.

First, God’s causal call is different in that God always influences creatures to act in ways that optimize overall well-being. God’s essence is love, and this means that God loves relentlessly. God’s power invariably urges all things toward the common good. By contrast, creatures sometimes influence others to choose ill-being. All humans, at least, have sinned and fall short of God’s standard of relentless love. Whereas creatures love sporadically, God’s love is steadfast and never failing.

God’s causal influence in our cause-and-effect universe is different from other creatures, secondly, in that only God is a necessary cause in every creature’s love. Without divine influence, no creature can love. By contrast, any particular creature is a contingent cause for the love of others. No one creature’s influence is required for another creature to promote overall-well being. While divine action is required for creatures to live, and move, and have their being, creatures are, to use the words of theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, “utterly dependent” upon God to be empowered and inspired to love.[28]

Third, God’s causal influence is different from creaturely influence in that God takes into account the influence of others and persuades each creature to respond in a way that promotes overall well-being. God presents the possible options for action to creatures, most of those options having arisen from the past actions of creatures. Divine causation inspires creatures to love given what is possible in the particular circumstances each faces.[29] Process theologians in the tradition of Whitehead have called this presentation of options a creature’s “initial aim.” This aim includes God’s call to a particular creature in a particular moment to love in a particular way. And God takes into account the influence of all others when presenting this call. Divine love is all-pervasive, optimally sensitive, and perfectly influential.

The similarities and differences between the divine agent and creaturely agents that I have briefly outlined provide the basis for overcoming the problems inherent in both the natural/supernatural and divine unilateralism schemes addressed previously. Divine causation is neither an occasional add-on nor an eclipse of creaturely causation. God’s empowering and inspiring call is required for creaturely love, and yet God does not interrupt the normal causal relations required for creatures to love. When creatures love, they synergistically act with God by responding to the divine call to promote overall well-being.

The divine/creaturely love synergism I advocate allows one to embrace what David Ray Griffin calls “variable divine influence.” God’s influence upon others, says Griffin, is always formally the same but variable in content.[30] God acts as a necessary cause to empower each creature in each moment of that creature’s life. I claim similarly that God calls each creature to act in ways that will promote overall well-being. In this, all creatures feel divine causation in the same formal way.

Divine influence, however, is variable in its content and effectiveness. The content of God’s call depends upon the particularities of each creature in each moment. Creatures are diverse, and they dwell in diverse environments. God’s specific influence upon an electron, for instance, will be different in content from God’s influence upon a worm. God’s specific call for a child will be different in content from God’s call for an adult. God’s omniscient assessment of all conditions provides God with the resources to tailor perfectly the call to love for each creature.

Divine causation is variable in its effectiveness, because creatures may respond in various ways to God’s calls. When creatures respond well, God’s activity to promote overall well-being is most effective. Because some creatures are highly complex and possess a great degree of freedom, God presents a vast array of possibilities to them in each moment. God empowers them to choose among these possibilities and inspires them to choose that which promotes overall well-being. When creatures respond appropriately to God’s calls to love, the common good increases. God acts, as John Wesley put it, by “strongly and sweetly influencing all, and yet without destroying the liberty of his rational creatures.”[31]

The variability of a call’s effectiveness is not based upon God’s decision to exert either maximal or minimal influence upon others. God’s desire for the promotion of overall well-being prompts maximum divine effort in each moment to enhance the common good. God need not be coaxed to care by the efforts of creatures, for it is by God’s steadfast, never-failing grace nature -- not by creaturely effort – that God promotes the common good. God never takes a holiday from love.

Given these hypotheses, we can now provide the answer the central question we asked early on. These hypotheses provide the basis for our explanation for how limited creatures can express unlimited love.

While the extensivity of localized creatures is necessary limited, creatures are constantly influenced by One whose awareness is universal. This omnipresent Being assesses in each moment what should be done to promote the common good. And this Being knows what each particular creature should do in any particular moment to promote over well-being. Creatures can express unlimited love, because they have access to the One with an unlimited perspective. To use the language of Pitirim Sorokin, unlimited love requires maximal extensivity.[32] Creatures with narrow sympathies and restricted extensivity are not prevented from contributing to the common good, because their maximally extensive Creator envisions the good of the whole and communicates to creatures what contribution each might make.

