Tuesday, December 13, 2011

God Wills to Be Ours: The Eros of God and Our Needed Response

“For God so loved the world…” This is perhaps the most common phrase of contemporary Christianity, and rightfully so. For these words suggest not only the extent to which God loves the world but also in what manner God does so: in the Christ event. Yet most of Christian tradition has resigned God’s love to pure gift-love (agape) and has overlooked the desire (eros) of God that is evidenced in the Christ event and throughout the Bible. To our own detriment, this neglect has resulted in a deficient understanding of “the One who seeks and creates fellowship with us.”[1]

In the following essay I aim to explain that God’s love is best characterized by romantic eros and not by agape. Though the latter is essential to God’s love, it is the former that best expresses the ineffable love of God revealed in Christ. Only when we understand God as Lover are we afforded a view of the God-world relation that elicits the response of humankind to become the beloved bride of Christ.

Agape and the Classical God-World Relationship

God, we say, is love. But what is love? Our understanding of love is burdened by preconceptions (often unbiblical). Chief among Western preconceptions are the relics of Greek philosophy. For Plato, love was characterized by need: one only loves when s/he is not utterly self-sufficient.[2] Accordingly, God cannot love because God is complete and without need. Greek philosophy made little room for a personal God who loved with any sort of desire. Classical Theism, which was influenced greatly by Greek philosophy, thought of God as an “unmoved mover,” immutable and totally unaffected by the world.[3] In order to fit this God-world paradigm, God’s love has long been characterized by agape – total gift-love. Out of pure grace (or “overflow”) God loves the world but does not need nor receive anything in return. God does not truly feel for the world, God simply wills good for the world. Ultimately, as Paul Fiddes puts it, “Love can be ascribed to God as a purely intellectual appetite.”[4] This was the view of St. Augustine[5] and it has been defended by many, perhaps most strongly by Anders Nygren.[6] Though there is merit to this view, there are also many flaws.

First, the biblical narrative does not portray God as impassible; instead God is intimately connected to creation and “relates sympathetically to the world”[7] (e.g. Ezek. 16; Isa. 5:1-7; Hos. 1-3; Acts 17:28). Second, limiting God’s love to a charitable form of agape trivializes the value of humankind. Badcock puts it simply: “God loves but somehow does not love us.[8] Third, God’s love as agape is unilateral and does not require a response from us. The lack of desire in God’s love produces a lack of desire for human beings to respond. Further, God’s unilateral love renders humans as the objects of God’s love rather than mutual subjects. Fourth, God’s love as agape overemphasizes the cross as sacrificial gift, while the resurrection is consigned to the margins. Lastly, the Classical view fails to take seriously the suffering and passion of God in Christ. As Moltmann potently states, a God who does not suffer is “a loveless being.”[9] If the Christ event is indeed the manner by which “God so loved,” then it behooves us to reconsider Classical Theism’s view of an impassible, gift-loving God. We must examine the Christ event afresh.

The Eros of God Revealed in the Christ Event

Barth rightly asserts that we cannot bring our own concept(s) of love to the revelation of God, but instead must let the revelation itself determine love.[10] Accordingly, we must allow the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to determine the nature of God’s love. For Barth, the Christ event reveals that God is the “One who seeks and creates fellowship with us.”[11] This is quite different than the God who loves out of charity. The God revealed in Christ is the God who seeks and desires – indeed craves – to be with humanity. The Christ event invites us to imagine God’s love as eros. What is revealed in the Cross is not simply a sacrificial love, but also God’s desire to be with creation no matter the cost. As a lover yearns for her beloved, so too does God yearn for fellowship with creation.

It is imperative to remember that Jesus is not only the revelation of God, but also reveals the exemplar God-world relationship.[12] As such, Jesus discloses a love that may, in fact, resemble eros more than agape. Jesus brings into focus the intimacy that God desires and humankind’s necessary response. For example, the Incarnation itself makes clear that God’s love entails a kenotic, dare I say, romantic, relationship with creation (Phil. 2:7). In the Incarnation God comes near and is vulnerable to the rejection of humanity. Moreover, in multiple places God designates Jesus ho agapetos (“My Beloved”), while Jesus himself explains his mutual love with God (John 17:26). These elements point beyond agape to a deep, romantic eros between God and world. Ultimately, I believe the Christ event leads to a very different picture of the God-world relationship than Classical Theism. It is a picture that Sallie McFague captures in the metaphor of God as Lover.

