The Christian praxis of love has emerged in response both to particular interpretations of biblical notions and traditions and to changing views of human nature and its potential in respective spiritual, cultural, and intellectual contexts.
While the Hebrew Scriptures use a number of expressions for God’s love and care for his people and for relations to God, friends, and strangers in Israel, the Septuagint and the NT express God’s love mostly through the Greek term agape*, sometimes also through philia (friendship*), yet never through eros. This term would have invited confusion with the Greek god of love, Eros, and related notions of cosmic power, fertility, lust, and temptation. The terminological distinction between agape and eros gained additional significance when Christian love was further developed in contrast to other traditions and notions of love.
The Synoptic Gospels quote Jesus’ confirmation of Israel’s dual love command (Deut 6.5-6 and Lev 19.18) and thus emphasize that Jesus’ proclamation of the command to love God, neighbor, and enemy was firmly in line with Jewish praxis. However, the Gospels differ in terms of their exploration of love’s horizon. While Luke’s Good Samaritan story identifies every person as neighbor, John’s Gospel and letters limit the horizon of love to the Johannine community itself, even as they offer the deepest reflections on God as love (1 John 4). The Pauline letters praise love as God’s gift to the church for handling conflict and otherness and for promoting an intimate spiritual relationship between Christ and his disciples.
Under the influence of Neoplatonist* anthropology Christian thinkers have understood love ultimately as God-given eternal fulfillment beyond bodily constraints, worldly limitations, and human sinfulness. Hence, Augustine* (354-430) identified only one form of true love that alone deserves our fullest praise and desire, namely God’s love. God alone can love. When we love one another, it is in reality God who loves in us. Mystics* in and beyond Christianity have approached the mystical nature of love in terms of union between God and the human soul.
The reassessment of human agency in medieval Europe promoted new attitudes to the human potential for love in scholastic philosophy and theology. Thomas Aquinas* (1225-74) considered friendship as granted to us by God as the highest manifestation of divine love. Love (caritas) is one of the three theological virtues* (with faith* and hope*). In the God-given light of love human beings are able to love God and the human other.
Luther* (1483-1546) and the Protestant Reformation affirmed love as God’s free gift and rejected any human claim to transcend sinful nature on its own. Human love is never free from self-interest, even when directed to God. True love comes only from God. However, as a result of divine grace* human beings can and ought to love their neighbors by attending to their genuine and concrete needs.
Both the dichotomy between divine and human love and the praxis character of love were further explored in modern Christianity (cf. Kierkegaard*). Agape-love coming from above was sharply distinguished from worldly love and desire* (cf. Nygren*). Accordingly, romantic love was rejected as misguided desire and human projection.
More recently, Christian thinkers, attentive to the need to reassess human emotions, the erotic quality of desire, and the human body* as divinely created for love, have begun to explore the unity and complexity of love in new ways. Now personal and social neglect of love and violations of love are considered sinful, but sexuality, the body, and other natural foundations for human love, partnership, and community are no longer considered sinful.
Recent Western trends of idealizing the human body, however, complicate efforts to relate love and body and love and sexuality more adequately. Feminist* insights into the interdependence of love and self have questioned the indispensability of self-sacrifice in Christian love. It is not the self that must be overcome, but the ego. Moreover, reconsidering the social and political dimensions of love has increased attention to the eschatological nature of love: Christian love is neither a mere object of faith, nor an occasion for isolated acts of charity*; rather guided by the Holy* Spirit it initiates a praxis of personal, ecclesial, and universal transformation. Werner G. Jeanrond