Why New Testament ethics can’t be summed up by “love”

The first and greatest commandment, Jesus tells us, is to love God; the second to love our neighbour – and on these two the whole Law and Prophets depend. Paul echoes this in Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” and it is also prominent in the Gospel and Epistles of John. So why is it that Richard B. Hays does not use “love” as one of his focal images in his synthesis of New Testament ethics in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (London: T&T Clark, 1997)?

First, there are some New Testament authors for whom love is not an ethical emphasis. Hays mentions Mark’s gospel here – discipleship is defined more in terms of following Jesus and taking up one’s cross than it is by love. “If Mark were the only Gospel in the New Testament canon, it would be very difficult to make a case for love as a major motif in Christian ethics” (p.200). Hebrews and Revelation also have only sporadic references to love, and Acts does not contain the word “love” (more properly, any of the various Greek terms translated “love”) either as a noun or a verb. Luke is not opposed to love, but it does not form part of his narrative in Acts about the emergence and growth of the church. The problem is then that synthesising the ethical teaching of the New Testament with a focal point of “love”  drives these texts to the periphery of the canon, which is “an unacceptable result” (p.202).

Second, love is not really an image which can become a focal point in the same way as Hays’ suggested triad of “Community, Cross and New Creation” but an interpretation of an image. Hays points out that what the New Testament means by “love” is embodied and shown most clearly in the cross. The gospel narrative gives meaning and content to “love”, rather than the other way around:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1John 3:16)

In addition, though Hays does not mention it, John 3:16 might be better translated:

For thus God loved the world: He gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life.

John 3:16 begins with a statement of the manner in which God loved the world (God loved the world in this way, that he…), not about the degree to which he has loved it (“God loved the world so much, that he…) 

Apart from the focal image of the cross, love is ambiguous in meaning, which leads to the third reason Hays does not adopt it as a focus: the term can easily become debased in popular use and detached from the cross. Hays quotes Stanley Hauerwas to this effect: “The ethics of love is often but a cover for what is fundamentally an assertion of ethical relativism.” If love becomes a focal point of ethics, rather than the points of community, cross and new creation, ethics can lose its moorings in the gospel story. The radical demands of Christian discipleship made by the New Testament (e.g. Mark 8:38) might not be seen as “loving” things to impose upon others. I think that this is a very important observation – almost every appeal I have heard to evade the didactic moral teaching of the New Testament has been based on the priority of the admonition to love. Yet if we take the point Hays makes that the New Testament’s gospel narrative gives content, shape and meaning to “love” then such evasions become much less persuasive. We need to look to the gospel narrative, the Christian community and the Christian hope to know what we are to love and how we are to love it.

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1John 4:9-10)

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2 Responses to “Why New Testament ethics can’t be summed up by “love””

  1. Matthew Says:

    Hmm this is a difficult one – I’ve also been frustrated when moral discussion is trumped by a general bland principle of “love”… but on the other hand, in the places you mention in your opening paragraph, it does seem that ‘love’ is a priority. Perhaps a way forward would be to speak of the priority of ‘cruciform love’??

    • agyapw Says:

      I think that is helpful. The point I’d most want to take from Hays is that the gospel (i.e. the pictures of Community, Cross and New Creation) inform the content of the word “love” in Christian ethics. The gospel is a demonstration of love not only in degree but in manner – so “cruciform love” is probably a helpful term because it specifies a gospel-informed and -produced way of expressing love.
      I do think it is startling, though, that love is not a major theme in Acts, Mark, Revelation and Hebrews – I suppose I’d always “read it in” when reading them. Not sure whether this is a good instinct because it recognises the importance of love in other NT witnesses, or just unconscious overharmonization…

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