God the Lover and the God-World Relation

In Models of God, McFague inquires why the model of romantic love, which is so central to human existence, has not been more seriously explored as a metaphor for the God-world relationship: “As the most intimate of all human relationships… does it not contain enormous potential?”[13] Building on this observation, McFague begins with the human experience of romantic love and explores its veracity as a theological metaphor. Here I have begun instead with the Christ event (following Barth), but have drawn a similar conclusion as McFague: that God loves the world with a romantic love (eros).

Before moving further it will benefit to clarify what is meant by this term eros. Here I adopt Lewis’ simple definition of eros as the state of “being in love.”[14] This is the state of being-in-relation that is characterized by desire for the other, the beloved. It is not simply sexual love, but a deep expression of desire and intimacy. Eros desires the beloved simply because s/he is who s/he is. “Eros,” as Lewis describes, “makes a man really want, not a woman, but one particular woman. In some mysterious but quite undisputable fashion the lover desires the Beloved herself, not the pleasure she can give.”[15] The desire of eros is so strong that it becomes, in some very real sense, a need to be with the Beloved. It is this understanding of eros that I shall apply to the metaphor of God as Lover. This has many implications for the God-world relation.

First and foremost, God as Lover intensifies the God-world relation. Rather than the distant, impassible God of Classical Theism, God as Lover is intimately connected to and affected by creation. This relationship may be seen throughout Scripture and I will note a few examples here. The creation narrative in Genesis reveals that creation itself may be seen as God’s “seeking and creating fellowship.”[16] Further, the creation of humankind in God’s image seems to imply God’s desire for intimacy (Gen. 3:8).[17]

The prophets describe God’s love for Israel as covenant love (hesed). This is not the language of agape but eros (though this does not discount agape). A covenant is not made out of compassion, but out of desire to fellowship. The initiation of the Abrahamic covenant evidences God’s desire to be with humankind. Grogan notes that this covenant first took the form of a treaty but then evolved into the form of a marriage covenant.[18] Throughout the life of Israel God is faithful to the covenant even when Israel is not (e.g. Hos. 11). Is this simply God’s grace? Or is it evidence of God’s romantic desire to be with the beloved? I am compelled to believe the latter. What is more, Scripture describes the telos of history in the language of romantic love. That the relationship between God and God’s people evolves toward a more romantic model (cf. Rev. 21:9) furthers the view of God as Lover and an intimate God-world relation.

Secondly, God’s love as eros affirms creation as inherently lovable. Whereas agape emphasizes God’s love in spite of our nature, eros suggests that God loves simply because we are. In this way, romantic love is the most precious of loves because it is bestows value to the beloved: “It says, I love you just because you are you.”[19] This is different – and I suggest better – than traditional understanding of God’s love as agape. In the traditional view, recipients of God’s agapic love are moved to love God for what God does (the “agapic act”); recipients are liable to love God only because of what God does for them. In the view of God as Lover, however, God’s eros moves us to love both ourselves and God because of who we are - together. God’s eros says to the beloved: You are precious and valuable. Surely it is hard to disagree with McFague when she states, “Being found valuable in this way is the most complete affirmation possible.”[20] We must take seriously the fact that God’s love as agape fails to elicit the same feeling of being valued. Only eros grants that ineffable feeling of being valued as God’s precious beloved (e.g. read Hosea from the perspective of Israel).

Thirdly and consequently, the view of God as Lover elicits a unique response from humankind. Lovers respond to one another out of mutual joy and desire. It is not a response that is calculated or founded. As McFague notes, “Lovers love each other for no reason or beyond all reasons; … in a love relationship, one responds in kind: one values the valuer.”[21] When God is seen as loving with eros, the beloved world will find it difficult not to respond in kind. Unfortunately, God’s unilateral agape has not proven to effect the same response.

