Chapter 5: A Critique of St. Augustine’s Doctrine of Love

The Spirit and the Forms of Love
by Daniel Day Williams

Chapter 5: A Critique of St. Augustine’s Doctrine of Love

Love has a history. The forms in which love is understood have grown and altered; and it is possible to see in this history the work of love creating new forms of its expression. We have reviewed the three outstanding types in which love has been grasped in the Christian tradition, and we have now to ask what this history means. We have seen tensions arise between the three types, and also have discovered within each one a restlessness born of the mystery and complexity in experience.

The sources of perplexity are clear enough. There is the psychological structure of the self with its two loves, the self-affirming drives and the self-giving drives, and the precarious freedom in which they must be held together. There is the anxious self which is something more than a rational soul dealing with a recalcitrant body. It is a new creation, existing on the boundary between life and death, being and nothingness. There are the possibilities and threats in man’s new power to reshape life through technology. Nature seems less a nurturing mother, or a pattern to guide conduct, than a structured reservoir of power which can be bent to human ends. World politics require an increasingly delicate action of pragmatic statesmanship to meet the crises created by population explosion, poverty, the rise of new nations, and the power struggle between old nations, the intricacies of world economic policies, and the search for some form of collective security. In all this justice may still be pursued in the spirit of love, but the actualities put the love of neighbour in a setting never before experienced.

In the Christian faith such restlessness about the meaning and relevance of love should be understood as discovery that love has new work to do. God’s work of love in history requires a reconception of its meaning, the discovery of new forms of its expression, and the transformation of those images of love which have become stereotyped and impotent in this epoch.

In Christian faith all thought about love leads to the nature of God, and therefore the reconception of love leads to the question of the being of God to which we now turn. A radical new possibility has opened up for theology. This is the interpretation of the love of God in relation to a new metaphysical doctrine in which God is involved in time and becoming. In this conception of God’s being it is possible to reconceive the relation of love to suffering and to consider what it means for God to act in history.

We have already noted the conflict which runs through most of Christian thought between the biblical vision of God as the creative and redemptive actor in the history of his creation, and the metaphysical doctrine inherited from the synthesis of the Christian faith with neo-platonic philosophy which conceives God as the impassible, non-temporal absolute. That synthesis has haunted Christian thought through the centuries. But it is by no means easy to see what doctrine of God’s being can be more adequate to the biblical faith. It is worth our concentrated attention to see what is at stake here. One of the creative process philosophers, Charles Hartshorne, states in the beginning of Man’s Vision of God his conviction that ‘a magnificent intellectual content — far surpassing that of such systems as Thomism, Spinozism, German idealism, positivism (old or new) is implicit in the religious faith most briefly expressed in the three words, God is love’.1 If this be true what is needed is not the discarding of metaphysics but the exploration of this new possibility in the doctrine of God’s being.


St. Augustine, as we have seen, expresses his doctrine of the meaning of love in the Trinity — God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and in the metaphysical conception of God’s being as the ground of all created things so that in the whole creation there is a reflection of the love which is the ultimate source of all things. Now we must examine St. Augustine’s doctrine more closely, for it was he who made the decisive synthesis of the Gospel with the neo-platonic doctrine of God’s being.

St. Augustine is overwhelmed with the greatness and majesty of the love of God. The Trinity is the very being of love. The Spirit is the bond which unites Father and Son. God’s being is therefore the fullness and substance of love itself. Through participation in God the creatures have their existence. God is all goodness, all truth, all beauty. In so far as anything creaturely sees or exhibits these aspects of God’s being it participates in the love of God and moves toward its own fulfilment. In so far as it is a creature it tends also toward nothingness, non-being. Sin is man’s wilful turning to love the creature more than the Creator, that is turning away from the light to the darkness of non-being.

St. Augustine thus moves within the neo-platonic vision, but with a difference created by Christian faith. For the Platonists all love is yearning toward the good; it is spirit moving toward fullness of being. But for St. Augustine God himself is love, therefore love is not only aspiration, but is also the outpouring of the divine being toward the creatures.

St. Augustine sees love in man as the ‘weight by which the soul is born wherever it is born’.2 But God in his love seeks out the creatures and sheds his goodness upon them. Because of the fall into sin God comes into the world in his Son and gives himself to man so that the way may be opened for return to true being. To know the love of God, then, is to know the source and end of life. It is to be in pilgrimage toward eternal life, and to participate in the fullness of being itself.

So far all this may seem but a metaphysical rendering of the biblical doctrine, but St. Augustine wants to establish his conception of the being of God by answering many questions to which the Platonists have given their kind of answer. His own answers are attempts to combine the living God of the Bible with the changeless being of neo-platonic metaphysics.3 What Augustine does is to conceive God the Creator and Redeemer with all the absolute aspects which neo-platonism had ascribed to the transcendent and changeless One. This was for Augustine and for all the Church Fathers not only an act of philosophic rationality, but also a confirmation of Christian piety as they ascribed to God all power, all completeness, all perfection of every kind.4 Most important for our consideration was their conviction that all temporality, change, becoming, and passivity signify lack of perfection.

