Agape is the deepest and truest fact of the Christian faith. To Jesus, love to God and to neighbor constituted those commandments on which depend all the law and the prophets. To Paul it is the greatest in his faith, hope, and love trilogy and the crucial ingredient of all relations and realities.
The sacrificialists are right (to use the typology of sacrificialist-mutualist of Dan Williams) in stressing agape as a gift from God and as a reality bestowed on the unworthy, the ugly, and the downtrodden rather than the lovely. On the other hand, Nygren strains unduly in trying to force the whole Biblical presentation of agape through the narrow definition of uncaused agape. And, moreover, the sacrificialists have not adequately developed the concrete incarnational reality of agape in Jesus Christ, the supreme response to whom is discipleship. Following Christ is the key to Christian ethics even though it operated dialectically with forgiveness. The mutualists are correct in stressing community as the crucible in which love operates and toward which it moves. Just as discipleship saves agape from being a philosophical abstraction, community saves it from individualism. Against the mutualists' (MacMurray and Wieman) question the affirmation is to be questioned that self-realization is the cause or effect of community. Rather the truly Christian foundation is: self-realization through self-sacrifice in Christian community.
Amos Wilder writes that ". . . the claims of the Kingdom take the forms of claims of discipleship to Jesus in the accomplishment of his errand." Thus our Lord seeks a response: vertically in worship and obedience; horizontally in service to the neighbor. In human history there is no guarantee of this response; indeed, there is a basic dimension of tragedy expressed in alienation, separation, hostility, coniict, and martyrdom. Here the eschatological dimension of love enters since there is never a fully temporal realization. God in Christ is a suffering lover whose love is never fully returned. Christ suffered for us on the cross; Christ suffers with us in discipleship living; Christ suffers because of us in sin and rebellion. In all this, divine love is revealing itself. And in all this divine love seeks a response.
God's love is socially creative—thus producing fellowship, community, and church. The primary meaning of community is the Christian community which, in turn, effects the larger human community. The church is a brotherhood of love, and this is a superior view to the church as an impersonal station dispensing grace, or to the church as a static intellectual depository of truth, or to the church as a link in the chain of historical continuity, or to the church as the chaplain of culture values. Therefore, as a corporate society the church is originated, sustained, and characterized by agape.
The tension between the Anabaptist understanding of agape as creative of community and other Protestant ancl Catholic views is the issue of direct or indirect influence in the larger secular community. The Anabaptist tradition developed in the context of rigorous Bible study and severe persecution. This suggested that the Anabaptists ought to be willing to sacrifice universality for intensity. The world observes the love, the voluntary, filial obedience, and the cultural creativity of the Christian community, and finds this suggestive and stimulating to its own life. There are strong voices advocating a more direct way of influencing the secular community, but thus far this view has floundered on the dilemma of pacifism and power.
To the Anabaptists one of the sure fruits of love is mutual aid. In the mid-20th century this has had a real renewal in theory and practice. On the other hand, there is the Niebuhrian claim that the essence of mutual love is reciprocity, a fact that introduces prudential considerations where agape is compromised by ego-claims. Patterns of institutional mutual aid (hospitals, homes for aged, fire insurance) tend to provide specified kinds of care and service for specified amounts of financial contribution. An element of reciprocity enters in here and, unchecked, can be destructive of agape. But, fundamentally there is unlimited liability for the brother regardless of the ego-claims he can make. And, in addition, sacrificial love on all the Jericho roads of history has the obligation to help the neighbor outside of the Christian brotherhood.
In the Anabaptist tradition communities are of two types: the communal or communistic as in the Hutterites, and the semi-communal. The semi-communal has been normative, calling for private property in the form of home and business yoked to a radical doctrine of stewardship in a brotherhood-centered existence with common liability for all risks as well as duties of Christian witness and work.
The real enemy of love in modern society is atomistic individualism, which has no doctrine of community, and which, when it enters the church, views love as subjectively inward.
Within Anabaptist community there has been a regular peril in the rejection of the outgoing missionary thrust in order to preserve mutuality in the Christian brotherhood. While there is a rich inner life in the church, it is precisely the reality of Christ's saving love which sends Christians out into witness and service.
The Cross is the symbol of sacrificial love, the Golden Rule is the symbol of mutuality, and an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth doctrine is the symbol of justice. The Lex Talionis of the Old Testament is confirmed in the suum cuique of classical jurisprudence. The latter refers to the rendering to each man that which is due him whether in punishment or damages.
Once again the problem for agape is raised by the ego-claims of justice. The first degree murder is punished by death or life imprisonment, and the speeding driver by a $10.00 fine. What is even more painful, the state enforces these claims of the law with policemen, militia, and armies. Ultimately, it poses the problem of war itself, which is the collective denial of agape.