This last point brings us to the central issue in the God-as-Lover paradigm: “The assumption that eros is the desire for union with, or possession of, the valuable suggests, however, that it lacks what it would have.”[22] The question is whether or not God needs the response of the beloved (and is lacking without it). As mentioned above, Classical Theism submits that God needs nothing. McFague, however, postulates the contrary. Here I would like to explore the possibility that God does, in fact, need the response of creation.

I return again to the Christ event as paradigmatic. Christ reveals the dialectic of God’s love as both unilateral and mutual. In Christ God’s will is accomplished, but it is accomplished with and through the response of humankind (cf. Luke 1:38; 60; 80; 2:7; etc.). We may not speculate if God’s will would have been accomplished with or without humankind, for such questions are pointless and add nothing to theology! We may only theologize based on the revelation as it is. As Moltmann insists, “We can only say who he is for us in the history of Christ which reaches us in our history.”[23] The Christ event reveals the Triune God working in close relationship with creation to reconcile all things. When I examine the Christ event, I am compelled to believe that God does, in fact, need our response.

But for what purpose does God need our response? Herein lies the crux of the model of God as Lover. In this model, salvation is defined in terms of romantic love. Salvation is what The Song of Songs expresses in the phrase: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” (6:3). Karl Barth captures this beautifully:

“He wills to be ours, and He wills that we should be His. He wills to belong to us and He wills that we should belong to Him. He does not will to be without us, and He does not will that we should be without Him. He wills certainly to be God and He does not will that we should be God. But He does not will to be God for Himself nor as God to be alone in Himself. He wills as God to be for us and with us who are not God.”[24]

When we consider God as Lover, salvation is conveyed in the mystery of romantic love: “The two shall become one flesh,” (Gen. 2:24). Is this not expressed in the Incarnation? And is it not suggested in the teachings of Jesus (John 17:21)? The ultimate expression of God’s love, therefore, is characterized by desire, mutuality, and reciprocity – that mystery for which romantic love is an image. It deserves serious consideration whether agape alone can offer this. I suggest that it cannot. As Donald F. Dreisbach contends, “One important element of what seems to be a higher form of love is reciprocity, that love is accepted, acknowledged, and returned.”[25] This is the kind of love revealed in Christ and emphasized in the model of God as Lover.

What, then, does God need in response? I suggest that the very thing God needs is that which God’s desires. Put another way, God needs precisely what God offers. The response that is needed by God from humankind is precisely to hear and believe God’s “I love you.” Again Dreisbach is helpful:

“The assertion ‘I love you’ then is not simply informational; we might call it transformational. In hearing it the hearer takes on value; he comes to understand himself as being valued. A proclamation of God’s love, if believed and accepted, has the function of giving the hearer a new self-understanding.”[26]

We respond to what God has already expressed in God’s eros (rather than one agapic act). I say “already” because it simply is the nature of the God-world relation. God is always acts prior to us. God has loved from beginning and to the End (cf. Jer.31:3; 1 John 4:19). This is to clarify that God’s eros is not confined temporally to the Christ event; though it is the event that reveals the nature of God’s love to us. Thus, the response of humankind is to become who we are in eyes of God. Walter Wangerin Jr. captures this in his phrase, “True obedience was ever an act of freedom!”[27] To be more specific, God needs the response revealed in Scripture and in Christ: to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). This is similar to McFague who writes, “The response of the beloved, the need we fill in God, is directed toward God’s body, the world.”[28] This response, I contend, is practically irresistible when we come to see God as our Beloved, the Lover of the world. In short, responding to God’s eros becomes a joy.

Traditional Protestant theology is reluctant to acknowledge any work on the part of humankind in the act of salvation. But, as I have stated, God as Lover presents a different view of salvation. Rather than passively receiving God’s love (agape), we are invited into a truly mutual fellowship based on God’s everlasting desire (eros). When humankind does not respond – fails to hear God’s “I love you” – humankind fails to “be” God’s beloved.[29] Sin, argues McFague, is therefore the “refusal to be the beloved of our lover God and the refusal to be lover of all God loves.”[30] In this paradigm, to not participate in God’s act of salvation is to miss salvation altogether.

