Do you have to love?

April 4th, 2017 by

On March 1, Kent Dunnington of Biola University presented our AT seminar with the question, “Is there a Christian duty to love?” Spoiler alert: Dunnington’s answer is “No.” Now, it would seem on the face of things that, duh, of course Christians have a duty to love! Don’t we all know the passage in Mark 12 when one of the scribes asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” To which Jesus responds, love God and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What the heck is Jesus doing commanding us to love our neighbor if not laying on us a duty to love our neighbor? Well, Dunnington says, Jesus is saying  something else.  I’ll walk through some of Dunnington’s key moves in order to try to get at what he thinks is going on in this “love command.”

First, Dunnington wonders just what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself. To be honest, I’ve wondered this myself. Like, if I am to love my neighbor as myself, and that means as much as myself, and I don’t love myself very much (let’s say I love myself 4 out of 10 love units or whatever), does that mean I only have to love my neighbor to 4 as well? That seems a bad deal for my neighbor. Rather, Dunnington ties the love command to the command Jesus issues in the Sermon on the Mount when he tells his followers to be perfect at their heavenly Father is perfect. Dunnington’s move, then, is to interpret “love your neighbor as yourself” as “love your neighbor in they way that God loves them.” I think this is a helpful modification, for it makes God’s love the archetype of Christian love toward neighbor. Dunnington’s reformulation makes God’s love the standard of love, not ourselves.

With God’s love in place as the standard for Christian love, we might wonder, “Well, does God have a duty to love?” And here, Dunnington argues, it would seem not. God is not obligated by some independent standard to love. Godself is the standard. Further, we might think that loving out of duty is some sort of fallback to loving out of another motive (attachment, attraction, compassion, or solidarity, for example). But the motive for love most often attributed to the God-man Jesus in the Gospels is compassion. So, in sum, God does not have to love out of duty.

Ok, but what about us regular humans? Do we have duties to love? Is it cool to love out of duty? Apparently Kierkegaard thought that duty was the only legitimate motivation of Christian love. Wolterstorff wasn’t so exclusive, but said that duty is as legitimate a motive of Christian love as others. Dunnington isn’t so sure about the arguments these thinkers deploy. He does hold that duty is not the only legitimate nor even the ideal motive for Christian love. But it can be a motive, just an imperfect one. So, Dunnington’s question is not, may Christians love from duty, but must Christians love? Is there a duty to love?

Dunnington invites us to consider the possibility that the “love command” is not prescribing an obligation. He says, “Only Jesus issues the love commands. Only Jesus fulfills the love commands. Only Jesus loves with no shadow of fear. Only Jesus is resurrected.” The move at the end is what serves to reorient our conception of the love command. For Dunnington, the love commands turns out to be more of an invitation, not an obligation. It is an invitation to live a resurrection life. Rather than seeing the resurrection from the dead as the reward of fulfilling a duty, Dunnington sees the resurrection as the ground or basis of Jesus’ love, the love that is the standard of all Christian love. The love command is not a command at all, but an invitation to love as God loves.

Now, for a bit of my own two cents. I rather like this idea. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it as an exegetical move. But as a way of reconceiving of Christian love, it is attractive. The resurrection is one of the great linchpins of Christianity and one of the unique features of Christianity in comparison with other ways of thinking. It makes sense to me that this radical idea about our ultimate end would logically work itself backward into how we live in the here and now. Dunnington’s deploying of this idea moves a discussion about love out of the realm of rights and oughts, and into the realm of the eschatological reworking of all reality that Christ inaugurated in his own resurrection. Plus, just personally, when I sit with the two sentences (1) “I hereby command you to love your neighbor,” or (2) “I invite you to radically love your neighbor because of your eschatological hope in the resurrection foreshadowed by Christ’s resurrection.” I find myself much, much more motivated to love because of (2), rather than (1). And this is, I think, what Dunnington’s Jesus is after.

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James M. Arcadi is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary and a Templeton Research Fellow in the Jewish Philosophical Theology Project at the Herzl Institue. He completed his PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol where he focused on a philosophical explication of the doctrine of the Eucharist.

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