Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Mystery of Divine Love

I was looking at Nygren's Agape and Eros again the other day and it occurred to me that for all its flaw it got something right, namely that divine love is a great mystery. It is a mystery because it is not motivated by the object as in eros or in what Nygren refers to as the "caritas synthesis" of Augustine. For Catholic thought, as for Platonism before it, God loves things because they are desirable. He first loves himself because he is supremely desirable and then he loves other things insofar as they are like him. By contrast, for the God of the Bible, the object of love is utterly undesirable, and yet he loves it. This is mysterious. Why love a thing which has nothing inherently attractive to it?

Also, I think this shows that the Plato's eros and the caritas synthesis are more or less rationalizations of God. They are in effect attempts at rationalizing the mystery of why God loves. As we know from Luther, law and reason always go together. Law then becomes the means whereby the divine mystery of love is made explainable- i.e., we earned it! But that's not how God works. His love and promise in the gospel are every an incomprehensible mystery, which he gives freely for no apparent reason.


  1. Phil- Do you mean Nygren?

    If you mean Nygren, I'd suggest the following:

    1. The concept behind motif research is a little problematic. The idea was that one can scientifically determine the "essence" of Christianity is a little weird.

    2. The "Agape" motif is play off the "Nomos" motif to the extent that law and the Old Testament are reduced to foil to Agape.

    3. The idea behind "Agape" as the correct motif is partially based on the Kantian assumption that moral endeavors have to be disinterested or even unpleasant. There is of course a basis for this in the Reformation and biblical concept of love and moral virtue, but much of what Nygren says is tainted by Kant.

  2. I fully agree that Nygren's treatment of the Old Testament leaves room for improvement.

    However, having just finished my second reading of the book, I have to disagree that the Agape motif is based in part on Kant. Nygren rather found the idea in the Synoptics (love for enemies, fellowship with sinners), in Paul (love does not seek its own, God loved sinners), in Luther (attack on Caritas synthesis), and, to a lesser extent, in John ("in this we know love"; "God is love").

  3. My point and other interpreters who have criticized him on his Kantianism are not saying that he explicitly is drawing on Kant's moral philosophy, but rather that the sources that you mentioned are colored by a Kantian reading. I think this fairly evident.

  4. As I understand Kant, he advocated cold compliance to a moral code out of a sense of duty. By contrast, God loves because it is his nature to love, or so Nygren says.

    Maybe the resemblance between Kant and Nygren stems more from Luther's influence on Kant than from Kant's influence on Nygren. Could you refer me to some articles that convinced you that Nygren to some extent follows Kantian ethics?

    Also, in what ways do you think Nygren misrepresented his sources? Your introduction seems to agree with his thesis that God's love is in no way based on self-love.

  5. It's Kantian because as I noted in the first response, Kant believed that moral duty to be valid had to be carried out in a completely disinterested manner. That's why "agape" for Nygren is superior to "eros"- because it's disinterested and hence obviously morally superior- at least from a Kantian perspective. Luther did emphasize disinterest in the sense of moral virtue being meaningful only if it was done for unselfish reasons that come out of Christian freedom. Nevertheless, it's not disinterested in the sense that enjoyment taints moral endeavor. That's where I think Nygren is a bit more Kantian. Obvious I engage in my duty as husband out of Christian freedom, not because I'm trying to merit something or because the teological fulfillment of my being is present in my wife or something. Nevertheless, I do enjoy fulfilling my vocation in this regard. My love in this regard is disinterested.

    On the second issue, I guess I would not say that he intentionally misrepresented his sources. The point I would make is that, like I said, his Kantianism colors how he deals with his sources. He has little use for the law except as a foil to the gospel in Paul and Luther. He also views the gospel as not just a unilateral promise, but an entire ethos which stands in contrast to law ethos. Hence gospel becomes law in a kind of quasi-Marcionite fashion similar to von Hofmann or perhaps a little bit in Elert "ethos under gospel." In the later, the gospel ethos has law, that isn't really law, called "evangelical imperatives." I see Nygren suggesting this sort of contrast between law and gospel. Again, the Erlangen school was heavily influenced by Schleiermacher and Kant, and so you get similar results.

    In fact, Wingren detected this as well, and also the Marcionism implicit in Nygren's position. This is one of the reasons why he was critical of Nygren and often speaks of him in the same breath as Karl Barth.

  6. Thank you for your informative response.

    I do not remember Nygren implying that love would be tainted if it is enjoyed. In fact, some of his Luther quotes indicate the opposite. Nygren closed his book with an endorsement of Luther. I do not think Nygren intended to improve on his view of divine love.

    When Nygren said God's love is unmotivated, he meant that love does not seek its own advantage. While a husband should enjoy loving his wife, one who loves his wife only in order to gain the enjoyment of doing so is not loving her in the sense of Agape.

    It does seem that Nygren fell short on the law, and yet, against Gustaf Wingren, he did oppose an antinomian trend in the Church of Sweden: