I would like to begin this post with a slightly odd exercise. As the title suggests, it involves using diagrams as a tool to think about love. While we might react to the idea of diagramming love, visual models are quite useful for learning about and exploring something that we can grasp with our unaided five senses—imagine learning about atoms without the Bohr’s model or the Electron Cloud model. Of course, visualizing something abstract, like love, has its dangers, for we can always confuse the model for the real thing—real atom do not look like the Bohr’s or the Electron Cloud model. Still I think the exercise will be helpful, as long as we remember that a model is always a representation, never the reality itself.
One ancient author wrote that love consists of a lover, the one who is loved, and the love that moves between and unites them.1 If we were to diagram this division it would look like this:
Moreover, love is often returned by the object that is being loved. (This depends on the degree to which the object of love can return love. A diamond may be loved, but it has no capacity to return love. Dogs and cats return their owner’s affection to the degree that animals are able to show affection. Only humans are capable of returning human love fully. At the same time, human love is riskier because any human may choose not to return love.) Thus the beloved returns love and the lover becomes the beloved and the beloved the lover.
For the lover there is a continual sending out of love and a continual returning of love. For the loved one there is the love that is received and returned, which comes back in a never ending feedback loop. It is a circular system, a self-contained exchange of love. Of course, this diagram is a simplified form of something that is very complex in real life—as all diagrams are. Perhaps the nearest this approaches to reality is when you notice a couple in love who are so fixed on each other that they are oblivious to everything outside themselves and their love for each other.
With this description of love in place, I want to narrow the focus on to theological love and consider what Scripture means in 1 John 4:8 when it says that God is love. One way of understanding this verse is to focus on God’s loving actions: God’s sending of his Son to die for humanity, God’s forgiveness of our sins, God’s material provision for us. The Bible is full examples of the way God demonstrates his love for us, which in turn is our motivation for loving others (1 Jn. 4:11-12). The diagram might look something like this:
God is the lover and human are the ones he loves. The love that travels from God to us are his loving acts to us. We return love as worship, adoration, and obedience. While this interpretation of the verse is true, I want to press the idea that God is love further. This interpretation is anthropocentric (man focused) It focus on us and all that God does for us. How do we understand this verse if humans are absent from the diagram? According to Scripture, humans have not always existed. Our existence is a drop in the bucket compared to God’s existence in eternity. Was God love before we were created? This is more than an abstract theological question. If at some point God did not love, it is possible that at a later point he will stop loving. On the other hand, if love is an essential attribute of God, if he is love, we need not fear that God will cease loving.
One answer to the question would be to say that since God dwells outside of time, he has always loved humanity; humans have always been present in his thoughts if not in the material world. Still, this answer makes God dependent on us for his existence as love. God needs us. To a degree, we merit God’s love because it is the only way he can be Love (God cannot love if he has nothing to love.) Put in a more formal manner, love becomes a contingent attribute of God rather than an essential attribute. God’s existence as love depends on something he creates rather than on who he is in and of himself. God is love is reduced to God is loving as long as he has something to love.
At this point, one might object and say, “Why can’t God love himself, like in the diagram below?”
Here God is a monad, a point from which love comes and to which it returns. This would seem to be the view for believers in strict monotheistic religions if they include love as one of God’s essential attribute.2 This answer reasonably assumes that God’s exclusive self-love is not corrupting as it is for human. In humans exclusive love for self corrupts and alienates them from others. God would be above this because he is fully worthy to be loved.
A very scrupulous monotheist may find a problem, however, with this diagram. It depicts something going out from God and returning to him, making love a sort divine emanation of God. If God is absolutely singular, his essential being will have nothing that goes out from him and returns. Love has to be “internal” for it to be essential from this point of view. God may still love, but if we could see it, it wouldn’t resemble anything like human love. The difference would not be like that between English and a language we hadn’t heard before; it would be like the difference between English and something that we don’t even recognize as a language. God’s love would not be love from the strictest of monotheistic perspectives.