Love and justice are dialectically related. Love, even perfectly nonresistant love, can do many things which justice wants to do: give equal care to the lowly, help people to secure the help they deserve, and create the integrity, order, and character, without which society is impossible.
But love is also the contradiction of justice and the law. There are times, especially in periods of danger and upheaval, when the counsel of love cannot be made plausible mundane common sense and fulfillment; it may appear to be treason, folly, and naive religious zeal. To the disciple of Christ in such moments love must then rest its case on the foundation of Truth. Love is Biblical. Love is in the will of God. Any Christian convinced that he is abiding in the love of God, the will of God, and the truth of God obviously would be foolish to abandon this for prudential considerations of justice. Perhaps Emil Brunner has caught the strange relationship here when he said, "There is an antithesis between love and justice. The antithesis does not sever the bond between them nor the bond sever the antithesis."
To be truly loving the Christian ought to be nonresistant. Yet, in the years ahead, it would appear that the English and Greek words for love might be better terms in describing the peace testimony than the valid but more limited term of nonresistance. 1 John 4:8 declares that God is love. Our response to His love is the central fact of the Christian life. -- DES
Love is central to the Christian faith. The universal Christian affirmation is that because God loved men and women he provided salvation for them through Jesus Christ. Despite this universal affirmation, the theological understanding of love has been the subject of intense debate. Love has been defined as eros, philos, and agape. The Protestant Reformation revolved around competing interpretations of love with Luther defining God's love as grace, namely, as wholly undeserving love. In contrast, the Catholic Church argued that in addition to loving men and women even when they did not deserve to be loved, God also showed love to those who, in a certain limited sense, earned it.
The Anabaptist-Mennonite understanding of love was shaped within the context of the Reformation debates. Anabaptists questioned Luther's interpretation of love, because it tended not to transform human relationships. The Catholic option was also unsatisfactory because although it challenged people to love, the expectations for ordinary people were very low.
The various Anabaptist-Mennonite groups thus developed interpretations of love which affirmed both divine initiative and the necessity of human response. God's love to humanity was freely initiated by God himself, and yet people were also called to love God and their fellow human beings. Anabaptists and Mennonites also addressed the question of the quality of character of love among humans. The quality of this love they said should be characterized by nonresistant or peaceful love, namely love which forgives rather than retaliates, a love which is willing to suffer rather than inflict suffering. This understanding of the quality of love they believed was not only based on isolated Bible passages, but was modeled on the quality of love shown by God to humanity in the salvation God provides through Christ Jesus.
Nonresistant or peaceful love became the model or paradigm through which Anabaptist and Mennonite groups, including the Swiss, Dutch, Hutterite, and German groups perceived relationships among people. All the groups believed that broken fellowship should be dealt with on the basis of the "The Rule of Christ," [Matthew 18], the ban was to be used instead of capital punishment, the sword was to be rejected for personal defense, and participation in military service was rejected when European states began to form citizens' armies.
This quality of peaceful love was expressed not only in the narrowly religious dimensions of their lives, but was also allowed to shape their economic and social relationships. The Hutterites expressed their love to each other in practicing community of goods, Dutch Mennonites organized a relief agency which aided the Swiss, Hutterites and Polish Mennonites. Polish Mennonites organized a fire insurance organization, and negotiated exemption from a service in Polish armies. Russian Mennonites developed the organization of a Waisenamt which cared for the estates of widows and orphans. Swiss Mennonites and Amish developed numerous informal communal support relationships like barn-raisings.
At least two areas can be identified in which Mennonite communities historically fell short in their expressions of love. One, because of the belief that the church must be pure and spotless, Mennonites frequently exercised church discipline, "The Rule of Christ," for the sake of ridding the church of sinners rather than restoring the sinner to fellowship. Love became judgmental and punitive instead of redemptive. Second, the various expressions of love in the economic and social areas of life were expressed almost exclusively among fellow Mennonites. There was not the vision that love ought to be expressed within the wider social setting. There were good historical reasons why this rather narrow and limited view of love developed, and yet the fact remains that his view of love was restricted.
Since the 1950s at least four major Mennonite views of love can be differentiated. One view of love is that expressed by the conservers, namely the various groups of Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish who are frequently identified as conservative or Old Order. These groups have been concerned to maintain or conserve the values and practices which have stood the test of time. The conservers rarely theologize about love, but rather express their theology of love in maintaining local communal patterns of mutual support and interrelationships. These patterns include barn-raisings, village organizations, fire insurance associations, the Waisenamt, and numerous more informal patterns of relationship within the church community. Rarely do these relationships extend beyond the church's boundaries. Love among the conservers also usually includes an attitude of humility and service, and a rejection of dominance and lordship. In times of war conservers have usually rejected military service.
