Chapter 3: Love in the New Testament

The Spirit and the Forms of Love
by Daniel Day Williams

Chapter 3: Love in the New Testament

Love has a history, and a critical part of that history is the development from the faith of Judaism to the Christian faith. In this chapter we need to identify the most important features of that development. The faith that Jesus is the Messiah, the Redeemer, created a new understanding of what the love of God is and how God redeems. Our attention centres upon two main topics: first, the shift from the old covenant with the nation to the new covenant established through the one Elect Man who is recognized as the Messiah. The question about the universality of love and its relation to election is seen in this new context. Second, there is the meaning of the suffering of the Messiah, and consequently the question about the suffering of God as disclosure of the way love redeems.

A new and significant discussion between Christianity and Judaism should be possible. This chapter is not written with the view that Christianity answers every question raised in Judaism, or to prove that the Christian way of understanding God’s redemptive work is superior to that of Judaism. The two faiths belong together while each has its distinctive outlook and its characteristic problems. We shall see how the unresolved issues in the New Testament witness have led to centuries of further search for the meaning of the love of God. Seymour Siegel has put the central issue for the two faiths concisely:

For Judaism the problem is, with the world in the condition in which it is, why does not the Messiah come? For Christianity the question is, since the Messiah has come, why is the world in the condition that it is.1


The New Testament keeps the ground pattern of the Old in its assertion that the love of God is revealed in the election of a people to be his servant. It uses the family analogies of husband and bride and father and son. But in the New Testament the love of God is made manifest in his relation to His Son, Jesus, the Elect Man, and through him to the new people which are made a people through what God does through the Son. This, I am asserting, is the key to the New Testament doctrine of love. The failure to see that the understanding of love in Christian faith is given in the Father-Son relationship in God himself has vitiated many Christian theologies of love. However we take the doctrine of the Trinity, as ontological affirmation or as symbolic expression, it is essential to the way in which the New Testament sees the relation of God’s love to his redemptive action in Jesus Christ.

Contemporary theology is indebted to this Christocentric emphasis as it has developed in the century and a half since Schleiermacher, Ritschl and other liberal theologians pressed further the position that the Christian knowledge of God is based upon the history of Jesus. Now Karl Barth has carried through in the most radical way the interpretation of Christian doctrine on the exclusive foundation of God’s action in Jesus Christ. He finds here his solution of the meaning of election. Love as grasped in the Christian faith is inseparable from the history of Jesus of Nazareth. While I do not share Barth’s exclusive view of revelation in history, I believe we must follow this insight that Jesus is the Elect Man to the end if we are to understand the meaning of love in the New Testament.2

Barth has seen that in the New Testament the theme of election is transposed from the nation, Israel, to the person, Jesus. The theme of Israel as God’s beloved is fundamental for the Old Testament. The Septuagint translators used the Greek word meaning ‘Son of his love’ for Israel. In the New Testament this ascription is given to Christ. The term ‘beloved’ had already appeared in messianic prophecies, as in the Ascension of Isaiah, and it does not always have a Christian source in that work. James Moffat says that the evidence of the quotation of the prophecy of Isaiah in Matthew 12:18, ‘Behold my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved in whom my soul is well pleased,’ shows that ‘Beloved’ was interchangeable with ‘Elect’ as a description of Jesus. The same is shown by Luke’s account of the transfiguration, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him’.3

Thus the love between God and his son is the pattern and ground of the communion of man with God. ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ It is also characteristic of the Fourth Evangelist to see love as promised to those who obey Christ: ‘If anyone loves me, he will obey my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him’4 (John 14: 23).

We have taken two important steps in understanding the New Testament when we see the significance of the Christological theme for the meaning of love. First, love is known in its ultimate depth as the mystery of personal communion. The relation of Father and Son is the image of that communion in God. Love is being, the very being of God in an eternally outgoing, creative life. The spirit makes itself manifest as the form of personal communion. This is as far as our language can reach. We can no more exhaust its meaning than we can confine the life of God in a human pattern.

The second gain is to see that the meaning of love expressed in the life of Jesus becomes the basis of an ethic for human relationships. It gives the criterion of the ethical commandment to love. Thus the concrete human meaning of love is to have its final definition through the relationship of every human history to the history of Jesus. In one sense then the theme of election now takes on an even sharper tension than in the Old Testament. There is one elect man, and in some way all human history has to be interpreted from within his election. Jesus is the representative of God and of Everyman. All those who are to know God have been ‘chosen in him, that is in Christ, before the world was founded, that we should be holy and blameless before him’. This ‘predestining’ is an act of love. ‘He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ’ (Ephesians 1: 4-5).

Who are the predestined? Is it all or some, and are some chosen for eternal life and some for eternal death? Here the tension in the meaning of election reaches its sharpest point; but now it is shifted from the question about a particular people to a question about the meaning of the one man who bears God’s will for all. It is possible to hold that in thus concentrating the concept of election on the one man, the eternal son of God through whom all things are made, the New Testament actually universalizes the concept of election in a way different from the Old Testament. We can conclude as Karl Barth seems to do, that it is the sense of the New Testament that all are elected to salvation in Jesus Christ. The mystery of love in its relation to the lostness of men remains, and there is the long and dreary history of Christian theology on the theme of predestination. But it may be that the real direction of the New Testament is at last being brought to clearer light. The real sense of election is God’s loving communion between himself and his son. This is the spirit of love in God, and in his love God wills communion with all. The incarnate Christ represents God’s love for everyman, and everyman’s real situation before God. Love is the will to that communion between God and man and between every man and his neighbour which has its ontological ground expressed in the Trinitarian symbol of the love of the Father for His Son.

From this standpoint we can see why it is inadequate to describe the agape of God only as the spontaneous, unmotivated, uncalculated self-giving of the Holy God, regardless of the value of its object. Agape is first and primordially the spirit of communion willing the divine relationship between Father and Son as the ground and pattern of the fulfilment of all things.

Now, however, we have to take a further step and see that the love of God becomes the suffering, self-giving love of the merciful God for sinners, actualized when God gives his only son to share the human lot, to suffer the limitations of human existence and to die that the world might be reconciled to him. Love has a history in the very life of God as he deals with his recalcitrant creatures.

Without pressing too far the typological relationship of Old Testament and New Testament we can see here a repetition of the Old Testament experience of love. God’s election love raises up his people into a covenanted fellowship. Then, in the history of their disloyalty, his love becomes a patient, merciful, redemptive sharing in the life of his people and the will to restoration. Love thus has its history in God’s meeting of the concrete need of man.

So again in the New Testament, the love of God means the complete spiritual communion for which the human image of father and son offers the most important analogy. God loves his Son and he loves the world with an unshakeable will to communion (John 3:16). But the history of man is the history of his fall into lovelessness. God has to deal with a humanity which can learn to love and be reached by love only through the divine self-giving and suffering. The story of Jesus is the story of the only begotten Son, the beloved, now fulfilling the divine purpose through enacting the life of love in the midst of the world’s need. God’s giving of his son is the decisive action in his revelation of his love. The character of the divine love is shown by Jesus’ obedience, his acceptance of his vocation, and his giving of himself for all. ‘God has shown his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5: 8).

In this history God’s love has taken on the character of suffering for the sinner. When Jesus says, as in the Fourth Gospel’s interpretative words, ‘Love one another as I have loved you, greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,’ the very quality of the love which God has expressed through Jesus becomes the quality and character of suffering love poured out for another beyond the worthiness of that other.

This is the justification of Bishop Nygren’s interpretation of agape in the New Testament. In the light of God’s action in Christ we can think truly of the love of God only as we see it as forgiveness poured out for the sinner, the grace of God toward the unworthy. We sinning men do not know what the love of God is apart from this. But where Nygren s view is limited is that the love which is poured out in forgiveness is not only sheer forgiveness for the unworthy, it is God the Father’s love for the Son. It is the fulfilled communion of spirit. The love which wills communion and shares it, becomes forgiving love in the light of the need of man. As Gregory of Nyssa says, God became man because it was man who was in trouble.5

We may ask if this gives us the right to speak of a ‘motivation’ in God. Does he love because men are in need, or in order to restore them to fellowship in the sense that there is some value to be added to God’s being through his action? If God loves the world enough to give his son, does this mean that there is a calculated value in the result? All such language seems strangely out of place. The action of love is always the action of the spirit, creatively moving out to the other, without a mere calculation of results. Yet the action of God does create a new fellowship. It is motivated in the sense that love seeks out the other. That is surely a kind of motivation. There is no sense in denying motivation to the action of God any more than to the action of a human lover who desires reconciliation with another. Love can seek reconciliation without assurance of fulfilment.