Trinitarian monotheism proposes another explanation. The ancient author mentioned at the beginning of the post recognized a dim reflection of the Trinity in his triad of love. The main problem, in my opinion, with such a triad is that two members are clearly persons, while the third is not. Since popular conceptions of the Trinity often downplay the personhood of the Holy Spirit, the triad reinforces false ideas about God. However, the metaphor of love being once substance containing three elements is helpful in someways, since it is a unity that contains a trinity. I offer instead this diagram of the Trinity as love, which is roughly based on the shield of the trinity:
Here the model looks less like romantic love and more like an ideal community of persons. The Father loves the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Son loves the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit loves the Father and the Son. It is circular since the Father loves the Son who loves the Holy Spirit who loves the Father. Love travels between them and through them in a complex dance. For example, one might say that the love with which the Holy Spirit loves the Father comes from the Father’s love for the Spirit and the love of the Father coming through the Son. Love doubles and triples by being passed around, yet it is one Love, endless shared for all eternity. It is by no means a perfect diagram.2 Every analogy of the Trinity breaks down. We are two-dimensional people trying to describe a three-dimensional reality.
One may point out that this tidy, self-contained diagram leaves out us humans. That is much the point. God doesn’t need us. We are not necessary to God. Instead God made humans out of his unnecessary grace, an overflowing of love from the love that exists between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When God loves us, and we love him in return (we only do so with the love that he has given to us), we are drawn into this Trinity which is Love, an interchange of love that has no beginning and no end. Because it has been going on for all eternity, we don’t have to fear that it will end. Because God is Love, we don’t have to be afraid that He will cease to love because then He would cease to be God. It is only a matter of our participation in this Love. We did not earn it, nor are we necessary to it, yet we are invited to join all the same.
- The author is is Augustine in his book On the Trinity, Bk. VIII, 13 and Bk. IX, 2. “Behold, I who seek this, when I love something, there are three, I and what I love and the love itself. Indeed, I don’t love love unless I love loving, for there is no love where nothing is loved. Therefore there are three, loving and what is loved and love. [Ecce ego qui hoc quaero cum aliquid amo tria sunt, ego et quod amo et ipse amor. Non enim amo amorem nisi amantem amem, nam non est amor ubi nihil amatur. Tria ergo sunt, amans et quod amatur et amor.] Bk. IX, 2. See also Bk. VII, 6 where he identifies the Holy Spirit specifically with love.↩
- These would include Judaism and Islam. I do not know enough about the theology of either religion to know whether love is considered one of God’s essential attributes, so I will go no further.↩
- As I think about the proper way to state the relationship of the persons of the Trinity to love it make sense to me to follow Augustine’s linguistic formulation and say that the Father is love, the Son is love, and the Holy Spirit is love, yet they are not three loves but one love, i.e. what can be stated about God can be stated singly about each person of the Trinity. Yet my diagram shows each member as loving rather than a love in itself with its three parts. Establishing a Trinity within each person of the Trinity would be an absurdity and maybe that is where the diagram falls apart. Perhaps when we say, for example, that the Son is love what we are really saying is that the person of the Son is God’s expression of love. When we say that the Son is love, or even omnipotent or good, we can’t help but implicitly include the Father and the Holy Spirit; language is fundamentally relational, especially when talking about God. Or maybe it is a little like in Rich Mullins’s song “All the Way to Kingdom Come” when he sings “We didn’t know what love was ’til He came / And He gave love a face and He gave love a name.” Of course, he was talking about the Incarnation and Jesus’s life on Earth and not the divine life of God. Still, it is similar to the way that in God what we think of as abstract concepts may be the same as a person. This are all speculations and can be ignored if they are unhelpful. Thinking about the Trinity is like trying to look at the sun; we mostly do it indirectly. The closer you get to a direct and unaided sight of the sun, i.e. to see the sun as it really is, the more your eyes are dazzled and blinded in its wonderful light. ↩