The result of this opposing of pure being to becoming was the doctrine of the divine impassibility, which has had throughout the centuries the approval of orthodox theology, both Catholic and Protestant. There is no question that the incarnate Son suffered on the cross. This was the foundation of all Christian theology. But did the Father suffer? The problem vexed the theologians. To say that God did not suffer seemed a strange doctrine; yet to affirm it meant that he can be acted upon. To the Greeks this would mean that he is not really God. Cyril of Alexandria explains Christ’s weeping at the tomb of Lazarus thus: ‘He permitted his own flesh to weep a little, although it was in its nature tearless and incapable of grief.’5 The critical issue lies in the assumption that temporality and passivity mean an inferior level of being. It is creatures who become and change. Their perishing is the sign of their dependence. Nothing less than the deity of God is at stake in the assertion of his changelessness, as St. Augustine sees it.

We must also acknowledge that the biblical affirmations of the absolute faithfulness of God, his changeless love, his sovereignty as Creator and Lord, could be taken to reinforce this metaphysical absolutism. God rules history and judges the nations. He will create new heavens and a new earth, and in the end be ‘all in all’ (I Corinthians 15). To the Fathers the use of neo-platonic language about God’s perfection seemed a way of celebrating the majesty and faithfulness of God which they heard attested in the scripture. Let us see how St. Augustine unites this metaphysical doctrine with his faith that in Jesus Christ God has acted at a specific point in history to redeem man.


The problems involved for Christian faith come out clearly in St. Augustine’s thought about the relation of the creation in its beginning, development and end to the changelessness of the creator. On one hand Augustine positively affirms the reality of time. It is not an illusion. The world has a beginning and end, and there is a real becoming and direction in the history of the world. He affirms this specifically against cyclical theories of time such as those of stoicism. The incarnation represents a decisive event in history, and this the platonists cannot understand.6

But the creative action of God cannot, for Augustine, qualify his ‘unchangeableness’. Hence caution is the beginning of time and it happens all at once. Even in the face of the clear biblical statement that the creation took six days, St. Augustine’s ontological presuppositions require him to say that for God to take time for creation would require a ‘before and after’ in God and this will not do. He says, ‘For in the Eternal, properly speaking, there is neither anything past, as though it had passed away, nor anything future as though it were not as yet, but whatsoever is, only is’.7 God, therefore, must have implanted all at once the seeds of things which are later to become in the world:

Just as in that seed there were together (simul) invisibly all the things which would in time develop into the tree, so the world itself is to be thought to have had together — since God created all things together — all the things which were made in it and with it when the day was made, not only the heavens with the sun and the moon and the constellations . . . and the earth and the abysses . . . but also those things which the water and the earth produced potentially and causally, before they should rise in the course of time in the way we now know them, through those operations which God carries on even until now.8

Augustine could not be more explicit about the unity of all times in God: ‘Thy today is eternity.’9 He addresses God as ‘Thou to whom nothing is to come’.10

But if ‘nothing is to come’, then the future must be present to God as well as the present and past, and Augustine explicitly affirms this. In his effort to grasp the unity of all time in God, he considers the experience of repeating a psalm which he comes to know better and better so that his knowledge of the psalm becomes a whole in which beginning and end are brought together. But strictly speaking even this will not do for an analogy of God’s knowledge of past and future. ‘Far more wonderfully and far more mysteriously dost thou know them.’11

Augustine’s doctrine is that all times are co-present to God in one eternal vision. This is the totum simul. What is past, present and future for us is known to God all at once in his unchangeable vision.12 St. Augustine acknowledges that what he says about time in God is beyond human understanding. Etienne Gilson sees that Augustine is confronted with a problem for which no philosophical answer can be given, for he is working with two modes of being which are absolutely heterogeneous. William Christian’s comment is pertinent:

We are subject, even in our thought to the law of becoming. How then can we represent to ourselves the mode of being of that which is unchangeable? Here is a problem indeed and for it St. Augustine has no answer. What is worse, he is committed to saying that this unchangeable being, which he cannot adequately represent to himself, creates, knows, and administers a world of changing things. At this point Augustine is frank to say that no analogies can really help us.13

If what we are trying to understand here were only a peculiar intellectual difficulty in conceiving how time and eternity can be related, the problem would be an abstract one hardly worthy of special attention so far as the meaning of love is concerned. Problems of time and eternity, the changing and the changeless have their mysteries before which we can, like Augustine, only confess the limit of our sight. The real trouble is that Augustine and the classical theological tradition not only affirmed the mystery but also insisted that God’s perfection requires his absolute changelessness. This determination to keep all time and becoming apart from God led to disastrous consequences for the understanding of God’s love. We shall see the implications of his doctrine, which Augustine unflinchingly presses, until they constitute that dark and unlovely side of his theology which persists in much Christian theology since his time.


There is first, the consequence for human freedom. If all time is present to God then he knows the future. What is future for us is present for him. Here is Augustine’s metaphysical basis for the teaching of predestination:

In God all things are ordered and fixed; nor doth He anything, as by a sudden counsel, which He did not from eternity foreknow that He should do; but in the movements of the creature, which He wonderfully governeth, Himself not moved in time, in time is said to have done, as by a sudden will, what He disposed through the ordered causes of things in the unchangeableness of His most hidden counsels, whereby each several things, which in its appointed time comes to our knowledge, He both makes, when present, and, when future, had already made.14

That is, what God appears to do here and now, he really does in eternity.