There is a powerful theological tradition which settles this matter of the divine motivation in another way. God, it is said, is complete in his own being. He needs nothing and nothing can be added to him, hence whatever he does for man and the world in creation or redemption must be a sheer spontaneous act without any goal or purpose, for it can add nothing to God’s being. We shall have much to say about this tradition later, but even in its extreme form, it does not reject the notion that God does will the reconciliation of the world to himself. The action of love is not a pointless fancy. It has an aim, the Kingdom of God.


We have seen how the Old Testament faith understands that God’s relation to his people in some way involved his suffering. There is the strange figure of the Servant in Second Isaiah whose suffering, even if it is not the suffering of God, is the way to redemption. We have said that the Hebrew faith does not come to a clear resolution of the question of how the suffering either of God or the Servant enters into the redemptive work of love.

On this theme the New Testament offers an answer, but the nature of that answer has led to some unresolved problems. We have come to the question of the meaning of Jesus’ suffering as atonement. The New Testament makes the clear affirmation that it is through the suffering of Jesus that the way has been opened for the redemptive work of love. This is the centre of the New Testament faith. God’s love has done its work through the life and suffering and death of the son. But the meaning of this action is embodied in a gallery of metaphors. Emil Brunner has distinguished five major themes in which the significance of the death of Christ is described.6 There is the sacrifice, the ransom, the penal suffering, the victory over evil powers, and the symbol of the Paschal Lamb. All these metaphors have been worked into theories of the atonement in Christian history; but it is remarkable that no single doctrine of atonement has ever become the accepted theory to the exclusion of the others. It is as if at the centre of the Christian faith the redemptive action of God explodes all theories and formulas. The spirit breaks and creates many forms, and no one of them can contain it.7

The way in which the meaning of death is woven into the history of sin and reconciliation creates especially difficult problems in the doctrine of atonement. In the apocalyptic setting of late Jewish thought the idea of resurrection and personal immortality appears. In the New Testament death is sometimes represented as the penalty for sin, or it becomes the symbol for separation from God, and thus Christ’s victory over sin is also the victory over death.

The identification of death as the last enemy by Paul in I Corinthians 15 reflects the view that man has fallen into the hands of powers which must be broken by God’s power. Dying with Christ means participating in his victory over everything that separates man from God. Forgiveness brings the promise of eternal life, and thus atonement and the eschatological hope are linked together. All this is said in images and metaphors which defy systematic analysis. Rudolph Bultmann uses somewhat drastic language but he puts our dilemma:

The Jesus who was crucified was the pre-existent, incarnate Son of God, and as such he was without sin. He is the victim whose blood atones for our sins. He bears vicariously the sin of the world, and by enduring the punishment for sin on our behalf he delivers us from death. This mythological interpretation is a hotch-potch of sacrificial and juridical analogies, which have ceased to be tenable for us today. And in any case they fail to do justice to what the New Testament is trying to say.8

What then is the New Testament trying to say? Our concern is to see within the history of the atonement metaphors what happens to the understanding of God’s love. The first answer must be that the conception of redemption as the work of God’s love has often become obscured in the attempt to account for the suffering of Christ. The concepts of ransom, of vicarious suffering for the guilt of men, of propitiation and sacrifice all too easily turn into descriptions of how God is appeased through suffering, and thus the point that the atonement stems from his love is lost. Again, the victory over the powers of Death and Satan can be described in such military terms that the personal meaning of the forgiveness of God is lost in the drama of the divine conquest. Yet all the New Testament metaphors do have this in common, they see God’s love involved in a real struggle with evil. Love’s work must be done in a situation riddled with the consequences of man’s separation from God. All the metaphors find a redemptive meaning in the suffering and death of the Christ, God’s Son and Mediator. Here the theme that the love of God has a history receives its decisive expression in the Christian faith.

