What do you mean, “God is love”? (Part One: dilectio and agape with St Augustine)

When I was 15, there was a very popular Barq’s rootbeer commercial where one of the characters, out of sight of another, proclaims, ‘What do you mean, “Barq’s has bite”?’ Here it is in all its glory:

That summer at camp, I was involved in a parody of that ad, only the guy standing at the booth was saying, ‘God is love,’ and Johnny was saying, ‘What do you mean, “God is love”?’ Johnny was handed a New Testament, took a look, and said, ‘Amen!’ instead of, ‘Ouch!’ (I think?)

The question has recently jumped into prominence for me because of St Augustine, De Trinitate, and the Church of England’s ‘Pilgrim Course’. Today I’ll deal only with Augustine.

IMG_2219In Books 8 and 9 of De Trin, St Augustine discusses love and knowledge, and how one can love that which one does not know. He also says that love is a potential analogy for the Holy Trinity, since love requires a lover, a beloved, and the love itself. He later rejects this analogy on the grounds that in order to love onself, lover and beloved are both the same. He later makes some other analogies from human psychology.

So — what do you mean, ‘God is love’?

The first thing we need to sort is ‘love’. When I was working for IVCF/IFES in Cyprus, we were reminded to be careful with how we use that famous phrase. A lot of the Nepali Hindus we met were liable to switch subject and predicate and then equate sex with love, producing a highly distorted view of what 1 John 4 is talking about!

St Augustine in these books of De Trin uses multiple words for love, annoyingly. When he actually cites, ‘God is love,’ he does so in a version of 1 John 4:16 that runs:

Deus dilectio est, et qui manet in dilectione, in Deo manet. (De Trin 8.VII (10))

God is love, and the person who remains in love, remains in God.

The Greek of the relevant portion is is:

Ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστὶν

God is agape. The Weber-Gryson edition of the Vulgate gives us caritas where Augustine has dilectio and the Greek agape. Caritas is the normal Latin translation of agape — hence older English Bibles with charity. I found myself perplexed by Augustine yesterday, no less so when he suddenly switched from dilectio to amor in Book 9, using it in much the same way! He did use caritas at one point in Book 9, to distinguish between it and cupiditas.

Semantics matter if we’re trying to figure out what somebody means.

It turns out that I may have a watered-down vision of dilectio, probably from some of the uses of its cognate verb diligo that seem weak in English — ‘to esteem’. Also, it is used commonly in late Latin letter-writing as ‘tua dilectio’ so frequently that any force of substantive love has been sucked out of it.o

Nonetheless, I learned from Lewis & Short’s Latin dictionary that this is a late Latin word and that Tertullian uses dilectio dei to refer to the love of God, and it is not entirely absent from the Vulgate. The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, in fact, cites nothing earlier than Tertullian for this word. According to that esteemed dictionary, dilectio is used in it primary sense as a synonym for the Greek agape and the Latin caritas.

So that settled what Augustine meant by dilectio. He meant love as in agape as in caritas.

Caritas/agape has traditionally been rendered into English as charity — observe the King James translation of 1 Corinthians 13.

This is the word that Lancelot Andrewes and his team chose to signify the highest form of love there is. Sadly, because of how we act/view ‘charitable’ deeds and almsgiving, charity in English tends to mean someone else’s leftovers that they really don’t want. It should, rather, mean a super-powerful love that is powerful enough to love the unlovely and unloveable. It is, after all, modelled upon the love of God — a love so large that while we were sinners, Christ died for us (Ro 5:8).

A prime example of what has happened to the word charity is that famous sermon Bono preached to then-President G. W. Bush several years ago. He said that Africa and the developing world don’t need charity — they need justice. And went on to press the President to improve the quality and quantity of American foreign aid.

In fact, actually, Africa doesn’t need justice. True charity is preferable to justice. Every time. Ra’s al Ghul may have had dastardly methods to execute what he felt was justice, but he was not wrong in declaring that justice is balance in Batman Begins. This is what the retributive justice system is about. Justice is when you get what you deserve.

Charity, on the other hand, looks at your deserts and chooses to give you better. In a universe shot through with charity, the Judge looks at you and takes your penalty. In a universe shot through with charity, the Father embraces you, knowing that you have a knife in your hand to stab Him in the back.

Augustine’s dilectio is meant to carry the same weight, although I didn’t quite get it without the lexicographical wonders of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae.

But this is only one of the many ramifications of what is meant by “God is love”…

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7 thoughts on “What do you mean, “God is love”? (Part One: dilectio and agape with St Augustine)

  1. […] On Saturday, we established that historically and biblically, the word love in “God is love” from 1 John 4 translates agape/caritas/dilectio, which are terms used in the historical and philosophical tradition of Christianity — drawing much from 1 Corinthians 13, no doubt — to express the highest form of love. Formerly, this term was charity in English — as C S Lewis discusses it in The Four Loves, charity is that love that loves the unloveable; it is not provoked by anything outstanding or desireable in the beloved. It is truly selfless in its treatment of the recipient of love. To get a picture of what God’s love looks like, I direct you to Fr Aidan Kimel’s discussion of St Isaac the Syrian on the astonishing love of God. […]

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