Donald Bloesch—the beloved American theologian—catalogs his thoughts on biblical love in the following excerpt from The Paradox of Holiness. These paragraphs are taken from the beginning of the chapter dedicated to the subject of agape love. Let this whet your appetite for more of Bloesch’s thoughtful musings on God and our relationship to Christ.
Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.—1 Corinthians 13:7 (NLT)
Love makes labor light. Love alone gives value to all things.—Teresa of Avila
Love in practice is a harsh and terrible thing compared to love in dreams.—Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Above all nature and throughout all history love proves itself to be the Almighty’s final power, the final greatness of His heart, the last revelation of His Spirit.—Eberhard Arnold
I have found the paradox that if I love until it hurts then there is no hurt, but only more love.—Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Love is not only the crowning gift of the Spirit but also the gift most likely to be misunderstood. In this chapter we shall examine love in the sense of agape, especially as Paul interprets it. Agape does not contradict the Old Testament hesed—which includes friendship, integrity, and loyalty—but goes beyond it. Nor can agape be reduced to law (nomos), for love in its deepest biblical sense is not a legal obligation but an amazing wonder of God’s unfathomable mercy. Love as agape certainly stands in tension with eros, the quest for self-realization. Love enlivens the self but also takes one out of self into the sufferings and needs of others. Love does not retreat before evil but challenges evil and ultimately overturns evil. The Song of Songs, which is best understood as a deepening and transforming of natural love, grasps the almightiness of love: “Many waters cannot quench love, no flood can sweep it away” (8:7 NEB). Love bursts through all barriers and dismantles the powers that hold humankind in bondage. Love in the sense of agape comes close to friendship (philia), but it is something much deeper than mutual love: it is a unilateral love that goes out to a loveless world and expects nothing in return.
Love (agape) is often defined as compassion, and certainly real love includes compassion. Yet it cannot be reduced to compassion because it entails reproof and correction as well as empathy and pity. To identify agape and compassion is to confound love with feeling, which is always fleeting. Christian love is never transitory but enduring; it is not wavering but unbending. In compassion, we take pity upon someone who is in trouble. In agape, we act to alleviate the sufferings of others and bring them into conformity with God’s will. Christian love is more a matter of the will than of feeling. It is bearing the cross in vicarious identification with others in their pain and ignominy. Compassion is a uniquely Christian virtue when it is united with dedication to God’s glory.
Love in Christian understanding is palpably different from love in the great philosophies and religions of the world. It definitely conflicts with the Buddhist mettā, the Pali word for love, and karunā (compassion), because it involves active combat with the forces of unrighteousness. Neither can it be united with the Hindu ahimsa, for agape is not noninjury, abstention from hostility, but generosity in giving. As one commentator observes: “Courage, stoic endurance, the search for wisdom, intellectual integrity, strength, detachment—these are the virtues normally worshipped by mankind and preached by his many religions. And Love is a contradiction of many of them.”
The Paradox of Holiness presents the theology of spiritual life as it is shaped and defined by the Word of God. Through this theological exposition, Bloesch presents and explores the paradox that exists in the pursuit of holiness for those who believe.
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Donald G. Bloesch (1928-2010) was a noted American evangelical theologian. From 1957 until his retirement in 1992, he was a professor of theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, where he continued as a professor emeritus. For more than forty years, he published scholarly yet accessible works that generally defend traditional Protestant beliefs and practices while seeking to remain in the mainstream of modern Protestant theological thought. He characterized himself a “progressive evangelical” or “Ecumenical orthodox,” criticizing the excesses of both the theological left and right. Bloesch’s pietistic background and personal spiritual life lay at the heart of understanding his theology.