We may go beyond the traditional theories of atonement and ask a radical question: ‘What account would be given of atonement if we were to interpret it from the standpoint of the most realistic analogies we know to human love when it deals with broken relationships and the consequent suffering?’ We shall ask this question and try to find an answer in Chapter 7.

We have seen how the history of God’s action in the world becomes reinterpreted in the New Testament as a history to be understood with Jesus Christ at its centre. It is now the history of humanity as lived under the impact of the new faith which is born out of response to Jesus, and through which a new ‘people’ has come into being which lives by the mercy God has shown in him. We have now to look at the New Testament teaching about the human expressions and forms of love.


The New Testament ethic of love has its foundation in the Old Testament. The two commandments, to love God and the neighbour, are at the centre of the mature tradition in Israel. In the New Testament love is affirmed, not as a new ethical principle, but as the spirit of a new relationship of man and God. The New Testament is marked by the radical insight that the spirit of love transcends every ethic of specific commandments and laws. Yet neither the law as Israel has known it, nor human laws are despised. New tensions appear as the history of love leads to new ethical forms. There are three vital points in the New Testament outlook on ethics.

First, there is the doctrine, especially as interpreted by Paul, that the spirit of love is the fulfilment of all righteousness, conjoined with a conception of the new life in Christ as committed to specific patterns of pure and responsible living. Paul sees love as the ground of ethical freedom. ‘Neither circumcision, nor uncircumcision avails, but faith working through love.’ ‘Through love be servants one of another for the whole law is fulfilled in one word, "you shall love your neighbour as yourself".’ Again, ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 5: 6,13-14; 6: 2). Yet Paul goes on to give scores of specific warnings and judgments against all kinds of unacceptable behaviour: impurity, jealousy, strife, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like (Galatians 5: 19-2l). He gives practical injunctions concerning marriage, and the treatment of those who will not work. He advises concerning the attitudes of parents toward children, husband toward wife, master toward slave. Paul makes some qualifications concerning the adequacy of human judgment, even his own, in specific cases; but we see that commitment to the spirit of love as an alternative to legal obedience requires responsible living and the honouring of authentic forms of behaviour appropriate to the new life. So Paul repeats in his way the pattern in Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus puts the command to love at the centre of the message of the Kingdom, and couples it with concrete judgments on forms of human exploitation, on the responsibilities of God’s people in law courts, in marriage, in buying and selling, in religious duties. The ethic of love is not formless. When it comes into its full spiritual significance it begins to cut its own channels in human behaviour, but it has to cut them in the hard soil of human conditions. The freedom of the spirit is maintained so long as the meaning of ethical action is kept as response to the love of God rather than simply as obedience to law. The new commandment is to love one another as Christ has loved. That means the final ethical norm is in the action of God in the person of Jesus in whom the Spirit has become incarnate.9

In the New Testament the meaning of ethical love is given by the divine action in the history of Jesus. This is the second vital point in the New Testament ethic. When we ask what love is, or what is to be done in the spirit of love we are to look at the action of Christ in becoming the servant for the sake of the ungodly. ‘Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus,’ Paul says, as he adapts the kenotic hymn in which Christ who is equal to God humbles himself, takes the form of a servant, and becomes obedient unto death (Philippians 2: 5). Paul’s conception of the Christian life is that we become conformed to the way of Christ. ‘As therefore you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in him’ (Colossians 2: 6). Paul thinks of the sufferings of the life of faith as bearing in the body the dying of Jesus that his life might also be manifest (II Corinthians 4). This cruciform life is the meaning of the new creation. Paul speaks of the new life in the freedom of love as being itself the ‘rule’ (canon). ‘Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God’ (Galatians 6: 16).

We can sum up by saying that the ethical impulse in the spirit of love as released in the Gospel takes new forms and fulfils old demands because the spirit has become incarnate in the form of the Servant. What is given for the ethical life in Jesus Christ is not a law in the form of specific prescriptions, but an action which releases power to accept responsibility for that action which will serve the neighbour. This new form of being involves a radical new relation to all things. Paul sees the cross of Christ as the way in which the world has been crucified to us and we to the world (Galatians 6:14). It is not only that a new idea of what love is has come into the world, though we need not deny there is something new in the way the idea of love will ever after be understood. The decisive matter is that the spirit of God has come into history in such a way as to plough up the old forms of human existence and to open the way to new human actions. The spirit has shattered the foundations of the old order of history in which man’s lovelessness has the last word. A new history has begun.