Most of the time, the best way for a particular creature to promote overall well-being is to act in ways that simultaneously promote the creature’s own well-being and the well-being of those near and dear. In an interrelated universe, the mutual benefit of the loving actor and others often overlaps. Sometimes the promotion of overall well-being, however, requires that the lover be self-sacrificial for the good of those near and dear. Scientific studies showing that creatures act for the good of those genetically similar to themselves or for the good of members of the same group verify this. Other times, love involves acting for one’s own well-being at the expense of the well-being of some others, because overall well-being is enhanced by this self-affirming action. Self-love that deprives resources from some others is sometimes appropriate.

My hypothesis that God’s love is all-pervasive, optimally sensitive, and perfectly influential also provides grounds to affirm that creatures sometimes act for the good of outsiders and enemies. A maximally extensive God can inspire and empower confined creatures to promote universal brotherhood. Limited creatures express unlimited love if they respond appropriately to the call of the omnipresent One who knows what the common good requires and assesses perfectly what each creature can contribute to that good. When the omnipresent God is not thought to be outside or beyond the universal laws of cause and effect, one can offer empirical grounds to hypothesize that God influences creatures in ways that encourage the enhancement of overall well-being. And when God is a necessary cause, it is plausible to speculate that creatures rely upon God’s call when choosing to love outsiders and enemies, those near and dear, and themselves. God’s influence is neither an occasional add-on required for unnatural creaturely love nor a unilateral intervention that destroys the agency of the creatures that science investigates.

To say that all creatures have access to a universal Agent who calls them to promote the common good should not be taken to imply, however, that creatures know with absolute certainty the specificity of these calls. Creaturely limitations remain. We discern God’s moment-by-moment calls in the context of a wide variety of relations, emotions, and obligations. God’s influence is part of a multi-lateral array of influences. Our ultimate justification for choosing to act in one way to express love rather than in another is the imprecise intuition that God calls us to act in such a way.

Tools and practices are available to help creatures better discern God’s call to love. Over the millennia, religious people have discovered means by which they can assess with greater accuracy – but not with absolute certainty – the call of God. Religious people improve their skills at discernment when they engage in activities such as contemplation, living in loving communities, confession, worship practices, education, meditation on sacred scriptures, and following the ways of the exemplars. Maturing in love involves honing these skills of discernment by engaging intentionally in these love-enhancing practices.


What is required for creaturely expressions of agape? If we follow Martin Luther King, Jr.’s definition of agape as “good will for all,” limited creatures must rely upon the empowering and inspiring call of an omnipresent God of love to express agape. After all, to love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being. The loving call of an omnipresent God provides a crucial conceptual element to a scientifically and theologically adequate explanation of how creatures might express unlimited love.

For more from the author Thomas Jay Oord, see his website https://thomasjayoord.com or the Center for Open and Relational Theology https://c4ort.com

  1. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: Random House, 1994), 49.

  2. Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, A Theology of Love: The Dynamic of Wesleyanism (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1972), 9.

  3. One can find more complete explanations of my definition of love in many publications, including “Divine Love” in Philosophy of Religion: Introductory Essays, Thomas Jay Oord, ed (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 2003), “Love, Morals, and Relations in Evolutionary Theory,” in Evolutionary Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective, Philip Clayton and Jeffrey Schloss, eds. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004), Love and Science: The Wisdom of Well-Being. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation, 2004), “The Love Racket: Defining Love and Agape for the Love-and-Science Research Program,” Zygon 40:4 (December 2005): 919-938, and A Turn to Love: The Love, Science, and Theology Symbiosis (manuscript in preparation).

  4. Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 136.

  5. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Washington, ed. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1986), 19.

  6. See, for instance, Stephen G. Post, Unlimited Love: Altruism, Compassion and Service (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation, 2003) and Sir John Templeton, Agape Love: A Tradition Found in Eight World Religions (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation, 1999).

  7. I regard agape as one form of love, and I define it as acting intentionally, in sympathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being when confronted by that which generates ill-being. Or to use the language of Jesus, agape “repays evil with good” (“The Love Racket,” 934).

  8. Unto Others, 9.

  9. David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 35.

  10. Ibid., 96.

  11. Ibid., 217.

  12. M. C. D’Arcy, The Heart and Mind of Love: Lion and Unicorn: A Study in Eros and Agape (Cleveland: Meridian, 1956), 363, 370. This quote does not represent D’Arcy’s only view on the relation of nature and grace. D’Arcy presents a kaleidoscope of opinions on the relation, with no coherent explanation of the differences.