The consequences of this doctrine for human freedom are well known, and have given theology much internal strain. Augustine disputed with Pelagius about free will, and generally Pelagianism has been viewed by the main stream of Christian thought as a heresy in which man’s dependence upon grace for salvation is denied. It is now doubtful whether the usual view of Pelagius’ doctrine is one he ever held. We know he did not reject the necessity of grace, but thought of it as leaving man free for co-operation with God.15 But Augustine has always been given credit for having preserved the essential Christian doctrine that God’s grace is necessary to give to man what he cannot give to himself, that is forgiveness, and the empowerment of his will to love God and his neighbour. Augustine thinks of freedom as the power to do what God wills, and man does not have this in his actual state of sin. Pelagius seems to think of man as having a ‘neutral’ nature in which his freedom has an open choice for or against God.16

Augustine’s emphasis on grace is valid but it should not keep us from recognizing the difficulty in his teaching. It is not that he affirms that God must do something for man which man cannot do for himself; but that he combines this with assertion that God decides in eternity what will be done in every moment of time. This means that no decision of man makes any difference, for it is not really man’s decision in the end. God has determined what every decision will be.

This is a very old debate, but we are concerned here with that aspect of it which flows from St. Augustine’s metaphysical assumptions. In a universe where only God acts, and in which therefore he can in no way be acted upon, and where past, present and future are all telescoped into one simultaneous experience there can be no element of real freedom or spontaneity for the creatures. It becomes a puzzle how God can do anything new.

Augustine leaves no basis for conceiving any qualification of the absolute power of God over the creature. Thus he closes off the possibility that human decisions can alter history. Certainly every Christian theology will hold that man can never realize his goals apart from the prevenient grace and power of God. What God does man can never do, that is establish the conditions of freedom, including forgiveness, for man has misused and corrupted his will to love. But all this could be held without denying to man the freedom to make decisions and thus to make a difference in the future. The reason St. Augustine cannot allow this is, in the end, not his theological concern for the grace of God, but his metaphysical commitment to the absolute. God has to be the cause of every action. John Calvin under Augustine’s influence explicitly says that God wills every event.17 The criticism we are making of St. Augustine can be made from more than one philosophical point of view. Karl Lowith says Augustine failed to relate God as primary cause to the secondary causes.18 John Burnaby says pointedly: ‘Augustine never realized that his own conception of grace required nothing less than a revolution in his thought of the divine omnipotence.’19 In assessing the consequences of this classical position it must be remembered that man’s wrong or evil choices are as fully determined as the right ones. Thus Augustine says God not only foreknows but ordains the fall of Adam. God selects those to be saved in relation to the number of fallen angels, and the eternal punishment of hell is prepared for the condemned and therefore unrepentant sinners. Yet this is all the work of love for God is love. Dante is fully in accord with the orthodoxy of Augustinian and medieval Christianity when he sees inscribed over the gate of hell:

Justice moved my High Maker; Divine Power made me, Wisdom Supreme and Primal Love,. . . leave all hope ye that enter.20

The discrepancy between the orthodox teaching of an eternity of punishment for those predestined to damnation and the belief in God’s love is one of the too rarely examined problems in traditional Christian doctrine. The present debate about universalism, in which Karl Barth’s thought plays an important part as he seemingly moves toward a doctrine of universal salvation, shows that there is something here which the Christian mind has not yet fully adjusted in its doctrine of God.21

There is a second consequence of the doctrine of the absoluteness of God over against all temporality and change. It introduces into the human loves a division between love of temporal things and love of the eternal which tends to a devaluation of this world and of creaturely humanity.

Now surely St. Augustine is defending something very important in his doctrine that we love other things and other men in God. This must be so, in his view, for all things have their being through participation in God. What we seek and know in another person is not him alone, but him in relation to his creator and to all other things. We know ourselves not just in ourselves, but as participants in the power of being. We truly know ourselves only in God. Hence love has a tangent within it which moves through the other person toward the fullness of being which is God himself. Charles Williams speaks rightly of the Augustinian theme of the ‘in-godding’ of the self.22

Anders Nygren criticizes Augustine for this doctrine and says that it depersonalizes the neighbour.23 We do not see him as he is in himself, but only as a reflection of the divine. If there is a depersonalization in Augustine’s view, however, it does not lie in the doctrine that we love others in God. It lies in the way Augustine conceives of God’s being and its relation to the creatures. For God’s being, Augustine believes, has its perfection in its immutability. Part of the inferiority of the creatures is that they are temporal and they change. They can suffer and be acted upon. Hence the conclusion is drawn that love of what is unchanging is higher than love of what changes. It is this platonic theme which devaluates the world of creatures and requires that we love the creatures only for the sake of a perfection which in no way suffers or is moved. The dangerous implication is that when we love the neighbour as a suffering, growing, becoming being, we love him only as one who points our love to another order of reality. Augustine says:

Give me a lover, he will feel what I speak of; give me one who longs, who hungers, who is the thirsty pilgrim in this wilderness, sighing after the springs of his eternal homeland; give me such a man, and he will know what I mean.24