We have, then, sufficient warning in the New Testament against letting any interpretation of the ethical life be turned into a set of objective rules which are simply to be obeyed as rules. We are to be prepared for the extravagance, the radical spontaneity, the unruliness of love in human existence. We say the warning is sufficient, yet legalism has plagued Christian life and ethics through the centuries. How is it possible for this radical new Gospel to be caught in the perennial forms of legalism?

We have to consider as part of the explanation the situation in which the ethic of love had to be appropriated. The world’s history moves on in its worldly way, and the history of sin continues in the history of man. The issues of life remain. Men are born, grow, are taught, buy and sell, contend with one another as individuals, and fight as nations and people. Human loyalties arc divided, human fears drive the spirit to self-protection and to desperation. Even the new spirituality brings its temptations with it. There is no absolute protection against turning spiritual wisdom and grace into pride. The history of the Christian community is a history of the old world being confronted by a new spirit. Here is a double reason why the forms of legalistic ethics remain. It is partly the sin of man’s search for a moral security through obeying an imposed set of objective prescriptions. It is also the result of the necessity for some kinds of principles for the guidance of life, the organization of society, and the adjustment of the claims and counter claims in human living. Both the irresponsibility of sin, and the responsibility of love are involved in the struggle to realize an ethic conformable to the spirit of love.

It is sometimes held that the initial impulse of Christian ethics in its absolutizing of love was the search for a supernatural purity, and a refusal to compromise in any way the simplicity of the commandment to love. Martin Buber says Paul sees faith as the only condition of salvation so that personal holiness and salvation become the sole concern, and the sphere of the person is separated from that of public affairs.10

Certainly Paul makes faith the sole condition of salvation. But Buber believes that Paul means by faith belief in a truth, a kind of objective knowledge, whereas surely for Paul faith in Christ is never separated from love to all the members of the body of Christ and to every man. The letters of Paul as well as the Gospel records show that the Christian community from the beginning made ethical decisions within the community and in relation to buying and selling in the market, and the problem of obedience to the state. There was indeed a brief period in the time following the experience of the resurrection when the believers expected the return of the Lord and the end of history so that a certain indifference to normal responsibilities in an ongoing history appears. This colours perhaps some of Paul’s teaching about ‘remaining in the calling wherein each is called’. What is remarkable is how quickly the need of the church to make ethical judgments on many problems entered into the shaping of the tradition, as appears to have happened with the modification of Jesus’ word about marriage and the injunctions concerning the handling of disputes (Matthew 19: 7ff.; 18: 15ff.). In Romans 12 Paul writes about the state and its rightful powers in terms which have both guided and troubled the Christian conscience ever since. The pastoral epistles are filled with moral injunctions for wives, husbands, servants, teachers, philanthropists, ministers, citizens. ‘Obey the emperor,’ writes the author of the First Epistle of Peter (1 Peter 2: 13). Love is the fulfilment of the law, but it does not provide answers to all of the laws’ questions. Love has to cut some new channels as well as use those that are already present as it does its work in history.

The love which is to be given to the neighbour is the same love that God has given to us in Jesus Christ. The New Testament does sometimes use another word for love than agape, the word philein, as in ‘Love one another earnestly from the heart’ (I Peter 1: 22; I Thessalonians 4: 9). There is however no sharp difference in the usage of this word for love of the brother, as against the love spoken of as agape. Paul uses the forms of agape to express his love for the saints in Philippi (Philippians 4:1). Both words are used in various contexts for all the dimensions of God’s love for man, man’s love for God, and man’s love for man.11 The new ethical relationship demanded by the action of God’s love in Christ is the giving of concrete help to the neighbour, the spirit of mercy and compassion, the creative concern which is the human analogue of what God has shown to man. It is an analogue which means the imitation of a divine pattern through participation in history.

