First Corinthians and the Twenty-First Century Church: Love Defined, Part 1

The Difficulty of Defining Love

If we are going to understand what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13, then we need to get some clarity and precision when it comes to the language we are using. With love, however, it turns out this is a more difficult task than we might imagine. 

Of course, any of you who have tried to study love—whether from a theological, a philosophical, a psychological, or a literary perspective—know exactly what I am talking about. It seems that everyone has an opinion about what “love” means, or at least about what it should mean.

One common starting-point for a discussion of love’s meaning is an analysis of the language used to describe love. While this approach can be helpful at times, it is also one fraught with confusion and frustration. People bring to it all sorts of unexamined presuppositions, both about the nature of love and about the nature of language. 

So, I propose to explore our topic from a different point of view. Rather than taking a linguistic approach, I hope to take a phenomenological approach. That is, I hope to begin with the phenomena standing behind our use of love language, categorizing those phenomena and using them to enrich our understanding of both the thing itself and the language we use to denote it.

Love as Affinity

Before anything else, the language of love is associated with the affinity we feel for other persons or things. Many Christians doubt whether this phenomenon really counts for love. After all, can we really put the liking we have for our favorite dessert in the same category as the love we have for our children? Nevertheless, it is affinity that stands at the heart of many of our most precious relationships, and it is the connection between affinity and love that gives Jesus’ teachings about enemies their punch.

Love as Affection

Another basic phenomenon associated with love is an affectionate disposition. It is the warm, positive feeling evoked whenever we are in the presence of someone we care about and we know cares about us. It is this disposition that is most closely related to joy as defined by attachment theory, for all of us thrive on the feelings of affection we give to and receive from others.

It is this sense, I believe, we see reflected quite often in the Hebrew Bible’s use of “love” (not to be confused with its use of that untranslatable word we often render “faithfulness” or “faithful love”). As Christians, we have too often imbibed Western culture’s bias against emotions, but (as Baylor University philosopher Alexander Pruss points out) it is difficult to conceive of genuine love lacking an emotive component.

Love as Attachment

At what we could describe as a higher level of relational development, we see the language of love used to connote the bond we feel with another person or entity. The lecture “Attachment Love and the Church” by Christian psychologist E. James Wilder gives us a glimpse of what we are talking about. Love bonds people together in such a profound way that the lover begins to define herself or himself in such a way as to include the beloved in that self-definition. And this gives rise to a whole range of other terms (friend, lover, wife, husband, etc.) that describe the specific nature of the bond which exists between two people.

Love as Action

Moreover, the language of love is often associated with specific actions deemed to be “loving.” This way of understanding love is inherent in, and derives directly from, the phenomena we have already discussed. Affinity motivates us to draw near to one another, which, in turn, allows for affection to grow. Affectionate disposition is expressed through affectionate actions, and as affinity and affection are expressed in word and deed, especially over time, attachment is formed.

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Nevertheless, it is Christianity that has been particularly insistent upon the active nature of love. Indeed, many Christians have believed active love can overcome the absence of these other phenomena. Some would see action as the defining attribute of genuine love (think, for example, 1 John 3:16).

Making Sense of the Data

But it isn’t that simple. As Alexander Pruss has rightly pointed out, we have all been the recipient of “cold” charity, and we know it is not love. So, what are we to make of all these different phenomena that are associated with love?

More to the point, what does any of this have to do with our text? After all, Paul does not define love in this famous section of his letter. He simply describes how love manifests itself. But in the process of doing so, he does something really important for us as we seek to define what we are talking about when we use the word love. It is this work to which we will turn our attention in our next blog.

Published: Nov 23, 2020


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