In Season 2 Episode 11 of the Eudo Podcast, Dr. Paul M. Gould discusses the last theological virtue – love. What is this thing called “love”? How do we find it? And how should we understand love as a virtue?
Aquinas on Love
For Aquinas, the ultimate object of human love is God. Since God is wholly good, it is also true that the ultimate object of love is goodness (or perfect goodness). And since human beings are made in the image of God, the goodness of God is reflected in every human person. So, for Aquinas, love is primarily the love of persons. The love of non-persons (such as the love of coffee or some project) are understood in part of a person’s love of himself. In this way, we can see how all the things we love, ultimately, consist in the love of a person.
The ultimate end toward which love is directed is “union with God shared in union with other human beings” (Stump, Wandering in Darkness) In other words, if real love has its way and is not derailed, it will result, eventually, in shared union with God. This is loves “ultimate home.”
For Aquinas, love consists in two interconnected desires: (1) the desire for the good of the beloved, and (2) the desire for union with the beloved. Notice, in desiring the good of the beloved, in loving a person one does not merely desire a person’s being, but their well-being, or flourishing.
Related concepts to help us better understand the nature of love: love and grace, love and virtue, and the question of how to understand the Bible’s claim that ‘God is love.”
Love and Grace
We can know God. This is because in Christianity, unlike any other religion or philosophy, we find grace. God in love creates humans and then, when we fail him, he pursues us. In grace and love, God reaches out to us and offers us life and wholeness and forgiveness for sin. He invites us into his divine life and through grace enables us to participate in the joy and goodness and love that he shares amongst the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When we enter into a relationship with God he shares the very life and happiness that is God with us.
Love and Virtue
Charity is both the unsurpassable goal of human life and the way to that goal. In his Upper Room Discourse, Jesus noted that the distinguishing mark of his disciples will be love: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Aquinas too, in his discussion on the virtue of love, notes that “Charity is that very sharing of spiritual life which brings us to eternal happiness” (ST II-II.25.2). Both Jesus and Aquinas are making the same point. The Love of God is our highest good and an apt description of how we are to live in this life and the next.When we practice charity—through daily acts of compassion, mercy, almsgiving, and kindness, we cultivate the virtue of love as we bond together with others in our collective journey to God. The love of God and neighbor finds expression in tangible acts and a stable disposition of love and grace toward others.
What does it mean to say, ‘God is love’? Is God Love?
It is better to understand the “is” in the phrase as picking out part of God’s nature: God is essentially loving. And what is the nature of this love essential to divinity. Agape love, the kind of love most closely associated with God, is self-giving and sacrificial. In the Triune God, we find the highest form and most complete expression of love. We find the self-love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We find the love of another between the Father and the Son, the Father and the Spirit, and the Son and the Spirit. And we find the love of two for a third in the Father and Son’s love of the Holy Spirit and so on. Thus, as some have noted, we can argue from the highest and most complete form of love (consisting of self-love, the love of other, and the love of two for a third) to the reality of the Triune God of Christianity!
In Summary: Love is the desire for union with and the well-being of the beloved. Happiness consists in friendship with God. In loving God first, we love everyone else in God too. To possess the virtue of love is possess the stable trait of character to seek union with and the well-being of God and man on the journey toward ultimate happiness. Finally, the theological virtue of love is the chief of all the virtues. Love perfects and gives all the other virtues shape as it directs “all the virtues [the cardinal and the theological] toward the ultimate goal of union with God.”
How can we grow in our love of God and man?
First, we start by loving Jesus gratefully.When we consider what Christ has done for us—taking on a human nature, dying on a Cross as our sinbearer, rescuing us from condemnation and corruption—our natural response begins to express itself in exclamations of gratitude.
As we mature in our Christian life, we learn to love Jesus reciprocally. Jesus is a present reality in our lives, the “Contemporary of every generation,” indeed of every person, who shares in our every experience and is a “refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps 46:1).
As we go deeper in our love of God, we love Him adoringly. When we consider Jesus for who he is—the self-existent second member of the triune God, the loving Savior who humbled himself and took on a human nature, the brilliant Christ “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3). Adoring love is finding our satisfaction in rich, deep, and abiding communion with Christ.
A life characterized by an adoring love of Christ is a God-centered life. It is a life that has determined to live in light of reality and the love of God. Knowing God. Loving God. Becoming Whole. That is what we need and our highest good. And the gospel, the good news, is that such a life is available to us through Christ.
- Baxter, J. Sidlow. Going Deeper. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1959.
- Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001.
- Mattison III, William C. Introducing Moral Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008.
- Stump, Eleonore. Wandering in Darkness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
- Wadell, Paul J. “Charity: How Friendships with God unfolds in Love for Others,” in Virtues and Their Vices, eds. Kevin Timpe and Craig A. Boyd. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.