We come to the third important dimension of New Testament ethics, the question of human affection and desire, and the relation of agape to the manifold human loves. We are to see every human love in the light of the central message about God’s love in Christ. That is the way the New Testament approaches all human behaviour. It sees man in the spiritual crisis of repentance and the need for grace. It tells of what God does in that crisis, and in the light of that history all human experience is to be viewed. Certainly human experience is not ignored. All the human loves are there — family love, love for home and country, love of life and love of self, and also the perversions of love and its rejection.

Is there, however, a final and absolute gulf between the agape of God known in Christ and the love which rules human desire? That question must be asked, and it must be admitted that there is no clear answer to it. This is the critical issue about the relation of God’s being to our being as creatures, and of God’s love to finite creaturely desire, vitality and comradeship. Here the theologies have divided. We shall try to say in summary form how the New Testament presents the mystery and the dilemmas of love without wholly resolving them.

On one point we can be clear. There is no rejection of desire or passion or sexuality or the eros of the beautiful in the New Testament, though there are expressions and tendencies which could be used to support ascetic tendencies in later religious practice. Even in Paul’s letters, where these tendencies appear, he keeps free from any identification of the body with evil, and from any disparagement of the natural loves. Paul uses the marriage metaphor of the Old Testament tradition as the image for the relationship of the Christian people to Christ. ‘I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her husband’ (II Corinthians 11: 2). It may be that the use of this image as the foundation for the interpretation of marriage in Ephesians 5 is not directly from Paul.

For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one. This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5: 31-2.)

But Paul has laid the foundation in the simpler injunction in Colossians:

Wives be subject to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. (Colossians 3:18-19.)

Paul calls the body the temple of the living God, and it is not therefore to be prostituted or otherwise misused (I Corinthians 6:15). It is Paul again who opens the way to a Christian understanding of the creative good in human culture with its appreciation of excellence:

Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4: 8.)

We also find in the New Testament, beginning with the teaching of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels, the use of human analogies as parables of the divine love. The story of the prodigal son is a story of human love and loveless pride. It compares the mercy of God to the compassion of a father, and is told as a story about the relation of God’s love to the human spirit. The story could be heard and understood by anyone who had experienced the depth of love in a family with its dilemmas and decisions, and Jesus uses it as a lesson about God which is reflected in the human situation. Karl Barth appears to hold that the New Testament would have us understand familial love only in the light of the divine love, but if this were the case, there would be no need for the parable. To be sure, the parables are understood more profoundly in the light of the full disclosure of agape in Christ; but that revelation illumines what is already pressing for recognition in human experiences of love. It simply is not true that the agape of the New Testament is nothing but the grace of God poured out without motive upon the unworthy. It is also the spirit of rejoicing, of friendship, and of the new life with its foretaste of the blessedness of life with God and with the brethren in the full freedom of love.

Nevertheless, when we have gone so far with the positive place of the creaturely loves in the Gospel, there does remain a profound and disturbing revolution in the New Testament faith. For the love which is made incarnate and powerful in Christ’s presence among men is a love which involves a radical transformation of all earthly loves in the light of the Kingdom. It does not destroy the natural attachments and desires, nor does it count them as of no worth in the eyes of God; but it subjects them to a new judgment:

He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10: 37-8.)

The drastic character of these words is echoed by Paul:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse in order that I may gain Christ, and be found in him. (Philippians 3: 7-9a.)

God’s new creation in Christ brings a commitment to an absolute good which makes everything else a temporary and relative good. Yet it is in this same letter that Paul goes on to the passage recommending all excellences to the Christians (Philippians 4: 8).

It might be said that this tension is resolved neatly by the full meaning of Jesus’ injunction, ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you’. But this does not resolve the tension in the life of agape. What things are to be given up? What becomes of the creative works of culture? What does it mean to seek the Kingdom first? We are not given directives, rather we are confronted with the issue. What did the new life mean for the first Christians in the realms of human desire, passion, creativity, knowledge, and love? The spirit of the New Testament community is perhaps most concretely expressed in the passage in Paul’s letters in which he tries to answer the question as to whether Christians who are unmarried should remain so or not. He makes three points: first, each one should remain in that situation in which he was found by the Gospel. Even the slave can remain as he is though he need not; ‘Were you a slave when called, never mind, but if you can attain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. Are you bound to a wife; do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage’ (I Corinthians 7: 21, 27). Paul tempers this reply — there is no sin in being married, but then, as if wrestling with an issue which cannot be settled by specific prescriptions, he gives his profoundest expression of what the new life means:

I mean, brothers, the appointed time has grown very short, from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away. (I Corinthians 7: 29-31.)