Thus the heart of love is its longing for eternity. But, we must ask, does this mean that love should never be given to what is concretely involved in history? We need not reject Augustine’s teaching altogether. He knows that the depth of love is never concentrated solely on a person; but always has a hunger for the full being of that person which means his being in God. But surely this does not require a devaluation of creaturely being just because there is suffering in existence. The real difficulty is Augustine’s equating of God’s perfection with immutability which introduces this unnatural discrepancy between love of God and love of the neighbour. In the previous chapter we noted one consequence in Augustine’s view of sex in which he justifies sexual abstinence because the giving up of temporal love for love of the eternal is an act of prudence in view of the superiority of the eternal.25

We come then to the critical issue of the suffering of Christ as atonement for sin. Here if anywhere we should see what place suffering has in love. Augustine gives us no formal doctrine of atonement. He uses many images. Aulen is undoubtedly right in aligning Augustine with the classical motif of God’s victory over the satanic powers which he wins by sending Jesus to the Cross.26 Augustine uses vivid terms to describe the conflict of God with Satan including the well-known ‘baiting of the hook’ which catches the devil as he snatches at Christ. Augustine usually speaks of the suffering of Christ in relation to the humility in which God assumed our condition so as to lead us out of pride and despair toward himself. This assumption of our flesh is an act of love. ‘If God did not love sinners, He would not have come down from heaven to earth.’27 The suffering of Christ results from his assumption of our humanity. He is our salvation because in him God reverses the direction of our pride and self-love, and shows the way to blessedness:

The Teacher of humility, the partaker of our infirmity, giving us to partake of His own divinity, coming down for the purpose that He might teach the way and become the way (cf. John xiv, 6) deigned to recommend chiefly His own humility to us.28

And Augustine believes ‘there is nothing more powerful than the humility of God:29

To what doth He exhort thee? To imitate Him in those works which He could not have done had He not been made man. For how could He endure sufferings unless he had become man: How could he otherwise have died, been crucified, been humbled? Thus then do thou, when thou sufferest the troubles of this world. . . . Be strong, be long suffering, thou shalt abide under the protection of the Most High.30

Redemption in Christ is incorporation into His Body the Church, and love is the bond of the Church:

The whole Christ is Head and Body, . . . the Head is our Saviour Himself. . . . For the whole Church, which consists of all the faithful, since all the faithful are members of Christ, hath that Head set in Heaven, and it governeth His body. And although it is separated from our vision, yet it is joined together in charity. Hence the whole Christ is Head and its body.31

We ask now if this divine self-emptying and involvement in our human lot does not reveal the nature of love itself? Here is the issue:

what does the incarnation tell us about love? If the incarnation satisfies our longing for the fullness of being, is it not because ‘fullness of being’ involves suffering with and for the other, a participation in life which has becoming and freedom within it? But in Augustine’s theology, God as being-itself cannot suffer.

It is here in its account of the love revealed in Jesus that the discrepancy in the classical theology lies.

Anders Nygren has identified the difficulty. We can put it most bluntly by asking whether Augustine does not come close to glorifying a certain ‘complacency’ in the divine love. Nygren uses the word ‘ego-centricity’. This may be too strong, but it points to the issue. Nygren says Augustine is not interested in the causal analysis of the incarnation, that is, in the way in which it accomplishes God’s purpose, but only in the teleological analysis, the end which it is said to accomplish. Nygren sees the difficulty, but he has not traced it to its source.

If Augustine identifies love with a sheer rest in being, enjoying the fullness of self rather than self-giving, why does he do so? I propose that a metaphysical analysis of what he meant by being throws light on the answer. It is not simply that Augustine has mixed up the Christian agape-love with the self-seeking eros of Greek religion. He sees far more deeply into Christian doctrine than that. What he does is to combine the God of the Bible with the absolute of neo-platonic metaphysics. The result is that the active, temporal, creating, suffering side of God’s being does not come sufficiently into view. It cannot do so because it contradicts the absolutist doctrine of perfection.

Nygren gives an important suggestion about the history of doctrine when he says that the Church Fathers were saved from falling completely into a Greek pattern of thought by the three biblical assertions of Creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection.32 But rather than conclude, as Nygren does, that these themes require us to reject all metaphysics, why not say that they require us to reconsider our metaphysics? All three ideas point to a relationship of God to the world which differs from the Greek view. God creates the world and acts to redeem it. These actions involve time. They involve God’s relationship to the needs, suffering and decisions of his creatures. Nygren can include election in his list of the themes which keep the dynamic aspect of the Christian doctrine of God, for election, as we have seen, means God’s self-disclosure to a people at a point in history, his creation of a new relationship and the assuming of its consequences. Nygren, however, is not concerned with metaphysical analysis. He emphasizes the affirmation of the goodness of the material world, the refusal to regard the body as evil, and the significance of the resurrection doctrine in opposition to the Greek views of the immortality of the soul. These are all significant topics, but surely they cry out for metaphysical interpretation. What is real and what is not? How are freedom and human destiny bound up with time and becoming in the world? How does God act in the world and upon it?

To sum up, great as the structure of the interpretation of love is in St. Augustine, it exposes a discrepancy between the reality of the loving and acting God and the metaphysical vision of perfect completion and impassibility. Let us state the essence of Augustine’s position.

Love is the key to being. It fulfils all the special forms of being, and it fulfils the quest for knowledge of being. The disorder in human loves is the central fact about man’s plight. The saving and reconstruction of a truly human existence depend upon a revolution in the direction and content of all our loves, and that revolution comes through what God has shown in Christ, through a love which condescends to us. All this is fundamental to Christian faith and St. Augustine has given its theological foundations.

