Theology

Augustine: Love is God

“God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). This is a hallmark of Christian theology. But in expositing on the homilies of the first epistle of John, Saint Augustine would go further—on 1 Jn. 4:8 Augustine plays a syllogism that would forever alter Christian theology. “God is love,” yes, but “love is also God” Augustine goes on to tell his parishioners.

Augustine’s luminous writings on love stretch over decades and came from a multitude of contexts and disputes. In Confessions, De Trinitate, and many of his private writings, he commends love as a form of introspection—an investigation into the heart. “Turn to your heart,” is one of his most common phrases. He implores himself, his readers, his parishioners, to turn inward into themselves and inspect what moves their heart. In other writings, like City of God, he is writing to comfort the beleaguered and the refugee migrant, he is also critiquing the critics of Christianity, and he is engaged in a deconstruction of social power and power systems in human relations (I have a chapter on this coming out in a soon-to-be-released book by Routledge Press later this year on this element of Augustine’s thought). In his many homilies he is drawing out the working of God in humans, in Christians, to understand the nature of what it means to live a Christian life.

“Love alone is what distinguishes the children of God from the children of the Devil,” Augustine famously wrote in his fifth homily on 1 John. Here, Augustine was trying to tease out a problem in the broader disputes among the Donatists—how can we know who Christians are when everyone is confessing the same Christ? The Donatists confess Christ and the sacraments. “Catholic Christians” (a phrase pioneered into prominence by Augustine during the Donatist Controversy) also confess Christ and the sacraments. How do we really know?

Augustine maintained what Jesus himself taught: to love God and love your neighbor. For Augustine, perfect charity entailed: willingness to sacrifice for others, willingness to give to others, willingness to brought into communion with others. In deconstructing the Donatists, who were—in Augustine’s mind, the unwitting pawns of the demons—he noted that despite their public confessions their actions were contrary to the commandment of love because they caused division, hated their neighbors to the point of acting like Cain toward Abel (famously attempting to assassinate Augustine many times and successfully assassinated other prominent Catholic Christians in North Africa who were their opponents), and refused to enter relationship with other Christians.

Famously, Augustine defined sin as misdirected love. To love something apart from God is sinful as it ruptures the subject or object from its relationship to, and with, God. More specifically, in his homilies on 1 John, Augustine says that sin is “acting contrary to the commandment of love.” Those who are more concerned with their own lives, their own goods, who refuse to serve others and maintain an exclusivism that prevents communion and relationship with others, are acting contrary to the law of love and therefore in a state of sin. This, of course, is explicitly the case with the Donatists and other schismatic and heretical communities (though Augustine also warns to his own parishioners that this may be the case with them as well at an individual level).

Apart from being the “Doctor of Grace,” Augustine is generally regarded as the foremost philosopher and theologian of love. Love, Augustine maintained in contrast to the Greek philosophers, is what defined humanity and the human condition. While he also had an exalted view of reason and rationality, Augustine was the first “voluntarist,” or philosopher of the will (love) in Antiquity in the sense that he identified the passions as the defining characteristic of humans. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, etc. identified humanity as “the rational man.” Passion was generally belittled or something to entirely overcome; passion was, to the Stoics in particular, the great danger of life. Augustine disagreed.

This preoccupation with the heart, the will, with love, is what led Augustine to construct his theology of the heart—though he drew on the writings of the Apostle (John and Paul especially), the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, and his understanding of the whole of the Bible (especially the Old Testament). To “love properly” (ordo amoris) is to be of God since God is love and love is God. To “love improperly” is sin, or, in the more mature theology of Augustine, lustful idolatry.

Lustful idolatry is entirely self-centered. It seeks the praises of the world and the satiation of only the self in encounters and experiences. It is entirely directed to oneself and therefore cuts oneself off from the rest of the whole of existence. Proper love, by contrast, is all-encompassing. It takes everything that God has given us in existence and recognizes God in love of others or love of the world. Augustine stresses, on this point, that there is nothing wrong with loving what God has created assuming we recognize God in all things. Hence we are not loving or serving others merely on their account but because we find and experience God in others: “Love your brother. For you love the brother whom you see, you will see God at the same time, because you will see love itself, and God dwells within it.” Likewise, Augustine later goes on to say in another homily, “By loving love, he loves God.” (Because love is God.)

The idea that “love speaks louder than words” is Augustinian in intellectual origin. It is Augustine who said, in his sixth homily on 1 John, “[W]e too now look at deeds, not speech.” Love reveals who we are, and we become what we love. Moreover, from Augustine, he constantly warns his congregation to beware those Christians who call themselves as such but who have no deeds to support their public professions. To love is to be like God; incarnational love, a love of embodied relationships with others, is Augustine’s great theological vision: “Do you love God? What shall I say? That you will be God? I don’t dare say this on my own. Let us listen to the Scriptures: ‘I have said that you are gods and that all of you are sons of the Most High’” and “Why wouldn’t you love what God made? … God doesn’t forbid you to love those things, but you mustn’t love them in the expectation of blessedness. Rather, you must favor and praise them in such a way that you love the Creator.” Love of others that recognizes God in all things is the only love that is worthy of being called love (God) itself. “If a person loves his brother,” Augustine famously writes, “the Spirit of God abides in him.” “By loving love,” as already mentioned,” one “loves God.” The Western notion that love itself is divine, enduring, and ever-lasting is quintessentially Augustinian whether one knows it or not.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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