Here the tension between the new life and the old is strained as far as it can go without breaking. There is no seclusion from the world, and no asceticism or self-denial for its own sake. The Christian does not depart from the world as it is, but he has a certain detachment in regard to all present things. The reason is that ‘the form of this world is passing away’. The imperfect tense is important. We are still within the old form. It has its demands and its responsibilities, but it has in itself no permanence.

Unquestionably the expectation of the imminent return of the Lord helped to shape the extreme form of this early Christian ethic. Paul’s sense of the shortness of the time probably enters into his suggestion that each should remain in the ‘calling wherein he was called’. It is all the more remarkable that even Paul draws back from absolutizing such injunctions. There is underneath it all the freedom to find what love requires and to do it.

We can sum up what actually did become the way of Christian living in the ancient world by saying that the Christians lived in the economic, political and social orders of their time seeking new patterns but conforming to the general requirements of the common life, and accepting constituted authority except when it required idolatrous worship. Some certainly refused military service. There was in some communities a practice of having all things in common, and there was practised for a time in some groups what Charles Williams has later called ‘an experiment in dissociation’, the living together of men and women with a complete renunciation of sex.12 But these radical experiments never became normative for the churches. The suffering which came to the Christians came as a result of the refusal of emperor worship. They lived as witnesses to the Gospel, and their sufferings became marks of that witness, and a testing and tempering of the spirit. It is obvious not all maintained the pattern of sober, industrious life. Paul’s letters are filled with injunctions against excesses and unseemly conduct. The call was clear to a sober, devout life, filled with a spirit different from that of the riotous passions and self-seeking lusts of the world. It was a joyful soberness:

Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like. . .

But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:19-23.)

Was this a new ethic, or simply a baptized and intensified form of stoic restraint and brotherliness? The virtues seem to be those of the decencies and ideals of a restrained reasonableness not different in form from the wisdom and integrity of traditional Hebraic or Greek values. The ethic of love did not create a wholly new pattern for human living. We see here a principle which runs through the entire history of love; the forms which express the spirit of love do not arise like some pure fountain from love alone. The forms are drawn from the tradition and experiences of men. They express a way of life which is congruent with the requirements of love, even though love itself finally will plough up and reshape them. That ploughing up of the old form takes a long time as the subsequent history shows.

We acknowledge, then, an important contrast in the New Testament community. On one hand it was committed to a radical break with the ways of an evil world, ‘the worldly life which is the enemy of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their God is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things’ (Philippians 3:18-19). The Christians drew apart from this. They belonged to a new order (Revelation 22: 5~ II Timothy 2: 22; I Peter 4: 2; 5:1). Yet the radical work of love implicit in the new ethic remains in a strange way hidden. Such issues as slavery, the status of women, and political freedom, the virtues of scientific honesty and integrity, the freedom of the spirit in worship, all such ethical concerns which have grown in significance throughout Christian history are in part at least implicit in the new life, but they are not explicit, and the reason for that must be sought in the historical situation into which the Gospel came. The revolution which the freedom of love meant is a permanent revolution which must work itself out in history.

But the seeds are there. Even a progressivist in his outlook on history like Alfred North Whitehead says that the greatness of early Christianity lay in its interim ethics, that is, in the way in which the ultimate moral demand was set free from a too immediate calculation of results.13 This ethic was never wholly detached from concrete historical responsibility. It is significant that in the book of Revelation (a book Whitehead did not like because of its bloody and apocalyptic imagery), the vision of a new heavenly city at the end of time has the divine light shine so that the nations walk by it, and the ‘kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it’ (Revelation 21: 22ff.). Thus the Old Testament view of history as the redemption of the nations by the Lord of all things receives its Christian reiteration. The way is opened for the Christian mission to become involved in the problems of cultural and national existence. This is what did happen in Christianity. Had it not been so, Christianity would have become an esoteric sect, perhaps untroubled and uncomprised by, but certainly irrelevant to the issues of world history. That this did not happen is a fact, whatever view we take of the rise of the church to political and cultural power.