Further, we find in him a tough-minded realism about the actualities of human history as the mingling of the divine love and disordered human love. He describes with great accuracy the necessities of Christian existence in which love is the meaning of all knowledge and action, but in which man must cope with vast and threatening powers and institutions which are ruled by the distorted and misdirected passions of the corrupt human spirit. Augustine never lets us forget that we live in two cities at the same time, the City of God, and the City of Man which is infected with sin. Therefore all human life must become a pilgrimage, a turning about of the soul to a new way in a mysterious life which does not yield its secret all at once. The light has come to us, and we can walk by it, but only as those who have to find their way in an unfinished and complex world. The pilgrimage is a progress toward the truth, not a sheer possession of it.

Augustine’s doctrine of love leaves us in difficulty through its tendency to put love ultimately beyond all tension and suffering. Love is completed by being beyond tension, beyond the risks of freedom in the dialogue of God and man in history. But I shall argue that love cannot breathe in such a ‘block universe’.33 For St. Augustine all things are caught in the predetermined web of God’s absolute, non-temporal, impassible, unchanging power. He bequeathed that doctrine to later theology. St. Thomas does not depart from it in any essential point so far as his doctrine of the being of God is concerned. Luther and Calvin, in spite of their rejection of the scholastic metaphysics, have this neo-platonic God in the foundation of their thinking. At no point do they question the doctrines of the divine perfection, impassibility and non-temporality. Both are as predestinarian as St. Augustine when it comes to the question of freedom. They try unsuccessfully to assert mans freedom in spite of the divine foreknowledge of every event.34 They explicitly reject the view that the Father suffers. It is on these fundamental points that theological reconstruction must focus its attention.


We have observed an existential restlessness within the traditional conceptions of love. We now see one important source of that restlessness. it is the radical historical consciousness of contemporary man. He thinks of his life and world as involving a real freedom, possibilities as yet unrealized, an open-ended future which he shapes partly by his own decisions. As one discerning interpreter says:

Modern man can only define himself as a being in history (zoon historikon), a being with a past, a present, and a future. . , all schools of contemporary thought share the realization that truth, understanding, and reality have the character of events rather than of things.35

It is not necessary to review here the many factors which have gone into the making of this historical consciousness; but it is more than an incident in our intellectual history; it is a revolution in our sense of life. Existentialist philosophy may push the revolution to its limit as in Sartre’s doctrine that man creates himself out of nothing, and this ‘nothing’ is at the heart of man’s freedom.36 There are more balanced views, but we cannot escape the fact that our sense of time and becoming has created a new understanding of what it means to be.

The evolutionary world picture with its eons of time for the emergence of life and mind is now the setting in which we think. The scientific way of knowing depends upon taking the world as a series of processes or events, whose structures are abstract patterns manifest in activity. Karl Jaspers accurately describes the significance of the new scientific attitude toward the ‘reason’ in things:

Quite different is the new impulse to keep minds open to the boundlessness of the created universe. This tends to steer cognition toward the very realities which do not tally with known orders and laws. The logos itself constantly urges man to trip himself — not in order to give up, however, but to regain his footing on a higher, broader, more fulfilled level, and to continue this steady progress toward unfulfillable infinity. This kind of science springs from a logos which is not self-contained but open to the alogon.37

This ‘unfulfillable infinity’ is the key to the modern consciousness. There is always more to know, always a new set of problems to meet. On one point especially we should be clear. This sense of history does not depend on a progressive conception of life. The idea of progress was one form in which the new historical sense came to birth; but the historical consciousness can also be nihilistic, pessimistic, or realistic. Radical freedom may be man’s possibility of shaping his future, but also of destroying his life. What has changed is not the increase of historical hopefulness; but the sense of what kind of options there are and where we must find meaning if any is to be found.

The new sense of time has direct bearing on the meaning of love. If human existence is reconceived in a radical historical consciousness, then the forms of love must be reconceived also. Human loves viewed in a purely secular way take on new meanings with the growth of the democratic ideal, new relationships of the sexes, the freedom of youth, the discovery of the dynamics of emotional growth, the possibilities and threats of technological control, the world-wide social and political revolution.

The history of the conception of love is also the history of the conception of God. In the biblical perspective God works and reveals himself in every generation. It is conceivable that aspects of the biblical witness to the love of God have been obscured in the tradition, and that some of the traditional interpretations are no longer tenable. This means that through the internal creativity of the biblical perspective, joined with the modern historical consciousness which it helped to create, a new possibility has been opened up for reconceiving the meaning of God’s being in relation to time and history. It is that possibility which we consider in what follows in this book. We conclude this chapter by stating the main thesis put forth by process philosophy which proposes nothing less than a revolution in metaphysics and theology. This will lay the foundation for a re-examination of the meaning of love.