All of this implies that humankind genuinely affects God. In this model God is vulnerable and open; but, because of this, God loves humankind with a higher form of love: romantic love. This, I contend, is the nature of God, Who is Love, in Godself. The Immanent Trinity is open and vulnerable yet also erotic and perichoretic. The Trinity expresses the state of being “in love.” But God as Lover is for us and has invited humankind into the triune life. Many fear that this means that God is open to change: “To be affected by others is to be changed by others.”[31] But what if love is contingent upon change? What if God-as-Love is “change?” The fact that God is love cannot change; but because love is inherently dynamic, vulnerable, and mutual, God indeed “changes” to relate most lovingly with the world. In other words, God simply is relationship and that relationship is expressed most deeply in romantic love. If we take orthodox Trinitarian theology seriously then this ought not alarm us. In the final analysis, the Christ event reveals that the nature of God’s love necessitates a response from humankind who is the Beloved of God.

So Loved? So What?

Perhaps the boldest claim that anyone can ever make is that God loves the world. For in this claim a person imparts sacred value to all reality in the name of the highest Being and the highest expression of being. The Beatles echoed what humanity seems to universally understand: all you need is love. The ubiquity of love will never expire “because it is so central to human life: we never feel better than when we are in love, when we love and are loved.”[32] So perhaps, at the end of the day, it is not that God loves the world that compels us, but rather that God loves the world. The idea infatuates us. What is love and why does it seem to drive our entire existence? And so on we go. Yet the central claim of Christianity is not “God loves the world.” Instead, it is “God so loved the world,” (Grk: οὕτω, "in this way"). This small, adverbial modifier invites us to know the nature of God’s love for the world in and through the Christ event.

As I have argued, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ reveal the nature of God’s love as eros. The Christ event reveals the God Who loves closely and intimately with a love as strong as death (cf. Song of Songs 8:6). The God revealed in Christ is the One who needs the world and suffers with it. As a lover loves his Beloved, God “wills to be ours… and that we should be His.”[33] This view of the God-world relation is thoroughly compelling. Why? Because human beings recognize and crave this mystery we call romantic love.

In the end, we will not come to faith in God because we have carefully calculated the cost/benefit. No, we will come to faith because we desire God. We will come to faith in the God of the Bible because the God revealed in Christ is irresistible. And then, I believe, we shall discover that our faith is really not faith at all, but love.

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1.28, trans. G.W. Bromiley, et. al., ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, (London, England: T&T Clark, 2009), 20.

[2] See Gary D. Badcock, “The Concept of Love: Divine and Human,” Nothing Greater, Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2001).

[3] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, "Introduction: The Love of God - Its Place, Meaning, and Function in Systematic Theology," Nothing Greater, Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God, 6.

[4] Paul Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God, (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 18.

[5] Vanhoozer, 4.

[6] Badcock, 45.

[7] Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1987), 73. See also Badcock, 41.

[8] Badcock, 45.

[9] Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1993), 222.

[10] Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1.28, 19-20.

[11] Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1.28, 20.

[12] “Truly divine and truly human.” Does not Jesus reveal true humanity as well?

[13] McFague, 126.

[14] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (San Diego, California: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1960), 91.

[15] Lewis, 94.

[16] Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1.28, 18.

[17] Geoffrey Grogan, “A Biblical Theology of the Love of God,” Nothing Greater, Nothing Better, 61.

[18] Grogran, “Biblical Theology,” 55.

[19] McFague, 128.

[20] McFague, 128.

[21] McFague, 128.

[22] McFague, 130.

[23] Moltmann, Crucified God, 238. See also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1.27, 196. See also Barth God in Action, 12.

[24] Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1.28, 18.

[25] Donald F. Dreisbach, “On the Love of God,” Anglican Theological Review. 59 no 1 January 1977, 41. Italics added.

[26] Dreisbach,, 39. Italics added.

[27] Walter Wangerin Jr., Preparing for Jesus, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999), 48.

[28] McFage, 135.

[29] To “be” God’s beloved is not a matter of substance or attribute; it is an ontology of personhood (i.e. being-in-relation).

[30] McFague, 139.

[31] Fiddes, 18, original italics.

[32] McFague, 127.

[33] Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1.28, 18.


  1. wow... never heard any of this before Josh. very insightful. well done and thanks!

  2. Great job, Josh. Thank you for posting. I will share.