In concluding this chapter we must notice that something analogous to this acceptance and transformation of human ethics by love happened also in the realm of knowledge.

The agape of God in Christ brought a new wisdom, a new knowledge. Paul declares that this knowledge is his exclusive concern: ‘I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (I Corinthians 2: 2). He goes on to speak of that which he imparts: ‘a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification’ (I Corinthians 2: 7). Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God to those who are called, but is a stumbling block and a scandal to the Jews and Greeks. Yet already in Paul’s mind the forms of the Christian witness have begun to take on aspects derived from Hellenistic culture. Paul uses the pattern of gnostic hymnody and liturgy to express the meaning of Christ. The full meeting of the Gospel with the mind of the Greeks must take place. This is the fateful intellectual event and the outcome will have a profound effect on the forms of interpretation of love. What did happen was that the Christian theologians began to work within the forms of Greek intellectuality. They sought to bring the Christian faith in God into intelligible relation to the Greek conceptions of the divine, of man, and of the world. Out of this came the Augustinian synthesis of the Greek conception of being with the Christian Gospel. Anders Nygren is quite right in saying that Augustine’s conception of love shows the effects of this synthesis. The question is whether this distorted or compromised the meaning of agape, and that question remains one of the central issues for Christian thought and life.

The history of the Christian conception of love begins in the Old Testament, has its centre in the New Testament, and continues throughout the life of the church. What we have seen in the form and spirit of the biblical faith makes it clear how sharply different understandings of the meaning and requirements of love could arise. The later history shows three main ways in which the love of God made known in Christ was grasped and embodied as a Christian view of life. These are not simply three different concepts of love, but three total perspectives, each with its integrity, in which the meaning of the Gospel is worked out in thought and life. We shall call these three ‘types’ of the doctrine of love, and our next chapter seeks to characterize and contrast them.



1. Seymour Siegel, ‘Interfaith Concourse via Rome or Reconciliation?’, Saturday Review of Literature, 42 22-3 March 28, 1959.

2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. III, Pt. 1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark).

3. James Moffat, Love in the New Testament (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1929), p. 78.

4. Ibid., p. 265.

5. Gregory of Nyssa, Address on Religious Instruction, The Library of Christian Doctrine, Vol. III (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954), pp. 304ff.

6. Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1952, pp. 283-5; London: Lutterworth Press, 1952).

7. Among important recent studies of the atonement are Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor (London: S.P.C.K., 1931); William J. Wolf, No Cross, No Crown (New York: Doubleday, 1957); H. E. W. Turner, The Patristic Doctrine of Redemption (London: A. R. Mowbray, 1952).

8. Rudolph Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology; The Mythological Element in the New Testament and the Problem of Its Re-interpretation. English text in H. W. Bartsch, ed. Kerygma and Myth (London: S.P.C.K., 1953), pp. 35-6.

9. Our discussion may seem to by-pass the important question of how Jesus’ teaching about love is related to that of the later Church. We are, however, concerned here with how the Church came to understand the meaning of love in the light of the revelation in Jesus. We can therefore characterize the Christian ethical outlook without attempting the perhaps impossible task of reconstructing the precise teaching of Jesus. For detailed studies of Jesus’ teaching see Amos Wilder, Eschatology and Ethics in the Teaching of Jesus, revised edition (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950; London: S.C.M. Press, 1954); and Ceslaus Spicq, Agape dans le Nouveau Testament (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1958-9), 3 vols.

10. Martin Buber, Two Types of Faith (New York: Macmillan, 1951; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951). Harper Torchbooks edition, 1961, pp. 172, 173.

11. Moffatt, op. cit., pp. 46, 47.

12. Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove (London: Faber & Faber, 1950; New York: Living Age, 1956, pp. 11ff). On sexual ethics in the New Testament see William Graham Cole, Sex and Love in the Bible (New York: Association Press, 1959; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1960).

13. Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Macmillan, 1933, p. 19; Cambridge University Press, 1933).