Process philosophy is a term which designates a broad movement in modern philosophy and more particularly a group of thinkers who have set out to reconsider the metaphysical problem on the basis of the evolutionary world-view and the temporal flow of experience. Process thought developed in the evolutionary philosophies of the late nineteenth century, and has a kinship with the ‘emergent revolutionary’ theorists.38 The process philosophers are interested not only in an evolutionary description of the cosmos, but in what happens to all the traditional metaphysical problems when time is seen as an ingredient of being itself. Henri Bergson’s philosophy is one of the first and most radical statements of this new metaphysics. Samuel Alexander developed a realistic process doctrine in Space, Time and Deity. Both Bergson and Alexander influenced Alfred North Whitehead, whose scientific and philosophical genius created the major work in process thought, Process and Reality.39 There are close affinities between the process philosophers and American pragmatism. William James, Charles Peirce, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead have much in common with the process metaphysicians.

All the process philosophers have been concerned with religion, and Bergson, Alexander and Whitehead developed metaphysical doctrines of God. Whitehead’s outstanding interpreter in the mid-twentieth century is Charles Hartshorne, who has given a lifetime of attention to the metaphysical conception of God implied in process thought.40

While all these we have mentioned remained philosophers, a group of Christian theologians have seen in the new metaphysics a possibility for rethinking the theological doctrine of God in relation to a contemporary view of nature and the new historical consciousness. Theologians have developed the new insight in radically different contexts. Henry Nelson Wieman began with the Whiteheadian metaphysics and moved to a radical empiricism in theology.41 His student, Bernard Meland, has remained closer to Whitehead’s metaphysical outlook and has given a searching interpretation of the nature of faith and the meaning of the Christian faith.42 The Anglican Lionel Thornton took Whitehead’s ideas developed in Science and the Modern World and used them in the construction of a Christology in The Incarnate Lord.43 Thornton kept Whitehead’s radical conceptions in a subordinate place in his theological structure and his later thought has moved away from this attempt at a philosophical theology. Something similar might be said of William Temple who adopted aspects of Whitehead’s thought concerning the evolutionary process, but kept within an idealistic structure.44

In more recent years under the stimulus of Whitehead’s thought and the constructive work of Charles Hartshorne, certain theologians have been developing ‘process theology’ as a systematic theological outlook. Norman Pittenger is the first theologian to work out a Christology incorporating the process view of God and man in his The Word Incarnate. Schubert Ogden and John Cobb, Jr., as well as the present writer, have committed their theological attention to the interpretation of the new metaphysic for Christian faith.45 For these theologians, no philosophy is sufficient for Christian faith. Theology interprets the life of faith which needs philosophical structure for its intelligibility, but Christian faith is existential commitment and participation in the church which is a community of historical experience having its origin and centre in the New Testament witness to Jesus Christ.

The relation between philosophy and theology is a perennial problem for Christian thought, and the debate about methodology never ends. In the last analysis the test of a method is whether it illuminates concrete problems in life. The present book is an attempt to think theologically about the meanings of love with the resources contributed by process thought. The justification for such a method would be that it commends itself by making some sense out of the meaning of the love of God and the loves of men. Process thinkers do not claim to ‘have all the answers’. One of our cardinal tenets is the tentativeness of all structures of interpretation. We are trying to grasp the meaning of love in the Christian faith in responsible relationship to the scripture, to the classical tradition, and to a contemporary scientific and rational understanding of our existence.46

Process philosophy opens up for Christian theology a way of conceiving the being of God in historical-temporal terms. What it proposes is akin to the existentialist search for radical freedom for man, and the acceptance of the risks of being; but process philosophy is closer than existentialism to the classical philosophies in its search for an intelligible metaphysics. It seeks the logos of being. Process theologians believe that we can recapture aspects of the biblical message which have been obscured throughout the history of the tradition. The biblical God acts in a history where men have freedom which they can misuse. He is at work in time, and it is just this which the theological tradition, conditioned by neo-platonic metaphysics, has never been able to encompass.

In the next chapter we shall examine the specific ideas of process philosophy with respect to the nature of love. Here I introduce that exploration with a brief characterization of the metaphysical position especially as it is stated by Alfred North Whitehead; Whitehead’s is the seminal mind which provided the main structure of thought which is process philosophy.47 Whitehead has a close affinity to the classical metaphysical tradition. He sees the structure of being as the eternal order in the mind of God, but he wants to conceive reality including God himself as exhibiting a real history of concrete happenings.

Whitehead the philosopher used the instrument of metaphysical analysis for a critique of traditional theology. His most telling statement against the tradition is that ‘the Church gave God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar’.48 He held that the monarchical element in the Semitic concept of deity had been joined to the Unmoved Mover theme in Aristotle and as the neo-platonists developed it. The metaphysical result was the God who does not suffer, who is unaffected by what happens in time, the God of absolute predestination and unfreedom. Whitehead believed that this doctrine had confused the mind of the church about the nature of the love disclosed in Jesus. Whitehead saw an ultimate ethical contrast between brute force or coercion and persuasive love. The Gospel presents the figure of the Christ as the expression of a non-coercive love which draws the world in its freedom toward a finer community of being.49 As Whitehead envisions the Christian message, Christ taught, lived, and died with the authority of a supreme ideal. His words were not metaphysical reflections, but the most direct and intuitive communication of which language is capable. Thus Christianity has been a religion seeking a metaphysic in contrast to Buddhism, which is a metaphysic generating a religion.50 Whitehead therefore is not substituting philosophy for religion and faith. He regards philosophy as a never finished essay in fathoming the intelligibility of things, and it is always mistaken when it claims completeness for its conclusions. Philosophy is an instrument of vision. It should be the guide of life, not merely a technical exercise in the analysis of logical problems, but a bold attempt to grasp the structures of reality within the limits of human knowledge and frailty.