  13. Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, tr. Philip S. Watson (New York: Harper and Row, 1957 [1930]), 129.

  14. Ibid., 735, 741.

  15. Ibid., 218, 213

  16. According to Nygren, agape is rightly understood as 1) unconditioned, spontaneous, groundless, or unmotivated, 2) indifferent to, but creative of, value, 3) directed toward sinners, 4) the sole initiator of creaturely fellowship with God, 5) in opposition to all that can be called self-love, 6) sacrificial giving to others, and 7) the only authentic Christian love as taught by the Bible (Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, tr. Philip S. Watson [New York: Harper and Row, 1957 {1930}], 27-240).

    In addition to the reasons I give in this essay’s text to why Nygren’s understanding of agape ought to be rejected, let me add others. His understanding ought to be rejected because it opposes all that can be called self-love. We should reject it because, if genuine love only entails sacrificial giving, Christians cannot act lovingly when receiving gifts from others. And Nygren’s emphasis upon agape as the only appropriate Christian love neglects legitimate Christian philia and Christian eros.

    Those familiar with the agape debate are typically aware of these and similar criticisms. They are typically less familiar with a final criticism of Nygren’s concept of agape that influences love scholarship. That criticism arises in response to Nygren’s claim that agape is the distinctively Christian understanding of love, because, as he believes, the Bible proposes a relatively unique and uniform understanding of agape.

    An examination of Christian scripture reveals that, contrary to Nygren’s argument, biblical authors use the word agape to convey a wide variety and sometimes contradictory set of meanings. For instance, biblical writers sometimes use agape to refer to ideal ethical action, and other times biblical authors use agape to refer to sinful action (e.g., 2 Tim. 4:10; Rm. 12:9; 2 Cor. 8:8; Jn. 3:19; Lk. 11:43; Jn. 12:43; 2 Pt. 2:15; 1 Jn. 2:15; 2 Tm. 4:10). Sometimes biblical authors use agape to talk about unconditional love and other times about conditioned, response-dependent love. We find biblical authors using agape to talk about non-self-sacrificial love. Even the Apostle Paul – whom Nygren believes most supports his own agape theories – employs agape to talk about self-love (e.g., Eph. 5:28, 33). Because the context suggests it, biblical scholars translate agape in ways that we typically think the word eros or philia would be translated. For instance, agape is translated in ways that connote eros; it is rendered “to long for,” “to prefer,” “to desire,” “to prize,” “to value,” and “to be fond of” (e.g., 2 Tm. 4:8,10; Jn. 3:19 & 12:43; Hb. 1:9; Rv. 12:11; and Lk. 7:5). Sometimes agape is used to convey meanings traditionally assigned philia and, in many contexts, the two words seem interchangeable (James Moffatt, Love in the New Testament [London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1929], 51-56). In sum, the Bible is far from uniform in its understanding of agape. Neither the narrow claim that agape possesses a single meaning in the Bible nor the broader claim that one meaning of agape predominates in Christian Scripture find textual support. To be true to Christian Scripture, we should not talk about the biblical understanding of agape.

  17. Instead of “essential,” some philosophers prefer “superessential” to refer to divine attributes. The latter term implies that a particular attribute applies to God in all possible worlds. I mean for “essential” to imply the same.

  18. For a stimulating discussion of the relation between the divine will and divine nature with regard to love, see various essays in a book edited by John Polkinghorne, The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001). See especially “God’s Power: A Process View,” by Ian Barbour, “Cosmos and Kenosis,” by Keith Ward, and “Creation out of Love,” by Paul Fiddes.

