In 1905, the Scottish theologian P. T. Forsyth delivered a lecture in his role as chairman of the Congregational Union, entitled “A Holy Church the Moral Guide of Society.” Forsyth said the “great public question of the day” is, “How are we to think of Christian love?”
Forsyth knew what he called “the Daily Mail tribe” would find his question grotesque and irrelevant. To that tribe, Christian love is altogether “ineffective to the man of affairs and of history.” Forsyth agreed with them, not because Christian love is itself weak or soft but because liberal theology had reduced love to pity, affection, and philanthropy. Forsyth was scornful of this reduction. If love is mere pity, he said, it’s a “feeble factor” in world history. If it’s mere friendliness or affection, “there is nothing in its charm that would justify our faith in [love’s] final triumph.” If it’s no more than philanthropy, it provides no basis for large-scale political action. The shrunken love of liberal Christianity isn’t even suitable as a theological or religious principle. “Sympathy,” Forsyth argued, “is not adequate to redeem.”
In the century-plus since Forsyth’s lecture, the landscape has, of course, changed considerably. Liberal love is now the established religion, public philosophy, and ethic in the U.S. and elsewhere—love as enforced tolerance, love as non-judgmentalism, love as unqualified acceptance and endorsement, love enforced by cops in rainbow uniforms. Some have responded with Nietzschean contempt for Christianity as an impotent religion of losers, combined with a Nietzschean celebration of an ethic of power. Even some Christians seem to suggest that, given our cultural emergency, we need to rethink Augustine’s rejection of the libido dominandi and to revisit Jesus’s command to “love your enemies.”
Though few ask it, the crucial question facing the church and our culture today, the great public issue of our time, is the same one Forsyth identified. We still need to ask, what is love? Forsyth’s answer is also the answer we need to reckon with: To be genuine love, love must be holy love.
As John tells us, God is love. Everything God does is an expression of love, the perfect love of the Triune Persons for one another and the Creator’s unwavering love for creation. All of God’s actions are actions of all of God. The three Persons act in complete harmony, for the works of God outside himself are undivided. All God’s actions are the actions of his whole being. All his acts are loving, just, holy, wise, truthful, faithful.
Even God’s most destructive acts are acts of love. When God rained fire on Sodom, he acted in love. When Yahweh led Israel through the wilderness, he acted as the God of love. When he burned against the peoples of Canaan, he acted in love. Out of love, Jesus went to the cross; out of love, Jesus avenged his martyred brothers. God is so intensely love that he tolerates nothing that keeps him from union with his beloved. God is determined to do good, to bring us to final bliss and glory, to full maturity, to deification as sons in the Son. As Holy Love, he destroys all that opposes his goodwill, obliterates everything that stands in the way of his purpose. He’s a consuming fire of love who purges away all that inhibits our union with him, so he can incorporate us into himself.
God isn’t terrifying because he’s unloving. He’s terrifying because Love is terrifying—undiluted love, love that refuses compromise with evil, love that will not negotiate away the good of the beloved by allowing the beloved to set the terms of her love, love that promises a good and a future beyond all the beloved can ask or imagine. There is in heaven or earth nothing so uncanny as love.
That’s the love, Paul says, God pours into our hearts. In the power of the Spirit, he calls us to love ourselves well enough to burn away our lust, pride, acedia, idolatry, and greed. We’re to love our neighbors well enough to strive to eradicate everything that keeps him from being the worshipper of God he’s created to be. He commands us to love our enemies well enough to pursue their good, even if it means killing everything in them that’s at enmity with God, so they can rise again as God’s friends. Jesus teaches us to love our enemy, even if it means dying at our enemy’s hand.
Holy love, Forsyth said, is “not merely kind.” Love transforms. Love consumes. Love destroys in order to purify. Love radiates as holiness. If it doesn’t burn and devour, it’s not love. If it’s not jealous as Sheol, it’s not love. If it’s not filled with righteous indignation at everything that stands in the way of love’s consummation, it’s not love. If it doesn’t create light and heat, it’s not love. If it doesn’t dispel darkness and give life, it’s not love. If it doesn’t sanctify the ground around it, it’s not love.
As Forsyth observed, holy love can’t be confined to the private sphere. Holy love “enlarges charity to the dimensions of justice,” and becomes a motivation for political action. Today, as in Forsyth’s day, “Christian holy love may take the form of benevolence on the one hand, or of conciliation on the other, but it must also for public purposes take the form of righteousness.” Forsyth is correct: The church’s mission is “to infuse [holy love] into the very structure of society as its organizing principle,” and so to cultivate a civilization of love.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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