What Whitehead thus provides for us in the search for the meaning of love is a perspective on the world which opens new possibilities for conceiving the divine love and human loves. He articulates a world view which combines the classic search for being with the radical historical and temporal consciousness of the twentieth century. We can say that Whitehead sees his interpretation of the doctrine of God’s being within the pattern of St. Augustine’s ‘faith seeking understanding’, provided by faith we do not understand the acceptance of dogma; but the religious intuition born out of the impact of Jesus upon the world.

We can here indicate the main outline of Whitehead’s doctrine of God as a basis for reconsidering the meaning of love.

There are two aspects of the divine nature. The first Whitehead calls the primordial nature of God. This is the ordered realm of abstract structure which embraces all the patterns of the possible meanings and values relevant to existence. Whitehead holds that this side of God’s being does not change. It is present in him in one perfect, timeless vision. It is God as the eternal orderer of the world. This aspect of God’s nature has all the attributes which the tradition ascribed to him. It is eternal, it cannot be acted upon, it cannot suffer. It simply is, because if there is a meaningful world of time and process, then there must be an order which makes it a world and which sets the boundaries of how things can be related to one another.

God’s primordial nature is the structure of possibilities; his concrete nature is his participation with his creatures in the society of being. Whitehead calls this God’s consequent nature. God’s actuality involves concrete process. God shares with the creatures the power of his being, allowing them a measure of freedom and spontaneity so that God’s temporal interaction with the creatures is a real history of inter-communication and action. What happens in this world makes a difference to God. He responds concretely to every new event by taking it as a datum into a new phase of his own life and adjusting it within the harmony of his vision. What remains fixed for God is the absolute integrity of his aim which looks toward fullness of life for the whole creation. To move the world toward this fulfilment, God shares in the concreteness of events. We avoid here one of the curious consequences of the Augustinian ontology which is that the world can add nothing to God. How can you add anything to absolute perfection? But in Whitehead’s doctrine every achievement of good, of value, of meaning in the world increases the richness of God’s being. God is not the world process. God is the eternal structure and power which makes a world possible and which participates in each moment of the world’s becoming, for the world is nothing without him. As concrete life God is conscious, personal being.

Metaphysical outlooks are not provable as mathematical theorems. They are visions of the world which are to be judged, as Whitehead says, by their comprehensiveness and their adequacy to illuminate our actual experience.

There are three important consequences of this process metaphysics. First, it makes freedom and history intelligible as real aspects of being. In the classical metaphysics all temporal things are something less than real, because in being-itself all time and process are overcome. In the process view the spontaneity, originality and freedom of which we have some fragmentary experience is a clue to the nature of being. God’s function in the world is not to make time disappear, or to make the future as certain as the past and the present. It is to give an ordered pattern to the creative life of the world and to bring new possibilities into existence in a real future. Those who are seeking for the ‘secular’ meaning of the Gospel could well turn to Whitehead’s doctrine of the secular functions of God.51 God holds the world together by offering his eternal structure of value to every particular experience so that everything happens in significant relation to the world order and the community of beings. But God’s function as cosmic orderer does not destroy the freedom of the creatures within the order.

The second major point in the process doctrine is that it deals with the significance of evil in a manner different from the tradition. Process metaphysics does not explain evil away. It is under no necessity of doing so because it does not make God the sole cause of every happening. He exercises his creativity in a real world which has elements of spontaneity, of chance, and, at the higher levels, of moral freedom within it. Metaphysics does not explain why the world is this way; but it can describe a cosmic society of freedom which involves tangled cross histories. Life histories interfere with one another, as when a virus inhabits an animal body and causes disease. Process doctrines can go the whole way with existentialism in recognizing that man in his freedom may plunge into self-worship, or self-destruction; but this is because the real world has this risk within it, not because God wills that any creature should lose the meaning of life or decrees that any person should lose his possibility of knowing the good and doing it.

The third consequence of the process doctrine is a new analysis of the meaning of love, both the love of God and the human loves. This is our central concern, and we shall give the next chapter to the philosophical aspect of this analysis.



1. Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941), p. ix.

2. St. Augustine, Confessions, xiii, 9-10.

3. John Burnaby, Amor Dei, p. 32 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1938).

4. See G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London: S.P.C.K., 1956), chaps. 1-2.

5. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, vii.

6. Confessions, VII, 9, 21.

7. Augustine, lib. 83. quaest, qu. 19. Cf. William Christian, ‘The Creation of the World’ in Battenhouse, ed. A Companion to the Study of St. Augustine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955).

8. De. Gen. ad Litt., v. 23, Tr. by William Christian in Battenhouse, op. cit., p. 330.

9. Confessions, XI, 16.

10. Ibid., XI, 25.

11. Confessions, XI, 36, 41.

12. On the Trinity, XV, 7.

13. Christian, op. cit., p. 322.

14. Psalms 105, 45. sec. 35.

15. Cf. Torgny Bohlin, Die Theologie des Pelagius und Ihre Genesis (Upsala Universitets Arskrift 1957: 9).

16. On the debate with Pelagius see Paul Lehmann, ‘The Anti-Pelagian Writings’ in Battenhouse, op. cit.

17. Calvin, Institutes, Bk. I, chap. 16; ‘Not a drop of rain falls but at the express command of God’.

18. Karl Lowith, Meaning in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), p. 172.

19. Burnaby, Amor Dei, p. 230.

20. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto III.

21. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2; IV/3. Cf. criticism by Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (London: Lutterworth Press; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950, pp. 346-52). Cf. Burnaby, Amor Dei, chap. vii.

22. Charles Williams, Religion and Love in Dante (London: A. & C. Black Ltd., 1941), p. 40.

23. Nygren, Agape and Eros, pp. 549ff.

24. Joan. Evang., xl, 10.

25. Cf. Nygren, pp. 494-5.

26. Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor (New York: Macmillan, 1931; London: S.P.C.K., 1931).

27. Joan. Evangel., xlix, 5.

28. Psalms, LVIII, i, 7 (Synthesis, 340).

29. Ep. CCXXXII, 5-6.

30. Psalms, XC, Sermon. i, 1 (Synthesis, 337).

31. Psalms LVI, I (Synthesis, 371).

32. Nygren, op. cit., pp. 276-87.

33. William James’s well-known phrase.

34. Martin Luther, On the Bondage of the Will, review of Erasmus, preface. Dillenberger ed., p. 181.

35. Paul Schubert, ‘The Twentieth Century West and the Ancient Near-East’, The Idea of History in the Ancient Near East, ed. by Robert C. Dentan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), pp. 314-15.

36. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956, Part II, chap. 1, esp. p. 79; cf. pp. 591-2; London: Methuen & Co., 1957). Sartre says in his autobiographical The Words (New York: Fawcett World Library, 1964, ‘I keep creating myself: I am the giver and the gift’, p. 20; London: Hamish Hamilton, 1964).

37. Karl Jaspers, Nietzsche and Christianity (Chicago: H. Regnery, 1961), pp. 70-1.

38. For the background of the movement see Lloyd Morgan, Emergent Evolution (New York: Henry Holt, 1926); John Dewey, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and other Essays in Contemporary Thought (New York: Henry Holt, 1910); Philip Wiener, Evolution and the Founders of Pragmatism (Harvard University Press, 1949); John Herman Randall, Jr., ‘The Changing Impact of Darwin on Philosophy’, Jrnl. History of Ideas, Vol. XXII, No. 4, pp. 435-62; Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1931; Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed., 1936).

39. Henri Bcrgson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, tr. by T. E. Hulme (New York: G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1912; London: H. Jonas & Co. Ltd.); Creative Evolution, tr. by Arthur Mitchell (London: Macmillan & Co., 1911; New York: Henry Holt, 1911); Samuel Alexander, Space, Time, and Deity (London: Macmillan, 1927); Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Macmillan, 1929).

40. Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941); Reality as Social Process (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1953); The Divine Relativity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948); Process and Divinity: Philosophical Essays Presented to Charles Hartshorne, ed. by William L. Reese and Eugene Freeman (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1964).

41. Henry Nelson Wieman, The Wrestle of Religion with Truth (New York: Macmillan, 1937); The Source of Human Good (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946); Man’s Ultimate Commitment (Carbondale: Southern Ill. University Press, 1958). Cf. The Empirical Theology of Henry Nelson Wieman, ed. by Robert Bretall (New York: Macmillan, 1963).

42. Bernard E. Meland, Faith and Culture (New York: Oxford Press. 1953; London: Allen & Unwin, 1955). The Realities of Faith (New York: Oxford Press, 1962); cf. Daniel D. Williams, ‘The Theology of Bernard E. Meland’, in Criterion, the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, Summer, 1964.

43. Lionel Thornton, The Incarnate Lord (London: Longmans Green, 1928).

44. William Temple, Nature, Man, and God (London: Macmillan, 1949).

45. I have given a brief account of process theology in What Present Day Theologians are Thinking, second revised edition (New York: Harper & Row, 1966). Cf. Schubert Ogden, Christ Without Myth (New York: Harper & Row, 1961; London: William Collins Sons & Co., 1962); The Reality of God (New York: Harper & Row, 1966): John Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965); W. Norman Pittenger, The Word Incarnate (New York: Harper & Row, 1959; London: James Nisbet & Co.). Cf. Dr. Pittenger’s article ‘A Contemporary Trend in North American Theology. Process Thought and Christian Faith’, Religion in Life, Vol. 34, 1964-5, pp. 500-510.

46. I have given an outline of a theological method of this type in ‘Truth in the Theological Perspective’, Journal of Religion, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Oct. 1948.

47. A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 520. Cf. his Religion in the Making (New York: Macmillan, 1926). The best general account of Whitehead’s Philosophy is Victor Lowe, Understanding Whitehead (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1962). For analysis of Whitehead’s doctrine of God see the chapter by Charles Hartshorne in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, ed. by Paul Schilpp (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1941); William Christian, Whitehead’s Metaphysics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959).

48. Process and Reality, p. 520. Cf. Daniel D. Williams, Deity, Monarchy, and Metaphysics; Whitehead’s Critique of the Theological Tradition’ in The Relevance of Whitehead, ed. by Ivor Leclerc (New York: Macmillan, 1961).

49. A. N. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Macmillan, 1933; Cambridge University Press), chap. X.

50. A. N. Whitehead, Religion in the Making, p. 50.

51. A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 315.