  19. On this, see Oord, “Divine Love,” in Philosophy of Religion.

  20. Ronald Goetz notes that “the rejection of the ancient doctrine of divine impassibility has become theological commonplace” (“The Rise of a New Orthodoxy,” The Christian Century 103/13 [1986], 385). The list of those who deny divine immutability and affirm divine suffering, at least in some way, is long. Works on that list, in addition to works by process theologians and philosophers, include the following: Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997); Barry L. Callen, God as Loving Grace: The Biblically Revealed Nature and Work of God (Nappanee Ind.: Evangel, 1996); Wendy Farley, Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion: A Contemporary Theodicy (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990); Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God; Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1996); Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991); Jung Young Lee, God Suffers for Us: A Systematic Inquiry into a Concept of Divine Passibility (The Hague: Marinus Nijhoff, 1974); Geddes MacGregor, He Who Lets Us Be: A Theology of Love (New York: Seabury, 1975); John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (London: SCM, 1977); Warren McWilliams, The Passion of God: Divine Suffering in Contemporary Protestant Theology (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985); Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), God in Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation (London, SCM, 1985), The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 42-47; Thomas V. Morris, Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1991); Clark H. Pinnock, et. al., The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1994); S. Paul Schilling, God and Human Anguish (Nashville: Abingdon, 1977); Dorothy Sölle, Suffering, trans. E. R. Kalin (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1975); Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977); Keith Ward, Rational Theology and the Creativity of God (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982).

  21. The notion that God is the most moved mover, rather than the unmoved mover, derives from Abraham Heschel. Various process theologians employ the phrase as well. Clark Pinnock titles one of his books promoting the idea that God is affected by others, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2001).

  22. For a Wesleyan reading of divine omnipresence, see Michael Lodahl, God of Nature and of Grace: Reading the World in a Wesleyan Way (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), especially chapters 4 and 6.

  23. John Wesley, Sermon 118, “On the Omnipresence of God,” § 1.2, Works 4:41.

  24. A number of scholars have embraced panentheism in recent days. One of the better accounts of the diversity of meanings the label carries is found in the collection of essays, In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World (Philip Clayton and Arthur Peacocke, eds. [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004]). In that book, see especially “Naming a Quiet Revolution: The Pantheistic Turn in Modern Theology” (Michael W. Brierley) and “Pantheism Today: A Constructive Systematic Evaluation” (Philip Clayton).

  25. I use “theocosmocentrism” to distinguish my own view from the variety of panentheisms that scholars have adopted (for these varieties, see In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being). By theocosmocentrism, I mean that God has always been related to some universe or another, and God did not create the universe from absolutely nothing (creatio ex nihilo). Some panentheists, by contrast, affirm creatio ex nihilo and the notion that God existed alone prior to God’s creation of this universe.

  26. The Christian doctrine of prevenient grace – as understood in the Wesleyan tradition – offers a similar concept of love as entailing divine call and creaturely response. Prevenient grace might best be described as God acting in each moment to empower creatures to respond freely and then wooing them to choose responses that increase overall well-being. Creatures who respond appropriately to the specific calls of an omnipresent, omni-relational God will act in ways that promote overall well-being. See Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1994) and Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, A Theology of Love: The Dynamic of Wesleyanism (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill, 1972).

  27. Charles Hartshorne’s discussion of the God-world/mind-body analogy is helpful. He states that “the body is simply that much of the world with which the mind, or personal society, has effective immediate interactions of mutual inheritance, and over which its influence is dominant. Such is God’s relation to all of the world, and therefore all of it is his body. This has none of the degrading effects that giving God a body is supposed to have; indeed, it is only a way of saying that God’s social relations with all things are uniquely adequate, that he really and fully loves all of them, and that they all, however inadequately or unconsciously, love him.” Hartshorne continues, saying that it is not true, “that the lesser organisms within a mind’s organism are absolutely controlled by that mind, deprived of all decisions of their own, or that what the parts of the body decide for themselves the dominant mind decides for itself. Hence creaturely freedom and God’s non-responsibility for evil are compatible with the view that God is the personality of the cosmic body, the totality of societies inferior to that personal-order society which is the mind and life of God” (Charles Hartshorne, “Whitehead’s Idea of God” in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed. 2nd ed. [New York: Tudor, 1951], 549-50).

  28. Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989 [2nd ed., 1830]). The translation of schlechthinig as “utter” is my own, but this translation is not unique to me.

  29. The notion that God offers possible options for action to creatures is articulated well in the writing of some process theologians. See, for instance, John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology: Based on the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965), David Ray Griffin, Reenchantment Without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001), Marjorie Hewett Suchocki, God-Christ-Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology (New York: Crossroad, 1993), and Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, corrected edition, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978; orig. ed., 1929).

  30. Griffin, Reenchantment Without Supernaturalism, 147.

  31. John Wesley, Sermon 118, “On the Omnipresence of God,” § 2.1, Works 4:42.

  32. Pitirim Sorokin, The Ways and Power of Love: Types, Factors, and Techniques of Moral Transformation (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation, [1954] 2002), 16.