There is love and then there is love. In Volume 1 of his Dogmatics (Westminster, 1950), Emil Brunner, helpfully illustrates the keen difference between the love of God for us (Agape) and the love of creatures for the beloved (Eros). This distinction of the different kinds of love is one that is lost in the English language since we have but one word for “love” and it is used in many contexts, both meaningful and shallow. However, understanding the difference between one love and the other can help us to comprehend the truly shocking nature of Biblical revelation as well as the meaning of what Dietrich von Hildebrand calls the “supernatural virtue of Christian love”.
Eros is the desire for that which we do not possess, but which we ought to have, or would like to have. Eros is therfore directed towards a particular value; we love something because it has value, because it is worthy to be loved. Thus Eros is that love which is derived from, and evoked by the beloved. It is the movement which aims at the fulfillment of value, the appropriation of value, the completion of value… In all cases, Eros is based upon, motivated by, the beloved, therefore it is perfectly intelligible and transparent.
This, however, is true of all the love with which we are familiar, whether it be the love of which the poets sing, the love which draws a man and woman together, the love which is kindled by the sight of beauty, the love of the fatherland, mother love, the love of friendship – all this is love, which is based upon something which has been “motivated”, which is kindled by its object, and which makes it desire and strive for, or to enjoy and maintain, union with that which it loves. Whether the object is material or non-material, vital or non-vital, concrete or abstract, neutral or personal – it is always something which is known to contain value, something “lovable” which is loved.
The love of God, the Agape of the New Testament, is quite different. It does not seek value, but it creates value or gives value; it does not desire to get but to give; it is not “attracted” by some lovable quality, but it is poured out on those who are worthless and degraded; in the strict sense of the word this Love is “unfathomable”, and “passeth all understanding”. This Divine Love turns to those for whom no one cares, because there is nothing “lovable” about them – people whom we would instinctively shun or even hate. The highest expression of this Agape, therefore, is loving fidelity to the unfaithful, the love of the Holy God for those who desecrate His sanctuary, the love of the Holy Lord for one who is rebellious and disobedient – the sinner. The contrast between Divine and human love also comes out very clearly in its aim. This love (Agape), does not seek to transfer a value from the beloved to the one who loves, it does not seek the fulfilment of value. Here the One who loves does not seek anything for Himself; all He desires is to benefit the one He loves. And the benefit He wants to impart is not “something”, but His very self, for this Love is self-surrender, self-giving to the other, to whom love is directed. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but should have eternal life.” And this indeed took place “while we were yet sinners”, for “while we were yet weak… Christ died for the ungodly… while we were enemies.” This Love is truly unfathomable, unmotivated, incomprehensible; it springs solely from the will of God Himself; that is, from His incomprehensible will to give His very self to us.
Incomprehensible. Think of it. God had no motivation, no compulsion, no reason whatsoever to love us, yet He does. He wills it. We set ourseles against God, yet He loves us. We have been unfaithful to Him since the Garden, yet He loves us. He forgives us our transgressions “seventy times seven”. His love and mercy are, quite literally, boundless. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Salvation history has taught us as much. If God does not hate us by now, He never will, in a manner of speaking. St. Paul tells us:
“For I am sure that neither death, not life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8.38-39, RSV CE).
It is this incomprehensible love that we are to have toward our neighbours and toward our enemies. It is a love without a cause. This is especially seen in the Divine command to love our enemies, love those who hate us, love those who persecute us (Matt 5.38-48). This is a superatural love in all its absurdity. There is no rational reason for this kind of love. We have no reason to love our enemies, yet we are commanded to. If our enemies hate us, we are to love them. If our enemies revile us and slander us and persecute us, we are to love them in return. Thus, Christians are commanded to mimic the Agape love of the Father. We mimic the merciful forgiveness and love that God has shown us by loving our enemies. We have made ourselves enemies of God, yet we are happy to know that God does not love us in the way that we love each other. We are to go and do likewise.