The more acculturated Mennonites in North America have revised the traditional understanding of love in a number of ways. One view of love has been shaped by the influence of the Evangelical and Fundamentalist movements upon Mennonites. The Evangelical movement influenced Mennonite communities strongly already in the 19th century, and the influence has continued throughout the 20th century. The Evangelical movement emphasized individual experience of salvation, portrayed evangelism as the primary concern of the church, and characterized denominational emphases as traditional and unbiblical. The Evangelical movement tended to reject the historic Mennonite emphases of Christian love as lived in economic, social, and political relationships. Because the Evangelical movement was thoroughly Anglo-American and usually nationalistic, the peace theology of Mennonites was threatened.
Fundamentalism injected into this movement a concern for theologically correct belief as defined by Fundamentalists. This belief included among others, belief in Scripture as verbally inerrant, in the deity of Christ, in the virgin birth of Jesus, and in the substitutionary atonement by Christ. Nonresistance as the interpretation of God's love to humanity, was rejected.
Rather than broadening the historic Mennonite understanding of love, this influence has restricted love even more. God's love is seen primarily as providing salvation for the soul in preparation for heaven. This love is stated primarily in substitutionary rather than in relational terminology. Human love is seen primarily as responding to God by accepting salvation. Expressing love to people is not seen as integral to salvation. The historic Mennonite relationship between Cod's love, and human life in all its dimensions, is broken.
A further interpretation of love, in this discussion the third view, is that view inspired by Harold Bender, and summarized in his article "The Anabaptist vision." The characteristics of Mennonite love are described as nonresistance, expressing love within the community of people, and living out this love in a life of discipleship. In this movement there was the attempt to state the historic Mennonite view of love in such a manner that the historic emphases would be retained, and also so that the Evangelical-Fundamentalist attacks on these emphases would be blunted.
Because of Bender's fear of attack from Fundamentalism, he reshaped the historical Mennonite emphases on love in such a manner that he could not be accused of being a modernist (liberalism) or a proponent of the social gospel. Consequently he eschewed a definition of love which would aim at transforming the social and economic order of society. Love toward society ought to be expressed in religious forms such as charity, relief, and missions. The more radical aspects of love which deal with changes in the social and economic structures he largely rejected. At most such social and economic concerns ought to be expressed within the community of believers.
This interpretation of love has played a powerful role in most Mennonite church groups in North America and Europe since the 1950s. This perspective has become a powerful force for church renewal and a platform for maintaining an Anabaptist-Mennonite identity.
The most recent interpretation of the theology of love, in this discussion the fourth view, was developed since the 1960s and is based largely on the methodology of the social sciences. Social science methodology interpreted Mennonite life and theology, including the theology of love, within the context of social relationships and changes within society as a whole. The view of "The Anabaptist vision" approach which perceived the Mennonite community as largely a separated religious community which was bombarded by new ideas from the outside, was rejected. Rather, the Mennonite community was seen as extricably interwoven with society on a continual basis. Because of this interwoven nature, the social science view of love was that love could and should be expressed within the whole social order. The agenda as to what issues love should address, it was believed, should arise from the society, and the response to that agenda should be addressed to the whole society not only to the church community. The result of this emphasis has been that Mennonite churches have addressed issues of divorce and remarriage, homosexuality (sexuality), spouse abuse, as well as other forms of family violence. The final result has, however, usually been that most of the attention is given to how the church will deal with these issues, rather than having the church attempt to change laws or conditions within society.
Another major new issue from the perspective of social sciences is justice. The proponents of the social science approach argued that Mennonites cannot separate themselves from the social and political order, especially within democratic political societies, and therefore Mennonites must take some responsibility for changing unjust social and economic structures which are oppressing people. This view was argued both in relation to conditions in North America and in other countries.
This approach provides a much broader interpretation of love than did the historical view, the Mennonite view shaped by Evangelical-Fundamentalism, or Bender's revision of the historical view. However, this reinterpretation of love also disturbs many people. The social science approach to attaining justice, when it is argued on the basis of rights which are demanded and when it advocates using political or social power to attain these rights, seems to contradict the very essence of love as historically understood by Mennonites. Because of this difficulty, others have worked at developing a theology of love which includes justice for people in the larger society, and which is based not on rights, but rather on the emphases of nonresistance and a willingness to suffer.
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Drescher, John. "The Language of Love." Mennonite Brethren Herald (27 March 1981): 2-4.
Ewert, David. "The Greatest of These is Love." Mennonite Brethren Herald (25 June 1982): 78.
Haines, Aubrey B. "Let's Turn Our Other Cheek." Mennonite (12 October 1982): 500.
Houser, Gordon. "The Twin Sins and the Twin Commands." Mennonite (25 June 1985): 332.
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Klassen, William. "Love Your Enemy: a Study of New Testament Teaching in Coping With the Enemy." Mennonite Quarterly Review 37 (1963): 147-71.
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